I’ve been a busy beaver over Thanksgiving. I read Woes of the True Policeman, by Roberto Bolano—it’s superb, but more on that in another post—and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I also finished Heaven’s Gate, the notorious nearly four hour flop by Michael Cimino. I finally got around to watching Bunuel’s The Avenging Angel, a movie I’ve wanted to see for ten years.
And I finished reading Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko. It’s a coffee table book that examines the odd life and even odder work of one of the great comic book illustrators of the 20th century.
I cut my teeth on Steve Ditko’s comics. I bought the reprint digests of the first fifty Spiderman comics. They were little pocket books and I loved them.
Ditko insisted on Peter Parker’s personal life sharing half the time with Spiderman, and even more importantly, he insisted that Parker’s personal life be negatively impacted by his superhero alter-ego. Unlike all his costumed counterparts, Parker’s powers ruined his life; they shackled him with an unwanted responsibility, and led to the death of his uncle. Fearing for the health of his aunt, he couldn’t take credit for any of his good deeds. He was misunderstood, maligned and mistreated. And when he did do something right, it often came at the expense of Parker the teen. It was brilliant, and so powerful a storytelling device that all four of the big-budget Spiderman films continued with this same theme.
Parker wins and Spiderman loses. Spiderman wins and Parker is caput. Parker is so hopelessly inept at balancing his two lives that he skirts by in each, an anxious wreck. Good writers toy with this psychic dissonance in the character.
Ditko’s artwork was elegant but strange. Odd perspectives, jagged otherworldly dimensions and simple but disturbed faces. He was marvelous at pacing his stories and draw action scenes with a spare panache.
An example of Ditko’s funky yet elegant artwork.
His scripting partner on the series was Stan Lee.
Ditko and Lee were an odd pair. Lee was a shameless self-promoter, left-leaning, and hip to the sixties counterculture. Ditko scorned publicity, despised liberal politics and had nothing but disdain for many of the causes of the 1960s. Their working relationship deteriorated quickly, and soon they were hardly speaking. (Lee was busy with other Marvel titles, adding jokes and gags to Jack Kirby’s grim, Gnostic, despairing stories in the Fantastic Four, among other titles.)
Ditko did the plotting, the layouts and the story ideas. Lee filled in the dialogue in the word bubbles. This is an essential point: Ditko did the creating; Lee was scripting in existing comic pages. Ditko created the Vulture, Mysterio, the Tinkerer, Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, Kraven, the Scorpion, Chameleon, Sandman and Electro. These are more or less still the major villains in the Spiderman universe. He created Dr. Strange, Dormammu, the Hulk, and the Leader. For Charlton Comics he created Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, The Question and the Creeper. These Charlton characters are the basis and inspiration for Alan Moore’s Watchmen, arguably the most influential comic of all time.
A creepy old dude who can fly; one of Ditko’s greatest characters.
Lee became rich and famous, Ditko poor and unknown. Just as Spiderman was becoming a major hit, Ditko walked away from the project and never looked back. It’s one of the big injustices in a system that thrived on stealing ideas from the creators. The answer to why he left is straight-forward, if strange. He became a hardline objectivist.
You can’t kill an idea, not even a terrible one. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is silly, elitist, unsustainable and, well, wacky. She marries antiquated notions of chivalry and heroics while eschewing the moral, religious, and cultural fabric—the things that left-leaning people feel need to be strengthened, not weakened—that holds society together. Her novels are creaky morality tales with little morality. Her heroes are the elite, venture capitalists, bankers. Her characters withdraw; her characters subvert; her characters destroy their work instead of agreeing to any compromise. No welfare, no social security, no empathy, no pity. No common cause, no greater good, no treatment for inter-generational poverty, no understanding, nothing but the relentless pursuit of personal gain. She codifies selfish acts in a way that makes them seem noble. She argues that we have a moral obligation to be selfish. Only in this way can we make the most of our potential and make the world a better place. The world of business is an ambiguous place, yet somehow Rand and her acolytes see it as the most moral of undertakings. She turns most of our assumptions on their head, presenting a potent challenge to conventional liberal thinking. On the surface anyway.
It’s a simplistic, and self-serving paradigm that allows its adherents to act like, well, assholes, and challenges them to live a life without compromise. It’s the cult of the individual, what Alan Moore calls, “white supremacist dreams of the master race, burnt in an early-20th century form.”
Boo. Hiss. Boo.
Ditko picked up on Rand’s Objectivism sometime in the 1950s. He wasn’t alone. Reagan bought into aspects of her philosophy around this time, wedding them (strangely, as Rand was an aggressive opponent to all religions) to conservative Christianity of Randian ideas bubble up from the philosophical sub-basement every fifteen years or so, cause plenty of silly talk about the role of government, equating some baseline for the good of the many ideas—ideas that almost every human being basically agrees with; for instance, I’ve never met anyone who would argue that as a society we should just let people starve to death in the streets—with the food shortages and gulags of her Soviet-collectivist childhood. People are selfish. Governments attempting to abridge this selfishness cause harm to everyone. No one ever made a great scientific discovery, one acolyte of hers told me some ten years ago, out of some sense of helping other people. She utilized a kind of simpler form of existentialism. There is no such thing as fate. We are free agents acting out our grandiose lives on an untethered stage.
