Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ayn Rand Comics & Stories

I've been reading a lot of comix history lately, especially after watching PBS' disappointing SUPERHEROES documentary. This is comix history for people who don't read comix, and it's painfully obvious that the folks who made it don't know shit about the art form.

But no more about that. There's far more fascinating comix history for those inclined to find it. Such as Ayn Rand and the Superheroes! Here's the tale:

Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby are two of the greatest creators in comix history. Virtually every great Marvel character, and quite a few DC ones, can be traced to these two giants. But they couldn't have been more different, in personality, in approach, and politically. 

Kirby was a Jew from the immigrant tenements of the Lower East Side. He was an old-school, cigar-smoking Roosevelt Democrat and surprisingly sympathetic of the hippie kids who were reading his comix in the late Sixties. Most of the grown-ups from the WW2 era were the squares, whose morals and mores the Hippies rejected wholesale. But these kids were eating up Kirby's cosmic tales. Young adults had read comix en masse before, specifically soldiers afield during WW2 and the Korean War, but now, in the Marvel Age, comic books were starting to achieve a pop culture respectability they had never enjoyed before. Whether Kirby picked up on this or not, his stories featured hippie kids in starring roles, culminating in The Forever People, basically a super-powered collective of peaceniks. 

Ditko, on the other hand loathed hippies and everything they stood for. As you comix fans know, Ditko was a rabid Ayn Rand devotee. He totally bought into her crackpot Objectivist philosophy in the early Sixties and as the decade wore on, her dogma seeped more and more into his stories and characters. The result is some the strangest and inadvertently hilarious comic books ever made! Who knows where he would have taken Spider-man, had he stayed on the book beyond 1966. Certainly, the Green Goblin, whose identity wasn't revealed until Ditko left, in a storyline that Steve would never have written, was shaping up to be a Randian character. Ditko's subsequent characters for DC, the Creeper and Hawk & Dove, espoused Objectivism like none had before. But he really couldn't go whole hog at timid, buttoned-down DC. He saved his best rants for the low-end Charlton line, where no one really cared what he wrote and drew (reportedly for $5 a page!),  and it was here where he dreamed up the Randian supermensch, and one my all-time favorite characters: The Question.

A back-up feature in another Ditko book, The Blue Beetle, the faceless Question dished out blows and objectivist bon mots. The above page is an unthinkable end to a superhero tale in 1968. A hero letting crooks drown.... while gloating at their demise as they cry for help! Could you picture Spider-man doing this? Maybe now, when every hero has been turned into a dark, morally-amibiguous psycho, but back in the Sixties? It's completely awesome!

His Objectivist masterpiece is a story in Blue Beetle #6, starring Ditko's modernized (and short-lived, since this was the final issue) version of Charlton's C-list superhero from the Golden Age. It's titled The Destroyer of Heroes and is an indecipherable, dense screed against Warhol's pop art revolution, modern art in general and New York intellectuals. It's the prime example of Charlton's hands-off approach to its comix line. There wasn't an 8-year-old on the planet who understood this story. Which, of course, makes it one of the greatest of the era!

Turns out Kirby was also thinking about Rand. And he found her blatherings to be anti-social nonsense.  So much so, he penned an anti-Rand storyline in Fantastic Four. Unfortunately, it didn't make it into print. But we can re-construct it.

We all know about the revolutionary Marvel Method. Instead of writing out a detailed script, editor Stan Lee would give his artists a suggestion about the next issue, they would plot out the story and Lee would then fill in the dialogue when he received the pages. With Ditko and Kirby, Marvel's star artists, the stories were dreamed up entirely by them. Lee would dialogue the books based on notes Ditko and Kirby gave him. In Kirby's case, these notes were written in the outer margins of the original art, and still exist as proof of who was the real creator here. Lee, of course, claimed this method made him the creator, the sole creator, as his gloryhogging bombast grew and grew over the years. He trusted Ditko and Kirby implicitly, as he should have. Occasionally, however, Stan meddled, to disastrous result. His tinkering with Spider-man, as that character became Marvel's top seller, caused the uncompromising Ditko to first stop speaking to Lee, and then to quit without warning. It's the most famous artistic tantrum in comix history. But a similar incident also at least partially led Kirby to leave Marvel, and Lee.

The storyline in question was FF #66 and #67. Kirby had delivered, over the past year, the most incredible creative run of his career, a year and a half of classics that saw Kirby set a standard for super-hero comics that has never been matched, and likely never will be. He dreamed up iconic characters, such as Galactus and the Silver Surfer, experimented with layout and form, even worked pop-art collage into his books. As a writer, his stories became more complex, often containing two separate storylines, with a secondary plot slowly gestating until it culminated into a major plot. Lee, however, was loath to give Kirby the  credit he was due. He had reluctantly given Ditko a "plotted by" tag, in a half-assed attempt to placate his unhappy star, but the best the lower-keyed Kirby got was a dual "Stan Lee & Jack Kirby" credit that, like the Lennon & McCartney one, didn't state who was responsible for what. Lee, of course, always got first billing. Kirby was beginning to chaff at Lee's non-stop self-promotion, especially as comic books began to emerge from the lowbrow ghetto. Stan was either unaware of this, or didn't care, or both.

FF #66 introduced a mysterious character named Him (who would later morph into Adam Warlock, one of the great hippie-trippy characters of the Seventies). Here's the fun part: Kirby wrote it as a rebuttal to Ditko's beloved Objectivism. In this story scientists create a perfect man, who, in turn, is unable to tolerate the imperfect and destroys them all. Kirby illustrates the biggest of many holes in Randian thought. Man is imperfect by nature. The Jack Kirby Collector, the bible for all things Kirby, explains it all in detail HERE. When Lee got the pages, however, he didn't like the story at all. Perhaps he had genuine concerns that it would be misinterpreted. Perhaps he was worried his autocratic publisher (and uncle-in-law) Martin Goodman would object. Lee was plenty timid about adding political messages to Marvel books during this time, even as the college kids who were elevating Lee to guru status, hailed him for being "relevant" and "hip with the kids." Lee, in reality, was anything but. He was a 50-something square with a toupee who are few years earlier had filled his books with anti-commie rants. He sometimes made references to the social revolt that was unfolding on the streets and campuses, but he was always careful to not take sides. The heroes always urged everyone to work things out peaceably. So Lee changed Kirby's tale, and dialogued it as a boilerplate one: power-hungry scientists create a creature that turns on them, leading to their deserved deaths.  The tired Frankenstein plot.

It's a typical hack effort by Lee, although, as usual, Kirby's wondrous art saves the day. It also proved to be the last straw for Kirby. His growing dissatisfaction with Lee and Marvel had peaked. Kirby wouldn't create another character of note during his remaining three years at Marvel, pointedly telling Lee that he was the self-proclaimed "writer" so he could dream up his own characters. He didn't. Not one.

And we're left to wonder what could have been, had Lee not been such a selfish gasbag. How many issues of Ditko's Spider-man and Dr. Strange, and Kirby's Fantastic Four and Thor were sacrificed to one man's glory grab?

That's the tale of this strange footnote. A not-quite-realized Randian debate between two comix greats. It should be noted that Kirby and Ditko had a lot of respect for each other. Ditko, in fact, reportedly urged Kirby to leave Marvel when he did. It took nearly four years of ever-shoddier treatment before Kirby walked.