(This article originally appeared in Amazing Heroes, #155, December 15, 1988. It is Copyright 1988 & 1998 by Rodney Schroeter. It may be copied and distributed, if left unchanged and intact.)
It has often been said that Steve Ditko's work hit a peak in the 1950s, with his horror work, or in the 60s, with Spider-Man--but after that, he went downhill; he didn't care any more; he just hacked it out; etc., etc.
I happen to think just the opposite. I enjoy the work he did in the 50s and 60s, but after that, what he did became more interesting and more relevant to me.
Whether you think Ditko's work went into decline, or took a turn upward, will depend on your values--what ideas and things you think are important. So I would like to address the values I find in Ditko's work that I (and other people) respond to. I did this in a general way in a previous article (Amazing Heroes #111, February 15, 1987). Here, I would like to address a specific work--Chapters Six through Eight of Steve Ditko's "Static", which will be published as a graphic-novel type book. I would like to thank Robin Snyder for providing me with an advance copy.
Nowhere above, you may notice, did I say "Ditko's art." I used the word "work" to describe not only his art, but his storytelling and ideas. But let me concentrate strictly on the art for a moment.
One of the greatest pleasures I find in Ditko's super-hero work is the grace and power with which he handles the human figure. From the opening of chapter 6, where Static is symbolically attacked from all sides with various weapons, to the climactic second-from-last page in chapter 8, the current Static work is rich in Ditko's glorification of the human body. So many comics are nothing but fight scenes, with little to offer other than thick-lettered sound effects and unaesthetically muscle-bound clods. But Ditko's fight scenes, even if taken out of context, provide an inspiring celebration of human motion.
However, the fight scenes are not isolated from the rest of the story. They are brought about by conflicts in values. The real action in these stories is in the realm of ideas.
The basic issue in Static (and in most action comics, though it is rarely dealt with explicitly), is the use of force. When someone is threatened by someone else, what is the proper response?
Ditko, through his characters, distinguished between the initiation of force and self-defense (retaliatory force). With the first, someone has acted to violate the rights of some individual(s); with the second, the victimized person(s) acts against the initiator (and _only_ the initiator) to stop and/or contain him, so as to prevent him from doing further harm.
Ideally, retaliatory force is to be handled by police action, based on objective laws which are implemented to protect individual rights. But in an emergency situation where such help is not available, a person has the right to act in his own defense, to whatever degree is necessary. It could mean simply locking the door on an obnoxious person. Or, if the attacker is in such a frenzy that one's life is in danger, it could mean shooting to kill.
Fera doesn't see any difference between initiating force and using force to stop the initiators. Like public servants who worry about the effect of media violence on children, it doesn't matter who does what, or why. Violence is violence. Dirty Harry risked his life and used force in an attempt to recover an innocent kidnapped girl; to some, he was just as contemptible as the man who buried the girl alive. And to Fera, Stac Rae is no better than the criminals he fights.
Interestingly, though the Static series is populated with fascinating villains, two of the most villainous characters are Fera and Ort Krim, the reporter. Neither of these people physically attack Static or anyone else. But the ideas that Ort advocates openly, and which Fera quakingly accepts, are the basis for the destruction of life and property in the stories.
"Men must be forced to do their best for others before doing it for themselves," Ort tells Fera, in chapter 6. Why is this so? No rational explanation is given; indeed, Ort explicitly says he shouldn't have to give one. "Reason, even freedom had its day," Ort goes on to an enraptured Fera. "The real higher truth and freedom is protective freedom--freedom from the uncertainties, the unfairness of life."
This idea is vital to the events in the Static stories. As Ayn Rand, whose philosophy of Objectivism is the underlying philosophy of Ditko's own work, has said, if men reject reason, then there is no alternative in dealing with each other except through force. And just as Ort rejects reason, so does the leader of the Attack Squad in chapter 6: as Stac gets hold of one of their guns he is correct in calling it "their supreme 'logical and moral' argument--the final say." It is not a rational argument that either Ort or the paramilitary group intend using to back up their views; it is the use of force, the gun.
Advocating the use of force in bringing about social change is the standard among today's intellectuals. As force is more commonly accepted as a "practical" means of dealing with others, violence increases. While a specific villain murders or destroys, Ort and those who don't care to discover the consequences of their own ideas lay the intellectual groundwork for the creation of more murder and destruction.
What is the proper response to this--to the actual physical violence on one hand, and the ideas that lead to that violence, on the other?
