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Book Review: “Steve Ditko in the 1960s” edited by J. Ballmann

Steve Ditko in the 1960s is an anthology of fanzines from the 1960s, much of which fell under the radar. Collated and organized by Ballmann with dates, credits, and fanzines properly attributed; this book is a remarkable resource about Amazing Spider-Man, the early reception of the character among early comics fans, Marvel Comics in the 1960s, comics fandom, and even a few details about Steve Ditko that has yet to be covered elsewhere. Covered in this book is such things as Ditko’s love life (!) and the paradoxical (and hilarious) origin of the Green Goblin rumor, complicating and updating our image of Spider-Man’s co-creator.

The full title of the book is Steve Ditko in the 1960s: in His Own Words, in His Interviews, in the Words of the Fans Who Knew Him. It’s accurate and comprehensive in terms of what the book itemizes, but probably not the best in terms of drawing a readership (something like Ditko and the Fanzines would have been better, and also a good name for a rock band). That’s probably one reason why this book hasn’t drawn a great deal of attention compared to others (for instance Ditko Shrugged: a largely unhelpful book that contributes no new information but boy what a title). I only came to know of this title about five months ago. I needed time and space to gather a copy of the book and even more time to read it, process it, and write about it. Originally I didn’t expect that I’d have to write a review because I needed the book as a resource for something else, but unexpectedly it proved to provide a ton of interesting new information that I’ve yet to see reported elsewhere, and so I feel it was important to do a review and cover this book.

This book in my view supplements Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger as well as Abraham Riesman’s True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. It contextualizes the information gleamed there. Reading the book gave me a paradoxical mix of “fist-bump” smugness as well as frustration that if I had read this book earlier my earlier essays would have been improved. A lot of the stuff I had written such as exploring the “illusions of change“, my feelings about the Green Goblin Rumor, the Game of Telephones involved in Marvel office rumormongering are more than confirmed here. Had I access to the information here, those previous essays would have been a good deal improved. As such I am happy that my intuitions about the making of Spider-Man are, so far, confirmed by fresh research. Even if there’s a great deal more to learn and reassess.

“EVERYBODY KNOWS ME NOW”

David Bowie. Music Video from “Lazarus”.

David Bowie died in early 2016 and in retrospect given the hellish four years that followed, and the Pandemic Years of our present day and age, it might not have been a bad moment to pick an exit. Bowie’s death seemed to herald the end of an age, and certainly there were a wave of prominent musicians who died in 2016 (as well as celebrities like Carrie Fisher, and her mother Debbie Reynolds who died the day after). One reason why Bowie’s death was so poignant was that his final album released a short while after his passing, and it was instantly recognized as a masterpiece, which confronted questions of mortality by an artist conscious that their days were numbered. One of the songs in his final album is “Lazarus” which was released with a single and had a music video. The opening lyrics always resonated with me.

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now

David Bowie “Lazarus”

The lyrics seems to address an artist aware that with their death, everything about their past and history (“I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”), all their secrets and trinkets (“I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen”), however much they kept under wraps, will inevitably become public (“Everybody knows me now”).

Nothing illustrates the truth of this then the wave of posthumous Ditko publications that have come out since his passing in 2018. Still more is expected, and in fact a Ditko biography, with the support of his family is currently under production. When that arrives, we’ll have a lot more to work with. One of the things we still don’t know about Ditko is his music taste, whether he liked Bowie or not. Born in 1947, Bowie was 20 years younger than Ditko (b:1927) and the latter would outlive the Englishman by two years. Both were New York transplants however: Ditko from Johnstown Pennsylvania, and Bowie from Brixton, London. They died in Manhattan, and New York City claims them both among its illustrious pantheon.

New Photos of Ditko, made public after his passing. One shows him in his youth, the other as considerably older.

During his life, Ditko was super-protective and private, and there were only a handful of photographs available from the 1960s. Ditko wouldn’t come out in public even for the BBC and refused all interactions with press except through his own publications. With his death, we’ve seen several photographs showing Ditko across the ages, we’ve seen family home videos of him at birthdays, and we get correspondence and letters and articles from people who met him, or interacted him via letters making their records known.

