From THE QUESTION to THE CREEPER: How Steve Ditko Helped Make DC Weird

Rosie Knight

Rosie Knight

Aug. 23, 2018

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Comics can be a weird and wonderful place, full of magical landscapes, faceless men, superpowered heroes, and spectacular technology hither unimagined. Many of the most bizarre things we've fallen in love with can be traced back to one man: Steve Ditko. His contributions span the history of comics, from the biggest properties on Earth to his intimate self-published work, which he continued to release until his death in June of this year. But some of his most inventive and influential creations found their home at DC Comics, and they've helped to keep the ever-expanding DC universe strange.


Ditko had already made a name for himself when he began creating comics at Charlton, a small publisher that was hardly well-known for its superhero stories. But Ditko's tenure there would produce some of the most unexpectedly influential characters in the medium. During his first stint at the company, he co-created Captain Atom with writer Joe Gill, which told the story of a young technician named Adam Allan who gains strange powers after being trapped in an experimental rocket. After an explosion in the depths of space, Allan is "atomized," but gains the ability to put his atoms back together, as well as a whole bundle of nuclear-themed powers reflecting the Cold War fears of the '50s and '60s.



Even if you've never picked up a Charlton comic, Captain Atom might seem familiar. That's because, Atom would become Doctor Manhattan, alongside other Ditko/Charlton analogs, in writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. After DC Comics acquired the Charlton properties in 1983, the company approached Moore about creating new stories featuring Ditko's creations. Although they never ended up appearing in Moore's seminal comic in their original form, Watchmen's characters were clearly influenced by characters first imagined by Ditko himself.


Arguably Watchmen's most iconic and misunderstood character is Rorschach, a demented and hyper-focused vigilante who's the book's anti-hero. But the masked man wouldn't exist if it wasn't for one of Ditko's most personal Charlton creations, The Question. Originally introduced in the pages of Blue Beetle, The Question began as the alter-ego of Vic Sage, an investigative reporter who made himself appear faceless using a mask constructed from an experimental artificial skin called Pseudoderm. The Question himself was based on a previous Ditko creation called Mr A. Both are widely regarded as the first time Ditko put the Objectivist philosophy that would shape his later life and work onto the page.



Another Charlton creation that would make his influence felt on Watchmen was Ditko's take on the Blue Beetle, Ted Kord. Like many of Ditko's creations, the second Blue Beetle was a genius. But he didn't have any super powers. Instead, Kord was a fantastic inventor and athlete. He was first introduced in the pages of Ditko's Captain Atom, before getting his own title in 1967. Within the world of Watchmen, Kord became an analog for Daniel Dreiberg's Nite Owl. Like Ted, the character was both a genius and the second man to wear the mantle that made him super. Only instead of a Beetle, Dreiberg themed all of his tech on an Owl.


Besides influencing one of the best comics of all time, Ditko crafted some of the DC universe's most outrageous characters. That includes the original version of the crimefighting duo that makes its live-action debut in this year's Titans. Alongside Steve Skeates, Ditko created Hawk and Dove, a pair of crime fighting brothers who were based on the vast political opposition of the late '60s, their names taken from the terms "war hawk" and "peace dove." Though he only worked on three issues featuring the diametrically opposed heroes, the characters he defined smack of Ditko 50 years later.


Another fantastical Ditko oddity is a character who's probably best known to contemporary fans from The New Batman Adventures (or Batman: The Animated Series season 3): The Creeper. In his first story -- in Showcase #73 -- the Creeper was Jack Ryder, a former TV host turned investigator who gets caught up in a case involving a scientist and communist spies. Whilst staking out his mark at a fancy dress party in an outrageous costume that would become his signature look, Ryder is injured and the scientist he was watching saves his life by implanting a strange device in his stomach, granting Jack weird powers. At the end of the story, Ryder is mistaken for a criminal, which would define much of his future comics career.


The latter half of the '70s saw two of Ditko's weirdest and most wonderful DC creations: the sword-and-sorcery series Stalker and the intergalactic adventure Shade, the Changing Man. Stalker reads like a bleak He-Man story, if Prince Adam was turned into Skeletor. Running for just four issues, Ditko and writer Paul Levitz put their anti-hero through the ringer, sending him into demon-infested netherworlds. It's also an interesting footnote to Hawk and Dove, as Stalker can only regain his mortal soul when all war has ended on Earth.


Shade, the Changing Man saw Ditko go back to space, with his protagonist a refugee from the militant planet Meta. His main power was held in his M-Vest, which allowed him to change his shape and size to become terrifyingly large. After Ditko's short run, Rac Shade became part of the Suicide Squad, before earning his own Vertigo title in 1990. In recent years, Ditko's concept for Shade can still be found -- in Young Animal's Shade, the Changing Girl


Though many of Ditko's contributions to these comics were brief, their influence continues to this day. If not for these outrageous and unusual ideas paired with Ditko's unmatchable framing and pacing, stories like Watchmen might never have existed. While many creators have breathed life into the characters in our favorite comic books, few creators have kept the world of DC Comics as weird as Steve Ditko.