Brand Echh: Mr. A

Steve Ditko was one of the most popular and distinctive artists of the Silver Age of Comics, one who is well-regarded for his many contributions to the field. He was also, at least past a certain point, a devotee of and believer in the tenets of Objectivism, the belief systems pioneered by author Ayn Rand that prostetized a sort of rugged individualism, the hewing to a moral code of absolute behavior that became encapsulated in the seemingly obvious statement that A is A–a thing is what it is, and therefore no ill or flawed action can be to the good. It was an absurdly absolutist belief system, but it was one that Ditko found great common cause with, and which influenced his work heavily beginning in the mid-1960s.

Ditko apparently believed in the power of the medium to help communicate these ideals, and so he created the character who, over the years, has become more identified with him personally (even as his earlier creations Spider-Man and Doctor Strange have grown in worldwide popularity.): Mr. A. Wearing an entirely white suit and hat, his head encased in a stark white expressionless metal mask, Mr A was a crime-fighter, but one whose ethos was based solidly in the teachings of Rand. Mr. A had no sympathy for the criminal, accepted no excuse for immoral behavior. He was an unrelenting and uncompromising crusader, both in his civilian identity as a news broadcaster and as a secret vigilante. Ditko’s Mr. A stories carried the veneer of being simple action-adventure tales, but their actual text and events were designed to illustrate and underscore the Randian principles. In a lot of ways, many Mr. A stories were almost like Jack Chick tracts, dedicated to espousing a belief system and informing the public.

Unwilling to compromise his principles and unable to find a mainstream publisher who would allow him to take things as far as he wanted (even the permissive Charlton, who typically offered tremendous freedom in exchange for paying crappy rates, had changes made to some of Ditko’s stories of the Question–a character he once described as a watered-down version of Mr. A.) Ditko nonetheless produced a ton of Mr. A pages during the 1960s and later on. Many of the stories were published in assorted fanzines, giving them an extremely limited reach.

Joe Brancatelli was a comic book fan, dealer and historian who published several fanzines and who wrote an ongoing column about the behind-the-scenes warts-and-all business of the comic books that was serialized in Jim Warren’s line of magazines. In 1973, he made arrangements with Ditko to reprint an assortment of Mr. A stories in a self-titled fanzine under the imprint of Comic Art Publishers. The particular story I’m sharing as a part of this piece was originally printed in Bill G. Wilson’s fanzine The Collector #26 circa 1968 or 1969. This was essentially a fanzine, but it led to a short-lived series of Ditko-illustrated and creator-owned comic books that carried on its numbering, so it’s grandfathered in as a “ground level” publication by that dint. (Those later issues were published by Bruce Hershenson.)

Ditko’s Mr A stories weren’t very commercial–they were much more interested in putting their ideas across than in being entertaining as fiction, so they tended to be verbose and stiff. Still, even with that, Ditko’s mastery of cartooning is apparent. He also did the lettering on these stories himself, which was sometimes a double-edged sword in terms of legibility. It’s difficult to imagine many comic book readers in 1973 sharing similar political opinions as those espoused in Ditko’s work, but these Mr. A stories are all the bolder because of it. Ditko was attempting to put over what was sure to be received as a combative message, and he didn’t flinch away from doing so.

Copies of MR. A #1 were readily available through the loose network of comic book stores throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, mail order dealer Bud Plant offered copies for many years. As Ditko never permitted an official collection of his MR. A work tobe published during his lifetime, this release is one of the few ways to access these stories for interested parties. (Ditko and his regular publisher Robin Snyder issued a new printing of this same material in 2010.)

This particular story is one of the softer and more sentimental MR A adventures. The issue also includes a genuinely unpleasant and disturbing tale about the kidnapping of a young girl, as well as others in which Mr. A’s alter ego Rex Graine is vilified for refusing to give a pass to a political friend of his broadcast station and one in which a young offender meets a tragic and violent end by swaying from the path of righteousness as represented by Mr. A. They’re all strongly polemic works, and definitely not to all tastes. But they are singularly Ditko’s.

8 thoughts on “Brand Echh: Mr. A

  1. The belief systems fostered by Ayn Rand are called Objectivism, not really Randianism.

    And while I’ve never heard details on it, I’ve been told that Ditko disagreed with Rand, too, that his beliefs were spurred by her writings but did not hew fully to what she preached.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the nuance. I have to admit that I am so repulsed by people espousing selfishness as a virtue that I tend to nope-out of anything having to do with Rand.


    2. I don’t know if you’ve seen his nephew Mark Ditko’s YouTube channel or his interview with Comic Book Historians. Mark more-or-less confirms your statement, not specifically saying that Ditko ‘disagreed’ with Rand, but that the perception of him as a rabid Rand disciple is significantly off-target. Rather, he was a devotee of Aristotle first and foremost. Rand’s ideas certainly (and obviously) influenced his work, but so did many other things, if perhaps less pointedly / jarringly for his readers.


      1. Yes. I’ve had a few acquaintance who were Objectivists, and I have some familiarity with what they believe. It really doesn’t match Mr. A’s sermonizing. I can see where there could be some connections. But at least the people I knew were much more focused on “proving” abstractly that laissez-faire capitalism was supposedly morally the only correct economic system, rather than pontificating about lack of moral fibre leading to becoming a criminal.

        bserum – “criminals who are merely pursuing their own self-interest” – ah, but that’s a moral relativism framework which is completely the opposite of Objectivism. Their whole idea is that there’s an objective answer they work out, which must be the same for everyone. You’re joke-confusing “this is good for me” with “this is good morally”, but they’d say that you’re completely missing the point (and read this long-winded bloviation as to why …).

        Mr. A comes across to me like a pulp detective who took college philosophy classes and truly engaged with the material at some level, incorporating it into his thoughts but still having a general pulp moral viewpoint.


  2. Both Peter Parker and Stephen Strange pursue self-interest in what seems to be an Objectivist manner, and both pay a price for it. So yeah, it’s not surprising to learn Ditko wasn’t 100 percent on board.

    Liked by 1 person

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