Friday, December 20, 2013

Steve Ditko's strange world of Doctor Strange

Steve Ditko has achieved legendary status in the world of comics with his co-creation of Spider-Man with writer/editor Stan Lee but, in my opinion his greatest work was not the web slinger but rather Ditko/Lee's other less famous character Doctor Strange.
Ditko's plash page from Strange Tales #132, May 1964 conveys a striking sense of design.

Spider-Man was a huge success for Marvel thanks in no small part to Steve Ditko. His depiction of wiry teen age Peter Parker epitomizes the character. Stan Lee actually chose Ditko over Jack 'King' Kirby because he felt that Kirby's work was too masculine and he wouldn't have been able to convey the youth of Parker as well as Ditko.
Spider-Man #29 Oct 1965

Doctor Strange, the master of the mystic arts, originally appeared in Strange Tales #110, July 1963, as a co-feature with ol' flame head, the Human Torch. He would later be replaced by the James Bond like super spy, Nick Fury, agent of S.H.E.I.L.D.
Strange Tales #132, May 1964.

In Doctor Strange, Ditko pulls out all the stops on atmosphere. For the physical world he creates this rich noir-ish atmosphere of shadowy city streets wet with rain. As Stephan Strange navigates through these streets you can imagine extradimensional creatures hiding behind cars or malevolent mages lurking in the dark doorways or adjacent streets.

Ditko has a facility for design. Not only are his panels well designed but his costumes have a beautifully playful quality about them. All the crazy magicians wear wonderfully imaginative costumes with Celtic-like twisting motifs.

His depiction of magic is equally well designed with it’s twisting tendrils of energy sliding out in all directions.  
Stan Lee helps greatly with the atmosphere by creating believable wizard Speak with such catchy phrases as “the Crimson bands of  Cyttorak” or “The Hoary Hosts of Hogarth”.

Then you have Ditko’s alien dimensions with their surrealistic floating lips and patches of web-like protoplasm. He would have given even Salvador Dali a run for his money. 
Many people have been surprised to learn that Ditko was able to create such trippy alternate dimensions without the use of hallucinogens.

When Doctor Strange is engaged in combat, you really feel the palpable threat of Baron Mordo bearing down on him. Ditko depicts it in a wonderfully powerful image where you can almost hear Strange gasping in exertion and smell the sweat bead up on his forehead.

Lee/Ditko’s Doctor Strange is definitely one of my all time favorite comics. There just seems to be something timeless about it, like it contains some kind of untapped potential or mystery, and that if I just studied it long enough, it would open up new worlds to me and reveal it’s secrets. It’s been a rewarding study so far but I haven’t finished yet.


  1. This article is fantastic, Piperson. I've referred back to it four times now---well done. The comments between the various pages is the best way to present detailed critiques of art and story. Dr. Strange and Spider-Man were career highs for Steve Ditko. At no other time did he draw comics that ran three or four consecutive years and thereby assembled a large body of concentrated work in a short amount of time. Ditko really 'grew into' the artwork of Strange and Spidey and, after a year or two of working on each, achieved an extraordinary grandiloquent character comfort zone. Ditko reached a plateau so high he never equaled it again in anything else he ever did. Remember how weak his art in the last issues of Doc Strange and Spidey is? That's how Ditko drew for the rest of his life. The passion was suddenly all gone. A pity.

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  2. Nice to bring this article back around at this time. Steve Ditko, RIP (1928-2018)

  3. Interesting how very different Ditko's Spider-Man and Dr. Strange are, Marvel's youngest and eldest characters to star in their own series, one with a heavy backdrop of sci-fi, the other supernatural elements. The youngster Peter Parker is still very much on a learning curve, often unsure of himself, distrusted by the public and really having no one to share his secrets and troubles with. The elder Stephen Strange mostly very assured in his powers, although initially still heavily reliant on his teacher, highly respected by those who do know of him and his capacities, his identity not a secret at all. Still, both Dr. Strange and Spider-Man, under Ditko, are on learning curves, improving themselves, overcoming intense obstacles and threats to their elderly loved ones. Towards the end of his runs, Ditko delivered incredible epics for both series, but then clearly lost interest but kept going for several more issues before departing, with most major sub-plot elements tied up, aside from the identity of the Green Goblin and Dr. Strange's budding romance with Clea. On the former, I feel pretty certain that Ditko did intend that Norman Osborne was the Green Goblin so I don't buy the notion that his leaving had anything to do with disagreeing with Lee about that. At any rate, seems Ditko had told the major stories he wanted to tell with both characters and was content to leave them to the mercies of other creators.

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