Friday, October 16, 2020

There is Black and There Is White

A Long Hard Look at Steve Ditko's Mr. A

Ever since finishing my year-long study of the original Spider-Man graphic novel, I have been intending to have a look at some of Steve Ditko’s latter work. I have in front of me a couple of self-published “Mr A” comics from 2016. No-one would expect these comics to have the cultural impact that Spider-Man and Doctor Strange had sixty years ago. Ditko was approaching his 90th birthday when he drew them. They may not be done well; but it is remarkable that they were done at all. 

The comics are black and white line drawings; no inker or letterer is credited. Ditko’s style seems to have been frozen in time: anyone could spot at a glance that the artist is the same guy who created the classic episodes of Spider-Man. We have extreme closeups of faces and eyes representing fear and panic; and montages of faces representing the voice of public opinion. There are some disconcertingly familiar faces: a police lieutenant has the same haircut as Norman Osborne; a singer who is being intimidated by a scary monster has the face and body language of Betty Brant and the newspaper editor is the spitting image of J.J.J. 

Some of the full page drawings have an in-your-face immediacy which recalls Ditko’s classic horror and twist-ending episodes. “The Score” begins with and image of three leering faces, half shaded in a grotesque reptilian shadow in front of a figure of a recently dead body. There is no background, but there is a network of weird black lines, possibly emanating from the faces and somewhat resembling Peter Parker’s spider-sense lines. On the other hand, there is little of the articulation and animation that gave the older comics such a sense of energy and movement. Spider-Man’s body used to twist into strange, anatomically unlikely shapes as it swung out of the panel at the reader. Mr A is clumsy and stiff, like a poorly articulated action figure — or indeed one of those posable manikins that artists often have on their desks. 

Astonishingly, Ditko created Mr A as far back as 1968 — only a couple of years after he quit Spider-Man. These two late issues make no concessions to the new reader — or indeed to any kind of reader at all. I managed to work out that Rex Graine, a journalist, is also Mr A, a vigilante. Mr A wears perfectly ordinary clothes: a double breasted jacket, a tie, and possibly a vest. Everything is white — completely unshaded in this comic — and his face is entirely expressionless which may indicate a mask. Before confronting bad guys he hands them, or sometimes throws at them, a calling card which is half black and half white. Sometimes it turns black when they pick it up — rather in the way that the text of the Shadow’s letters used to fade away a few seconds after the recipient reads them. The calling card represents the fact that black is black and white is white and black can’t be white and white can’t be black. This is a Mr A’s core belief and also, so far as I can tell, his super-power. 

The stories have the form of comic book gangster adventures. They are narratively dense, almost schematic: I felt I had to read them panel by panel to make sense of what was going on. The dialogue is often fragmentary, as if Ditko is struggling to outline his points in as few words as possible. For example, when Mr A threatens to expose an intimidation plot, we get the following exchange between two conspirators: 

“Call exploder….warn him…stop her….save myself” 

“She wouldn’t dare! Wait! Yah! Hateful enough… Loves to destroy a man #@ ruin my growing business.” 

Ditko consistently uses hashtags and “at” signs to signify swearing, which can be quite confusing: I would know how to interpret “It’s only a **** card” but “It’s only a #@ card” catches me out every time. 

And inevitably, characters make political speeches at each other, all the time. There is no attempt to provide narrative distance: everyone discloses their true motivations in single sentence soliloquies. Evil journalists proclaim “Truth is whatever serves the little people: social justice is true justice”; evil politicians say “Wrong, right, all relative.” Comforting a woman whose husband has been driven to suicide, Rex explains (deep breath)

“Jay was in a vicious frame vice. He was innocent yet he couldn’t see a way out. Truth, justice, seemed powerless, the legal, moral authorities indifferent, useless. Innocent, alone, helpless, undefended, I guess he truly believed he was sparing you and Cathy worse suffering! We can become self-trapped in the unreal. It’s hard for many especially for innocent victims to understand that in the world of objective truth evil has no power of its own. The corrupt, the seekers of the unearned, give evil its destructive power. Left to their own, the unreal — lies, evil — will self destruct. The compromisers, corruptors, grey men, feed, arm and unleash the destructive evil.” 

Aristotle said that everything which exists exists; nothing can both exist and not exist; and everything must either exist or not exist. I am certainly not going to contradict him. The first statement — that everything which exists exists — can be represented as A=A. Mr A is called Mr A because he believes that everything has a nature and an essence and that nature or essence can’t be other than what it is. He is possibly the only superhero named after a logical axiom.

