Ditko: The Mystery Behind the Man Article (2002)

Well, I guess Stan Lee month will continue for a few more days because I still have a few more questions and comments about Lee’s documentary. 🙂

There was a segment in the Lee documentary where Lee mentions he gave Ditko a document where he officially gave Ditko “co-creator” credit for Spider-man. The segment was strange because Lee gave the impression that Ditko was being unreasonable in some way, and Lee felt his “open letter” would finally set the record straight. I couldn’t find a copy of this letter online. I think it was written in 1999. Anyone know why specifically Lee wrote this letter nearly 40 years after the first appearance of Spider-man?

Anyone have a copy of Lee’s Open Letter to Steve Ditko (1999)?

Were he and Ditko quarreling in the press about the subject or was there some other reason? I’d also love to see the specific wording. Is it classic “I created Spider-man … but … I am WILLING to give Ditko a co-creator credit, y’know, because it’s important to him to have that” piece of Lee rhetoric, or does Lee say “Steve Ditko and I created Spider-man… case closed?”

Surfing the web I found a few pieces of info on Ditko. To those of you who have been following comics fandom since the 60s, you probably know all of this already, but I found some of the things in this article interesting.

It’s from this site:

http://www.imwan.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?t=1021

Posted by Linda

Let’s archive this in Ditkoland, since Wizard no longer has it available at their website. If you look past the “Wizardisms” and liberal peppering of this article with the opinions of people who don’t seem to get Sturdy Steve’s work at all, there’s quite a bit of choice information for Ditkophiles. Enjoy.

©Wizard Magazine 2002
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THE MYSTERY BEHIND THE MAN

One of the most mysterious, misunderstood characters in the history of comics, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko-the stories would have us believe-is a recluse, a Howard Hughes-like genius who locks himself away from society, lost in the intricacies of his craft. He’s a fanatic, a devotee of a cult-like belief system whose brainwashing yanked his artistic brilliance from the House of Ideas. He’s a wild man, a belligerent throwback to the un-PC days of yesteryear who’d just as soon yell at you as look at you.

Simply put, we know everything there is to know about Steve Ditko. We know nothing.

“If you want to do an unauthorized biography on someone,” says Ditko website maven Blake Bell, “he would be the single worst target to pick.”

Ditko simply doesn’t exist-at least not in the strange way fiction portrays him. He is, for all intents and purposes, comicdom’s ultimate urban legend. Everyone’s got a story about him, and the majority of them seem to have been passed on by a friend of a friend.

The frustrating truth of the matter is, there aren’t many people who have met Ditko, and he doesn’t speak to the press. Ever. Not because he’s overly anti-social, crazy or kooky, but because he’s a private guy.

Make that intensely private; private in a way that’d make solitude-seeking superstars Paul Newman, Joe DiMaggio and J.D. Salinger proud.

Heck, if it wasn’t for the occasional letter to the editor or a personal recollection printed in a fanzine, we’d have heard absolutely nothing from this comic giant: a lanky man with European features who more closely resembles a small town merchant than he does the creator of quirky worlds; an average, elderly gentleman who-with his business suits and well-mannered ways-seems more Main Street, USA than he does living legend.

That Ditko deserves to be known as a living legend is indisputable. His contributions to comics include Doctor Strange, the Question, Shade: The Changing Man, Hawk and Dove, the Creeper and, of course, Spider-Man.

Beyond that, is there anything else you really need to know?

Not in Ditko’s mind, maybe, but fans are innately curious. Fans don’t just want to know why the artist drew Spider-Man’s eyes so big, they want to know why he abandoned Amazing Spider-Man faster than Billy Zane fled the Titanic. Who in their right mind, fans ask, could so willingly give up a gig working on the most popular-and as history would prove, most significant-hero in Marvel’s history?

We want Ditko to give up his ghosts, reveal his secrets. Once he’s done that, we can put another notch in our utility belts and relegate him to a pedestal, to his rightful place in comic history.

But that’s not where Ditko wants to be. He wants to be at his table, putting pencil to paper, creating story after story after story. He wants to work; because, for him, that’s all that counts.

WHAT REALLY MATTERS

Ditko’s long held that his work speaks for himself, and history’s proven him right. Some 40 years after he gave shape to Spider-Man, the character still has the coolest, most stylish look of any costumed crimefighter. Four decades after he last worked with Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee on Amazing, the foundations Ditko laid for the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler have proven invaluable in the creation of Marvel’s white-hot Ultimate line, a ultra-successful comic renaissance led by-you guessed it-Spider-Man.

