Steve Ditko, An Objectivist Compatriot

August 19, 2008

This is an article from The New York Times Book Review entitled:From Spider-Man to Ayn Rand by: Douglas Wolk. It’s about the book Strange and Stranger by: Blake Bell published by Fantagraphics Books. It was sent to me via e-mail and I can’t find the original link so I’m pasting it here. It’s better that way so that you’ll have a reference of what I’m talking abouton the various sections.

When an anonymous donor recently gave the Library of Congress Steve Ditko’s original artwork from the 1962 comic book “Amazing Fantasy #15,” the issue in which he created Spider-Man with the writer Stan Lee, barely anyone took notice. One of American comics’ great visual stylists, Ditko also had a hand in the development of both Iron Man and the Hulk, but his characters’ subsequent mass-media careers have made him neither rich nor particularly famous.

Let’s stop right here. I have lots of Spiderman comics I read as a kid, but Spiderman has never been one of my all time favorite characters Steve Ditko has never been an influence on me, although I knew of him, of course, as part of American comic book history. It was only until recently I found out he was a fellow objectivist.

He drew his greatest work for a flat page rate; Lee, his collaborator, was the grinning public face of Marvel Comics, while Ditko has refused all interviews and public appearances for decades. The comics scholar Blake Bell’s overview of Ditko’s career, illustrated on nearly every page, is anecdotal and critical rather than strictly biographical. Bell didn’t have much of a choice: the endnotes reveal that he corresponded with Ditko for several years, but that in 2003 the cartoonist decided that both author and publisher were “anti-­Ditko” and repudiated them.

Ditko drew his first comics as a professional in 1953, developing his haunted, alienated imagery in Z-grade horror and crime series. He quickly formed a longstanding affiliation with Charlton Comics, a Connecticut operation that published funnybooks to keep its presses running, paid the worst rates in the business and let artists draw more or less whatever they pleased.

By the early ’60s, Ditko was doing his best work for Lee at Marvel, and the 40-odd Spider-Man stories he illustrated (and often plotted), built around images of frail, twisted bodies pirouetting through space, looked like no other comics before them. Neither did his magnificent tales of the “master of the mystic arts” Dr. Strange, avant-garde in every way except their unfailing narrative clarity — with a few squiggles, Ditko could evoke an alien dimension as surely as a Manhattan water tower.

He split with Lee and Marvel in 1966. By then, he’d fallen under the spell of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, and started producing an endless string of ham-fisted comics about how A is A and there is no gray area between good and evil and so on. “The Hawk and the Dove,” for instance, concerns two superhero brothers who … oh, you’ve already figured it out. Ditko could still devise brilliantly disturbing visuals — the Question, one of his many Objectivist mouthpieces, is a man in a jacket, tie and hat, with a blank expanse of flesh for a face — and his drawing style kept evolving, even as his stories tediously parroted “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead” at the expense of character, plot and ultimately bearability.

Ah, so now we’ve reached the fundamental flaw with Superheros as a genre in the eyes of an objectivist. What this article neglects to mention is that the abiding code all objectivists live by is no force unless forced. A Superhero’s main tool is force which they use at their own whim. Let’s take a look at the classic Superhero stopping the bank robbery senario. Why that bank? Why those robbers? It comes down to a Superhero arbitrarily passing by said bank at whatever time of day and deciding to use their only tool, force, to stop those particular bank robbers. Force is the only method a superhero uses and they use it whenever they desire. Therefore a superhero is essentially a bully. These bank robbers never forced the Superhero into action. He just decided to take it. Because you have Super powers does that give you the right to impose your will on whomever you wish whenever you wish? I don’t think so. There’s no principle behind that. If they’re principle is to stop crime then they’d have to stop all crime simultaneously all the time.

This is definitely quite the quandary for an objectivist who wants to draw comic books. It’s one I faced after 2004 when I became an objectivist after reading Atlas Shrugged. but the solution to this problem is quite simple. Employment. There a six billion people in the world and they all live by one fundamental rule. If you labor for someone you should expect to be paid for your labors. If the bank were to employ the Superhero the Superhero would cease becoming a bully and then simply be doing their job.

