Wednesday, February 03, 2010

MR. A. #1, SECOND EDITION (published by Robin Snyder and Steve Ditko, 3745 Canterbury Lane #81, Bellingham WA 98225-1186)

There have made a few superficial dabs on my part with regards to writing about or perhaps even critiquing if you will the fanzine/self-published works of SPIDER-MAN co-creator Steve Ditko; you can click here and here for two measly examples of my thin attempts. And, for some not quite-so-odd reason (like maybe there is a market for Ditko's art despite him being treated like a pariah by the same comic book industry that he helped rescue from a post-Comic Code miasma), it seems as if more and more examples of Ditko's most recent comic work have been coming out via longtime publisher Robin Snyder. Despite the comparatively simple art and story lines perhaps due to Ditko's advanced age, I find a good portion of these various titles to be pretty readable and, perhaps due to the less cluttered art, pleasing to the eye. At least I believe it to be a whole lot better than the over-ambitious dross that has plagued the comic book industry for the past three and a half decades.

Now that the eighties-vintage Fantagraphics collections of Ditko's fanzine work are long out-of-print it's definitely time for a repro of the first MR. A. title to enlighten yet another comic book generation as to, as the Amish say, "what good is." Some of you readers who were in on comic fandom in the early-seventies might remember this particular issue being advertised all over the fanzine world back in '73; I guess just about every big name fanzine of the day had an ad for this 'un at the time and, considering just how much Ditko's "Moral Avenger" was appearing in the fanzines of the day I'll bet this issue was a pretty hot seller in itself. I sure recall spotting an ad in an issue of THE MENOMONEE FALLS GAZETTE (that being a tabloid which published a wide range of comic strips that probably didn't appear in most newspapers world-wide) seriously considering sending away for a copy, me being a huge fan of Ditko's fantasy and early SPIDER-MAN artwork and definitely wanting to see what the guy was up to all those years later. I thought this MR. A. title was perhaps some new and innovative twist on all of that SPIDER-MAN brouahaha that comic wonks were still talking about almost ten years after Ditko left that title for good, and it sure was nice to know that Ditko was continuing to draw comics even if it was for some small publisher I never heard of. (This was long before I knew he had been working for Charlton, a company that I gotta say I never did bother with in all my years of picking these titles up!) I didn't send for my copy like I should've because y'see, 75 cents was WAY too much for me to "squander" on a comic book especially when the 20-cent cover price of the day was considered, at least by the old folks, to be pretty ritzy in itself! And lemme tell you that not getting this magazine was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes I made in my life because when I was 13 I sure could have used a lot more Steve Ditko and a lot less Barry Smith I'll tell ya! Besides, the philosophical bent of these sagas would have suited me a lot better'n the peace and love jive that was still permeating not only the left-leaning comic book fodder of the day but the wishy-washy humanist drivel being injected into all of my school lessons ad nauseum!

Well, thirtysome years later long after I re-arranged/honed my own political/philosophical bent a few times over I get this new edition of that very first MR. A. title, something that tingles my nerve-nodes even though I already have THREE originals wallowing somewhere in the abode! If six-bits was bad enough in 1973 then I wonder what the family would think of me dishing out five smackers for this reprint! It ain't exactly a carbon copy of the original tho...while that one looked like one of the classier comic book/sci-fi fanzines of the day with its color cover and larger dimension this is more or less like a flimsier comic book with a glossy b&w cover which I'm sure suits Ditko because he once groused to Bill Schelly for printing a Mr. A. cover for Schelly's SENSE OF WONDER fanzine on colored paper saying it defeated the whole purpose and credo of his message!

