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Ditko & Rand: The Objectivist Spider-Man?

I previously discussed what I have dubbed the ‘Three Great Rumors’ about Steve Ditko. Having covered two of them already (Rumor 1, Rumor 2), the time has come for the third rumor which is the most complex because it’s the one rumor with the highest evidentiary basis. This rumor argues that the reason Ditko left Spider-Man was because he clashed with Stan Lee over political differences, i.e. Ditko wished to make Spider-Man/Peter Parker an Objectivist mouthpiece. Implicit in this rumor is a series of assumptions which are worth unpacking in full. The other two rumors are comparatively easy to shoot down and those posts written with the intent of debunking, this post though is more speculative, based on close reading, seeking to go over the rumor and bring it up-to-date with the latest research, so as to open up the question with a broader perspective.

I suppose I came of age in the late 2000s and 2010s. This is a highly politicized political period of popular culture. Eventually politics became a concern with Spider-Man.

From around 2000 to 2020, one of the things that has come up quite often on the internet since as long as I’ve been a fan of Spider-Man on the internet is the question of Objectivism. Steve Ditko was an out and out Randian Objectivist, Objectivism was an ideology with purchase in “libertarian”/”conservative”/”right-wing” circles, and that made many fans wonder if Ayn Rand had something to do with Ditko’s run on Spider-Man, and whether it had anything to do with the reasons Ditko left. The question of Objectivism has left a considerable footprint, acknowledged by Marvel themselves in a couple of comics. It’s worth unpacking the discourse, taking the assumptions apart, and picking up the pieces.

THE OBJECTIVIST DISCOURSE

The Objectivist Spider-Man discourse can be a bit hard to parse because it conflates several interpretations, attitudes, and assumptions.

If I were to jot down all the attitudes, here’s what it would include:

  • Steve Ditko and Stan Lee differed politically to a significant degree. Steve Ditko was right-wing while Stan Lee was liberal leaning.

  • Ditko wanted Spider-Man to be a mouthpiece for his political views. Stan Lee wanted a liberal, even left-leaning Peter Parker.

  • Ditko’s objectivist beliefs influenced his approach to Spider-Man from the get-go. Spider-Man as an angry loner in the early Ditko run is in line with Rand’s idea of the completely self-reliant and isolated hero who ignores all bonds of society and community, and is opposed by a press that seeks to tear down the hero.

  • Others argue that Ditko’s objectivist beliefs seeped in only near the end of his run, especially ASM#38 which portrays a protest unsympathetically, and that it was Lee’s objections to Ditko’s political attitudes that led to the latter’s departure.

This is the “Objectivist Discourse” and while not everyone would claim every part of these points, I doubt any can argue that these bullet-points doesn’t in fact represent the claims of this interpretation.

EVIDENTIARY BASIS

ASM#09

I mentioned in my article on the High School Rumor, that compared to the High School Rumor, the Green Goblin and Objectivist Rumor had the benefit of being actually contemporaneous to the 1960s. Which is to say this isn’t something that came decades after the fact and tied to events that happened later in the continuity. People in the 1960s or 1970s actually believed it. Unlike the High School Rumor which is based on hearsay and speculation and has not the slightest bit of textual support, the Goblin Rumor and the Objectivist Rumor does have textual support to a limited extent.

Between the Goblin rumor and the Objectivist rumor, the former has the advantage being the only one directly acknowledged and personally debunked by Ditko. In the wake of Ballmann’s Steve Ditko in the 1960s, the Goblin rumor has now been demolished quite thoroughly beyond recovery. That leaves the Objectivist rumor the only one that still has an evidentiary basis. Having reviewed the evidence with the latest research, I’ve found plenty to complicate the hypothesis but until we learn more about Ditko I can’t really say that it’s been completely debunked, leave alone demolished.

Just to clarify, there’s enough evidence to establish that politics had no part in Ditko’s disputes with Lee and his reasons for leaving Marvel, but there’s no hard evidence to suggest that Objectivism had no impact or influence on Spider-Man. My personal belief is that Ditko wasn’t significantly under the influence of Rand during the production of his Spider-Man run, nor did he see Spider-Man as any vehicle for his Randian ideas.

The textual evidence for the “Objectivist Spider-Man” is as follows:

ASM#10
  • In ASM#10, Jameson gives a brief monologue by himself where his thought bubbles speculates on his dislike for Spider-Man. I had previously mentioned this scene before. It has Jameson justify his dislike and persecution for Spider-Man out of a burning envy and resentment on the idea that a true hero who acts on his own values and individual freedom exists, while Jameson depends on the value of a petty society to ennoble himself. Commenting on this scene Steven Attewell describes Ditko’s vision of Jameson: “Jameson’s original version of him is a Steve Ditko original, steeped in Ditko’s own brand of Objectivist philosophy, a tormented, small man hiding behind bluster and bravado, consumed by ressentiment towards those who stand above the crowd, who fans the flames of the mob’s hatred in order to salve his own ego” [1].
ASM#38
  • The most notorious bit of textual evidence is the “Protest Scene” in Ditko’s final issue of ASM#38, where Peter Parker walks into campus past a protest and is hostile to them in interaction. This scene has generated enough commentary that it’s practically self-explanatory. I could’ve done a full post on this scene alone, but for the time being it will have to wait its turn and be happy for its own sub-section below.

  • The other textual evidence mentioned by Blake Bell in Strange and Stranger is Ditko’s somewhat pro-police bias in his run on Spider-Man. This involves the police being the one to shoot down the Crime Master and also capture the Beetle after a botched team-up between Spider-Man and Human Torch.

These three points are in my opinion the strong claims for the Objectivist Interpretation. In addition of course there are the weak claims which I’ll go over here:

  • Among people who accepted the Green Goblin rumor as fact, Ditko’s objectivism was taken to be the reason given why Ditko had issues with Norman being the enemy since per Randian free-market principles, Ditko would be against a free-market captain of industry like Norman being a crook like any other. The complete demolition of this rumor renders this moot.

  • There’s also Brian Cronin’s argument that Ditko’s idea of an independent self-reliant superhero is because of Objectivism:

It all really came back to Ditko’s views about Objectivism. Ditko believed that if a superhero needed another hero’s help to defeat a bad guy, then why should we even care about that superhero? What good is he/she if they can’t succeed on their own merits?

Brian Cronin [2]

Now I happen to like some of Cronin’s pieces on CBR and even corresponded with him a couple of times, but for me this is a reach. The idea of wanting a solo title to be solo seems like an aesthetic priority. Surely there are writers who aren’t Objectivists, who are even leftist, who might prefer a story and title to be bereft of gratuitious teamups? Spider-Man the working class hero who operates by his own resources is definitely an aspirational model that crosses the political spectrum just like Chaplin’s Little Tramp who defied authority by himself was an aspirational model even if he was someone of the left. Individualism of various stripes exists across the political spectrum, and I think it’s facile to concede displays of individualism to Rand alone.

GATEWAY TO RAND

Ditko in High School

Here’s a timeline

  • 1905 – Birth of Ayn Rand in Imperial Russia.
  • 1926 – Rand Immigrates to United States from USSR.
  • 1927 – Birth of Steve Ditko.
  • 1943 – Publication of The Fountainhead, Rand’s first “objectivist” novel and major success.
  • 1945 – Ditko graduates high school.
  • 1955 – Ditko begins work at Timely/Atlas comics (later rebranded as Marvel).
  • 1957 – Rand publishes Atlas Shrugged. Her major commercial success and fullest expression of her Objectivist ideas.
  • 1962 – Ditko and Lee published Amazing Fantasy #15
  • 1963 – ASM #10 with Jameson contemplating his envy of Spider-Man was published.
  • 1966 – ASM#38 Ditko’s final issue was published in April 1966. He had announced his departure from Marvel well before then.
  • 1967 – Ditko publishes Mr. A, an Objectivist propaganda comic.