Mr A sees A=A as a political statement rather than a purely logical proposition. The contemporary world is corrupt because it thinks that A does not always equal A. One “voice of the people” montage depicts a chorus of citizens with thought balloons expressing what Ditko takes to be anti-objective statements 

“Who can say what is true? No-one?” 

“Why can’t we all compromise? It’s fair… each side give in get along…” 

“x@ extremist! @# black and white thinking! Everything is gray, everyone!…No better, no worse…” 

It is absolutely taken for granted that compromise and the belief that there are moral grey areas is an absolute falsehood, a denial that A=A. 

A=A is simply a slogan; a rhetorical tool to give weight to a particular position; a way of asserting that a particular belief — your particular belief — is an absolute and not capable of being discussed. Liberal journalism, political corruption, and poor adaptations of novels into movies are all denials of the law of identity. “Stan Lee had creative input into Spider-Man #33” and “The unemployed should receive welfare payments” are equally refuted by the statement “A = A: A ≠ X: A ≠ Y.” To a very great extent “A=A” simply means “whatever I, the writer approve of.” 

I recall that Mr Dave Sim refuted liberal suggestions that the Gulf War was not a very good idea by saying “Two plus two equals four; it does not equal three or five.” 

Let’s look at one ten-page story as an example of the genre. A robot monster, “The Exploder” is seen attacking an art collector and an artist on two different occasions. It transpires that he has been independently hired by one Boris Boro, a crooked art-dealer and one Messa Jubi who works for a local arts council. Mr A goes and threatens Boro with a black and white calling card, but Boro won’t confess to hiring the Exploder. After Mr A has gone, Boro warns The Exploder that Mr A is on to him. The Exploder returns to Jubi to warn her not to expose him; but just as he is about to strangle her, Mr A intervenes with one of his terrible business cards. He knew the Exploder would go to Jubi once Boro told him Mr A was on to him; and now he has proof that the arts council committee member hired the supervillain, which will force Boro to confess as well. 

Boro, the crooked art dealer hired the Exploder to intimidate the collector simply because he wanted to buy his collection: the collector would rather sell his ceramics than see them destroyed. He also gets a black and white card from Mr A: he is just as reprehensible for giving into intimidation as Boro was for intimidating him. (Compromisers deny that things which exist exist, remember.) Jubi hired the Exploder to attack the second artist simply because she disliked his work and wanted to pressure him into making art she approved of. 

There is a fight and Mr A wins. The fight scene runs to two pages without dialogue; including a single page montage of Mr A and the Exploder wrestling, with no panel borders, which is quite effective. The individual panels lack dynamism, but the way in which five small panels enclose one larger one, giving the impression of the hero pushing the villain through the other pictures makes the page feel quite kinetic. 

This is by no means a dreadful plot; although its extreme brevity and sketchiness meant I had to read through it several times to follow what was going on: it wasn’t immediately clear to me that the guy getting the visiting card on page 6 was the guy who had been forced to sell his art collection on page 1, and when a radio newscast says “Maser accused Boris Boro” in the final panel, I had to back track to find out which characters they were. I was expecting there to be some revelation about the Exploder’s true identity, but it doesn’t come. Possibly he is Norman Osborne. 

But this thin storyline is wholly there to carry an ideological message. Jubi is a grotesque caricature: fat, with bad teeth and unkempt hair, wearing leopardskin flares and with abstract shading on her jacket. (Sympathetic females wear old fashioned skirts and blouses.) She is attacking the artist because she doesn’t approve of his work. He makes sculptures of “an ideal of man” whereas she “hates the human body”. And this isn’t merely a matter of artistic taste: she hates human figures because she hates humans 

“Man the unnatural animal dares to set himself up as a superior being or having some great value! He must be shown accept his true vile nature be kep down small obedient dependent a herd animal a barnyard animal no better than mindless meat without ideal as a hope a better future…” 

The artist thinks that “you can smear an ideal, but the judging mind won’t be fooled”. The arts council committee members thinks (are you ready for this) 

“Ha! Ha! The fact that there is tax supported art proves people are willing to pay to see their best noblest stature insulted degraded and willingly to accept deformity as a valid even a superior standard model, ideal, Ha! Ha! Ha! yes go your kind will soon be gone forever.” 

The main thing she believes, of course, is that A does not necessarily equal A. 

“No one is better. Only direction is down. Worse. Everything blending… No real identity. All is really nothing. Nothing deserves nothing!” 

