Hero: any person admired for his qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model.
Man: a rational animal
The early 1970s film industry must have been a constant source of torment for Steve Ditko. Films were no longer devoted to man at his best. Instead, anti-heroes were ascendant. Movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch glorified criminals. M*A*S*H and Easy Rider, which were largely devoted to an irreverent or antisocial attitude, were runaway hits. Midnight Cowboy won the Best Picture Oscar in 1969 despite its exploration of the seedy underside of New York, while 1975’s winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a despairingly dark film that did little to lift man’s spirit.
Perhaps most galling for Ditko had to be the Godfather movies of 1972 and ’74. The movies were acclaimed as instant classics upon their releases and have been almost universally celebrated as two of the greatest American movies of all time. They’re listed on imdb.com as the second and third greatest films of all time (behind only The Shawshank Redemption- ironically another film that glories criminals, though from a completely different viewpoint than the New Hollywood films.) But the two Godfather films glorify criminal activity, celebrating the lives of a family that advances their agenda through murder, cheating and gambling. Surely the Corleone family had to horrify Ditko deeply.
Very few movie characters of the “New Hollywood” era could be described as ideals or role models. The “Golden Age of Hollywood” era of swashbuckling action heroes largely moved out of fashion in that time, replaced by antiheroes like Dirty Harry Callahan who have a complex moral integrity and dysfunctional relationships with authority figures.
This era must have been sheet torture for Ditko, who believes that positive and life-affirming art has the capacity to lift the human spirit. To Ditko’s way of thinking, art is at its best when it gives mankind an ideal to which to strive. Ditko explored this point several times in his work. Perhaps the most famous is the Blue Beetle story “The Destroyer of Heroes”, first published in Blue Beetle #5 in 1968. In that story, Ditko addresses the idea of nihilistic modern art versus enriching heroic art. Protagonist Ted Kord says of the heroic art, “It’s proof that man is not helpless! Man can set a goal and achieve it. As the sculptor did with his statue, so can anyone else, but man has to motivate himself.”
Much of the same criticism levied against modern art in that issue of Blue Beetle was levied against the world of film in Ditko’s H Series. First published in the pages of Comic Crusader #12 and #15, in 1972 and ’73, and later reprinted in Fantagraphics’ Ditko Collection volume 1, H Series shows actor D. Skys’s reaction against the dark movies that were popular at the time. As Skys says in page one of the story, “What is this? Every script is about man at his worst… all men are corrupt or neurotic with suffering the only theme of life! If the bad, failure and misery are possible… why not also the good, success and happiness? I don’t want to make movies that reject life as a positive value!” [all bolding done as in the original pages] Kord and Skys echo each others’ comments directly, each explicitly rejecting art that, in their minds, devalues the higher potential of man.
These Ditko stories that attack the arts are so interesting, in part, because Ditko’s viewpoint has a logical and appropriate target. It’s simply a fact that most of the Hollywood movies released between 1969 and 1975 did in fact reflect man as he really is, not as he aspires to be. Very few lead characters were unambiguously good in those films. There were shades of gray. A was not A. As one of the Hollywood producers states to D. Skys, “now the trend is toward anti-heroes.” The protagonists of The Conversation and Five Easy Pieces were weak and complex man, men who didn’t aspire towards greatness.
This is in large part why movies like Jaws and Star Wars became such monumental hits in the latter half of the ’70s. It was clear that people really did aspire to find heroes who would elevate us rather than reflect “the un-heroic, the flawed, the neurotic, the common man.” as another film producer states in these stories. Ditko’s point makes perfect sense in this context, and still has resonance today. People still remember fondly great movie heroes like Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker or Clint Eastwood’s character in the spaghetti westerns. But people don’t remember the protagonists of The Last Picture Show or Shampoo. People love real heroes and real villains in their movies.
As part one of H Series, “Qualities Under Attack!” begins, D. Skys is a rising Hollywood star, handsome and dashing. He’s just completed a film called Bold Heroes, and we see an inset with a scene from the film in which we see Skys breaking chains and leading a revolt against a group of apparent Communists, judging by the hammer and sickle we see behind him. Skys’ heroism prompts members of the audience to mutter, “Boy! I want to be like him.. doing something great!” “He makes life exciting.. important!” We next see Skys signing a contract as a bald, cigar-smoking mogul stands behind him, declaring “Sign the contract D, and we’ll make you a big star in fine movies!”
