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Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko / Jack Kirby : King of Comics
© Jay Willson
November 03, 2008

Following a love for drawing or writing, and the ever-so-slight chance for fame or success, the comics industry has attracted a wide-variety of creative types to their pages. Even with the never-ending deadlines and back-breaking schedules, some artists are very successful working in comics, while others found the work challenges impossible to overcome.

The production of comics has tended to be a young man’s game; one that steals the magic from the creator gradually over time, leaving them eventually burned out and with little left to give.

Artist Steve Ditko started out successfully as a creator known for producing comics that contained imagination and good storytelling techniques. He also had the ability to effectively make a deadline; a staple of any good comics artist. What made Ditko different, however, was his devotion to an ideal that he would only fulfill once the industry abandoned him completely.

Jack Kirby, on the other hand, is perhaps the most recognized creator in comic book artist history, an artist that worked successfully at drawing comics for over 50 years.

The careers of these men are analyzed in detail with the release of two major works of comics writing, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby: King of Comics.

The World of Steve Ditko

The Ditko book, published by Fantagraphics, is a hardcover collection full of Ditko’s often-amazing artwork, accompanied by a full examination of Ditko’s career by writer Blake Bell. The book tracks the enigmatic man through his rise and fall in the comics industry, beginning with his early days at Timely Comics. Inspired by the work of artist Mort Meskin, Ditko’s early comics artwork was masterful, and this book does an excellent job of presenting that to the reader.

Through layouts by designer Adam Grano, Ditko’s imaginative artwork is lavishly displayed in color and black and white detail throughout. Of particular note is the use of actual comics art pages, photographed to display their pencil lines, washes and whiteout, all staples of a well-used page of comics art. This is a beautiful book to flip through, displaying Ditko’s imagination and creativity in the early part of his career, as well as the gradual decline of his work in the years that followed.

The man behind the name Steve Ditko is in many ways more interesting than his artwork. Ditko could be considered the true creator of Spider-Man, and this book presents a fairly strong argument for that. Early in his career, Ditko became obsessed with the writings of Ayn Rand, and injected her concepts into almost every project that he worked on following that point of revelation.

His desire to follow Rand’s ideals haunted Ditko’s work for the majority of his career, often making him a difficult creator for publishers to hire. He insisted that the stories that he drew meet with his skewed political realities, and when he was successful in getting the chance to write his own work, publishers insisted on rewrites of story and dialogue, usually to remove the Rand-ian concepts.

Ditko began to unravel as a creator, obsessing about issues like presenting the police as the ultimate force of law (he insisted that the police should always catch the crooks, for instance, not superheroes), championing individual rights over the collective, and other ideals that didn’t always fit into stories of fantasy.

This desire for control led Ditko to find publishers that would allow him more freedom, so a good majority of his artwork was produced for Charlton Comics, a company that paid him poorly, but never really cared what he drew on his pages.

Once Charlton closed its doors, however, Ditko was only able to get layout work from Marvel Comics, which was primarily granted because Editor Jim Shooter felt that Ditko’s reputation would help Marvel to move back towards a simpler, clearer method of storytelling. Unfortunately, it also reduced Ditko’s contribution to simple layouts that were overwhelmed by inkers that basically drew over Ditko’s sketchy images.

Today, Ditko is semi-retired, but still publishes his stories through Ditko.Comics.Org. The material there shows a further decline in skill, combined with essays and storylines that even his most ardent fans would find challenging. He no longer seems to care about exciting an audience, for he is too consumed with his relentless passion for his political views.

Jack Kirby: King of Comics

The Kirby book, on the other hand, defines an artistic career that is composed fully of the joy of creation. Kirby began his career earlier than Ditko, but quickly became known for his creative vision and productivity. Working with partner Joe Simon, Kirby became an artist known for dynamic work, one that was respected by his peers. He moved from company to company on his name alone, and after years of success, became a huge factor in the creation of the Marvel comics that we know of today.

While Ditko looked to Mort Meskin for creative vision, many artists throughout the history of comics used Kirby’s work as their guide. Kirby loved to draw, and that love never left him, even when he was no longer able to physically move the pencil.

Written by longtime Kirby friend and comics writer Mark Evanier, King of Comics displays Kirby’s unique artwork in a panoramic and eye-popping manner. Kirby’s work jumps off the pages, with explosive panels of comics greatness. Like the Ditko book, the layouts are strong and complimentary to the artwork. Evanier knows his subject very well, having spent many years as Jack's assistant, which adds a human quality that is missing from the Ditko book; a personal connection to the subject.

Kirby was no less interesting than Ditko, but his life lacked the tragic nature of Ditko’s career. The artwork of Jack Kirby continues to be celebrated today at conventions and through the publication of the magazine The Jack Kirby Collector.
Reading King of Comics clarifies that Kirby is single-handedly responsible for a creating and developing a large part of the comics industry that we know of today. Most of the successful Marvel characters were either designed by Kirby or drawn by him at one time or another. At DC, Kirby creations The New Gods are used again and again, including their company-wide mini-series, Final Crisis, featuring most of Kirby’s creations. Kirby’s general methodology for creating characters and drawing comic books has moved comics forward for 45 years.

Both books are worth the investment, for both their historical impact on the formation of the comics industry, as well as for their examination of two remarkable artists.

This man... this comics editor Jay Willson surfs the soaring spaceways.

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