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CSBG Archive

365 Reasons to Love Comics #179

Alright, I admit it, I missed a day. The circumstances were beyond my control, as the cable conked out as I was going to post yesterday’s entry. It’s up now, though, in its rightful spot, so scroll down and check it out.

Welcome, now, to DITKO WEEK: Day Five! It’s time for the companion piece to “yesterday’s” column. Ditko’s philosophical treatise… in the form of a comic!

6/28/07

179. Mr. A

Mr A 4.gif

A for Archive? No. But it gave me a cheeky link.

Mr. A is Steve Ditko’s most personal work, and probably some of his best stuff. This is Ditko Unchained– he wrote, drew, even lettered it all himself, unedited by any other hands. And yes, Mr. A looks kinda like the Question, who was created around the same time– 1967 or so– and shared similar philosophies. The Question is the “safe” and marketable Mr. A. The Question asked; Mr. A answered.

Mr. A, first appearing in the third issue of a publication called witzend, was really Rex Graine, a reporter with rock solid conviction and a penchant for crime-fighting. When he goes about his vigilantism, he wears a completely white suit and an expressionless steel mask. The superficial details were far less important than the ideas behind them– mostly, the stories were Objectivist allegories.

I’ve been tossing around the “Objectivism” labels throughout the week so far, teasing everyone with it, and not following through with an explanation. Well, here goes. Steve Ditko adopted the Objectivism philosophy originally conceived by author Ayn Rand in her novel Atlas Shrugged. There is no subjectivity– absolutes exist and are defined by reality, which is an external fact of existence. For something to exist, it has to have specific attributes. “A is A.” Something is something. In Objectivism, there can be no ego. Who better to portray such a thing than Steve Ditko, the man who keeps to himself and lets his work speak for him?

“A is A.” Hence, Mr. A– the living embodiment of Objectivism. For Mr. A, there is only good and evil– there can be no gray area in between, for that is a land of corruption. This explains his black/white calling card and his all-white appearance.

Mr A 1.jpgMr A 2.jpg

Quite a few Mr. A stories follow the same path. In fact, the set-ups are quite Eisnerian. We’re introduced to a character who thinks they’ll be fine if they live in the gray area, if they do a few bad things but still consider themselves good people– but these bad things inevitably lead them deeper into an evil world, and Mr. A steps in to dole out his unique brand of justice. The individual blames society instead of themselves, and they usually get killed off at the end, succumbing to the dark abyss of evil. Other Mr. A stories are philosophical arguments, where Mr. A acts as a moral overseer, telling a character, and therefore the reader, about how his ideologies are right. In these tales, “plot” takes a backseat.

In Mr. A’s first story, a young man, “Angel,” shifts from petty theft to murder as he falls deeper into the black half of morality. Mr. A beats the crap out of people in order to find him. Everyone but Angel himself is blamed for his corrupt ways. Angel even goes far enough to injure his girlfriend before Mr. A tracks him down and lets him fall to his death. Once you’ve gone that far, there’s no way out, but Mr. A will help the innocents, or the people who can still make a choice to follow the proper path. It’s a grim tale. The final page can be seen below, along with the splash page for another Mr. A story. Click to enlarge:

Mr A 5.gifMr A 3.gif

Mr. A stories aren’t “fun,” but they’re quite interesting. Some may not find them worthwhile, sneering at them as if they’re Chick tracts or something, but I’m fascinated. Ditko was using the comics medium as a soap box for his personal philosophies, and that’s great. Comics can be anything, and they’re especially good at developing and presenting ideas. Outside of comics, Ditko’s ideas would be ignored, but they can thrive on the comics page. I applaud Mr. Ditko for sticking by his principles and his philosophies this long, and for throwing himself so deeply into his work. In terms of importance to their creators, Ditko’s Mr. A is on the same level as Kirby’s Fourth World– comic book worlds in which the creator’s spirit, and their ideas, can be truly free.

