From "Shrieking Man!" (Eerie #4, 1966). Click to enlarge images.
"I don't abuse my emotions!"--Steve Ditko's Mr. A, from witzend #3 (1967)
Comics critics love to write about the graceful, idiosyncratic hands that Steve Ditko draws. In The Comics Journal #258 (2004; which included a suite of articles on Ditko), Bill Randall argues that "Ditko's characters live through touch, feeling the world more than seeing it" (91). Spider-Man uses his hands to shoot webbing, while Dr. Strange conjures hexes by twisting his fingers into horns. Randall further points out that much of the humanity of the early issues of Spider-Man is conveyed through gesture:
It's all how the characters' relationships become real through Ditko's use of touch: Peter and Aunt May clasp hands over her hospital bed, a doctor pats him on the shoulder, Betty haughtily tucks away files. Or J. Jonah Jameson continually succumbs to fatigue when he rubs his face with both hands. Ditko often found one gesture to exemplify a character and then built around it. (92)
On the first panel of page two of Amazing Fantasy #15, Uncle Ben wakes Peter Parker up by ruffling his hair in a way that establishes, according to Randall, their close relationship--which, of course, makes the conclusion to that story all the more tragic.
From Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962), reprinted in Stan Lee's Origins of Marvel Comics (1975).
I agree that Ditko's hands give his characters warmth and power, but I think they express negative emotions as well. In his own essay about Ditko hands (in Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers, 2004), Andrew Hultkrans claims that "the dominant emotion in Ditko's pre-'66 work is anxiety" (223), and cited the wiggly lines of Spider-Man's Spider Sense as a visual manifestation of fear and imminent danger. This is true as far as it goes, though I believe that the dominant emotion in post-'66 Ditko remains anxiety. There's frequent expressions of pain, nervousness and paranoia in Ditko's later DC, Charlton and Objectivist comics too. What does this tone of anxiety say about Ditko the artist and the man, and what connection can we tease out between this anxiety and Ditko's unique hands?
Let's look first at a couple of the ways Ditko's hands communicate anxiety. Most obviously, people get hit in his stories, but that violence reflects the traits of the superhero genre as much as any tendency towards pugilism in the man himself. One reoccurring image specific to Ditko's art is the fear of being touched, usually (but not always) motivated by the content of individual stories.
From Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #9 (1958); panels reprinted in Blake Bell's Stranger and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (2008).
It makes perfect sense for Spider-Man to wiggle away from Dr. Octopus' grabby tentacles, but in later tales this aversion to touch is more irrational, more troubling. At the end of "Count Rouge," the first story in Mr. A #2, the Count's gentleman-crook masquerade crumbles, and he is confronted by a would-be partner in crime, who creeps towards the Count in a series of extreme close-ups.
From Mr. A #2 (1975).
Ditko's point here is that the Count is as every bit as corrupt as the thug, but why is the thug drawn so hideously? Personally, I hate it when artists equate moral turpitude with physical ugliness, probably because I grew up as a fat kid who deeply resented characters like Augustus Gloop and Pugsley Addams. Some of us are luckier than others in Genetic Roulette, and Ditko's tendency--especially pronounced in his Objectivist comics--to draw his heroes as handsome ciphers and his villains as hideous monsters reveals a lazy acceptance of cartoon stereotypes, and possibly a broader unease with physical imperfection, with the eventual decline and death of every human body.
Another common Ditko image is of a person touching his/her own face with his/her hands. Aunt May, for instance, habitually frets about Peter by brushing her fingers against her cheek.
From Spider-Man Annual #1 (1964), reprinted in Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko (2005).
Another example: Betty Brant grabs her face in horror the moment she realizes that Peter is living as dangerously as her dead brother Bennett.
From Spider-Man #33 (1966), reprinted in Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko.
One more example: in a story published three decades later, "Clyde and Claude," a schizophrenic character shoots his wife and her lover, rubs his temple in dismay, and then hides his face in his left palm.
From Steve Ditko's Strange Avenging Tales (1997).
Ditko draws face touching a lot more than other artists--Kirby, Kubert and Kane characters exhibit this tic considerably less--and that's because Ditko's people are more self-focused, more interested in their personal thoughts than in the external world. Kirby draws characters with arms and fingers outstretched, ready to seize adventure and possibility; Ditko draws people pulling in on themselves, afraid to be touched and listening to the voices in their heads.
