Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s real identity, was a reedy, bespectacled high schooler. His angst revolved around unfulfilled crushes and the ill health of his caretaker, the kindly Aunt May. He didn’t fight world-threatening cosmic villains, but costumed bank robbers and street thugs like the Vulture or the Sandman; his most famous enemy (along with the Green Goblin) was Doctor Octopus, a pudgy older scientist. But they all were still frightening to behold, and once in costume, Peter was also transformed into something alien and fascinating. Better than anyone, Ditko could demonstrate the power of an alter ego.
“There was a kind of tormented elegance to the way that his characters stood, the way that they bent their hands,” the comics legend Alan Moore says in In Search of Steve Ditko. “His characters always looked very highly strung. They always looked as if they were on the edge of some kind of revelation or breakdown. There was something a bit feverish about Steve Ditko.” That vibe applied to Ditko’s other hit book at Marvel, Strange Tales, where he co-created a touchstone hero of early psychedelia, Doctor Strange—a surgeon-turned-sorcerer who journeys into parallel “nightmare” dimensions.
After Ditko left Marvel, he never experienced the same kind of success, though his Charlton Comics hero the Question (created in 1967) remains a cult favorite, eventually absorbed by DC Comics. The Question was a ruthless, faceless detective who dressed like a noir hero and brutalized criminals. Free of Stan Lee’s high-spirited, swinging-’60s liberalism, Ditko was more comfortable using comics to assert his belief in Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Another of his creations, Mr. A (also created in 1967), wielded a black-and-white business card that represented the stark difference between good and evil, with no gray area in between.
Mr. A, who spoke in long, polemical rants, was not a hit with young comic-buying audiences, but Ditko would return to him over the years, expressing his political beliefs in the power of the individual over all. Moore based his antihero Rorschach, one of the stars of his classic series Watchmen, on Mr. A and the Question—Rorschach is an absolutist who despises criminality, dispenses violence with practiced ease, and would rather die than betray his moral code. In the BBC documentary, Moore chuckles while recalling that Ditko caught wind of the homage and remarked that Rorschach was a lot like Mr. A—except the former was insane.
Ditko worked in obscurity for decades as his biggest creation became the centerpiece of Marvel and the star of some of its biggest films. He occasionally freelanced for Marvel in the ’70s and ’80s, as well as working in independent comics. He worked out of an office near Times Square, never marrying, politely declining interviews, and paying the bills with commercial work (“Seeing samples of his Transformers coloring book and his Big Boy comic is like hearing Orson Welles sell frozen peas,” wrote Douglas Wolk in 2008).