Establishing a timeline drives home a salient point: Ayn Rand was not by any means a major established author at the moment of Ditko’s birth. She arrived in America a year before. Her first major commercial success arrived in the 1940s and then a decade later in 1957 with Atlas Shrugged.

Ergo, Ditko was not born a Randian. He radicalized over time.

There’s a great deal we don’t know about Ditko, and so it’s very hard to arrive at the essential point, when did Ditko first come across Rand’s works? A more important question is when did Ditko immerse himself into Rand? And what was the situation that made him radicalize into an Objectivist? Whenever we come across instances of conversion experience, not in the religious sense necessarily (though applicable), but in the political and cultural sense, it’s not just a matter of a “flip switch” even if people describe it that way. You don’t come across a quotation of Karl Marx online and automatically transform into a Marxist. If you had no exposure to Jazz, and you listen to Miles Davis’ The Birth of the Cool, that’s not gonna transform you to a Jazz enthusiast overnight.

So with Ditko, there’s an arc we need to trace out. When did Ditko first know about Rand? When did he first read Rand? When did he decide to become an Objectivist? These are biographical questions, and right now we don’t have all the answers for that. But we do have enough to form a kind of arc. And it’s important to go over the available evidence.

DITKO’S RANDIAN TURN

Ayn Rand, arch-individualist on a stamp put out by a government owned institution.

Ayn Rand is an author and self-proclaimed “philosopher.” Academically she’s never been accepted as one, owing to her lack of rigor in her philosophical works.

Her “philosophy” falls under the rubric of self-help books which owe their appeal to their attempts to convey a degree of vicarious confidence and feelgood attitude. Rand’s idea of individualism is very grandiose and monumental, not so far from ’50s advertising and PR. Given America’s hyper-consumerist society, it makes all the sense that Rand has had a bigger influence on American politics then say, John Rawls, leave alone Noam Chomsky.

The Fountainhead (1949)

Ayn Rand was also a popular author of fiction, for works such as We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged. In terms of genre they are kind of like science-fiction/dystopian fables (unintentionally that is: what makes them dystopian is Rand’s idea of utopia) not so far from the trappings of other science fiction of the 50s and 60s. After the commercial success of Atlas Shrugged, Rand turned to non-fiction for the rest of her life, and wrote a series of tendentious essays assaulting the welfare state, and promoted her idea of “selfishness” as moral virtue that, through acolytes like Alan Greenspan (Ronald Reagan’s Chair of the Federal Reserve) had a decisive influence on neoliberalism and deregulation [3].

With Rand there’s two aspects to her: the popular author of fiction and the selfishness lifestyle guru. As an author of fiction, her literary reputation isn’t very good. As Dorothy Parker allegedly said of Atlas Shrugged, “This is not a book to be treated lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” I’ve only read one of her books, Anthem when I was about 11 on a science fiction kick, and I found it too pretentious though unlike her later works it’s mercifully short. I’ve also seen the 1948 movie adaptation of The Fountainhead by King Vidor, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal [ASIDE: I actually think that’s a good movie and besides Rand hated it, for what it’s worth]. My only other exposure to Rand is the videogame Bioshock, which is also I think the defining introduction to Rand for people of my generation, set in an underwater city Rapture with a villain called Andrew Ryan modeled as the arch-individualist who creates the ideal vision of capitalist selfishness that Rand advocated.

Ultimately I have zero interest in Rand. For me the question of Rand’s relation to Ditko, at least with his Marvel work, doesn’t need a too “deep” reading of her works.

The question is how much or little Ditko read or knew Rand by the time he worked in the 1960s. As mentioned above, it could have been The Fountainhead during high school, Atlas Shrugged in the 1950s in terms of popular contact. So far from what I’ve read only one source has given a specific origin of entry:

In Strange and Stranger, Blake Bell writes:

Ditko was introduced to Rand as early as 1960, with Stan Lee being an avid fan of Rand’s stories and depiction of her heroes. As the Objectivist movement picked up steam in New York City, Rand’s followers set up learning centers dedicated to her philosophy; in 1962 they began monthly production of The Objectivist Newsletter. The 95-cent 1963 paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged made it available to a mass audience, and further exposure came with Rand’s 1964 interview with Playboy, the magazine a likely staple of the studio Ditko shared with fetish artist Eric Stanton.

Blake Bell, Page 86.

This paragraph is a mix of speculations but it has two hard facts:

  • Ditko was in fact aware of Rand before he began work on his superhero stories at Marvel. “As early as 1960”.
  • Ditko was introduced to Rand by Stan Lee who was, “an avid fan of Rand’s stories and depiction of her heroes.”

The rest of the excerpt is merely speculative, in that it suggests that Ditko may have come across Objectivist Centers, the 1963 paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged, and a Playboy interview with Rand. What these speculations hint at, though Bell doesn’t claim, is that they are possible signposts for Ditko’s deeper reading and increasing radicalization. Perhaps Ditko visited these Objectivist centers and much like quite a few smart people who get ensnared by cults, is hooked on by hucksters at these “learning centers” through their slick presentations. Then Ditko moves away from Rand’s fiction (which Lee seems to have been familiar with) to her non-fiction.

Ditko’s work for Warren Comics is considered by Alan Moore to be his best.

So we have an arc with signposts from Rand’s fiction to Rand’s non-fiction. First there’s Stan Lee’s careless book recommendation, there’s Ditko’s own personal explorations of Rand, there’s potential contact with cult-like learning centers, and pretty soon Ditko tumbled down the rabbit hole but unlike Alice, he never got out. This maps out well with Ditko’s career, where Pre-Rand in the 1950s he worked on a number of monster and science-fiction stories and then in the 1960s he works on superhero stories like Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, as well as issues of the Hulk and Iron Man, and then horror comics for Warren under Archie Goodwin, before emerging in 1967 with Mr. A emerging out of his cocoon as a full-on Objectivist.

Psychologically, based on what we have learned from Ballman’s book on Ditko and Riesman’s biography of Stan Lee, we can surmise that Ditko’s feelings about being ripped off at Marvel had a part in his radicalization, and that perhaps, he dove into Rand as a way to make sense for his exploitation.

If so then this makes Ditko’s turn to Rand deeply tragic and profoundly sad. Ditko resented Stan Lee for exploiting his labor and yet he clung to Rand who was introduced to him by Stan Lee. Ditko’s immersion into Rand, contrasting so heavily with Stan Lee, seems like a kind of displaced rivalry. Ditko can’t beat Stan Lee in fame, and wealth but in terms of Rand fandom, Ditko can overgo him, and so he did at the detriment of his artistic calling.

Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo. Savonarola led a populist catholic revival that led him to establish a theocracy in Florence. Sandro Botticelli was among those who he radicalized.

History is full of artists who fell under the sway of passions, religious and political, to the detriment of their art. Sandro Botticelli, the great Renaissance painter, became an adherent of Girolamo Savonarola’s austere populist catholicism, and he set fire to many of his paintings in the “bonfire of the vanities” when Savonarola’s followers burnt luxury items of the wealthy. Ditko is superhero comics’ own Botticelli and his following of the secular Savonarola in Ayn Rand with her bizarre combination of austere rigid principles applied to free-market individualism despite all its contradictions, all to convey an intoxicating self-righteousness where the individual Objectivist was the lone genius who had no obligations to society and was independent of it. As Blake Bell put it,

By immersing himself in Rand’s teachings, Ditko started down a path that, ironically, would lead him away from a life of riches and fame.

Blake Bell, Page 83

STAN LEE: RAND-FAN OR RANDIAN?

The revelation that Stan Lee was a fan of Rand’s fiction and that that it was he who, indirectly, plunged Ditko into the vat of acid of Objectivism has been available since 2011 when Bell published his book though curiously it has not gotten much or any commentary. Perhaps because it unbalances the binary of the Ditko Randian/Liberal Stan idea. It’s well established that Stan Lee yearned for a literary career and kept up to speed with latest fads and crazes. So Rand’s fame and success would not have escaped his attention. In light of Riesman’s biography, Lee being partial to Rand’s ideal of individual self-reliance and assertion, and the concomitant self-righteousness she vicariously espouses on behalf of big business, is no great shock.

