Bizarro Back Issues: Steve Ditko’s ‘The Missing Man’ Misses Just About Everything (1983)
All things considered, Steve Ditko has had a pretty strange career. I mean, he co-created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange and Squirrel Girl, and went solo to create the Question, Blue Beetle, and Shade the Changing Man, and even nowadays, he's still going, quietly producing creator-owned work from a studio in Manhattan. But that stretch in between is where it really gets weird. In the '80s and '90s, he did everything from Mr. A to Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos. And then there was the Missing Man.
In a career that was full of characters so odd that one of them was even called Odd Man --- and he lived up to the name, I assure you --- the Missing Man might have been the weirdest. And as the name implies, it's not what's in the stories that's so weird, it's what's not.
The Missing Man appeared mostly in the pages of Pacific Presents, the mag that may have had one of the most frustrating first issues of all time. Not for the content, you understand --- the Missing Man story in this issue is probably the best of the four that were published, and the book's lead feature was Dave Stevens' Rocketeer, one of the all-time greats --- but because it's a big #1 that doesn't actually introduce either story. In both cases, the reader is just sort of dropped into the middle of a story that's already going on.
With Rocketeer, that's because the first two chapters of the story had appeared somewhere else, but if you actually go back and track down the first appearance of The Missing Man in Jack Kirby's Captain Victory #5, then you'll find that's not the case here. It just turns out that every Missing Man story is like that.
Unlike most superheroes --- heck, unlike most fictional characters --- we never really get an origin for the Missing Man. We don't even get a clear idea of what his powers are --- in one issue he shrinks down to the size of an action figure and it's never mentioned again --- and it's not even really clear what his real name is. In the first story, it's Syd Vane, and later, Syd Mane.
The only piece of information we ever get about the Missing Man before we join him in the middle of an adventure where he's fighting a dude who has four faces, is this:
That's seriously it. Two pages later, when the story starts, Ditko seems to think that we should know everything about this guy without being told.
Oh, and incidentally, that guy with the four faces? Just in case things aren't quite vague enough, it turns out at the end of his first (and only) appearance that since he was wearing a mask, he may or may not have more or fewer than four faces. This is something the protagonist tells us.
I read all four of these stories in one sitting, covering the entire Missing Man canon, and here's what I know about him. Syd Mane (Vane?) is a computer programmer, which means that he goes into giant, living-room sized computers and physically makes the electrical connections himself, which seems like a slightly outdated idea of how computer programming worked even for 1993. When there's trouble, he transforms... somehow... into Missing Man, who is composed entirely of noodley arms and legs, hair, a Cheshire Cat smile, and a pair of glasses that might be the item he uses to transform. Does his body somehow transform into these disparate parts that remain connected, or does he simply turn most of his body invisible? No one knows!
What we do know is that he seems to have it in for crime, and when things get tough, he relies on a few other people: Ma, an elderly, widowed private detective, and Todi, her assistant, who is probably Syd's love interest. Honestly, your guess is as good as mine on that one.
Despite their weirdness, the first couple of stories are pretty standard superhero adventures, at least as far as their villains go. The first has that four-(or-more)-faced cult leader who brainwashes people in what's referred to as a bizarre protection racket, and the second involves King, a local crime boss with crown-shaped hair, attempting to run his rival gangsters out of business with the help of Queen Bee, a young lady with the power of emotionally manipulative humming.
The third story focuses on a family of redneck crooks with a massive and depressing emphasis on domestic abuse, with one of the children, a boy named Sorry, ending up changing his name to Brad and becoming a circus clown in what has to be the most dubious happy ending of all time. (Sorry's sister is called Misery.)
That fourth story, though... That's where it goes Full Ditko.
In case you weren't already tipped off by massive paragraphs of dialogue about how A is always A and how computers are great because they eliminate "invalid anti-concepts," this issue is based pretty strongly in Ditko's love of Objectivism, to the point where the villain is a half-robot who goes on a killing spree because of internal contradictions. And, in another one of Ditko's later era trademarks, it's a story full of weird names. The guy who's trying to avoid being murdered is Mr. Wrds --- no O --- and the robot doing all the murdering is Raem Lanet.
It's the kind of name that seems like it should be an anagram, but I've been trying all day and the only thing I can come up with is "Anal Meter," and I don't think that's quite what he was going for.
Also, there's a scene in there where Wrds gets punched by an unseen assailant through a cloud of floating random letters that I think were meant to be some kind of modern art piece in his office, so yeah: Full Ditko.
And that's pretty much all there is to The Missing Man, a downright incomprehensible superhero saga from one of comics' greatest creators that left absolutely nothing explained.