Spider-Man Shrugged:

The Lack of Randian Heroes in The Amazing Spider-Man

This article comes as the result of a debate between myself and, well, myself in regards to Spider-Man and his possible connection to Ayn Rand’s personal philosophy Objectivism. In what will mostly be a strawman argument, I’d like to disconnect Spider-Man from any intention by his creator(s) to embody the hero archetype defined by Rand. Many signifiers during Ditko’s tenure at Marvel reveal his preference for Randian thinking, but Spider-Man as a functioning Objectivist hero is more illusion than revelation. Spider-Man is not Howard Roark or John Galt; in fact, he is their foil.

Most scholars agree that Rand didn’t fully manifest in Ditko’s work until after his departure from Marvel in 1966, an event in which the artist abandoned the commercially-successful Doctor Strange and The Amazing Spider-Man. His later properties such as Mr. A passionately expounded on the principles of individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism. But what about Spider-Man? Surely some of Ditko’s moral-political views made it into the popular webslinger’s adventures?

After all, Ditko personally corresponded with the heroes of Ayn Rand and he most certainly pressed some of their characteristics into Spider-Man. The Amazing Spider-Man sometimes exhibits Roarkian or Galt-like symptoms. At some point, in some form, it’s there. Moreover, who knows what might have occurred had there been less intrusion by Stan Lee; if Spider-Man could have evolved over the years beneath Ditko’s articulate penmanship? Naturally, allowance must be made for Ditko’s own individuality apart from Rand. But it’s still an intellectual curiosity how much Spider-Man might have resembled Mr. A or the Question had Ditko stayed at Marvel and had Stan Lee been less of a domineering figurehead.

But Spider-Man is not a Randian hero. From The Amazing Spider-Man #1 to #38 (October 1964 to July 1966), most of which was plotted (and all of it penciled and inked) by Steve Ditko, Spider-Man actually comes across as anti, post, and ex-Objectivist. The few moments in which he embodies the ubiquitous character of Roark or Galt, the resulting consequences are either terribly bleak or subverted by alternate moral guidelines. Whether those guidelines originated from Ditko or Stan Lee is a debate for another article.

Ayn Rand believed that the pinnacle of ethical existence was “rational self-interest;” that selflessness and generosity were the moral equivalents of self-slaughter. Immensely negative experiences with Soviet communism shaped Rand’s political preference for “no-regulation, no-control, no-government capitalism” (Weiss). In reaction to Romanticism and its beliefs about God revealed in nature, Rand was a staunch atheist hell-bent on employing logic to comprehend the universe.

Rand espoused this worldview, known collectively as Objectivism, in her novels Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Howard Roark, the protagonist of Fountainhead, is an uncompromising architect who would rather destroy the building he is designing than allow anyone to alter it. John Galt, the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, believes that the individual has the right to use his mind solely for personal gain. Both characters combat an oppressive bureaucratic government which hates the protagonists and actively attempts to exploit them (Weiss).

Since the ‘60s, Ditko has been translating his worldview, which in some form includes Objectivist philosophy, into the visual medium. The Question, for example, was an existentialist detective with “contempt for moral relativism” (Wolk). Another detective hero, Mr. A, could be characterized by his “all-consuming Objectivist beliefs” (Reed). From the 80s to the present day, Ditko has also contributed a series of dreamy ultraconservative manifestos with beautiful, didactic visuals (Wolk).

Unquestionably, Ditko is not a complete conduit for Rand, and I must make allowance for his own independent beliefs. Ironically, the claim that Ditko is a pure Objectivist has ‘conformist’ intonations in itself. As Ditko scholar Robby Reed contributed to this article, Ditko denied that he was a complete embodiment in a 1969 fanzine:

“While accepting Objectivism as my philosophical base: I am not a spokesman for Objectivism and I alone am responsible for the views expressed here,” (Gluckson).”

