Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse: Adalbert Arcane’s Notes and Theories to 976 SQ. FT.

Continuing with Adalbert Arcane’s expanded Notes & Theories to Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse (by Tom Kaczynski, Fantagraphics, 2022). This time we have Adalbert’s notes to two stories: 100 Decibels, 976 SQ. Ft. All posts in this series can be accessed here.

100 DECIBELS

It is currently unknown why the author has created this comic. It is also clear that he had not read Schopenhauer’s On Noise at this time.

The map from 976 SQ. FT.

976 SQ. FT.

976 SQ FT (976) is another story that the author claims is “autobiographical.” We have been able to corroborate some of the details. For example, the map (see above) included with the story is accurate; the area depicted exists in Brooklyn, just around the Manhattan Bridge overpass. Apocryphally it appears that the small neighborhood near DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and Vinegar Hill briefly attempted to rebrand as RAMBO (Right After the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). The unfortunate rename was an early warning signal. The irrational real estate bubble was ready to burst and inaugurate a big recession of the American economy (Global Crisis of 2007-8). We can confirm that several massive condominium complexes were being built in and around the neighborhood at the time, so the psychotectural (psycho-architectural) effects of the structure are plausible.

Haunted by the Future

The story is ostensibly a gentrification horror narrative. It is a trope common enough and not particularly original. Typically, new construction of some kind disturbs the residents of a neighborhood. The mystery is usually solved when the source of the haunting is revealed as a disturbed grave, burial ground, or some other source of crime that stains this piece of land (see Poltergeist, Pet Sematary, etc.). 

So what are we afraid of? Horror tends to rely on past transgressions. It is usually guilt of past misdeeds that torments the protagonist. Or, in other variations, a past justice must be righted, and the repercussions emanate into the present, sometimes haunting the innocent (this is also the psychology of original sin).

Tom Kaczynski’s story subverts the trope by ostensibly placing the source of the haunting into the future. Why should only the past haunt us? Why can’t the future haunt us as well? Our future is colonized by reified collective apocalyptic nightmare entities: climate, pandemic, overpopulation, war, etc. ad nauseam. Their presence is precisely that of a specter. They always appear or recede from a fog of statistics, politics, and propaganda. Their contours change and fluctuate in indeterminate shapes like the cosmic horrors of HP Lovecraft. But is this really what we are afraid of?

Apocalypse / Utopia

The anticipation of a future event is real horror. What will happen next? Our imagination takes over creating a variety of scenarios from benign to terrifying. The future is scary. Take an everyday person of modest means, someone who just lives their life in the present moment. No war, no crime, just a regular job that becomes routine and boring. Where is the fear? The small everyday fears, tend to resolve quickly. A scary office meeting turns out better than expected. A worrisome confrontation with a friend or partner resolves without a major incident. This works on a narrative level as well. Think of all the “cheap scares” you have to endure before the final source of the haunting is revealed in a film or comic book.

Hermetic Utopia

Time and space and fear intertwine. Fear grows uncontrollably when you begin to expand the anticipated event in size (space) and distance (time). One must not forget that atmosphere contributes to fear. Lighting, fog, etc. all enhance the uncertainty of the outcome and inflate the fear. In other cases, massive amounts of data, enormous or tiny numbers, act as a kind of information fog—similar to the fog of war—and further enhance the fear response. The climate apocalypse is an example of one such inflated event. The formula works always: distant the future + significant the time gap + data fog = the apocalypse. [ 1 ]

The Pleasure of the Apocalypse

We often rely on artifice: films, television, novels, comic books. But this isn’t real. It is a game to jolt some old instinct awake; fear detourned to pleasure. One can argue that the proliferation of apocalyptic media is really a wish to try to break out of our present predicament. In that sense, most apocalyptic fiction and politics must be seen as a subgenre of utopian literature. It ultimately serves as a way to shift attention from our present predicament to some new, largely unspecified world beyond the veil of the apocalypse. It cannot be the real source of the horror.

No Space is the Place

Fiction, propaganda, etc. rely on distance (in time or space) to inflate the fear of the future or the other. However, our spatial & time horizons have shrunk. In 976, the horizon (of meaning) is very literally blocked by the massive condominium. Time and space are inextricable. As our spatial horizon shrinks [ 2 ], so does time. The past, present, and future become intertwined and compressed into a “flat circle.” Centuries squeeze, and time leaks between epochs. These leaks of time spill into our world. Concepts, ideas, dead individuals all become bound up into a Hauntological melange: time is out of joint; time is a flat circle; space is contracting and flattening; the future is here, but it’s not evenly distributed. We have a situation.