For Spider-Man fans who come in to his production history in the last three years, who might have heard of Ditko on the day he died, it might be surprising that the guy was ever so reclusive in the first place, especially since they will have so many more images of the man than at any point before.

Now obviously, Bowie’s song is exaggerating because some things about an artist do remain secret when they pass away. Not everything gets recorded and there’s a massive gray area of speculation that will remain speculative. At the same time, we do stand to learn a lot more about an artist after their passing than most anyone who knew them in life will know. What we get is a mosaic that slowly adds to a picture, albeit an incomplete and half-revealed mosaic.

THE SPECULATED STEVE DITKO

Detail from a Ditko Illustration sent to a fanzine. Featured in Page 9.

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko are a study in contrasts. There’s a long list of differences between both of them. One distinction that best explains the dichotomy is this observation:

Stan Lee is more famous than Steve Ditko, but Steve Ditko attracts greater speculation.

Lee died in 2018 as well, a few more months after Ditko’s death. As with Ditko, there’s been a wave of posthumous revelations. Yet the difference is that with Lee’s posthumous revelations, there’s little surprise. The images and ideas of Stan Lee that existed in life i.e. the Walt Disney of comics in the good and bad sense, has been reinforced one way or another after his death. If you see Stan as Disney in terms of an impresario, facilitator, salesman, mascot, booster, spokesman and boss, that image has been perpetuated after his passing (by Roy Thomas especially). If you see Stan as Disney in terms of a union-busting credit depriving manager whose relationships with collaborators are compromised by unethical contracts, then that image too has been circulated (by Abraham Riesman and others).

With Lee, there’s only one line of speculation, either he’s the Positive idea of Disney or he’s the Negative idea of Disney, or a spectrum between.

With Ditko, there’s far more to speculate: How Randian was he? What was his personal life like? Why did he quit Spider-Man? What were his plans and attitude to Peter Parker? In other words, Ditko was by far the more complex personality and individual than Stan Lee. Not that this is any kind of mark or distinction in favor of Ditko over Lee, since it’s not a given that complex personalities are necessary for being a great artist. In movie history, Steven Spielberg is less interesting a personality compared to Francis Ford Coppola, or even George Lucas, but it’s Spielberg who’s the greater film-maker in terms of consistency, versatility, and depth of body of work.

Still Ditko is the more mysterious and interesting figure than Stan Lee. The one who offers us fresher avenues of inquiry. The one on whom new information is gathered and unfurled. The new information that we get can only surprise and complicate our narrative of the man, mostly because so much of that image and narrative sustained over the decades by fans and other professionals has taken a life of its own.

Cartoon by Peter Bagge, spoofing Ditko’s Randian fixations.

For most of his final decades, the image people had about Ditko in the comics press and fansites is a flat caricature. The image of Ditko was this Howard Hughes-esque recluse, a curmudgeon who keeps people at arm’s length, a wallflower who communicates entirely in Ayn Rand-esque prose and seemed remote from real human empathy and feeling. As with any caricature, the elements of truth it contained was rendered moot by the distortion. I am no fan of Ayn Rand, far from it, but to me it seems self-defeating if you are going to counter Randian black-and-white attitudes with an equally black-and-white dismissal.

Especially since based on Ballmann’s book, the evidence that offers a more nuanced look at Sturdy Steve existed right under everyone’s noses the whole time.

DITKO AND THE FANZINES

Esquire Magazine, September 1965. Spider-Man and Hulk number alongside famous celebrities and political figures of the time.

Ballmann’s book is based on the early fanzines of the 1960s, titles that are obscure and forgotten. Comic book fandom of the 1960s was Pre-Internet as it gets, and it largely comprised of very young teenagers, a few of whom did become comics professionals: Tom Orzechowski, future letterer for Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men among others, writes a pretty interesting fan essay collected here, Len Wein is another, and Roy Thomas who’s the quintessential fan turned comics pro. Ballmann’s book however spotlights the entire fanzine community, and not just the ones who made it big.

