Spider-Man against (or with?) the atlantis
by Andreu Gabriel
What a bummer! But I guess I’m not the only one who has experienced the same thing. Firstly, more than forty years after the first appearance of the superhero, one is fascinated by sixties Spider-Man. Not in a nostalgic kind of way, but one is still trapped by the style and the speed with which Stan Lee and Steve Ditko made the character evolve to the point of becoming almost mad: in informal meetings one can only talk about Ditko’s stroke and tone, above all from the second and third years onwards, when he was also valued as script-writer and not only as cartoonist. “How not to go mental with some of the cartoons in which they almost achieved the impossible (and at the same time realistic) postures so typical from this superhero!” the admired reader justifies himself after his friends start looking at him funny.
But soon after, when he finds himself in a state of absolute happiness, comes bewilderment, because he inevitably finds out that one of the main reasons for Ditko to leave Spider-Man (he was replaced by John Romita, another historical cartoonist, but a very different one, more luminous, and whom, with the ever-present Stan Lee, completed the profile of the Spider-Man we still know today, between funny and dark, heroic and clumsy, part Macbeth and part Hamlet) was that he was obsessed with Ayn Rand’s objectivism. Since Rand’s “philosophy” wasn’t too succesful around here, the interested fan starts reading a few things about Rand’s theories and, apart from the fact that the only title he recognizes among all the quotes is The Fountainhead, mostly due to King Vidor’s film, he’s surprised by the fact that such cheap pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-fascist ideas marvelled so many people in the United States, but soon realises that this objetivist thing wasn’t more than a kind of cult with premises/bait that were very close to a certain view of the country, of the land of miracles and the self-made man: in order to respect sacred reality, one can only act for his own benefit.
Julián M. Clemente, in his three reports/essays on Spider-Man (the last one, recent, inmense and happily dense: Spider-Man. La historia jamás contada), explains very well that, in any case, what made Steve Ditko leave the Spider-Man project were a series of factors. That objetivism (movement than funnily enough he got to know through Stan Lee, with whom he would have several arguments about it) was getting out of hand was one of them: inside the imaginative torrent of those first thirty-eight numbers of the Amazing Spider-Man, in some cartoons specifically, he let Peter Parker (not only the superhero Spider-Man, but the person, careful) translate that typical good superhero angst in reactions that would fit a kind of psychokiller behaviour, as if he were a student about to commit a massacre. The “looters”, to use trite objectivist jargon, would always make life a misery to him, a “producer”, who always has to do his duty for his own benefit, and ends up saving the world. He will, more than once, as a hermit almost, in an unfriendly way. It’s not that Ditko’s comic books, when he started writing scripts, stopped being funny (those everyday problems with the purple suit!), but the solution of only trusting himself became somewhat problematic, most of all from Stan Lee’s point of view. Peter Parker’s bitter alienation and his battle against everyone couldn’t have a happy ending, and this was a succesful series, meant to last.
It’s well-known that Ditko has been and is a strange character, who never agrees to do interviews and rarely appears in public. The temptation of personifying the worries of teenage Peter Parker in the artist is almost irresistible. So the innocent fan who discovers all this mess will have no other reaction than to feel uneasy when finding out that such a mysterious and legendary character is a conservative lead by right-wing lies. Knowing Ditko’s opinions (the fandom of the times knew well about his sympathy for Ayn Rand), these passages that one, with good eyes and better faith, would be happy to consider ironic and fruit of the transgressive and almost critical will of the superhero, might become difficult to defend. But taking into account that readers of Spidey are usually fair people, that reader will soon come up with nuances and legitimate defensive arguments.
It’s frequent for those who take a relevant place in the group of ambiguous creators such as Ditko to be in an extreme individualistic position -a virtue which, by the way, with a mixture of Nietzsche, Socrates and tutti quanti, seasoned by a touch of anti-communist resentment, Ayn Rand expressly emphasised with her objetivism-. In most cases, these ambiguous authors are all American, mysterious bastards, hard men, libertarians that gained legendary fame one way or another. But I don’t know. Even if they’re always quite attractive, we shouldn’t care too much for legends. In any case, maybe the way to go for the late discoverer of Spidey’s seminal first issues is to ask himself two questions that he must have probably asked himself already with his back Amazing Remordimiento issues.
What to do with those works that reflect political opinions we despise when we know their authors aren’t being ironic about them? Are the excuses of fiction and genre enough?
