Thursday, February 23, 2017

It's no Mystery, Man.

The most recent issue of the fanzine publication Ditkomania recently published its 95th issue with a special look at philosophy in Steve Ditko's comics. I am not one who enjoys Ditko's philosophy (objectivism), especially not in the manner by which he delivers his ideas, usually by way of kicking over a straw man. Overall, I find objectivism incompatible with my own morals. Still, I enjoy Ditko as an artist and value his perspective even though I'll never share it. It was with some trepidation that I approached Ditkomania #95. One article in particular stood out.

In an article titled: "Steve Ditko: The Other Side of the Conversation," Gavin Callaghan looked at various comic books which had some reference to objectivism. Some of these were very interesting, such as his look at the Werewolf by Night villain Hangman, whose objectivist slant wasn't obvious to me. There's also an interesting review of a Star Trek comic which criticized objectivism in way which Callaghan admitted made good points. However, Callaghan truly did not care for a comic called Mystery Men which was published by Marvel Comics in 2011 by writer David Liss and artist Patrick Zircher. For some reason, Callaghan did not credit Zircher or other artists of the stories featured in his article - strange, considering that as a Ditko fan he should be aware that much of what ends up on the page is due to the artist.

Mystery Men turned up in this article solely because objectivism's creator Ayn Rand appears - not identified by name, but with dialogue which clearly points to her identity. In the comic, set in 1932, Rand belongs to a boardroom of prestigious Americans (others may likewise be actual figures from the time but none I could identify) who are being led by the General as part of a cabal to use black magic on behalf of the demon Nox. The boardroom is likewise partnered with the Nazi Party. Callaghan rejected this interpretation of Rand as she was against superstition. Okay, fair enough, although this is a fictional universe where magic is real so it's not quite the same thing. The boardroom members are also proposing a business-military alliance which Callaghan says Rand would also have been against; fair enough.

But in the course of the review Callaghan goes off-topic to deliver a rant against one of Mystery Men's protagonists, a masked vigilante called the Operative. The Operative is meant to be a throwback to the early heroes of the comics and the pulps who had little more than determination and a mask. The Operative is a normal man dressed in a suit and who wears a mask. We first meet him in Mystery Men #1 as he's in the process of stealing jewels from a wealthy woman, justifying it to himself as "This -- this Depression, they're calling it -- is crushing those people down there on the street. But up here in the penthouses, it's jewels and champagne. You can't tell me that's right. So my little capers... well, let's just say I have no trouble sleeping at night." The money the Operative obtains from the jewels is then used to save tenants from being evicted from an apartment building whose landlord has been jacking up the rent. Callaghan complains of this scene:

"Never mind the fact, of course, that these rich people PAY for everything they BUY - thereby providing a living to those from whom they purchase such services. This source of income was an especially valuable thing during a depression; but Liss does not seem to understand this basic economic fact."

I think the key to the Operative's actions in the opening is that he's stealing jewels, not money. The Operative's anger appears to be against those who have inherited wealth, rather than earned it. The Operative is later revealed to be himself a child of privilege, the son of the book's lead villain the General. Callaghan complains about this, though I'm not certain why (he goes from complaining that the Operative is "very wealthy" to a discussion of the General, then about Rand and doesn't return to that point; it looked like a setup for arguing the Operative was a hypocrite but the accusation is absent). The story is very clear that the Operative uses money to help those less fortunate, expressing indignation at those who "don't know what it's like to grow up poor or to claw for everything in life." That actually sounds like an endorsement of objectivist thought to me - not the robbery, but the ideal of earning wealth with one's own effort rather than by right of birth; isn't that something objectivists hold sacred?

The Operative's status as a thieving outlaw seems to draw from the tradition of Robin Hood and A.J. Raffles (both were born to privilege but turned to crime - although Raffles used crime primarily as a diversion, not actually wanting the money or using it to benefit others). On that note, Callaghan turns to Steve Ditko himself in a form of Appeal to Authority:

"Of course, Steve Ditko had already deconstructed this erroneous myth of the Robin Hood (and his just redistribution of wealth) long before, in his story 'Count Rogue', published in Mr. A #4, way back in 1975."

Steve Ditko had an opinion on something? Shoot, better pack it in, boys! It is not necessary for the audience to agree with the Operative's actions. I wouldn't want to be robbed by him simply because he judged someone more worthy of my wealth. In fact, the Operative goes on from issue #1 to become a crime fighter instead of a thief-with-a-heart-of-gold and that journey seems important to me - that he rises above his initial station to later help others. I know, altruism is likewise held in contempt by objectivists and they are also against characters with gray morality (hence the condemnation of the Operative for being other-than-white), but to the rest of the world the Operative is a crook with a barely-justifiable cause who later finds a better cause to fight against (his father).

Callaghan scoffs further at the idea "How the General expects the Depression to actually HELP commerce is left unexplained, although such conspiratorial thinking is typical of the Chomskyan left." I don't know what that last invective means but it is true that some people profited from the Great Depression, just as some recently profited from the recent housing collapse. In the case of the Great Depression, it didn't necessarily mean overnight profits, but for those who could afford to invest and play the long game there were businesses, properties and resources available for a pittance. The General is not proposing the Depression would help commerce - he's proposing it would help him and his allies.

Callaghan continues on to compare the Operative to the Khmer Rouge as an Ad Hominem Attack:

"Ultimately, Liss's 'Operative' vigilante is just a step or two up the rung of the leftist ladder from the Cambodian Khmer Rouge dictatorship in the 1970s, who also sought to build a more 'just' society by exterminating those whom they saw as an overly-wealthy middle class (killing over a million people in the process). Certainly, the Operative is more of a villain than Ayn Rand herself ever was."

How do you even begin to address the comparison of thieving = genocide? This was the point where I knew I had to compose a response because it's such a maddening, reductive argument. Perhaps I can attempt to construct this from an objectivist viewpoint; to an objectivist, A = A. To me as a Christian, sin = sin. Therefore, the crime of thievery = genocide. So far so good. But likewise, Ayn Rand committing adultery = genocide. Ayn Rand promoting a philosophy of selfishness in opposition to the Golden Rule = genocide. That is, Ayn Rand was but a mere human being and I reject her (and Nietzche's) belief in the greatness of man, rather I believe in the democratic equality and falleness of men, the equality of sin, the equality of mercy and the equality of the final judgment. Stealing from others is wrong from an absolute moral sense - it is unnecessary to draw comparisons to genocide and it speaks to a weakness in Callaghan's argument that he deemed it necessary to invoke the Khmer Rouge in order to fashion a straw-man argument against the Operative, rather than confine his diatribe to the Operative's own words and actions. As a whole, I feel Callaghan's review of Mystery Men is too quick to find fault with the book and too angry at the author for holding different social viewpoints.

In conclusion: There's a lot more to Mystery Men than the Operative or Ayn Rand (the Operative is one of 5 featured heroes) and it's an interesting attempt to craft super heroes who fit the 1930s, especially from a 21st century perspective (the heroes include a black hero and a female hero in order to comment on 30s-era racism and sexism). The economic downturn of 2008 - fashioned by the laissez faire system Ayn Rand admired so much - no doubt influenced David Liss' own commentary on the Great Depression and the disproportionate power wielded by the wealthy over the middle-and-lower classes. You can purchase the series on Comixology and can learn more about Ditkomania here.

I have now officially spent more time thinking about Mystery Men than anyone other than Liss or Zircher.

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