In Ditko's art, then, hands express anxiety and fear as well as love and support, but regardless of the state of mind they signify, Ditko hands are always in motion and always clamoring for the reader's attention. Perhaps we need to ask a bigger question: why are hands in general so important to Ditko? I have some ideas about that, which intersect with another dominant characteristic of Ditko's art: its lack of sexuality.
Ditko entered comics in 1954, as the Werthamite purges pared the business down to an audience of adolescent boys, so it's no surprise that most of his art was in male-oriented genres like horror and superheroes. But Ditko himself seems uninterested in women and sexuality; he's weak at drawing the female form (either realistically or in a cheesecake style), he never places a female protagonist at the center of his stories, and he rarely depicts sexual attraction between male and female characters. The only explicit Ditko sexuality is his uncredited inking on Eric Stanton's fetish comics, but Blake Bell notes that Ditko now denies ever contributing to bondage titles like Sweeter Gwendolyn and Confidential TV.
From Confidential TV (1964), panel reprinted in Bell's Stranger and Stranger.
Bell ends his commentary on Ditko and Stanton by saying, "But for Ditko, his desire to reveal what went on within the walls of the Ditko/Stanton studio remains as non-existent as the sexuality in his own work" (Stranger and Stranger 51). Batton Lash summarizes the critical consensus when he says that "Ditko takes a lot of heat from drawing unattractive women," though Lash notes a few exceptions, most notably a "very attractive" victim in a push-up bra menaced by a "Beast Man" in a Ditko splash from Creepy #11 (Stranger and Stranger 99).
From Creepy #11 (1964).
One moment of sexual frisson I noticed myself is from Spider-Man #32, where Betty Brant gives the web-slinger a quick look over her shoulder that smolders with both fear and desire. (Note the way her left hand flittering near her chin also conveys these feelings.)
From Spider-Man #32 (1966), reprinted in Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko.
Spider-Man's thought balloon--"How I long to take her in my arms--!"--undeniably contributes to my perception of the hotness of the moment, but I was surprised by this panel because Ditko usually drew Betty in a helmet-shaped hairdo and a dowdy 1940s style dress.
From Spider-Man #15 (1964), reprinted in The Essential Spider-Man Volume 1 (2002).
Ditko's delineation of Gwen Stacy is a bit more sensual and up-to-date, but sexuality doesn't fully enter Spider-Man until Ditko leaves the title and John Romita draws the iconic appearance of Mary Jane Watson on Peter Parker's doorstep. Even Dr. Strange's Clea, a possible romantic interest for the Master of the Mystic Arts, is exiled by Dormammu to a nether dimension (i.e. written out of the strip) for the bulk of Ditko's Strange Tales run.
This dearth of sexuality continues for the rest of Ditko's mainstream career. In Beware the Creeper (1967-68), weatherwoman Vera Sweet is just a polka-dotted pest that the hero can't stand.
From Beware the Creeper #1 (1968).
In Shade the Changing Man (1977-78), intergalactic police officer Mellu Loron, probably the strongest female character of Ditko's entire career, is trapped in a narrative set-up (she blames Shade for the death of her father) that shuts down any chance of male-female relations.
And so we come to the desert: Ditko's Objectivist work is utterly devoid of sexuality. As Mari Wood notes (in her article on Mysterious Suspense #1  in The Comics Journal #268), The Question and Mr. A stories often pit a square-jawed, unremittingly rational Randian ubermensch against both a gangster, and a supposedly "respectable" pillar of the community who is in cahoots with the gangster. These central characters are almost always male. Women appear in secondary roles, as either ineffectual femme fatales or as (to Ditko's credit) professional equals to male colleagues. The Question back-up in Blue Beetle #2 (1967) features unsuccessful seductress Celia Starr, and reporter Nora Lace, a smart, capable member of Vic Sage's investigation team. The story ends with Vic and Nora going out on a date--"We have the rest of the evening to ourselves!"--but Ditko never shows the date to us, fading to black as soon as the good-evil conflict is resolved. It's worth noting here that there's nothing Objectivist about Ditko's reluctance to show romance and sexuality; in fact, Ayn Rand herself had a robust and unconventional sex life, representations of which surfaced in her novels (particularly in the various love triangles among her characters). Why did Ditko feel compelled to create a sexless Objectivism?