The innards have been changed around a bit, with the stories now presented in a different order while the inside front merely lists the contents as well as the other Snyder-published Ditko titles. Originally there appeared a nice essay on Ditko written by then-publisher Bruce Hershenson who, amidst criticizing the then-current revivals of Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and Doc Savage as being symptomatic of a comic book industry stuck in neutral, also waxed on about Ditko's philosophical beliefs stating that the libertarianism of not only Ditko but Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein was destined to become a major strain of political thought in the near future. Obviously that particular prediction turned out to be yet another misguided missile that is probably still wavering on in space, undoubtedly one good reason why that schpiel was axed for this "revised" edition. Well, at least it might have seemed like the way things were heading sometime during the late Nixon/Gerald Ford era, but as we all know it's been the same old etcetera ever since and here in the teens I see little change comin' across the horizon.

Lousy predictions aside the stories in MR. A. #1 were and remain loads better than most of the competition on the pro and fanzine levels even with Ditko's messages permeating everything from fight scenes to brutal deaths. Mind you, there's nothing here as good as the sagas in the second MR. A. let alone the magazine-length Question story (he being Ditko's attempt at a Mr. A. for the mainstream publishers) that appeared under the Charlton imprint back in the late-sixties, but compared with the drivel that at times was being passed off as "precocious" and "innovative" this does smell all the more like roses. Hokay, perhaps a good portion of the writing was in need of at least a little structural development, but since Ditko was doing in seven or so pages what he should have done in three times the number of pages should any of us really be complaining?

You get the four original stories (some even previously published in fanzines!) plus a repro of the wraparound cover that graced the 26th issue of THE COLLECTOR back in '72 as a centerspread of sorts. The first tale, "When is a Man to be Judged Evil?" features the saga of an ex-con out to get Mr. A.'s alter-ego, avenging journalist Rex Graine, whose seething, murderous rage against Graine totally dissipates by page five for some strange reason as we suddenly and without warning find out in a scene where a hitman tricks the former crime boss into knocking Mr. A. unconscious. Maybe I should quibble about the storyline development but the art's so durn good and if I can overlook the lack of logic in an East Side Kids film why not here?

"What Happens to a Man Who Refuses to Uphold the Good?" has a committee of respectable and well-to-do men hiring Graine to investigate crime in their un-named megalopolis. Naturally Graine does his job with with typical unerring accuracy and all is well and good until Our Hero starts getting hold of some damning information regarding some less-threatening yet still corrupt members of the local social/industrial scene thereby hitting a little too close to home. Y'see, at first it was OK when Graine was naming local known criminal elements but the people now being indicted are businessmen and politicians who have connections with the men who've hired Graine. Predictably the Men of Standing turn against Graine with a vengeance after he continues on his crusade without their backing, "sicking" everything from a hired thug to an ACLU-styled organization humorously called "The Committee To Protect Criminals From Justice" on him all to no avail. The surprising thing about this tale is that there is no conclusive ending...after Graine is more or less hounded by these leading businessmen to the point where just about any normal person would go insane, up springs Mr. A. who grabs the group's ringleader and shows him point by point the errors of his way. It's all interesting enough I guess, but I would have preferred a standard comic book ending where Mr. A./Graine triumphs and the well-dressed captains of industry end up buried for their wretchedness. I guess that would eventually come to be in later MR. A. sagas, but not today.