In the previous post on 10,000 Years, we examined the real fear permeating our minds: the permanent present. As such, 976 should be seen as the first story in the collection to explicitly point to the source of the haunting. It is neither the past nor the future, but the endless proliferation of the present. This is the true terror that haunts the apocalyptic minds in all Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse stories. For Lilli, the haunted protagonist of 976, the future residents of the condo who descend into her space (via entity gateways like MySpace) are really a proliferation of the present into the future… permanent present. What does the future hold? More of the same. Things cannot continue on the current path.

Distant Vistas

Space and time are necessary for critical distance. Without space, we can’t see the whole picture; we become trapped inside larger structures we can’t perceive. Without time we can’t perceive the change and the origins of our traps. In other words, we must wake up to the horror of living inside Mortonian hyperobjects. [ 3 ] 

We can also confirm that an old woman named Nadine lived in the area, and she owned a small dog.


Next time: White Noise, Phase Transition, and Noise, a History



NOTES:

[ 1 ] This is analogous to the “utopian gap” identified and theorized in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions by Fredric Jameson (Verso, 2007). Utopia must always exist beyond a gap of space or time. The gap is always vague and non-specific.

[ 2 ] This could be a callback to Kaczynski’s Vague Cities (VC, published by Uncivilized Books, 2005) [link to zine archive and PDF?], in which the light of the stars is slowly blotted out by the expansion of cities. Vague Cities is an early story exhibiting Romatiscist tendencies. Kaczynski views civilization as an artificial artifact in conflict with nature. In reality, cities are not consuming the world. They are gravity wells that concentrate humanity in smaller and smaller spaces. The growth of cities paradoxically removes humans from hinterlands and opens new vistas for uncontrolled natural space. While VC is a Romanticist screed against civilization running roughshod over nature, 976 diagnoses the problem more precisely. 

[ 3 ] See Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World by Timothy Morton (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)


Dreadstar #5-6 (1982)

dreadstar jim starlin

This post is one of a series of posts that examine Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar. Some of the concepts and plots discussed here are continuations of the previous posts. Dreadstar is a science-fiction space opera comic book, originally published in the 80s by Epic Comics, Marvel’s (now defunct) imprint for creator-owned projects.

Dreadstar #5

In #5, Syzygy, Oedi & Skeevo (what a name!) visit the ‘Commune,’ a community of scientists who defected from the 200-year war. They set up the Commune to keep doing science as science, a pure pursuit of knowledge. The Commune once stepped in when an incurable plague struck the Monarchy & Instrumentality. It saved the day, proving its usefulness to the two enemies. Eventually, they recognized the Commune as a sovereign and neutral entity. 

The two powers recognized the value of a high-tech neutral party. The Commune grew rich by selling high technology for war, the very thing they were set up to avoid. It turns out that the Commune also controls all mass communication in the galaxy and broadcasts programs in two formats to both enemies. Syzygy & gang are there to buy some air-time to get their message out. But nothing is easy, and they get attacked by Instrumentality agents who smuggled themselves onboard under a Hypno-camouflage spell.

The Commune is immense.

Deep Time

One thing about Dreadstar is that it exists in deep time. All events transpire against a backdrop of centuries, millennia, and millions of years. Starlin doesn’t shy away from detailing profound facts from deep history in every issue. The Commune, for example, is at least as old as the war, and we get the whole narrative as we approach the space colony. There’s also a sense that Vanth Dreadstar is very ancient, having arrived from a different galaxy. Characters like Oedi and Skeevo experience the events of Dreadstar as if naive newborns. They don’t have the deep knowledge of ancient times. Dreadstar, on the other hand, is almost re-living his old life in the Milky Way. How long ago was that? We don’t know yet.

The Commune seems modeled on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Although Starlin’s version gets corrupted almost from the beginning, as if to say that all institutions get corrupted, no matter how noble the original goal.

Tueton Smash!

Tueton Smash!

Anyway, the Instrumentality agents, a Cardinal & Bishop (with magic powers) and giant Hulk-like Tuetun (two-ton or Teuton?), get ahold of Syzygy and pals. The Papal mages ambush Syzygy and knock him out, while Tuetun ‘smashes’ his way after Oedi & Skeevo. The two rebels are overpowered, but they are more intelligent and nimble. Oedi eventually lures ‘two-ton’ into a trap: a floor slicked with oil, sending the giant Hulk-parody down a deep shaft. The two rescue Syzygy. The mission is over.