When Mase gets his card, he realises that, by capitulating with the Exploder, he has compromised and therefore become evil. As he explains: 

“A clear division, contrast, definite, yes, absolutes! No! No diluting, greying defining, what? Hmm standards? The best, worst? Truth. Lies? Honest, dishonest? The not to be mixed…surrendered…betrayed…” 

Words. Few words. Commas… no. Logic…no. Impact....some. Message....yes. Clear message. Subtle message. Message subtle as blow to head with sledgehammer. Private art: good. Subsidised art: bad. Individuals good. Collective bad. Communism bad, very bad, oh so bad. Behind everything…communism. 

When I ran this comic past her, Louise wondered if Ditko had perhaps had a very bad run-in with a grants committee and become obsessed with the idea that grants committees are evil. This is possible. But I don’t think that he would let something as trivial as individual experience sully his perfectly logical universe. A satire of a specific New York City arts subsidy committee could hardly fail to be interesting. But what we have here is a picture of what arts committees look like in the mind of an objectivist: a model of what arts committees must logically be like, starting from the premise that only things which exist exist. 

Good art is art which enshrines an ideal: and it will always be recognized by “the judging mind”. This doesn’t appear to mean that good art will be recognized by the public, and certainly not that good art is whatever sells. Good art is recognized by people who are equipped to appreciate good art: the judging mind. Tax supported arts subsidies try to override the judging mind by giving the people the kind of art they ought to like. They justify this through circular logic: the fact that people are compelled to support this art through their tax dollars proves that they do in fact like it because otherwise they wouldn’t be paying for it. The people who decide what art should and should not be funded do so with consciously bad motives. They don’t just happen to prefer modern art to classical art or abstract art to figurative art. They are not merely philistines. They consciously disapprove of art which shows humanity in a good light and approve of art which shows humanity in a bad light, because they themselves are misanthropes. 

And behind it all — ultimately — is communism. When the story about the intimidation of artists comes on the radio, an anonymous chorus member switches channels and listens instead to “that tax funded cultural program about the benevolent dictatorship of the people’s utopian republic”. 

A good political tract should, at the very least, make the reader say “Well, I don’t agree with this, but I can see why you do.” Who said that a religious evangelist had first to show why a good man might wish that Christianity were true; and then to show that a sensible man could believe that it was true; and only then try to persuade them that as a matter a fact it is true? 

Nothing in Mr A makes objectivism seem appealing; and nothing makes it seem even remotely sensible. You can chant "A = A" as much as you like: if you have ever been in a courtroom or a mediation session you know that honest people can have honest disagreements about the truth. You can chant "A = A" as much as you like: people’s motives are often mixed; you can do a good thing for a bad reason or a bad thing for a good reason and the correct moral path may be hard to find. You can, very easily, believe that chastity is a moral good and nevertheless become a prostitute in order to buy food for your children. You can, very easily, believe that war is evil and become a soldier to defend democracy from Fascism. Choosing the lessor evil does not make you a compromiser or a gray man. “Should I tell the truth, and perhaps hurt a number of people unnecessarily; or should I lie, and perhaps be forced to maintain more and more complex deceptions for the rest of my life?” is a real question: you do not answer it by throwing a black and white calling card in my face. If Mr A had read a little more Aristotle he would have discovered that you can’t infer an “ought” from an “is”.

Half the good stories in the world turn on moral dilemas. The great tales are not about the conflict of right versus wrong but about the conflict of right versus right. You can’t derive drama from moral certainty. Mr A fails as a comic because it exists in a universe in which narrative is impossible. 

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Mike Taylor said...

Well, that sounds absolutely awful.

One is tempted to think that for Kirby to produce his best work, he needed the influence of someone else to dilute or counteract his worst excesses. A kind of Stan Lee figure, if you will.

Gavin Burrows said...

Do you mean Ditko, Mike?

While later Ditko is not (ironically enough) objectively any good, there is something compelling about it. In a weird way his approach is actually quite punk. "I'm just telling you what you need to hear. No, I'm not going to prettify it up. Yes, you do have to listen. It's not my fault if you don't like it."

I guess the unasked (and most likely unanswerable) question is whether there's a link between form and content. Are his characters all ciphers because he just conceives of society as a bunch of separate units stuck together in a mechanism?

Mike Taylor said...

Argh! I do, of course, mean Ditko! Sorry.

"Yes, you do have to listen" — but I don't, do I? I live in a world where there are already an order of magnitude more things I want to give my time to than I have time to give to them. Who reads religious tracts for fun?

Your last question is disturbing. It does rather raise the spectre of Ditko genuinely believing he is above us all.

Gavin Burrows said...

