Who Drew the Original Spider-Man? The Debate

The week before last, I posted a link to Morten Søndergård’s article on the first Spider-Man stories and Jack Kirby’s possible involvement in them on the Comics Journal messageboard. This sparked an interesting debate about the validity of Morten’s hypothesis, involving some of the foremost specialists on Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and early Marvel. I figured I would save the best of it for posterity here.

After my initial post of the link, Steve Ditko specialist, and author of a yet unpublished, eagerly anticipated monograph on the artist, Blake Bell answered:

Blake Bell Post Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2007 5:50 pm Post subject: Re: Who Drew the Original Spider-Man
Hi Matthias. All the evidence points to solo Ditko. In fact, Kirby’s version of Spider-Man was rejected by Lee, plus Ditko has said in his essays on Spider-Man that he, and he alone, worked from Lee’s synopses on the first issues.

Stan brought back Kirby and Ditko to Marvel in 1958 because he knew they didn’t need any help at all laying out work; hence, the Marvel Method of getting the artist to do 90% of the work for his regular pay rate, whilst Stan ran the burgeoning business after the superheroes debuted, and then was able to just script.

The notion of Kirby doing layouts for other artists was a little farther along into the 1960s, and Stan did this for artists who were struggling/new to what Ditko and Kirby were able to grasp from the get-go – dynamic superhero action.

If the original issues of Spider-Man by Ditko “don’t look like Ditko,” well, that’s because most people view the later Spider-Man material as “their Ditko,” in terms of what he looked like for them, and doesn’t take into account Ditko changing his style to reflect his heroes more as the Randian notion of the “romantic male lead,” which came through in the polish that Parker and Dr. Strange have in their latter issues.

Plus, don’t forget that Kirby had PLENTY of other work to do, instead of having to lay out material for a veteran like Ditko, and Ditko himself was doing a great deal of work when he started Spider-Man (IIRC, almost 600 pages of pencils and inks in 1961!), so for Ditko to look comparatively “rough” in the early going may just be him producing a great deal of work too.

Matthias Wivel Post Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2007 7:11 pm Post subject: Re: Who Drew the Original Spider-Man
“All the evidence points to solo Ditko. In fact, Kirby’s version of Spider-Man was rejected by Lee, plus Ditko has said in his essays on Spider-Man that he, and he alone, worked from Lee’s synopses on the first issues.”

Right. My inclination has also been to believe that it’s all pure Ditko, but I think Morten has a point, at least when you look at the page from Amazing Fantasy #15 reproduced in the article. Several of the postures there look like they could have been initially drawn by Kirby.

I don’t think Morten is in any way suggesting that Ditko needed help on the strip (he obviously didn’t), but isn’t it be possible that, for the reasons expediency that you mention, he would have taken whatever material had been left over from Kirby’s initial version that was useful – material which could have included some rough storytelling breakdowns – and just drawn over it? (And ditto for Amazing Spider-Man #1).

Doesn’t seem entirely inconceivable to me, and there is at least some stylistic pointers that it could be the case, I think.

Artist and musician Ashley Holt then responded:

Ashley Holt Post Posted: Fri Oct 12, 2007 7:18 am Post subject:
If Ditko’s account is accurate, and I believe it is, the pages that Kirby drew for his initial version of “Spider-man” were completely different in character design and plot. The concept was so different there’s no reason to believe that Kirby’s work wound up in the final product in any way.

Not to mention that nothing whatsoever about those pages resembles Kirby art. I’m flipping through the stories right now – they’re 100% Ditko.

Matthias Wivel Post Posted: Fri Oct 12, 2007 12:14 pm Post subject: Questions of style
I would tend to agree, it doesn’t look Kirbyesque (a good comparison is the revised version of the story from Spider-Man #1 where Spider-Man meets the Fantastic Four, in FF Annual #1, where Kirby does Ditko and their stylistic differences become very obvious).

However, there’s a certain stiffness to the characters in that first story, especially on some of the pages, like the one referenced (esp. panels 1 & 5), which seems perhaps a little uncharacteristic of Ditko. Besides the panel breakdowns, I think this is what Morten’s seeing. I have emailed him to get his opinion.

I then wrote Morten, who sent me a response by email, which I translated and posted to the message board:

Matthias Wivel Post Posted: Sat Oct 13, 2007 5:12 am Post subject: Morten Søndergård comments
Here’s what Morten writes:

It is not my intention to make this a Kirby v. Ditko discussion. To me they are equals amongst giants, but I guess I can see how this could be taken as subversive of Ditko’s claims to being the co-creator of Spider-Man. Not to me, but perhaps to others.

More than anything else, my theory originates with pages 9 and 12 of Amazing Spider-Man #1… Ditko would never have drawn so badly, even if he had been paid to do so. And the story itself, which involves a space flight (at the time when the Gemini Project was running) is more Kirby than Ditko.

