How To Live In A Comic

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF

Recently, there has been much speculation around Nick Bostrom’s paper, “Are You Living In A Comic Book?”, which argued that given how easily comic books can be created, and the number of characters that appear in them, it is more likely that any given individual is a character in a comic book rather than a ‘real’ person in ‘reality’ (if such a thing as an objective reality even exists, which Tegmark et. al. give us ample grounds for disbelieving).

Certainly, Bostrom’s hypothesis would give us an explanation for some of the more inexplicable phenomena we see every day. People’s appearances changing, as they do every so often, could be down to a new artist coming on to the book – or perhaps to a guest appearance in another title. The occasional inconsistencies one sees in the world, such as the recent tragic destruction of Starlight City, when for three weeks people from Megapolis could enter and leave the city and from their point of view everyone there was alive and well, while from the point of view of anyone in Starlight the city was devastated and a million people were killed, could be the result of an issue of a crossover coming out out of sequence. I am sure similar examples will occur to the reader.

So, accepting Bostrom’s claims, what should be our response? How is one to live, in a universe where one is at the mercy of many capricious gods (writers, editors, artists, readers and so forth)? The higher one sets the probability that one is living in a comic book, the more important this question is. What we might call the four-colour problem could simply be stated as – “How can one maximise one’s healthy lifespan in a universe created for entertainment purposes?”

Firstly, one must make the assumption that one only has an existence when in a panel of the comic – or when performing actions that it is heavily implied must happen between panels. For example, I am a college professor. I very much doubt that my current actions (writing this paper) are happening on panel, and my life is not interesting enough to read about. It is entirely possible, though, that one of my students is the star of the comic – possibly mild-mannered young Billy Bradshaw in my class has some connection with the new moth-powered vigilante who turned up in town at the same time he did. Or maybe my colleague in the physics department, Dr Hermann Von Mörder, has some sort of double life.

Of course, that is an absurdity – I deliberately chose Billy and Hermann because they, like myself, lead uninteresting lives. But nonetheless, it is almost certain that my only appearances on-panel will be a brief picture of me in the middle distance giving a lecture, while something more interesting happens in the foreground. However, as I am a professor it is implied that I write research papers, and hence this paper gets written off-panel.

Hanson, among others, suggests that in this case one should try to live as exciting and interesting a life as possible, so one maximises one’s on-panel appearances, and also minimises the likelihood of the comic getting cancelled. However, examining cases where this strategy has been attempted tends to show that this is at best a flawed strategy. One would have considered the life of Urania, The Nuclear Woman, to be entertaining enough for even the most jaded palates, with her day-job as a lion tamer, her love triangle with the prince of the K’zaan Intergalactic Empire and Dinoman The Human Dinosaur, and her role in defending the earth against no less than twenty-seven alien invasions. Nonetheless, Ms Urania was last seen in a rocket-ship whose controls had become jammed, heading straight into a black hole.

In fact, if one looks at the people who have had the most exciting lives, one can see that with the exception of The Big Three, they have a tendency to die young. Many, of course, come back from death, but this is by no means guaranteed.

However, the fates of our heroes are as nothing to the fates of those we could call, for want of a better term, supporting cast. At least five times, the entire staff of a major Metropolitan newspaper with connections to Hyperman have been wiped from existence and replaced with an entirely different staff, none of whom seem aware of the previous people to have done their jobs (this seems to happen at roughly the same frequency which Hyperman gets a new hairstyle). Only two reporters seem immune to this, and one of those is constantly getting dropped off tall buildings, kidnapped by arms smugglers, and otherwise inconvenienced.

So the solution would seem to be that one should aim to be a bystander at as many important events as possible, whilst avoiding being in any way involved in them. Probably the optimal strategy would be to invest in several wigs, false moustaches etc, and try to be in as many crowds as possible. Attend events such as exhibitions of mummified Egyptian cats, lectures on riddles in Anglo-Saxon poetry, public displays of skill involving superheroes along with easily-replaceable dangerous-looking-but-harmless objects, and so forth. Maybe take on multiple part-time jobs – working as a cleaner, one could easily get work at a major Metropolitan newspaper, a nuclear test site *and* the offices of a corporation belonging to a mysterious reclusive billionaire.

But on no account should you speak at these events, and nor should you appear vulnerable or in need of rescue. Remember the case of B. B was a bystander who seemed to have a long, healthy life ahead of him in crowd scenes. But on being rescued once, he made the mistake of saying “Gee, t’anks, you’re my fav’rit”. B quickly moved from being a bystander to being comic relief, getting involved in hair-brained money-making schemes, irritating aliens who kidnapped him by mistake, and generally having an exciting life. But then, all of a sudden, B disappeared. It is conjectured that the writer(s?) grew tired of him.

If you wish a long life, spend as much as you can in the gutters, and the remainder looking at the stars, but from afar.

