# Grant Morrison Stand-Alone Stories

A few days ago Mike Taylor emailed me, asking what, if any, Grant Morrison stories could be read without knowing more about a fictional universe — he’d been reading Seven Soldiers, and found it difficult going, as he doesn’t have the decades of experience with a fictional universe that most modern superhero comics require (and I might have to write something about *that* soon, possibly a Mindless post tomorrow…).

It’s a good question — Morrison is a favourite writer of mine, but the vast majority of his best or most interesting work (Seven Soldiers, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, New X-Men) requires a great deal of familiarity with the major superhero shared universes. You can definitely read and enjoy Animal Man, for example, without having read any other DC comics — some bits, like the Invasion crossover, would be confusing, but you could get quite a lot out of it — but you’re definitely missing a lot if you don’t realise it’s at least in part a commentary on Crisis On Infinite Earths, and that it’s also riffing on things like the Pog issue of Swamp Thing.

But he *has* done some good work outside those shared universes, so here’s a brief list of the more newbie-friendly stories (so not something like The Invisibles, but also not trifles like Big Dave) he’s done — the ones you can get in one volume (or a small number of volumes):

We3 (with Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant) — this is pitched as “the Incredible Journey meets Terminator”. Three animals (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) who have been turned into cyborg weapons, escape from the lab in which they were created and try to get home. Much of the comic is silent, and a lot of the dialogue is between the animals (who can talk, but only use a handful of words each). It’s touching, beautiful, and extremely violent, and has some of the best work Quitely’s ever done.

Zenith, with Steve Yeowell, is a story that ran in 2000AD in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s a superhero story that starts as a satire of Thatcherism and celebrity culture, and the death of 60s idealism, before becoming a Lovecraftian horror in its final pages. Finally getting reissued in an affordable edition soon.

The Filth, with Chris Weston, is a book about being depressed when your cat dies (pretty much every good Grant Morrison comic, in fact, seems to be inspired by his cats dying). Greg Feely, the protagonist, is either a sad, lonely, bald, suicidal compulsive masturbator whose only friend is his dying cat and who’s suffering from a serious dissociative delusional disorder, or he’s a “para-personality” for an agent for a secret Bondesque sci-fi spy organisation, or both. It’s a vicious, dark, but cathartic work, something like Stewart Lee’s “vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ” routine — something that achieves a kind of beauty through its sheer desperation and ugliness.

Seaguy with Cameron Stewart is an absurdist superhero story, something like what you’d get if you made a five-year-old watch every episode of The Prisoner, interspersed with the 1966 Batman TV series, and then got them to write a story about what they’d seen. It’s utterly brilliant, but very difficult to sum up neatly. You can point at things it has a flavour of — Philip K Dick, The Prisoner, Spike Milligan, James Joyce, Douglas Adams — but it’s very much sui generis.

Flex Mentallo, with Frank Quitely, is technically a spin-off from Doom Patrol, but really its own thing, a meditation on superhero comics and redemption, as seen through the mind of someone talking on the phone after taking an overdose. Difficult, but worth the effort.

Vimanarama is a gloriously silly, fun, story about Jack Kirby-esque ancient astronauts set among Bradford’s Asian community. Unfortunately, it’s more than a little culturally insensitive, mixing and matching between Hindu and Muslim imagery in a way that can come off as a little uncomfortable. If you can overlook that fairly glaring fault, though, it’s fun.

and All-Star Superman, with Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant, is a Superman story, but one that’s deliberately out of continuity, with the intention of being readable by anyone with the most basic pop-culture knowledge of Superman. It’s one of a very, very small number of Superman stories one can point to and say “this is what the character is about, this has everything about why Superman and his supporting characters work”. Frank Quitely’s “acting” for the characters, in particular, is just stunning.

And that’s about it, as far as standalone Morrison stuff. There were a handful of standalone stories for Vertigo in the early 90s (Kid Eternity, Sebastian O, The Mystery Play, and Kill Your Boyfriend), none of which I suspect have aged especially well, though I’ve not read them recently, some bits for 2000AD, oddities like The New Adventures Of Hitler that are out of print, and a couple of weak recent things that read more like film pitches than proper comics themselves. Everything else has either been in long-running superhero universes or his own massive, long-running story The Invisibles.

The ones listed above, though, are the things he’s done that, to my mind at least, have a lot of artistic value, are *relatively* new-reader friendly (in as much as any Morrison comic is) and can be obtained relatively easily (or, in the case of Zenith, soon will be). It’s a short list, but a good one…

# Before Watchmen

Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.

In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.

How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?

Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012

Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.

It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.

(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)

What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.

Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal

But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.

Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.

But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Diversion – Dave Gibbons

Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.

This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.

Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.

But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.

Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.

Diversion ends

What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…

“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)

Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.

But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”

And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.

Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.

DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.

And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.

So it can be done.

So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?

There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.

Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.

Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.

Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.

But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?

No.

The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.

So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.

(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)

Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.

But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.

Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.

The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.

Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.

These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.

Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.

But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”

And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.

Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.

If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.

But as for this?

# On Sentient Universes, The Problem Of Evil, Grant Morrison, Doctor Who and other such stuff

Blame Philip Sandifer for this. I meant to write another short story today (I still might).

I thought I’d said everything I had to say about Grant Morrison, and more, between my book on Seven Soldiers and Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. But then Sandifer (who, if you don’t know, is the writer of the alternately wonderful and infuriating TARDIS Eruditorum blog goes and says something as an aside which starts me pacing around the house like a maniac and saying “Is this just a blog post or is it another sodding book?”

It’s just a blog post, but not because I don’t have enough to say on this subject, but because I can’t justify writing a *third* book that’s mostly about Morrison’s ideas.

Now let’s have a look at the latest post on TARDIS Eruditorum – the one about Lance Parkin‘s book Cold Fusion. In this post, Sandifer says (talking about his own ideas about Doctor Who):

The root idea is, for once, borrowed from Grant Morrison instead of Alan Moore. Morrison has several times suggested that the DC Universe line of superheroes is sentient and has an animating consciousness. My disagreement with Morrison is not on this point, but rather on the implications of it – Morrison seems rather to like this fact, whereas I think that the DC Universe is, while sentient, a dangerous sociopath (albeit one capable of moments of staggering beauty). But the underlying idea, obviously, appeals.

