Thursday Comics Hangover: The hero comics deserves

For many years, cartoonist Steve Ditko created and sold comics outside the traditional publishing system. With the assistance of comics editor Robin Snyder, Ditko sold his comics directly to the public through Kickstarter.

I've supported several of these Kickstarted books, and in the list of backers located on the inside back cover you could often find the familiar names of comics creators. The most recent Ditko comic to arrive in my mailbox this spring, The Hero, included cartoonist Stephen Bissette and comics writer Tom DeFalco — and other titles have included famous backers like Neil Gaiman.

I often thought of these books as a kind of community retirement plan for Ditko, who passed away last week at the age of 90. Marvel didn't compensate him nearly what it should have for his work in the creation of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and Ditko slowly stopped working for most traditional comics publishers for reasons that he always kept private. He seemed to be in need of assistance, and he was certainly not the kind of person to accept charity. So backing comics like The Hero were a way to thank Ditko for all his work, and to show him that we still loved him.

Most of Ditko's Kickstarted comics were uneven collections of text pages written by Snyder or Ditko or a combination of the two, and short comics written and drawn by Ditko. The comics tended to be collections from Ditko's archives; in The Hero, there's a comic about a hero called Killjoy that was originally illustrated in 1988.

Ditko's Objectivism is on full display in The Hero. In the Killjoy story, some civic leaders at the "Foundation to Protect the Guilty from Justice" are weeping giant tears into puddles on the floor. A wealthy-looking man named Mr. Hart goes on a tremendous, tear-soaked rant that sounds like a conservative's view of what a liberal criminal justice system would sound like:

Wah! It's unjust! Killjoy's ruining the careers of hard working criminals! They have rights! We have to help them...raise bail...hire lawyers...demand crime be made legitimate!...Wah! It's cruel! When criminals can't practise their profession! Their victims never cooperate and now this Killjoy! It's too much for decent men to take! Sob! Criminals are as law-biding as non-criminals.

Then the Foundation goes no a protest march, with signs reading: "Our first concern is for the guilty," "We need a union for hard working criminals," "For every guilty victim, there is an innocent criminal."

Of course Mr. Hart is mugged by criminals and he makes excuses for them even as they smash the teeth out his face. And of course Killjoy crushes the criminal syndicate (which includes a man dressed like Robin Hood, a coal miner, a gorilla, a lion wearing a domino mask, and a python.) It's exactly as philosophically simple-minded as you'd expect a comic from one of Ayn Rand's most devoted acolytes to be.

But there's a lot of fun, too, including a short comic about a hero called Mr. Quiver, a big-bellied bald man who eats Jello and defeats the bad guys by absorbing their punches and jiggling them back at them. Originally drawn in 1985, the strip seems like an early pass at Speedball, the bouncing boy superhero Ditko would create for Marvel a few years later.

But the title story in The Hero is the true gem. Drawn in 2009, it's Ditko's superhero work reduced to its purest form. It begins with a splash page of a man in a garish wavy-lined costume with a giant "V" on his chest. He carries a large club, and he announces, "I'm the Villain! Initiation of force, might, is good, right, just! No one dares oppose me!"

Of course, then a man in a suit with a giant "H" emblazoned on it shows up. The Villain identifies this man as "The Hero," but The Hero doesn't talk in the course of the story. He just laughs: "HA HA HA HA." Meanwhile, in the background, a large group of people — presumably the general public — mocks The Hero and praises The Villain.

The Villain and The Hero get in a fistfight for a couple of silent pages, and then The Hero knocks The Villain out cold, smacking him into a pile of garbage and rats. Triumphant, The Hero then seems to, as best I can tell, juggle a bunch of cylindrical cacti wearing cowboy hats in the final panel while the general public grumbles that the fight was rigged.

The art in this comic is beyond loose, but it it distinctly Ditko. It feels like every line has to be there, that Ditko willed it to be. On a pure black and white page, his certainty is a beautiful thing to behold.