This is economics. Economics runs the world and it should be taught to children and children read comic books.

By the ’70s he was regarded as a slightly old-fashioned oddball; by the ’80s he was a commercial has-been, picking up wretched work-for-hire gigs. Bell suggests that, following the example of Rand’s John Galt, Ditko hacked out money­making work, saving his care for the crabbed Objectivist screeds he published with tiny presses.

So what? Does Ditko owe the world or the comics community his best work? No. Ditko owes himself his best work and whatever he wants to apply his best work to, even if it is these “screeds”. It’s the comic book community’s loss of they don’t buy his small press work, and not his.

And boy, could Ditko hack: seeing samples of his Transformers coloring book and his Big Boy comic is like hearing Orson Welles sell frozen peas.

The portrait that emerges here is of an artist whose principles have ossified into bitter perversity. Bell relates stories of Ditko’s refusing to draw vampires because Objectivism rejects the super­natural; quitting a series because of a dispute over coloring production; and using a priceless old page of his original artwork as a cutting board. Ditko isn’t easy to love.

This is where differ with the way I precieve objectivisim with the way Ditko and other followers of Rand’s philosophy do. Quite a few things are supernatural, if the definition of supernatural is unexplained, because there are a lot strange and unexplained things in the world. Every natural thing was supernatural until we understood it. Thunder, Lightning, The Sun rising in the morning. These all had supernatural explanations until we discovered the natural explanations for them. Bigfoot, Ghosts, Aliens, these are all things people have experienced. Their experience has been as real to them as a brick wall is to everyone. At present the experiences are supernatural. After they are studied and begin to be understood they will become natural. It is worth studying them and learning about them so that we can better understand the natural world around us. Can we say we know everything about nature? No. It would be limiting the mind to disregard a unexplained or supernatural occurance that we don’t yet understand and to limit the mind would be anti-objectivisim because to limit the mind is limiting the ability and greatness of  human beings.

I don’t know why Ditko refused to work on these projects. Only he knows. If it were me I would look at it as it being my job to tell a story, even if it were a fantastical story it would still be my job to tell the story. Breaking a contract is forcing the contractee into an awkward position and that too is anti-objectivist. It would have been better had Ditko never taken on these project in the first place.

A priceless old page of original art? Priceless to whom? Everything that can be traded has a price. A material good is only priceless to someone who can’t achieve the same quality of work. To a collector this page may indeed be priceless because the collector can’t match Ditko’s skill at the drawing board. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Ditko, but if it were my page it would be nothing to me. It would be meaningless. There are thousands upon thousands of infinitely better pages in the mind ready to be put to paper. Perhaps cutting this page may have even been a challenge to the witness. Did the witness precieve that this was the best piece of comic art ever created? If so then it should well be cut in front of their eyes as a lesson that if you think you have arrived at or seen the best then you have failed because there is always something better. Again, there is no limit yet known to the mind and thus no limit to a human being or their work.

As vivid as his work is, it’s never been pretty, and he’s never returned to his most famous creations for a victory lap or courted attention beyond acknowledgment of his work. The raw, nightmarish visions of his art are all he offers, and all he’s ever needed to offer.

What more needs to be offered? What does he owe anyone other than himself? He owes me nothing, but I owe him something for being a pioneer. He is fellow objectivist working in the cartooning field long before I was born and creating objectivist characters before I ever did. I never knew he created the Question, and now that I do I’m going to seek out his work especially work like The Question and study it and learn from it. Thank you Steve Ditko for breaking objectivism into comics. I hope to continue the legacy.

If you’d like to know more about Any Rand and Objectivisim here is the wikipedia entry.

If you’d like to know even more please read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

Here’ is another article on Steve Ditko and Objectivism.

Steve Ditko has no website.

I want to say thank you to Blake Bell for writing Strange and Stranger, and to Douglas Wolk for reviewing it.