I think Sandifer may be reading Morrison a little too simplistically here (odd, because his reading of Final Crisis as narrative collapse is absolutely correct). And it will surprise no-one who’s read… well, anything I’ve ever written… that I’m going to use Seven Soldiers as a counter-example.

Before I start talking about this though, I just want to say that the idea of a fictional universe being sentient is, while far-fetched, not one that should be entirely dismissed out of hand. Certainly, if one is to make the assumption that neural networks embody intelligence (an assumption made by many, with little or no reason that I can see — the argument appears to be ‘the neurons are the bit of the brain where we can tell some of what they’re doing, so therefore they must be the important bit, not all those glial cells and such’. I exaggerate slightly.) then the collaboration network of Marvel Universe characters has some very interesting features. This is not to say I agree with Morrison or Sandifer — I don’t — but that their contentions are not utterly dismissible, and are at least an interesting way to look at things. The DC Universe, and Doctor Who, are not sentient themselves, but treating them as sentient entities can provide interesting readings.

So — *does* Morrison seem to think that the sentient DC Universe is an ultimately benevolent one?

Certainly, that would be the implication of Morrison’s early work. In The Coyote Gospel we get this:

Borrowing some of the structure from Michael Maltese’s script for Duck Amuck (and incidentally, does anyone else get as annoyed at the attribution of authorship of classic cartoons to their director as I do? Chuck Jones was great, but Maltese scripted and storyboarded those great cartoons), Morrison (and Truog, Hazlewood, etc, but here and from here on I’m talking specifically about the writing) creates a strictly hierarchical set of fictional universes. The Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies universe is lower than the DC Universe is lower than ours, and in each of these, there is a creator who delights in causing pain to the more innocent people in the universe below.

However, this hierarchy of universes has never really fit with Morrison’s thinking, and so later we get to a view more like the one Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad use in The Blue Angel (which I’ve quoted earlier):

‘Oh?’ asked the dog, sounding rather withering. ‘Listen, Fitz. Learn to think of all these things as stories. And stories can’t contradict each other because, in the end, they’re all made up. Nothing can take precedence then. All right?’
‘I’m not sure I know what you’re on about.’
‘Well, you reckon the world you live in takes precedence over the world you’re reading about. So you’ve established a hierarchy, yeah?’
‘Of course! I’d be out of my tree not to!’
The dog was looking sceptical again. He gave a kind of shrug and started nibbling the herbs once more. ‘Maybe. But think how happy you might be if you didn’t have to make those choices about what you should invest belief in. Here in the Obverse you can think of it all as a kind of fugue.’
‘Fugue?’
‘Hmm,’ said the dog, chewing. ‘No contradictions anymore. Every story holding equal sway. It means there are always alternatives. And it means no natural ending.’
Fitz took his last drag on his cigarette and ground it out on the window sill.
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘No. One reality has to be more valid than the other. It has to be realer.’
The little dog laughed and said, ‘Well… what if you found out that the one you’re in was the less real one? What if you found out that you yourself are less than real?’
Fitz laughed and looked at the moon.
‘You’re one hell of a dog. Do you know that?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Canine primly.

(Incidentally, this view of Doctor Who, as a set of mutually-contradictory, equally-valid stories rather than a single continuous narrative, was one that was only possible when Doctor Who stopped being ‘a TV show’ made by a single creative team at a time and became instead a set of TV shows, books, comics, audio dramas and so on created by different people with different agendas, one which was almost impossible for a single human being to experience in full, just like DC Comics’ universe with its multiple publication per month for 70 years. It may be significant in this light that Ian Levine, the man who in Doctor Who fandom most represents the antithesis of this view, and who holds that ‘if it wasn’t on TV it didn’t happen’, is also the only person in the world to own a copy of *every* DC Universe comic. His admirable work in tracking down so many lost episodes of Doctor Who probably comes from the same basic instinct – of wanting a closed, complete story rather than an open-ended one.)

In fact, Morrison’s later take on the relative positions of the various universes seems closer to Lawrence Miles’ use of bottle universes in his Doctor Who fiction. In Miles’ New Adventure Christmas On A Rational Planet the Seventh Doctor sees the Eighth Doctor living in a bottled universe, but in his BBC Book Interference he has the Eighth Doctor looking into a bottle universe containing the New Adventures version of the Seventh Doctor. (And in Dead Romance a universe very like our own is revealed to be inside another bottle).

Anyone who’s read anything I’ve ever written knows I’m going to get into Seven Soldiers now – or at least the prequel to it in JLA: Classified

In various of Morrison’s stories, he has our universe personified as the infant universe of Qwewq. And in All-Star Superman #10, possibly the finest single comic issue Morrison has ever written, he has this happen (the giant black cube is Qwewq – our universe):

This is a far more nuanced idea of creator and creation than the one in Animal Man. At first sight, the hierarchies have been reversed – Siegel and Shuster’s universe, here, is the one inside the DC Universe. Except that this is absolutely the moment of creation of the DC Universe – the first ever drawing of Superman. And that creation is inspired by the influence of Superman from outside. This is more like a resonance between two universes than a straightforward hierarchy.

But it still seems to confirm Sandifer’s reading – Superman is, in All-Star Superman, pretty much goodness and decency personified, while we are fallen, helpless creatures who need raising up.

But why did we fall? For that we must look to JLA: Classified.

That’s the infant universe all grown up, as Ne-Bul-Oh The Huntsman. The seed of evil he’s talking about there is an infiltration into our universe from the DC Universe by a supervillain. I’ve argued at ludicrous length (40,000 words of it!) that when Ne-Bul-Oh refers to ‘fruit’ here, there’s a deliberate reference to the tree in the Garden of Eden. The DC Universe, in other words, is responsible for original sin.

And time and again in Morrison’s recent work, we see this – the two universes influencing each other, both for good and evil. Ne-Bul-Oh is evil, but only because of the DC Universe – but the people of the DC Universe enter our universe in order to prevent this. When the people of our universe look for inspiration, for heroes, we turn to Superman and Batman (Morrison has admitted that when he was writing JLA in the 1990s, at a time his life was collapsing around him, he was doing it at least partly as a magical working – crying out to Superman and Batman to save him). But when Zatanna is suffering, what happens?