Beginning with Avenging World (1973) and the other Randian undergrounds of the early 1970s, female characters disappear from Ditko's comics, but that's because Ditko gives up on the notion of characterization altogether. He instead presents generalizations, masses that he divides into three categories: (1.) the good, a tiny minority who embody the values of capitalism, individualism and science; (2.) the evil, who promulgate non-Objectivist ideologies like Communism and crime; and (3.) the corrupt, who mistakenly believe that a compromise between good and evil is possible. (For Ditko, corrupt is just a gray suburb of evil.) This is where the subtlety leeches out of Ditko's art as well: heroes like Mr. A are generically handsome in their impeccably-creased trousers, but the inhabitants of Evilland and Corruptland suffer from such visual signs of anxiety as sweaty foreheads and toothless mouths. Everybody becomes a one-note exaggeration designed to make Ditko's didactic points.
From Avenging World (1973).
Mr. A appears in several of Ditko's Objectivist stories, and he's an ideological mouthpiece: he slugs bad guys while lecturing about the dangers of moral relativism, but he never experiences joy, lust, sorrow, surprise, or any other emotion that brings him to life as a three- (or even two-) dimensional character. (He's the antithesis of Peter Parker, who wears his proverbial heart on his sleeve.) Reporter Rex Graine, in fact, dons metal gauntlets and a full-head mask to become Mr. A.
From the cover of Mr. A #1 (1973).
I find it significant that he literally suits up in armor, because "armor" in psychoanalytic theory is a metaphor for repression. Most psychoanalysts follow Wilhelm Reich, who defined "body armor" as the condition when a person is so beset by repressed and confused emotions that s/he adopts a rigid posture and a neutral facial expression to hide the inner turmoil. When in doubt, harden up.
For the past 40 years, Ditko has written and drawn comics to spread his Objectivist beliefs, and the line separating the man from his art has become very thin. Everyone who read Mr. A assumes that Ditko, like Mr. A, believes in rationalism and untrammeled capitalism. But what else do these comics tell us about Ditko the man? In a story published in witzend #4 (1968), a crook tries to bribe Mr. A, who responds by laughing uncontrollably, while his facemask remains frozen. Mr. A always makes the right choice. Mr. A is so obsessed with upholding justice that he has banished love, sex and emotion from his life. Mr. A is armored and safe from harm. Mr. A is a robot. And Mr. A is Steve Ditko's idea of a hero.
From witzend #4 (1968), panel reprinted in Bell's Stranger and Stranger.
Let's jump boldly over the line between man and art and ask some questions: Why does Ditko consider the inhuman stoicism of Mr. A to be so heroic? Was he hurt so badly that he needed to create such a monolithically repressive character? Why are hands the only part of the human body that most express human emotion? Why are hands exempt from the repression of the Objectivist period? Why do hands have such formidable power in Ditko's art?
From "Second Chance!" (Creepy #13, 1967), an evocation of Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781).
Ditko will never answer these questions. I'm sure he'd consider me a hopelessly muddled "skeptical intellectual," like the academic fools he denounces in Avenging World, just for asking about his personal life and psychology. But I ask them because I'm a fan; I love his comics, particularly the pre-Objectivist material, when both his subject matter and cartooning was more human and approachable. And the man himself is admirable too. If Ditko has experienced overwhelming abuse and pain, and still managed to co-create Spider-Man and become one of the premiere graphic stylists in the history of the comics medium...well, that makes Steve Ditko more of a hero to me than any of his well-dressed, Objectivist abstractions.
From Avenging World (1973).
[This is a revised version of a talk I gave at Heroes Con 2009. Thanks to Ben Towle for co-organizing our Ditko panel and giving an excellent paper on Ditko and non-literal art; to Chris Schweizer for his superb close reading of a page from Spider-Man #10; to Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano, for sharing their personal memories of Steve Ditko; to Adam Hayes of Hotsauce Productions, for allowing us to air the documentary In Search of Steve Ditko; and to Dustin Harbin, for allowing us to play at Heroes for yet another year.]