Dreadstar #6

Dreadstar’s mysterious Plan M is finally revealed in issue 6. Our band of revolutionaries breaches Instrumentality’s space siege of planet Teltoga. Due to the blockade, the planet has been in dire humanitarian need, and Dreadstar is here to help… AND to finally launch the first phase of Plan M.

Messiah Complex

SPOILERS! Plan M is diabolical. Dreadstar creates Maxilon or Max, an android messiah. Now we know what ‘M’ stands for. He’s programmed to be the perfect deity. He always does and says the right things. His unique subsonic transmitter can affect his followers subliminally and elicit a gut reaction. It’s almost a perfect robot-Jesus… except Max’s artificial god brain doesn’t have enough room to include self-preservation programming. Someone from the crew will have to guarantee the safety of the savior of the galaxy. That is foreshadowing some fun glitchy robot messiah hijinks in future issues!

Maxillon the Messiah. Bow to him!

Futurepast

It is always revealing to read science fiction from the past. It has been said that nothing dates worse than science fiction. Each era creates some specific limitation to the technology that makes no sense. In Dreadstar, we have magic and galaxy-spanning technological civilizations, but… robot brains can’t hold enough data.

Fight Fire With Fire

Dreadstar plans to use Max as the seed of a new religion to counter the twelve gods of Instrumentality. He bets that if he can peel pious followers away from Instrumentality’s state religion, he can put the galaxy on a path to peace.

Plan M proved to be very controversial in the letter columns. Most letters came out against it, calling out Dreadstar for cynically manipulating the very people he’s trying to save. But this seems like the perfect move for the character and the world Starlin built. Vanth has seen the Milky Way destroyed by conflict. He also participated in that conflict. Now–in a new galaxy (far, far away)–he is thinking meta. He knows that engaging the two sides in military skirmishes will not end the war. In fact, it will only intensify it. He HAS to think about the conflict on a meta-level. He has to look at it like a god or a god-maker. 

Superhero Dillema

The criticism of his plan is valid, but the people are already manipulated and dying in a centuries-long conflict. Theoretically, Vanth could create the messiah, save the galaxy, and free the people once peace is enacted. With super beings like Vanth, it makes sense to go big. But what happens after the people are saved? Who’s going to be in charge? What happens the day after the revolution?

Dreadstar might be Jim Starlin’s answer to the classic superhero dilemma. If the heroes are so powerful, why does nothing change in the world? Exploitation still exists. Crime still exists. Etc. Of course, all of those things MUST exist in a superhero comic because they are the very reason for superheroes to exist. In utopia, we won’t need superheroes. Can Dreadstar stop being a hero when he achieves his goals?

I planned to read only the first few issues, but I’m pretty sucked into the series now. I might just have to keep reading.


Will Eisner’s Narrative Architecture; Notes on The Contract With God Trilogy

will eisner art

Originally published as part of Will Eisner Week 2010, the essay is re-presented here with extensive corrections and edits. The original version has succumbed to link rot and is missing images, etc.


“Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams.”

Ivan Chtcheglov, 1953

Birth of the Graphic Novel

With A Contract With God (1978), the earliest trilogy book, Will Eisner, invented a new format: the graphic novel. [ 1 ] The ‘graphic novel’ coinage was a sleight of hand that turned ordinary comics into works with ambitions to become literature. As such, it describes the content rather than a medium. The literary ambition of A Contract With God set it apart from the cheap children’s comic books that dominated the market at the time. Eisner, of course, cut his teeth on comic books, having drawn the iconic and long-running series The Spirit. In creating a graphic novel, Eisner was distancing himself from other comic books and his early work. Nevertheless, new terminology was insufficient to distinguish the work from its cousins, and Eisner relied on several formal and visual inventions to underscore the difference.

The Spirit (1940-1952) superficially resembled most of the comic books on the stands at the time. It mainly consisted of colorful 8-page pulp romps full of crime and violence. However, unlike most 4-color funnies, The Spirit stories were intense nuggets of clever writing, brilliant layouts, and inventive typography; packed with innumerable characters and locations. The density of the art matched the sheer density of the stories. Pages crammed with 9 to 14 (or more!) panels filled with frenetic action, detailed sets, and wrinkled suits.

Defining the Graphic Novel

When Eisner turns to the graphic novel, it is as if he wants to shed the youthful exuberance of The Spirit. The stories in A Contract With God (consisting of four stories, A Contract With God, The Super, The Street Singer, and Cookalein) are drained of color and density. In the first story (A Contract With God), many pages consist of a single beautiful illustration accompanied by a few lines of large text; rarely does a page have more than four panels. To further distinguish this work from his previous endeavors, he frequently eschews the use of panel borders. [ 2 ] The panel border (along with the word balloon) is probably one of the most iconic and recognizable elements of a comic-book page to the average reader. By avoiding its use, Eisner is signaling a break from tradition and the arrival of something new.