[For those without a clue what this was about, see here and especially this ]

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5 Responses to How To Live In A Comic

  1. Since, Professor, we live in nostalgic times, then there is another solution at hand – although it is one only available to the very young. Should this paper be found by any impressionable youths, I urge them to take up a career in journalism. If they are lucky, then they can expect a long and above all, safe job covering the lives of the super-powered from, if you will, ground level.
    Acting as the everyman figure protects one in every way – one gains all the advantages of the popular super-hero without the disadvantages and dangers that are normally part and parcel of that life. Of course, there is always the danger of being crushed to death by, say. a carelessly thrown Volkswagen Beetle, but then that is a risk that we all run on a day-to-d

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I would point the learned gentleman to the sad case of the death of P. Sheldon, as described in Busiek, Stern and Anacleto, 2010.

  2. RAB says:

    Masterfully presented, professor!

    It seems to me, however, that one of the greatest risks one may take upon realizing that one is a fictional construct inhabiting a panel-based entertainment medium is to say or do anything that reveals awareness of this situation. To say out loud “I’m a character in a comic book” or “Our very existence is the product of a troubled imagination” is to risk being labelled as “self-referential” or “metatextual” or even “Morrisonian” (after the reputed Gaelic deity “Son of Moore”) thereby increasing the possibility of your existence being purged at the next reshuffling of reality by some demiurge wishing to return you to a simpler and more innocent state.

    Worse still, as an academic you make an ideal candidate for populist caricature as an intellectual elitist, particularly if the powers-that-be have some lingering resentment against teachers or other authority figures. The act of writing this paper has placed your head on the chopping block, my friend!

    Still, I’ve devised a cunning scheme to save us all. What we need to do is create our own fictional construct of the reality in which we are fictions, and then within that construct replicate ourselves as fictions. The recursive nature of this metaconstruct will provide ample room in which for us to hide while working to take control of those who control the construct we now inhabit. The only hazard this poses is if they were to somehow find o

  3. pillock says:

    As usual, Professor, you approach the true description of affairs so nearly that it seems inconceivable you should miss it by accident…and yet, you do. Clearly the safest course inside such a fictional universe would be to identify which roles enlist the heroic-fantasy’s basic structural character in supporting one’s continued well-being, and then do whatever one can to adopt those roles. The continually-kidnapped reporter whose example you dismiss so offhandedly show us the correct way to align oneself with these principles: any number of faceless individuals in a crowd might be sacrificed to plot, but the single person in extreme danger is always rescued by Hyperman, and therefore it seems that one should never see an open window without contriving to fall out of it, as many times a day as possible, and the easiest way to keep oneself safe from the depredations of a supervillain would be to give said villain as many excellent reasons to want you dead as you can think of. Arranging to be kidnapped then represents the pinnacle of sensible behaviour in such a universe, especially if some sort of ticking time-bomb or deadly hourglass contraption can be included in the scenario. For the greater the danger, the better the chance of rescue — and if the danger is so great that saving you means Hyperman must put himself in a position where his own life will be threatened, the probability of rescue for you approaches unity. In fact the only possible way your rescue might be thwarted in such a case, would be in the extremely unlikely event that a writer deliberately decided to undermine the logic that supported his own story! Perhaps deciding that Hyperman needs to be taught some sad lesson about how even he can’t save everyone. But such eventualities must be considered to be outliers; and once they have occurred we might expect that no writer, even the most ludicrously out-of-touch, would see any reason to repeat that depressing “lesson” for many, many years to come — since “very special” moral instructions of this type can only remain “very special” if they are not endlessly, pointlessly, arbitrarily repeated. And in any case if we are postulating the existence of a capricious Writer, then I think we must not fail to also imagine an Editor, whose prudent intervention in the comic’s production would nip such foolish storytelling decisions in the

  4. Dr. Psycho says:

    Of course, everyone commenting here is neglecting two of the most interesting aspects of being a character in a comic book:
    1) That we would not simply live once and then out, out brief candle. Rather, we would exist in a perpetual limbo, unaware but extant, until our stories are read by some interested person.
    2) That although in each reading of our stories, we would be going through the same motions and speaking the same words, each reader would imbue us with unique emotions and responses — even the words we speak might be witless once, profound another time, sarcastic in a third reading, and so on.
    Indeed, as McCloud so vividly demonstrates in the off-panel murder in his Understanding Comics, some of the most varied and remarkable parts of our lives may be what occurs off-panel.
    If one were, for instance, a supporting character in Urania’s stories, a never-married woman in her forties, one might be a sexually repressed spinster with an unadmitted crush on the heroine, or her lover, or the discreetly-kept mistress of a dashing gentleman, or in a long-term but not cohabiting lesbian relationship, or a bisexual swinger, or rather all of those and more, depending on the thoughts of the reader.
    It might be that the happiest and liveliest life among comic book characters would be that of an especially interesting and/or ambiguous supporting character, leading thousands of parallel lives in the minds of readers.

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