Now, I spoke of how the Question was the basis for Moore’s Rorschach– but I think Rorschach would get along better with Mr. A. “No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” Even if one doesn’t agree with what Ditko’s saying, one should certainly be intrigued with how he says it.

A few of the images in this post were borrowed from Dial B for Blog, which gives us a three-part examination of Mr. A that charts his origins, reprints the entirety of his first appearance, and presents some other goodies, such as a large text piece by Ditko himself, and a list of all Mr. A appearances. I implore you to read it. It starts here.

Also, check out the Mr. A Wiki.

The Latest Billup Poll:

Who wins in a fight– Mr. A or Mr. T? U-Decide!

18 Comments

I’d never heard of this before, thanks for sharing!

Has this been collected in any form? What would be the best way of finding these stories? He really does sound a lot like Rorshach.

Unfortunately, having read a bunch of Ditko’s more serious objectivist stuff ‘Avenging World’ etc…, it differs from Kirby’s stuff in one vital aspect.
It’s terrible.
I can appreciate the purity of his vision and his dedication to his ideals, but unlike Kirby, whose primary goal was always to entertain, Ditko’s objective (if you’ll pardon the pun) was purely to inform.
As a result, his work ends up being didactic, expository, repetitive and extremely preachy.
I think comparing them to Chick tracts is appropriate as, like Jack Chick, in these works, Ditko is interested almost solely in ‘preaching’.

Ian Astheimer

June 28, 2007 at 6:14 pm

Mssrs. T&A, eh? Funky.

Mr. T may pity the fools, but Mr. A would consider T a fool for showing pity. So, A wins.

Mr A has Mr T down quite easily, and it’s just about over, but what’s this? Another man stumbles blindly into the ring. It’s Mr E, from vertigo. Now things get weird.

Now we have them join together in a five-part limited series:

Mr. E.A.T.

All the Mr. A stories were reprinted by Fantagraphics in “The Ditko Collection” Volumes 1 and 2 from 1986, which are the two most trasured collections on my shelf.

I must protest, though– Mr. A wasn’t just a vehicle for rants. The best Mr. A story (and, I will say flat out, the best story Ditko ever did) was an completely silent Mr. A story, “Death vs. Love-Song” from 1976’s “Comic Crusader Storybook.”

Self-ownership and independent publishing really gave Ditko free range to do amazing artwork. The Mr. A work is strident, yes, but above all it is beautiful. One of the great comics masterworks.

The Kirbydotter

June 29, 2007 at 6:01 am

Mr. A was too preachy for my tastes even for Ditko.

What does the A stands for anyway?
“Answer” maybe? (to Ditko’s “Question”)

But as you say it is still interesting as a window to understanding Ditko’s P.O.V.

The Fantagraphics DITKO COLLECTION vol. 1 and 2 are very hard to find. I own the first volume since it came out but waited too long to get the second and it’s even harder to get than volume 1. I have seen a copy of volume 2 only once and I regret to this day that I hadn’t the money to purchase it that day.

In Objectivism, there can be no ego.

I saw this notion in the ‘Dial B for Blog’ article about Ditko and Mr. A, and I’m not sure where it comes from. Because Objectivism is actually very much in favour of the ego.

I never did understand how Ditko has been able to square the Objectivist notion of laissez faire capitalism being intrinsically perfect & ideal with the reality that the corporate owners of Marvel retained full creative control over the character of Spider-Man, leaving Ditko, the actual creator, with no real power to determine the series’ direction.

In reply to Ben Herman, the use of words like “perfect” and “ideal” smacks of Platonistic or heavenly concepts of perfection that Objectivism rejects. In fact, the argument that capitalism *should* operate in some unrealistically perfect manner is used by advocates of government control of the economy to justify, among other intrusions, the anti-trust laws. True, Ayn Rand did title a book “Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal”, but that was a moral judgment, not economic. But this is supposed to be about comics, so…

Regarding the ownership of any comic character, the relevant question is the nature of the contract (or at least some understanding of employment) between Ditko (or any other creator) and the employer (individual or corporate). If any artist signs away ownership of a creative property and later realizes this was a mistake, may he and others learn from his mistake and try for a better deal next time. But it’s not a failure of capitalism if someone fails. (Probably the best option IMO: start your own company.)

