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Author: Zack Kruse
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Publication Year: 2021
WHAT IS IT?
In Mysterious Travelers author Zack Kruse examines comics legend Steve Ditko’s stories, art, and other writings and tracks the development and expression of the artist’s personal philosophical outlook. He then links Ditko and his work to a larger trend in 20th century thought that he calls “mystical liberalism.”
Have you ever wondered if the creation of Spider-Man was part of a thirty-year plot by Norman Vincent Peale that eventually resulted in Ronald Reagan being elected President? Neither had I…until I read this book.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Kruse combines philosophy, literary criticism, and history in his quest to show that Ditko’s stories and heroes reflect an ideology that has had a great influence on American life and politics. He begins with an in-depth analysis of the Objectivist and “mind power” movements of the mid-20th century, and details how Ditko appreciated and interacted with a number of key Objectivist and “New Thought” thinkers such as Ayn Rand, Dale Carnegie, and Peale. He then introduces the concepts of “dark karma” and “cosmic intraspace” to illustrate what mystic liberalism is, and distinguish it from other established philosophies. As part of showing how Ditko’s work is akin to but stands apart from these other movements, Mysterious Travelers provides a fascinating and well-reasoned analysis of the meaning behind Ditko’s work with characters such as Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Blue Beetle, and Mr. A.
Disclaimer: I am a historian, not a philosopher. With that said, the idea of mystic liberalism as coined and explained by Kruse seems to be valid and useful to me. Moreover, his ideas of “dark karma” and “cosmic intraspace” fit well within the frame he creates and allow for some compelling and entertaining interpretations of Ditko’s work.
Kruse urges comics scholars to be “playing detective in the ongoing investigations conducted by the humanities” (p. 221) and Mysterious Travelers is an excellent model for how to do this. This really isn’t a book about comics, or even about Steve Ditko. It is a book that explores the “mind power” movement in America and how it evolved and found expression in popular culture. What I love is that Kruse has succeeded in creating a serious work of philosophy and cultural history that uses Steve Ditko and his comics as the focal point of this interrogation of complicated and difficult ideas.
I knew of Ditko primarily from his work at Marvel and Charlton. Kruse’s attention to the earlier and later parts of Ditko’s sixty-plus-year working career really helped me to get a better appreciation for his career and accomplishments. This isn’t a biography, but you get a good feel for Ditko and his life, which may be all we can hope for when dealing with such a private person.
The chapters on Spider-Man and Mr. A are excellent, but my favorite is the Doctor Strange chapter, which is particularly mind-bending and brilliant. Kruse shows Strange to be a man in a near-constant battle with his own mind, struggling to master the “cosmic intraspace” within him and, in doing so, bring about positive change in the world around him. I especially liked his analysis of the relationship between Dr. Strange, Dormammu, and the Mindless Ones.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
The setup for this analysis is substantial. The first sixty or so pages of the book are a detailed explanation and exploration of American thought in the mid-20th century, showing how Ditko tied in and where his influences came from. I loved this part, but your mileage may vary. Tip: This is cheating, but if you are willing to take Kruse’s word for it on the philosophy side, and just want to get to the comic stuff, you can probably start with Chapter 3. Don’t worry, you will still get your fill of philosophy and theory in the remaining chapters…just with more comics!
Ditko’s Charlton characters were originally supposed to be in Watchmen, and when DC wouldn’t let Alan Moore use them, he created direct analogs and used those instead. I would have liked to see the Ditko/Watchmen part of the book expanded a bit, as Moore’s relatively direct critique of Ditko’s philosophies in Watchmen could have used more time. But it's also very possible that Kruse believes that this link has been covered well enough already by others.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
This is simple. You should read Mysterious Travelers because it's a fantastic book. Reading it will enrich your understanding of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange; it will give you a better understanding of comic vigilantism from a philosophical and moral perspective; and it will give you a better lens for understanding Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and all the books that riffed on, critiqued, or cluelessly parroted Ditko’s ideas and heroes.
Who it’s for: I would love to say this is for everyone, but it is definitely an academic work and is challenging at times. It’s a perfect fit for fans of cultural and intellectual history, and comics studies scholars should read it both for the content and to understand how to better frame and contextualize their own work. Fans of Ditko will find it fascinating and anyone willing to put in the time will be rewarded.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
Kruse mentions a number of recent books that also explore cultural and intersectional issues, and so we are just going to present those. Consider it an informal “guest recommendations” list:
EC Comics: Race, Shock and Social Protest by Quian Whitted
Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime by Elizabeth Whaley
The Content of Our Caricature by Rebecca Wanzo
Ethics in the Gutter: Empathy and Historical Fiction in Comics by Kate Polak
Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies by Marc Singer
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Zack Kruse is a professor of film studies in the English department at Michigan State University. He is involved with the MSU Comics Forum, and his Mystery Solved! Comics were featured in Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. Kruse can be found online at zackkruse.net or on Twitter @zackkruse.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
The copyright for image(s) used in this review are likely owned by either the publisher of the book, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the book. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
This book is ©2021 University Press of Mississippi. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED