Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Eschatology & Escapology 3: They Call Me Mister Miracle

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on January 12, 2011

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

“You heard it direct from the mouth of science itself, nothing but nothing can escape the deadly gravitational pull of a black hole!”
Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle 1, by Grant Morrison and Pasqual Ferry

In 2008, DC Comics published a crossover series by Grant Morrison and others, Final Crisis, a gigantic tale featuring all their superheroes. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

The story Morrison was *really* telling was going on in the various Batman titles, which intersected only briefly with Final Crisis. It was the story of a man poised between darkness and light, who had had to face death, and a black hole, in order to do what he had to do, and how as a result of this his psyche was shattered, he lost his identity, and was pushed through time to regain both his identity and the universe. Final Crisis, as good as it was, was a sideshow. The death and rebirth of Bruce Wayne was what mattered, as we later discovered.

“As above, so below”
Hermes Trismegistus

In the mid-1990s, DC Comics published a series by Grant Morrison and others, JLA, a gigantic tale featuring all their most popular superheroes. But the story was bigger than it looked. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

The story Morrison was *really* telling was going on in The Invisibles, which paralleled JLA (which some have described as using as a Cliff’s Notes version of The Invisibles). Even within The Invisibles though, Morrison was telling two stories. The first was the surface story, the one most people seem to have read for much of the run – an exciting adventure with goodies and baddies – though by “You’re running around shooting people like they’re Nothing. You’re Fucked up, Gideon. You’re not cool, you’re not a hero, you’re just a Murderer” most people had got that King Mob was not necessarily the hero of the story. But then there was the other story, about corruption and redemption. In The Invisibles #12, we’re taken through the life of a henchman shot by King Mob – his whole life, shown out of sequence, the good and the bad, and we’re made to feel sorry for, and care for, this character who could have just seemed like a NPC. And we’re made to feel sorry for him even though he is, by any standards, a truly bad man, just because we get to know him so well in 24 pages that the emphasis is on man, rather than on bad.
We meet his wife, who he abused, in one later issue, five years later. She saves King Mob’s life, because she can’t stand to see someone shot after what happened to her husband. There’s the story you’re being told, and then there’s the important story.

“fractal essentially means ‘self-similar’ — it implies recursion, pattern inside of pattern, ‘symmetry across scale'”
Helmut Bonheim, “The Nature/Culture Dyad and Chaos Theory.” Das Natur/Kultur Paradigma in der englischsprachigen Literatur des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Paul Goetsch). Ed. K. Groß. Tübingen: Narr. 1994, 8-22

In 1985, DC Comics published a miniseries called Crisis On Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. A gigantic tale featuring every character ever to appear in one of their comics except Hal Jordan, But the story was bigger than it looked.But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing had a story called American Gothic, about a war between Light and Darkness, which ended with them being convinced that they define each other, and God shaking hands with the Darkness. It’s better than it sounds.

“I’m dying, oh fuck, I think I’m dying”
The Invisibles #12 , Grant Morrison and Steve Parkhouse

In 2005, DC Comics published a crossover series called Infinite Crisis, by Geoff Johns and others, featuring all their most popular characters. But the story was bigger than it looked.But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

The bigger story was Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, a series of seven miniseries (Klarion, Zatanna, Shining Knight, Frankenstein, Mister Miracle, Bulletteer and The Manhattan Guardian) all of which were attempts to make old, unprofitable DC Comics characters commercially viable again. The story was about how humanity’s far future descendants, with no culture or energy of their own, feed off the past. There may be a subtext there.

“What interests me is that while Zatanna chastises Promethea it’s also restaging, you guessed it, Swamp Thing – dragging Moore back to his roots, as it were. Morrison revisits the climactic chapter of “American Gothic”, quoting a line of dialogue, duplicating its setting in Baron Winter’s home, and repeating its fatalities. If there is a criticism of Moore here it’s done by paying homage to his older material while snubbing the new. I’ve always thought Morrison had the most interesting anxiety of influence vis-a-vis Moore of anyone in comics (certainly moreso than that faithful but pale imitator, Neil Gaiman); Zatanna offers plenty more fodder for it.”
Marc Singer

In 2005, DC Comics published a crossover series called Seven Soldiers, by Grant Morrison and others – a gigantic tale featuring a bunch of obscure DC Comics characters. But the story was bigger than it looked. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

The Mister Miracle story never seemed to fit in with the rest of Seven Soldiers, having nothing to do with the main storyline about the Sheeda’s invasion. Instead, it took us through all the possible lives of Shilo Norman, a Jack Kirby character, as he is trapped in the ‘Life Trap’ – a trap worse than the black hole he’s trying to escape from. We get a non-linear view of one man’s life, and all his mistakes, but almost incidentally Morrison is reinventing Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters and putting them to a new use. In some ways this reinvention seems at first glance even cruder than Kirby’s own work – and Kirby was not known for his subtlety, with characters like DeSaad and Lashina. But Kirby had many characters straddling the gap between light and darkness, between Apokolips and New Genesis. Morrison’s not interested in that kind of shade of grey – or if he is, he wants it represented by humans, not by Gods. This Mister Miracle is Shilo Norman, a human being, not Scott Free, a New God.