Stac states that it is moral to use force in self-defense, or in defense of the innocent, against whom the force has been initiated. But Stac realizes that physical battles are not enough. He actively challenges the ideas of Ort and Fera. Static is almost alone in this respect among comic book heroes; the mainstream hero is content to fight the villain, without ever questioning his own motives for doing so. Or, if he does think about it, he often cynically concludes that there is no good reason to fight evil, but continues to do so, not knowing why.
I imagine that making a choice when a highly-valued person is taken hostage would be very difficult. It is a situation which has been so trivialized by television fantasies that the true nightmarish quality of the thing is hard to grasp. Static is in a position few people in real life are, when Fera is taken hostage by the Inflamer. He possesses, in his suit, the means to back up his promise to the Inflamer that, if Fera is killed, "you lose your shield. It just increases your crime and your punishment." And he refuses to let the Inflamer go.
A very difficult decision. Or was it? Besides Stac's suit and his skill in using it, by which he took the calculated risk that he could save Fera without letting her remain a hostage, Stac probably had in mind just what he told Doc and Fera at the end of the chapter.
"Fera, you chose to enter a battlefield between two ideas--mutual consent and force. And you expected to remain untouched, unaffected--a safe spectator between the initiator of force and of self-defense. Caught and held by an evil aggressor, you wanted evil to succeed, be free--and a defender to be neutralized."
Many people consider ideas to have little if any consequence in their daily, practical concerns. So, what harm is there in advocating certain ideas, even if they cannot be justified? "Who can be certain of anything?" asks Fera, in chapter 7. "Who can know the absolute truth for everyone?"
There can be little doubt in the mind of a rational person that a fall from a 50-story building directly onto pavement would be harmful to a human body, even if one had not suffered the experience first-hand, or seen it happen to someone else. The conclusion could be reached by considering the nature of the objects and forces involved--the hardness of the pavement; the nature of human physiology; the acceleration caused by the gravity of this planet. Given these things, and not taken out of context, it is not merely a matter of opinion that a person falling 50 stories onto pavement would be hurt in some way-- probably fatally.
Could you imagine a person who, knowledgeable of the facts of reality, were to jump off such a building, be reduced to a splintered pile of jelly, and think, during the last few seconds of his life, "It's not fair! I shouldn't have been hurt!"
It's not all that silly. There are people who advocate the use of force in dealing with others, but cry that it isn't fair as soon as they are the ones who are the victims of that force. The Feras are glad to follow in the intellectual footsteps of the Ort Krims, until they actually face the consequences of the ideas they echo uncritically. Like the person who jumped off the building, those who advocate the initiation of force are ignoring reality. They ignore the fact that, as Stac says to Doc, "A mind can't be controlled--only destroyed by another's power over it."
I mentioned before that I consider Ditko's work to be more "relevant" than typical comic book work. This is so because he deals with the ideas and values that are important to me. Like Ditko, I think it is possible to improve one's mind and one's self. The dignity and self-esteem of Stac Rae are conditions I admire. Other people, holding different or opposing values, will identify with other characters and situations. (I'm especially thinking of the plethora of anti-hero or anti-anything works that are available.)
I well remember, one year after the Chicago Comicon, waiting
at the bus station and spotting a young person carrying a portfolio. I asked him about it, and he showed me its contents with much enthusiasm. He had acquired a lot of original art at the Comicon. I always enjoy listening to someone talk about something they love; even if I don't care for the specific thing they're discussing. After showing me all the things he had, he smiled and shook his head sadly and said, "Oh, well, now it's back to reality."
Having just finished reading chapters 6 through 8 of Ditko's Static, I don't feel that way at all. I feel that, in reading these stories, I never turned away from reality in the first place.
I know, of course, that Stac Rae and Doc and Fera are not meant to be real people who actually exist. I understand that there isn't really a Static suit. But the ideas behind the suit and the people are real. Is a person any less of a hero than Stac Rae, when he chooses to fight bad ideas with good ones?
What do the writers of anti-hero strips have to offer? A world where the hero and villain are indistinguishable in their depravities, which is just the kind of world one would expect from the ideas that all values are relative, that no theory is better than another, and that even if there were a difference between right and wrong, the human mind would be incapable of telling the difference.
Steve Ditko presents, in his work, a view of life and of man that actually encourages a person to do better. I have, in the past, been criticized for thinking that a person can determine what he makes of himself, and is therefore responsible for what he is and does. If that is naivete, well--make the most of it.
For those interested, the works of Ayn Rand are generally available through libraries and bookstores. Free information about her philosophy can be obtained from:
The Ayn Rand Institute
This article written by:
Copyright 1988 and 1998 by Rodney Schroeter