Stan Lee is not the first artist who had a public reputation at odds with his more moderate personal conviction. Frank Capra, the director of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life!, was the subject to a critical biography by Joseph McBride that went over archival information to unearth the fact that Capra was privately a conservative during the 1930s and hated and resented FDR and his new deal [4]. As conservative as Capra may have been privately, he also wanted to be popular and successful entertainer during the 1930s and 1940s, at a time of heightened liberalism in popular culture in America. He collaborated with left-wing screenwriters to communicate a general anti-establishment sentiment that he shared consensus with, even if for Capra that meant dissent from the New Deal’s great popularity.

Stan Lee wasn’t quite as conservative as Capra but like him, he was a populist. He was into Rand when she was most mainstream with The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and less so when she did her rant-focused non-fiction. With Ditko, it was the other way around. So the divide between Ditko and Lee can simply be the populist aspects of Ayn Rand (Lee) and the “philosophical” aspects of Rand (Ditko) rather than simply see both as completely opposed politically. Today Ayn Rand has an air of opprobrium attached to her name (deservedly) but this was not the case in the 1940s and 1950s. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were mainstream successes which meant that they simply had to appeal to a readership who weren’t objectivists, and who could read and enjoy those books without subscribing to her ideas. Read in isolation, her fiction can simply be seen as genre stories of one kind or another and that was how Rand was originally read.

Rand’s fiction didn’t generate or herald any libertarian turn. After all, the 1940s and 1950s through the 1960s was the New Deal era of social democracy, where even Eisenhower once elected did not dare touch the Social Security institutions set up by FDR. Rand’s works had no political effect at all in that time outside of anti-communism, which didn’t need her as any accelerant (McCarthy certainly didn’t read Rand). The Rand associated with neoliberalism dates to the 1980s when Alan Greenspan, one of her acolytes became Chair of the Federal Reserve under Reagan, and that’s when Rand’s ideas of what should come after social democracy i.e. neoliberal free-market fundamentalism, took hold. So ultimately it wasn’t Ayn Rand the fiction writer but Ayn Rand the developer of the Objectivist cult had the long-term influence, not through the marketplace of ideas but through elite backchannels and insidious anti-democratic infiltration of institutions.

All this is to say that until the 1960s and 1970s it was possible to be a Rand fan without being a Randian. The question is whether we understand Lee as a Rand fan or a Randian? Someone who liked the popular fiction of Rand without taking any purchase of her ideas, as opposed to Ditko. There’s evidence for both.

LEE AND LIBERTARIANISM

FF#67. Art by Kirby. Fans of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 might recognize this cocoon from the closing tags of that film.

In 1967, Jack Kirby and Lee had a dispute about Fantastic Four #66-67. The story concerned a group of evil scientists who were creating an artificial human, called “HIM” in the original story (subsequently developed by others into Adam Warlock but not called that originally).

Kirby’s original ideas for this story was to spoof Rand with the scientists creating the Objectivist ideal man only for it to go very wrong:

According to Mark Evanier (based on conversations he had with Kirby), Jack originally intended for this storyline to represent his take on the Objectivist philosophy. What Jack had read of Ayn Rand and had explained to him had gotten him to thinking about the philosophy and its pitfalls (some, of course, will dispute that there are pitfalls in it and that is their right), which led him to do a story about it. Jack probably did not consciously think, “Here’s my answer to Ayn Rand”; his primary goal was, as always, to just write a good story. But in Jack’s original story, the scientists are well-intentioned, with no evil plans. They are attempting to create a being totally self-sufficient, intellectually self-reliant; not encumbered by superstition, fear, or doubt; in short, a being based on Rand’s absolutes. Of course such a being would be totally intolerant of those who created him; a truly Objectivistic being would not cope with the flaws in others.

Mike Gartland “The Last Straw” [5]

When Lee got the story from Kirby, he asked for some changes, which Kirby didn’t like:

Whatever the case, according to Evanier, when Stan received the first part of this storyline, he felt that changes had to be made. Perhaps he found its content too negative to a given philosophy, politically-based, or simply confusing to him. Stan didn’t notice any villain in the story and almost always felt that every story had to have a bad guy, so he had to come up with one. He could only choose between the being or the scientists and it was simplicity to just go the “Mad Scientist/Sympathetic Creature” route; it worked for Frankenstein, right? During these years Stan would have photostats shot of Jack’s artwork, to be sent back to Jack so that he could remember his plot continuities in these multi-part stories of his. These photostats would have Stan’s dialogue intact to show Jack how Stan was interpreting the stories. When Jack received the photostats to issue #66, the first part, he wasn’t pleased at all. His storyline had been corrupted; the entire reason for the story had been gutted, replaced with a standard comic book plot; and he was now (due to the fact that this issue was going to print) forced to change the rest of his story to support Lee’s version. Jack may have intended for this story to be longer, but after seeing this, the story would be ended with the next issue.

Mike Gartland [5]

In short, Stan Lee censored an anti-Rand satire from Jack Kirby. Gartland allows Lee a benefit of the doubt in that this wasn’t directly political but simply a case of not understanding the motives, and that’s likely. But there’s enough grounds to presume that Lee didn’t want to attack Rand or critique her ideas even indirectly, and that suggests personal bias. If that’s the case then that does imply a degree of commitment on Lee’s part to Rand’s reputation and fame. Some have argued that this was done out of consideration for Ditko, but by 1967, Ditko had left Marvel for more than a year. So there’s little reason to presume that peace in Marvel office was any reason to uphold this. Lee moved to censor an Objectivist satire after Ditko left the building so to speak, right before the publication of Mr. A established Ditko as an objectivist.

There’s also other evidence for Lee’s Libertariansim. Take for instance, his explanation for creating Tony Stark/Iron Man:

“I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military. So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist. I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him … And he became very popular.”

Stan Lee [6]
Tales of Suspense #48 (December, 1963). Art by Steve Ditko. First appearance of Iron Man red-and-gold. The look of Iron Man from 1963 all the way to Avengers Endgame, is the vision of Stephen John Ditko.

Now this kind of thinking is the kind of contrarianism that we now see as “South Park both-sides-ism”. Leaving aside whether Stan Lee “created” Iron Man (for one thing his brother Larry Lieber came up with the name “Tony Stark”, his look of Errol Flynn pencil mustache and raffish handsomeness, Kirby designed the original costume, Ditko designed the red-and-gold look), the explanation Lee gives for Iron Man as a way to troll the hippies is pretty revealing, a way to suggest that Lee wanted to balance the counter-cultural tilt that Marvel acquired in the 1960s. There’s also Lee’s claim that Iron Man “became very popular.” This is a falsifiable claim and the evidence doesn’t really support this. Iron Man was never really a top 10 best-seller or mainstream A-list character within Marvel (leave alone comics-wide) until the mid-2000s [7]. He had a cult for sure but, among solo titles, was never as popular or influential as Daredevil, The Mighty Thor, Captain America, leave alone Spider-Man. Marvel’s biggest event of the 1980s, Secret Wars 1984, didn’t feature Tony Stark. The Iron Man in that event was James Rhodes. So it’s not clear if Lee’s claim of Iron Man “trolling the hippies” even worked.

Secret Wars 1984. Art by Mike Zeck and Bob Layton. Slightly cringe in the performative aspects of Shooter’s approach to diversity, but still interesting that Marvel was fine with Iron Man being introduced to a huge audience as an African-American legacy in the event that introduced more new eyes to Marvel comics than any single comic since the 1960s.

