Comic book fans are in mourning tonight over the news that legendary artist Steve Ditko was discovered dead in his apartment on June 29th. To the majority he’s known for a variety of creations and co-creations to his name — not just Spider-Man, but Dr. Strange, Squirrel Girl, DC’s the Question, the Creeper, and a long list of lesser-known quirky, oddly dressed champions of justice.
If anyone asks what the quintessential Ditko comic is, the correct answer is Amazing Spider-Man #33, an unconventional story then and now. Our Hero spends nearly the entire issue trapped under several tons of wreckage, unable to free himself easily, despondent that this may be his last hurrah, but slowly, surely, convincing himself he can find some way to save the day.
When I heard of Ditko’s passing, Spidey #33 wasn’t the first comic that popped into my head. As my brain is wont to do, it went obscure and reached farther back in time to a comic I hadn’t thought about in years.
I’ve been a regular collector at least since December 1978, when I officially got hooked on comics for life and convinced my mom to let me pick up a few each week with our groceries. We weren’t rich, but back then they weren’t expensive. A handful of funnybooks at thirty-five cents apiece didn’t dent her budget too much. Sometime within the following year or so, I have a vague memory of being gifted by persons unknown with a stack of comics they didn’t want. I forget nearly all but two, reprints of Charlton Comics’ 1974 series E-Man, who was basically a yellow-and-orange Plastic Man made of energy instead of rubber. Whimsical super-heroics, good times.
Each issue had a backup story starring other heroes. One in particular struck me in a weird way like no other comic had before: a strange tale of a silent hero named Killjoy, tasked to fight criminals who argued that their illegal acts should be permissible for the most nonsensical of reasons. It was probably one of my earliest experiences with the concepts of true political satire and moral relativism, though it would be years before I recognized either for what they were.
It would be not quite as many years before I recognized the stylings of the writer/artist who didn’t sign his work. Once I realized around age 9 or 10 that all comics have writers and artists (believe it or not!), I began keeping tracking of them and learning to recognize their individual styles. Once I began seeing Ditko’s work regularly via the Marvel Tales series, which in the mid-’80s reprinted his thirty-eight issues of Amazing Spider-Man and the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual, it took only an issue or two before his inimitable facial expressions and distinctive portrayals of super-acrobatics. A few years after that, I began cataloging my entire collection on index cards, came back around to the E-Man issues, and realized Killjoy was 100% undiluted Steve Ditko. I’d had some of his work in my stacks a lot longer than I thought.
Spider-Man was a huge part of my comics reading experience all through childhood, but I think that one bizarre Killjoy tale affected me at an impressionable age on multiple levels. It’s hard to explain and I don’t have time to psychoanalyze myself at length, which is just as well because that isn’t the point of this entry. Posted below is that eight-page Killjoy story from E-Man #4 — written, drawn, and lettered by Ditko circa 1974 when he was 46 (my age today), which should give you far deeper insight into what Ditko stood for than all the Spider-Man products in stores today. If you’re alarmed at any elements in this tale that remind you of 21st century American life, don’t blame me.
I’ve photographed rather than scanned the pages because I savor the visual sensation of aging paper, and because sometimes our scanner is cruel to colorful documents. Enjoy! Or make harsh faces and shake your fist at it in annoyance. I suspect Ditko would’ve been more satisfied with that reaction.