The following, untitled story at least has a conclusive ending even if we're still bombarded by Mr. A.'s lessons of good and evil (and remember, you can't have it both ways like the characters who permeate Ditko's world always tend to assume!). In this one, a juvenile delinquent named Ken swipes a car, kills a pedestrian in a hit and run and crashes the vehicle into a street lamp before taking it on the lam. In a replay of the Kitty Genovese murder all of the witnesses to the crime plead ignorance and, as the early seventies canard went, "don't want to get involved" except for who else but Graine. Despite Graine's testimony the kid goes free thanks to his lawyer who comes off like a cross between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in his early-twentieth century socially-redeeming ways. (This conjecture is really not that surprising since both men were playing off different sides of the pre-McGovern-era liberal/populist equation even if they were bitter rivals throughout the Scopes Trial, the true paleoconservative/libertarian in that episode of Amerigan History being none other than H. L. Mencken.) If you think this kid's acquittal's the end of this saga you are sadly mistaken, for Graine won't let the case die much to the chagrin of the bleeding heart lawyer who has since become Ken's "benefactor". Meanwhile Ken hooks up with a local hood while playing his lawyer guardian like a violin, tugging on his emotions just as bad as when you'd see these street-smart kids being poured pity and empathy all over 'em by Bill Moyers and Phil Donahue, who then would recoil in shock and disbelief when these kids end up knocking somebody up, or is that off??? Before long Ken gets his guardian in just as deep into his treachery as he is leading to both of them murdering the local hood and dumping his body into the local pier at which point Mr. A. suddenly appears outta nowhere, dishing up some justice or better yet acting like a nagging conscience with Ken madly running away into the abyss still wanting his way while the lawyer does the only reasonable thing he can at this point in the story and blows his own head off! (I know, at least Flattop Jr. went mad with the ghost of the girlfriend he murdered clinging to him until he eventually did himself in, but I'll take this over having the kid "rehabilitated" by even more do-gooder types like he would've had say...Denny O'Neill written this story!)

Closing out the mag is "Right to Kill" which I must admit is the weakest of the bunch but's at least worth reading to see Mr. A. shoot some flipped-out chick who looks like Grace Slick through the head. A relatively simple kidnapping yarn, this story has less of a punch and more philosophy crammed into it than the others, and if you're looking for some interesting plot changes and story development ferget it! All that happens is some little girl dressed as if it were still 1957 gets snatched by some hotcha twentysomething swingers (come to think of it, everything looks 1957 in a Ditko comic 'cept for the evil youth who of course are all swinging mod "hippie" types!), then Mr. A. rescues her while killing the female of the bunch as she's about to slit the girl's throat! The other two kill each other while quibbling over the ransom as Mr. A. walks away with the kidnap victim as the two thugs cry for mercy with their final breath. OK, that's wonder they put this one right at the end. At least there are some nice touches here like when Mr. A. explains to the freed child just why he doesn't rescue evil people who wanted to kill the child while they're writhing in agony begging for forgiveness. I really like that attitude, it's almost as good as the things Ted Nugent used to say in his prime but then again what has he done lately?

In all, a great piece of work from Ditko, a downright classic which I believe just might rank as one of the top 100 comic books of all time if I would dare to take on a task such as compiling one. BLOG TO COMM readers who have some serious cravings for early self-produced underground/alternative comic works, or readers who just have some serious problems, might want to give this one a try if only to readjust your own personal focus on life and how you loathe it! But watch out, the next one in line is gonna be THE AVENGING WORLD and that made MR. A. look like pea soup!


Bill S. said...

Nice to see you continuing to bang the drum for the great Steve Ditko. He'll never get one of those "MacArthur genius grants" (and would probably refuse it if he did), but he is the perfect example of the artist who remains true to his vision, who does what he feels he HAS TO do, no matter what the consequences. That the co-creator of Spider-Man has for decades been putting out essentially self-published didactic comics sold through a PO Box is amazing. It's as if someone who started out on Bob Dylan's level of 1960s fame wound up selling self-issued records out of a PO Box ala Jandek. Once Ditko is gone, people will be praising the "purity of his vision" to the sky, and watch Hollywood make a Sundance-praised "indie" film about him starring Steve Buscemi or Matt Dillon or someone like that. But who is buying these Ditko items while the man is still alive to benefit from the sales?
I'm glad you have continued to stand behind him.

Christopher Stigliano said...

Thank you Bill. However, the thought you've inserted into my mind about a Ditko biopic being made in the future does make me sick, as I'm sure it would Ditko! Fortunately, last year saw the release of a hardcover Ditko history which proves that there are more fans out there, even if many of them probably loathe the man's politics and philosophical bent but claim allegiance to him because of his groundbreaking work for Marvel!