There is black.
There is white.
There is wrong.
There is right.
And there is nothing…
… in between.
Welcome to the strange and beautiful world of Mr. A.
Picture a world with no moral ambiguity.
Picture a world where right and wrong are not shaded in grey, but marked out in stark blocks of black and white.
And you can tell, straight away, without reflection, without consultation, who is innocent, who is guilty, who should be rewarded, who should be punished, and what their punishment should be.
What sort of world would this be?
How would it work?
What would it look like?
I pretend to don’t know. But I bet it’s quite like Texas.
So. Dear Diary. The topic of discussion for today is Mr. A. Mr. A is a superhero – a comic book creation, made by one-time Marvel Comics artist Steve Ditko. Ditko was co-creator of Spiderman, and he has some high profile fans. Jonathan Ross made a documentary about him called Jonathan Ross In Search of Steve Ditko, in which he and Neil Gaiman went to track down this famously reclusive man.
Very good documentary, incidentally, dear Diary – I would recommend it if you have a moment. (By ‘moment’, as always, I mean ‘hour’.) You can watch it (before the YouTube police find it) here:
I was never a massive comic book fan, although I dabbled a little. I liked 2000 AD, and pretty much anything by Alan Moore (I’m a bit more ambivalent about him now).
Well, I think that’s the thing really. I think that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today. Comic book superheroes seem to be the beating heart of Hollywood at the moment. Every bloody comic book hero you can think of is getting their own film. I mean, the Green Lantern? He’s named after something you buy in Ikea. But Hollywood is just going crazy for that shit.
Perhaps part of it is because of the state of Hollywood at the moment. Clearly these comic books are seen as bankable material in unsafe times. I also think that part of it is that the Superhero is such an important part of American mythology. By way of comparison, English heroes have tended to be ‘decent chaps’. Robin Hood, King Arthur, even James Bond (when he’s not shagging every woman in Monaco) (and/or getting them killed) (or giving his enemies a good ticking off for ordering red wine with fish). Fairly crudely drawn. Nearly always male. The American superheroes have superpowers, and on the face of it that should make the stories less realistic. But I think in practice it often gives the writers a license to make their characters more interesting, more complicated, more real. It’s that old device of introducing an element of unreality to a story, say a zombie, to highlight real elements of human behaviour that you wouldn’t normally see in ordinary life. Come for the flesheating, stay for the poignant relationship interplay. You know.
But that said, I am now of the opinion that you can take this whole ‘keeping it real’ thing too far with superheroes. <Cough> Yes, Christopher Nolan, I’m looking to you. All the kevlar and manufacturing problems in the world can’t change the fact that this is a man who dresses as a fucking bat. (An animal which is basically a sort of flying squirrel.) (But with rabies.)
I quote xkcd:
But then, the Dark Knight series has sold very very well. And perhaps that is the main reason why Hollywood has been such a superhero groupie these last few years.
Now, to be fair, there’s lots to that’s very good about the Dark Knight series. But I do think it’s part of a slightly odd trend, where superheroes and comic book stories are starting to be taken really seriously. The Batman films directed by Tim Burton made Gotham City this weird, over-the-top gothic place, and in that environment it made perfect sense that the one relatively sane character might dress up as a freak in order to battle all the other freaks. But put him in a normal city and he just starts to look… well, ‘batshit mental’. (Although, come to think of it, Batman could exist quite easily in Oxford. If we all saw a man walking down St Aldates dressed as a bat and covered in weapons, I guarantee no one would bat an eyelid. They’d just assume he was a particularly rich student on his way to a fancy dress function. Which, in a way, he would be…)
So yeah, I’m starting to get a serious case of Superhero fatigue. I just can’t bring myself to care when Captain America or whoever gets a 21st century reboot.
But I did really enjoy Jonathan Ross’s documentary. Like any good documentary, you don’t need to already be passionate about the subject. Instead, a good presenter is selling their passion to you. In a very good documentary, like this one, you’ll be passionate about the subject by the time it has ended.
Steve Ditko is a fascinating guy. Clearly very original. Clearly eccentric in many ways. The Spiderman stuff was interesting, as were his other characters.
But when I came across the character of Mr. A I suddenly had an epiphany:
"Finally, THIS is a comic book character I would love to see a movie about!"
Christopher Nolan treatment, Tim Burton treatment, whatever treatment you like. Because I’ve never come across a character like him, never mind a hero. Sure, there are anti-heroes, like Rorschach, but you don’t get to see the whole world through their eyes.
I mean, can you imagine it? A Hollywood film, with all the trimmings, about Mr. A?
He is a superhero whose only superpower is to know, instantly, without any external assistance, whether something is morally right or morally wrong. And that is a superpower, incidentally. In its way, it’s even more implausible than being able to fly or have bullets bounce off your skin.
Of course, the world doesn’t work like that. But imagine if it did. What kind of an insane and beautiful world would it be? What would be possible? What would be impossible?
An intoxication of simplicity and madness.
But then, even in fiction, mad philosophical ideas will only run so far. And I’d love to be there when the wheels come off for Mr. A.