Yet Ditko himself fits the mold of the masculine Randian figure, possessing many of the characteristics she cherished in her books. There are definitely many exceptions to this critique, especially in regards to Ditko’s robust social life, but some of the uncompromising, creative energies that comprise Fountainhead’s Howard Roark are similar to Ditko. Like Roark, Ditko was tempted but ultimately did not give into the demands of manipulative patrons. Like Roark, Ditko’s stubborn morality temporarily damaged his career but sustained his integrity. Like Roark, Ditko lived (and still lives) by a “rigorous code” (Tucker). On a comparable note, Ditko’s abandonment of Marvel at the height of his success could be attributed, from a sentimental perspective, to that of John Galt renouncing society to form an individualist utopia. How much any of these analogues were inspired by or came independently from Rand, I cannot tell.

Jumping back in time to when Ditko was involved with Marvel, it’s surprising to learn just how paradoxical Ditko’s power over Spider-Man was. As the series progressed, Ditko eventually assumed all narrative and plot duties, as Stan Lee sullenly admitted in a newspaper conference in 1966 (Reed):

“I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip” (Freedland).”

However, the level of Ditko’s power over Spider-Man is somewhat ambiguous, as there were certainly pressures by the editor-in-chief in how Spider-Man should be handled (Wolk).

One can imagine countless reasons for why Spider-Man didn’t embrace the Randian hero archetype. Perhaps Ditko had not fully formed his thoughts on heroism as an unspoiled exemplar. Perhaps Ditko wished Spider-Man to explore Ditko’s own feelings of personal courage in the face of life’s many failures and disappointments. Perhaps Spider-Man would have overcome his teenaged catastrophes and evolved into a textbook hero in adulthood. Perhaps Ditko’s brand of heroism is multi-layered and sophisticated; not solely defined by one philosophical lens. Perhaps Stan Lee hindered Spider-Man’s development. Perhaps, perhaps…

Whatever the case, Spider-Man is not the Randian hero as some have speculated (Ciscell).

Early on, Peter Parker does exhibit signs of the Randian psyche, evidenced by his fierce individualism, pursuit of self-gain, and various remunerative schemes. In his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, Parker capitalizes on his heightened strength and clinging abilities by entering an underground wrestling tournament from which he makes an untaxed salary. True to the Randian spirit, Peter Parker also fails to stop a bolting thief because he wasn’t being paid to do so.

The narrative expounds the consequences of Parker’s egoism when the same thief murders father-figure Uncle Ben. Afterwards, Parker realizes the folly of selfishness and decides to courageously fight for the betterment of mankind. Those self-sacrificial ideas, condensed to the famous mantra that ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ are both anathema and a surprising critique on the core principles of Ayn Rand.

After his altruistic transformation, Peter Parker fails both ethically and intellectually (that is to say, economically) to fulfill the criteria of the Randian hero. Rather than focus on self-gain, Parker dedicates himself to the protection and welfare of others, particularly his Aunt May. Although still retaining his fierce individualism, Parker’s “great responsibility” forces him to forfeit his social life, relationships, career, potential celebrity and wealth, sexual fulfillment and, very important to an Objectivist, happiness.

Yet that surrender to altruisim is depicted as advanced moral strength. In the very famous #33, which semi-concludes Ditko’s run, Spider-Man’s selfless obligation to Aunt May and his guilt over the loss of his uncle assists the webslinger in overcoming insurmountable odds, from raising an immense pile of rubble to surviving floods and fighting endless thugs (Wolk). The issue completes with Parker walking away from the hospital. There is no glory or gain in his victory, only quiet reflection and further loneliness.

Economically, the narrative supports one’s right to accrue money to alleviate one’s conditions, though it chooses to portray the reality of the lower-class over that of Rand’s idealistic dioramas. Rand believed that the rationale individual could, financially, focus on “unmitigated selfishness” (Brenner). Her character Howard Roark exemplified this capitalist ubermensch:

“A loner and hyper-individualist, impervious to the opinions of others. He is not a team player. He has few friends, no family, no nurturing support group, no drinking buddies. He doesn’t care about anybody and expects no one to care about him. He is a man with no social conscience. He is totally selfish, and the mission of the book is to justify his stance as the purest expression of morality” (Weiss).