It took until 1965 before the mainstream press covered Marvel, when an Esquire article covered the “28 People Who Count in 1965” including Spider-Man and Hulk among the likes of Fidel Castro, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, François Truffaut, Stanley Kubrick. By that time Spider-Man had already been Marvel’s #1 character for some three years. If one wished to get a sense of Spider-Man’s fame and esteem in near real-time, as well as the earliest idea of historiography (i.e. the history of histories, when was it that certain conceptions and ideas came into being), then the fanzines cover it far more than primetime TV, radio, and print did.

The term “Fanzine” can be misleading, because that conjures something juvenile and also anything with the word “fan” nowadays needs a pre-apology because of how fandom has been co-opted and gutted by the worst types. Yet the fanzines of the 1960s while not always good reading in terms of criticism and certainly filled with the contradictory complaints you find today, is also filled with moments of insight and nuance. Take Richard Weingroff, considered “the most prolific writer of 1960s comic fandom” (pg. 14). Weingroff used the fanzines to write comics criticism, and his reviews and observations of Spider-Man are quite insightful, and prophetic.

Weingroff is as early a point in Spider-Man fandom as you get. He was an original reader of Amazing Fantasy #15 and had followed Ditko’s career already at that point, and he writes a review of Amazing Spider-Man #1 and immediately comments on the sharp change in tone and approach in the ongoing as opposed to the anthology:

“The particularly distinguishing point of this gimmick is that the Spiderman’s actions are misconstrued greatly and that a pseudo-moral is attached–freedom of the press is fine, but don’t believe everything you read in papers…Possibly, the most disparaging point of note is that the wonderful development on the fact that Peter is attempting to avenge the death of his uncle, and atone for his playboy techniques. This has been all but lost in the ‘new’ version, maybe of sound reasons, but I somehow feel that this little incident is as much a part of the character of Spiderman as any other thing.”

Rick Weingroff, from Page 16. From Hero #2 (Spring 1963)

Weingroff is commenting on something I arrived at when talking of Jameson’s first appearance in the pages of ASM. Namely the change in tone from a serious AF#15 to a more comic and humorous ongoing status-quo. Had I known of this book, I would have cited him in my article for echoing so early in Spider-Man’s publication history, the changes in the ongoing.

In fact, Weingroff articulates what is in fact my thesis for Jameson as a guilty conscience:

The touch added by Jameson is a rather interesting one, deserving separate discussion. His misinterpretation of Spiderman’s efforts has aided the development of the character. In the first place, the more impressionable young readers can identify more with Spiderman when they see Jameson’s attempts toe xpose him. They can see the basic conflict between young and old and can associate with it. Further, Spiderman is shown as a hero battling against somehwat overpowering odds – Jameson’s misinterpretations – and managing to succeed.

Rick Weingroff, Page 56, “Son of Lee” from Slam Bang #2 (1964).

I feel vindicated in that my reading of ASM’s development in its early years, before the later editorial regimes, before the 1967 cartoon and so on, had buried it under layers of fame, is more than supported by early observers of the comics. And I also regret again that I did not read this book when I worked on my Jameson article because it would have improved it immensely.

Weingroff also salutes the progression and change in Spider-Man in the early issues as one of the title’s most salient characteristics:

One of the most important ingredients of these plot variants is that they are “moving” – and not static. Though Superman has “loved” Lois Lane for twenty-six years, the situation has not changed noticeably in all that time. Wonder Woman has been giving Steve Trevor the same excuse for twenty-three years…Contrast this with Spiderman’s case. In the first few issues, one would have that Peter’s love for Liz – she seemed his ‘girl friend’ – would not be returned and that Pete, like Clark Kent, would be an unloved alter-ego. Several issues later, hoever, Pete had begun to see Betty Brant; a few issues after her introduction (not the same issue) they were going ‘steady’.