If Ditko recognizes the impact he’s had on comics, past or present, you’d never know it. Part of the reason his name’s become synonymous with the word mysterious is his almost monk-like reticence. He kept silent about Spider-Man (and his role in the creation of the hero) for more than 30 years, until-in the late ’90s-he set out to eradicate the creative injustices he alleges Stan Lee levied against him in the years since they ended their working relationship. In a mini-history published in Robin Snyder’s The Comics, Ditko admitted jotting down-in 1966-an account of his involvement with Spider-Man because he believed Lee was claiming sole credit as creator of the character.

“There was no real interest by them (and others),” he wrote, “in whether the concept and claim of ‘creator’ was a self-imposed label, a credit or a claim that could and should be validated.”

Ditko’s validation came in the form of “Tsk, Tsk #1” and “Tsk, Tsk #2,” blendings of prose and pictures released by the artist in 1999 that question the “factual grounds” on which some people-Lee, predominant among them-“talk, write and claim that Spider-Man is a ONE-MAN creation.”

Lee responded via an open letter: “I have always considered Steve Ditko to be Spider-Man’s co-creator…From his very first panel, Steve created and established the perfect mood for Spider-Man…So adept was he at story-telling, that Steve eventually did most of the plotting and illustration while I, of course, continued to provide the dialogue and captions.

“I write this to ensure that Steve Ditko receives the credit to which he is so justly entitled.”

Lee’s effort only made things worse. Ditko rebuffed his “I have always considered…” line in The Comics, saying: “‘Considered’ means to ponder, look at closely, examine, etc. and does not admit, or claim or state that Steve Ditko is Spider-Man’s co-creator.”

Though it may seem otherwise, Ditko really isn’t seeking fame for his role in Spider-Man’s origins. In fact, he’s rather shy about the topic, says inker Butch Guice, who met and worked with the legend briefly in the 1980s.

“He was almost embarrassed he was still running into people who wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much they enjoyed his work,” Guice recounts. “He didn’t seem to want any attention.”

What he wants is justice. Having cast aside the trappings of fame, attention and ego, he simply wants to make sure no one takes-or gets-credit for something they don’t truly deserve; a tenet borne of his belief in the philosophy known as Objectivism.

PHILOSOPHICAL UNDERPININGS

As espoused by author Ayn Rand, Objectivism defines the way a man must think and act if he’s to live a so-called proper life. To an Objectivist, A is A; facts are facts and things are what they are. Right or wrong. Black or white. Deserving of credit or not.

Ditko’s most often thought of as an Objectivist nowadays, but even prior to his discovery of Rand’s way of thinking, he possessed a strong set of personal beliefs. He never liked getting his picture taken, and dodged any and all attempts by Lee (or anyone else) to include him in a photo of the then-fledgling Marvel Bullpen. Nor was he big on autographing his work.

“I remember people would send him comics [to sign],” recalls longtime Marvel receptionist Flo Steinberg. “And he’d send them back with a letter explaining he doesn’t do that.

“It’s the way he always was,” she adds. “Steve had his own opinions and views about politics and things, but…he didn’t really talk about that stuff in the office. It was part of his life outside work.”

Though he rarely mentioned Objectivism to his colleagues, there’s little doubt Ditko wound up marrying Rand’s belief system to his own. And while he never became preachy with his fellow Marvel employees, his theories on the proper approach to life did begin to surface in his art.

“You see it in Amazing Spider-Man,” details Bell. “Peter starts off as this quirky, nerd-looking guy from every angle, then by the issues in the 30s, he looks like any hero out of Ayn Rand.

“Peter’s banging on tables, he’s getting pissed off, he’s blowing off Gwen. He’s got confidence, the wavy hair, the yellow sweaters and he doesn’t care what people think about him. That personifies Howard Roark out of [Rand’s] The Fountainhead or John Galt [from Atlas Shrugged].”

As Ditko’s philosophical mindset continued to evolve, Lee remembers his partner becoming increasingly unsociable.

“Little by little, he became more unfriendly,” the writer was quoted as saying in Comics: Between the Panels. “Instead of bringing his artwork in, he sent it in by messenger.”

