Degrees Of Freedom – Mister Miracle, Darkseid, and Morrison Doing Kirby (or Why Kirby Matters) (Hyperpost 8)
The reason I talk about Morrison so much is that, more than any other writer I know of, he manages to deal with a whole ton of issues that I’m interested in (the nature of consciousness and creation, trying to live freely in an unfree world, levels of reality, and basically see every other post I’ve made on this blog…) and unlike someone like Robert Anton Wilson (a very similar writer in terms of themes) he makes these themes integral parts of his fiction, rather than just having characters state those views.
But Morrison definitely has antecedents in the comics world. Most obvious is Alan Moore – and entire books could be written on the complicated influence Moore has had over Morrison’s work even while Morrison tries to distance himself from that influence – but equally important is Jack Kirby,
If you’re not a comics person, you probably don’t know the name Jack Kirby, but you definitely know his work. He created or co-created The Fantastic Four, Etrigan the Demon, Captain America, Darkseid, Doctor Doom, The Challengers Of The Unknown, Iron Man, Kamandi, The Incredible Hulk, Devil Dinosaur, The X-Men, Thor, the Silver Surfer and hundreds of other characters. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kirby was one of the twenty or so most influential creative artists of the twentieth century (off the top of my head the others would be The Beatles, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, James Joyce, Siegel & Shuster, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Will Eisner, Stravinsky, Picasso, Borges… he’s up there with those in terms of all-pervading cultural influence).
Kirby was primarily a visual artist, who did his best-known work in collaboration with writers (early on with Joe Simon, later with Stan Lee), but while he often didn’t write the dialogue for his stories, he was a great *concept* creator (and for most of his work with Lee in particular, he did at least half the job that one would normally think of as writing). But his best work, and the one that influences Morrison most, is his early-1970s Fourth World group of series.
The Fourth World stories were four separate comic series – New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle and Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen, which between them told the (sadly never-finished due to cancellations) story of a Manichean conflict between two sets of gods – the good gods of New Genesis against the evil ones of Apokolips – and in particular the story of the conflict between Darkseid, evil ruler of Apokolips, and his two sons – his biological son Orion, brought up on New Genesis, and his adopted son Scott “Mister Miracle” Free, who was born on New Genesis. (George Lucas pinched much of the relationship between Orion and Darkseid for Star Wars – Darth Vader is Darkseid wearing Doctor Doom’s mask, but nowhere near as scary as either).
Trying to read stuff into Kirby’s work is a complicated proposition – Kirby was simultaneously almost primitivist in his work and deeply thoughtful about it. He often slaps the reader around the face with obvious metaphors and characters named things like Verman Vundabar (a militaristic man with a monocle) or Lashina (she likes whips…) as if subtext was something that he’d heard about, but decided was for other people.
On the other hand, he created these works at a fever pitch – three pages or more a day, many days, and put chunks of his own life into the stories (Mister Miracle’s wife, Big Barda, being based on Kirby’s own wife). And his works have a power and weight behind them that nothing else from that time does. And Kirby was far more aware of the potential to do multi-layered symbolic stories than one might thing – two of his other projects of around this time were a graphic novel adaptation of 2001 and an (unpublished) Prisoner comic series.
So often, when we look at Kirby’s best work, we find an obvious – metaphor is too kind a word – thing that’s obviously, blatantly, representative of another thing. But underneath that, we find seemingly simplistic goodies-vs-baddies stories carrying a ton of allegorical weight.
Take the conflict between Darkseid and Mister Miracle. Darkseid is a tyrant who is so scared of death – so scared of non-existence, that he has to take control over everything. He wants to remake the universe in his image. As I put it in an earlier post:
Darkseid has looked at the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thought “fuck that”. Or, more likely, “Bother not Darkseid with your ‘entropy’ and your ‘universal laws’ Obeisance to laws, made by man or nature, is the morality of the slave. The morality of Darkseid is conquest. Darkseid is all.”
That was inspired by a line from one of Grant Morrison’s better takes on the Fourth World characters, Rock Of Ages – “I will remake the entire universe in the image of my soul, Desaad… and when at last I turn to look upon the eternal desolation I have wrought… I will see Darkseid, as in a mirror… and know what fear is.”
Darkseid needs to control the universe, to reshape it, to remove choice from everyone else. Which means removing knowledge and options from everyone else. In various stories Morrison has Darkseid producing slaves with their faces covered by hands in echo of the three wise monkeys, or has characters burning books saying (in echo of the apocryphal quote attributed to Caliph Umar) “If it agrees with Darkseid it is redundant, if it disagrees with Darkseid it is heresy”.
Darkseid’s quest for the anti-life equation is all part of this – he’s after a way to get complete control, and control *is* the opposite of life – life grows and evolves by exploiting new niches, by changing, by being uncontrolled. What Darkseid really wants is to do what I described in my response to Millennium – to (HORRIBLE MIXED METAPHOR ALERT!!!) prune away all the branches of the web of time (END OF MIXED METAPHOR), making Darkseid the only one who can make decisions for the entire universe.
Except we know it doesn’t work like that, don’t we?
Scott Free – Mister Miracle – is an escapologist. When weighted against someone who wants to control the entire universe, that says a lot. Escapology is all about escaping from control – about taking a situation which someone else has tried to control utterly, where they’ve tried to restrict all your options, so you can’t move *at all*, and exploiting whatever tiny leeway they’ve given you to get yourself complete freedom. It’s about using the one option you have to get all your options back.
