First things first. Let’s get this clear.
Ayn Rand was always supremely full of shit.
First of all, friends of mine whose familes are in the railroad biz were actually offended by the way she portrayed it in Atlas Shrugged. Ivory tower bullshit! is what they called it. And secondly, if nothing else is logically necessary in this world it is logically necessary that should all our billionaire CEOs withhold their labour we would be, materially, better-fucking-off overnight. In Ms. Rand’s own words: pity for the guilty, is treason to the innocent. In the days we are living in, when corrupt plutocrats are raining on the earth like cometary fragments, when Friedman has ridden us into the trashcan and everybody is up in arms and suddenly John Galt’s speech makes sense once you understand Ayn Rand was tripping on speed when she wrote it, and when there is no longer any question but that private vices frequently make for public ACCIDENTS and that being “virtuously selfish” makes no one want to talk to you anymore and that…and that…and that…
She was kind of a bitch, right? That Ayn Rand?
And everything she said turned out to be a big, fat, lie.
But, that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
Do you know the story about the Buddha who wasn’t really a Buddha? But his follower turned out to be one. The real Buddha, yeah…sometimes a lie is all it takes, to meet him on the road. And of course when you meet the Buddha on the road, you are famously required to cut his head off and then take a piss in…! Sorry. What I mean is, you’re the only Buddha that you’ll ever meet…so if you never meet the Buddha, that’s on you.
And not, strangely enough, on Ayn Rand.
So enter Steve Ditko. Because you know I think he’s the only one who makes it make sense? He won’t take a penny of Spider-Man money, not a red cent — if you have chosen to act in this way it is on you that the moral consequences must fall, and I will not not absolve you! — I mean I really thought calling Peter Parker’s landlord “Mr. Ditkovitch” in the movie was both horribly insolent, and also like a kind of moral crowbar, a self-flattering “gee please join us Mr. Ditko, join in our comics-are-great singalong!” kind of a thing…well, we’ve seen it before, haven’t we? “Please say the Watchmen movie is going to be awesome, Alan Moore!” You guys know I love Alan, but he’s not a patch on Ditko. In a way he’s a copy of Ditko, eh? After he left Marvel, Ditko did simply amazing work for about twenty years or more…and I will come back to some specifics about that work before long, don’t worry…and now he does Dodgem Logic. He does outsider art, now. But if you look at his compositional skills, the subject may be something you think is nutty but his command of mood and gesture is even more expert now than it was before. Cripes, no wonder Dave Sim is so interested in him! Both Alan and Dave are pale shadows of the master. Steve Ditko was uncool before uncool was uncool. Look at Mr. A…have you ever read it, comics folk? You know what? It’s good. Alan Moore and David Lloyd are straight-up comics geniuses, but if you want to know who got to the question of “what sacrifices does your morality require of you” first, in superheroic form…well, do you really even have to ask? Ms. Rand has got nothing on Mr. Ditko — he’s no hypocrite, even if she is! I think it entirely possible she’d take the money; after all, for all her protestations, does she not seem a bit more amoral than moral? A bit more self-less, than self-ish?