Capitalism provides the framework from which Parker scrapes; it’s his bread, butter, and spandex suits. As mentioned, Parker’s early experience with Roarkian values unfortunately led to the death of a beloved patriarch. Whether the selfish moment justifiably caused Uncle Ben’s death, or was cosmic coincidence, or a likely third option in which a literary twist was employed by two talented writers, is undecided by the internal narrative. Parker’s conclusion, however, is that self-promotion is shallow and self-destructive. The immense guilt produced by Uncle Ben’s death refocuses Parker’s economy on raising funds for Aunt May, an elderly woman whose livelihood has declined since the death of her husband. Economic endeavors, consequently, are morally superior when performed for the betterment of others.

But laissez-faire capitalism does not necessarily equate to Objectivism; nor does the involvement of Ditko equate to Ayn Rand. After all, Rand’s independent male protagonists do not usually have many emotional ties. In assessment of Randian values, the narrative seems to wonder where self-interest in one’s family and community ends, and haphazard altruism begins. Or if a barrier should even exist. Overall, it’s the sort of exploration I would expect from the masterful Steve Ditko.

Another indicator of Parker’s inability to fulfill Randian expectation lies in his technological achievements and sacrifice there-of. Parker is shown to be a scientific genius, easily inventing wrist-bound cannons and a new chemical compound that is both sticky and cohesive (Fichera).

I imagine that the mechanical design of the gadget, the web cartridges, and the composition of the web fluids would be highly desired products in the private and public sector. Instead of marketing his designs, however, Parker chooses to put them to use in his private philanthropy work. He also forgoes what might have been a brilliant career in science to become an impoverished practitioner of crime-busting justice (Ciscell).

The closest the reformed Peter Parker strays to Objectivist analogue is in his relationship to J. Jonah Jameson, editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle. If anything, the exploitation of Parker by the Daily Bugle could be a glaring exception to my thesis. His role as disadvantaged photographer is the closest Ditko comes to recognizing the oppressed ‘individual creator’ liberated so often by Ayn Rand. Likewise, Jameson fulfills the role of the ‘second-hander,’ a tyrant establishing his superiority through exploitation (Weiss).

The relationship between Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson functions both as Ditko’s symbolic rejection of the current state of affairs, that is society’s exploitation of individualism, and the artist’s own frustration from working for Marvel (Reed). Parker takes photos in various poses and in the costume of Spider-Man, just as Ditko at the time would insert himself, in the mask of Spider-Man, into his drawings. Parker then brings the developed photos to the Daily Bugle, passing the desk of friendly receptionist Betty Brant. Ditko, similarly, would take his drawings to Marvel headquarters and chat with receptionist Flo Steinberg (Reed).

Jameson, a belligerent and dictatorial crank, functions as exaggeration of Stan Lee. This is a detail of which Stan Lee is proudly aware, as he acknowledged in an interview with Kevin Smith:

“Oh, I love him. You know who J. Jonah Jameson was? He was me. He was irascible, he was bad tempered, he was dumb, he thought he was better than he was. He was the version that so many people had of me” (Zakarin).

Continuing this analogy (to which I owe unrestrained recognition to the efforts of Ditko scholar Robby Reed), Parker sells his photos (and Ditko, his drawings) for a price well-beneath their value. Bear in mind, Parker is not a staff-member of the Daily Bugle, but a freelance photographer; likewise, Ditko’s affiliation with Marvel was equally mercenary. Finally, Jameson prints the photos but he himself writes all of the exposition that surrounds and gives them context, just as Stan Lee writes the dialogue and captions. Both editor-in-chiefs corrupt Spider-Man’s noble intentions for their own profit (Reed).

This subplot, however, never fully realizes its Roarkian potential. In lieu of dynamiting the Daily Bugle or cutting Jameson off from his photographs, Parker overcomes his unfair treatment by redefining their financial relationship in #33, establishing boundaries between master and wage slave without overthrowing the hierarchy. This follows an alternative moral guideline in which compromise is a preferred means of transaction. In reality, Ditko departed not very long after #33. Whether or not Spider-Man was intended to eventually leave the Daily Bugle only Ditko himself can disclose.