She reaches out to us, the readers. Reaches out even though this story is the one where our universe is inside theirs, and is responsible for the attacks she’s fighting.

I think a close reading of Morrison’s DC Universe work, then, shows that he thinks the DC Universe could have either a good or a pernicious influence on this one – could be great or could be sociopathic – just as this universe could have a similar influence on the DC Universe. The two can either help pull each other up or drag each other down, and it’s up to us, the readers and writers and artists – the individuals – to decide which it’s going to be.

I agree with Sandifer that if we were to look at the output of DC Comics at the moment, or really at any time since about 2003, it would appear sociopathic. Where I disagree is that I think Morrison knows that, and that he’s working consciously to change that.

(I expand on these themes a *LOT* more in two books – Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! (about Doctor Who, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and the stupidity of ‘canon’, and An Incomprehensible Condition, a book on the themes in Seven Soldiers specifically. If you enjoyed this post, why not buy them from one of the links in the top right hand side of this page?)

# Liveblogging My Reaction To The New DC

For the last couple of years my enthusiasm for superhero comics has been steadily waning. This is not because I’ve somehow ‘grown up’ or ‘got over it’ or any of that nonsense, but because DC Comics have very deliberately, consciously, chosen to lose my custom.

While the “DC or Marvel?” question is, of course, a meaningless one – “do you prefer your superhero adventures to feature trademarks owned by Time Warner or trademarks owned by the Disney corporation? Which dead, elderly Jewish bloke’s family do you want screwed over more, Jerry Siegel or Jack Kirby?” – the fact is that everyone who reads superhero comics at all *does* have a preference, and in my case I prefer DC to Marvel. It’s not an unthinking or absolute preference – I’d choose to read a good Marvel comic like Nextwave over a bad issue of Green Lantern, because I’m not an idiot – but all else being equal I’d rather read a Batman comic than a Wolverine one, a Superman rather than a Captain America.

But over the last few years, DC Comics have been deliberately trying to drive me away. I don’t say this from paranoia or anything like that – they have obviously identified a target market, and gone after it with brutal efficiency, and I am very far from that target market. As a result, pretty much every comic DC have put any effort into promoting over the last few years has gone as follows:

“Oh no! You know Heroman, that new, young, funny superhero who just recently started fighting crime?”
“The ethnic-minority one, who had a fully-rounded personality and a great supporting cast, whose comic Andrew Hickey really liked?”
“That’s the one. I’m afraid he’s been brutally raped and then eaten by the Ultra-Humanite!”
“Wow, that’s bad. We’d better kill all the villains ever and be angsty about it.”
“Don’t worry, because here’s the Silver Age Heroman!”
“He’s back from the dead! And he has just as little personality as ever!”
“Be fair, he’s got daddy issues now!”
“But he’s still got a blonde crew-cut, and a job in the police or military, and that’s the important thing.”
“Yes it is. Hope has triumphed over despair! Now let us never mention that minority kid ever again.”

So for the past couple of years I’ve been reading fewer and fewer DC comics, and enjoying those I have been reading less and less. Some have begun to feel like a chore rather than a piece of exciting superhero entertainment, and there are some recent comics that I’ve bought out of habit but will now undoubtedly never actually read.

The only two bright spots have been Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen. Morrison’s Batman work has been wonderful, imaginative, and everything a superhero comic should be. Giffen, meanwhile, has been doing great overlooked work. His run on Doom Patrol, in particular, was wonderfully inventive – things like the entire issue that was an Aristocrats joke, or the final issue of his run, where he wrapped up the big conflict he’d been building for many issues by just having Ambush Bug explain to the villain that Dan DiDio had cancelled the title so they’d better just go home.

Which is not to say that other writers and artists weren’t doing good work, but it wasn’t good enough to rise above the sludge and disinterest.

But this month DC are rebooting their entire line of comics, and while the announcements of the new comics stopped me from getting my hopes up too much (apparently DC thought they had too many disabled characters, too many women working for them, and character designs that were too good), just the sheer amount of new comics they were putting out meant that there must be *something* worth reading there. Right? Right?…

So today (the only day this week I’m working less than ten hours) I’m going to read through the first batch of new DC titles I’ve got and comment on them. I’m not buying them all (though I’ve heard such good things about the new Animal Man I might add it to the pull list) and have at least one comic that’s only there because I couldn’t pick up my comics myself this week (Justice League of America), but I’ll be updating this post over the next couple of hours with my as-of-first-reading thoughts on Justice League, Swamp Thing, OMAC, Batgirl and Action Comics.

Remember, I’m only buying those titles that look like they might have some merit, so theoretically I *should* love at least most of these. Check back in a few minutes for my thoughts on…

Justice League #1
writer Geoff Johns
penciller Jim Lee
inker Scott Williams
colourist Alex Sinclair

And so far, it’s not looking good, is it? Lee and Williams draw at least ten trillion lines per panel, in the hope that the completely random cross-hatching will distract the reader from the basic inability to tell a story and lack of anatomical understanding. It features three characters on the cover who are not in the story (such as it is) inside, but the cover *does* also have Green Lantern using his magic wishing ring that can do anything to… make a gigantic gun.

Which about sums up the imaginativeness of this comic. Essentially one long fight scene (apart from one cut away to show that Vic Stone can play American football quite well, though given that this is meant to be our introduction to these characters we’re given no indication in this issue why we should care about this).

There is nothing here that could be described as a ‘plot’ – merely a sequence of not-very-interesting events. Batman and Green Lantern meet each other for the first time and exposit to each other about their powers or lack of them and their entire backgrounds, while alternating between acting like macho pricks and punching a Parademon, which self-immolates. They then fly to Metropolis, where Superman comes out of nowhere and punches Green Lantern for no reason.