Ditko’s recollection differs. In the July, 2001 issue of The Comics, he stated it was Lee who chose to break off communication and disputes the long-held notion that a conflict surrounding the Green Goblin was the reason for his departure from Marvel.

As the story’s been told, when it came time to unmask Spider-Man’s arch-enemy, Lee reportedly wanted to shock the readers with a major revelation, tying the Goblin to a character the series’ fans would easily recognize. Ditko, the story suggested, wanted the villain to have no ties to Peter Parker, believing the Goblin’s unmasked persona should be an unrecognizable entity, a man off the street, because that’s how most crimes occur.

According to the artist’s written account of the Green Goblin’s history, Lee’s decision to sever all forms of direct communication made it impossible for any such problem to occur:

“In choosing not to see and communicate with me, Stan never knew what he was getting in my Spider-Man stories and covers until after the ritual where [editor] Sol Brodsky took the material from me, took it into Stan’s office and came out saying nothing about anything.

“So there couldn’t have been any kind of disagreement or agreement, no exchanges…no problems between us concerning the Green Goblin or anything else from before issue #25 to my final issues.”

Goblin dispute or not, one thing is certain: Ditko quit.

Comic historian Greg Theakston, who occasionally visited Ditko’s studio, describes Amazing Spider-Man as “an extremely autobiographical strip” for Ditko, and speculates about an Objectivist element to the artist’s departure.

“Spider-Man was the culmination of everything he was up until that moment. Ditko had personal ties to the character,” Theakston said. “When people started to ‘manipulate him’ into bringing more romance into the strip and changing the direction, Ditko felt slighted, crushed.

“Here was this comic book that he had put more of his personality, more of his life story into than anything he’d ever done, and it was an amazing success, but they were telling him how to do it. He wouldn’t be told.”

Theakston suggested Ditko’s discovery of Objectivism magnified the effects of Marvel’s “meddling.”

“In one of Rand’s best books, The Fountainhead, a character named Howard Roark is an architect. He builds this incredible skyscraper, and through the meddling of people he’s working with, it becomes a hideous tribute to group effort, which is not always the best thing,” he said. “At the end, Rourke blows it up.

“You can see the similarity between the two stories: creator creates something magnificent, has it meddled with and ends it. It’s the parable of Steve Ditko at Marvel.”

THE BIG BREAK-UP

Theakston’s theory isn’t the only one that’s ever been offered to explain Ditko’s departure from the House of Ideas, but it’s safe to say that without any direct corroboration from the artist-which isn’t likely to come-none of the interpretations will ever prove to be anything more than mere speculation.

“I know why I left Marvel, but no one else in this universe knew or knows why,” Ditko wrote in The Comics. “It may be of a mild interest to realize that Stan Lee chose not to know, to hear why, I left.”

Lee maintains a conflicting stance. “One day he just said he wasn’t going to do the strip anymore,” Lee said in his Comics: Between the Panels interview. “He never told me why.”

John Romita Sr., who started in the Marvel bullpen during the height of the Lee/Ditko conflict and followed Ditko on Amazing, remembered Lee’s attitude toward the whole situation as “rather benign.”

“My impression, at first, was that Stan didn’t understand why Ditko was unhappy,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t, because Stan was quite often unaware of what people really felt. He was aware they had disagreements because Ditko made it clear through Sol Brodsky that he didn’t like what Stan was doing-he was misinterpreting his stories. Whenever Steve plotted, Stan would accept the plots. I remember Stan saying, ‘Gee, I have trouble with some of Ditko’s plots,’ but he always accepted the challenge.”

Ditko’s departure shocked everyone, including Romita, who began his own classic run on Amazing believing the series’ original artist would soon return.

“I thought it was a temporary thing, and that he’d come back,” Romita said. “I couldn’t imagine anybody giving up a book that was such a success. ‘Any one of these days now,’ I thought. ‘He’s going to come back and get it.'”

He didn’t.

The fact he’d played an integral role in the birth of the hottest publishing house in comics didn’t matter to Ditko. The success of his books wasn’t of premiere-or even slight-importance to him, nor was the overwhelming popularity of the characters he helped create. Drawing Marvel comics was Ditko’s job, not his life. The concepts of wealth and notoriety held zero allure for him in the 1960s, and as Marvel Editor Ralph Macchio attests, they still mean nothing to him today.

