Action Heroes Archives Volume 2

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Jason Sacks
Jason Sacks:
Thom Young:

Jason Sacks: I can guarantee that I won’t use the term “postmodern” in reference to volume two of Action Heroes Archives. In fact, this is one of the most traditional collections of super-hero stories around.

The stories in this book represent Steve Ditko at perhaps the apex of his powers, coming straight from his epochal runs on Amazing Spider-Man and “Doctor Strange” to a run at low-rent Charlton Comics.

At Charlton, Ditko’s hero work centered around three main characters: Captain Atom, a traditional action hero; the Blue Beetle, a wisecracking Batman type with some interesting secrets in his past; and the Question, an intensely moralistic non-powered character.

There’s no question that Ditko loved the freedom he found at Charlton doing these stories. You can see Ditko's enthusiasm in every element of the stories he presents. The most popular reason given for Ditko leaving Marvel was that he was frustrated with Stan Lee’s meddling. At Charlton, both editor Dick Giordano and the rather low-rent feel of the company ensured that the last thing Ditko needed to worry about was a meddling writer. This freedom gave Ditko’s stories a nice and unique sort of energy.

Thom Young: Actually, there is some Postmodern elements to some of the stories, but I won’t focus on those since you’re correct that Ditko really is not a Postmodernist. The metatextual elements in some of the stories are just incidental bits rather than part of a program.

Ditko’s “program,” of course, was the Objectivist philosophy that he adhered to as a devoted follower of Ayn Rand. Ditko’s Objectivist leanings are very evident in this volume (as opposed to the first volume of DC’s Action Heroes Archives where they did not appear). In this volume, Rand’s philosophy doesn’t show up so much in the Captain Atom stories (though Objectivism does rear its head in a few places there). Rather, Objectivism is the foundation of the stories starring Blue Beetle and The Question.

Other than “Return of the Question” from Mysterious Suspense #1 (which this archive edition lists in the table of contents as “What Makes a Hero?”), I had not read any of Ditko’s Charlton stories before I read the two volumes of Action Heroes Archives back to back. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well Ditko was able to weave his Objectivist beliefs into standard stories that are not simply didactic tracts the way his Mr. A “stories” are.

Jason: I agree; that was the aspect of this book that was the nicest surprise for me. I was expecting stories that were extremely didactic, as was the case in much of Ditko's later work. However, the stories in this book represent Ditko in transition The earliest stories in this book are mostly silly adventure stories starring Captain Atom that were written by David Kaler. However, as the book proceeds, Ditko's Objectivist ideology rises more and more to the surface.

Jason: The early stories in this book were surprisingly interesting and energetic. For instance, the very first story in this book demonstrates Ditko’s classic penchant for intense facial expressions as a way to convey the importance of key story points. Even when Capt. Atom faces the rather lame villains of Punch and Jewelee, the story has a unique sort of outlandish intensity that Ditko was amazingly adept at conveying.

The third “Blue Beetle” story, where Ted Kord battles a giant octopus, is another great example of Ditko’s energy. The idea sounds absurd in abstract, but the gorgeous intensity of Ditko’s art somehow makes the story work for me.

Thom: Yes, the illustrations are very strong. For me, though, what was particularly interesting about the first Captain Atom story in this volume, “Finally Falls the Mighty,” is the dampening of Captain Atom’s powers.

Dick Giordano explained in the introduction to this volume that he became the Executive Editor at Charlton in 1965. Shortly after that, Ditko left Marvel and returned to Charlton (where he had previously worked on Captain Atom before going to Marvel in the early 1960s). When the two of them met for the first time, Giordano told Ditko that he envisioned Charlton having a line of “Action Heroes”--none of whom would have superpowers.

Giordano made an exception, though, for Captain Atom (sort of allowing the character in under a grandfather clause). Ditko told Giordano that he would come up with a story that would also allow Captain Atom to fit into the “Action Hero” concept.

While Captain Atom still had superpowers after “Finally Falls the Mighty,” he wasn’t the omnipotent character that he had been in the 1960-61 stories that Ditko had done with Joe Gill. In many ways, this change in Captain Atom not only helped the character seem like a better fit into Giordano’s plans, he actually became a better reflection of Ditko’s own Randian principles.

Objectivism is an entirely secular philosophy that has no place for divine powers or mystic energies--which would essentially have ruled out Ditko creating Doctor Strange had he been more of an adherent of Objectivism when he was working on that master of the mystic arts.

In her 1969 essay The Romantic Manifesto, Rand presented her own concept of Romantic heroes--which differed greatly from the concepts of the German and British Romantic writers, as well as those of the New England Transcendentalists. Rand didn’t actually understand Romanticism (or at least she didn’t fully embrace the actual philosophy). After she became enamored of Frank Lloyd Wright and learned that true Romanticism was the basis of his architecture, she attempted to claim Romanticism as the aesthetic component of Objectivism.