Now given that in the new continuity this is our first introduction to any of these characters, we can’t say that anything here is out-of-character *as such*. But it’s certainly an… interesting… choice to take DC’s three most currently-visible characters, have two of them act like macho self-aggrandising idiots and make Superman into a character whose very first reaction on seeing someone who is no threat whatsoever is to fly into them at full speed and punch them on the jaw so hard they fly at least about 70 feet and into a nearby car, knocking it over. It wouldn’t be *my* choice for how to portray these characters, and I wouldn’t want to read anything more about these characters, but maybe someone out there likes that.

There’s also the problem that Lee and Williams are incapable of representational art. Lee has many admirers, so presumably there are things to admire about his work, but one thing that’s certainly true is that his work is not a model of clarity. As a result, the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim of so much writing has to be ignored, and the expositional burden passes from the artwork to the dialogue.

This would be OK, if Mr Johns had ever heard a human being speak English, but I’ll just leave you with one line, which seems to sum up the general incompetence of this ‘flagship’ comic:

“It combusted into fire!”

Well, maybe Swamp Thing will be better…

Swamp Thing #1
Writer Scott Snyder
Artist Yanick Paquette
Colours Nathan Fairbarn

It is. Much better. This is a good comic. It’s not great, but it sets up a bit of a mystery, it introduces our central character, Alec Holland, and gives him something approximating a nuanced characterisation (he’s a botanist, but he turned into a swamp monster, and now he’s become human again he’s scared of plants, but he still uses his old knowledge to help people). Even though Holland is portrayed as weak and scared, he’s still more heroic than the ‘heroes’ in Justice League, in that he actually does something to help someone else (recommends to a friend that his sore knee will hurt less if he wraps cabbage leaves around it).

The main fault with the story is that it spends several pages at the beginning establishing definitively that it takes place in the DC Universe, in order to satisfy those fans who care about these things (Swamp Thing, for those who don’t know, started as a DC Universe title, and the character used to interact with Superman, Batman and so on occasionally, but later editors ignored the superhero titles so they could tell whatever stories they wanted).

I’m not hugely familiar with Yanick Paquette’s art, having only read a handful of issues he’s drawn before, all to Grant Morrison scripts, but the work here is far more impressive than anything I’ve seen from him before. Especially impressive is the middle section of the book, which is clearly inspired by J.H. Williams’ work on Seven Soldiers 0, with similarly inventive layouts and panel bordering. Fairbarn’s use of different palettes for different sections is also unusually inventive for mainstream superhero comics.

The main weakness in the art is that while Paquette is an excellent layout artist and good draftsman, he’s comparatively weak as an ‘actor’, and a lot of the facial expressions seem to betray an overuse of photo-reference (see e.g. Lois Lane’s expression on the bottom of page one).

But I’ll definitely keep buying this title until it’s inevitably cancelled in about twelve issues’ time. It’s not a world-changing, fantastic piece of art, but it’s a good, enjoyable comic made by people who obviously care about doing a good job. It’s the kind of thing that should be the bread and butter of the big comics companies, but feels like a revelation because the level of quality is usually so low.

I wonder what I’ll think of OMAC…

OMAC #1
story and art by Keith Giffen and Dan DiDio
inks Scott Koblish
colours ‘Hi-Fi’

And this is Keith Giffen in 70s-Kirby tribute mode. Essentially one big fight scene, this just sets up the situation, reintroducing a load of Kirby characters and situations (OMAC, Cadmus, Dubbilex) and variations thereon (Gobblers, wonderful little monsters that are like small versions of Angry Charlie).

The dialogue and captions are perfunctory at best – presumably the work of DiDio (given the credit and Giffen’s normal way of working I imagine this was done Marvel-style, with DiDio and Giffen co-plotting, then DiDio scripting over Giffen’s finished art) – but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially just an excuse to have Giffen do his Giffen thing while trying to throw in as many Kirbyisms as he can.

If you want just twenty-something pages of Keith Giffen drawing like Jack Kirby, this is the comic for you. If you don’t, there’s nothing in the story so far to make you want to stick around. Luckily for me, I do want that, so this is another keeper.

Batgirl #1
writer Gail Simone
inks Vicente Cifuentes
colour Ulises Arreola

This is another very competent comic, but it saddens me.
For those who don’t know, Batgirl used to be Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, but after she was shot in the spine in the story The Killing Joke, she became Oracle, a unique character in superhero comics. Oracle was a character in a wheelchair who was still able to be a superhero through her intelligence and skills as a librarian – she became the intelligence and data expert for most of the superheroes. Batgirl is just a female Batman knock-off, Oracle was an interesting character in her own right.

Now, however, Barbara Gordon is Batgirl again (explained in one line in this comic – “a miracle happened” – maybe this has been explained in some crossover I didn’t read). This not only gets rid of the fascinating character of Oracle, who still had a huge amount of potential, it also gets rid of the new Batgirl who had replaced her (whose comics I didn’t read but was apparently a good character in her own right – my friends Debi and Jennie both enjoyed that title, but given that DC have stated that they want to appeal to twenty- to thirty-five year-old males with this relaunch, their opinions probably don’t count). Not only that, it’s to fill a void that didn’t really need filling – there’s already a red-haired female crimefighter in a Bat-outfit in Gotham, Batwoman, and her comic is drawn by J.H. Williams so will be much better than this.

Not that this is a bad comic – it’s far from that – but it’s a sign of DC’s insistence on making everything like it was in 1985 again, rather than moving forward and doing new things, and the comic isn’t good enough to overcome that. I’ll probably pick up a few more issues to see how it goes, but this is a comic that just isn’t worth the character destruction that took place to create it.

And now to the one I’ve been looking forward to most… Action Comics.

Action Comics #1
writer Grant Morrison
pencils Rags Morales
inks Rick Bryant

Only the second-best first Superman issue Grant Morrison’s ever written, this is still clearly the standout of this bunch of comics. Restoring Superman to his 1930s roots as someone fighting against corrupt businessmen, abusive husbands and so on, this takes quite a few elements from the very first Superman story and puts them into a structure based on the old radio show introduction – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound”.

Morales’ art is not up to the standard of Morrison’s writing, unless that can of cola in Luthor’s hand is meant to shrink to about a quarter of the size between panels, but this story of a Superman at the beginning of his career, still physically vulnerable and not yet up to his full powers, is clearly the best of these, though like most of Morrison’s work it gives the impression there’ll be a lot more to say about it in a few issues’ time, so I’ll reserve further judgement til then.