“I believe THE INVISIBLES to be a work of great emotional depths, but I realise most people tend to concentrate first on the surface glamour of the book, which is fine and pretty much as intended. Go back and read it again, concentrating not on the clothes, but on King Mob’s attempt to get over the loss of his girlfriend and the death of his cats by turning himself into a pop god with a gun. Read it for Edith Manning’s guilt, humour and unstoppable enthusiasm or most importantly, read it for the invisible backstory of Audrey Murray, the book’s central character, and her refusal to let a shitty life turn her into a shitty person.”
Grant Morrison

On Barbelith’s guide to the Invisibles‘ character list, Audrey Murray is not mentioned.

“In 2009 DC Comics announced that at some point in the next couple of years it would be publishing a crossover series called Multiversity, by Grant Morrison and others – a gigantic tale featuring all DC Comics’ most famous characters. But the story was…”
Andrew Hickey

And Flex Mentallo is being reissued in 2011.

That’s Really Super, Supergirl

Posted in comics, politics by Andrew Hickey on February 9, 2009

One problem I’ve had with Final Crisis that no-one else seems to have had – or if they have, I’ve not seen them mention it – is the portrayal of women and the (lack of) portrayal of gay people.

Now, don’t get me wrong here – I’m not going to get all faux-outraged at the scenes where Mary Marvel and Supergirl are fighting or whatever. I think it’s perfectly obvious that that sort of stuff is as much a commentary on the ‘haunted vagina‘ type of superhero comic as anything else – if you’re unconvinced, then go back and read Bulleteer. Morrison knew exactly what he was doing there, and it’s very different from the way the same tropes were used in the execrable Countdown .

I’m less forgiving of J.G. Jones’ terrible cover for issue 3, which I’ve described before as Supergirl thinking “Oh dear, my mouth appears not to have anything phallic in it, and the closest thing I have is this finger. I wonder if *you* can think of anything I could use?”, but at least that wasn’t part of the story, and we did have a choice as to which cover we got (that was an issue where Holly went to the comic shop for me, and she was fairly horrified by that cover).

But there’s a deeper structural problem to Final Crisis, and one that’s inherent in the story Morrison wants to tell.

Basically, in Final Crisis, we are presented with two stories running in parallel. One is the story of Darkseid’s fall, rise and fall. The other, which has greater ‘cosmic import’ by the end of the series, is the story of Nix Uotan’s search for the love from whom he’s been separated by whole realities. Throughout what is presented as the main story, we are presented with love stories which reflect Uotan’s need to get back with Weeja Dell – J’onn J’onzz’ shouts “M’yriah!” (the name of his dead wife on Mars) as he dies, Hawkman wants to be with Hawkgirl and sacrifices his own life to be reincarnated in a world where she’ll love him, Superman travels through the Bleed and Overvoid to save Lois Lane. Almost every heroic character here is being presented as a man trying to get back to the woman he loves, in clear parallel to Nix Uotan’s own struggle.

I trust that, from that last sentence, you begin to see the problem. With a very few exceptions, male heterosexual love is presented as *the* motivating force for th’ whole whang-dang-doo multiverse, which means that because of the structure Morrison has chosen male characters get to be active, while female characters are *re*active. This also means that characters like Oracle – who given some of the themes of the story that I’ll be returning to tomorrow should have had a *much* bigger role in the story – are sidelined.

(Some of the comparative lack of female action may also be due to Morrison’s decision to take Wonder Woman away from the action for most of the story, because he doesn’t believe he has a good grasp on her character – understandable, as she doesn’t have one, or at least not a consistent one between writers.)

Also surprising is how much this reinforces heteronormative roles – odd for a writer like Morrison, who has introduced more gay characters to Big Two comics than any other writer I can think of. In a story that’s largely about the power of love, ‘love’ here is a strictly monogamous relationship between one man and one woman – the framers of Prop Eight would be proud.

