Ditko Shrugged (Part 1): Ayn Rand’s Influence on Steve Ditko’s Craft, Commerce, and CreeperA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Thom Young
This is part one of a four-part Silver Soapbox series entitled “Ditko Shrugged” that explores the general influence of Randian Objectivism on Steve Ditko’s life and work, and its specific affect in relation to the way DC Comics has managed Ditko’s the Creeper.
When the fifth issue of DC’s The Creeper limited series came out several months ago, Keith Dallas (SBC’s editor-in-chief) asked me to write a review of it. At the time, Keith didn’t know that he was essentially asking me to get on a soapbox and pontificate about the way the Creeper has been mishandled during his 39-year history.
I tried to limit myself to a review of that issue, but I couldn’t do it. Too much of my reaction to what writer Steve Niles and illustrator Justiniano did in that series is tied into what has been done with the Creeper in the past—which is why my long-delayed review morphed into this series of Silver Soapbox articles.
Who Is the Creeper?
I’ve been a fan of the Creeper since I first discovered him in The Joker #3 (written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Ernie Chan) and First Issue Special #7 (scripted by Michael Fleisher and illustrated by Steve Ditko). Those issues came out just a few weeks apart in the summer of 1975. I was so taken with the character that I immediately hit the back-issue bins to find his previous appearances.
For those of you who don’t know, the Creeper was created by Steve Ditko and debuted in Showcase #73 in 1968. He then moved on to his own bimonthly series, Beware the Creeper, two months later—which means his series was in production well before his “tryout” in Showcase had generated any sales.
In more recent years, I’ve become academically interested in Ditko’s entire canon. The incorporation of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism into his stories is a topic that I’ve been researching off and on for the past six years, and I’ve become convinced that Rand’s philosophy factors into what Ditko originally wanted to do with the Creeper.
In Ditko’s original concept, the Creeper is one of the most interesting mainstream comic book characters to have appeared in the past 50 years. However, for a variety of reasons, his potential has never been realized—not even when Ditko himself has worked on the character.
According to comic historians, Ditko abandoned the Creeper while working on the sixth (and final) issue of the initial series. He supposedly turned in the first 11 pages of that issue and then walked away from the book and his creation—just as he had walked away from his most famous creation, Spider-Man, two years earlier at Marvel.
Despite the absence of credits being listed in that issue, Jack Sparling has long since been identified as the illustrator of at least the last 13 pages of Beware the Creeper #6. However, if Ditko did indeed do any work on the first 11 pages, then it appears that either Sparling or inker Mike Peppe must have redrawn most of Ditko’s work. Hardly any of the lines in those first 11 pages look like Ditko drew them, and only a few of the body postures of the characters are reminiscent of Ditko’s layouts.
Over the years, there have been differing views about why Ditko left the book. He, of course, won’t say. Ditko is notorious for not giving interviews and for “Letting my work speak for me.” However, two other things add to the mystery of his departure:
- On the letters page of issue #5 (cover dated February 1969), the book’s editor, Dick Giordano, claimed that Ditko had been “ailing,” and that other illustrators had to be called in to handle his workload at DC. Since Ditko was only working on two titles at the time, Giordano’s statement probably alludes to Ditko not having illustrated The Hawk and the Dove #3 (cover dated January 1969).
- However, Giordano assured the readers that Ditko would continue to do all the work on Beware the Creeper without the help of other illustrators. Oddly, in that very issue, most of the panels do not look as if Ditko drew them—and a couple of the panels plus one entire page appear to have been drawn (or redrawn) by Neal Adams (more on that in Part Three of this article).
- Additionally, the fact that there were no credits listed in Beware the Creeper #6 probably indicates that Ditko either demanded that his name be taken off the book despite his supposed work on the first 11 pages or that he didn’t work on any of the pages at all. It could also be that DC was hoping readers wouldn’t notice the change in the illustration style—though neither Sparling nor Peppe tried to imitate Ditko’s style in any way in that sixth issue.
None of the principal participants in the mystery has discussed the problems that led to Ditko’s departure. However, the answer undoubtedly involves the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand that Ditko had begun to follow fervently in the mid 1960s.
Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is a direct contrarian response to Romanticism. Romantic writers—such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, William Wordsworth, and Henry David Thoreau—often indicate that a person’s first reaction to a situation is emotional rather than intellectual. Additionally, among its other tenets, Romanticism holds that there are subjective truths that can be discovered through intuition and introspection.
