Sean Jackson said he’s always been inspired by the story of legendary comic artist and fellow Johnstown native Steve Ditko.
That’s why he couldn’t pass up the stage performance of “Ditko” by the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown’s theater arts department on Sunday at downtown Johnstown’s historic State Theater.
“I’ve been a Spider-Man fan my entire life, and the main attraction has been Steve Ditko,” Jackson said.
The 35-year-old was one of more than 120 people who showed up for the New York City play about Ditko’s life by Lenny Schwartz, of Rhode Island, who was also in attendance. Ditko, who helped create the popular superhero “Spider-Man,” died in June of 2018.
Jackson said he was excited to see the performance, and although he hadn’t been to the Bottle Works to take in the exhibit on Ditko there, he wanted to get there soon.
Pitt-Johnstown’s undertaking is one of many celebrations of the artist’s life and work organized by Bottle Works leaders and Ditko’s family.
“There’s so much speculation and innuendo and rumor-mill about him,” Mark Ditko, the artist’s nephew, said Sunday.
He added that much of that speculation was caused by the “Doctor Strange” co-creator’s preference for privacy, often refusing interviews and public appearances. A lack of information created a vacuum, and hearsay filled the void.
“I want to put who he was back in it,” Mark Ditko said.
The 62-year-old and his uncle became close in the 1990s and would regularly exchange multi-page letters about life, philosophy and eventually comics.
Telling the true story of the man behind the myth is the point of the exhibition, the Los Angeles resident said. That tale is told in great detail through the comedic yet serious two-part play, for which Mark Ditko provided notes when Schwartz wrote it two years ago.
The performance began with Steve Ditko, played by Jarod Shark, as a student at Greater Johnstown High School in 1945. It detailed his interest in science and drawing and his enlistment in the U.S. Army before moving into the early part of his comic career in New York City.
The play featured people he knew in Johnstown, as well as other comic book giants such as Jack Kirby, of Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk and Captain America fame, played by Pitt-Johnstown assistant professor of theater arts John Teacher, and longtime Marvel writer and editor Stan Lee, portrayed by Jack Weidner. All of this was set before a comic panel-style backdrop and directed by Teacher.
“I’ve been a Spider-Man and Doctor Strange fan since I was a kid, and to do a show about their creator ... is the highlight of my career,” Teacher said.
He was also thrilled to put on a show in the historic theater along Main Street in downtown Johnstown, the first paid performance there in 50 years, said Eric Reighard, executive director of State Theater LLC.
“It’s just a double whammy of awesome,” Reighard said of hosting the play.
He and his board are working toward bringing live entertainment, art and movies back to the venue and are planning more attractions for late summer.
“This whole Ditko exhibit is great for the Bottle Works, but it’s also great for the city,” said Matthew Lamb, Bottle Works creative director.
He was glad to see so many people turn out and noted that the public launch event for the “Hometown Heroes” exhibit is scheduled for Friday at Bottle Works’ Cambria City location to coincide with the 3rd Avenue Folk and Arts Festival.
Karcha Helsel, 25, of Johnstown, attended the play with his father and said he’s been a fan of Spider-Man since he watched the 2002 film starring Tobey Maguire in theaters. He said not many people know that Steve Ditko is from Johnstown, and when he found out, it was “definitely one of the coolest things” he’d heard.
As for the play, Helsel thought it was awesome.
“There’s stuff I’m familiar with and a lot of things I didn’t know,” he said.
Beside the artist’s early career in comic books, Schwartz’s play also goes in-depth about his creative struggles with Lee, his decision to leave Marvel Comics, his time at DC and Charlton Comics, the philosophical ideals that drove him and his eventual reclusive lifestyle.
Molli Lazzari, 13, of Johnstown, attended Sunday with her grandmother and was impressed with the performance. She’s been a fan of Spider-Man her entire life, and knowing that the character’s co-creator came from her hometown gives her joy.
“I think it’s cool that somebody from here created something so national and worldwide,” Lazzari said.
Schwartz also enjoyed Pitt-Johnstown’s performance and stated that “it’s the honor of a lifetime to have the play go with the exhibit.”
He wrote the theatrical piece for the same reason the exhibition was created – to bring attention to Steve Ditko.
“Steve is underrepresented, and I want to make sure he’s not,” Schwartz said. “I want to make sure Steve’s name is known.”
For more information about the Steve Ditko exhibit, visit bottleworks.org.