What’s particularly galling here is that one of the very few female characters to have an important part in the action, the new Question, Renee Montoya, is gay, yet this is not as far as I can recall mentioned even in passing – in fact one could easily come away with the impression that the ‘Charlie’ she talks about (the old Question) is a former lover, rather than ‘just’ a friend. You’d think that given that DC are about to put Batwoman in Detective Comics, one of their flagship books, and that the Question and Batwoman had a romantic relationship in the past, there would have been a mention of this (someone’s going to point out one I missed now, aren’t they? I did check…)

This could not only have strengthened one of the few female characters to take a major part in the story, it would have helped get rid of the overpowering sense that in this respect at least Final Crisis, far from being innovative and new, is reinforcing a rather conservative world view.

Note, I’m not asking that the comic should have been turned into the left-wing equivalent of a Chick Tract, or for scenes of Batman/Alfred slash (heaven forbid), just that in a world where even the BBC thinks it’s reasonable to use ‘gay’ as a pejorative, it’s a shame when a writer who usually pays a hell of a lot of attention to subtext and buried cultural assumptions and who is generally on the side of the angels in these matters ends up inadvertantly sending the message that the love of men for women is the most important kind of love in the world. It’s not a terrible thing – if I can forgive Alan Moore the obsession with rape and sexual violence in his work, then I can certainly forgive this. And Morrison manages to write the female characters extremely well. It’s just that a very small amount of effort on his part (a couple of added panels would have done it) could have made the comic better in this respect.

Tomorrow, on to praising, rather than burying, what is still, after all, my favourite superhero crossover of all time…

I’m Not A Religious Man, But If You’re Up There, Superman… (Final Crisis Week Part 4)

Posted in comics, science by Andrew Hickey on February 7, 2009

I’ve started trying to write this several times, but keep getting distracted by twittering spy organisations with filthy names to Tom Peyer ( Federated Espionage Laser Corps – Hardened Elimination and Removal Squad was my best one)…

Steven Grant over at Comic Book Resources talked about Final Crisis in his column the other day, and his conclusion was a sensible one – “Did I like the story? I don’t know. I like my interpretation. Is that what Morrison had in mind? There’s just no way to tell.” (I’ve never read any of Grant’s comics, but his column is usually far more sensible than most comics writing on the big sites – anyone out there read any of his stuff? Any good? Recommendations?)

But he then goes on to talk about Morrison’s quote that Final Crisis is about ‘mythology for the 21st century’, and he gets this *dead wrong*, but mostly for the right reasons. He lays into the morons who take Joseph Campbell’s work as a guide to writing, and quite right too – I remember a conversation on Newsarama (back in the days when I was stupid enough to waste my time there) where someone insisted that there were literally no stories in the world that didn’t follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and I suspect there are a lot of people out there who think that…

But he goes on to say:

Not that our civilization doesn’t have myths, but the authors of those myths are Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, not Camus or Isaac Asimov or Stephen Cannell or even Grant Morrison. And we no longer live in a world where magical/fantasy/mythological/religious constructs are required, or even useful, to make sense of it.

Now, I can see exactly what he’s saying here, and to a large extent I agree with him. Clearly the idea that the universe was created in some sort of ‘big bang’, stars and planets coalesced over billions of years, and then on this planet organisms slowly evolved, is closer to the objective truth than the idea that people were created by the great god Enki, who ejaculated the Tigris and Euphrates.

However, I’ve recently been reading The Fabric Of Reality by quantum physicist David Deutsch, and while I disagree with quite a bit of what he has to say (he’s both a Libertarian and a friend of Richard Dawkins – for me to be any more biased against him before reading a word he’d have to be a member of Coldplay as well…) he does make the very good point that a scientific theory should be judged, not as instrumentalists would have it, on its predictive power (I’ve actually seen someone who had the nerve to call themselves a scientist stating in print recently that we would soon not need scientific theories at all – that computers would be able to crunch enough data that they could make predictions entirely without any hypotheses. And the moron thought this was a *good thing*! I despair…) but rather on its explanatory power – how much of the universe a human being can understand if they understand it thoroughly. In other words, if two theories have equal predictive power, the one that can be most easily comprehended is the best one to choose.

This is a pretty good rule of thumb – it’s the one that Deutsch uses to favour the many-worlds hypothesis over other quantum interpretations (to call back to something I was saying in the comments to Holly’s post linked below – in what one might almost call ‘spooky action at a distance’ I was buying this book at almost exactly the same time Holly was talking about how she hoped I had a book like that). Essentially, if you have two otherwise identical theories, the better story should win. (Both Deutsch and his friend and colleague RIchard Dawkins occasionally fall into the trap of thinking the better story must therefore be true – in fact this is Dawkins’ main intellectual failing – but it’s still a good rule of thumb).