When Flash Thompson was introduced, he seemed like the typical bully. However, in more recent issues he has shown that he has a heart, in his changed attitude toward Peter, one which approximates friendship…All of these things keep the extra characters moving – rather than the static situation of Superman, the plot-within-the plot continues to move and provide fresh new interest.

Rick Weingroff, Page 56-57, “Son of Lee” from Slam Bang #2 (1964).

Weingroff also wonders, early in Ditko’s run, “who knows what girl lurks around the corner who might attract Peter more?” (Page 57). Already, early in Ditko’s run, Weingroff was able to highlight the deeper structures and subplots that would go on to define Spider-Man, rather than corral the title pre-emptively into being about “youth”. Some of the early observers of Spider-Man had a more complex appreciation of the comic strip and its evolution than the views that came in later, making this book worth revisiting.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the hilarious source of the Green Goblin rumor.

GAME OF TELEPHONES

I had mentioned that Marvel’s office politics thrived on rumor more than rigorous fact-checking. Throwaway office phrases maybe tossed aside carelessly by Stan Lee take on a life of its own independent from how it was, likely, intended originally.

Ballmann’s book provides what is likely the earliest documented origin of the Green Goblin rumor and reading it made my jaw drop. Here’s what is said, my emphasis in bold, italic, and underlined.

In my discussions with Romita, I learned something of why Steve Ditko left Marvel. It seems that when he started out, Ditko was bascially an amateur, with little confidence in himself. Stan Lee convinced Ditko that he was a good artist, that he should stick it out. Ditko became convinced. He began to slack off his direct cotnact with Lee, until he never came to the Bullpen anymore. Then, he didn’t feel like doing the story the way Stan wanted it, he did it his way…That’s how Ditko began getting credited as plotting the stories. By the way, the choice of Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin was Ditko’s. Lee was going to have GG revealed to be Ned Leeds, but Ditko was too fond of Ned, so he drew the mags so that Osborn HAD to be the Goblin.

Bob Sheridan Page 103, “Rambling with Romita” Web-Spinner #5 (June 1966)

The usual idea disseminated is that it was Stan Lee who wanted Norman to be Goblin and Ditko who wanted it to be Ned Leeds, but now in a contemporaneous report from Sheridan who talked to Romita Sr. in 1966 at a time when memories were fresh, we get what is in fact the opposite. That it was Ditko who wanted Norman to be Goblin but Lee objected and Ditko deliberately introduced Norman and set him up to be the Green Goblin through his plotting as a way to checkmate Lee.

Somehow through the “game of telephones,” this rumor disseminated likely by readers who discussed or shared this with others who hadn’t perused the fanzines. It got twisted in the telling into its complete opposite. The remarkable thing is the total failure in comics scholarship, none of whom committed the basics of close reading or any kind of research. Nobody ever decided to trace the earliest mention of rumors pertaining to a dispute about the Green Goblin’s identity.

In fact, this source claiming that it was Stan Lee who objected to Norman being Green Goblin makes far more sense when you factor that it was during the Lee-Romita era that Norman was made far more sympathetic than Dikto had established and that he was downgraded to a supporting background character. Of course it’s true that eventually Lee had Norman relapse into Green Goblin during the drug trilogy so Lee eventually came around it seems but his first impression against Norman being the Goblin did have a lasting impact.

DITKO DOSSIER

Ditko, comical letter-art response to Roy Thomas in Alter-Ego#8.

The centerpiece of Ballmann’s book is four interviews that Ditko conducted in the 1960s, as well as letters and notes Ditko sent to various fanzines, all of which complicate our picture of Ditko immensely.

