Okay, so Wonder Woman’s CGI can probably beat up Doctor Strange’s. Still, Strange’s spirited, Academy Award-nominated effects easily outshone Benedict Cumberbatch’s less-than-magical performance, still memorable six months after its release. And we should also remember that ILM and Strange‘s other effects studios owe an inspirational debt to Marvel’s dazzling Steve Ditko.
It was Ditko who first gave artistic form to the Sorcerer Supreme and his kaleidoscopic inter-dimensional universe—as well as the contrastingly earthbound, reality-based Spider-Man—well over a half-century ago.
Former DC Comics president Paul Levitz, who collaborated with Ditko during his DC years, maintains a high regard for this groundbreaking artist’s conceptual skills: “Steve’s Doctor Strange material demonstrated what was, at the time, an absolutely unique ability to visualize worlds that had no apparent laws of physics yet seemed to have internal consistency.”
More background on Ditko can be found in The Silver Age of Comic Book Art, in which author Arlen Schumer details Strange’s “wide-ranging influence on the proto-counterculture that was beginning to use LSD to open new doors of perception into fantasy worlds that were distinctively Ditko-like.”
While 1962’s Spidey and ’63’s Strange are Ditko’s most popular and enduring characters, his professional career lasted another 35 years. Today, at 89, he publishes his own, sketchily-rendered comics zines. And while an enormous amount of attention has been paid to his superhero years, with the notable exception of IDW books such as The Art of Ditko and The Creativity of Ditko, and Fantagraphics’s Ditko Archives series, little has been devoted to his formative era, which began in 1954 with a variety of horror, science-fiction, and crime comics. He worked with Mort Meskin at the Simon/Kirby studio, studied his contemporaries such as Will Eisner, Wally Wood, and Joe Kubert, and established his affiliation with Charlton and then Atlas, which went on to become Marvel.
Looking back, we see that he’d been conjuring up his hallucinatory images a full decade earlier than Dr. Strange, not to mention him being around 15 years ahead of Jim Steranko’s pseudo-psychedelic Dali riffs in his Nick Fury. And these images are all the more exceptional in their stunning transformations of traditional genre narratives—often hacked-out schlock—into startling, phantasmagoric apparitions.
With that in mind, here’s a journey back into Steve Ditko’s early, under-recognized, cosmic comic book wizardry.