Ditko’s Code: “A World of His Own”

Steve Ditko was an artist of the Comics Code Authority. His career began a whisper before the foundation of the code - Ditko’s first published story appeared in the fall of 1953, roughly a year prior to the code’s arrival. In a restrictive system that virtually nullified a generation of cartoonists and their best known outlets, Ditko thrived. Ditko was also among the first American cartoonists to strike away from the code-sanctioned mainstream into the underground fan press, with the appearance of Mr. A. in Wallace Wood’s trailblazing self-published witzend in 1967.[1] However, Ditko continued to play ball with work-for-hire well into the 1980s and sporadically through the late 90s - his final work for Marvel, a 12-page Iron Man comic reaching the direct market in 1998, less than a year after the Strange Avenging Tales anthology at Fantagraphics fell through, marked an end point for Ditko's years of terse interaction with alternative "creator rights" presses such Eclipse Comics, Renegade Press, and Dark Horse. He would then fully embrace his self-publishing venture with Robin Snyder, which over the course of the 2000s became the 32 Series, his final great work. Ditko's millennial shift to total independence coincided with the quiet disintegration of the comics code - Marvel ended its relationship with the code in 2001, and by 2011 the code was no more.  Ditko left the mainstream at more or less the same time that the comics code did, and his latter-day self-published works often derided and viciously critiqued the trend of anti-heroes that prospered -- and indeed could only have prospered -- in the absence of the comics code.

Ditko was not only working contemporaneous with the code, he also espoused a philosophy complementary to it. The comics code is remembered today primarily as a guideline for enforced censorship, but it was also a moral coda for comics publishers. The code insisted in its criteria that every crime be punished, that all good triumph. Ditko, who viewed the comic book hero as an example to encourage the reader’s aspirations to personal greatness, took a step beyond the letter of the law and came to philosophically precise definitions of what he took good and evil to be, and moreover how to communicate these definitions, explain them visually. The comics code was also implicitly an anti-communist coda, created in response to McCarthyist terror, written by publishers and enforced by market pressure to exemplify American values, i.e. capitalist values. And what better artist to exemplify a now officially anti-communist medium than an Ayn Randian individualist? Ironically, Ditko may have embodied the beliefs which motivated the code better than the code itself.

Ditko’s philosophy is perhaps most visible in his superhero and independent work, but he also drew horror stories during the code era, and a lot of them. The code-era horror comic (if it can be called such - Horror and Terror being banned words under the code) often concludes with the fantastic conceit of the story being revealed as hoax, either something benign or helpfully miraculous instead of scary. In some cases, the moral righteousness of the protagonists is rewarded, or a morally doubting individual turns a new, socially upright leaf. Magic or cosmic mysteries may be revealed to be a sham in the manner of Scooby-Doo, but the twist may just as well reveal a curse to be a magic cure, a different wonder of great benefit or little harm. Even when punishment does occur, it occurs as a just and wryly humorous response to fit the crime of an offending antagonist. In the comics code-shaped crater of the horror genre, cosmic justice reigns.

"A World of His Own" is one of these non-horror stories, published May 1957 in Charlton Comic’s Strange Suspense Stories magazine (stories of strange suspense of course narrowly escaping the designation of horror), and today available in the second volume of the Blake Bell-edited Steve Ditko Archives published by Fantagraphics. No credits are given to author or artist on the title page of the story, although Ditko’s signature can be found, snuck onto the spine of a book in the first panel. Ditko’s style is unmistakable regardless of credit, but the writer remains anonymous - the story could have been crafted by any of Charlton’s semi-anonymous for-hire staff, perhaps the highly prolific Joe Gill, but it just as well may be Ditko himself at the wheel. In any case, the voice which animates Ditko’s panels in this story are not that of an author, but that of The Authority - above the title of the work the CCA stamp reappears, along with a statement attesting that the work meets “the high standards of morality and good taste required by the code.”