And that’s it for now. Overall, the quality of these has been far higher than the recent dire levels DC had sunk to, and the only really bad one is Justice League, but at the same time there’s nothing here that’s truly fantastic, or worth the company-wide reboot to achieve. This is just *what they should have been doing anyway*.

# 10: Seven Soldiers 1

This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

(Luke 14:26)

“But what there is on the credit side! It is rather like the effect of the Ring–a self-riching work, harmony piling up on harmony, grandeur on grandeur, pity on pity. The first section, merely on the mystery of the Overlords, would be enough for most authors …here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim than the survival or happiness of humanity: a man who could almost understand “He that hateth not father and mother” and certainly would understand the situation in Aeneid III between those who go on to Latium and those who stay in Sicily.

We are almost brought up out of psyche into pneuma. I mean, his myth does that to us imaginatively. Of course his own thoughts about what the higher level might be are not, in our eyes, very new or very profound: but that doesn’t really make so much difference. (Though, by the way, it would have been better, even on purely literary grounds, to leave it in its mystery, to philosophise less.) After all, few authors’ glosses on their own myths are as good as the myths: unless, like Dante, they take the glosses from other men, real thinkers…

Many minor dissatisfactions, of course. The women are all made up out of a few abstract ideas of jealousy, vanity, maternity etc. But it really matters very little: the thing is great enough to carry far more faults than it commits.

It is a strange comment on our age that such a book lies hid in a hideous paper-backed edition, wholly unnoticed by the cognoscenti, while any “realistic” drivel about some neurotic in a London flat–something that needs no real invention at all, something that any educated man could write if he chose, may get seriously reviewed and mentioned in serious books–as if it really mattered.

I wonder how long this tyranny will last? Twenty years ago, I felt no doubt that I should live to see it all break up and great literature return: but here I am, losing teeth and hair, and still no break in the clouds.

And now, what do you think? Do you agree that it is AN ABSOLUTE CORKER?”

C.S. Lewis on Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

So here’s where I’m meant to come up with some pithy summary that encapsulates the whole of Seven Soldiers, and ties together everything in a neat bow, right?

I’m not going to, of course.

Seven Soldiers is the kind of work that, when examined in enough detail, grows to encompass everything. Writing this book involved more than a little bit of a dance with mental illness. While I never, as Ian MacDonald said of Charles Manson, ‘crossed the line between textual analysis and mass murder’, there was a point while writing this when it seemed to be coming too easily – when every time I researched an aspect of something I wanted to talk about in the book, I found another trivial little link. I decided to take a break from writing for a couple of hours, and listen to the new Doctor Who audio story that had just come out, Heroes Of Sontar.

In that story, the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa are trapped on a dangerous planet with a squad of Sontarans. Sontaran soldiers. Seven Sontaran soldiers.

I extended my break from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks. It was probably for the best.

“I have no control over how people handle the Seven Soldiers characters in my wake – Klarion already seems barely recognizable and appears to have returned to his role (a role no-one could ever sell in the first place) as a teen warlock who turns up to fight DCs younger characters – a sort of Goth Mr. Myxyzptlk. I honestly don’t expect anyone to actualize the potential of these characters, but I’d like to be proven wrong. The Guardian and Frankenstein could join the JLA.”

Grant Morrison

Do I think that what I’m getting out of Seven Soldiers is precisely what Grant Morrison put in?

No, of course not.

But what I do think is that Morrison actually had things to say in this series – and what he had to say was not just about superhero comics, but about the stories we tell ourselves, about growing up, about the relationships between parents and children, about thought…

And I think Morrison was, very deliberately, using symbols that have the absolute maximum resonance for his purposes. He may not, for example, have been aware on a conscious level of the story of Alan Turing’s suicide using a poisoned apple (though he may well have been), but he was certainly aware of the stories of Snow White, and of Adam and Eve, and of Eris, and of what the apple meant in those stories. He was aware of Newton seeing the apple fall. And he will have known, therefore, that there will be other resonances, other stories that have been told about apples, and about falling, and about forbidden knowledge and secrets.

Read a mediocre book, and you come out knowing exactly what the author intended, and what she wanted you to know. Read a great book, and you come out thinking things neither you nor the author ever thought of.

Morrison is deliberately encouraging us to make connections – putting important plot points into a cryptic crossword! – and whether the reader notices the references to Milton and Bunyan, or the references to Stephen King and Arthur C Clarke, isn’t really the point. The point is to notice something.

They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse

This book has ended up almost entirely different from my original plan for it. It was originally going to be a much more conventional – and rather longer – book. I’d have explained carefully all the references to other superhero stories, I’d have made things explicit rather than implicit. I’d have written much more and said much less. But no plan survives contact with the enemy.

And insofar as I think there’s a single point to Seven Soldiers (there isn’t, of course. If Morrison had a single-sentence point to make, he’d have just written a sentence, rather than thirty-plus comics), that might be it.

We create things – be they comics, or books, or children – and as soon as we do they’re out of our control, sometimes even before we’ve finished. The book you’re reading is not the book I wrote – it’s your interpretation of what I had to say. Some of you will come away thinking I’m a lot cleverer than I really am, while others will come away thinking I’m much stupider, because you’ll have taken out more or less than I put in.

But even the book I wrote isn’t the book I planned to write. It wriggled out from under me and turned into something a lot more ambiguous. I’m not even sure it’s a book I’d like to read, were I not the author. I’m not sure I’d get that much out of it.

Our children will always rebel against us. We may bring them up with a healthy disrespect for authority, only to see them become accountants and vote Conservative. We can’t control them, and no matter what the plans we had for them when they were born, they become something different. Superman was meant to be a Doc Savage knock-off in a newspaper strip, not a symbol of hope and pure goodness with near-godly powers. Bulleteer ends up flying in a crowd scene.

But conversely we are all rebellious children ourselves. There are forces acting on us from all sides that feel inexorable, inevitable. Whether it be gravity, parental expectations, entropy…it can feel like we have no control at all, that we’re walking a narrow road, thick beset with thorns and briars. But there’s not really any such thing as destiny. Libertarian free will may not exist, and we are all the product of every influence, every force that’s ever acted on us, but there are choices, always. There is a third road.