One of these subjective truths leads to a pantheistic view of Nature in which everything is a part of God. However, as its name indicates, Objectivism holds that truths are objective rather than subjective, and one of those objective truths is that there is no God. Here are Rand’s stated tenets of Objectivism (slightly edited by me for clarity):
- Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears. [Rand’s “equation” for this concept is A = A or A is A].
- Reason (the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
- Every man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
- The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
For a more detailed account of Objectivism, see Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s overview.
The protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is a brilliant architect whose genius usually goes un-rewarded because he refuses to make changes to his designs when clients or bureaucrats demand he do so. Because he adheres to Objectivist principles, Roark will simply walk away from a job rather than compromise the integrity of his work by altering his designs. He even goes so far as to blow up a large housing project that was in the process of being built from his designs because another architect had revised the plans after Roark left the project.
It might well be said that Steve Ditko has “Howard Roark Syndrome.” For instance, it would certainly have gone against his Objectivist principles to redraw any of Beware the Creeper #5 if he didn’t agree with that editorial decision. Similarly, if someone else redrew any part of the issue, he would have considered it an affront to the integrity of his work. Either way, Ditko would choose to leave rather than see his vision compromised.
However, Ditko eventually came back to DC seven years later—after Giordano had left to help Neal Adams set up his Continuity Associates art studio, and after Jack Liebowitz had retired as DC’s publisher. I assume Ditko’s return to DC was related to those departures—particularly Giordano’s.
When Giordano returned to DC a few years later, Ditko did not work with him in any capacity on any series. Additionally, I haven’t been able to find any work Ditko did for DC during Giordano’s tenure as the company’s editor-in-chief from 1981 to the early 1990s.
Ditko did illustrate four back-up stories that appeared in The Legion of Super-Heroes with 1981 cover dates, but he completed work on the last of these (issue #281, cover date November 1981) before Giordano was promoted—indicating that Ditko’s refusal to work either with or for Giordano probably meant refusing to work for DC at all during Giordano’s tenure as DC’s editor-in-chief (or managing editor).
Finally, Ditko’s Objectivist beliefs not only dictate how he has handled his business dealings but also how he has developed his characters and their stories. Perhaps the best example of Ditko’s creation of an Objectivist superhero is Mr. A, whose name is derived from Rand’s Objectivist formula of A = A.
After leaving Marvel in 1966, Ditko went back to Charlton Comics to work on Captain Atom (a character he had created in late 1959 for Space Adventures #33, cover dated March 1960) and create two new characters—the new Blue Beetle and the Question. At the same time, he also created Mr. A for Wally Wood’s underground comic, Witzend, a character who is virtually identical to the Question.
Ditko wrote the Mr. A stories himself. Since the mid 1960s, everything that Ditko writes tends to include Objectivist monologues—such as TV reporter Vic Sage’s speeches in the Question stories or the proselytizing narratives in Mr. A’s didactic tales.
To get an idea of what Ditko is like when he is free from editorial edicts or commercial concerns, we need only look at the initial Mr. A stories that he published in the third and fourth issues of Witzend.
In Witzend #3, Mr. A lectures the reader in the first panel of his first very story:
Fools will tell you that there can be no honest person! That there are no blacks or whites . . . that everyone is gray! But if there are no blacks or whites, there cannot be a gray . . . since grayness is just a mixture of black and white! So when one knows what is black, evil, and what is white, good, there can be no justification for choosing any part of evil! Those who do so choose, are not gray but black and evil . . . and they will be treated accordingly.
Later in that story, Mr. A (in his civilian guise as newspaper reporter Rex Graine) observes a priest at a welfare center where a juvenile delinquent named Angel used to hang out before turning to a life of crime. The priest is standing next to signs that parody a Romantic message, “Don’t question, accept & believe” and “Don’t think, feel!”
In conjunction with these signs, the priest preaches a message that contrasts with Rand and Ditko’s beliefs regarding criminal inclinations:
It’s the environment! It’s responsible for criminals! We should spend what we need to build playgrounds, churches, parks, recreation centers. Yes, a clean environment.
Of course, Objectivism rejects this Romantic “nurture” message of the priest.
(Despite her claim of being a Romantic, Rand viewed rationalism as superior to emotionalism. She only paid lip service to supporting Romanticism because of her admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright, who told her that he was an adherent of Romanticism and that his architectural designs reflected Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy. Rand then claimed to be an adherent of Romanticism as well—but she thought the philosophy should move away from its focus on emotions in favor of reason.
In other words, she revealed her complete misunderstanding of the tenets of Romanticism, and the fact that it was a reaction against Modernist philosophies derived from Rationalism.)