One comment

  1. The original review.

    Ayn Rand believed that romantic realism was the best form of art – portrayal of men as they ought to be and placed in a realistic setting (you will find the same in her major works Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead). But this does not mean that an artist should not portray vampires or even God for that matter (Yaron Brook of ARI has in fact praised the Harry Potter series). The relevant part is the “idea” that the work represents. If it is a story, does it show evil triumphing over good because it is evil? If it is a portrait, does the artist glorify evil or the irrational? There are no other considerations involved except the most important one – the work stands by itself and it means something to the artist. Regarding the “priceless old page”, I don’t know what that refers to, but for an analogy if it were the notes and first manuscript of a good book I have written and published, I would preserve it.

    The Ayn Rand Institute has something on Ayn Rand’s view of Objectivist aesthetics-

    “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” The purpose of art is to concretize the artist’s fundamental view of existence. Ayn Rand described her own approach to art as “Romantic Realism”: “I am a Romantic in the sense that I present men as they ought to be. I am Realistic in the sense that I place them here and now and on this earth.” The goal of Ayn Rand’s novels is not didactic but artistic: the projection of an ideal man: “My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark or John Galt or Hank Rearden or Francisco d’Anconia as an end in himself—not as a means to any further end.” – Essentials of Objectivism

    There are no fundamental flaws per se in any genre, superheroes included. As I have said before, it depends on how the characters are portrayed. What is their morality all about? Is the “superhero” a good for nothing whose only aim in life is “saving the people” or stopping crime or whose enemies are evil because they are rich regardless of how the wealth was generated? These are some of the principles that go into dissecting anything, not the mere fact that they are superheroes. When you say “no force unless forced”, you are referring to the non-aggression principle. But the principle is neither a bar to self-defense nor does it prevent anyone from interfering in a situation where he sees force being used on the defenseless.

    Anyone who attacks an aggressor is not a bully and such an attack is not based on a whim – particularly in the case of “the classic Superhero stopping the bank robbery scenario”. The “superhero” (or any ordinary citizen, for that matter) could walk away without doing anything, but if he chooses to interfere, nothing prevents him from doing so. As to why that bank – he was there, he saw the robbery, he felt he should act, he acted. The same could be said of any beat cop who encounters upon a heist. The arbitrariness, if any could only come if the scene is not properly written.

    “Force is the only method a superhero uses and they use it whenever they desire. Therefore a superhero is essentially a bully. These bank robbers never forced the Superhero into action. He just decided to take it. Because you have Super powers does that give you the right to impose your will on whomever you wish whenever you wish? I don’t think so. There’s no principle behind that.

    Sorry. You have got it mixed up. By deciding to use criminal force against an establishment, the robbers have lost all moral right to demand that no one but the law interfere in their case. The non-aggression principle applies to relationships between individuals, more so when it comes to contractual relationships. It does not apply to live acts by murderers, thugs and every other kind of scum who think that they can rule the world with the gun.

    If they’re principle is to stop crime then they’d have to stop all crime simultaneously all the time.”
    Why? I have already written what I think of heroes who don’t do anything but stop crime. It is a simplistic idea which can go nowhere. A superhero needs a moral sphere in which he can operate. Fighting unending waves of criminals just for the sake of fighting them makes no sense at all.

    Supernatural, as it is used in common parlance, refers to something beyond nature – something beyond reason, and we have to be very careful sanctioning such an idea. There is no harm in conducting research – but skepticism is important.

    I hope I don’t sound either brash or patronizing, but I can only comment based on your current post, and I can say this – reading Atlas Shrugged does not make one an Objectivist. I have read it many times, and I don’t consider myself to be one. The first time you read it, you feel that a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders, even a knot in your throat perhaps. But consider the fact that it is a story, a simplistic presentation of Rand’s philosophy. It is a double edged sword and needs to be handed with care. There is more to Objectivism than just Ayn Rand’s fiction. Read some of her books including The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism – An Unknown Ideal, for starters.

    Objectivism is a sum total of belief in an objective reality (the metaphysics), reason as the basis of knowledge (the epistemology), rational self interest as one’s ethics and laissez faire capitalism as the political philosophy. There are two blogs by Objectivist writers you might find of interest –

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