Steve Ditko’s passing has elicited a great number of eulogies and retrospectives on the career of a tremendous cartoonist. However, there have been few individuals who knew or regularly interacted with Ditko in his later years able to comment on his life and works. Ditko was a reclusive artist focused on creating new work, even through his final months.
One rare exception to this was comics creator Michel Fiffe, best known for his work on series like COPRA and Zegas. He began a correspondence with Ditko via mail in the year 2000. They continued to write one another about a variety of topics as Fiffe has documented on his blog, and which we very much recommend reading.
ComicBook.com contributor Chase Magnett spoke with Fiffe in order to obtain a better understanding of Ditko’s later work, his life, and his legacy.
ComicBook: Steve Ditko was notoriously reclusive later in life. Would you share a little bit about how you first entered into correspondence with him and what your relationship entailed?
Michel Fiffe: As an aspiring cartoonist, hungry for information on the art and the business if comics, I struck up connections to several professional artists, all who I deeply admired. Steve Ditko was the one I kept in touch with the longest and with more regularity. I was buying all of his independent work at the time, and so I sent my initial letter to his publisher, Robin Snyder.
Your correspondence was a rare thing too. Ditko kept public offices, but did not interact with the public and regularly turned down visitors. As someone he chose to stay in touch with, what do you think he was most interested in when choosing to interact with others?
Obviously, he didn't tolerate nonsense, and I imagine his patience kept thinning out over the decades due to people habitually getting in his face with unsolicited attention. He never bothered anyone, everyone bothered him. He was willing to lend an ear within reason, but you had to make the effort, you had to actually have something to say and then have the follow-through to say it.
You were someone he must have felt had something to say. In your discourse, what were the topics and ideas that seemed to ignite his passion and interest the most?
He gave it his all no matter what the topic, so it's difficult to ascertain if he had favorites. It could be anything from the artistic merit in depraved material to the drawbacks of relying on Zip-a-tone.
There is a lot of attention on Ditko's earliest work. As someone familiar with both his comics and his personality, how would you characterize Ditko as an artist in his later years?
His was a natural progression of breaking down words and pictures into their most economical and immediate states. He increasingly became interested in getting to the root of an idea and expressing them via symbols, not dressing them up at all. You can see this throughout his career. People just want Spider-Man rooftops or Dr. Strange magic, but he was so much more than that. He outgrew his audience's tastes and expectations.
His work also became more difficult to find in his later years, something that had to be sought out. Fantagraphics is preparing a collection of his Witzend work later this year, but is there anything you would recommend to fans looking to better understand Ditko’s work outside of the superhero genre and later in his career?
Fantagraphics has already put out six beautiful collections of his early work, mostly horror and sci-fi material, and those are always fun to look at and study. For his newer works, that is to say, the stuff from the past 20 years, I would reach out to Robin Snyder over at Kickstarter and inquire about what's in stock. I believe the single issues are mostly in stock and would be well worth anyone's time to see a true artist take it as far as he did.
You and Ditko specifically corresponded a great deal on art and politics, and he was a person with a very specific philosophy of the individual and society. How would you define his perspective on the role of art and artist in society? And did his outlook impact your own?
I read The Fountainhead in high school on a friend's recommendation. A perfect book for the stubborn, angry young man. I was later surprised and thrilled to discover that Steve Ditko was also into Ayn Rand, so I felt a kinship right there. The shine soon came off once I read Atlas Shrugged, though. I felt at odds with it on several levels. I didn't like being told what to do, which is how those books end up reading like. It was cult-ish. That didn't deter my appreciation on Steve Ditko's take on those ideas. I do find it odd that Objectivists are all about an individual staying true to their individual voice, yet they march lockstep to somebody else's voice. Steve Ditko at least carved out his own version of that philosophy, principles over greed, but it was his actions that spoke louder than anything. He lived by his code.
Over the past couple of decades there was a trend of playing up the most eccentric aspects of Ditko’s life, on social media and even in a TV movie. What do you think is essential for a more nuanced understanding of his life and principles, and do you have any expectations that will occur?
Nuanced understanding? Some common decency, for starters. But that's asking too much from the entitled and the exploitative. You either treat a person with respect or you don't. Pretty f***ing simple.
Ditko remained a very traditional creator in both his choice of media and distribution until the end of his career. Do you have any insight into how he felt about relatively recent changes in comics like the digital marketplace?
I recall asking him about digital comics ages ago but he wasn't particularly interested in it. That's as far as we got in discussing new platforms. Having his latest output come through Kickstarter campaigns was interesting. That was spearheaded by Robin Snyder, who would know more than me as to how he felt about it. I was just glad he was still making comics.
There are a lot of attempts to eulogize Ditko at the moment, to find some essential takeaways from 90 years of life and comics. What ideas do you find yourself ruminating on now?2comments
It's very unsettling for me to see Steve Ditko be a part of the celebrity grief cycle that runs its course almost immediately. That sort of stuff doesn't normally irritate me, but the posturing and the bromides were a bit much. Steve Ditko was a giant, an artist who stuck to his guns in a world that didn't get it. It still doesn't. But he lived on his own terms. He was a human being and now he's gone.
I keep thinking about his way of communicating. His essays, his art, his career moves. I keep thinking about what Steve Ditko was trying to say this entire time. I've no crisp, neat answer to summarize with, all I can do is move forward, inspired by his titanic efforts.