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Spider-Man's Long-Lost Parent

Comics * Reclusive artist Steve Ditko, who created the superhero with Stan Lee then abruptly walked away, is listed in new film's credits.

April 29, 2002|JORDAN RAPHAEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When "Spider-Man" credits roll on Friday, a name will appear alongside Stan Lee's that may elicit wild cheering from a few audience members and muted confusion from everyone else. The name is Steve Ditko. And the people applauding are comic-book fans thrilled that Ditko, the original artist and co-creator of Spider-Man, has been given proper credit--at long last--on the occasion of Spidey's big-screen debut.

Ditko won't be anywhere in the vicinity of the movie's hype machine, though. While Lee, Spider-Man's other, better known co-creator, is pumping the film at media events and premiere parties, Ditko will probably be at his cramped studio in midtown Manhattan, hunched over a drawing board working on more comics.

Then again, it's hard to know exactly what Ditko will be doing. The first rule of Steve Ditko is you don't talk about Steve Ditko. Not to the press, not even to friends or peers. Intensely private, Ditko is an enigmatic figure--the J.D. Salinger of comics. He avoids publicity and hasn't given an interview in more than 35 years. Only a few published photographs of him are known to exist, and good luck finding them.

"He's the exact opposite of me," says Lee, who has spent the last 40 years as the public face of Spider-Man and the rest of Marvel Comics' superhero pantheon.

Those who know Ditko say he prefers to let his work speak for itself. In a career spanning five decades, the 74-year-old artist has produced hundreds of comic books in genres ranging from horror to science fiction to erotica. But nothing in Ditko's oeuvre has matched the popularity and success of his work on Spider-Man, which he and Lee unleashed on the world in the early 1960s in "Amazing Fantasy" No. 15 and the first 38 issues of "Amazing Spider-Man."

With few exceptions, no comic-book series has been the source of as much controversy among fans and historians. The debates include such esoteric questions as who dreamed up Spider-Man's webbing or his belt-mounted flashlight. Then there's the intriguing mystery of why Ditko suddenly departed the title in 1966 and never drew a Spider-Man story again.

On their pioneering Spider-Man run, Lee and Ditko tweaked the traditions of superhero-dom. Eschewing the tedious infallibility of Superman, they saddled the webslinger with real-life dilemmas--money troubles, a sick Aunt May--and somewhat bizarre superpowers. Lee enlivened the action with snappy, humorous dialogue; Ditko's moody and naturalistic line work brought Spider-Man down to earth, emphasizing his humanity. In those formative years, the co-creators established the mythology that has guided Spider-Man's development ever since. The Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe in the movie, is a Ditko-Lee creation.

Ditko's ink prints are especially visible in the film. "You can see a lot of Ditko's influence in the way Spidey moves on the big screen--the classic poses and movements are all up there," says "Spider-Man" producer Laura Ziskin.

The film credit reads, "Based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko." That may not seem very significant, but to Ditko fans it represents a long-awaited validation. In one of those injustices for which the comics industry is famous, Ditko has not received any royalties from the billion-dollar franchise based on Spider-Man because he co-created the character on a work-for-hire basis.

More important to his fans, there has long been a public misconception that Stan Lee was the sole creator of Spider-Man--fostered by a combination of Lee's grandstanding, Ditko's reclusiveness and Marvel's practice of not giving credit to the original creators of its heroes. In the March issue of the long-running "Amazing Spider-Man," Marvel listed Ditko's name on the title page for the first time since 1966. Series editor Axel Alonso says the credit was a "tip of the hat to Ditko" that may appear again around the time of the movie, but not as a matter of company policy.

Personal Details About Ditko Are Scarce

The personal details that are known about Steve Ditko would fit on one side of an index card. He was born Nov. 2, 1927, in Johnstown, Pa., the son of Eastern European immigrants. As a child, he was a fan of Batman and the Spirit. He has a brother named Patrick. In 1945, he graduated from Greater Johnstown High School. Five years later, he set off for New York and enrolled in the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, where he studied under Golden Age Batman artist Jerry Robinson. He is a lifelong bachelor, and he has no children.

Gary Groth is editor in chief of the Comics Journal, an industry publication noteworthy for its expansive, in-depth interviews. He has known Ditko for more than 20 years and has been trying to land an interview for at least as long. "I don't think we're going to get one," Groth says.

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