The statement, a generic text that appears in many books of the era, is signed by Alfred V. Fago, the executive editor of Strange Suspense Stories and other Charlton books. Fago himself was a writer and artist, having drawn a great number of funny animal comics, in particular the Atomic Mouse series. One major exception to this is Fago's 1952 artist credit (he was likely also the writer) on one pre-code horror story, "I Was a Zombie,' in the fourth issue of The Thing magazine, a publication which he also edited. Ditko was a frequent contributor to The Thing in the yearlong interval between the start of his career and the start of the comics code, his cover illustrations for the magazine now standing as some of his most iconic horror work. Five years later, Ditko and Fago were still working together on weird fiction, Fago tasked with the duty of ensuring Ditko operated within the code. Fago was clearly an influential presence on Ditko’s first decade of comics, and although he has almost definitely not written this story, his seal of approval (on behalf of the Comics Code Authority) certainly haunts the work.

"A World of His Own" is a precisely perfect example of what had become, under the code, of the kind of comic once called horror. A wealthy art collector named Mark Harris obtains a beautiful but mysterious abstract painting of unknown age or provenance. The “painting” is, of course, pure Ditkoism, a sparse concoction of staring red eyes and waving lines forming grasping hands, a slender abstraction evocative of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean geometries in hot comic book yellow, the blunt hue radiating apart from the cramped stuffiness of the pulp gothic world the image inhabits. The splash panel opening the comic provides the reader with the hook - Harris’ daughter comes to him with “A DIAMOND! AS BIG AS AN EGG!” claiming to have gotten it from inside the painting.

Now that something as fantastic (or perhaps Strange and Suspenseful) as “A DOORWAY--TO ANOTHER WORLD!” has been established, the need for an all-American morality tale presents itself to tie up the loose ends of a concept that frays conventional experience. Harris’ porter, Hendrix, overhears this talk of another world; he is established from the start to be money-hungry and also very creepy-looking, every word and gesture communicating a cash-crazed parasite looking to leech off the super wealthy. After spying on Harris entering and exiting the picture world, Hendrix follows suit, disregarding the blank look of fear filling Harris’ face as he rushes out (per the captions: “MARK HARRIS FLED--TERRIFIED! BUT THERE WAS SOMEONE ELSE...A MAN WHO WAS NOT AFRAID, WHO ENVIED MARK HARRIS…”). Sinking into the grey (Neither black nor white! Get it?), Hendrix finds an abstract world within the painting, with glimmering gems hanging slenderly like fruit on phantom trees, his for the picking. Gleefully whirling about this negative zone happily gathering treasures, Hendrix turns back and finds, to his horror, that there is no longer an exit - just a black wall obstructing free movement. This infinite expanse of limbo is no longer a place of magic and plunder, but a prison.

On the outside, we see what has happened. Harris has applied a solid layer of black paint over the mysterious artwork, to protect the world. And what from? In the final panel, it is revealed that after a brief interval in the normal world, the diamonds from the painting realm crumble away to sand. As in many “strange suspense” stories of the Charlton stable, the resolution not only ensures that nothing unnatural or destabilizing to American norms will happen, but demonstrates that nothing out of the ordinary was ever going to be possible. If Hendrix had escaped with pockets full of diamonds, they would have vanished almost immediately. Nobody was in danger. So why, then, is the painting a threat? And why must Hendrix be trapped, if the theft would have ultimately been meaningless?

What is striking about this story, narratively, is that although it is bereft of the horror genre’s fearful uncertainties and imbued with the confident morality suggested by the comics code, its conclusion is nonetheless horrific. Hendrix is not dead, but he is trapped: presumably doomed to scream for help as he wastes away for eternity. Within the realm of the painting there is no food, water, comfort, not anything really - just diamonds. Like the victim of many an Edgar Allan Poe story, he is trapped between the walls, his screams muffled to silence and unperceived by the gentle, normative tenants of the home where out of sight he perishes slowly and loudly in terrific agony. The narrative as presented, however, insists that justice has been served. The working man was greedy and crossed a line from which he deserves never to return. The ennobled bourgeois has done what is morally right, rational even, and calmly taken an action within his rights as the owner of a property. But behind the thick layer of house paint pasted over the offending abstraction, we still hear the scream.