Now the problem is, people need stories to involve *people*, and none of the things Grant talks about do (Marx and Friedman do in the abstract, but not individuals). Stories that don’t involve human interaction simply don’t count as stories for a large number of people (remember the Newsarama poster above?) – no matter how true they are, they don’t have any ‘explanatory power’ for a large number of people, which is one reason why religious fundamentalism appears to be on the rise. People respond much better to stories on a human scale than to anything else. In my own case, as an example, I found I had a much better understanding of various aspects of cybernetics and information theory after reading the Illuminatus! trilogy ten years ago – the story dramatises things like Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety in ways that make it viscerally, rather than intellectually, comprehensible.

So the creation of modern myths – explanatory stories that we know are just stories – seems to me to be quite a good idea, if it stops people clinging to the literal truth of older myths.

But also, I don’t think Morrison was speaking of myth in precisely this way. In all older myths, as well as explanations for how the universe came to be, or how the leopard got its spots, or whatever, we also have moral lessons, lessons for how we should live. These lessons may not always be good ( behaving like Lot, for example, would be considered a bit off in modern society ) but by dramatising moral dilemmas and presenting characters making their choices, they allow people to form their own ideas about morality. Stories like this are almost completely missing from modern scientific discourse, which talks about what *does* happen, but not what *should* happen.

So we do need stories with larger-than-life characters making larger-than-life moral choices, to help us make our own moral choices. Grant says that Morrison is fixated, like Kirby, on ‘good and evil’ and that these don’t really exist in the messy real world, but this is only partly true. Absolute good and absolute evil are seen as unattainable concepts in Morrison’s work, and Morrison talks all the time about unifying opposites and finding a higher-order reality. It is notable that the New God who is portrayed most positively in Final Crisis (and Morrison’s other work) is Metron, the Prometheus figure, who is one of the few Fourth World characters to be motivated by something other than ‘Good’ or ‘Evil’ – he’s motivated by ‘Knowledge’ instead.

(Incidentally, Kirby’s Good/Evil thing wasn’t *quite* as simplistic as Grant makes out, given the presence of Orion, Mister Miracle and Big Barda, all of whom were borderline figures in one way or another, but he is right that the morality of the Fourth World stories is fairly unsophisticated even for 70s superhero comics).

Is Final Crisis a successful modern myth? On balance, I’d say no, because so many people seem to have trouble following the story, and to my mind myths should be extremely simplistic in their form (if not their content) so they can be grasped by as many people as possible. But the *idea* of a modern myth is certainly not one that should be dismissed, and Morrison has made a good stab at it here (and a much better one in All-Star Superman).

Linkblogging for 06/02/09

Posted in comics, linkblogging, politics, science by Andrew Hickey on February 6, 2009

Sorry for the temporary hiatus in Final Crisis Week yesterday – I discovered that the local IMAX was showing a double bill of both Batman films for nine quid, and so that was five hours of the day gone… I was going to make up for it this morning, but then realised I can’t write in the mornings.
(BTW, I’m building to something with those posts – the fact that the last couple have been sidetracks, as will the next one, shouldn’t let you think I don’t have a point…)

Anyway, linkage:

The Mindless Ones continue their group look at Final Crisis 7. Doctor K also has some thoughts on this.

(Does anyone else think that it’d be a really fun, if totally impractical, idea to do a ‘The Internet On Final Crisis’ (or even On Morrison) book collecting these things? There *must* be several books worth of stuff scattered over a dozen blogs, and some of it’s mind-blowingly good…)

Holly talks about her favourite interpretation of quantum physics.

Laurie Penny has declared the next ten days to be National Take A Photo Of A Policeman Day, which I would be joining in with if I wasn’t the only person I know to own *no* image recording devices at all…

Brian Hibbs has some stuff on Diamond’s recent decision not to stock comics below a fairly high level of expected sales (note for non-comics people, Diamond is the distributor that has an effective total monopoly on comics as individual issues, and a huge chunk of the collected edition market).

And from The Daily Mash – “CUTS in school music budgets could lead to a cataclysmic surge in Coldplay, Ofsted has warned.”

Final Crisis Week Day 3 – Tie-Ins

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on February 4, 2009

Before I go on to write a bit more about Final Crisis itself (though after pillock’s perfect review - written without having read a single panel of the comic – I doubt any more on the subject need be said ) I thought I’d talk a little about the weird way in which DC have used the Final Crisis branding.

