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Face True, Front Believers!

I am crushed by the weight of Steve Ditko‘s passing, found on the 29th of June (my dead sister’s birthday), maybe a couple of days after he’d actually gone deceased in his tiny NYC apartment. I addressed some of my feelings about the man years ago, over here and here. I suspect the creative mind behind The Mocker would have read between the lines.

One point I know I intend on conveying today is that not only is Ditko one of the better-known Objectivists, he’s actually a purity test for the others. While public figures insist on seeing the ideology as synonymous for Capitalism, there was Steve, turning down residuals for reprints and licensing into crossover media for decades. Dave Sim (I think) reported years back to Ditkomania that Steve had been staying on and off at a YMCA in times when he could not afford an apartment. He could’ve been living as large as Stan Lee, but his goal was the work, not rewards for the work. As if the work itself spoke for itself (A is A), and was the ends itself rather than a means to some other end (namely, fame or fortune). His brand of Objectivity was out of place in a Capitalist society, where he shunned interviews because he could give a rat’s ass about marketing or promotions, the bread and butter of the machinery all around us. I’ve read at least half a dozen mainstream obits on the guy in the last day, and every last one was clumsy as fuck, simply because they could not grasp how anyone might exist without financial conquest being the endgame.

I have earnestly tried to push Marvel over the years to take his uncashed checks and start a scholarship in his name, so that the next generation of sequential artists could properly learn the craft, rather than merely tracing photos or each other’s efforts, as the current bullpen of scabs are predominately guilty of (contributing to the poorest sales in industry history). I even tried prompting a biographer of his into helping me setup a small mail-order art school for Ditko, so that he could pass on his technical knowledge firsthand, earning a fair paycheck in a manner that would not betray his convictions. Nobody was interested in either possibility. Presumably they would prefer to entrap themselves inside cults of personality rather than actually bring about constructive change for the better. Creative industry is doublespeak, after all. For that matter, Objectivism’s modern defenders and detractors alike have seemingly not honestly studied the books of Ayn Rand, with even she herself eventually, sadly, falling into the fame and fortune glut of cyclopean self-worship. As much as Capitalists hate socialism, they live for co-opting everything not nailed to the floor. Even with Rand herself (an unwanted immigrant whose one true love was married to somebody else) being so hungry for acceptance and stability as to fall into that bullshit herself, it doesn’t undo the basic tenets. Hitler being a vegetarian doesn’t make vegetarianism bad. Her heroine of Atlas Shrugged (originally titled, The Strike) professed her desire to get rich, sure, but by story’s end she found the wisdom in turning away from fame and fortune, finding a place with that reclusive lot where all they do is create stuff free from the binds of proper society. Yet in the real world, the loudest, most vociferously self-professing Randians today would be first in line to call in strike-breakers, as the syntax underlying Rand’s “looters” and “producers” has been completely reversed. Consider the insanity of headlines describing billionaires as populist leaders, and workers as entitled moochers looking for handouts.

Ditko was never on about favoring one group’s self-interests over another. And nobody anywhere has ever made the claim that his adherence to the ideology was faulty. Who would know better about the belief system, some flavor of the month celebrity or a guy who lived by it to the letter for 50+ years, to the extent of dying a pauper’s death? Anyone today calling themselves an Objectivist is more than likely doing so because Capitalist is starting to become a bad word. But that does not change what Objectivism is. Going by Ditko’s interpretation, which again nobody on the planet has ever contested, Objectivism is against window dressing, against variant covers and against even the least jingoist commercialism. Because if A is A and a thing is itself, then a spade is a spade and it is what it is. No marketing or promotions warranted. I think genuine Objectivists never go online to defend themselves or not, because they see no logic in holding a proxy or avatar to mask themselves or to be confused by. So they make for a handy scapegoat. I am NOT an Objectivist, but I do believe that living under even a weirdo ideology is better than none at all. We are all born nihilists, but wrong or right that changes for each and every one of us before we reach our own respective closing chapters.

Steve Ditko had principles, a verifiable rarity in today’s world, and was more adamant about those principles than any flighty superstar sort where an afternoon’s Facebook blatherings prove them to be every bit as malleable as clay. Comic creators today spend more time optioning movie rights than finishing their stories, whereas Ditko wanted none of the Spider-Man movie money simply because he himself did not work on any of the films. And I’m waiting for any comics journo to realize that Ditko actually held the longest-running career in comics. Because he did. He never went a month without working, not until he passed. He won’t be credited for that of course, just as his self-published materials of recent decades were largely ignored, because creating for the sake of creating is crazy. But everybody hates those myopic, money-driven Objectivists!

Steve Ditko is still too easily pigeon-holed by too many journalists in spite of cultivating one of the more diverse catalogs of any storyteller. I really feel that in a fairer world, he would be noted as the most important figure in the history of American comics. Keeping in mind that the only things which the USA forged for the world were jazz, WMDs and funny books, meaning that he should not be considered a black sheep. Closer to a king rat perhaps.

While I defy anyone to name a more devout practitioner of Objectivism, especially one following that path for as many decades, his real fundamentalism was towards comic books. The Randian bit was just the medium he worked in. He wasn’t chairing the Ayn Rand Foundation; he used that ideological pathos as a tool for directing his creative outputs into the comics medium. I don’t see him as a comic book rebel, as he earnestly believed in their power far more than Joe Q Creator ever seems to. He was an absolute fundamentalist in this regard, a willful slave to a “creative” industry even from the safest place of relative obscurity. So maybe he was a kook, just not in the ways he’s generally charged with. Ditko gave his whole life to comics, at the personal loss of depriving himself of a wife and kids and the rest of the nuclear family, American pipe-dream stereotype all are pre-programmed to obsess over. And perhaps in that way was he most flawed. As embittered as he could sometimes seem to be, he never gave up on comic books. Zealotry of any stripe is a weakness. His own avenging essays were like leeching boils whereas authentic rebelling against the sickness would have been to lance them. They were well-considered, but to really challenge or upset the status quo would be to kick in its kneecaps altogether. He obviously loved comics too much to ever consider such a thing.

All of this is speculation though, with a probably wrongful amount of projection on my part. For all the public knows, he had a long-lived love affair with a sultry little thing, the two of them drinking it up together like Bukowski characters, producing out of wedlock bastard children by the bushel and the peck. Maybe Ditko proudly, quietly served as the leading pill-pusher in his tenement building’s block, the kind who ripped everyone off. Maybe he was posting on comic boards under pseudonyms all along, ripping the Big Two new dimensions of arseholes. As guarded as he was we don’t know anything about him but his body of work. Behind closed doors he could’ve been the biggest turd our species has ever known, but his body of work was clearly something else, readily found at the opposing end of the spectrum. It is foolish to praise what we don’t know, but we can appreciate what we do.

It is quite shamefully rare for a person to give their all to anything other than the pursuit of fame or fortune. But for such persons to be labeled as outcasts because of that ethic, is perversity in social form. I think his only real public flaw was in grossly overestimating the reading comprehension of comic book audiences. Entertainment is a luxury, not a right, and certainly not at the expense of the visceral worlds within worlds.

While my article here may sound harsh, in fairness of choice and tonal differentiation, I’d like to direct readers to this piece composed by comics historian Nick Caputo, which very graciously summarizes much of what Steve contributed to our culture.