The fantastic and magical artwork of pure Ditkoism hanging in Mark’s home is not unlike the abstract and impressionist paintings that the Nazis termed “Degenerate Art”. According to the ideology of German fascism, these works represented how the so-called "degenerate artist" literally saw the world, and influenced the public to likewise view the world with the degenerate’s incorrect gaze. Similarly, the Comics Code Authority cracked down on the crime genre at least nominally to discourage American children from committing actual crimes. Both were, in a sense, correct about the threat that the artwork they opposed presented to them. Expressionism and abstract art are visual forms that open the viewer to emotional states and sensational pleasures that in themselves are liberatory - opportunities to feel possibility in the past, present and future that the strictly Schliemannian neo-classical “realist” (there’s no such thing) aesthetics of 20th century fascism repress by design. Similarly, pre-code crime comics and horror comics enabled class consciousness and suspicion of authorities, such as the nascent and brutal police force, that the American censor was correct to suspect might arouse sympathy to communist rhetoric in a disenfranchised public. This wasn’t a broadly defined battle of free speech but a significant proxy skirmish over the freedom of the downtrodden.[2]

In the denouement of "A World of His Own", a character who might be the protagonist of a crime comic is trapped in an abstract painting. He is the victim to the actions of an upper-class man’s decision to permanently obstruct engagement with a work of art. His reason for doing this is that people will be deceived by it and upset social order, thinking that they have found great wealth but in fact holding in their hands nothing but a delusion rapidly turning to dust and emptiness. Moreover, the final twist, that these diamonds were illusory, neuters and destroys the fantasy that the artwork was ever powerful and that social order could ever be upended by the working man stealing and redistributing wealth found in an unexpected place, literal or figurative. But then again, something else is happening. Mark does not know that Hendrix is trapped in the painting! Blissfully unaware of the consequences of his actions, the self-satisfied bourgeois man cannot see or hear the agony, pain and -- dare I say it -- the horror he has created. He has literally painted over abstraction and crime, figuring this will protect people from it, insulating himself from damage that he is now totally responsible for. Trapped within the background of this morality play of “strange suspense” is the uninhibited and tragic voice of the horror genre.

I am certain that Ditko did not intend to subversively embed class consciousness into this short comic book. To emphatically reiterate what I stated at the beginning of this essay, although Ditko may not have approved of the comics code and its oppressive authority, he generally embraced the very same ideology from which the code drew, with his capitalistic moral absolutes and the stark dichotomy of good and evil, true and false promulgated by the likes of Mr. A. and Ditko’s own endless opposition to the degradation of morals exemplified by the anti-hero. That said, I do think that this short work, one assignment among many for the forever-churning paper mill that was Charlton Comics, is intentionally subversive. Both the criminal protagonist and the abstract realm are pure Ditko in their stylings - obviously the spectral realms of Doctor Strange are recalled by these paranormal spaces, but the moral and narrative function of the zone is even more clearly reflected in recurring serials from Ditko’s late period self-published works, such as "The Cape". In these stories, criminals and people on the verge of sliding into vice enter abstract realms within which their actions are evaluated, and exit (if they do exit at all) aware of the values of their actions and their character, usually falling to their death or into the hands of law enforcement with the rare exception of the as-yet untarnished good individual at a crossroads, not yet stained by the falsehood of moral grey. The twistedness and murk of the realms reflect the twistedness and murk of the punished man’s wicked heart just as much as it does the raw creativity of Ditko’s aesthetic unleashed.

The Cape offers no escape for the avaricious and amoral (Ditko 32 series #23)

Those later stories are pure works of fantastic fiction, and dare I say it: horror stories. And yet they are also superhero stories, not the murky works of anti-heroism which Ditko so often and vocally railed against in his essays and political cartoons. The hero, like the painting, is not a character but a portal, within which the consciences of failed men are evaluated, and justice served. We generally assume that horror stories are supposed to be about sympathetic people, and that the monster or slasher is the monstrous opposite of the complex “good” of the protagonist. But Ditko’s craving of comeuppance is hardly out of place with the moral coda of Poe’s "The Black Cat", nor is his focus on figures he holds in contempt. Thus for Ditko, horror and superheroes can serve the same function, so long as his audience is instructed.

Contrasting moral epiphanies in "The Cape" (Ditko 32 series #18)

Working under censorship for a mass market, years before he would begin creating independently, and decades before fully committing to self-publishing, Ditko creates a story that is horror in a magazine of “strange suspense” and explores his highly personal ethical obsessions in a work for the mass market. Ditko was often able to subvert the creative and generic limitations of of the comics code, I suspect, because his philosophy and approach to genre often aligned with the code. Like the CCA, Ditko was anti-communist and highly concerned with the enforcement of (American) morals, and the upholding of these values within the framework of genre stories. Where he ultimately operates counter to the censorship of the CCA’s guidelines, whether he was working from within or striking out alone, is that his stories are always explicitly philosophical, and a comic that is intended to mean something will ultimately operate against the wishes of the CCA censor, who expects the work to mean nothing.