And Steve Ditko doesn’t seem that way at all. Ever read “Shade, The Changing Man”? It may be the most purely trippy comic I’ve ever read (part of the reason why I always rated Peter Milligan’s reinvention of it second-best — damnit, I still want to know what is beyond the Meta-Zone!), but trippiest of all is what grounds the thing: Ditko’s hero simply will not give an inch, because it would be wrong. You want your black-and-white stuff? Ditko’s heroes are all about cost, above all: who will pay it? And if they can’t pay it, then who will step in for them? In the seriousness with which he tackles these questions, Ditko is probably the only truly ethically-oriented Objectivist I’ve ever heard of, read about, seen, or imagined: because he puts his heart and soul into it, his work is intrinsically heroic in a way few others can match. Ditkovian heroes get as lucky as any other kind, maybe even luckier — like Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt, Ditko breeds Sufferin’ Supermen, not average joes! — but they don’t know that, and so their luck’s usually commensurate with their effort. The classic Dr. Strange stories, irreplaceable treasures of the modern age of comics no matter what country you come from, never feature any magic power more important than bravery…bravery! It is the one superior quality that Ayn Rand’s spokespeople lack, because they never need it. Black and white are simply given to them, Objectivism’s princelings. But I can almost believe in the whole mess when following the adventures of Rac Shade, or Stephen Strange, or Vic Sage, or even — yeah, it’s true! — Mr. A. Because I really feel it, you know? That anyone can have a great soul. Still it’s odd to think of how many great artists there are, who create wonderfully open-minded work and yet seem to personally believe crazy locked-down things. Dave Sim made Jaka come to life, and he actually denies it, you know? But the skilled hands have their own knowledge, and if they’re skilled enough they’re fair. In Ditko’s The Djinn with Steve Englehart, he presents a classic Marlowesque anti-hero, a conflicted loser with an ironically-beating heart (although Ali’s more Bogart to me!) who isn’t morally-perfect by Randian standards and whose side the writer is not on…it sort of reminds me of G.K. Chesterton a bit, a great writer who very nearly spoiled every one of his own books for me by being overly committed to me converting to Catholicism…! And yet that king of paradoxes was sufficiently paradoxical himself to give his opponents the most sterling ripostes. Oh, where is that damned David Langford bit about “The Ball And The Cross”…?
“[D]espite Chesterton’s bias Turnbull gets some splendid lines — as in the early vow to fight that duel, no matter what. MacIan spends a whole paragraph swearing this by everything in and under heaven. “The atheist drew up his head. ‘And I,’ he said, ‘give my word.'”
For sure. And, can you feel it? Well, just give Chesterton time and he will explain to you why the person who’s an atheist is the person who most believes in God…but whatever, he may have the argument but we have the dialogue, and you know what trumps what. Hell, I didn’t ask the guy to put his heart and soul into his work, you know…!
And in just such a way does Ditko show a storyteller’s compassion to his characters, that can’t help but come through the characters. His version of Kirby’s Machine Man (and why is it, exactly, that Ditko could always manufacture such strangely-suitable takes on Kirby characters?) is all about the secret value of human foibles; the main villain in Shade, while inarguably bad (“yes, bad and rotten, as all proper villains should be!” – Zom) is nonetheless a villain whose ethicity we get — not that there aren’t chaotic cackling bad ‘uns aplenty in Shade, but interestingly the main villain does a bit more than mere cackling, is a bit more caring, is a bit more…heck…
Perhaps that’s a bit over-strong. Being that it’s Ditko, it gives one a shudder to think it. And yet it remains true, that…well, the villains could have great souls as well, if they only chose them, and so even if it really is all their fault (and it is, oh it is!) it’s still something of a human tragedy that they choose so deliberately poorly. To feel too sorry for them would of course be to choose poorly ourselves — they knew what they were doing, the bastards! — but to fail to acknowledge their potential, their human dimension, wouldn’t that just be another way of absolving them of responsibility? No Ditko villain ever gets to evade the cost of his or her choices; if the heroes aren’t allowed to do it, then why should they be so privileged? But everybody always pays to play. No one gets any convenient excuses. The heroes may always win, and get better breaks than you or I would, but that’s only because they’ve sweated buckets to get them. They’re better, but it isn’t by accident. Without the luck, they wouldn’t survive at all; but then without the bravery, they wouldn’t get the luck either. It’s a pretty far cry from Ayn Rand, really! And maybe “sympathetic” isn’t entirely the wrong word for it, because your sympathies do get involved; they just don’t get confused, is all. They go to their targets properly. Even the contempt, is somewhat healthy and well-nourished. Clean-limbed, or at least well-limned. Hell, because these are comics, you know?
And we know what kind of ethical presentations are appropriate to this form, don’t we?
And so to deny that knowledge, to pretend we don’t have it, would surely be wrong. Wouldn’t it?
But that sword cuts both ways, of course. And in fact it’s just what cuts off Ayn Rand’s head, when Ditko meets her on the road. For her, Objectivism seems to have been a convenience! But Ditko doesn’t play that game.
The heroes never do, do they?