Upon examination, there are incursions of Objectivist theory into Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man, although the interior conclusions as to the morality of said theory are somewhat muddled. Parker is an ultraconservative (at least during Ditko’s run), and his anti-establishment temperament can be seen in his conflict with government authorities such as the police. Nonetheless, Spider-Man, whether by choice of Steve Ditko or Stan Lee, does not chase the moral goals of Objectivism to achieve happiness and self-gain, but instead immolates his body to salvage the lives of others. Most importantly, he does these deeds without financial (or even emotional) compensation.

In closing, I’d like to strike an alternative direction for the purpose of debate. Maybe The Amazing Spider-Man supports Ayn Rand’s worldview after all. Parker’s devotion to altruism does little but make him miserable, nor does his self-sacrifice ever seem to truly better the world around him. Perhaps Parker, from an Objectivist’s standpoint, is a sort of tragic figure in lieu of Oedipus – his potential for greatness squashed by false judgment. The Greek king of Thebes didn’t fully understand this cruel universe. Parker, on a lesser scale, may have been led astray by misplaced ethics.

Works Cited

Bainbridge, Jason. “Spider-Man, the Question and the Meta-Zone: Exception, Objectivism, and the Comics of Steve Ditko.” Justice Framed: Law in Comics and Graphic Novels, Issue 1, Volume 16, 1 January 2012. Print.

Beard, B. W. “My Life with Ayn Rand and Steve Ditko.” Simone and the Silver Surfer, 26 November 2012. Web. 28 April 2014.

Brenner, Michael. “Ryan, Rand and ‘Altruism.’” Huffington Post, 27 August 2012. Web. 28 April 2014.

Ciscell. “Spider-Man: A Hero in the Ayn Rand Mold.” Curious Intentions Media, 4 July 2012. Web. 4 May 2014.

Fichera, Mike. “Spider-Man’s Web-Shooters.” Marvel Universe Wikia, 9 July 2007. Web. 4 May 2014.

Freedland, Nat. “Super Heroes with Super Problems.”  The New York Herald Tribune, 9 January 1966. Print.

Gluckson, Rob, ed. GUTS – the Magazine with Intestinal Fortitude #5. EC Fanzine, 1969. Print.

Kempton, Sally. “Super-Anti-Hero in Forest Hills.” The Village Voice, 1 April 1965. Print.

Pappademas, Alex. “The Inquisition of Mr. Marvel: On the (Surprisingly Complicated) Legacy of Stan Lee.” Grantland, 11 May 2012. Web. 28 April 2014.

Piekoff, Leonard. “Introduction.” Atlas Shrugged. By Ayn Rand. 1957. New York: New American Library, 1992. Print.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. 1957. New York: New American Library, 1992. Print.

Reed, Robby. “If This Be My Ditko!” Dial B for Blog, 27 April 2014. Web. 28 April 2014.

Weiss, Gary. Ayn Rand Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. Print.

Wolk, Douglas. “From Spider-Man to Ayn Rand.” New York Times, 15 August 2008. Web. 22 April 2014.

Zakarin, Scott. Interview with Stan Lee. Stan Lee’s Mutants, Monsters, & Marvels. Sony Pictures/Creative Light, 2002. DVD.

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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1 Comment

  1. Horaz SC says:

    Wow; what an article.
    This is so far, one of the cleverest
    debate-openers I’ve ever encountered.
    Until then, I’ve never would’ve imagined the meta-text
    that it’s LITERALLY there between JJ and Parker
    when possibly written as reflections of Lee and Ditko…

    Talk about impossible practical jokes in History if it turns out that
    *this* was the original intention of Mr. Ditko’s Spider-Man and
    ego-driven Mr. Lee not only got it and noticed, but also rephrased
    it completely -and unknowingly- for the future generations…

    WOW. It just makes me wanna read Ditko’s Spider-Man!
    (I’m a complete ignorant regarding Spider-Man, save for the
    Playstation game, besides a soft-core Objectivist).

    Great job, Mr. Desmond. You rock!

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