Mr. A makes no Question about his ethics (from Witzend #3, 1967)

Ditko's real, actual departure from the code, the artistic choices that brought him into the fold of independence over decades of steady company work, was the prohibition against depicting "excessive violence." Ditko wanted to have evil men punished at the hands of the righteous, in a moral universe where the two are as distinct as black and white: the permissible fall of the wicked false Angel presided over by a confident and just Mr. A. Whether in heroes or in horror, Ditko's stories are an allegorical psychomachia where living virtues bring opposing vices to a grisly end. The comics code could not allow this, because seeing a hero slay a villain could be a corrupting influence on children, could convince sweet young boys and girls that violence was good. Superheroes stood for the good of American values and the code protected those values. But what does America do to the enemies of her values? From the police to the army to our doctors and lawyers, how does America treat deviation if not with excessive violence? Ultimately, the code was not an honest adoption of its own philosophy, because it sought to conceal its logical end. Ditko's world was an avenging world, an honest depiction of the punishments that the dishonest propaganda machine of American publishing and censors would rather conceal. Ditko loved this American version of justice so fully and honestly that he could not refrain from delighting in its blood-soaked, lawful gears. America was built on lies; Ditko's art rejected anti-truth. Under the comics code, the anti-American still screams and dies, but their agony is blotted out, obstructed from view so that daughters and their fathers don't have to be aware of it happening behind the frame.

Ditko is a figure of my obsessions with whom I often find paradox. He was a champion of the artist’s indomitable spirit and the power of expression; nonetheless, he was a happy propagandist and vehement preacher of capitalism and Americanism. He often spoke truth to power and openly rejected his modest place in the empire built on the back of his and others’ creations when his craft was at the height of its renown, yet his ethic was for-hire and his independent work criticized anyone who would behave in deviance of conservative norms, or ask more of society than what they are given. Since the tenets of libertarianism, American conservatism and Randian objectivism enshrine a narrow and contradictory notion of individualism, that paradox I find in Ditko is in fact not a paradox at all, but a philosophical extremity. And because extreme behavior according to ideals is among the many tendencies which capitalist society prefers to stomp down, cruelly mock and marginalize, I find in my own very differently-marginalized self some level of empathy for Ditko as an unlikely comrade, a fellow outsider. But this fellowship and solidarity is one I am perhaps only able to feel in a full and meaningful sense through the medium of comics, as I read and engage with the work he drew, conceived and oftentimes wrote. And by all accounts this would be exactly what Ditko wanted, to be seen only through his work. In life and on the page, Ditko would not have been concerned with my sympathies. Ditko lived and still lives on in the twisting forms of his illustrations, endlessly dwelling in a world of his own.


[1] Although it should be noted that Ditko had contributed several horror shorts to a more commercially successful, newsstand-ready circumvention of the comics code -- Warren's Creepy and Eerie magazines -- a year prior in 1966.

[2] To whom it may concern: the pigs won this skirmish, and the dwindling of the code’s influence from the 1980s onward did not overturn their victory. We are still fighting today, and within the shallow pool of genre comics, the return and frequent triumph of crime, horror, violence and superficially-defined maturity upholds the oppressive ideals of the comics code. The Walking Dead, a runaway success, allegorizes fascist libertarianism and instructs the behavior, aesthetics and ideals of white supremacy. The now thankfully disgraced CBLDF recast the code as a hollow bogeyman, broad enough to allow the focus of their campaigns for free speech to focus solely on a tenuous definition of protecting the existence of artwork -- protection that somehow almost always disproportionately entailed promulgation of violently misogynistic imagery in promotional materials -- at the expense of protecting marginalized and vulnerable artists who are silenced every day and whose very existence in our spaces has never not been fraught with danger. When Nazis burned books in the streets, some of the books they burned were groundbreaking studies of gay and transgender people that treated with compassion and acceptance subjects whose basic human rights today are often considered a “controversial topic” at best in media. In the United States, access to healthcare limited by wealth is verging on killing half a million people this year, and socialized medicine is nonetheless discussed as strange and risky. When we talk about free speech, pay attention to who has been silenced. Pay attention to why.