Abraham Riesman’s biography sheds far more light on Stan Lee’s personal moderation in politics. And the image is someone who was far more of a middle-of-the-road player. When describing footage of an attempt at a talk show Lee tried to launch in the late ’60s, Riesman observes:

Stan Lee in the 1960s. This is the Lee who worked with Ditko on ASM and Doctor Strange. Bald, clean shaven, steel-eyed looking like any bank clerk of the time.

However, whenever he’s confronted with radical ideas, he is swift to denounce them from his point of view as a liberal member of what he calls “the Establishment.” The war in Vietnam? He finds it “indefensible,” but “there are too many other things involved” for it to just end right away. What of the agony of the African American population in an era of racist candidates calling for “law and order?” “I just don’t think the solution is to throw bricks in windows or to say ‘If the law doesn’t satisfy us and it doesn’t make everything perfect, then let’s abandon the law or let’s make up our own laws’ ” is Stan’s conclusion. By the end, he’s more or less throwing his guests entirely under the bus: “I don’t think you fellas have the answer because, while I think your objectives are right, I don’t think you have the objectivity which is required, which I think will come later,” he says.

Abraham Riesman, (Pg. 172-173)
Stan Lee of the late 1960s. Toupee, Mustache, Shades.

Now obviously, Stan Lee has every right to be as liberally centrist and cautious as he personally felt. Certainly it must be acknowledged how novel and radical it was to even discuss and address political issues in superhero comics of the 1960s, or to have a major comics publisher espouse views that aren’t default right-of-center. We can perceive that much as Ditko had an arc, we can see a similar arc with Stan Lee. Both Ditko and Lee have one thing in common, they reinvented themselves. Ditko reinvented himself into a Randian hermit after being a artist-writer who graciously opened himself to the fans. Stan Lee by contrast was a suburban 50s “man in the grey flannel suit” who reinvented himself into a toupee wearing groovy “With it” cool uncle. Take a look at the images of Stan Lee in the 1960s as a bald bank clerk, which was his look during his collaborations with Ditko and Kirby, and the gent of the late ’70s which is recognizably the “Stan Lee” of the cameos that led him to becoming Marvel’s mascot.

Mister Miracle #6. Art by Jack Kirby. One of the reasons why the “Funky Flashman” satire is so mean-spirited is that Kirby exposed Lee as a bald toupee-wearing square trying to dress himself a generation younger.

If Ditko radicalized out of the mainstream, Stan Lee’s moderate sponge nature led him to paradoxically give voice to opinions and values and attitudes that were left of his center, courting and appealing to an audience whose love he valued even if he didn’t entirely respect them.

With that in mind we can return to the evidence.

EXHIBIT A: JONAH’S CONFESSION

The first major claim if of course the scene that we can provisionally call “Jonah’s confession”, i.e. Jonah claiming in ASM#9 that the reason he hates Spider-Man is that he can’t tolerate Spider-Man as being individually capable to live by an altruistic code.

Now I’ve commented on the oddness of this scene before. I’ll just requote myself:

Even more controversially, in Amazing Spider-Man #10 by Lee and Ditko, we have a scene showing Jameson introspect on why he dislikes Spider-Man. In this panel, Jameson claims that he’s jealous of Spider-Man and that he seeks to tear him down because he can’t accept someone like him being braver than him, a man who spends all his life in pursuit of money. The resentment of a news publisher wanting to bring down someone out of his moral inferiority appears to echo ideas of Ayn Rand, for example the architecture critic Toohey from The Fountainhead who hates the hero Roark so much he seeks to tear him down…

[…]

The problem with this “motivation”, even voiced by its creators, is that Jameson says this before Spider-Man acts altruistically when he’s a TV entertainer who hadn’t yet dove in and saved his son heroically. In the same way Jameson calling a TV-Entertainer a public menace is extreme, him seeing Spider-Man, in his “Instagram Influencer” days, as someone to tear down feels like going too far in the other direction. What reason would Jameson have in ASM#1 for going after Spiderman when he only knows him as a TV performer who has done nothing to merit any resentment? Even from an objectivist perspective, how would tearing down a TV celebrity who has shown no courage vindicate how Jameson feels about himself?

Jack Elving “Genesis of J. Jonah Jameson: Spider-Man’s Guilty Conscience”

The big question of the Marvel Method has always been how in-synch Ditko and Lee were in terms of characters/art/attitude. There’s evidence of some friction but in terms of individual examples — in this scene is this Ditko’s pencils with notes indicating the dialogue that Jameson should be saying, and Stan Lee punching up Ditko’s characterization? Or is it Stan Lee and Ditko agreeing that Rand made sense as an explanation and Stan willingly putting Randian ideas into Jameson? Short of getting Ditko’s original art with his notes to Lee on every issue, we’ll never know. We know that Ditko and Lee were both fans and admirers of Ayn Rand, but in 1963 when this issue came out, Lee had a longer history with Rand than Ditko did, who was just getting started. So who is Randian here?

ASM#21 – Randian Fan Whines to the Editor who Recommended Rand to Future Randian Steve Ditko.

One thing we do know is that Jameson’s confession attracted real-time 1960s Objectivist commentary, but in a way that’s quite at odds with how this scene has been interpreted:

The first hint of Objectivist philosophy infiltrating Marvel came buried in the letters page of Spider-Man #21 . Given the lead time required in putting a comic book together, most letters commenced on material three or four months old. Here, however, a letter from an obvious Rand follower commented on the story from eleven mont0hs earlier, in issue ten. It referenced J. Jonah Jameson’s three-panel soliloquy attacking Spider-Man as being a manifestation of his own deep-rooted insecurity. The letter writer, John Bailey, took issue with Jameson’s portrayal in the book:

“Money is not a tool of the looters or the moochers; it is a tool of the producers. I ask by what standard may J.J.J ., a producer, be said to be less moral or even immoral in comparison with Spider-Man? How can J. Jonah Jameson, who has provided work for hundreds or thousands and news for millions, be said co be immoral? Why has a man that has amassed a fortune solely through providing the news faster, cheaper, more concisely, and more accurately than any other source accept a standard of morality that holds his production, his virtue to be evil?”

Blake Bell, Strange and Stranger, Page 87.

Now in this case, I think Blake Bell, the author of a fine book on Ditko, has misread the evidence (and in any case I thank him for presenting his claims fairly so that readers can look over his shoulder and draw other conclusions). Bell is using this scene to identify the rise of Objectivist ideas in Spider-Man, but all this letter from ASM#21 reveals is that ASM counted Objectivists among its readership. More importantly, the Objectivist reader sees the Jameson monologue and wonders why it’s critical of Jonah. To me what this indicates is that to an Objectivist audience, Spider-Man comics would be more sympathetic to Jonah than otherwise. And from what we see of Ditko’s run, Jonah remained largely the same crusty curmudgeon and comical buffoon from start to finish. That said, Stan Lee’s slangy response about nobody in the bullpen being “anti-money” and about his reader being a philosophy major is certainly him reading his reader as a Randian, which does confirm a Randian familiarity on his part.

This letter presented by Bell complicates what we understand to be “Objectivist reading”. Steven Attewell’s reading of Ditko’s Randian view of Jameson excerpted above stands at odds with how this scene was received. Anti-Randian Spider-Man fans see this scene and think Jameson’s resentment at Peter is like Toohey wanting to strike at Roark but Objectivist readers see a denigration of businessmen. From the point of view of denigration of businessman, we cannot neglect to mention that it was Ditko who presented Norman Osborn far more unsympathetically than Stan Lee. Maybe the scene with Jameson is sorta Objectivist but it’s not clear what it’s trying to communicate about Objectivism, and it implies if anything that perhaps both Lee and/or Ditko had an imperfect understanding of Objectivism at the time.

EXHIBIT B: LAW AND ORDER

ASM#27

The other bit of evidence cited by Blake Bell is the depiction of the police in Ditko’s run especially in ASM#26-27, aka the Crime Master 2-Parter.

