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.
“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.