In this light, the fact that Mister Miracle is often *not* using conventional escapology, but is often cheating using technology, is not a downside to the character, it merely makes him a hacker (in this sense ), which is in many ways analogous to escapology – much of ‘hacker culture’ has been about turning tools of repression around to gain increased freedom (for example the GNU GPL, which uses copyright law to ensure that no-one can stop anyone copying GNU software). There is a mathematical connection I won’t go into here between the second law of thermodynamics (which says everything decays), Ashby’s Law (which says you can never completely control a system) and information theory (which is why information-processing devices often wrongly get referred to as cybernetic), so it’s appropriate that he’d use computers like Motherbox to help evade restrictions both literal and metaphorical.
No matter how tight Darkseid’s fist grows, Mister Miracle can slip through it. Anti-life can never beat the Human Factor.
Can You Rewrite History, Even One Line? Doctor Who, The Web Of Time, And A Response To Millennium (Hyperpost 7)
To start with, let’s look at Millennium Elephant’s response.
Now, I actually agree with the vast majority of what Millennium is saying here – only really disagreeing with the assertion that free will exists, which I think is a debatable proposition (but he’s intelligent enough to say “Though if we are wrong about that it makes no difference because all our actions, including believing we have free will, are all pre-determined anyway!” – acceptance of the possibility that one *could* be wrong is, to my mind, the basis for all rational discussion). I’m also less convinced of the Copenhagen interpretation than he is – but like him, don’t actually see it as incompatible with the many-worlds interpretation, but rather that they’re both metaphors for what’s Actually Going On, which is some not-readily-describable combination of the different interpretations.
(Luckily, for the purposes of this series of essays, I’m more interested in what’s interesting than what’s right – I’m trying to play with a whole bunch of interrelated ideas here, about canon and continuity, time and hypertime).
However, what I *do* disagree with is the assertion that, for Doctor Who at least, the Copenhagen Interpretation makes us more responsible for the consequences of our actions than the variant of the Many Worlds interpretation that I have been referring to (with a hat tip to Messrs. Morrison & Waid) as Hypertime (Doctor Who fans may be familiar with a similar-but-possibly-distinct idea under the name of The Fugue).
I’m going to attempt to show this, in the time-honoured tradition of Doctor Who fans, by referring to a single line from one story – in this case 1985′s Attack Of The Cybermen, where the Doctor refers to ‘the web of time’ in passing.
Now that line has got a lot of attention in various fanfics and spinoffery in the twenty-four years since the episode was transmitted, and there’s a reason for that – the image of time as a web, rather than the more conventional line, says quite a lot.
And this image is compatible both with the ‘hypertime’ view, and with actions carrying a *lot* of weight.
Imagine that time *is* like a web – all the points of all the multiple universes are connected to other points. A normal person’s life follows a line from one point to another to a third, and will always be a consistent timeline, because they’re only travelling forward at a rate of sixty seconds per minute.
Now imagine that every time you make a decision, you strengthen one connection (the one where you make that decision) but break other connections from that point – from a point of view outside time (and such a point of view exists in Doctor Who, though I suspect not in reality, whatever that is) – something like the collapse of the waveform in the Copenhagen Interpretation, but this is breaking off connections between different objectively-existing universes.
This would mean that everyone had a consistent history – once you’ve broken a connection, there are universes you ‘can’t get to from here’, those that directly contradicted the past decision. But it would also mean that the Doctor had an awesome responsibility as a time traveller, and his decisions would matter not only for him but for all the universe.
For the other thing about a web, along with its interconnectedness, is its fragility.
Every time the Doctor makes a decision, he breaks and makes connections between different points of time – those he’s been to before and will be again. He can alter some things – so long as there’s a way for a consistent timeline to route through all the points he’s visited. So he can save a life that wasn’t saved before, because there is a consistent universe where that person was saved, but he can’t kill Hitler in 1933, because there’s no way to make that consistent with the universes he’s visited in the past.
Because the Doctor is very aware of something – as he travels up and down his ‘timeline’ in the web of time, he’s selecting a smaller and smaller number of possible timelines, and condemning more and more to impossibility. That’s bad enough in itself, but we all do that every time we make a decision.
But he could – all too easily – break a segment of his own timeline off altogether. If he makes the wrong decisions at points A and B, then the whole section of his timeline between those points could become completely detached from the rest of the web, inaccessible from either past or future. Which would of course mean condemning all the inhabitants of that fragment of the web of time to nonexistence… the more he interferes – the more he does *anything* – the more likely this becomes, but he can’t use that as an excuse *not* to intervene.
(And of course from there we can get to all sorts of story possibilities like villains trying to make ‘pocket timelines’ to control, people in broken-off fragments trying to rejoin their fragment to reality, the Doctor unable to save entire planets because doing so would break the last connection between universes, and so on).
This would also, of course, help explain why the rest of the Gallifreyans never meddle (with the exception of all the meddlers). It’s just too dangerous – making choices has *too many* consequences.
(I’m not suggesting that this is the case in real-world physics, of course – in fact I think it’s nonsensical for multiple different reasons – but I think it *is* the case in my own Doctor Who ‘canon’…)