Anyway, Rand’s concept of Romantic heroes were people who did not owe their abilities to a power higher than themselves. Instead, the foundation of their heroic strength was in what could be accomplished through the force of the human will. Obviously, Ditko could not have known that Rand would develop that concept of a “Romantic hero” three years later, yet Giordano’s plans for the Charlton line fit perfectly into the notion of the hero that Rand would later develop--and the dampening of Captain Atom’s powers played into that philosophy as well.

To be sure, the character was still superpowered. However, following the events in “Finally Falls the Mighty,” he had to rely more on his wits and normal human abilities as he seemed to become easily drained of his “atomic abilities.” Even though he received his powers through “science” (sort of), Captain Atom was essentially a god in the stories written by Gill and that were published in the first volume of Action Heroes Archives.

Oddly, the character seemed to be omnipotent again in the stories that were published in Charlton Bullseye #1 and #2 in 1975. That two-part story was originally intended for the never-published Captain Atom #90 that should have come out in January 1968. It was plotted by Kaler (and probably Ditko, too), but I don’t know how much input Ditko had in the final version that came out in 1975 in Charlton Bullseye.

The pages seem to have been penciled by Ditko (probably in 1967) and they probably then sat in a filing cabinet until Roger Stern and John Byrne scripted and inked them (respectively) seven years later. In fact, only the layouts look like Ditko’s work in that two-part story as Byrne’s inks make the linework look like the Neal Adams-influenced stuff that Byrne was otherwise producing for Charlton at the time.

Jason: It's pretty much impossible to know when the story from Charlton Bullseye #1 and #2 was created. I wondered if it might have been an earlier story. Regardless, it’s far less philosophically-oriented than the stories that appear earlier.

It's interesting to see how well Ditko's and Rand's philosophies of heroism overlap with each other, and how well that philosophy helps lead to interesting comics. It's the old Superman vs. Batman dichotomy. We can relate to Batman because he's human while Superman is alien. Unlike Superman, we can aspire to be Batman, if only we had his determination and intensity.

We can all also aspire to be the Question and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Blue Beetle. Reducing Captain Atom's powers made him more relatable and more human--as well as coming closer to the Randian/Ditkoesque ideals of heroes. Of course, the key ingredient necessary to be a hero in a Ditko comic is not superpowers. The key aspect of a Randian/Ditkoesque hero is an intense commitment to our ideals and beliefs.

The real meat of the book is in the later stories in this volume--the Blue Beetle and Question stories for which Ditko is famous.

In reading these stories for the first time, it’s obvious just how energized Ditko is when presenting his own ideas. Blue Beetle #4, for instance, features some strikingly gorgeous art that’s the equal of any of Ditko’s best work. The splash pageof this story is wonderfully intense with its jagged images of disparate story elements.

Inside the story, Ditko depicts a tale full of crowd scenes, amazing action, and intense mystery.

Mixed in with the rest of the story are many classic Ditko moments. We see Ted Kord as the classic Ditko headstrong hero, fighting for what he knows to be right whether or not anybody believes him. In this story, we also get the steadfast girlfriend and the indifferent police officers. Ditko revisited these themes repeatedly, most notably in the Question stories. They're at the core of his belief of what makes a hero.

Thom: Well, the steadfast girlfriend and indifferent police officers don’t necessarily make a hero, but they are factors in Ditko’s work that are reflections of Rand’s views--that public servants (such as the police) may be merely part of the mob, and that a truly heroic man is the only person worthy of having a steadfast girlfriend.

Additonally, as you say, the self-assured hero who fights for what he believes to be Truth and Intellect are also aspects of Ditko’s Objectivist beliefs. In developing the characters of Ted Kord and his assistant Tracey (I don’t know that she was given a last name), Ditko was obviously influenced by such characters as Howard Roark and Dominique Francon from Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Initially, of course, Tracey seemed to be just a “meddling female” whom Kord discovered was spying on him because she was sure he was responsible for the disappearance of Dan Garrett, the original Blue Beetle. She seemed to be a friend of Garrett’s who was investigating Kord as a suspect in Garrett’s disappearance.

Soon, though, she was recast as Kord’s girlfriend, and her snooping led to her discovering his secret identity as the second Blue Beetle. It was then explained that she had been spying on him not to incriminate him (as was originally implied), but because she was worried the police would think he was responsible for Garrett’s disappearance. The logic of that plot point doesn’t really work once the change in the character’s direction was made. Nevertheless, she covered for him with the police because she was now his steadfast girlfriend.

You can tell that Ditko was reading through Rand’s works at the time, and he was incorporating her ideas into his own stories as he discovered them.

Jason: The Question was clearly the character in this book that most directly reflected Ditko’s view of the world. Vic Sage, alias the Question, is an intensely moral man--a man eternally willing to go against the conventional wisdom in order to present the truth.

Only Sage’s most loyal allies stand beside him in his times of crisis, but that didn’t matter to a man who always knows himself to be right. Sage was one of Ditko’s first true alter egos on paper, and it’s impossible to read the stories featuring the Question without seeing Ditko in them.

