On Business: Ditko's Income

By | Monday, March 06, 2017 1 comment
Steve Ditko has been a professional working comic creator for over half a century, starting in 1953. Over the years, he's created or co-created a number of memorable characters like Captain Atom, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Question, the Creeper, Hawk & Dove, and Mr. A. He'still cranking out comics at age 89 -- I just received his most recently published works that he Kickstartered at the tail end of last year. He's used Kickstarter before to fund his most recent works, and they've been successful but not astoundingly so. They look to mostly have come in somewhere between $5,000 - $10,000 with a new Kickstarter project about every quarter.

But it got me to wondering about Ditko's income. Most of his more well-known work was done as work-for-hire with a flat page rate. That is, Stan Lee paid Ditko some dollar amount for every page of Spider-Man Ditko drew, and that was the end of their transaction. Ditko did not have legal ownership in the character, and did not receive compensation if the character was used again or even if the specific story was reprinted. His self-published work, of course, he owns, but the sales of Mr. A I'm sure pale in comparison to those of Spider-Man.

Marvel and DC have both changed their policies towards creator royalties since Ditko did most of his work for them. It's not difficult to find what current contracts are like, but Ditko's would have had to have been retroactive and, thus, essentially unique. What's unclear is what he might've have gotten, if anything. After all, guys like Jerry Siegel and Jack Kirby rose an awful lot of ruckus over their previous work with those publishers and Ditko did not, releasing only a few statements that spoke more to the concept of intellectual property than monetary compensation. Not to mention spending his entire career freelancing, and with no spouse, he wouldn't have a pension or anything like that to fall back on.

So is Ditko earning a living just off some kind of retroactive royalty payments? He almost certainly can't be living in New York City off what he makes from his current work.

In 2012, the New York Post reported that Ditko claimed he made no royalties off the four Spider-Man films that had been made at that time. This seemingly contradicts an anecdote told last year to Vulture.com by a neighbor. The neighbor claimed she accidentally received a piece of Ditko's mail, but didn't realize it wasn't hers until she opened it and saw that it was a check from a movie studio with "too many zeroes" to have possibly have been for her.

But, in going back to the Post article, Ditko doesn't actually say what they claim he says. The article reads...
To this day, Ditko has probably made very little off his billion-dollar co-creation. He has no ownership of the character and was paid a modest per-page rate at the time. He does collect royalties each time the comics are reprinted, but he says he has not earned anything off the films, despite his name appearing in the credits.

“No,” he tells The Post, when asked if he was paid anything for the four recent Spider-Man movies.

“I haven’t been involved with Spider-Man since the '60s.”
If you remove The Post's coloring of the discussion, you can see that Ditko isn't actually addressing the question of royalties. He only addresses work he has done on Spider-Man, which he (truthfully) says that he hasn't been involved with for decades.

But think on Ditko's literalness. Recall a few years back when Lee, in an attempt to finally acknowledge Ditko's contributions in creating Spider-Man, said that he "considered" Ditko to be Spidey's co-creator. Ditko took exception to that because being "considered" a co-creator was not definitive and expressed only an opinion. Ditko argued that if Lee were speaking with integrity, then he would say "Ditko is the co-creator of Spider-Man." It's seemingly a semantic point, but Ditko's sense of precision and clarity would not concede that. Lee, by contrast, has never been one for that level of precision, and remained dumbfounded why Ditko took exception to "considered."

Now apply that thinking to Ditko's response to The Post. If the journalist asked, "Have you received royalty payments from the Spider-Man movies?" Ditko would answer that differently than if he were asked "Has Fox paid you for the work you did on Spider-Man?" Particularly, in the latter case, since "Spider-Man" could be understood to mean either the character or the specific movie with that title. They seem like the same question, but they aren't. Regardless of the questioner's intention, I suspect, given Ditko's quoted answer, he was addressing a question closer to the latter than the former.

Which suggests that Ditko is indeed living comfortably off Spider-Man (and now probably Dr. Strange) royalties. They took far too long to materialize, certainly, and I expect they're only a fraction of what moral justice would deem acceptable, but it is somewhat comforting to know that at least one of the giants of the Golden Age likely won't die in poverty because publishers wouldn't honor their verbal agreements.
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Joshua Leto said...

I think you identified the source of Mr Ditko's regular income. To your point, it is also worth considering that there have been a few stories over the years (an article in Wizard Magazine comes to mind) that described Ditko as disregarding or destroying originals that were in his possession, and there is little evidence that he sells originals from the last several decades. Given that a single mediocre Spider-Man page by Ditko could pay for a car or a year of New York Rent, this is not inconsequential. I think there is a small possibility that Ditko sells more recent originals, but a quick search of Heritage couldn't find any pages from the last 40 years that didn't feature a different penciler or inker than Ditko. That is, there is no public evidence of sales of his "personal" comics work.