No laughing matter

My bedtime reading of late has included several biographies of significant comic book artists.  Two of the most interesting have been Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and Steve Starger and J. David Spurlock’s Wally’s World: The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Wally Wood, the World’s Second Best Comic Book Artist.  Unless you’re a comics fan, you won’t know the names.  But you do know some of the work: Ditko was (among many other things) the co-creator of Spider-Man; Wood was (among many other things) one of the founding contributors to Mad magazine.  From that much you might suppose them to be at least rich if not world-famous, but you’d be wrong.  Ditko, now in his eighties, never attained anything like the material success of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee.  Wood died in 1981, impoverished and under sordid circumstances. 

Ditko’s later work was, notoriously, dominated by his single-minded devotion to the cause of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.  And therein lies its philosophical interest – not because of the Randian content , but because Ditko’s obsession with promoting it effectively ruined his career.  Wood’s troubles were also largely self-inflicted, though in a very different way.  The lives of men like Ditko and Wood illustrate the complexities involved in questions about moral responsibility and the problem of evil.

Wallace Wood is best known among comics enthusiasts for the science-fiction work he contributed in the 1950s to E.C. Comics’ “New Trend” line.  Here is Wood’s beautifully executed story “My World” from Weird Science #22 – a classic homage to the genre, which gives a good sense of the style and characteristic themes of his work from the period.  Here is a gallery of some of the more illustrative work he did for science fiction magazines.  Here is one of Wood’s stories for the original comic book version of Mad, and here is a sample of his work for the magazine version.

Wood’s career began a slow decline after his departure from Mad, partly because of his prickly personality and inability to deal with editors – the reason he left Mad in the first place – and partly because his interest in work had to compete with his interests in sex, booze, and guns.  Nothing wrong with those things, of course, unless you abuse them.  And Wood certainly did.  He was married three times, divorced the first two wives and abandoned the third.  By the end of his life he was reduced to drawing pornographic comic books for an obscure publisher.  He drank himself to the point of kidney failure.  And rather than go on dialysis, he shot himself in the head with a .44 magnum.  (I still remember where I was when I heard that Wood was dead – on the floor of a comic book convention in L.A., possibly at the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel.  Yes, I know, too dorky for words – I hadn’t yet acquired the ultra-cool that follows upon being a right-wing Catholic philosophy professor with five children.)

Steve Ditko is, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, one of the fathers of Marvel Comics’ universe of superheroes.  Here is a famous sequence from Ditko’s Spider-Man period, and here are some representative pages from Dr. Strange, Lee and Ditko’s “Master of the Mystic Arts.”  Here is a fine sample of his more illustrative horror-oriented work for Warren Publishing’s Creepy.  And here are some pages featuring Mr. A, Ditko’s bizarre, speechifying Randian superhero.

It was, in part, Ditko’s fascination with Ayn Rand that led to his departure from Spider-Man just as the series was taking off.  Having been given control over plotting by the overworked Lee, Ditko began to move Spider-Man in a more Randian direction.  Sometimes the result was interesting: In the middle of the 1960s, when the counterculture was otherwise beginning to influence comic books, Spider-Man #38 famously has Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s alter ego) refusing to join in a student protest, in a scene portraying the rebels as more interested in cutting classes than in serious thinking about the issues of the day.  Police were portrayed heroically and criminals as worthy only of contempt and never pity.  But Ditko’s ideological agenda increasingly blinded him to the demands of storytelling.  For instance, after a long build up to the revelation of a major villain’s secret identity, Ditko opted for an anticlimax – insisting that it be someone the readers had never heard of, the better to portray criminals as pathetic nobodies.  The clash between Lee’s dramatic sense and Ditko’s Randian scruples led to continual editorial disagreements.  These, together with business disputes between Ditko and Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman, led Ditko to leave the company and the characters for which he would forever be best known.