Thom: Yeah, as I mentioned in my four-part article on Ditko that appeared in four Silver Soapbox columns in September of last year, the Question was created around the same time that Ditko created Mr. A for Wally Wood’s Witzend #3. They’re essentially the same character, but the Question and Vic Sage do less proselytizing than do their analogs Mr. A and Rex Graine, respectively.

Here again, Vic Sage (and Rex Graine) are based on Rand’s Howard Roarke, and it’s interesting to see how little Ditko gives the Question to do in the stories in contrast to how much of the action that Sage carries. We also have Sage’s assistant, Nora Lace, taking on the Dominique Francon role that Tracey fulfills in the Blue Beetle stories.

One of my favorite stories (or two of my favorite stories) are the crossover stories in Blue Beetle #5 in which Vic Sage appears in the Blue Beetle story, “The Destroyer of Heroes,” and the art critic in that story then becomes the villain in the Question’s backup feature “The Critic.”

Interestingly, the art critic’s name is “Boris Ebar”--with Boris being a Slavic name and “Ebar” being an anagram of “Bear.” In other words, while the art critic is obviously not Russian, his name is related to the type of collectivism that Rand (and thus Ditko) opposed and that was supposedly embodied by the Soviet Union.

Indeed, Boris Ebar’s personal aesthetic as a critic is a reflection of all that Rand abhors in her view of communist ideology. Ironically, the sculptures and paintings admired by Ted Kord, Vic Sage, Tracey, and Nora depict figures that reflect the elevated, dynamic aesthetic of the Nouveau- and Deco-inspired Romantic sculptures of Ivan Shadr that the Soviet Union displayed in their monuments to the common man.

In contrast, Boris Ebar is a proponent of works that are based on the Expressionist aesthetic of artists like Edvard Munch, which he claims “reveals the true spirit of man” but which Ditko presents as a visual depiction of what Rand considered the Dionysian “mobocracy” that reflects the emotional foundation of socialist and communist principles.

It’s an interesting two-part exploration of Ditko’s views on art even though they basically contradict the aesthetics displayed in the propaganda-based monuments erected by the Soviet Union. Of course, recent editions of Rand’s novels have covers by Nick Gaetano that have figures almost identical to the ones that Ditko has his Randian characters admiring in the art museum.

Jason: You're putting your finger on one of the more intriguing contradictions in Ditko's work: he lionizes work that is intended to glorify man and despises work that he sees as bringing mankind down to a level in which a man believes himself to be, "a helpless speck in an inknowable universe ruled by strange forces that control man's will and destiny"--as the neurotic villain of "The Destroyer of Heroes" states.

Yet in the 20th century, much of the art intended to glorify man came from collectivist or totalitarian societies. Soviet art of that period was full of beautifully-drawn exhortations to glorify the common worker. Nazi art was also specifically designed to glorify the Aryans and the newly ascendant power of Germany.

Essentially Ditko is saying that propagandist art is greater than art that reveals mankind's inner life. Anything that reflects man's inner doubts and complexities will destroy the very souls of a society. To even question that heroes are outdated is to help tear down the very forces that keep society cohesive.

This soliloquy by the art critic is, to Ditko, as evil as any threat that the Dread Dormammu might have made:
Heroes are outdated! An insult to the average man! It is a vicious class distinction that seeks to set one up above the others.

Man is not perfect, he can never be. Heroes assume the pretense of perfection! But "Our Man" shows his imperfection. That is true heroism! To be aware of faults . . . to accept them without trying to change the unchangeable! "Our Man" shows us what we are. We cannot be otherwise. Happiness comes to those who accept this truth!
The critic’s statement might seem logical to most of us. However, it was thoroughly abhorrent to Ditko, which is what ultimately made the character a villain in Ditko’s eyes.

That fact tells us more about Ditko than any other story can hope to do--and that is why Ditko is such a compelling creator. He is thoroughly committed to his philosophy, and he doesn't care how out of step he may be to his times.

Thom: I don’t accept the critic’s view as readily as you seem to.

The ironic thing is that Rand developed “Objectivism” as a reaction against the subjectivism inherent in Romanticism, so the fact that she then attempts to splice aspects of Romanticism into Objectivism as its aesthetic component is very problematic. Ditko then contrasts this oxymoronic concept of the “Objectivist Romantic Hero” against the Existentialist notion of either the “flawed hero” and/or the anti-hero.

There are a number of problems with the way that Rand and Ditko approach their views--a major one being their lack of understanding the fundamentals of Romanticism, Existentialism, and other philosophies that they oppose. Rand’s Objectivism would be more convincing if she actually understood why Romanticism cannot be incorporated into her own views simply because she admired a man (Wright) who actually did understand Romanticism and who incorporated it into his own work.

Similarly, Ditko’s opposition to the concepts he has “the critic” espouse would work better if he actually understood Existentialism as a philosophy and the aesthetics behind expressionism. He might still be opposed to them, but he would at least be able to accurately contrast them against his own notion of “ideal art.” I find the whole thing extremely fascinating, but a review isn’t the best forum for exploring the issue further than we have here--besides, it would require a great deal more research and thesis development than I’m willing to do right now .

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