Far from the image we have of Ditko as a hermetic curmudgeon, Ditko in the 1960s was fully immersed in fandom. He would give interviews, respond to fanzines, fully admit to having read fanzines and provide letters for publication complete with personalized art (much of which is featured here for the first time). Some of this art is quite good such as Ditko’s reply to a 1965 Alter-Ego issue which is incredibly stylish. We also see Ditko write cursive, and his handwriting is very good and neat, which doesn’t mean much by itself but the elegant style of writing does jive against the image built up later on thanks to the All-Caps Missives he’s dispatched through Witzend. As Ballmann says in the introduction:

Prepare to see shattered the absolutely unfair characterization that Steve Ditko was an unfriendly, anti-social recluse. The 100% authentic primary documents reprinted in this book are testaments that provide insight into who Steve Ditko was. It is a fact, that in the 1960s, Steve Ditko created fan art and agreed to fan interviews because he wanted his fans to read about him and get to know him. He attended the first comic convention ever, the 1964 New York Comicon, where he sat and chatted with fans for hours; he responded to interviews and letters and allowed his fans to visit him at his studio and drew art for them. And he enjoyed reading all the fanzines of early fandom, whether he was in them or not. For whatever reason, by the late 1960s, he was much less involved in fandom, which is evidenced by the increasing lack of his art in fanzines towards the end of the decade.

J. Ballmann “Introduction” Page 7

The fanzine articles and letters and interviews bear it out and obviously the nature of this book isn’t a biography, i.e. inviting someone to fill the gap of personality but it’s certainly clear that the Steve Ditko of the 1960s at the time of him writing and drawing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange alongside work for Charlton (which overlapped with his Marvel work) was more open than the person that emerged later. There’s zero mention of Ayn Rand in any of the fanzine articles during his time at Marvel and Ditko’s prose in this time is quite different and more lucid than his clipped style that developed later, under the Rand influence.

House of Secrets #69, an issue specifically discussed by Ditko in his article on Mort Meskin.

Take his article to a fanzine discussing Mort Meskin, who Ditko cites as his favorite contemporary living artist:

The function of a comic artist is to TELL A STORY! He must get across an idea or point of the story and he should do it clearly so a reader knows what is going on and in this Meskin ranks very high…Sure there are comic artists who can draw automobiles that look like they could drive off the page, artists who use 500 lines to form an eyebrow and artists who draw every leaf on a tree or every rivet on a bridge. But if the story is not told properly, what good is a lot of detailed objects or fine lines? There is a vast difference between a comic artist who tells a story and a comic “Technician” who draws detailed items or objects.

“Why Steve Ditko Likes Mort Meskin’s Art”, From The Comic Reader #35 (March 1965)

The prose is clear and lucid, appreciative and open in a manner quite different from the clipped and cryptic fragments of his later prose. Ditko often slips into a mentor role in his interactions with fans, giving them insight into preparing to be an artist and the value of learning anatomy.

In terms of what the interactions reveal about Ditko as writer and creator of Spider-Man, there’s very little direct information. The mechanics of the Marvel Method are confirmed here such as when Stan Lee response to Jerry Bails:

“People have asked for original scripts — actually, we don’t even HAVE any. I write the story plot — go over it with Jack — he draws it up based on our hasty conferences — then, with his drawings in front of me, I write the captions and dialogue, usually right on the original art work!”

Stan Lee to Jerry Bails, from ”The Comic Reader” #16 (February 1963)

We see Lee conflate editorial work with writing collaboration in this missive, setting the stage for the cloud of fuzziness that defines the credit issue of the 1960s comics.

In terms of Ditko’s observations about Spider-Man, one interesting tidbit is a 1964 Interview, when he’s asked to name his favorite villain, he mentions Dr. Doom claiming “he can do almost anything” and among his characters he mentions, “I like Dr. Octopus very much, but he’s floundering. He hasn’t found himself yet” (Page 78). This is around the time Ditko would have set off working on the Green Goblin who ultimately became the dominant villain of the Lee-Ditko era despite his late arrival, and I can’t help but wonder that given Ditko’s appreciation for Kirby’s Doom, and the Kirby-esque touches of the Goblin, there might not have been a conscious attempt on Ditko’s part to make Goblin into his own Doom. Ditko’s judgment about Dr. Octopus lacking the needed spark to fully be a arch-nemesis is pretty insightful in terms of the character’s later trajectory.