But the contract brings Skys nothing but inappropriate scripts. As a principled Ditko protagonist, D. Skys chooses to ignore his exclusive contract as long as he won’t be allowed to portray real heroes: “Look! I’ll play any role… as long as some role shows a man at his best! But I won’t join those who deny the existence of the best or its importance in human life!”
Incidentally, yes the hero is only referred to as D., even by the Hollywood moguls. Ditko has given our protagonist one of his patented clever names with “D.Skys”, one that will become quite relevant as we see the disguises he will don later in the story.
D. ignores the advice of his brother (who runs Skys Costume and Props) to coopt his principles: “Compromise is the only way…not just to get to the top – but to survive!” But D. won’t listen to his brother. He won’t compromise. Instead D. devotes himself to improving every aspect of his life in order to become quite literally a man at his best. In the story we see D. studying acting — with a girl who does not look neurotic — studying a psychology book, attending lectures, becoming a master gymnast, lifting heavy weights. D. becomes the man he aspires to be, but the studio won’t compromise on its requirement that D. give up his principles in order to get work: “This waiting can become irritating! I’m like a prize fighter in training but with no fight scheduled! At times it all seems like a waste… senseless… is it? No!”
It’s not a waste because D. becomes a better man through his education. D is becoming the great man who he aspires to become. Meanwhile D.’s brother is exposed in his cravenness. Mob bosses come to the prop shop to collect gambling debts, with the big boss, Spot, oddly an obsessive-compulsive germaphobe like Howard Hughes. The mobsters promise to return, causing D. to decide he should be at the ready.
I love the use of the name Spot Kleaner for a germaphobe who goes to absurd lengths to hide himself from any speck of dirt that might attack him. I have to wonder if Ditko used the wacky name as a way to imply the villain’s moral darkness – the more corrupted or dirtier he becomes, the more fear Spot feels about dirt.
Cut to the studio bosses as they’re wrapping the filming of a movie about a homeless man lamenting his uncaring society. The scene gives Ditko a chance to allow the studio boss to proselytize: “But D’s attitude is anti-humanitarian! Duty, self sacrifice to others’ needs is more important than any obsession about selfish, personal concern! True heroism is not individual but socially oriented, a collective achievement!” Doesn’t that sound like a classic Ditko rant?
Next Ditko takes us back to the prop shop. Ed is being terrorized by the mobsters. But who is there to save him? D., dressed as a barbarian, of course! It’s an odd choice to have D. wear such an odd costume, and I certainly never saw that coming. However, the outlandish suit gives D. the opportunity to make a comment about dressing like a barbarian to defeat barbarians. D. and Ed argue about whether to fight the villains, with D. demanding, like a teenager, “Stop asking me to give up my life!” D. ignores Ed and puts on a bum’s costume, preparing for a confrontation with Spot. End part one.
We finally get to see the great pun that Ditko created with his protagonist named D.Skys. The smarter among you have already figured out that D.Skys is a great disguise artist – and all of his training and education have helped D. to become great at his chosen art. It’s ironic that D. has to put on a costume in secret in order to perform his much-lauded acting – a real sign of nimbleness in Ditko’s writing. And of course having D.’s brother own a costume shop allows easy access to appropriate clothing.
Part two, “The Logic of Justice: Fitting Ends to Chosen Means” starts where part one ends, with Ed and D. taken to the mob’s hideout on the docks. In a series of gorgeously-drawn scenes, we see the ramshackle lives of these evil-doers, and then watch D. fight the men to free his brother. We get some classic Ditko action scenes on these pages; this stuff is as professionally done as the Charlton work that Ditko was doing at that time. It’s a joy to admire how wonderfully Ditko paces these pages and how thrilling his action scenes look.
D. discovers that Spot was working for a lawyer, Sam Puren, and D. vows to put on another costume to track Puren down. Yes, the corrupt lawyer also has an ironic name, Puren. Ditko was in a league only with the great Eisner when it came to great character names.
Puren presents a bizarre image that could have come from the pages of Dick Tracy. The lawyer has slicked-back hair, a weird smile, and smokes cigarettes from a cigarette holder. The figure he presents is an effeminate dandy who likes to float above all the real life concerns that happen around him. D. sees right through Puren’s games: “He’s a twister! Given something to build on, Puren can get people to forget premises, doubt facts, and make opinions sound like holy truths!”