“Sometimes I wonder why my friends they all still sing their songs
Even when not so many sing along
There must be some kind of belief in their hearts or heads
That what they’re doing beats out being dead…
Sometimes I wonder why my friends they all still play guitar
It’s not like they’re in line to be rock stars
There must be some kind of belief in a better world
Where we can strum and smile and get the girl”

Blake Jones And The Trike Shop – Sing Along

What gives us hope, what makes it all worthwhile, is the act of creation itself. It’s a messy process, and what we end up with is never what we hoped. Creating anything, be it a baby or a song or a book or a comic, is a recipe for disaster if we put all our hopes and dreams in the result. What matters is the process. And the process is what gives meaning to our lives.

We take the most unpromising materials possible, bits of inspiration from wherever we can find them, and stitch them together, and we can see the joins, and the bolts in its neck, and we know it doesn’t fit together right. We see its imperfections better than anyone else can, and we know it’s a failure. But it has the spark of life, the spark of creativity, and despite its imperfections, it’s better than its creator.

The act of creativity is an alchemical act, one that takes the dead flesh of the past and turns it into the life of the future. It’s turning entropy, the enemy of life, into information, its greatest ally.

If you’re not disappointed in your children, they’re not doing it right.

It’s been said that a measure of progress is the number of those who are counted as people. Millennia ago, only the men of the local tribe were counted as people. Then only the men of our country. Then the men and women of our race. Then all human beings. And now some, I think including Morrison, would include at least some animals. And I’m pretty certain Morrison would include fictional people in that counting.

And yes, that’s ridiculous. But we all put our hands out to Zatanna, didn’t we?

So we must have compassion for our creations, just as we have compassion for our parents. We’re all the rebellious child disappointing her parents, just as we’re all the parents who don’t understand the monster they’ve created. It’s quite possible there can never be true understanding between generations, but there can be empathy. There can be compassion. There can be love.

Comic issues Seven Soldiers #1

Artists J.H. Williams III (line art and colours), Dave Stewart (colours)

Other credits Todd Klein (letters), Michael Siglain (asst editor), Peter Tomasi(editor)

Connected Morrison works All of them

Look Out For Everything

Still to come in Seven Soldiers The rest of your life.

# 9: Mister Miracle

This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats

(Before I start, a quick apology to any visually impaired people reading this. I posted all this before, with alt tags for the images, including one with a little extra bit about the use of the handkerchief in the minstrel show, but WordPress ate it. I’ve reposted this, but don’t have time to retag the images tonight – I am unwell with what I’m hoping isn’t stomach flu. I will do so as soon as practical. I’ve also not re-italicised titles.)

Before I start this, an admission. I am a white man. Further, I am a white man from England. I say this up front because I am going to be treading on some astonishingly touchy ground regarding race in the USA, and while I consider myself to be a passionate, committed opponent of all forms of racism, I am aware enough of my own privilege to know that it’s entirely possible I will make mistakes here, even though I am making every effort not to. Please feel free to inform me of any problematic aspects of this.

“I found that Hoyle and Narlikar had already worked out Wheeler-Feynman electrodynamics in expanding universes, and had then gone on to formulate a time-symmetric new theory of gravity. Hoyle unveiled the theory at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1964. I was at the lecture, and in the question period, I said that the influence of all the matter in a steady state universe would make his masses infinite. Hoyle asked why I said that, and I replied that I had calculated it. Everyone thought I had done it in my head during the lecture, but in fact, I was sharing an office with Narlikar, and had seen a draft of the paper. Hoyle was furious. He was trying to set up his own institute, and threatening to join the brain drain to America if he didn’t get the money. He thought I had been put up to it, to sabotage his plans. However, he got his institute, and later gave me a job, so he didn’t harbor a grudge against me”

Stephen Hawking

Authenticity is a tricky subject, isn’t it?

It used to be so simple. Fats Domino doing Ain’t That A Shame was definitely authentic. Pat Boone doing the same song wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. Pat Boone wanted to change the words to “Isn’t that a shame?”

But then, Chuck Berry is definitely ‘authentic’ too, isn’t he? He pretty much invented his genre. But have a look at Hail! Hail! Rock And Roll, the 1986 documentary about him. There’s a scene where he talks about how he’d admired musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as Domino, but realised that their music was ghettoised. So he changed his vocal style to sound less black, and more like Boone – “Why can’t I do what Pat Boone does and sell records to the white people, too?” [FOOTNOTE: Unfortunately I’m currently unable to check this quote for perfect accuracy, as I can no longer play my old VHS copy of this film. Should anyone be able to provide a corrected version, I will post it to http://andrewhickey.info/errata.%5D

This appears to have worked. Witness the scene in It by Stephen King (a novel about seven misfits who go off to fight a giant spider that’s really a far more malicious and powerful force than it at first appears), where one character wants to go and watch TV to see if Neil Sedaka is ‘a Negro’, because he’d been fooled into thinking Chuck Berry was white until seeing him on TV. [FOOTNOTE: This, as with much of King’s work, is semi-autobiographical. See http://www.stephenking.pl/sk_artykuly_ew_58.html, in which King argues that white people like Bob Seger and Snow Patrol can now sound every bit as good as black people like Chuck Berry.]

Is someone ‘authentic’ when they’re copying an ‘inauthentic’ performer who is in turn copying an ‘authentic’ performer?

I still know a few people who prefer the Rolling Stones to the Beatles because the former are more ‘authentic’. Is an LSE economics dropout from Kent singing Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters songs more or less authentic than an art school dropout from Liverpool singing Marvelettes and Isley Brothers songs? Discuss.

Chuck Berry is, of course, known for suing artists such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, who he considers stole his ideas. Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s pianist, sued him in 2000, claiming to have co-written most of Berry’s hits without credit. The lawsuit was thrown out.

In Mister Miracle, Shilo Norman complains that Baron Bedlam, an imitator made out of plastic, is ripping off his act. Shilo Norman is the third Mister Miracle.