The most interesting bit of insight is Ditko being open to stepping away from Spider-Man and handing it down to another artist-plotter:

When you are not able to do S-M any more, whose style would be best to take it over?

DITKO: There are a lot of who could handle it just as well or better. The only problem is fans of any super hero tend to panic when someone else touches it.

From Komik Heroes of the Future #6 (late 1964) Page 77.

Ditko is perhaps being joking and not entirely serious, what with the invocation of fan outrage but he also seems calm and accepting that others would follow and take over Spider-Man after him and is open about the possibility and not in the least bit proprietary over his most famous creation. This attitude certainly casts a lot of retroactive attempts to cite Ditko in jeopardy. Ditko neither expected nor intended for Spider-Man to be defined by his vision after he stepped away.

ENTER BERNIE BUBNIS

The centerpiece of this book is the first ever interview with Steve Ditko by Bernie Bubnis during his teenage years as a comics fan. Ballmann prints both the original fanzine interview and more crucially an up-to-date reminiscence published after Ditko’s death where Bubnis shares memories of several visits to Ditko’s studio during the 1960s. The entire Bubnis section covers some 17 pages, making it by far the largest single section of the entire book. Included in this section is a photograph of Ditko in October 2017, several months before his death, taken by Lucille Bubnis:

Steve Ditko in 2017, photo by Lucille Bubnis. Scanned from the book.

The contrast between the original interview in June 1964 and the reminiscence in 2018 really has a sense of history and passing of time, we see the fresh and idealistic vision of the artist in the early piece and in the reminiscence we find out all the stuff that could never be covered in the fanzines or known in the 1960s by anyone.

Taken together it’s by far the most detailed glimpse into Steve Ditko’s personality and the actual person that anyone has yet put together as of now. Bernie Bubnis does this in part by sharing an absolutely heartbreaking account of his abusive childhood with his father (who was a gangster). Seeing Ditko’s response to that reveals an absolutely compelling and believable example of someone processing and attempting to help people deal with tragedy in the real world.

In addition to that, we get a sketch of Ditko’s studio, which he shared with Eric Stanton, a noted fetish artist. Stanton was Ditko’s best friend during the 1960s and the fact that Spider-Man was created in the same studio as adult S&M kink art has long raised eyebrows and suspicions, especially with the confirmation from Bubnis that Stanton on occasion inked Spider-Man pages and Ditko likewise contributed to Stanton’s fetish art. Stanton and Ditko’s bromance likewise complicates this notion of Ditko as friendless and aloof, because the two of them were co-workers who got on great with Stanton being the extrovert comic and Ditko the straight man.

Most interestingly of all, we get hints of Ditko’s personal life we don’t get anywhere else. Bubnis records a memory during one of his visits to Ditko’s studio that he stumbled in on Stanton comforting Ditko after the latter got what seemed like a romantic rejection. Bubnis mentions that the young teenager version of him didn’t pry or ask but rather listened and observed Stanton first making light of Ditko’s woes and then calming him down and consoling him.

Florence “Flo” Steinberg 1939-2017

Bubnis then reveals something that’s been suspected for quite some time. Among fans and scholars of the ’60s Marvel era, there’s been rumor and gossip about the office culture, and one rumor that’s floated around is the idea that Steve Ditko harbored a crush on Flo Steinberg, Stan Lee’s secretary who was also the main liaison between Lee and the emergent Marvel fandom and the person of contact for artists submitting their pencilled pages. Bubnis confirms this rumor and also reveals that Ditko in fact asked Steinberg out on a date a couple of times and got rejected. Steinberg who’s interviewed by Bubnis, confirms this and also says that it was her policy to not date anyone she knew from work (Page 42-43). The older Bubnis asked Steinberg if she would have said yes had they not been co-workers, i.e. whether Steinberg felt the same way about Ditko, to which Steinberg elegantly replies that the answer would have been no regardless (Ibid).

ASM#07.

