In the fifty year history of Spider-Man, there have been more than a few questions left unanswered. Just how old is Billy Connors supposed to be at any given time? Exactly who is F.A.C.A.D.E., anyway? But perhaps the greatest unsolved mystery in Spider-Man’s history is the real-world departure of Steve Ditko. Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man with Stan Lee and served as artist and co-plotter for until he abruptly left the title and Marvel itself in 1966.
So why did Ditko leave? It’s a question that fans and pop culture historians have been puzzling over for half a century now. As the story goes, the artist simply came into the Marvel offices one day, handed in his completed assignments, and announced his resignation.
Stan Lee recently spoke on the subject during a panel at the Wizard World Nashville convention, as covered by my friend and colleague Tony Schaab. You can find Lee’s full remarks in Tony’s article, but in short, his version of events is that it was sparked by a dispute over how to handle the reveal of the Green Goblin’s identity, a mystery which had been building for two years at this point. According to Lee, he wanted to reveal the Goblin as the father of Harry Osborn, who had recently been introduced as one of Peter Parker’s college classmates. Ditko, on the other hand, wanted the Goblin to be… just some guy, reasoning that in real life sometimes the villain is a nobody that you’ve never heard of before. To quote Stan, “Since I was the editor, we did it my way.” Thus, Ditko is generally considered to have resigned in protest.
If you’re a Spider-Man fan, that story probably sounds familiar. After all, it represents the conventional wisdom on the subject. At the very least, it’s the closest thing to an explanation that fans have ever had, and it certainly fits with what comics fans know of Ditko, who has a reputation for being remarkably uncompromising where creative matters are concerned.
But of course, things are never that simple.
Steve Ditko is legendarily evasive when it comes to publicity. Described variously as intensely private or even reclusive, Ditko prefers to avoid public appearances or statements and never grants interviews. However, over the years he has at times made allusions to his departure from Marvel, both in his recent comics and in essays published in fanzines. While Ditko’s writing can often be impenetrable to those who aren’t accustomed to his… unique style, he seems to chalk his departure up to a souring of his relationship with Lee. At least, to whatever limited extent he’s willing to publicly acknowledge.
Indeed, as one might expect of Ditko, he has studiously avoided going into any particular detail. However, he has over the years made claims that directly contradict Lee’s version of events. Specifically, Ditko has asserted that not only was the Osborn reveal his idea, but that he introduced a character (seen below) who was intended to be Norman Osborn in scenes set in J. Jonah Jameson’s businessmen’s club, beginning in ‘Amazing Spider-Man #23’.
That character returned in a number of subsequent issues, including the two-issue Crime Master storyline, which ran through issues twenty-six and twenty-seven:
Now compare that fellow to Norman Osborn, as drawn by Ditko himself for his official first appearance in ‘Amazing Spider-Man #37’, and note that Harry Osborn (also pictured) had first appeared six issues earlier, placing his introduction at a midpoint between the Crime Master story and his father’s debut:
Norman Osborn also appeared the following month in ‘Amazing Spider-Man #38’, which would ultimately be Ditko’s final issue. Whether or not you believe that Ditko intended Osborn to be the Goblin, both of these early appearances make it explicit that he is anything but a model citizen. In either case, Osborn would be revealed as the Green Goblin in ‘Amazing Spider-Man #39’, the very next issue, and the first to be penciled by John Romita.
On top of all of that, but it’s also worth pointing out that the reveal of a villain as “just some guy” had already been done for the conclusion of the Crime Master story in ‘Amazing Spider-Man #27’. Further, each of Osborn’s pre-‘Amazing Spider-Man #37’ cameos took place in stories that featured the Green Goblin. That includes both the Crime Master arc and the original cameo in ‘Amazing Spider-Man #23’, which featured a story titled ‘The Goblin and the Gangsters’.
Coincidence? It’s certainly possible. Osborn could well have been intended to simply be a shady businessman, after all. It would certainly fit with Ditko’s interest in street-level, noir-style stories. But there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to support Ditko’s claim that he intended for Osborn to be revealed as the Goblin. And while it’s certainly possible that the split involved a creative dispute (Goblin-related or otherwise), I very much doubt that’s the whole story. It is fairly well known in Spider-fandom that Lee and Ditko were not on speaking terms with one another for roughly the last year or of their collaboration. So whichever straw it was that finally broke the camel’s back, it was clearly a long time coming.
Though if one does want to look for creative differences between Lee and Ditko, this period, in which Ditko had a much greater influence over the plot and tone of the book, may hold the key. Throughout the latter portion of the Lee/Ditko run, the tone of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ grew increasingly angry and hostile, with Peter Parker alienating himself from everyone around him. It’s an anger that you’ll instantly recognize if you’ve ever read any of Ditko’s creator owned work, such as ‘Mr. A’. It’s a noticeable shift from earlier issues, and to be blunt, it frequently made the book an unpleasant thing to read. Likewise, it’s not an accident that Romita’s first issue is basically an apology tour, which depicts the Green Goblin scheming while Peter Parker visits each member of his supporting cast one by one to kiss and make up.
More than likely though, the differences that dissolved the partnership were as much personal as creative. Indeed, based on what is publicly known of the two men, it is perhaps not so surprising that the relationship eventually deteriorated. Lee’s is a bombastic personality that has never shied away from the spotlight, while Ditko is anything but. Lee’s politics generally lean liberal while Ditko is an ardent follower of Objectivism, a brand of conservative philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand. Variety may be the spice of life, but sometimes personal differences simply prove insurmountable.
After all, even the Beatles had to split up eventually.