I don't think he does. That's the way in which Ditko very much isn't punk. Punk is really about the self. Whereas there's no sense he's doing what he's doing to reflect his personality or convince you of his artistic merits. He genuinely believes he's bringing you the truth.He thinks the market mechanism is above us all, for sure. But he doesn't seem to think he is.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't know much about Punk. But I can easily see that the Sex Pistols had Redeeming Artistic Importance. They convey anger and alienation though the sound they make and the words they say. There's a violent poetry to it. They are shaking their fists against the world and hoping you will get caught up in their anger, as opposed to (say) reciting long passages from Kropotkin. What is dispiriting about Mr A is that there is no artistry in there. It's just a tract. (And without even the direct, grab-you-by-the-lapels simplicity of Mr Jack Chick.)_

Andrew Rilstone said...

Here is the thing. When Kirby split from Lee he produced exactly what you would have expected: a comic which was like the Fantastic Four only ten times louder and ten times bigger. More kosmos, more koncepts, more karacters and more konflict. But without any of Stan Lee's wit or irony or voices it felt a lot like being hit repeatedly over the head. (Meanwhile, Lee without Kirby was writing wittier and wittier captions to more and more pointless extended fight scenes.) But when Ditko split from Lee, what he produced was non-descript. Mediocre superhero fare that some people like because it reminds them slightly of Spider-Man. (I tried to read a few issues of Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle and they are simply turgid.)

Of course, the strips I was talking about were half a century down the line, something a very old man was doing because he wanted to do them. Presumably, he could have been drawing the life Ayn Rand or adapting the Fountainhead if he had wanted to do -- and he did produce pages and pages of political essays. But for some reason, he produces something which has the form of a very old fashioned superhero strip, but is full of quite obscure political speech making.

THEORY: Ditko genuinely wanted to tell superhero crime stories. And naturally, he wanted his baddies to be really bad and his hero to be really admirable. And individualism is the only good, and collectivism is the only bad: so naturally all his stories will be about collectivists who go on and on about collectivism and individualists who try to stop them.

But even so. When Alan Moore decides to spend ten issues going on and on about ritual magic, he generally manages to do so in an clever and compelling way.

Oddly enough, I have just been re-reading an obscure comic by a guy who has some pretty out there beliefs about gender politics. I forget his name...

Mike Taylor said...

Sadly, the history of popular culture is full of this kind thing: a duo makes something great, then they can't stand each other any more and split, and what they produce individually — while still pretty good — is only pale shadow of what they were able to do together. A subtle alchemy is broken. Instead of Abbey Road, we get Ram and Imagine. Instead of Dark Side of the Moon, we get The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking and A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Instead of the Kirby-and-Lee Spider-Man, we get ... well, you know the rest.

Gavin Burrows said...

Punk is made up of combining things which don't necessarily combine - a desire to transcend the old ways of doing things, and an impatience with aesthetic rules at all. You aren't supposed to focus on the aesthetics of it when you listen to punk, you're supposed to just get caught up in the moment and pretend that's the way the music was originally made. (Some people did take the rhetoric at face value and assumed just really meaning it man was enough. But never mind.)

I haven't read anything this late TBH, perhaps he was caught up in his own feedback loop by then. But earlier Mr. A does have a kind of compelling quality and disregard for the norms which semi-reminds me of punk. Chick tracts are fun to read because they're so loony. That's true of Ditko too, but there is something else going on there as well. There's one about One Of Those Terrible Modern Artists and his terrible artworks, which are of course supposed to be equally aesthetically bad and morally bad. And of course they all look awesome!

And I could well imagine were Ditko to read this he'd assume we hadn't got his all-important message because we were too focused on the trivial matter of his aesthetics.

I shall now prove I am not a robot.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The New Gods is more Kirbyesque than the Fantastic Four or Thor: people who like Kirby in particular like it more than they liked his work with Stan. Similarly, Plastic Ono Band is more Lennonish than Sgt Pepper or the White Album: people who like John Lennon in particular like it more than they like anything he did with Paul. And Band on the Run has lots of lovely tunes, and definitely Paul McCartney's lovely tunes were one of the things we liked about the Beatles. But Captain Atom and Blue Beetle and Mr A. have NONE of the qualities that made Spider-Man and Doctor Stranger (and bits of the Hulk) so compelling. They don't feel like Ditko without Lee: they feel like Ditko without Ditko.

Except for the clothes. He can still draw clothes.

Richard Worth said...

It is curious that 'Mr A' is basically libertarian, and believes that abstract modern art would not thrive without Government support, whereas in practice both Communists and Fascists tended to dislike abstract art in favour of (National) Socialist Realism.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Good point! Just as works by the big abstract painters are usually bought by wealthy connoisseurs (the only people who can afford them).