Dave Sim's blogandmail #91 (December 11th, 2006)
The Blog & Mail revisits
In honour of Steve Ditko's 80th year coming up in 2007 and in the hopes of drumming up a little business for his post-Marvel work published through Robin Snyder's RSCOMICS.
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Monday, December 11 -
Okay, I'm going to be jumping back and forth a bit here because I suddenly find myself with a number of balls in the air: Mr. A, Dr. Strange (I finished reading the complete Steve Ditko Dr. Strange last night) and my Dr. Strangeroach commissioned drawing, which I finally decided to go full speed ahead on yesterday, having realized that doing a commissioned piece and writing about a commissioned piece at the same time was getting really, really time-consuming. The only thing slower than pencilling, inking and colouring a drawing turns out to be pencilling, inking and colouring a drawing and then describing pencilling, inking and colouring a drawing. Not to mention trucking down to Sherwood to get colour photocopy reductions done every step of the way. Five of them the day before yesterday and three of them yesterday. The process went faster as the areas to get filled in got smaller. It's Ditko-influenced, but I don't think anyone would ever mistake it for Ditko. Sherwood's closed on Saturday, so I'm going to leave it as is and hopefully finish it on Monday (or Tuesday or Wednesday) and send all the photocopies to Jeff to post here.
Anyway, I skipped over the Mr. A cover which was probably a bad idea since it was the first thing we all saw back in 1973 when the comic started circulating in the handful of comic book stores then in existence. "Your only choice…either Good or Evil" Then there's an enlarged question mark with the words "When is a man to be judged evil?" overlapping a figure in a classic Marvel posture of profound apprehension (legs and fingers widely splayed, mouth and eyes agape. There's an illustration of a set of scales with a little blob of red in one pan and a big blob of red and hatched mass weighing down the other pan which is casting a shadow on a repeated image of the same figure. Dominating the cover is a .45 automatic, discharging a huge bullet which appears to be knocking the figure backwards, the trajectory of the bullet and the bullet lettered "…Right to Kill!" And in the bottom right a panel of the dressed-completely-in-white Mr. A holding the smoking gun. Subtle it wasn't. It cut to a core element of the comic-book field that heroes don't use guns and they don't shoot people, they capture them and bring them to justice (it is still an enduring titillation in the comic-book field that Batman used a mounted machine gun to kill a monster in the first issue of his eponymous comic book).
To oversimplify the point being made, Ditko was probably the only person in the comic book field who thought that the justice system should take a more hardline view of misbehaviour—which, if you think about it, was no great leap of faith in an environment where super-powered figures function wholly if not exclusively outside the law. What is the difference between a vigilante and a public-spirited citizen? In the context of the comic-book field, there really wasn't any difference. If you had particular super-heroic abilities and you wore a leotard or a body-stocking it was just assumed that you were doing good, basically stopping comparably powered evil-doers who were too much for the police or conventional forms of law enforcement to deal with. So, it was interesting to see Ditko essentially take the comic-book field's primary thematic supposition and basically extend it into lethal directions. As the splash page suggests "Who dares to claim he is above the collective good, public truth, right of society, the law, and can rationally justify his…" (the cover image of the .45 discharging its bullet overlapping the scales—one pan holding the word "life"—and overlapping a man's divided face half normal and half skull) "…Right to Kill!" But, here we already have a good example of the perplexity that Steve Ditko would always engender in his readership. I mean, shouldn't that be a question mark on the end there? Because it's an exclamation mark it definitely moves the political debate involved a giant step away and puts the syntax of the initial assertion in the same category as The Shadow's "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" but even more in the sense of a definitive statement. The second panel depicts Mr. A shooting a perpetrator in the face. Is the reference to Mr. A or to the perpetrator who has been judged to be evil? The terminology causes further problems. What is the "collective good" if it isn't freedom from the threat of vigilantism? What is "public truth" but the right to a fair trial? What is the "Right of Society" period?
"Right of Society"?