Although we know through statements and parallel texts used in recent editions that authors such as Ditko opt for similar messages than the ones they use in their stories, we should acknowledge that these points of view, unlike their way of thinking, are often fertile ground when it comes to renovating genres. Maybe what comforts us is the polysemic outcome of these types of masterpieces of moral ambiguity. Is that enough? It isn’t difficult for it to appear, in that arachnid fluid of (bad) conscience, an artist such as Clint Eastwood and a work such as Unforgiven. So, what do we do with that? Well, yes, ambiguity is justified there as a way of renewing the western genre. Few works have understood the figure of the avenger as well as Unforgiven. The canons of such fictional genres as westerns or superhero cartoons accept the existence, before a let’s say democratic situation, of those avengers. While in Unforgiven this narrative is made explicit as a genre element, with a certain amount of distance brought about, among other things, by the film’s crepuscular nature, in Ditko’s Spider-Man we might find more difficult to identify that distance. It was probably Stan Lee’s hand, after some argument with Ditko, what moderated Spider-Man’s adrift as a plain avenger.
From question to The Question and back again. Amazing, 26 and The Question
But when that novel reader of Spider-Man’s issues becomes disarmed, it will be when he gets to the famous “If this is my destiny…” (Amazing 31-33), one of the most justly adored and praised sagas. After a battle against Doctor Octopus, a huge machinery falls on top of Spider-Man, and he’s unable to lift it even with his superhuman powers. Thus ends issue 32, with the hero trapped under steel, while a few drops of water start flooding the place. Before his eyes, but far from his reach, an antidote for aunt May. After that episode’s “to be continued”, number 33 devotes its first five pages to the battle of Spider-Man to free himself from the tons of steel imprisoning him, with uneasy composition and slow rhythm, and dramatic and very powerful lines for a teenage cartoon: “I must prove equal to the task. I must be worthy of that strength or else I don’t deserve it”. Few pages in the world of superhero comic books are more striking than those, but on them Ditko’s out-of-control objectivism is more blatant than ever (all the weight of society against me), although, at the same time, we understand better the worries and responsibilities of a teenager who’s still undergoing his learning process, as was the series itself. This is when genre and narrative strategies protect everything, for sure. It might be worth it after all, although after these moments we might have to stand less fortunate cartoons, such as the last ones that Ditko created, in Amazing Spider-Man 38, where a cynical and taciturn Peter Parker mocks the students demonstrating at a university campus.
Finally, should we not have enough with that pseudo-narratological excuse, we could always resort to the authority argument. Alan Moore, of undoubtable political stance (let’s remember his public argument on the occupy Wall Street movement with Frank Miller, another ambiguous author whose later work is no longer justifiable: he lost his polysemy), has always been fascinated by Steve Ditko. That’s why several characters in Watchmen were based in Ditko’s creations for Charlton Comics (Rorschach was based on The Question and Dr. Manhattan on Captain Atom, for instance). That’s what Moore talked about, almost exclusively, in an interview with Jon B. Cooke transcribed by Jon B. Knutson in Comic Book Artist #9, dating from 2000, and that blog Frog2000 kindly translated into Spanish. Reading this interview, the suffering and penitent reader, confused for feeling such a devotion for Ditko will feel, at last, some peace.
In Moore’s words: “Despite the fact that Steve Ditko was obviously a hero to the hippies with his psychedelic ‘Dr. Strange’ work and for the teen angst of Spider-Man, Ditko’s politics were obviously very different from those fans. […] Yes, Steve Ditko did have a very right-wing agenda (which of course, he’s completely entitled to), but at the time, it was quite interesting, […] I had to look at The Fountainhead. I have to say I found Ayn Rand’s philosophy laughable. It was a ‘white supremacist dreams of the master race,’ burnt in an early-20th century form. Her ideas didn’t really appeal to me, but they seemed to be the kind of ideas that people would espouse, people who might secretly believe themselves to be part of the elite, and not part of the excluded majority. I would basically disagree with all of Ditko’s ideas. […] Steve Ditko is completely at the other end of the political spectrum from me. I wouldn’t say that I was far left in terms of Communism, but I am an anarchist, which is 180° away from Steve Ditko’s position. But I have a great deal of respect for the man, and certainly respect for his artwork, and the fact that there’s something about his uncompromising attitude that I have a great deal of sympathy with. It’s just that the things I wouldn’t compromise about or that he wouldn’t compromise about are probably very different.”