When Steve Ditko picked up the phone over two years ago, I stammered an introduction, thanking him for the generous checks he’d written for years to The Atlas Society. The 30-year-old philosophy non-profit organization had hired me, I let him know, and hence the call was my way of connecting with some of our longest supporters. In particular, Ditko deserved to know of our plans to leverage artistic means -- including a comic book -- to advance our shared commitment to the ideals of individualism, achievement, and rational-self-interest.
He was not rude, but he was also decidedly not interested in talking by phone -- and certainly not interested in meeting -- though when I offered that I might write to him, he did not object.
And so write, I did. As a follow up to our conversation, I sent him a few of the sketches from early pages of ANTHEM: The Graphic Novel which award-winning Marvel comics illustrator Dan Parsons and I were then in the early stages of adapting from Ayn Rand’s novella, first published 80 years ago. Now complete, the comic-style illustrated adaptation dramatizes Rand’s tale of how a collectivist society which repressed individualism would try to crush the ablest, by word and by deed.
A few months after I sent Ditko the offering, he sent a handwritten reply with a critique of the costuming. His interest in the clothes the hero wore is noteworthy, since costume was an area where Ditko innovated, as with Spiderman’s iconic bodysuit.
But here Ditko’s critique was more contextual, noting that in a dystopian, dysfunctional, collectivist society, the rudimentary economy would not have produced clothing as modern as the ones we featured in our adaptation. He specifically noted that Anthem characters would not sport shoes of the kind that could only be produced by an industrial civilization.
By that point in the production process -- itself on a shoestring budget -- we were about a third of the way through inking the pages, so the illustrator Dan Parsons incorporated the feedback as best could be managed, while also pursuing the creative vision he, as the artist, had set forth. But the gargantuan creative accomplishment Parsons has now rendered, and which we have just printed, reflects a deeper influence that Steve Ditko has had on him as he himself developed professionally, an influence which in turn informs every page of ANTHEM: The Graphic Novel.
Looking back, Parsons had this to say:
“My discovery of Steve Ditko was different from that of most other young comic book readers. I think it is fair to say that most fans of Ditko’s work came to know him from his long runs on the Spiderman and Dr. Strange superhero comic books from the Silver-Age of Marvel. This is not where I came to know his unique and imaginative style. It was the Warren Magazines of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70s where I first discovered the Steve Ditko that I would come to love and appreciate.”
“These were far from superhero stories, and were often realistic and sometimes bizarre and twisted tales of Horror. These were all 8-page short stories with a strong moral message. In my opinion some of the finest comic book work ever produced. The stories were all printed in black and white, and in most cases Ditko fully painted the pages in wash or watercolor, which created an impressive and moody atmosphere. I learned a great deal from Ditko’s wash painted stories. I would go on to use that knowledge and inspiration in my own work on Star Wars and many other comic book projects.”
Including, now, ANTHEM.
Competing creative visions may have been the reason why the prolific Ditko pulled away from the collaborative approach which characterized much of his earlier work.
In 1969 Ditko walked away and left unfinished his illustrations for a comic called Beware The Creeper #6. The work was finished by other illustrators, and Ditko never explained why he uncharacteristically left work undone. But those who knew Ditko - and knew of his affinity with the literature and philosophy of Ayn Rand - suggest he might have “gone Galt” -- withdrawing his creative energies in protest against compromise and interference.
Thom Young suggested as much in his comicsbulletin.com four-part series, Ditko Shrugged which explores Ditko’s relationship to Objectivism, concluding “that Rand’s philosophy factors into what Ditko originally wanted to do with the Creeper.”
Born in Johnston, Pennsylavania 1927 to Steve and Anna Ditko, immigrants from Slovakia -- which would later be re-constituted as a Soviet satellite -- Steve Jr. learned his love of comics at his father’s knee. Early artistic ability led to drawing comics for the Army newspaper during his service, and later being accepted to study with his hero, Batman artist Jerry Robinson.
Robinson introduced him to Stan Lee, and the pair would collaborate on several epic series, most famously, Spiderman. Admiringly, Lee said of Ditko: "All I had to do was give Steve a one-line description of the plot and he'd be off and running. He'd take those skeleton outlines I had given him and turn them into classic little works of art that ended up being far cooler than I had any right to expect.”
In addition to Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Dr. Strange, and Iron Man were other comic icons in which Ditko had a hand, to a greater or lesser degree.
But it was a later comic hero which personified the ideas which had, as he matured intellectually, become foundational for him.
Of all the characters Steve Ditko created, co-created or illustrated, the character Mr. A remained his property. The name “Mr. A” was inspired by the central axiom of Objectivism, “A is A,” which on a metaphysical level signifies that reality exists. It is, what it is.
After Ditko left Marvel in 1966, he created Mr. A for the underground comic, Witzend. Looking back over Ditko’s oeuvre, and influence, Parsons reflects:
“As a kid growing up reading comics I wasn’t aware of Steve Ditko’s Objectivist views. Of course, as a kid and a young artist, I wasn’t aware that my views were
Objectivist either! It was only until college intellectual discussions, when I was repeatedly dubbed an Objectivist myself and a professor demanded that I read a book called The Fountainhead that I found Ayn Rand. Or she found me…”
Just as she found Steve Ditko. And others inspired by both Ditko, and Ayn Rand, such as Gene Simmons, who tweeted this upon receiving news of the artist’s death:
“RIP Steve Ditko, who just passed at 90. Ditko’ Dr Strange was directly responsible for inspiring my hand gesture. Steve also co-created Spider-Man, Blue Beetle, The Question, The Creeper, Captain Atom and many more. He made my childhood magical. We honor you, Steve Ditko.”
At The Atlas Society, we believe that the best way to honor creative geniuses like Rand, and Ditko, is through creative expression. It is also the best way to light a candle for those creators -- artistic, literary, philosophic, scientific, entrepreneurial or otherwise -- who may step forward, like Equality 7-2521, to think, to produce, and, if we are lucky, to present their creations to the rest of us.
Parsons, reflecting on the intersection between Ditko’s art and his ideology said it best:
“Looking back at Steve Ditko, it makes perfect sense that what would be termed Objectivism would be central to his life and career, and to the artist in all of us for that matter. The creation of art itself is an expression of the individual, which is an inherent core characteristic of Objectivism.”
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.