I recently had the opportunity to read Steve Ditko’s earliest tales of his objectivist vigilante hero Mr. A. Now, Ditko is one of my all-time favorite artists, to the point that I can recall the exact panel where I first fell in love with his work (Strange Tales#135, page 2, panel 7). However, I do not have much regard for the philosophy of objectivism which Ditko adheres to and have considered myself fortunate that I had mostly sidestepped that aspect of his career. I knew of Mr. A mainly by reputation.
The two Mr. A stories I read were really morality fables (such is the entire series, I’m given to understand). Objectivism is heralded on every page and character nuance is entirely replaced with motivation - as in, every character spouts their motivation at every possible opportunity. In the second tale, for instance, which deals with the corruptive power of money (although Ditko states up front that “Only fools will tell you that money is the root of all evil!” Rather, money is a “tool”) each evil character repeatedly reminds the audience of the money they will be rewarded with for their actions. Ie, assassin after killing a target: “I wish there were more guys like you, stoolie! It’s tough for a specialist like me to earn big money unless he’s kept working at his trade!”
Subtlety was not a concern in these stories; one imagines that Ditko was intentionally proselytizing objectivism to his fans. The first tale involves a young man named Angel who kills a policeman in the opening scene. As a manhunt for Angel begins, his family brand themselves as victims, a minister blames his environment and Miss Kinder claims that Angel is a good man. Only Mr. A has the sense to see Angel for what he is; by the end, Angel has murdered his best friend and stabbed Miss Kinder. Mr. A arrives in time to knock Angel off a roof, where he holds on precariously to a flagpole. Mr. A informs Miss Kinder that in the time it would take him to save Angel, she might die; therefore, he leaves his next action in her hands: save Angel or save herself. Tearfully, she chooses herself and Angel falls to his death. Mr. A then admits that he wouldn’t have saved Angel or let her die anyway. In other words, he was testing and teaching her to accept his value system.
This is on a level with a Jack Chick tract. Certainly based on what we see of Angel he appears to deserve the fate Mr. A doles out to him, but Miss Kinder believed there was something good in him. A more nuanced story would have explored that angle and made the dilemma Miss Kinder faced in the climax all the more heartrending, but it would have been entirely at odds with Ditko’s philosophy, which rejects notions of grey, neutrality and relativism.
(with the Watchmen film buzz ever growing, it should be remembered that while Rorschach was patterned visually after another Ditko hero - the Question - his mindset was modeled after Mr. A.)
These tales originally appeared in Witzend, a black & white (appropriate!) anthology published by artist Wally Wood. Soon after the first Mr. A stories Wood sold the title to Bill Pearson. Pearson’s feelings on the Mr. A seemed manifest in the title’s seventh issue when he wrote “Mr. E,” a savage parody which mocked the character, caused him to violate his own principles and then destroy himself after making that realization. In fact, my first exposure to Mr. A was in another parody - Keith Giffen’s “Mr. Bug” in the 1985 Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer. Like most of Giffen’s humour it went right over my head, but in retrospect it’s a fine parody - in Giffen’s case, he played the morality fable out as plainly as Ditko might have, while demonstrating that the system of law Mr. A strove to uphold was not necessarily concerned primarily with the rights of the victim.
For all of the above criticism, Mr. A was extremely well-rendered, as fine as most of Ditko’s 1960s output. And - since I’m plugging Evil Twin this week - you can find a handy explanation of objectivism in Van Lente & Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers! volume one. Enjoy, won’t you?