In my movie…
(Yes, dear Diary, that’s what this is really about. "Dear Diary, please can you fix it for me to make a big budget blockbuster about Mr. A…")
In my movie, we would see the world through Mr. A’s eyes.
And he would find himself trying to track down a mysterious supervillian who is murdering his way through the city – only for Mr. A to find out at the end that the supervillain is himself.
Okay – a bit predictable. A bit Fight Club. A bit Angel Heart. (Oh, sorry Diary, did I mention? Yeah, spoilers.)
But it’s a superhero story – you’re allowed to be a bit predictable.
Sometimes the key to a good ending is not the What but the How.
So, once Mr. A has finally realised that his own mind has been playing tricks on him, hiding things, and that he is actually his own nemesis, I’d give him a moment of confusion and mental meltdown. He would suddenly become extremely irrational and paranoid (even for him) — seeing enemy agents around every corner. He’d eventually convince himself that this whole situation is nothing more than a deception, and that the supervillian has tricked him into believing this.
He’d gradually start putting together an explanation, a narrative, a work of true paranoid fiendishness, that allows him to hold onto his belief in his own absolute moral purity.
And it would end up with him putting his own alter-ego, Rex Graine, on trial.
At which point Graine suddenly would become a separate character in the story.
I think, to begin with, Mr. A would catch Graine breaking into someone’s house, terrorising them. Mr. A would chase him, and Graine would — in time-honoured supervillian tradition — climb out onto the fire escape and up onto the roof. They would then run across the rooftops, until they eventually run out of buildings. And, caught at the end of the line at last, Mr. A would confront Graine. Suddenly the rooftops would fade away, and the two would be arguing in a mysterious courtroom, weird, abstract, grey and minimal, like something out of a 1950s science fiction movie. They would be in a large formless arena, with Mr. A addressing Graine in the defendant’s dock 50 feet below. Above them would be rings and rings of a silent jury, visible only in silhouette. But as the argument progresses, Graine seems to become more and more confident. In fact, he seems to become omnipotent: able to answer every question with a grasp of information that surely no person could ever know. And then he starts to get physically bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until he’s a giant, towering over Mr. A like a skyscraper towers over a pedestrian. Graine’s face has become contorted with arrogance and twisted hatred and glee. Graine pronounces Mr. A ‘GUILTY!’. Then the lights go out. We hear laughing, and a white door appears. Mr. A rushes towards the door and flings it open. There is a white corridor, full of doors. Mr. A rushes into the corridor, chasing the laughter. He flings open a door. There is another corridor just like it, which he rushes into, still chasing the mad laughter. Another door. Another corridor, but smaller. Each corridor is a little smaller. As Mr. A chases deeper and deeper into the labyrinth, the space gets smaller and smaller, and closes in on him.
And we leave him there. Perpetually chasing the sound of his own mad laughter, through an unending maze of ever-shrinking corridors.
Yes, it’s not exactly a feel-good film…
But then, dear Diary, I hope you understand that I’m not such a fancypants that I’m only interested in Mr. A because he’s a one-man plot-hole — a superhero that doesn’t work.
There’s more to him than that, I think.
Because, however the movie would end, this thread would run through it:
I think that actually there is something compelling and persuasive about Mr. A’s (and Steve Ditko’s) moral code. And it’s very tricky.
But then, dear Diary, this is me, and I like ‘very tricky’.
I think the reason why I love the character of Mr. A so much is that he’s a reaction against my upbringing. At school I was taught that, in nearly everything, there was no right or wrong answer. And in order to remain ‘objective’ you needed to emotionally and intellectually distance yourself from people. Sitting on the fence, and celebrating the unknowability of the universe, is an act of philosophical maturity. And god forbid you would ever believe passionately in anything. Because that’s what Hitler did.
I’m exaggerating and generalising, of course. But I do think there is something in this. In order to think critically, I was told that you should form an opinion and try to justify it with evidence. That was the theory. But my sense of the practice was that the opinion that got the most marks was "You know what? Everyone in this situation is wrong, to varying degrees." That was being objective. That was critical thinking. And that was not much fucking help, in the real world.
Yes, the universe is unknowable, but there comes a point where you have to… sort of… well, guess. Where you have to try to develop your own moral code, and decide what is right and what is wrong, or you’re just a tourist in society. You can tell yourself that you sit above the crazy irrationality of the masses, but you’re just allowing yourself to be a passive observer of injustice.
But perhaps I say this because I think I am basically a binary person.
I am one thing or I am the other.
And sometimes I am many contradictory things, but they are fixed things.
They are ones and zeros, not raindrops sliding down a window.
Perhaps it comes down to the fact that, despite my serious misgivings about the whole Ayn Rand influence, I think I might even agree with Mr. A. Yes, of course there are shades of grey, but I suppose I believe that, like a comic book or something by Roy Lichtenstein, if you look at those shades closely enough, right up close in minute detail, they’re made up of little pixels, little benday dots. That are black, or white.
And underneath all the grey, there is black and there is white. There is wrong, and there is right. And there is nothing, nothing in between.
I’m back. Did you miss me?