“He has a couple of Doctor Strange stories that he’s never turned in,” said Macchio, who maintains an ongoing relationship with the artist. “No amount of prying could get them from him, but there are a couple of completed Ditko Dr. Stranges out there.”

Macchio did his best to explain the value of the stories to Ditko, telling him they were worth their weight in gold, but-as the editor remembers-“It didn’t impress him.”

After exiting the House of Ideas, Ditko returned to Charlton Comics, where he revived Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle and gave birth to The Question. It was then, perhaps spurred on by his puzzling departure from Marvel, that the mystery and rumors about Ditko began to surface.

THE CHARLTON YEARS

The catalyst for some of the earliest chatter can be found in Ditko’s work on The Question. More than any other character up through that point, the faceless crimefighter reflected the artist’s Objectivist beliefs. In one of the character’s most infamous storylines, The Question-who, it should be noted, is one of the good guys-leaves a pair of villains to drown in a sewer.

“[The Question] could have saved them,” veteran Charlton and DC editor Dick Giordano recalled in the August 2000 issue of Comic Book Artist. “He didn’t kill them, but allowed them to die, saying something along the lines of ‘We’re better off without him.'”

Writer Steve Skeates dialogued the story in question, and as the writer told Comic Book Artist, Ditko expressed some displeasure about his choice of words.

“I had The Question say to the villain, in response to something the villain said, ‘Well, my friend, you didn’t impress me that much,’ or something like that,” the writer recounted. “Ditko wrote me a six page letter about why The Question would never call a villain ‘my friend.'”

Author Ron Frantz chronicled a similar “Ditko, the Objectivist” anecdote on Bell’s Ditko Looked Up website. According to Frantz, artist Pete Morisi happened upon Ditko in New York in 1967, while dropping off some artwork at Charlton’s office. During the course of their conversation, Ditko discovered Morisi made his living as a police officer and told him he envied the opportunity to arrest criminals.

“Ditko’s evolving philosophical views made Morisi feel a little uncomfortable,” Frantz said. “Working as a police officer in the largest city in the world, Morisi had a more realistic opinion about the role of law and order in society, as opposed to the simplistic black and white views expostulated by Rand and her followers. To the best of my knowledge, the two men never spoke again.”

THE DC YEARS

Ditko brought his talents-and his beliefs-over to DC in 1968, working on characters like The Creeper and the diametrically-opposed heroes Hawk and Dove.

Writer Denny O’Neil paired with the artist on The Creeper, and describes him as an intense, but pleasant, “low-key, modest kind of guy.”

“Professionally, there are few artists I would rather work with than Steve,” O’Neil said. “He’s a consummate visual storyteller. He is virtually without ego in that he wants to tell the story, not show off. He’s one of the four or five best visual storytellers the medium has ever had.”

Quite a testament to Ditko, considering O’Neil admits he and the artist “never managed to connect.”

“Though he has never spoken with me about it, I have a hunch he didn’t like what I did with The Creeper. My approach was so different, so alien to his,” O’Neil noted. “Steve has a philosophical system and a set of beliefs that he is totally committed to, almost more than anybody I’ve ever met.

“There have been times when he would not draw certain pictures because he didn’t feel we were honoring the idea of hero. He was very straightforward about it, though. He told you what he would and would not do. If you couldn’t come to some kind of agreement, no hard feelings. That’s about as professional as I’d ever want anyone to be.”

THE RETURN

Ditko returned to Marvel in the late ’70s, channeling his artistic mastery into some of the company’s more non-traditional eccentric titles, things like Micronauts and Machine Man.

His legend preceded him.

Tom DeFalco’s first contact with Ditko came as a shock, catching the writer totally off guard. As a freelancer, DeFalco made a point of putting his phone number on all his plots. He’d just been assigned to Machine Man, and his editor informed him that Ditko, who “had his own ideas of what a hero is and what a book should be,” would look over the plot and decide whether he wanted to stay on the title.

“One afternoon, I got a call from Steve,” DeFalco recalled. “He’d read the plot and figured he’d have a discussion with me. I was totally intimidated. This was a living legend.

“I still remember the first thing he said to me after he introduced himself: ‘What is a hero, and what gives you the right to write stories about heroes?'”

Thus, the conversation began. DeFalco fumbled a few answers, and the two started to debate all sorts of profound questions about heroes. It was a real philosophical discussion, the kind DeFalco admits he hadn’t had since leaving college. The two ended up trading opinions for more than an hour-and-a-half.