Ditko began to identify with – in fact deify- one of society’s real heroes, the policeman. In issue 19, they, not Spider-Man, corral the slippery Sandman. In issue 27, a small group of officers fight the entire criminal underground and prevail through sheer force of will. In that issue, the police also capture the Crime Master, as
they do the Cat in issue 30.

Ron Frantz published Ditko’s work in Return of the Skyman and What is … the Face? for Ace Comics in the mid-’80s. He knew one of Ditko’s 1960s Charlton co-workers, Pete Morisi, who was a police officer by day and moonlighted as a comic-book artist. “Morisi once cold me about a chance meeting with Ditko in 1967,” says Frantz. “Ditko told Morisi he envied him, in that Ditko would enjoy an opportunity to arrest criminals. Ditko’s evolving philosophical views made Morisi feel a little uncomfortable. To the best of my knowledge, the two men never spoke again.”

Blake Bell, Page 87.

Now I know little of Objectivism to have any knowledge of its attitude to police in general. But I will say that support for “law and order” and sympathy for the police isn’t common to Objectivism alone, and people of different stripes have advocated sentiments close to it. And I’m not sure if Ditko’s depiction of police in these comics are pro-police necessarily or if being pro-police is necessarily the main event.

Watchmen #2. Art by Dave Gibbons. The extreme right wing Comedian faces protestors who also seem to be on the right, at least going by the the old lady. That’s rare these days but it tracks. Right wing on right wing violence has been a thing since World War 1 (fought by imperialist nations that politically weren’t too different from one another).
  • As mentioned above, the incident with Spider-Man and Human Torch clowning and tripping each other over in ASM#19 so much that Sandman gets busted by the cops feels like Ditko subverting and sabotaging Stan Lee’s demands for gratuitous team-ups. It doesn’t feel uniquely Objectivist. In Watchmen, the Keene act opposed superheroes and led to popular protests on behalf of policemen, with protestors advocating for cops while facing down Comedian and Dan Dreiberg, is that copaganda, or is it simply using the police for a genre critique?

  • The death of the Crime Master at the hands of the police does feel more pro-cop especially with the cops shooting him in the back, but again the point of the Crime Master’s death is to build suspense for Green Goblin’s secret identity which he almost mutters in his dying breaths. Whatever message Ditko might have intended clashes with the genre demands of the story.

We know from Riesman’s book that Stan Lee was very pro-police privately. When Ditko left the books, it was Stan Lee who introduced Captain George Stacy as Spider-Man’s ally in the police force, giving Peter his own “Commissioner Gordon” whereas Ditko did not so such thing, and never individualized any policeman into supporting cast.

ASM #23. Jameson underneath it all, really is a good boss.

On the contrary, one of the most individualized supporting characters is Frederick Foswell, a journalist who poses as a gangster and who becomes a real criminal only to redeem himself. Foswell as far as we can tell is a Ditko character more than a Lee one. In fact Stan Lee killed off Foswell in his run with Romita Sr. If Ditko had such a black-and-white law and order attitude during his time writing ASM, where does Foswell fit in with the established idea that copaganda was a theme in the Ditko ASM run?

EXHIBIT C: COLLEGE PROTESTS

ASM #36

So far we’ve covered Ditko’s run in the early and middle stretches, now we turn to the end. In terms of biographical narrative, it makes more sense that the final issues of Ditko’s run turned in by late 1965 (and printed in mid-1966) ought to reflect Randian elements, especially given Mr. A came out in 1967.

For instance, in ASM#36, Ditko’s third-from-last issue, he introduces a one-and-done villain called “The Looter”. Looter is a term that Rand used to describe enemies of objectivism. There’s the question of who came up with the title of the villain: Ditko or Lee? Is it Lee’s Randianism or Ditko’s? Either way the villain, a typical mad scientist, doesn’t resemble at all the usual Randian concept of looter (think “welfare queen”).

The biggest get for the Objectivist Interpretation is of course the protest scene of ASM#38. Ditko’s last issue.

The scene is a single page, a 8 panel grid. It shows Peter walking alone past campus while Flash, Gwen, Harry who are Peter’s bullies in his college era in the Ditko run comment on the sides. The protestors are an all-white group, and they are specifically listed as “protesting tonight’s protest meeting” in other words it’s a non-political protest event. Symbolically of course the entire scene portrays college protests as somewhat frivolous so it can be seen as mocking, though as stuff goes it’s pretty mild. We also have Gwen, Harry, Flash attacking Peter because they think he’s joining the protests but then they make fun of him for being too spineless to march which attacks the hip posturing involved in performative activism.

Forrest Gump. The movie has a quick flashback showing Hanks playing ancestor in flashback in full KKK regalia. And yet failed feminist rebel Jennry spawning child of this KKK seed is the happy ending.

Now as drawn and plotted by Ditko, this is a mild bit of comedy showing how the college social scene is different from the high school era but at the same time, Peter’s still misunderstood and made fun by Flash. The dialogues by Stan Lee (perhaps following Ditko’s indications), portrays a studiously non-political protest. Now you might see this as implying that all college protests are frivolous but for me, it shows this protest as frivolous in content, rather than showing protesting as being frivolous in essence, such as Robin Wright’s Jenny’s ’60s hippie arc in the movie Forrest Gump which shows the counter-culture era of the ’60s as a downward arc for the girl who tried to escape her family and ultimately get AIDS, and whose main legacy is leaving behind a kid with the “good ol’ Southern Kid” (who descends from KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest — yep that movie didn’t age well). One of the protestors when attacking Peter for not joining in says he listens to “Lawrence Welk” i.e. a 60s entertainer known for “champagne music”. So this isn’t exactly about political attitudes.

A close reading of this scene finds it lacking in teeth, and it doesn’t seem anything that Lee or Ditko gave any time or mind to in the charting of this issue. Which stands at odds with the mountain of commentary that this protest scene has gotten.

DITKO-BASHING

Jonathan Ross – In Search of Steve Ditko

In Jonathan Ross’ BBC Documentary on Steve Ditko, Neil Gaiman mentions the protest scene of ASM#38 as an example of the disputes between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

“There are famously a number of issues they clashed over. Stan is meant to have looked at comments of Ditko’s where Spider-Man is swinging past protestors and he’s meant to be saying things like, ‘look at those dirty hippies down there’ and Stan would go in and give him a word balloon and say ‘hey kids, I’m with you’ and whatever. You feel politically, there’s a wonderful sort of clash there between Swinging Stan Lee and magnificently uptight, world class uptight, impossibly uptight Steve Ditko!”

Neil Gaiman [8]

There’s a major problem with Gaiman’s quote. The scene he talks about never happened.

The protest scene of ASM#38 shows the dialogue by Stan Lee as unsympathetic to the protestors exactly as the art indicated by Steve Ditko. To the extent there were clashes between them it had nothing to do with that scene. Obviously, the revelation of Lee’s own fascination with Rand and his libertarian moderate leanings happened after 2007, under Blake Bell’s biography in 2011, and Riesman’s biography in 2021, so Gaiman can’t be faulted for not having access to the freshest research. But one can well argue how a person so intelligent as Gaiman, so nuanced and learned, failed to commit the close reading to support his claim. Gaiman’s quote in the BBC documentary which aired in 2007, thanks to his great prestige and fame, legitimized the notion of the dichotomy between “Liberal” Stan Lee and Objectivist Ditko.

By doing so he gave voice, and prestige, to a critical sport that I’d like to call “Ditko-Bashing” which is to say Objectivism is only ever invoked in connection to Spider-Man to attack Steve Ditko and praise Stan Lee, with the implicit undercurrent that Spider-Man was saved from Ditko by Lee. Take NerdSync, who in 2021 released a video on their YouTube Channel, “Why Spider-Man used to suck” and discusses Ditko’s Randian influences betwen 34-38mns. The reading of that scene, the title of the video, and his screed against Ditko is more heat than light [9]. The subtext is again Ditko was wrong, Stan was right. And somehow Ditko and Ditko alone, is held to task for his political opinions, in NerdSync’s opinion, for implicitly making Spider-Man a supporter of the Vietnam War and against the Civil Rights, which literally has no textual support.