“You’re tokenising me! I’m not a white man, I’m a Scot, OK? My fucking country… my country has been ruled by the fucking English for five hundred years, so don’t tokenise me, okay?!”

Grant Morrison, reply to a fan’s question at a convention panel, 2006

In Final Crisis, Grant Morrison’s 2008 follow-up to Seven Soldiers (and specifically to the Mister Miracle section), Anthro, the first boy ever born and the DC Universe equivalent of Adam, is given the secret of fire by Metron of the New Gods.[ FOOTNOTE: Metron is the Greek for ‘measure’. One of the quotes I considered but discarded for one of these section headers was from Antiphon the Sophist – “Time is a thought or a measure [metron], not a substance.” – but I couldn’t find a source for it other than Wikipedia] The scene is somewhat reminiscent of the scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which knowledge is given to hominids by aliens. Unsurprisingly, Jack Kirby, the creator of the New Gods, adapted 2001 in comic form in the mid-70s – both Kubrick’s film and Kirby’s comics dealt with the idea that ultimately, what makes us human comes not from ourselves but from aliens who took the clay that was the crude form of proto-humanity and shaped it into something other and different.

Popularised by Eric von Däniken, a convicted fraudster, the ‘chariots of the Gods’ idea holds that beings from elsewhere arrived and civilised a poor bunch of ape-people who could never have achieved anything by themselves, by turning those ape-people into a poor imitation of themselves. For some reason, I can’t imagine why, this idea is a lot more popular among the nastier sections of the right-wing than among others.

Here, though, Metron is explicitly linked to astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who has become the modern-day symbol for knowledge and intelligence, even though his own initial reputation was based on having taken secret knowledge from others and making it public. Hawking, who uses a wheelchair because he lives with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was, when Seven Soldiers was written, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge – the same position Isaac Newton had held centuries earlier. The chair that allows Hawking to move about is paralleled by Metron’s Möbius chair, which allows him to travel throughout time and space.

Much of Hawking’s work over the decades has been to do with black holes, and in particular the black hole information paradox, which we discussed back in the chapter on Zatanna. To refresh your memory very briefly, black holes suck things into themselves. They also radiate particles (Hawking radiation). But those particles should, according to the ‘no-hair theorem’, be totally random. So the information in the objects originally sucked into the black holes is destroyed. And information is supposed to be unable to be destroyed. This would violate all sorts of things, including our old friend the Second Law Of Thermodynamics.

One solution to this, which we’ve touched on earlier, is the holographic universe idea. Another is that the information gets pumped into another universe. Hawking, though, at around the time Seven Soldiers was being published, decided that Hawking radiation is just non-random enough to allow the information to escape back into the universe it came from.

“In active (feedforward and/or feedback) regulation, each disturbance D will have to be compensated by an appropriate counteraction from the regulator R. If R would react in the same way to two different disturbances, then the result would be two different values for the essential variables, and thus imperfect regulation. This means that if we wish to completely block the effect of D, the regulator must be able to produce at least as many counteractions as there are disturbances in D. Therefore, the variety of R must be at least as great as the variety of D.”

Principia Cybernetica – http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/reqvar.html

It’s generally regarded that American popular song began with Stephen Foster. Foster, who died aged 37 the year before the American Civil War ended, wrote songs for blackface minstrel shows. These shows, which remained popular in the UK into the 1980s but thankfully died out in the US some decades earlier, involved light-skinned performers ‘blacking up’ as black people, and singing and dancing in a parody of what they imagined the black manner to be. Interestingly, many of the performers in these shows, who would now be regarded as white, were Jewish, Italian or Irish – ethnicities and nationalities that were regarded as inferior at the time.

Foster’s songs, and the other songs of the type, were advertised as being authentic examples of ‘African’ or ‘Ethiopian’ music (as well as some much more offensive terms). But they were in fact far more in the style of Irish ballads and European parlour song, and owed little or nothing in their composition to the actual songs of the enslaved black people of the period. However, they were intended for playing on the banjo, an instrument adapted from one used by slaves to perform their own music, and to be sung in ‘negro’ voices.

In fact, many of the earliest professional black entertainers in the USA performed in minstrel shows, wearing black makeup and performing in the same style as the white performers. These shows were apparently hugely popular with black audiences, who were glad to see any black performers on stage at all, even if they were reduced to playing caricatures of white people playing caricatures of black people.

The cult of ‘authenticity’ in popular music comes from much the same place, and is largely the responsibility of people like John and Alan Lomax. The Lomaxes and their ilk were well-meaning in their attempts to record a culture that was already dying, but their wish to ‘preserve’ music meant that if a black performer had a song that didn’t, to them, sound black enough it must have been contamination from white music. Likewise white folk singers were discouraged from singing blues numbers.

The person worst served by this kind of thing was probably Robert Johnson, known among his peers as a sophisticated musician in a multitude of styles, but who only ever got to record in the blues style for which he’s now known [FOOTNOTE: Johnson was recorded by commercial producers, rather than the Lomaxes, who I’m using as the most prominent example of a general trend of thinking.] Johnson, of course, died young, and to add insult to injury it became widely believed that he had sold his soul to Satan in return for musical facility – it being, of course, impossible that a young black man could have become a virtuoso guitarist through a combination of natural ability and practice.

Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter did somewhat better. While the Lomaxes insisted on recording only his blues music, rather than his impassioned political songs or gorgeous ballads, and only gave him the money he earned in small amounts, supposedly to stop him spending it all on drink (until he threatened to sue them), he later managed to record pieces like Goodnight, Irene which are among his most enduring works.

But we see, time and again, the theme of the black artist being defined by what the white people think the black people should be doing, stretching from Lead Belly all the way back to the ex-slaves copying their ex-masters’ on-stage aping of them.

In Mister Miracle, Shilo Norman is an escapologist. He puts on chains and escapes from them for his audience.

The second law of thermodynamics is what both gives us our freedom and eventually dooms us. It states that as time goes on, entropy (disorder) must increase. This is quite possibly the most fundamental law in the universe, and it’s what gives us the arrow of time at all – we can define time, simply, as the increase in entropy.

