Looking at a list of books for review, the name Joe Staton jumped out at me. It’s a name that harkens back to the earliest months of The Comics Journal for me, as Staton was the interview subject in the March 1979 issue, one of the first I ever read. Staton’s style had a natural tendency towards the cartoony, a quality that the mainstream of comicdom then, as now, considered an affliction, and was making his way doing the oddball stuff at DC — Metal Men, Doom Patrol, Plastic Man, things of that nature. I hadn’t seen any of his work since then, and I was intrigued by the notion of what this particular talent might do freed after all these years from the strictures of commercial comics to do what I assumed must be a personal project.
Having the thing in my hands I realize that my assumption that an adaptation of an Ayn Rand novel would necessarily be a personal project, or at least a personal project of Joe Staton’s, was incorrect. If it’s a personal project of anyone’s, it’s of the packager and writer Charles Santino, and Staton has done the professional job he might provide for any editor. If you wanted, you could turn Staton’s contribution into an example of how individuality is crushed by the tastes of the collective, but that would require presuming a lot about what Staton’s creative wishes and desires were. For all I know, all his heart ever desired was to learn how to turn out generic naturalistic comic art, and in this he would have succeeded. Then again, it’s just as likely that a truly personal project on his part would look far different than this.
The novel Anthem is one of the many children of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a family of satirical reactions to the industrialization of humanity as practiced by the totalitarian state and the modern factory, which differed from the totalitarian state only insofar as they let you leave at the end of the day. The thing that differentiates Anthem from its siblings, your 1984s, your Brave New Worlds, is that the individual triumphs, which tends to defeat the purpose. After all, it would be a piss poor totalitarian regime that couldn’t crush the will of one stinking individualist. What the genre normally is telling the reader is that if society continues to develop along the lines it is, and you continue to acquiesce to it, as you have shown every indication you are going to do, then this is what’s going to happen to you. What we have here is not Ayn Rand’s book, which occupies about the same place in her oeuvre as Farmer Giles of Ham has in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, but Charles Santino’s rendering of it. Suffice it to say that at least one of them is not the work of an able polemicist.
Anthem is the story of Equality 7-2521, who rebels against his dreary post-industrial Luddite society, and Liberty 5-3000, who tags along to make goo-goo eyes at him. As delineated by Staton it’s like watching an unfolding romance between Teenage Thor and Malibu Barbie. The story means to show how someone from a society where individuality is so thoroughly crushed that the world “I” is unknown. Unfortunately, Santino found the first part of the book in which the reader is introduced to this society too hard to adapt to comics, so he leaves it out completely. Instead of a society where thinking for yourself is unthinkable we are presented with a society where the people use “we” as a first person pronoun. In fact, from first to last, Equality 7-2521, or Eek as his friends no doubt called him, is so self-obsessed as to be practically solipsistic.
As we meet him, Eek is being punished for his unseemly interest in science by being relegated to the street sweeping detail. While out sweeping a ravine near the forbidden forest (it’s rough duty, I’ll tell you) he stumbles across a subway tunnel from the Unmentionable Times, where he just happens to find the makings of a fully functional scientific laboratory. His sweeping activities also takes him across the path of Liberty 5-3000, who recognizes his ubermenschiness at first sight and becomes his apostle. Nor is she mistaken, because he soon reinvents the incandescent light. Taking his useful doodad to the wise men of the village expecting acclaim, he is instead whipped and thrown in the brig.
Fortunately for Eek his society has become so obedient that nobody bothers to guard the jailhouse, and so breaking out is easy as pie. In fact, just about everything seems to fall in his lap. Reunited with Libby as they flee into the wilderness, in no time they’ve taught themselves enough woodcraft to fill a year of Mark Trail. Wandering aimlessly they soon stumble onto a perfectly preserved Malibu Dream House fully stocked with all the Unmentionable Times luxuries you ever could want. Here Eek and Libby will found a new race of godlike beings who will think for themselves because they only think of themselves.
By Santino’s dictate the art is reproduced direct from pencils and as usual this mostly illustrates why comic art is normally inked. Santino also decreed a strict three horizontal panel per page format in which three panels will be used when one will do. Take, for instance, this sequence where Eek is teaching himself to hunt birds by knocking them out of the sky with rocks (ahem):
The entertainment function of such a sequence is no easier to see than the philosophical one. The artwork as you can see is clean, attractive and reinforces the glib effortlessness of Eek and Libby’s odyssey. Even when Eek reminisces about a less fortunate apostate being burned at the stake the fellow hardly seems to be breaking a sweat.
The essential flaw in Ayn Rand’s thinking is to make the artist the paradigm of the individualist. Overbearing as it is, this ham-fisted vision of the individual has its level of validity when applied to artists. The artist is an absolute tyrant in a world he creates himself out of his own being, disdaining all others in his dedication to his own vision. It is indeed a realm where the normative rules of common decency do not necessarily apply. It’s not unjust because any other individual is entitled to the same privileges when he makes his own work of art. But to break the paradigm down, all you have to do is look at the person who actually perfected the electric light. This was not a case of an inspired individual working in isolation, but rather of an individual whose genius was largely in perfecting the work of dozens of inventors who preceded him and then organizing the collective effort of hundreds of nameless others in developing, implementing and exploiting it, aided and abetted by a larger collective that granted and enforced a monopoly on his invention. Thomas Edison’s greatest invention may well have been the research laboratory. Or you could look to that artistic enterprise that operated under the name Walt Disney, which incorporated the efforts of dozens of inspired individuals who worked anonymously and subordinated their individuality to create a cohesive whole. But then, the analogy Anthem is trying to make is not with Thomas Edison but with Prometheus. When you leave the world of myth there are only two contexts in which the individual can triumph: Either as part of a collective that values the individual, or as the ruler of a collective that doesn’t.
The particular fascination in this early work is seeing one of the unique individual styles in cartooning at a formative stage. There are cartoonists who even as they create a personal style maintain a family resemblance to their forebears. Robert Crumb is very much Robert Crumb, and yet you see traces of Harold Gray and E.C. Segar in his work. There’s another kind of cartoonist who buries his ancestors in an unmarked grave. In early Charles Schulz you can see he owes something to early William Steig, but after a period of time the debt is paid off and the account is closed. In these panels from early in the book the sea officers seem to come from some more conventional idiom of adventure illustration, with perhaps a hint of Hugo Pratt.
The emulation of steel engraving creates a bit more distance from mature Tardi. By the end of the book all the characters are Tardi people, and look not quite like anything else in comics.
As for the subject matter: It’s an example of parody that continues on when the thing parodied has long faded away. I remember watching Dudley Do-Right cartoons as a child and understanding that they were a parody of old-fashioned melodrama, but I knew this without ever seeing the thing itself. Part of the appeal is feeling superior to an earlier age, and another part is being engaged in the traces of the earlier form embedded in the parody, which you would normally feel yourself too sophisticated to enjoy.