Bitten by a Radioactive Ayn Rand

DC Archives: Action Heroes Volume 2, written by Steve Ditko, Roger Stern, Steve Skeates, and others; illustrated by Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Frank McLaughlin, John Byrne and others (1965-68; collected 2007): This collection contains a pretty clear moment at which comic-book great Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange for Marvel, crossed the line into Ayn Randian propagandist. It occurs towards the end of the Charlton Comics ‘Action Heroes’ line from which these archives take their name.
It’s a mind-boggling moment because it marks one of the few times that mainstream Ditko and self-published Ditko would merge into one angry, Objectivist loudspeaker. Ditko’s two streams of output — one for himself and one to pay the bills — would pretty much permanently diverge after the demise of the Charlton superhero line, and others would pretty much handle all the scripting on his mainstream superhero titles.

Ditko helped revamp or create most of the always lame-duck Charlton Comics’ superheroes, co-creating Captain Atom, Nightshade, and The Question and revamping Golden-Age crimefighter Blue Beetle into a nifty mix of Spider-man and Iron Man. This archive collects his later work on those Charlton superheroes. Captain Atom is a lot of fun, especially once inker Frank McLaughlin comes on board, and it’s mostly free of cant. Blue Beetle is also jolly, zippy fun until the aforementioned Rand Moment, at which point the Blue Beetle becomes a Ditko mouthpiece. Not for long, mind you — cancellation of the entire superhero line loomed.

And then there’s the Question, a visually inspired Ditko creation whose main costuming as a superhero was a face made perfectly blank by a special mask. Alan Moore would base Rorchach in Watchmen on this guy, and you can see why. While the Question begins life as a fairly normal urban vigilante (albeit one wearing a suit, tie, and hat), he rapidly turns into Ditko’s spokesperson for his Ayn Rand-derived ethics.

And boy, does he speak. A lot.

The Question’s only book-length adventure from the 1960’s, from the pages of Charlton’s Mysterious Suspense, is one of the wordiest slogs you’ll ever encounter in comic books of this or any other time. The sheer volume of verbiage crowds out much of Ditko’s visual dynamism, leaving us with talking heads and the Question demonstrating that, for a brief time, he was the stuffiest of all stuffed shirts on the superhero scene. And his hatred of hippies was positively Cartmanesque.

The Blue Beetle also develops advanced Randitis and, in a memorable two-story team-up, he and the Question battle both evil, non-heroic Art and an evil, non-heroic Art critic. I kid you not. It’s like Philosophers at Work played straight. Fascinating stuff. Come for Ditko’s visual excellence, stay for the interminable lectures. Recommended.

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