But anyone interested in learning anything about Objectivism should be learning it from Ayn Rand’s books, not from comics. Or at least explore the website of the Ayn Rand Institute: http://www.aynrand.org

Doug Atkinson

June 29, 2007 at 8:37 pm

On the subject of the balance between entertainment and preaching, let’s not forget that Ditko was the one who once filled a panel with so much text that only the character’s eyes were visible (and got upset when the editors suggested that this wasn’t the best idea). Kirby, at least, never forgot what medium he was creating for.

My major problem with Randian Objectivism, moreso than distrust of pure laissez-faire capitalism (and I’ve got plenty), is the fact that it does call for the most simplistic, obvious, didactic approach to art, in which the protagonists are always perfect and the villains are not just scum, but pathetic weaklings who will not only be defeated but have their metaphorical pants pulled down in the process so that everyone can point and laugh. It seems to preach against the kind of ambiguity and dramatic complexity that makes so much art compelling and thought provoking.

When STAR WARS has more nuance than a 1200 page novel, *something is wrong*.

Sadly, this shows through in Ditko’s Randian work.

“On the subject of the balance between entertainment and preaching, let’s not forget that Ditko was the one who once filled a panel with so much text that only the character’s eyes were visible (and got upset when the editors suggested that this wasn’t the best idea).”

Along those lines, my main beef with Ditko’s “philosophical” comics is that they are basically unreadable. I’ve got the two Fantagraphics reprint volumes. The early stories aren’t too bad, but as he went along he just got more and more turgid. The stuff reprinted in the second volume in particular just gives me a headache. The artwork is nice, but stories (if you can call them that) simply do not work at all.

Well, as I said before, I love Ditko’s artwork, I’m just not fond of much of his writing.

A big “thanks” to Philip S for his thoughtful reply to my query concerning how the Objectivist philosophy would relate to work-for-hire agreements.

I haven’t read much of Rand’s writings, but I did read her essay “For the New Intellectual” because I wanted to find out some of the basics of Objectivism from the primary source, rather than second hand via Ditko’s works. In any case, I disagreed with pretty much everything Rand said in “For the New Intellecual,” but I felt it was important to actually take the time to see what philosophies she was expounding before judging them.

Dan (other Dan)

July 4, 2007 at 12:47 pm

“What does the A stands for anyway?
“Answer” maybe? (to Ditko’s “Question”)”

A is for Asshole

The ‘A’ in Mister A stands for ‘A’.
That’s it.
It comes from the Objectivist saying ‘A=A’, which is to say that ‘Things are what they are, no more – no less. Any attempt to question this is fundamentally dishonest’.

That said, I did like (Other) Dan’s one.

As to how Ditko can rationalize signing over Spider-Man to a corporate entity, that’s easy.
It was his decision. He signed the contract. He doesn’t believe he was ‘ripped off’ or deserves any more or less than he received because he, as a thinking adult, made his decision and signed his contract.
To the Objectivist mindset, only a communist, a parasite or a wooly-headed self-deluder would claim he has any more right to his work than the contract he signed gives him.

Indeed, during the whole ‘Give Kirby Back His Artwork’ furor, Ditko wrote an open letter to that point.

“in which the protagonists are always perfect and the villains are not just scum, but pathetic weaklings who will not only be defeated but have their metaphorical pants pulled down in the process so that everyone can point and laugh”

I disaagree…. there’s nothing to say that you can’t show the struggle for a character to find the right path, or struggle to stay on it. It seriously didn’t limit possibilities any(unless one is short sighted).

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