Like Wood, Ditko would throughout the remainder of his career stubbornly resist editorial interference, or even editorial suggestions.  And as with Wood, this made it impossible for him to stay with any publisher for long or to reap much financial gain from his talents.  But the two were otherwise quite unlike.  Where Wood was given to fleshly excess, Ditko was straight-laced and cerebral to the point of otherworldliness.  Wood’s later comic book pages were populated by beautiful women in ever more thorough states of undress.  Ditko’s became ever more dominated by long-winded Objectivism-spouting ciphers, the artwork increasingly sketchy and the character development nil, lest anything get in the way of The Message.  Since mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch his smutty stuff, much of Wood’s later work was self-published.  Since they couldn’t sell or even give away Ditko’s Randian sermons, he would submit them to fan magazines – which, though crudely printed and having minimal circulation, were edited by comic book readers enough in awe of Ditko not to meddle with the content of his work.  Wood’s career culminated in pieces like Prince Violate (a pornographic take-off of Prince Valiant); Ditko’s, in comic book panels so wordy with Rand-speak that (as in one case) little room was left over to draw much more than the speaker’s eyes.  The later Wood tempts his reader to sin.  The later Ditko bores him to the point where he’s ready to pull out the .44 magnum and “go Wally Wood” on himself. 

It is for all that hard not to feel pity for the two of them.  Their complaints against editors and publishers were sometimes justified.  Others profited from their work, sometimes obscenely – hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Ditko’s original artwork was stolen from Marvel’s offices by staffers, and sold on the collector’s market – while Wood and Ditko themselves at times faced dire financial straits.  Wood’s health problems were many, and not all caused by his drinking.  His relationships were unstable and often strained; his vices brought him, predictably, no contentment.  One cannot imagine him a happy man.  Ditko’s troubles flowed mostly from a refusal to compromise on moral principles he sincerely believed in.  Both men were extremely talented and produced work of real beauty, and it is painful to consider what might have been. 

At the same time, there was in both of them a stubbornness and lack of common sense that made them their own worst enemies.  Their grievances against editors and publishers were sometimes eccentric, petty, or prima donna-ish.  Opportunities repeatedly came their way over the years from forgiving editors and sympathetic colleagues, and would be either squandered or refused.  Oddly for a follower of Ayn Rand, Ditko seems to have had little knowledge of or concern for the realities of the market.  When he would in his later years condescend to do mainstream work so as to earn a living, he would put minimal effort into it, on the grounds that only his Objectivist pieces were worthy of his full attention.  Naturally, this made publishers only more reluctant to hire him.  Despite the thefts mentioned above, he still retained hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of his original art – some of which he would discard, but none of which he would sell, because of his distaste for the collector’s market.  Wood’s descent into pornographic work was not entirely driven by weakness or desperation; according to his first wife (who thought it beneath him), he rather enjoyed doing it.  His suicide seems to have occurred, not in a sudden outburst of despair – though in financial trouble, he had new work lined up, and his illnesses were treatable – but rather as a calculated refusal to live as an invalid.

Where human suffering is concerned, some cases are easy to judge.  If a Hitler or a Stalin was unhappy, well, they asked for it and that’s that.  At the other extreme, the ordeal of a Louis Zamperini calls forth from us spontaneous and undiluted compassion.  Even someone whose troubles were of his own making gets the deep sympathy of any decent person if his mistake involved a momentary lapse of judgment with lifelong consequences.  But what of someone whose woes were grave but remediable, and which he persistently refused to remedy out of a foolish intransigence, whether born of ideology or habituated vice?  Or (perhaps more realistically) what if such pigheadedness was at least a major factor in his suffering, even if not the only one?  Here our feelings are torn.

Or at least mine are.  There is a reason we are cautioned against judging others.  Not because we cannot know whether their actions are objectively good or evil, wise or foolish – we can often know that quite easily.  Rather, because in many cases we cannot know with confidence their subjective culpability for those actions – the part that stress, weakness of will, confusion, or honest error played in their decisions.  Fortunately, we don’t have to make a final judgment about such things.  Someone else has that job.
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