The idea of Ditko’s unrequited crush and the impact it might have had on him leaving Marvel is hinted by Bubnis but not elaborated. It also has interesting implications in terms of how we look at Spider-Man. Flo Steinberg has long been seen as the model for Betty Brant [1]. If that’s the case then the romance between Peter/Betty in ASM reads like an elaborate form of wish-fulfillment on Ditko’s part, in a manner that had it been known and made public during Ditko’s and Steinberg’s lifetime would undoubtedly cause them both major embarrassment. Both Steinberg and Ditko had passed away when Bubnis made this public in 2018. Where Steinberg rejected Ditko because of her refusal to date co-workers, Betty Brant dates the freelance photographer Peter and later Ned Leeds. The romantic love triangle of Liz Allan battling Betty for Peter’s affections, and later Gwen having a cool liking for Peter while Mary Jane is set up, feels like Ditko creating in Peter Parker a more confident and assertive version of himself, which also refutes the idea that Ditko in any way intended Peter to be any kind of realistic superhero. Spider-Man was envisioned as a person who could have outgrown the timidities and insecurities that Ditko was plagued with, he’s a wish-fulfillment character no less than Superman or Batman.

From ASM#25, the first issue on which Ditko had plotting credit, showing an attempt to move the books away from the Betty Brant romance

At the same time, the revelation also makes other bits of information we have elsewhere in a sketchy light. Ditko apparently made a case for killing Betty Brant to Stan Lee [2]. In Ditko’s pitch, Betty would have been killed in a domestic accident, i.e. falling down the stairs. But with the context of his rejection by Steinberg, one wonders if one should see it as an attempt at getting back at someone who rejected him. If so, then it’s good that Ditko kept this aspect private for most of his life, and it’s also good that Ditko allowed Lee to talk him out of it, being one of the few times that Ditko publicly admitted that Lee, as editor, had the right of it. Ditko agreed with Stan for his reasoning that it was too early in the book to do a story like that. Ditko chose to have Peter/Betty break up, have her move on while setting up Mary Jane Watson as Peter’s love interest in waiting in his final issue, allowing the character to evolve beyond any reflection of his life. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is when Ditko stepped down, and having entertained the idea of Spider-Man continuing beyond him before, he moved on for better and worse.

Ditko’s reasons for leaving Marvel are speculated upon by many, and while disputes with Stan Lee over pay definitely figured among them, a more personal reason might simply be not wanting to hand over stuff to Flo Steinberg and be reminded of her rejection each time he visited Marvel. It was Steinberg who Ditko handed his finished pages to and interacted with each time he visited there.

Of course, at this point I need to qualify. What we have is new and incomplete information, and we shouldn’t take this too far. It might be that Ditko got over it by the end and moved on, and it might be that there’s other secrets from his life that we still might get access to some day. Perhaps there were other relationships or other crushes, we can’t know for sure. Bubnis himself says that he’s not sure the person who Ditko and Stanton were discussing for dumping him was Steinberg, though that’s a reasonable guess. We can’t presume that this anecdote is the Rosebud that explains Citizen Ditko, anymore than Ayn Rand’s objectivism explained him at one point, any more than the supposed “Goblin rumor” or the “objecting to Peter graduating” rumor did.

It’s the one new bit of information that we have from this book, and the latest new secret tends to get treated (even by me) as the secret plot twist but life is not a plot, and the late-act revelations often don’t reveal or explain the earlier parts as much as we wish for them to. Ditko’s later turn to objectivism doesn’t explain away the person he was during the 1960s where he comes off in his writing and fan interactions as a more open, polite, compassionate person than the hectoring insistent ideologue of the pamphlets.

The fact is that with Ditko, there’s the perennial interest and mystery. The speculation about him will continue going forward and I fully admit to having participated in the process here.

CONCLUSION

Ballmann mentions in the book’s afterwords that this book doesn’t include all the fanzines of the 1960s that Ditko participated in. A lot of these old fanzines are decaying and forgotten, and the valuable primary sources they contain are either endangered or already extinct. There’s little IP or collective interest in preserving this stuff even if they are a vital supplement to the rise of comics culture in a point where it had not been corralled by corporations and marketing.