“I started out this meek, terrified guy and at one point, I realized we had gotten really passionately involved, and were shouting at each other over the phone,” DeFalco said.

Hanging up the phone, the writer felt totally wrung out, disbelieving he’d just spent the better part of two hours arguing with the man who co-created Spider-Man, certain the artist would opt off Machine Man.

“I decided then and there I’d never put my phone number on a plot again,” DeFalco chuckled.

To the writer’s surprise, Ditko stayed on the title, and saw the book through to its end. Over the years, the duo continued to have what DeFalco categorizes as “wild discussions,” sometimes having absolutely nothing to do with comic books.

“I found him a very intelligent, well-spoken, terrific guy with a lot of ideas,” he said. “Some of them I thought were crazy, others made a lot of sense.”

Ditko continued to draw prodigiously throughout the 1980s, working with both Marvel (Rom, The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones, Daredevil, Avengers) and DC (Adventure Comics, Legion of Superheroes), as well as a host of smaller publishers. Despite his almost steady stream of published material, Ditko somehow managed to step even further out of the spotlight. He was an enigma, even at Marvel; people knew the tales about him, but they hardly recognized him-he was just a silent old man who faded in and out of people’s offices.

Guice met Ditko in Marvel’s Epic offices. The inker was looking at some artwork when a co-worker nudged him, nodded his head toward “an extremely well-dressed” man talking to Archie Goodwin and told him it was Ditko.

“I hadn’t really even noticed anyone had come into the office at the time,” Guice said. “That’s how quiet it was in the background.”

Top Cow Editor-in-Chief David Wohl, Ditko’s assistant editor on Marvel’s Chuck Norris and His Karate Commandos at the time, remembers the buzz that would follow the artist’s visits to the offices.

“A lot of people probably didn’t even know he was there at the time,” he said. “I’m sure most people didn’t know what he looked like-he’d pretty much disappeared for a long time. I remember people talking about how mysterious the guy was, but it was different for us, because we were working with him.”

Wohl was impressed by Ditko’s devotion to the work, remarking that he “was always thinking so much about what he was drawing.”

“Something I thought interesting about him was that when he would point to things, his hands would be in the same position that he drew Spider-Man’s in,” he said. “He’d have some fingers sticking out…you know, like when Spider-Man shoots his Web-shooters, fingers pointing up, palms pointing down. He would kind of point to pages like that, always describing why he was drawing what he was drawing.”

Macchio called working with Ditko an “amazing lesson in storytelling.” Upon receiving a plot, Ditko would do thumbnail breakdowns, then bring them into Marvel’s offices to keep the editor up to speed on the look for every page.

“That’s something you don’t get from almost any artist,” Macchio said. “He was incredibly professional. When something was due, he was there with it that day. He would show you the work, sit there with the plot and go through it with you page by page. It was incredible.”

While all artists may not aspire to Ditko’s breakdown standards, there’s no denying that artists still refer to his early Marvel work for visual cues as to how to move Spider-Man, how to hang the Wall-Crawler from a building and how to cast Doctor Strange into other dimensions.

“He created a visual style that people, today, still refer to as Ditko-esque,” Macchio said. “There’s only a few of those. Most artists don’t get to that level.”

Romita agrees with the editor’s assessment, and acknowledges that he tried to mimic Ditko’s style when he took over Amazing, unable to shake the feeling his predecessor was better suited to draw the book. “I always felt like a fish out of water with Spider-Man,” Romita said. “His whole approach was so distinctive, so odd and offbeat.”

Ditko, it’s widely regarded, fostered an artistic realm entirely of his own, a dimension into which every single panel fit perfectly.

“Ditko created a set of rules for his own visual world that made his work more realistic, in my opinion, than a Neal Adams,” Bell said. “The rules were so precise and he followed them all the time.”

Above all else, Ditko set the tone for what his characters did. The way Spider-Man behaves, the way he fights, the way he moves-it’s all encompassed under the Ditko-esque heading.

“Ditko’s New York and Ditko’s characters were bizarre, quirky and not really in keeping with what we think of as the very clean look that the superhero should have,” Macchio detailed. “But yet, it worked. It created a look. That’s why you’d have to say Steve was the top. The whole look and feel of the character was Ditko.

“Nobody can take that from him.”

