In a age where comics creators regularly embarrass themselves on social media platforms, we would do well to ponder the counter example set by the Steve Ditko. Here was a man who stood shoulder to shoulder with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in trailblazing the Marvel Age of Comics, yet never courted the self-promotional spotlight or sought to become a semi-celebrity personality. Even when creative and personal clashes forced him into the fringes of an scene he helped lay the groundwork for, he continued to eschew convention appearances and contact with the wider body of fandom in favor of letting of his work — and the guiding principles behind it — speak for itself.
Unfortunately, that body of work included such incomprehensible oddities as Static the Armed Man…
…with the guiding principles being the equally incomprehensible and odd tenets of Randian Objectivism.
Static first debuted in Eclipse Monthly, but editorial disagreements led Ditko to take the feature to a place better suited to his creative vision — namely, the rapidly fading remnant of Charlton Comics’ once
mighty adequate publishing empire. The character was the apotheosis of Ditko philosophy of superheroics, combining an athletically lean agent of absolutist justice with the hardcore ideological evangelism of his creator’s earlier Objectivist edutainment tracts. It’s about as fun as it sounds, packed to the brim with bizarre character names and densely written discourses on “rational self-interest” passing for snappy dialogue.
Static’s real name was “Stac Rem,” whose job was to bring an element of virile masculinity in contrast to the inventive genius of his employer, the elderly egghead “Dr. Serch.” Stac also had a little thing going on with Serch’s oddly-coiffed daughter “Fera,” who also served as the third participant during the frequent philosophical debates which punctuated the passages of superheroic boilerplate.
While Stac is testing out a spiffy new suit of power armor under carefully controlled conditions, a gang of scenery chewing rival scientists break into Serch’s lab in order to abscond with one of his more profitable discoveries. The baddies cosh Serch during the heist, causing the scientist to fall on his control board and inadventently expose Stac’s suit to a barrage of strange energies. When it’s over and done with, Stac — rebranded “Static” — find himself possessed of great (if somewhat intermittent) powers and a greater sense of responsibility to bring the evildoers to justice –
– once things get past a densely written flashback about the scientific underpinnings of Objectivist thought, of course.
By the time Stac gets around to strutting his superpowered stuff, the thieving technocrats have fallen out among themselves, leaving only the dreaded Dr. Rale (rocking a set of cybernetic arms and a look borrowed from a circa 1978 insurance adjuster) to contend with. It’s a tough battle, but Stac mananges to overcome Rale’s permed permutation of irrational evil and return the stolen device to a chronically fretting Fera.
Stac’s second adventure doubled down on the philosophic pontification, in which the murder and funeral of one of Dr. Serch’s closest colleagues leads to a no-holds-barred, bare knuckle debate about the true meaning of the law, justice, and direct personal action…
I’m starting to think that “Static” referred to the narrative and not Stac’s set of superpowers.
Beneath those clotted masses of Objectivist jargon, Ditko was raising some interesting points about the nature of costumed vigilantism. Unfortunately, the exploration of those themese would be left to other creators who had the self-awareness to realize that a shitty superhero comic makes for a poor soapbox. While there are certain parallels in the course of Steve Ditko’s and Jack Kirby’s post-Marvel careers (stints at DC, depressing work for hire jobs, et cetera), the significant difference is that Kirby explored themes while Ditko fixated on a message. The former can be expanded across a wide array of concepts, but the latter is intrinsically narrow in its polemic focus. Ditko’s style may have been dated in comparison to the new crop of Bronze Age artistic superstars, but there are plenty of (isolated) moments in the Static stories where the old magic shows through — the balletic action and melodramatic angst which defined his seminal work on Spider-Man (and by extension, the entire concept of the character itself).
Yet there’s no getting around the fact that Static comes across as an Objectivist tract fitfully posing as a superhero comic — which is really bizarre considering that “altruism” and “compulsion by force” are as intrinsic to the superhero genre as they are anathema to the Randian faithful. Ditko’s attempts to reconcile these diametrically opposed positions comes of as a — GASP — compromise which only muddies the end results even further. Questions about whether there is moral justification for Stac’s behavior spawn protracted ethical debates with a foregone conclusion.
Of course he’s going to put on his super-suit and beat the shit out of bad guys. That’s why the punters dropped their stacks of dimes on a superhero comic instead of putting them towards a paperback copy of The Fountainhead. No matter how strong Ditko’s convictions were, they were circumscribed by the harsh reality of genre conventions and audience expectations.
“A equals A,” indeed.
As muddled and incomprehensible as Static the Armed man might have been, it was still less embarrassing to behold than witnessing a past-his-prime comics pro having a public meltdown because massive media conglomerate wouldn’t allow him to draw a T&A Slave Leia variant cover on an all-ages funnybook.
There’s being “nobody’s favorite” and then there’s being just plain pathetic.