Still I recommend Ballmann’s book on Ditko. It gives a good insight into comics fandom of the 1960s, it introduces new information about Ditko with a more rounder version of his personality than any we have had before, and it significantly complicates our default understanding of Spider-Man as a character in continuity. That’s always a good thing.

SOURCES

Ballmann, J. Steve Ditko in the 1960s: in His Own Words, in His Interviews, in the Words of the Fans Who Knew Him. Middletown, Delaware:Totalmojo Productions, Inc. 2020. Print.

REFERENCES

  1. https://13thdimension.com/a-marvel-ous-tribute-to-fabulous-flo-steinberg/

  2. Blake Bell. Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko. Fantagraphic Books. 2008. Page 58.
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3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Steve Ditko in the 1960s” edited by J. Ballmann

  1. With the image comparing the two posthumously-released photos of Ditko, where does the more recent one on the right with the older Ditko come from? I had no idea he had even been photographed after the 1960s!

    The line about how “Stan Lee is more famous than Steve Ditko, but Steve Ditko attracts greater speculation” is also true with another big passion of mine: Beatles history, specifically the two most famous “Ex-Beatles”: More people know of Pete Best, but there’s more attention (as seen in films like Backbeat or comics like Babys in Black) brought to Stuart Sutcliffe and his complicated relationships with Astrid Kirchherr, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney.

    All the stuff about Flo, Ditko, and Lee really took me off-guard. I knew that Betty Brant was modelled on Flo, but Betty and Peter’s relationship being that autobiographical really does cast a lot of early Spider-Man history in a new light, for all the reasons you’ve discussed. And now I’m very curious to see how that upcoming family-approved biography will cover all this…

    I too hope fanzines get the documentation and coverage they deserve, this is all so important to preserve for giving us such a key insight into this very important era of superhero comic history.

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    1. Personally I am quite happy that Ditko kept that under wraps. Can you imagine the mail that would have gotten too Steinberg for “standing up Steve” that would have cropped up over the decades? Ditko’s fixation on privacy, especially given our age of social media, is looking more and more logical. Now we can look at it with nuance rather than how it would have been had it come out before. On one hand it does seem to confirm a certain idea of Ditko, that he was a shy social reject who couldn’t talk to girls, and that Spider-Man has “incel” subtext. but if you look at the story decisions made on the whole with Peter (i.e. a wish-fulfillment so that Peter would escape Ditko’s fate), and you look at Ditko’s conduct (i.e. refusing to go public about his life to avoid embarrassing Steinberg, and also himself), I think that safeguards the entire thing from that subtext.

      Regarding the second photo with the older Ditko, it’s from the 1980s or so. Yeah there are a lot of photos of Ditko from across his life as it turns out, it’s just that the people who had taken them had no desire to publish them (and it makes sense because outside of the tiny comics press, Steve Ditko was simply not any kind of “celebrity”). For instance that photo by Leslie Bubnis just months before his death above was something Ditko consented to. He did it because he trusted Bernie Bubnis and his wife. Ditko wasn’t reclusive if he liked you and you agreed to his unspoken rule i.e. none of this gets out until I’m dead.

      Mark Ditko talks of the upcoming family book on his Uncle here (https://comicbookhistorians.com/who-is-steve-ditko-with-mark-ditko-alex-grand/). I considered including this link because it sheds some other hints about Ditko’s romantic life but I decided to leave it because it’s fairly airy and I thought maybe it might show up in the biography if and when it comes out. Such as apparently there was a girl in Johnstown Pennsylvania that Steve liked and who liked him back but the long distance of him being in New York kept them away (maybe that’s the Mary Jane inspiration…i.e. the perfect girl who’s just a bit away from Peter…interesting that Defalco-Frenz later established MJ as a Pennsylvania transplant too). But again that’s still very airy and vague. There’s again a lot of stuff in Ditko’s life we simply don’t know and we can’t really know what his later life was like or reduce him entirely to the ’60s.

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