With this month being the 60th anniversary of Spider-Man’s first appearance and the Doctor Strange sequel still in theaters, this is of interest. Most folks in comic books know Ayn Rand is full of it, but few can explain explicitly why. I cover that on their behalf and, in the doing I believe I have cast Steve Ditko in a surprisingly different light. This is the conversation that nobody in comics can or will have about Ditko and Objectivism.
I learned to read on comics before kindergarten, my dad having a small stack from the 60s and earlier in the 70s. Among the tattered copy of The Last of The Mohicans from Classics Illustrated and Jack Kirby-written, -drawn and -edited issues of both Kamandi and Our Fighting Forces from DC, was a multi-parter by Bill Mantlo and Steve Ditko, Marvel Spotlight featuring Captain Universe. About powers that went from person to person to person. My first exposure to Ditko’s work was pushing the idea that anyone could be a hero, and I really, really took that to heart.
It wasn’t that long ago when Robert Kirkman issued a video editorial urging big-name creators to exit Marvel and DC stage left, and dive into the indies. And many pundits applauded him for it. But many of those pundits will also look down on Ditko with no irony, for not allowing his Spidey run a fat Elvis phase.
People within and satelliting the comic book industry loathe Steve Ditko for being Objectivist which they are told is synonymous for Capitalism and because fork Capitalism. But the reality is that everyone working in comics today is probably more Capitalist.
Where Ditko refused checks for movies, TV shows and toys he did not actually work on, *because* he did not actually work on them, creators today throw hissy-fits for not getting paid for movies, TV shows and toys which they themselves did not actually work on. Is it grotesque that their employers exploit their work to such extents? Absolutely. Were they wrong to believe the hype of creative industry doublespeak? Absolutely. Were they born yesterday? Probably not. Did Ditko ever give a minute to any hype? Nope, he was too busy drawing. But back in the 1970s when Neal Adams tried to pull together a union for comic book writers and artists, Ditko came out from hiding for the meetings. Whereas today, when Image staffers tried to unionize, they were kneecapped by Image Powers That Be, and…everyone is fine with that.
Ditko pulled back from commercial art because he objected to exploitation, and he is belittled to this day by persons still suckling the golden calf’s teat. Like Aesop he saw in art the potential for a vessel carrying so much more than entertainment, but those only seeing dollar signs lack the imagination. Ditko felt a responsibility to convey the heroic ideal’s self-sacrifice, something to strive for, as opposed to falling into Capitalist trappings of “might making right” and “ends justifying means”. Ditko was problematic on gigs not because he wanted more money, or superstardom, but because he believed if we allow hero-worshiped icons to act immorally or unethically, the masses would be unnecessarily forgiving when hero-worshiped icons IRL do the same. That was his Objectivism. And those wanting to milk lowest common denominators for sales condemn him for it. Steve Ditko *is* a Rorschach, and so many comics people see in him all that they hate about themselves.
An admitted Capitalist herself in her later years, Ayn Rand, the mother of Objectivism, sold out her own belief system because no centerpiece to any personality cult truly believes what their followers do. Elon Musk for example, is 100% codependent upon investors, workers, customers and audiences. He *needs* them to think he is the one doing the uplifting. Nobody can name a more devout Objectivist than Ditko, adhering for 50+ years while turning down residuals for jobs he’d already accepted pay for, to extents where he was staying at a YMCA for a time as Dave Sim detailed for the Ditkomania fanzine some years ago. While the working title for Atlas Shrugged was The Strike, persons today most vocal about being followers tend to be first to call in strikebreakers and union-busters. Was Ditko half-assed about his beliefs, or have Capitalists simply co-opted yet another thing? Because if the ideologies were interchangeable he’d have been pimping as hard as Stan Lee, exploiting others for even more monies. If A is A as he believed, then a thing is itself and function means more than thoughts or feelings about it, implying that no window dressing is ever necessary. Polar opposite to Capitalism, where a job well done matters less than whatever rewards to come of it.
The people today who love Ayn Rand clearly never actually read much of her work, and the people today who loathe her clearly never actually read much of her work either. And even more clear is how she herself never once gave any of it a reread. Her heroine from Atlas Shrugged pronounced herself a Capitalist after a fashion, but at the end of the novel she retreated from society to a remote commune to create in peace, free from the salesmen and money-handlers. I’m not advocating for her work, I just never understood how anybody could love or hate a thing they honestly know nothing about. But if making art were truly the endgame for so many comic artists, then none was more passionate about that than Ditko, who could write, draw, ink, letter, color and self-publish. He worked in more genres than most creators do, and he kept what was unarguably one of the longest, continuous careers in the history of the trade, if we count all of the self-published works of his later decades that nobody read because they were not done for profit, but more often than not at cost, as he never stopped because he loved the craft. While avoiding fame and fortune because his work was his obsession, as opposed to obsessively fantasizing about what he’d do when finally scoring fame and fortune. Maybe the industry is so loaded with users and abusers, too many simply cannot wrap their heads around someone being that earnest, and that honest.
Vilified with animosity even postmortem by all those too ill-informed to see the difference between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko was always the difference between Capitalism and Objectivism. Steve Ditko was the self-martyred saint of comic books, exploring all they had to offer, but he was canceled for not being a Capitalist, and daring to have anything else in mind but lowest common denominators.
How could so many people be so wrong about Steve Ditko, the man? Because those granting time and space to pop culture announce themselves as the most susceptible to marketing. When the first comic strips were devised as carrots on sticks to prompt perceived illiterates into also buying newspapers, sometimes exasperated minds are left wondering if that ever really changed. And comics media fumbles constantly. Marvel allowed alt-right groups with and without badges to just walk away with their Punisher emblem, replacing theirs with a sort of squid pooping out its conjoined twin, a thing which not even the most meth-head of jockstraps would care to re-appropriate. But they’d have no need to steal again, because ego only bows to greater ego and they got what they wanted and continue to use it without competition or consequence. And comics media celebrated the redesign, oblivious to what occurred in broad daylight.
Real heroes are never the ones asking for help. They don’t need your kickstarter donations or your campaign contributions, they don’t need you to check out their new show or to like and subscribe to their youtube channel. Real heroes don’t even have the time to ask for permission, because there exists matters in life that are more pressing than nursed egos.
Work warrants compensation just as actions meet with consequences and every cause has an effect. Workers deserve compensation for their time and audiences deserve compensation for their time. But demanding some eternal glory of celebrated, hero-worshiped status simply for pursuing one’s dreams, is asking from others more than is reasonable, especially as they’ve their own lives to lead. Nobody’s survival literally depends on being loved. People just think they’re too good to clean toilets. When our dreams are unobtainable unless others grant time, attentions and resources and monies, then our dreams are reliant on others making the actual sacrifices. In this regard art is the same as guns and governments, in that no matter if a bad or good person is wielding them, they sacrifice what is not theirs just by utilizing its basic function. Steve Ditko’s goal was to produce comic books, and he accomplished that with little support. At his most assertive, he understood that art should not be experienced as a one-way dialogue. He wasn’t shouting to remake the world in his image, for all to kneel before his little Zod and to do as he says, he was imploring for all to engage their own free will, and to do so without the codependency of using or abusing anyone. He avoided praise, preferring readers to continue the discourse on their own terms. The nerve! Is this to say that one should be subservient to circumstance, to aim lower than the stars? I don’t believe so, but it does mean that no matter how appealing a dream, it is not reality, and that insisting otherwise leads invariably to chaos and self-destruction.
Your passion, your skills and your talents, are needed in the real world, to help repair the many damages stemming from egos fed and fantasies indulged.
Originally published here.