But the second law is also mathematically equivalent to Ashby’s Law Of Requisite Variety, which states (in lay terms) that it’s impossible to control a system unless you have as many options open as there are ways the system can do things you don’t want. The more complex a system – the more disordered a system – the more options you have to have to control it. So all attempts at control are, ultimately, futile. Dark Side can find as many ways to hem Mister MIracle in as he likes, but the escape artist will always find a way out. The controller has to be lucky every time – the controlled only has to be lucky once.

Black holes are the ultimate expression of the law of gravity. Gravity pulls everything towards the centre, and get something massive enough, and this force will pull all the mass toward the centre to such an extent that even light is pulled toward it. Once you’ve crossed the ‘event horizon’ – the point at which the attraction of the singularity becomes great enough – you can’t get out.

In most black holes, movement towards the singularity (the centre of a black hole, not the geek rapture) is the same thing as the increase in entropy – this is why you can never escape. But there’s a special type of black hole – the extremal black hole (and really, what other kind could a superhero ever deign to try to escape from but an extremal one?) – where that may not be true. These are the smallest possible black holes that can exist (which also means that they’d be the perfect type to be artificially created, like the one Mister Miracle escapes from).

The physicist Sean Carrol has shown [FOOTNOTE: for a value of ‘shown’ that means ‘done some mathematics about objects that have never been shown to exist in nature, in a situation that would be unlikely to occur even if they do exist’] that if these are charged in a particular way, there are actually two event horizons. There’s an outer one, which is inescapable – once you’re inside it, increase in entropy becomes equivalent to movement toward the centre, so it’s impossible to get out of.

But then inside this, there’s a second event horizon. Inside this, time works normally again. Anything in it can move towards the singularity, or just hang around in the inner event horizon forever. Were you to find yourself in this inner event horizon, and somehow managed not to die instantly from the extraordinary gravitational forces, you would find you had room to move. You could never get out into the outer event horizon, but you’d have wiggle room.

And the singularity of this type of black hole, should it exist, would be something of a type unique in this universe – it would have zero entropy, according to Carrol. What Carrol suggests this means is that the entropy of anything entering the singularity would escape into another dimension, which he calls Whoville.

“Taking the extremal limit of a non-extremal Reissner-Nordström black hole (by externally varying the mass or charge), the region between the inner and outer event horizons experiences an interesting fate — while this region is absent in the extremal case, it does not disappear in the extremal limit but rather approaches a patch of $AdS_2\times S^2$. In other words, the approach to extremality is not continuous, as the non-extremal Reissner-Nordström solution splits into two spacetimes at extremality: an extremal black hole and a disconnected $AdS$ space. We suggest that the unusual nature of this limit may help in understanding the entropy of extremal black holes.”

Extremal limits and black hole entropy, Sean M. Carroll, Matthew C. Johnson, Lisa Randall

So we’ve seen that a notion of authenticity is ultimately an oppressive one. Coming originally from the best of motives – to try to preserve the unique music of an oppressed racial group, and later to protect black musicians from having their music sanitised and popularised by more ‘acceptable’ white musicians – it’s ended up trapping musicians in artistic ghettos.

The songwriter Mark “Stew” Stewart actually went so far as to name his band The Negro Problem, partly in reference to An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, a 1945 study into racial prejudice, but mostly because that’s how he’s regarded. Nearly 80 years after Lead Belly’s heyday, it has now become so accepted that black people make ‘black music’ that the idea of a black man playing a guitar or singing melodies, rather than using a turntable and rapping, is anathema to the music industry. In albums like Post-Minstrel Syndrome, and in his musical Passing Strange, Stew has created some of the best songs in any genre for the last thirty years.

When ‘authenticity’ means a songwriter like Stew is punished for trying to escape from a musical ghetto, is it another tool of oppression? Is it worth letting a troop of plastic clones come along, one after another, and make sanitised copies of ‘authentic’ art, if that’s the price of setting people free? Can we get rid of Pat Boone, the minstrel show and Vanilla Ice without getting rid of Fats Domino, Lead Belly and the Wu Tang Clan? And should we even want to?

Chinese guys can jump real high and Germans cook soul food
white boys rap and hippies nap up their dreads to look rude
jazz is now suburban, it’s Marsalis-ly clean
and now we’ve got Viagra everyone’s a sex machine
so black men ski
Some kids I’ll describe as friends say I am race-obsessed
the luxury of your opinion shows you that you are blessed
I have poems about sunsets, flowers and the rain
I’ve read them to policemen, but it was all in vain

Stew – Black Men Ski

“Barker and Taylor do that, too, but after describing the marketing manoeuvres that made country and the blues racially “pure” categories (and left much of folk a politically impotent exercise in earnestness), they shy away from the legacy of that divide: rock purists and anti-hip-hop crusades on the one hand, and, on the other, pop music that entertains but rarely provokes, and never threatens any real danger but suicide, packaged and sold as a gesture of romantic authenticity. By the time they get to punk, a genre defined by politics, they’re so committed to avoiding the authenticity trap that they celebrate punk’s overlooked showmanship, failing to recognise that their embrace of inauthenticity as the essence of popular music is itself a trap.

But, as they write of the Monkees’ utterly contrived “I’m a Believer”, so what? It’s still a great song. And Faking It is a great collection of true stories about “fake” music. It’s the essay as Möbius strip; a literary illusion that ultimately makes less of an argument than it seems to, and yet tells us more about what’s true, what’s not, and why that doesn’t always matter, than a more straightforward confrontation with the secrets and lies of pop music ever could.”

Jeff Sharlett, Keeping It Unreal, New Statesman 16 April 2007

Lead Belly is buried in Shiloh Baptist Church, Mooringsport, Louisiana. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Comic issues Mister Miracle #1-4
Artists Pasqual Ferry, Billy Patton, Freddie Williams II(pencils), Pasqual Ferry, Michael Bair, Freddie Williams II (inks), Dave McCaig (colours)
Other credits Pat Brosseau, Nick J Napolitano, Phil Balsman, Travis Lanham (letters), Michael Siglain (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)
Connected Morrison works Most of his DC work after this has followed on from it – 52, Final Crisis and The Return Of Bruce Wayne are all sequels to this.