D. tracks Puren down, and then, dressed as a kind of amalgam of Errol Flynn characters, confronts the evil lawyer by pulling a long, sharp sword on his target. The image of D. pointing a sword at the chest of the effeminate Puren has odd symbolic implications if one thinks of Puren as being gay, but we won’t dwell on that. Puren attempts to reason with D. by appealing to his morality: “I deal with a lot of respectable people and we all make out! It’s either principles or success! A guy’s a fool not to get his share any way he can… can’t buck human nature! Absolutes don’t exist! All truth is relative, subjective! Law and justice are what people want them to be… non-objective… flexible! Flexibility works for the ‘have-nots’ That’s everybody! We all want something unearned… undeserved!”
Puren’s speech goes on like that for a whole page – a surprisingly long time for one of Ditko’s villains to have the floor in a story like this. It echoes the similar speeches made by the Hollywood producers in its base appeal for man to be as he is rather than as he aspires to become. Finally, though, the mobsters show at Puren’s office, which triggers another wonderful Ditko fight scene. All the villains are defeated, but the battle has a cost: the relationship between D. and Ed.
Upon being saved, Ed is furious: “You! You’re what’s wrong… heroes are wrong. Cruel! I…I tried but couldn’t reach Puren. Yet you pulled it off… saved my hide… but inside… I hate you! You’re a reproach! You make me see what I am… and I don’t like myself! I can’t take your trying to be… to do good, while all I want is an excuse why I shouldn’t even try!”
Surprisingly, D. doesn’t give reproach or shame to Ed. Instead D. simply walks away, with his parting words being simple, “Ed, it’s still worth savalging!” Ed takes a very surprising stand in support of his brother, surprising in part because Ditko’s heroes often will not allow anyone in their life who does not share their principles. Ditko shows that Ed has a chance for redemption by spending time with D., that he can improve by spending lots of time with such an exemplary person.
The brothers Ed and D. Skys are an interesting contrast with the Hall brothers in The Hawk and the Dove and the Den brothers in Ditko’s 1983 story “My Brother” from Murder #3/Robin Snyder’s Revolver #12. Ditko seems intrigued by brothers in his stories because they provide the most straightforward demonstration of the effect of free will upon human behavior. Hank and Don Hall, the Hawk and the Dove, grew up in the same house but chose to embrace opposite principles. Don and Ray Den, the brothers from “My Brother”, walk opposite sides of the law – Don a defense lawyer who helps the innocent, Ray a criminal who attacks the innocent. Ray has grown to hate his brother over the years, but in the end the only person Ray really hates is himself. Brothers take opposite paths out of choice, not out of their destiny. Ditko’s heroes always make the conscious decision to become heroes.
Ed and D. are similar to those fictional brothers. Ed is a man who has allowed his morality to become compromised. He’s accepted relativistic morality, and that morality has driven him into the hands of men who are corrupt all the way down to their very pores. He has become weak through his weak morality. Ironically Ed owns a costume shop, a place that allows people the means to become someone else, but he never uses the items he sells. Meanwhile D. has embraced purer principles, believing in a morality where A is A, good is good and bad is bad. D. spends time with the best possible people he can know. He has become strong through his positive morality, strong in every sense of the word. D. wears costumes, but the costumes represent a sort of aspiration to greatness, and appreciation of the best of mankind.
The story concludes with a quick wrap-up of all the storylines Ditko created in the H Series, setting readers up for future stories that unfortunately will never appear. We find in the summary that there will be no film roles for D. unless he takes the part of “The Grey Hero.” The gangsters vow revenge on D., his brother and a girl who we would likely have met in future H Series chapters. And D. decides to fight crime while wearing a series of disguises that will fit the crime or criminal. Ditko concludes the story with this epitaph: “D. Skys is a private hero acting on the view that man is a rational animal; that, in justice, the irrational and the guilty must not profit at the expense of the rational and the innocent.”
The H Series is an interesting pair of stories because it’s a mix of philosophical and action/adventure stories. There is much moralizing in this story, but the morality never takes the place of the actual story, a flaw often seen in Ditko’s more didactic tales. The villains of the piece have a bit of complexity to them, and don’t just exist as the means to make a political point. The story is a bit muddled to my eye, with the gangster plot seemingly grafted onto the movie studio plot that seems more interesting. However, this is remarkably straightforward Ditko work given its strong didactic content.
Just as important to Ditko fans, the art is gorgeous. There are many, many moments of pure Ditko in this story, from close-ups of scared faces, to bits of humorous business, to gorgeous choreography on fight scenes. These stories present some really outstanding Ditko artwork that is an absolute joy to behold.
I wish there were more H Series to enjoy, but these two stories are absolutely wonderful.