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

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).

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

  1. pillock says:

    To me, one of the truly refreshing things about Kirby’s Fourth World is that it is not about Good vs. Evil. And while I broadly agree with Steven Grant about what a myth is, I don’t agree that the crazy super-stories are debarred from the definition just because they don’t make it into the conceptual groundwater as Freud, Marx, Einstein, Aquinas and Locke have. Because it doesn’t matter if they have: no one looks to comic books for science (and they shouldn’t), but I don’t think it’s totally crazy to suggest that all morality is cosmological. One doesn’t look to Milton for science, either — and if superhero comics have an ethical accent, I think you’ve got to concede it’s either all about some crude mechanism of social control and conformity, or it’s actually somewhat more substantial than that. In the comic books, after all, Marx and Freud rarely make the scene: in this sense, Superman’s world is pretty darn myth-free. But it’s definitely got some kind of alternative cosmological heft to it, so where does that come from? As much as I think his comments are pretty good and clear, Grant seems to focus on the myth part of “modern mythology” and not so much on the modernity part — surely if nothing else the superheroes are an excellent case-study in the cosmologically-decentred moral efforts of modern people…I mean that’s why they wear their underwear on the outside in the first placem isn’t it?

    The story thing, though…I think when you bring up the idea of “explanatory power” to say that in the case of equal effectiveness the “best story” ought to win…well, isn’t that just a hair shy of being Kuhn, anyway? Science isn’t culturally-determined, but what makes a “better story” about it is

    Oops, I had a couple more thoughts about this, now where did they go…here thinky-thinky-thinky…

  2. Josh says:

    You were curious if any of S. Grant’s stuff is decent. He did scripting with Ellis doing the plot to the last few arcs of X-Man. I thought there was some good stuff in that. For some reason the only other thing I can remember is “My Flesh is Cool” which I didn’t dig.

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