With regards to Vietnam why is Ditko the one singled out for blame for an apolitical scene that covers about 8 panels in a 40 issue run, when Stan Lee featured far more explicit pro-war scenes in comics of the time?

TALES OF SUSPENSE #39 (March 1963). Iron Man’s origin. Notice, how the colorist actually drew the Vietnamese army officers with yellow skin, just in case people wanted to know why they changed the movie’s origin so much.
  • It was Stan Lee who sought to situate Iron Man as a Cold Warrior capitalist superhero whose origin had him in Vietnam selling arms to the South before being attacked by communists. As much as the comic is about Stark as a reformist arms dealer, the origin paints the communists as outright bad guys. Ditko had nothing to do with Iron Man’s origin. His contribution, the red and gold armor look came later.

ASM#47. Not exactly the somber parting in the first hour of The Deer Hunter, is it?
  • When Ditko stepped down, Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. had Flash Thompson enlist in service and ship off to Vietnam for a tour of duty. The scene of Flash leaving for war in ASM#47 shows his friends as supportive, without any voice against the war or any quibbles about the justification for fighting. Obviously Stan Lee would never have Spider-Man enlist, but he was willing to have a prominent supporting cast member, and Spider-Man’s #1 fan enlist. As Riesman’s biography attests above, privately as the war was becoming unpopular, Lee was willing to cop to his young audience that it was a mistake but he was not committed to pulling out of Vietnam either.

  • As Spencer Ackerman points out, publicly Stan Lee always took a neutral attitude to Vietnam in the pages of Marvel Letters, as opposed to Jack Kirby:

“Over the years we’ve received a zillion letters asking for the Bullpen’s opinion about such diverse subjects as Viet Nam, civil rights, the war on poverty, and the upcoming election,” Lee wrote in the September 1968 Stan’s Soapbox. “We’re phantasmagorically flattered that our opinion would matter to you, but here’s the hang-up: there isn’t any unanimous Bullpen opinion about anything, except possibly mother love and apple pie!” (By contrast, here is Jack Kirby, a combat veteran of Patton’s Army who abhorred tyranny and war: “I didn’t like that war. I thought it was crazy. And of course, that had an effect on a generation of young people who just couldn’t understand it.”)

Spencer Ackerman [10]

With regards to college protests, some people have claimed that Stan Lee showed college protests more sympathetically after Ditko left. The evidence does not exist.

Take ASM#68. Unlike Ditko’s last issue that came 30 issues prior, Lee and Romita represent an actual political protest with students. Rather than an all-white group we have a mixed group led by prominent African-American students. This issue in fact introduces Randy Robertson, the son of Joe Robertson. Randy is represented as the more firebrand son of his Dad, reflecting somewhat the split between the older Civil Rights generations and the younger activists (think MLK and Black Panthers, though neither Joe nor Randy are quite as radical as either of those two). Randy falls under the influence of an older African-American student who’s implied as a more “rock-the-boat” type.

Then there’s a scene where the students ask Peter to join their protest against the Dean. And Peter says, “Okay, that’s your side of the story! What does the Dean say?” and then he walks away leading the protestors to call him a chicken.

ASM#68. If the Internet existed today, Peter would be canceled as a “both-sider” and he’d deserve it.

It’s virtually the same comic thirty years later but unlike Ditko’s brief 8 panel grid which is a side gag to larger story, ASM#68 is explicitly about student politics as a major subplot, featured on the cover and the title “Crisis on the Campus” and we have Peter walk away from solidarity from an African-American led protest. Where Ditko satirized a protest as frivolous in content, Lee and Romita satirize protesting as frivolous in essence. So the question is why does this scene written and drawn after Ditko left, not subject to scrutiny of any kind?

Abraham Riesman’s biography on Stan Lee is the major exception. He spotlighted this comic:

Because police are known for educating Black protestors, and jail is where people who do nothing wrong should cool down, right?

Stan’s dialogue played with fire, putting words like,’ ‘Uncle Tom,’ and ‘soul-brother’ into black characters’ mouths and depicting Peter as telling them to see the administration’s side of the story and yelling, ‘ ”Anyone” can paint a ”sign,” mister! ”That” doesn’t make you ”right!”” There’s no real resolution to the political questions posed by the comic, merely a bizarre deus ex machina in which the protest leaders are arrested on the false belief that they were linked with the Kingpin, something the reader is supposed to see as a positive event because the courts will surely exonerate them. Even jail is a bonus, muses Peter: ‘And they’ll ”all” have a chance to ‘cool off!’

Abraham Riesman, Page 173-174

So with regards to politics, there was more consensus between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko than most allow. Now of course, this doesn’t mean that there’s no nuance in Lee’s engagement with politics (that’s a topic deserving of its own post), and it doesn’t mean that Ditko didn’t in fact become an Objectivist. The point to emphasize is that Randian interpretations in Spider-Man is too over-determined and disproportionate in focus.

We have to ask why everyone is under the impression that the only comics Ditko ever worked on is Spider-Man and Mr. A?

WHY SPIDER-MAN AND NOT
DOCTOR STRANGE?

A handcolored poster announcing Jefferson Airplane’s “A Tribute to Dr. Strange”

As far as I can tell, Steve Ditko wasn’t known as an Objectivist until 1967’s Mr. A. Reading Ballmann’s anthology of fanzine pieces, Ditko is never once quoted saying anything about Rand or Objectivism, or anything political at all. In fact, until Mr. A, Ditko was if anything popular among the counter-culture for Dr. Strange.

In Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Bradford W. Wright wrote, “Dr. Strange remarkably predicted the youth counterculture’s fascination with Eastern mysticism and psychedelia. Never among Marvel’s more popular or accessible characters, Dr. Strange still found a niche among an audience seeking a challenging alternative to more conventional superhero fare.”

[…]

Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a member of the Merry Pranksters—a group who are best known to have traveled across the United States in a painted school bus in the early 60s, throwing parties and giving out LSD— is mentioned, on several occasions, in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as being a big fan of the Doctor Strange comics, tripping on drugs while reading them. Kesey eventually was introduced to Timothy Leary, who worked with Dr. Richard Alpert in the controversial Harvard Psilocybin Project, which measured the effects of psychedelic drugs on test subjects. Alpert, who eventually changed his name to Ram Dass after becoming spiritually enlightened after his own Doctor Strange-kind-of-quest, admitted his love for the old Ditko and Lee comics to a large gathering of health professionals in the 70s. He also mentions Doctor Strange in a 2012 blog post on his website, comparing people’s thoughts to the thought and word balloons in those comics.

[…]

Strange Tales #158 (Art by Marie Severin) Left, Album Cover of Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets (Right). Pay close attention to the center-right and the legs that’s faintly visible, and the globe patterns in the middle.

But Doctor Strange didn’t just influence college students and hippies, the trippy superhero also had an effect on the 1960s music scene. Pink Floyd included an image taken from Strange Tales No. 158 on their 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets. In 1965, Jefferson Airplane put on one of three dance concerts in San Francisco that featured bands such as the Charlatans, the Great Society, and others—collectively called A Tribute to Dr. Strange.

Charles Moss [11]
Strange Tales #138. Art by Ditko.

Spider-Man was a Jack Kirby and Joe Simon concept that spiraled for a decade until Ditko took a crack at it. Doctor Strange though, to quote Stan Lee himself, “Twas Steve’s idea” (Ballman 13). Doctor Strange is a top-to-bottom pure Ditko original.

As such if people want to to see characters as autobiographical reflections, the question must be asked, why do we talk about Randian subtext in Spider-Man and not in Doctor Strange? Why so much focus on Spider-Man, a character Ditko did not seem to have any significant proprietary feelings towards?

