Recently, the great comic legend Steve Ditko passed. His art inspired modern comics and continues to be referenced within comics, movies, TV and other mediums. For many people, Ditko created what was special about Spider-Man and other famous characters, Ditko made the ordinary extraordinary. For me, his art spoke in a special way.
Ditko is most famous for his ability to convey feelings through his art and particularly in the faces he drew. He was never afraid to make a character look ugly for the sake of a story. He was a master at conveying the anguish and pain his character’s felt.
Comics have always been an escape for people, but Ditko always grounded it in reality. He pioneered that with his work on Doctor Strange. Created in 1963, Doctor Strange’s comic features dark dimensions created from the deep depths of Ditko’s own mind. The art style was classic Ditko but played heavily into the Atompunk aesthetic of the time. Atompunk, also known as Raygun Gothic, relates to the art created in the period between 1945 and1965. This style includes influences from mid-century Modernism, the Atomic Age, Jet Age, Space Age, and the exaggerated paranoia in the United States around the Cold War.
In addition, Ditko was the master of drawing ugly, sinister, and contorted faces. He was not afraid to make a comic gritty through his art. His work on Doctor Strange particularly touched me. In his origin, Strange was a brilliant but egotistical surgeon who severely damages his hands in an accident, which hinders his ability to perform surgery following a car accident. He searches the globe for a way to repair them and stumbles upon the Ancient One and the Mystic Arts.
His story is relatable. He is a disabled person so desperate and unable to come to grips with his new reality that he will turn to almost anything to find an answer and closure. In a way, Ditko’s art on Doctor Strange is a love letter to chronic pain.
In 2017, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia—finally. Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, and memory and mood issues. At that point, I had been having symptoms for almost two years. It was destroying my ability to function and work like a normal human being.
Fibromyalgia pain is almost impossible to describe. It is pulsing and sharp. It feels like flares within my body. The best way I can describe it is that it probably looks like the colorful, gritty, psychedelic fever dreams within Doctor Strange. Art is always what we make it, so whether Ditko intended for the art in Doctor Strange to resemble nerve endings in the body will probably never be known. Remember, though, that in the MCU adaptation of Doctor Strange, he specifically mentioned multiple times that the car accident caused severe nerve damage.
However, it doesn’t much matter if Ditko never consciously meant to draw the parallels between nerve endings in pain and mystic dimensions in his art. I see them in my own way because of my experiences.
In his most memorable panels, Strange is drawn surrounded by an unknown world of what appear to be nerve endings drawn in an Atompunk style. There is poetry in a story about a small, normal man finding new life because of his disability. Life goes on, and Strange refuses to be left behind.
In a similar vein, when I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s in 2016 I had to quit my job. I had to find a new dream because mine was no longer applicable. The best way to describe my day is waking up and navigating through unknown pain much like Strange bravely navigated unknown and dark dimensions.
Steve Ditko was a very private person who in the later years of his life refused to speak to biographers, comic historians, or fans. Despite this, his art speaks for him and provides comfort to many comic fans through his ability to show human emotion and helplessness in fantastical worlds far away from our own.