The time around when Amazing Fantasy #15 was produced was a busy one for Marvel. In the same month they published the first Thor (Journey into Mystery #83) by Kirby and four weeks later the first (costumed) Ant Man, not to mentioned “The Man in the Beehive” in Tales of Suspense [...] in addition to Hulk and Fantastic Four, and the Strange Tales issue with the first Human Torch solo story. I don’t think Kirby has ever been this busy, before or since.

What I’m trying to say is that things were extremely hectic and Kirby was the dominant workhorse. Stan, or whoever is was, got Ditko to ink/finish Hulk #2, and shortly thereafter they published Amazing Fantasy #15, so this was obviously a period when Ditko was available to do extra work. It doesn’t seem to me, then, too inconceivable that Stan would have thought, ‘why not get Ditko to finish this unimportant Spider-Man story and have Kirby concentrate on something else?’ Stan knew that issue 15 of Amazing Fantasy would be the last, and who at that time could have known that Spider-Man would become the multi-billion dollar franchise he did?

I also think Stan worked much more effortlessly with Kirby than with Ditko, who was by all accounts not the easiest collaborator. Ditko and the Sixties did not seem all that compatible.

It would be interesting to know whether Marvel still has the old accounts books, which would be a help in determining who did what, and when… unlikely.

Ashley Holt Post Posted: Sat Oct 13, 2007 8:15 am Post subject: Re: Morten Søndergård comments
“Here’s what Morten writes:

More than anything else, my theory originates with pages 9 and 12 of Amazing Spider-Man #1… Ditko would never have drawn so badly, even if he had been paid to do so.”

Ridiculous. They’re certainly not the best pages Ditko ever drew, but they’re clearly Ditko. And even if you feel that someone other than Ditko had a hand in the art, the fact that you see any evidence of Kirby in the pages throws your theory out the window. There’s no sign of Jack anywhere in that work. They’re not his figures, not his faces, not his composition.

And might I add, having viewed a wide variety of Ditko’s work over his long career, that he’s drawn badly and been paid to do so hundreds of times.

Then artist Richard Gagnon joined in:

Richard Gagnon Post Posted: Sat Oct 13, 2007 10:01 am Post subject: Reviewing the BBC Ditko Documentary
“so this was obviously a period when Ditko was available to do extra work.”

That’s only plausible if you completely ignore Ditko’s other account, Charlton. And you shouldn’t. ;)

Matthias Wivel Post Posted: Mon Oct 15, 2007 5:03 am Post subject: More on the Kirby/Ditko Spider-Man theory
Well, Morten’s reasoning is clearly that if Ditko was available to finish Hulk #2 and shortly after do the Spider-Man story, he must have had extra time on his hands.

I’ve heard back from Morten, who’s not a great messageboarder, again:

Lee (as well as other sources) says that Kirby initially worked on a Spider-Man strip. Which is also the most logical at that point in Marvel’s history: Lee and Kirby worked out the concept and plot, Kirby drew the story (just as he did with Hulk, “Thor” and “Ant-Man”), but every once in a while he would only have time to do breakdowns, as is for example the case with Daredevil and “Iron Man.”

(There is, of course, also the ancillary story about Joe Simon and his character the Silver Spider/The Fly, but let’s not get into that.

At some point Lee must have asked Kirby to do a Spider-Man book, but only in breakdowns (as he did with Daredevil and “Iron Man”). This version of Spider-Man is kind of like the old Ur-Hamlet by Thomas Kyd – it lives in the shadow of what came later, and no one knows how far Kirby took it, and much it had to do with what eventually became Spider-Man. Knowing Kirby, it would probably have been a day or two’s work, perhaps even less, and he might have forgotten everything about it.

I think Kirby and Lee dropped the project, or perhaps Lee realized that it needed another artist… that’s what he wrote in the preface to Origins of Marvel Comics from 1970, but as I’ve said, we should be careful to trust what anyone says about this — Lee has a notoriously bad memory and Ditko has said very little [Morten has also read Ditko's account of Kirby's Spider-Man]. To me, the only reliable evidence are the comics themselves. That Kirby was involved however sounds plausible to me — it corresponds with their general modus operandi.

Lee was apparently crazy about insect-themed heroes; Ant-man, Wasp (and Bee-man, who didn’t survive), as well as, of course, Spider-Man (of, course, Spiders are not insects, but let’s not get into that). He eyed his chance to save some time and money on this filler story for the last issue of Amazing Fantasy. Why put a lot of effort into a comic that was going to be cancelled?

Ditko was given Kirby’s material (perhaps along with some notes by Lee) and does his version of Spider-Man… I’m convinced that Uncle Ben, Aunt May and the whole story of Peter’s guilt comes from Ditko. Ur-versions of Ben and May appear in some earlier issue of Strange Tales (can’t remember which one off the cuff). Ditko takes the pages that work for his purposes and leaves the rest. Amazing Fantasy #15 is published and closes. At the end of the issue, they write that Spider-Man stories, probably of the same format – 10-12 pages, will continue to appear in future issues, but Lee (and of course, here we run into his problems of recall again) says that Martin Goodman didn’t like the character.