Objectivism denounces the idea that environment and upbringing affect a person’s concept of morality. Thus, for the Objectivist, playgrounds, parks, churches, and recreation centers don’t play a role in the development of morality in children.
Instead, Objectivism holds that morality is acquired through the training of the rational faculty by developing skills in logic, math, and science. Morality is an objective and absolute truth that can only be attained and understood through reason. This stance essentially makes Rand’s philosophy a continuation of the Rationalist agenda of the 17th century and the Empirical and Philosophe movements of the 18th century.
In Witzend #4, which came out while DC was publishing Beware the Creeper, Mr. A again lectures the reader in the first panel. This time he emphasizes that honest industrialists and laborers in a laissez-faire capitalist system earn their money while welfare recipients, thieves, and con artists all acquire their money dishonestly.
Ditko’s didactic diatribes in his Mr. A stories are obviously a distillation of aspects of Rand’s philosophy, and he pursued this same agenda at Charlton with the Question.
At the same time that Ditko was creating Mr. A for Witzend #3, he created the Question for Charlton’s Blue Beetle #1. They’re essentially the same character—though the Question has a little less proselytizing, perhaps to make the feature a bit more viable for Charlton’s more mainstream market.
The Question debuted as a back-up feature in Blue Beetle #1 (cover dated June 1967) and ran through #4 (December 1967). Both features in the book, the new Blue Beetle and the Question, were credited as being illustrated by Ditko and written by “D.C. Glanzman.”
While there was a real David Charles Glanzman who worked in the Charlton offices and occasionally wrote some stories, Ditko was the actual writer of three of the four Question stories (the final story, in Blue Beetle #4, was written by Steve Skeates under the pseudonym of “Warren Savin”).
Indeed, a comparison between of the scripts for Mr. A and the first three Question stories reveals that they are by the same writer (the real D.C. Glanzman may or may not have written the lead stories starring the new Blue Beetle). Ditko asked Glanzman if he could use his name for the Question stories because Ditko felt he wasn’t taken seriously as a writer. Perhaps he had already received feedback on his Mr. A scripts by that time.
Blue Beetle was cancelled with the fourth issue when Ditko left Charlton for DC to work on Beware the Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove. However, he then returned to Charlton a few months later while he was supposedly “ailing” (according to Giordano) and unable to do all of his own work at DC.
The “Return of the Question” appeared in the one-shot Mysterious Suspense #1 (cover dated October 1968), and Blue Beetle #5 came out a month later with the Question once again in the back-up slot (cover dated November 1968). It should be noted that those cover dates at Charlton precede the cover dates, respectively, for The Hawk and the Dove #2 and Beware the Creeper #5—Ditko’s last fully completed jobs for DC during that period.
Additionally, because he wrote them for Charlton’s more mainstream audience (as opposed to Witzend’s underground readership), the Question stories are a good indication of the type of concepts Ditko would have wanted to use at DC but wasn’t able to develop there. When he returned to Charlton after his brief stint at DC, Ditko immediately went back to his Objectivism-based dialog.
The Question story in Mysterious Suspense #1 is especially interesting because Ditko gives Vic Sage dialog that can be taken as statements regarding why he chose to leave DC. For instance, in one scene Sage tells his staff that he doesn’t expect blind obedience. He only wants to work with people who stand up for themselves and their principles—even if he disagrees with them.
If that scene is an indication of how Ditko believed he should have been treated by either DC in general or Giordano in particular, then a later scene is an indication of why Ditko chose to leave rather than give into demands that went against his beliefs. In a situation that mirrors and expands upon a scene from the first Creeper story in Showcase #73, Sage refuses to accept a sponsor for his television show because he knows the man has had business dealings with an organized crime boss.
In a restaurant, some of Sage’s co-workers implore him to accept the sponsor and not bring down the network because of his steadfast principles. Sage’s response sounds very much like the type of thing Ditko would have said if someone had asked him to accept changes to his story in Beware the Creeper #5 that he didn’t agree with:
Why, gentlemen, should I, this one time, accept poison in my food? You ask what I have to lose by poisoning my system! That I should bend from trying to keep healthy; that it’s to my benefit to accept any form of poison whether it’s to my body or to my mind!
Rather than accept “poisonous” changes—first to The Hawk and the Dove and then to Beware the Creeper—Ditko left DC. It seems that he then used his first stories upon his return to Charlton to detoxify his system from his DC experience. The question, of course, is “What poisoned Ditko’s system at DC in late 1968?”
Part two of “Ditko Shrugged” takes a closer look at the problems Ditko had with the Hawk and the Dove, Spider-Man, and the Creeper that led to him leaving all three of those creations.