And in fact that applies to Ditko’s whole career, where’s the Randian subtext in the Warren Horror comics he did after leaving Marvel? What about the Creeper? Or Speedball? Or Squirrel-Girl? Those are all Ditko creations and yet there’s little kvetching about Randian baggage in these creations. Blake Bell, a scrupulous scholar who surveys all of Ditko’s publications still falls prey to the trap where when discussing Ditko’s incipient Objectivism, he comments on Spider-Man but not Doctor Strange.

Which is to say that obviously Ditko was an artist with many facets. His major creations are distinct and unique from each other. At the same time he did Spider-Man, he worked on Doctor Strange and while aesthetically there’s similarities and continuities, these two characters are essentially different. And while people see Spider-Man as autobiographical, Doctor Strange the hermetic sorceror who lives in Greenwich Village surrounded by books of arcane stuff and rarely leaves his room physically, while through mental projection visiting other realms actually does resemble Ditko’s lot as an artist; working in a studio surrounded by reference books and living in a world of imagination. Doctor Strange is the portrayal of Ditko’s artistic life and commitment, which leaves him lonely and isolated from other people, whereas Spider-Man is constantly on the move, traveling and navigating different spaces.

Marvel Super-Heroes vol. 2 #8 (Winter 1991). First appearance of Squirrel Girl. Created by Will Murray and Steve Ditko.

The horror comics are likewise different. Even in the case of Ditko’s more objectivist work, there’s a difference between Mr. A who is pure Randian propaganda, and The Question and Ted Kord/Beetle who Ditko intended to have Randian subtext but certainly also function as pure genre creations. The Question is perhaps the most popular and enduring character Ditko created after he left Marvel (until maybe the MCU get Squirrel Girl off the ground), having been worked on by Bruce Timm and Co. as well as Denny O’Neill. He became a major fan favorite thanks to his adaptation in Justice League Unlimited.

From Justice League Unlimited. Season 4.
The Question as designed by Bruce Timm.

So the question is why does Spider-Man attract Objectivist readings disproportionately?

  • Take Peter Bagge’s AU The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man which conflates Peter with Ditko to a great extent and ends the comic with Peter becoming a Ditko clone (balding, glasses, etc). Bagge’s take on Peter is to see Spider-Man as an intentional Randian spoof.

Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #1. Art by Luke Ross.
  • More recent is Al Ewing’s Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #1 where he has Spider-Man admitting that he read Rand in college and spent a week thinking he was John Galt and yelling at protestors. Al Ewing is a very smart writer with a deep knowledge of Marvel continuity and yet this is a case of over-cleverness, with Gaiman’s narrative clearly clouding his judgment over his close-reading. Because Peter doesn’t in fact yell at protestors in ASM#38, he merely seethes silently and walks away.

So again, why Spider-Man and not Doctor Strange? Why doesn’t Al Ewing have Dr. Strange apologize for his creator’s Randian turn? Or Squirrel Girl? Could it be that the whole Randian interpretation doesn’t in fact have anything to do with Ditko’s politics and his career?

The Randian interpretation of Spider-Man has mostly served as a vehicle to attack Ditko. It’s a way to distance Spider-Man from his major creative voice. It’s not concerned with asking real political questions about Spider-Man as a comic and concept, of which there’s a lot. It’s not concerned with gauging Spider-Man in the context of Ditko’s life and career and his biographical trajectory. It’s not concerned with contextualizing Spider-Man with other Marvel creations of the time, by Ditko and others.

It’s not concerned with actual history.

CONCLUSION

All the “Three Great Rumors” about Spider-Man are concerned with brand politics one way or another. It’s about distancing Spider-Man from Ditko and tacitly validating Stan Lee’s exploitation. For other fans, it’s a vicarious way of relief about Spider-Man not becoming Mr. A, without pausing to wonder why everything Ditko did after he left Marvel aren’t Mr. A clones.

Now let me say that for the purposes of this article, I overstated the counter-argument. My reason is that the existing claims for the Randian subtext is weak. At the same time, I do think a case can be made provided one goes back with fresh resources. Contextualize Rand in Spider-Man in relation to other Ditko works and so on. The question of Spider-Man and politics will be a theme I will return to again and while I don’t think seeing Spider-Man as Randian is interesting, I don’t think one can discount Rand influencing Stan Lee and Ditko entirely. I think that Spider-Man can be seen as somewhat libertarian in inclination and still largely fall under that rubric under later eras. There’s grounds for that though there’s complications.

My hope is to survey the Randian discourse, and ask new questions, to re-open this subject rather than close it. The latter had been my intention with the other two great rumors but with this one, it’s too early to claim any last word yet.

SOURCES

  • Abraham Riesman. True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. Published in 2021.

  • Blake Bell. Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko. Fantagraphic Books. 2008.

  • Ballmann, J. Steve Ditko in the 1960s: in His Own Words, in His Interviews, in the Words of the Fans Who Knew Him. Middletown, Delaware:Totalmojo Productions, Inc. 2020. Print.

REFERENCES

  1. https://racefortheironthrone.tumblr.com/post/178291615356/thoughts-on-j-jonah-jameson-as-a-character#notes

  2. https://www.cbr.com/spider-man-team-up-steve-ditko-protest/

  3. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19280545

  4. https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2020/07/capra-s-catastrophe/

  5. https://twomorrows.com/kirby/articles/24compare.html

  6. https://screenrant.com/stan-lee-iron-man-unlikable-hero-creation-marvel/

  7. https://www.comichron.com/titlespotlights/ironman.html
    “Marvel did not publish sales figures for the title for a very long time, but by the time it did, Iron Man was a mid-range seller along with the other Avengers titles. The series peaked above 200,000 copies in the mid-1980s during David Michelinie and Bob Layton‘s first run on the title; it approached that level again several times before collapsing during the market recession of the mid-1990s.”

  8. “Jonathan Ross in Search of Steve Ditko”. BBC Four. First broadcast on September 16, 2007.
    Timestamp: 25:10-25:58.

  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tu9SA3wMNv8&t=2138s

  10. https://www.thedailybeast.com/rip-stan-lee-the-man-who-sold-the-world

  11. https://www.vice.com/en/article/wdbxey/how-doctor-strange-helped-create-hippies

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16 thoughts on “Ditko & Rand: The Objectivist Spider-Man?

  1. Great article Jack!

    One thing I wished you brought up (hope you don’t mind me saying that) is the idea that Peter was already becoming Randian or unlikable pre-Ditko’s departure and that it had to do with Ditko supposedly wanting to make Peter Randian.

    Like Gaiman’s quote, it’s utter nonsense. Anyone who reads those issues can tell Peter became less standoff-ish, less angry, and more open to making friends post-Master Planner. Peter makes like 2 or 3 attempts to make friends in college just before Ditko left, which he never did while in high school. It’s simply wrong to say Ditko’s college Peter isn’t more likeable and an overall better person than when Stan had more control over the book.

    To the extent he became more isolated after ASM #33, it was maybe with dating. But he also just experienced a major breakup with Betty! WOW! A guy keeping to himself for a bit right after a breakup? Shocker! Totally not a normal human response! It’s OBJECTIVIST!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. I focused on the strong claims rather than everything because going down the Randian Spider-Man rabbit-hole is too dense for me. Because once Ditko’s established as a Randian, everything in that comic is looked at with a lens to sort out the Randian stuff. So I focused on the “Strong Claims”.

      Like

  2. This is, by far, the best take on Ditko’s objectivism and its influences on Spider-Man that I’ve seen yet. Though like you say, there’s still more yet to come that will shed light on this, and I’m very intrigued to see what we’ll find.

    For me finding out that Stan Lee wasn’t nearly as liberal as everyone made him out to be, along with enjoy Rand’s work, was one of the biggest genuine shocks while reading Riesman’s biography. I had very much internalized the Gaiman narrative about the protestors (though I heard it from Linkara, whose unknown source warped it further into “SPIDER-MAN was swinging OVER protestors”) that it really took me aback. It’s funny how rumor and hearsay can overpower the facts until you look in closer.