If we thought that turning the page was going to help clarify things, we were sadly mistaken. What follows is an eight-page Mr. A story which centers on the kidnapping of a little girl named Lilly. It's very direct. Lilly gets kidnapped in the second panel, that's how direct it is. Lilly has a lot of thought balloons in the story while she's tied up blindfolded and gagged ("Don't they care how much they hurt me?...sob…not right.") mostly, it would seem, to reiterate Ditko's point that there is genuine suffering on the part of victims of crimes. To be fair, he was pretty much a pioneer in this: the comic-book field has never been real big on documenting the victims of crimes, nor has any other entertainment form which uses crime as a springboard. Victims were bit parts in comic books, not headliners: the headliners were the super-heroes and their colourful adversaries, the victims of the crimes were just the plot device that set thing in motion. Arguably this overlooking of genuine victimhood is a valid point both in the comic-book field and in our society and I think Steve Ditko is to be commended for calling attention to that fact. The celebration of true crime fiction and the mythologizing of criminals signify, implicitly, that we're going the wrong way as a society. The problem Steve Ditko faced is that this is a conservative viewpoint and the comic-book field is a liberal environment. The liberal response to any fictional portrayal of the "criminal element" (as they used to be called and which has, as a term, fallen into disfavour in a liberal society) is to become interested in the criminal and to take it as a given that the kidnapping of Lilly (in this case) was as the result of society having somehow let down her kidnappers so that they felt compelled to take such an extreme action. Interestingly, this then just reinforces what it was that Ditko was saying and reinforces the fact that as society becomes more interested in celebrating true crime fiction and mythologizing criminals, the victims and morality in general get lost in the shuffle. To a degree Ditko participates in the sociological two-step, himself, in an attempt to create an awareness in the reader both of what he understands to be society's overall perception of the realities that apply and of his own perceptions of what he sees as the real issues that are at stake. When the ransom money is paid, one of the kidnappers is delegated with the task of killing Lilly with a knife. In a flashback, we learn that he is typically the good boy gone bad, seduced into the evil undertaking by the promise of easy money ("One bad thing then for the rest of my life…I can…I will be good…I swear to God…just let me…this one time…get away with evil.") with this being illustrated by a sequence where he passes over from Mr. A's iconic white square to his iconic black square. But the most significant part of the story is Lilly's suffering and the suffering of her mother who endures a calamitous nervous collapse in the course of the kidnapping unfolding. This presumably is Ditko's core point. Lilly and her mother are made to suffer and are innocent victims of the kidnappers' individual and collective choices of evil instead of good that therefore renders the kidnappers fully culpable for the consequences of their own actions at the hands of Mr. A. A struggle ensues and the female kidnapper (Ditko was way ahead of the Claremont curve on the "is there any reason this character can't be a woman?" question and, in my view, too far ahead: I don't think there is any great historical trend of women as merciless, violent kidnappers that justifies the choice to make one of them a woman) tells Mr. A, "throw the gun over here or…I'll kill the kid…" "I'll slit her throat," she says, holding Lilly's head back by means of a claw-like grip on the child's face and brandishing the knife. Whereupon Mr. A snatches up his gun and shoots the kidnapper in the head, informing her as he does so: "And I'd be surrendering both of our lives…if anyone's going to die…it is not going to be the innocent!" In the next panel, with the mortally wounded kidnapper sprawled on the ground, eyes agape and staring, Mr. A further informs her, "Success or survival at another's expense is not a price anyone can impose on others without also having to face it…and pay!"
Tomorrow: More fun and games with Mr. A
Viewers of the www.cerebusart.com website have probably noticed by now that the calendar has been taken down. It turns out that two commissioned pieces a month is going to be a little optimistic over the next while. So, instead, I'm inviting interested individuals to contact me by phone (519.576.0610) to discuss any commission that they are interested in. When you phone, I can let you know what the current high offer is for the next commissioned piece after Dr. Strangeroach is and which I will be beginning probably after Christmas or early in the New Year (so I can get some uninterrupted working time on my secret project and commentaries on Mark). If you want a Gerhard background, you can let me know on the phone and then negotiate with Gerhard separately. The best rule of thumb on a Dave Sim commission is that you will get the best results if you are paying roughly $400 to $600 per figure. That is, a $1,000 commission of Cerebus and Jaka is going to look better than a $1,000 commission of Cerebus, Jaka, the Roach, Lord Julius, Astoria and Konigsberg. If you let me know what you're interested in, I can let you know what part of your picture is going to be the most time-consuming and then leave it up to you as to whether you want to stick to your original request or modify it in order to get more picture for your money.
That number again is 519.576.0610
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If you wish to contact Dave Sim, you can mail a letter (he does NOT receive emails) to:
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