Ditko was given a shot to return to that top form-on the grandest of stages, no less-in the early ’90s, while DeFalco was doing a bit of artistic brainstorming for Stan Lee’s new series, Ravage 2099.

“Stan said he’d love to work with Ditko again, so I gave Steve a call, and he agreed to come in and meet with Stan,” the editor said. “The fan in me was thinking ‘I’m going to watch history unfold-Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the same room together.'”

“Steve came in, very flattered to be asked. The guys started to shake hands, then gave each other a big hug. It was a very warm reception between the two of them, and it was obvious these were two guys who really liked each other and really respected each other.

“Stan laid out his ideas for the series, they had a really terrific discussion going back and forth. A lot of Steve’s discussions had been fiery, but this one was just so warm and friendly.”

The meeting ran its course, and ended with Ditko cordially turning down the project.

“He just didn’t agree with some of the philosophical underpinnings,” DeFalco said. “Stan thanked him a lot, and they opened the door for future work together. Steve walked away, and I could tell he was really thrilled to have seen Stan.”

Lee then popped THE question: “Can you tell me why Steve left Spider-Man all those years ago?”

DeFalco, roused from his ultimate fanboy experience, was at a loss for words. “No, Stan. I was in high school at the time.” “Next time you talk to him, why don’t you ask him?” Lee said. “I’ve always been curious.”

DITKO IN THE PRESENT

Ever plagued by contradiction, Ditko’s warm and friendly appearances at Marvel stand in direct contrast to a couple of rumored encounters at DC Comics just a few years before.

In a passage running on the Ditko Looked Up website, Frantz relates a story told to him by inker Frank McLaughlin in which McLaughlin politely suggested Ditko could be “difficult to work with.”

DC purchased the publishing rights to the majority of the 60s Charlton hero characters in the 1980s, and Giordano wanted Ditko and McLaughlin to work on a new Captain Atom comic.

Giordano set up a meeting to discuss the project, a cordial gathering that went south after Ditko stated he didn’t like the planned storyline. His reasoning? “Super heroes should not take the place of the United States military.”

Giordano then tried to team Ditko and McLaughlin on Firestorm. Again, the artist bowed out, at which point Giordano said to Ditko, “I guess we really don’t have anything to discuss.”

“I guess we don’t.”

Ditko walked out, ending the meeting.

Whether the encounters finish on high notes, as in the DeFalco story, or low, like the Captain Atom revamp, all of the rumors surrounding the artist primarily seem to hinge on two main elements: the influence of Objectivism on Ditko’s life, and his private nature. Of the pair, Objectivism may have kicked off the great mystery, but it’s Ditko’s reclusive ways that have unintentionally kept his enigmatic stature alive.

“If he was out meeting and greeting people at comic conventions now, he’d be like the Pope,” said Bell, acknowledging the artist would hate the comparison. “If he were to walk into a convention, it’d be quite the scene. People love mystery, and people really pop up the expectations for those who keep you at arm’s length.”

No one sees him very often, and no matter how many near-reunions with Stan Lee take place, only one story worthy occurrence is needed to renew the idea he’s off his rocker.

If one person catches him on a bad day, theirs could be the only encounter anyone outside Ditko’s intimate circle of friends has with him in a year. Then, instead of being a guy going through a simple rough spell, he’s a recluse locked away in a “Studio of Solitude,” bouncing rhetoric off four bare walls.

There’s simply no way to separate the fact from the fiction, no way to determine which Ditko is the real Ditko. One story about him contradicts the next, which-in turn-contradicts the next.

Take for example, one of Theakston’s last visits to Ditko’s studio. While embroiled in a conversation, the historian noticed a piece of illustration board leaning up against a wall, slashed to pieces.

“He’d been using it as a cutting board,” Theakston said. “I looked a little bit closer and I detected a comics code stamp on it.”

He asked Ditko to turn the board around, a request met with a deadening gaze from the artist.

“I didn’t think he was going to do it,” the historian recounted. “It looked like a ‘Screw you’ look.”

Slowly, however, Ditko reached out and flipped over the board. It was a page of original art from a late 1950s issue of Journey Into Mystery, a splash featuring a hard helmet diver. Theakston couldn’t believe it. Not only was Ditko not displaying, preserving or prizing this piece of original art, he was using it as a cutting board.