    That Lee photo from the late ’60s is especially funny because it’s a photo taken with one of the earliest “real-life superheroes”, Captain Sticky. Like most real-life superheroes (the likes of Phoenix Jones are the exception, not the rule) he was basically just a mascot character who didn’t literally fight crime, which if you compare it to Watchmen makes him akin to Dollar Bill in that story.

    I think Ditko’s personal connection to Dr. Strange can best be seen in the self-caricature he did for ASM Annual #1’s “How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man!” section, where Lee on the left has tons of Marvel heroes all around him, Ditko’s has just one: A picture of Dr. Strange tacked up on his wall. That section is especially intriguing in the next page, where Lee is discussing ideas for ASM with Ditko, who vocally complains that Lee’s taking all the credit compared to him getting nothing. Knowing that ASM’s authorship (and the question of Lee’s Marvel Comics authorship in general) has been over that same debate for 60+ years, it’s a genuine shock seeing it this early on, when their relationship still hadn’t gone sour yet (this was, I believe, before Lee gave Ditko an added plotting credit).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It wasn’t Stan who gave Ditko the “plotting credit”. It was Martin Goodman, Lee’s Uncle and Marvel’s Boss (think the Perlmutter of his day) who did that. Ditko had murmured enough about being stiffed, and made enough noise about it (unlike Kirby who had a family to support and wasn’t about to risk anything just yet) that they decided to give him plotting credit to keep him happy. Lee in fact sniped about Ditko getting plotting credit in fanzines of the time, which also upset Ditko when he caught wind because again it’s like Lee didn’t mind before when he wasn’t credited. If you read ASM#25 and see the captions with Ditko’s plotting being introduced you can see passive-aggressive attitudes from Lee.

      Yeah rumor and hearsay can be powerful especially because Marvel fandom has only known the internet and social media since the 2000s (the dial-in days of the 90s and late 80s wasn’t the same thing) where you can disseminate information and pool data. Before in Pre-Internet you went by fanzines, hearsay, rumors, memories and so on and since by this time fandom has kind of “institutionalized” that means the boomer fans who had childhood memories don’t update with the latest research and we don’t really have peer-review comics scholarship in general. So people take stuff at face value.

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  3. Very fascinating, I’m glad to see the subject covered so in-depth. It’s treated like an accepted fact that Ditko was a Randian whose works including Spider-Man reflected it, but I have never recognized said Randian themes. It always seemed like a way of putting down Ditko, usually within the context of Stan Lee “saving” Spider-Man such as how Stan Lee “obviously” was the one who fought for the Green Goblin to be Norman Osborn when all the evidence runs contrary. I think these rumors are so prevalent, there’s a sort of confirmation bias where people interpret evidence to confirm Ditko’s image in Spider-Man as this kooky reclusive Randian who would’ve made things worse on ASM, while ignoring evidence that Ditko was a far more complex human being who doesn’t get the proper credit he deserves on ASM

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  4. Definitely an interesting read, and I love seeing pushback against some of the commonly accepted wisdoms about Ditko’s time on Spider-man. Though, and it might seem like a nitpick, it should be said that Ditko consistently avoided ever calling himself an objectivist. Rand was a huge influence on him, and he even considered her books among his favorites, but he bristled in some of his essays over the idea that people thought he was completely 100% on board with everything she said. It’s why a lot of attempts to fit everything he wrote purely into an objectivist lens tends to fail. The guy had his own philosophy – based largely on Objectivism, sure, but with his own unique wrinkles. In the “Down memory lane” publication that was a collection of letters between him and Snyder, he even bemoaned that the Question was consistently associated with right wing politics. Though my purchase of his independent work came with an NRA calendar, so, uh, gonna have to say there’s a pretty clear reason.

    I honestly find Jameson pretty consistent with Ditko’s later obsessions over corrupt newsmen that try to twist the facts to fit their agenda. Hell, even Spider-man’s origin has parallels with a Mr. A story where bystanders refuse to stop someone fleeing a hit-and-run accident until Mr. A strides over. A lot of Ditko’s early horror obsessions were with ironic punishments, less pure horror than “wrongdoer is punished by a dark but ultimately benevolent universe.” Spider-man’s origin grew out of those stories. So a good amount of his personal philosophy can be seen early on. Objectivism just later got added on to those interests, fueling stories about how a man that denies what Ditko saw as his rational nature will ultimately tear himself apart. It’s why I wouldn’t characterize his turn as something fueled by mistreatment from Lee, or desperation. Not to mention that Zak Cruse in Mysterious Travelers calls out Steve Bell for taking Lee at face value on introducing Ditko to Rand. Lee said a lot of outrageous stuff, and all we have to go on here are his claims. Ditko never said anything one way or the other.

    And as a side-note, should be said that the guy was also hugely pro-police. One of his late-era self-published comics was of a policeman being unfairly hated for shooting and killing a criminal. He acknowledges the existence of corrupt police, but characterizes people who don’t like the police force in general as either stupid or evil. So I think him and Lee were on the same page there. ASM 7 even has the line, “Despite what Jameson’s editorials said about him, we cops always felt he was on our side!”

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    1. Interesting observations. Glad you appreciated the pushback.

      I think knowing when Ditko read Rand and became engaged in objectivism is something that might come out in the upcoming book on Ditko being prepared by his family.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I think what makes Ditko’s Rand-influenced views unique is that he’s less focused on the “selfishness is a virtue, the free market fixes everything” side of objectivism that most people think of (since libertarians, neoliberalism, and Bioshock brought them into the mainstream), but more so the Aristotelian concept of “A is A”, and the idea that morality is an absolute black-and-white. There’s even a 1988 clip of Ditko (which I believe is the only recording we have of his voice) explaining who Mr. A is, citing his absolute morality as a virtue compared to other comic heroes. That certainly plays into his enthusiastic support for the police.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. (Meant that previous comment as a reply to shuupadoopdoop, whoops)
            To add to this, I think that unusual approach and views for objectivism is what makes Ditko so appealing, even for those who’d vehemently disagree with him: He’s very political, but in a very strange, off-kilter way. Mr. A is political propaganda, but it’s like no other political comic out there.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I actually wanted to highlight that but it felt tangential to my posts. It’s definitely true that Ditko’s work isn’t as pro-capitalist as Rand saw things (and certainly Ditko showed capitalists as crooks with Norman Osborn). On the other hand, Ditko was very anti-union. Like in the 70s, when Neal Adams tried to start a union, Ditko was in a meeting and he spoke out against forming a union and so on. So while he may not praise capitalists he was certainly submissive about their power.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I think it should be said in, for example, his independent comic “the captive spark,” Ditko portrayed the free market as one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. He also tended to get mad at people who were anti-business, shown for example in first image in this article, based on how he chose to illustrate Gerry Conway’s script about a corrupt businessman. https://www.tcj.com/reviews/mysterious-travellers-steve-ditko-and-the-search-for-a-new-liberal-identity/ (incidentally, the review is for a book I’d really recommend)

    His main comment on the movie was also that he didn’t like how it showed businessmen and the military. https://popculturesquad.com/2019/03/16/steve-ditko-inside-his-studio-sanatorium/

    Most of his obsession was squarely on justice and punishment, but the guy was still a pretty damn dedicated capitalist. He could show bad businessmen, sure, but always made sure to balance it with some good ones as well.

    Though it’s true that his approach is unlike anyone else, and very compelling. It’s kind of hard to explain to people that some of my favorite comics are extended lectures on politics I find abhorrent.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yeah, I almost brought up his issues with the Spider-Man movie portraying businessmen and the military negatively – I certainly didn’t think he was anti-capitalist or something, far from it, it just wasn’t as focused on as justice and punishment.

      Liked by 2 people

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