How conservative Christians glommed onto this materialistic philosophy—antithetical to the gospels—is material worthy of a book. The Biblical gospels are, at their essence, socialist texts. Jesus and his disciples live in a communal way. There’s no advertising or publicity, no exchange of money for Jesus’s services, no ownership of land. It’s heal and help the poor, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and a more than apparent disdain for the wealthy.
Right wing thinkers have over the years extrapolated a free market cosmology from a single phrase in the new testament, ignoring the pages and pages of caring for the poor, So Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple gets book-length exegetical treatment. But his advice to discard material things is passed over.
We’re still living with Rand’s ideas today. The core of her political beliefs is that governments are evil, and only in a free market system, with no external control or meddling, can people achieve their true potential. She’s a tough nut: no regulations, no welfare, no taxes, no social security, no charity, and no pity. I haven’t read her deeply enough to discover what she thinks should be done about the disabled, or trans-generational poverty, slums, environmental catastrophes, sweat shops and the like.
I’m not giving Rand a totally fair shake—she was quite funny in interviews—but I don’t think I need to. Her ideas harm individuals and the boy politic. I should know. I was a follower myself, I just didn’t know it.
As a teenager, I flirted with Rand’s ideas. I was raised in the Southern Baptist milieu. I went to a conservative Christian school as a child, and a (mostly) conservative Catholic high school. I moved to Montgomery, Alabama, for college, a more conservative town than Pensacola, which was a shock.
At 19, I went out to Colorado Springs to Summit, a two-week conference for burgeoning Christian intellectuals. There I was bombarded with Christian and far-right political doctrine. One speaker would rail against the (communist-backed) environmental movement, and the next would give tips on how to minister to strangers. Christian charity could solve all of the social ills of our country if the government would just stop preventing young people from praying in schools.
The big threat to us, the Summit speakers kept hammering home, was moral relativism, secular humanism, and the cult of liberal thinking.
It was an intense time. I read Stormer, Bastiat, Jobe Martin and the like. I quit drinking. I bought into an ascetic lifestyle. Joy was for wimps. Pleasure was for sinners. I would walk the golden road.
I took these ideas back to college and became a vocal opponent of many of my professors. I argued against evolution. I bickered about moral relativism. I combated every instance of bias I perceived in the classroom. I was a little David Horowitz, a junior neo-conservative in long pants. I dismissed the U.N., had contempt for foreign intervention. I complained of government spending. I obsessed over the national debt. I brooded over the immorality of taxes. I deified the founding fathers. I subscribed to the cult of the individual. It was a house built on sand. I would say things like, “You can’t legislate morality,” and then I would give my own moral take on things. I would complain of activist judges, but laud judges who ruled in a way that aligned with my beliefs.
I was full of disgust. I was a machine of raw resentment. I carried a bilious taste in my mouth. I operated with a negative enlightenment. I was a libertarian, and proud of it, with a penchant for Coors Light and trangressive literature. I’ve discussed this elsewhere (read it here) but there’s one immutable fact to my Randian beliefs and its cruel disconnectedness to community, history: these beliefs did not make me happy at all. I felt removed from the people around me. Lucky for me, literature saved me.
Back to Ditko. He operates as a cipher to understanding how bad ideas can ruin a person’s talents. Ditko’s intransigence has soiled his gifts. He refused to collaborate in a collaborative medium, and he abandoned his vast storytelling abilities for preachy didacticism.
Rand’s hooks in Ditko ruined his career. He sabotaged good projects, refused to even minute changes, refused to budge. His later comics are didactic and boring; characters preach Rand’s precepts with just the slightest veneer of a story. He denied help, he shrugged off praise, he intentionally turned in inferior work, he distanced himself from the most popular comic book character of all time, a character he created. It’s infuriating, rooting for him, and puzzling.
Still, Ditko is a sad case. He’s been denied proper credit for his role in creating Spider-man. He’s made next to nothing on the character he invented. He lives off of a military pension, while Spiderman continues to be one of the most recognized and powerful fictional characters in the world. Rumor has it that for a while he lived in a common rented room at a New York Y.
He is one of the greatest innovators in comics history. Yet he spent much of the 1980s doing cheap television knock-off books, and even did a Transformers coloring book for the Marvel television division. It breaks the heart.
He could make a living selling his original artwork, or even prints, but his philosophy prevents him. He has deprived the world of his art, and inflicted decades of financial hardship on himself. And all for nothing. He’s changed no hearts, altered no minds. He’s Sisyphus, and the stone is his own absurd beliefs.
There’s a very entertaining documentary on Ditko made for BBC television. You can watch it here.
 A pretty good movie, and at times, absolutely stunning.
 John Romita was the second artist on the book, and a very fine artist, too, probably better in his technique, but more straight-forward in his renditions. With Romita, Stan Lee did all the writing and plotting himself. Spiderman lost some of its essential strangeness.
 I tried arguing with him but saw quickly that you can’t argue with an objectivist. They refuse to see any trace of logic in any position other than their own.
 I still do.