The headlines read more or less the same upon the great man's passing in 2018: Steve Ditko, Influential Comic-Book Artist Who Helped Create Spider-Man, Dies at 90.
Ditko breathed life into myriad myths, heroes both renowned and relatively obscure, among them Dr. Strange, the Creeper, The Question, Hawk and Dove, Captain Atom. Mr. A and Shade, the Changing Man. Yet to the casual comic-book reader, that was more or less the extent of Ditko's résumé as one of Peter Parker's parents (alongside, natch, Stan Lee), as co-author of the Web-slinger's origin story.
On one of the multiverse's other earths, no doubt, Ditko is as treasured as any author or artist, as beloved as Stan Lee or as revered as Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. His lithe, lean, dynamic work was "instantly recognizable, utterly personal and uniquely imaginative," former Ditko collaborator and DC Comics Publisher Paul Levitz writes in the book The Creativity of Ditko. "If all else were disguised, a Ditko character's hands gave him away, fingers flying and pointing and conveying energy and emotion, impossibly but somehow correctly."
Yet the Ditko of this earth, who was among the most prolific and influential artists in the medium's history, preferred anonymity, solitude, secrecy. He appeared at but one convention in his entire life, granted no interviews, loathed biographers and hid out in a Manhattan office whose phone number and address were easily found.
"His influence is staggering, but his personal story is almost totally hidden," New York's Abraham Riesman wrote in 2016 after a stakeout of Ditko's digs. "He remains one of pop culture's most enigmatic figures."
That's because, as Levitz once wrote, "Steve decided that he'd rather have his work speak for him."
Which is not entirely true.
From Sept. 8-12, Heritage Auctions
will hold its next Comics & Comic Art Signature event, which features among its myriad centerpieces several Ditko items of major importance among them the best-graded copy of Spider-Man's debut in Amazing Fantasy No. 15 and 160 more books from The #1 Amazing Spider-Man Registry Set Collection. There are also several signature pieces of original Ditko art, including Page 12 from Amazing Spider-Man No. 18, featuring Spidey and Sandman, and Page 15 from Beware the Creeper No. 5.
This auction also features three complete stories written and drawn by Ditko for his self-published comics in the 2000s, including an eight-page Miss Eerie story and a six-page adventure featuring The Cape. The work is unmistakably, classically Ditko kinetic, polemic, surreal, arresting, like something conjured by Dr. Strange and not his creator.
Here, too, are more than two dozen Amazing Spider-Man books from Ditko's private collection, offering an extraordinary chance to own books once owned by the man who made them.
But featured in this auction is something almost as astonishing as the work Ditko produced: some 150 pages of letters Ditko wrote to artist Russ Maheras during a written conversation that spanned nearly 45 years, from 1973 to 2017.
As Maheras documented for Pop Culture Squad in 2019, he first wrote to Ditko when he was still in high school, and it was the kind of missive "a budding fan-artist back then might send to a seasoned professional comics artist full of effusive praise, capped with a request for some secret kernel of artistic knowledge that would magically transform overnight a fan's crude artistic efforts into professional-level artwork."
Ditko, by then already known for better or worse as the J.D. Salinger of the comics world, actually replied, offering the kid some good advice including, "If you do something that looks good, know why," and, "If you do something that looks wrong, work on it till you understand why it is wrong + what is the right way." That letter is included among the archive available in the auction.
Over the years, biographers and colleagues and strangers have described Ditko as churlish, a man who dove into a stack of Ayn Rand books and returned an Objectivist who saw the world as only black or white before turning his back on it entirely. But in these missives to Maheras, which cover everything from politics to comics and the superhero business to Sean Penn and Gene Simmons, reveal a man still very much engaged in what transpired outside his office windows.
His signed (!) letters read like elliptical glimpses into the mind of a man who had much to say but no interest in doing so out loud. He often bounced from subject to subject in each missive, especially the longer ones. They were dispatches, screeds, lamentations, advice columns, love letters, truth bombs. All delivered to an audience of one.
In one missive Ditko reviews Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man movie, which he didn't care for, one reason among many being "Peter Parker (of the comics) would never have told off Uncle Ben." In another he explains at some length what led to the fracturing of his relationship with Stan Lee: "Stan is not going to straighten out, confess anything that undercuts his 'creator' status." Elsewhere he begins one letter by noting that "time has a way of moving without awareness of what it leaves behind."
Ditko offers, too, various reasons for refusing to speak to the media, among them:
"Even if I had the interest in an interview or answering questions there is no way I could devote the time to it," he wrote on March 15, 1997. "I don't even think [my] memory is reliable enough to give an accurate picture of any event or my thoughts or my work, etc. Doing comics is something I did and not a topic for future concern. While I can understand people having an interest or curiosity about the past (I like reading some history) I'm not a reliable reporter with no interest in the past when the present and a possible future are more enjoyable and exciting."
For a man who never spoke, Ditko had a lot to say.