DC really need to get their marketing of these ‘big events’ sorted out. It’s already been noted all over the internet that they slapped the phrase ‘Batman RIP’ on random Bat-comics, with little thought as to what, if any, connection they had with Morrison’s story (usually less than none at all), which understandably led to people being annoyed at DC for mis-selling bad fill-in issues of Nightwing, but which for some reason also led them to be angry at Grant Morrison, for reasons that I cannot fathom.

However, DC didn’t learn from this (partly because the two events were so close together), and I’m sure part of the dislike of Final Crisis among those who think it should be ‘an event comic’ comes from the bizarre way in which they’ve dealt with the series.

When the tie-ins were first announced, I thought it might even almost be like 52 all over again – Johns and Rucka writing bits of a much bigger, interconnected story. The impression was certainly given by DC marketing (though, commendably, not by Morrison himself) that the various miniseries and specials were part of the story.

Rucka’s tie-ins actually played fair with this. They might not have been especially good comics, but they fitted in relatively well with the story Morrison was telling – both Resist and Revelations (that title *still* annoys me) told relatively self-contained stories set in Rucka’s own little corner of the DCU, but ones that built on characters and events from the main series. The problem comes with the other tie-ins.

I believe Brad Meltzer’s Requiem thing was drivel, but that’s what you’d expect from Meltzer. You’d expect a *little* better from Geoff Johns, who’s actually been growing as a comic writer. But Johns’ Final Crisis stories have, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with the series at all. Rogues Revenge was a three-part Flash villains miniseries which didn’t have any connection with the main narrative, and seemed to be a project Johns had come up with himself that had been slapped with the Final Crisis label at the last minute, and was also not very good . Rage Of The Red Lanterns didn’t have even the tenuous connections that Rogues Revenge had, being merely a prelude to this year’s big crossover, and was appalingly bad.

The only one of Johns’ tie-ins to be any good, Legion Of Three Worlds, also seemed to have the most to do with the actual storyline, featuring as it does multiversal hijinks and providing an explanation as to where Superman was for issues four and five. It also seemed clearly positioned to be the ‘traditional’ crossover for those who don’t like experimental or different storytelling – you just want thousands of superheroes drawn by George Perez? Okay, here you go…

So of course, the one tie-in of Johns’ that actually tied in was the one that was hit by scheduling problems so badly that only two issues have come out even though the main series has finished…

None of this would normally have been a problem, except that there were three other tie-in issues, those written by Grant Morrison, and at least two of those (the Superman Beyond ones) were *absolutely* necessary to understand the story, and the other one (Submit) provided some useful background. And these started coming out *after* many readers had already decided ‘the tie-ins are rubbish and nothing to do with the main story’.

Now, you or I, being discerning readers, would have picked those up *anyway*, because they were written by the writer of the main series, so they would be more likely to be relevant. And also because they were written by Grant Morrison and (in two cases) drawn by Doug Mahnke, and so therefore likely to be good. And also also because 3D Superman. I’m assuming here that if you’re reading this you pay some attention to the creative teams of the comics (if any) you read, and that they factor into your purchasing decisions.

The problem is that the two big comic companies don’t like discerning readers. They particularly don’t like readers who base their purchasing decisions on creative teams rather than on branding. So for sixty-plus years they’ve been training readers to pay attention to the brand names, not the writers or artists, and a large portion of the customer base now thinks in that way – it doesn’t matter who’s writing or drawing X-Men, you buy it because it’s X-Men. This is not a bad thing – those people get some enjoyment from their comics, and they’re still buying what they like – they just like ‘X-Men’ more than they like ‘Chris Claremont’ (or whoever’s writing X-Men these days).

But that kind of brand loyalty relies on consistency – and normally that’s what you get. If you buy a Superman comic, it might be a good or a bad one, but it’ll be recognisably a Superman comic, of the kind that people who like Superman comics would recognise as such. If you break that consistency – if you have a brand that is plastered over multiple unrelated titles – then those who continue reading will take an all-or-nothing approach and drop *all* the tie-ins. And then wonder why they don’t understand the last issue.

This is not a failure of the comics as comics (and I’m sure even Rogues Revenge and Rage Of The Red Lanterns appealed to fans of Johns’ Flash and Green Lantern work, which I am not), and is certainly not the fault of any of the creators involved. The blame for that lies squarely with DC editorial (as does the blame for the whole Countdown fiasco which put people off FC before it started).

Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about the actual comics…

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