Then Spider-Man becomes a hit. Ditko gets assigned a whole book with the character, and for this he uses some of the remaining breakdowns from Kirby (for the story about the space flight), and from the last story of that issue (Spider-Man vs. the Chameleon) it’s pure Ditko… I actually only think pages 7-12 are done over Kirby breakdowns (that they’re broken down in chapters was, by the way, typical of Kirby at this stage, and I can’t recall having never seen Ditko do that). The rest is Ditko.

There are, of course, lots of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to this theory, and it obviously can’t presume to be an accurate account of what happened. That would require a good deal of research and for several people to try to remember accurately what happened 50 years ago.


I also asked Morten about the relative lack of stylistic resemblance in the figure drawing of the pages in question, to Kirby’s work, and he says he reckons that these were only very rough breakdowns, adapted by Ditko.

Ashley Holt Post Posted: Mon Oct 15, 2007 8:18 am Post subject: Re: More on the Kirby/Ditko Spider-Man theory
“I also asked Morten about the relative lack of stylistic resemblance in the figure drawing of the pages in question, to Kirby’s work, and he says he reckons that these were only veyr rough breakdowns, adapted by Ditko.”

That’s a huge leap from his assertion the artwork clearly looks like a combination of Kirby and Ditko. If the art shows no sign of Kirby’s hand, there’s no reason to believe Jack had anything to do with the pages. Yes, we know Kirby tried his hand at a few Spider-Man pages, working up a character and concept very different from Ditko’s. But there’s no evidence in the work itself that Kirby’s efforts appear in any form in the final product. In the space flight story, Ditko draws the space capsule in an entirely different way than we know Kirby would’ve handled it. There are no Kirby-esque figures, backgrounds or layouts. The chapter heading splash panels were likely an editorial decision by Lee.

We’ve seen examples in early Marvel comics of what Ditko-over-Kirby looks like. AF 15 and Spider-Man #1 look nothing like it.

I feel like an idiot dragging this out. But if I told you than Barry Smith’s Conan was obviously penciled by Don Heck, with no other evidence than the fact that both men worked for Marvel at the time, you’d fight me on it, wouldn’t you?

Finally comics writer, historian and all-round expert, as well as author of a yet unpublished, eagerly anticipated monograph on Jack Kirby, Mark Evanier, chimed in:

Mark Evanier Post Posted: Sat Oct 20, 2007 9:39 am Post subject:
Jack Kirby did not do any uncredited layouts for Spider-Man, Daredevil or Iron Man stories.

At one point, Jack was claiming to have done layouts on the first Daredevil and Iron Man stories — an error on his part which he later admitted and which I think is understandable if we believe his amended claims that he provided plot input for those tales. (He also drew the first covers, designed Iron Man’s first armor and had at least a hand in the design of Daredevil’s costume.) Stan Lee says he doesn’t recall Jack having any input in either (not even the covers, which are obviously Jack) but Bill Everett, who drew Daredevil #1 and Don Heck, who drew the first Iron Man, each told me that Jack contributed to the storylines.

Neither Kirby nor Ditko ever thought Jack laid out the Spider-Man stories drawn by Ditko, nor is there any sign of Jack in the layouts. In one interview, Jack said he’d designed the famous Spider-Man costume but he misspoke and when he realized it, he wrote Ditko a letter of apology.

Jack did, of course, draw a few pages of a different Spiderman (no hyphen) before the project was assigned to Ditko. A few story elements from that material may have found their way into the published material but since those pages are not available for inspection, any speculation there is highly speculative. And of course, Jack claimed that he was the one who walked in and said, “Hey, let’s do a new character named Spiderman who can walk on walls!”

By the way: I think it’s been pretty well proven that when Lee and Ditko cobbled up the story in Amazing Fantasy #15, that comic had not been cancelled and they had every reason to believe Spider-Man would be appearing in it for many issues to come. They had finished the story for #16 and done at least some work on the one for #17 when the publisher decided to ax Amazing Fantasy and those two stories went onto the shelf. They were used in the first two issues of the Amazing Spider-Man comic when it was decided to give the character another try.

I’d hereby like to thank everyone who commented on this issue. Edifying, at least to me. All best. Oh, by the way, dear reader, if you haven’t done so already, go here and check out Jonathan Ross’ documentary on Ditko for the BBC. It’s a great primer, and contains some memorable interview moments, particularly with Stan Lee. The image at the top is Kirby’s cover for Amazing Spider-Man #1, inked by Ditko.

UPDATE: go here for pictures of the original art to the Spider-Man story in Amazing Fantasy #15.

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