Theakston quickly offered Ditko a deal: “Steve, I will go down to the nearest art supply store and buy you a cutting board that will mend itself-a plastic cutting board that’s so smart that when you cut on it, it mends itself-and you’ll have the finest cutting board on the block.” “Nope,” Ditko replied, twisting the artwork-turned-cutting-board back around.

Theakston pleaded. “Steve, geez. That’s worth a fair amount of money. At the very least-damn, Steve-it’s an artifact. It’s an important piece of publishing history in terms of comics.”

The artist turned and pointed to the drapery-obscured window next to Theakston’s chair. “Lift that curtain up,” he said.

The curtain, the historian estimated, was about 18 inches off the floor. He pulled the drape aside and saw a stack of original artwork from Marvel standing roughly a foot-and-a-half high.

“Can I look at these?” Theakston excitedly asked.

“No.”

The writer was dumbfounded. “I was sitting next to a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand dollars, maybe, worth of Ditko artwork and he was cutting it up without letting people look at it.”

For whatever reason-Theakston feels Ditko may have thought Marvel was wrong for returning the pages-the artist seemed to attach no particular affection to his early work.

“He would rather not have people think of Steve Ditko’s best work as being Spider-Man from 30 or 40 years ago,” the historian said. “He wanted to be represented not by what he had done, but by what he’s doing-he wants now to be his best time.

“I said, ‘Well, Steve, if that’s the case, you’ll never draw Spider-Man again.’

“‘Probably not,’ he said. ‘Not interested.'”

Macchio, however, admitted having what he considered “serious discussions” with Ditko about doing one final Spidey story, a tale that focused on Peter Parker’s life right after high school.

“I said, ‘Steve, you can do something really different,'” Macchio explained. “‘Go back to where you left off and do that next story that you wanted to do.’

“He was saying, ‘Well, I was thinking about doing Peter Parker…what he did during that summer. What happened after he graduated? What did he do with his life?”

It was a great idea, the editor remembered, noting something happened that caused Ditko to change his mind.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t come off, but we really were getting close with it,” Macchio said. “I didn’t want to press him any further, but he had thought about it. It was quite an exciting thing to have at least gotten him to that point.”

THE HEART OF THE MYSTERY
Despite the plethora of tales-and the fact some are always willing to share their stories-it’s difficult to get to the heart of the Ditko mystery because of those who won’t speak, the inner circle of friends and colleagues who echo the artist’s silence.

“It’s very difficult to recap anecdotes in regard to him, because everybody pretty much closes ranks,” Bell said. “If they haven’t been excommunicated from his life, his friends are few and far between, I’d gather.”

It’s nearly impossible to make accurate judgments on anyone based on limited experiences, but with Ditko, limited experiences are all that exists. Those who’ve seen Ditko’s personal side stay mum-either out of respect for his wishes or for fear of being excommunicated.

“If you cross his line, it’s very difficult to go back,” Bell said. “When the logic clicks and you’re out of the picture…you’re gone.

“You’re not necessarily going to get a big fighting clash. He’ll either give some eight page letter telling you while you suck, why you’re morally wrong or why your ideas are morally off, or he’ll just say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ and walk away quietly.”

No matter what people say about him, whether they refer to him as sweet or quirky, quiet or pissy, polite or pain-in-the-ass, there’s no denying Ditko has his own rationale. It’s both well thought out and intelligently articulated, and no one who’s ever met him-once or several times-has ever described him as the raving lunatic he’s sometimes portrayed to be.

“He’s got his own internal sense of logic, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine,” Bell said. “If you view it as warped, it’s your business. He doesn’t care.”

Theakston agrees.

“Frankly, he doesn’t care how everybody else thinks,” he said. “He’s not motivated by the things that generally motivate people in the industry, people in the world much less.”

Unfortunately for Ditko, he and his friends may find themselves explaining, if not defending, those motivations next year. Spider-Man’s swinging toward superstardom in 2002, jumping from the printed page into a big-budget blockbuster will undoubtedly renew interest in the character’s origins. Always hungry for a hint of controversy, hordes of Hollywood newshounds will no doubt uncover the fanboy-famous Lee/Ditko feud and seek to shine the spotlight directly on a pioneering artist who’s so long sought to avoid it.

The mystery of Steve Ditko will surface again, and after countless television, radio and newsprint interview requests are politely-and maddeningly-declined, it will again fade away unsolved, leaving the legend’s work to speak for itself.

Which is just the way he likes it.

That, we know for sure.