The other three stories tend to be more conventional in their use of panels to structure the narrative, but they too feature the frequent use of borderless juxtaposition of images. In the instances where borders and gutters disappear, Eisner’s images begin to bleed into each other, its figures and spaces mix and match into unusual spatial configurations. This new visual complexity appears to be a deliberate counterpoint to the more decompressed narrative. It also hints at a new approach to the visual organization of narrative that Eisner will take up in the future.

Street Life

All the stories in A Contract with God take place on Dropsie Avenue. Eisner fills this fictional Bronx street with multiethnic (predominantly Jewish) immigrants, desperate criminals, and ragged tramps. Sudden wealth is as possible as an instant ruin. It becomes evident that the book’s real protagonist is the street itself throughout the book. Eisner lavishes attention on its dilapidated buildings, rain-drenched stoops, and moody streetscapes. He is enamored of the urban patina of the place. With each subsequent story, Eisner increasingly uses the street’s architecture as a substitute for the panel border. In effect, he trades the comic-book gutters for the gutters of the street.

In the next book of the trilogy, A Life Force (1985), the exuberance that exemplified The Spirit returns. The pages have more story and more panels. The book has more characters, and their stories interweave more intricately. The complexity of the visuals mirrors the sheer density of the narrative. Eisner continues his experiments with architecture as structure. In A Contract With God, we saw a small glimpse of the possibilities of this approach. However, the street appeared as little more than a theatrical backdrop for the most part.

In A Life Force, Eisner pushes this technique much further. The panel-less ‘collages’ of streetscapes become more daring and inventive—silhouettes of buildings in one image morph into the skyline of another panel. A wall stretches vertically on a page to become both the entrance to an alley and the alley itself. Windows, alleys, balconies, and doorways become panels. The street and the city become the structure of the narrative. Literally! New and complex geography of the city emerges on the page.

Psychoarchitecture

In 1955, the Situationist Guy Debord defined psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Debord’s definition is a description of Dropsie Avenue (1995), the trilogy’s third book. If we suspected that the street was the protagonist in the first two books, in the third one, we no longer have any doubt. Interestingly when Eisner finally turns his brush to the built environment, the architecture as structure technique is used less frequently. It’s as if the street, as the protagonist, can no longer serve as the structure of the comic.

In some ways, Dropsie Avenue is the most conventional of the three books. There are still a few bravura juxtapositions, but it generally resembles the average comic book more than the others. [ 3 ] The book makes up for that in spades. Spanning four centuries – it tells the tragic trajectory of Dropsie Avenue – from its early settlement by the Dutch to the neighborhood’s rise and fall and its final transformation. The book is a novel-length version of Robert Crumb’s A Short History of America, where a pristine wilderness turns into a teeming urban nightmare.

In Eisner’s hands, the farmhouses of the early Dutch settlers give way to narrow alleys garlanded with drying laundry, small crowded apartments, dilapidated multi-story tenements presided over by slumlords. Dropsie begins to wither, crack and crumble as its best residents trade the urban neighborhood for the elusive utopia of the suburbs. Eventually, the street succumbs to the Urban Renewal policies of the 60s and 70s [ 4 ] by becoming a series of empty rectangular lots strewn with rubble, a tabula rasa ready to be redeveloped into something new.

Invisible City

Even though the stories are set in Bronx, New York, its most famous borough, Manhattan, is barely mentioned. It exists only as a distant skyline, always looming but mostly inaccessible to the characters on Dropsie Avenue. It is a distant beacon of hope and wealth casting a long shadow on the Bronx. If Manhattan represents the triumphant modern city, Dropsie is its less visible cousin; filled with immigrants and the poor who work to make the glorious metropolis possible.

In the final sequence of Dropsie Avenue, the rubble of the destroyed neighborhood transforms into Dropsie Gardens, A Residential Community. Single-family homes line the streets. Each house has an immaculate lawn and trees dotting the lots. Urban Dropsie becomes a suburb. In reality, suburban growth happened outside of cities, but here it springs in the middle of New York. Eisner’s neighborhood becomes the magical seed of something new. Like one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, it morphs into something else altogether. The Manhattan skyline disappears as if it was never there.

Eternal Street

As the city undergoes profound transformation, the characters of Dropsie stay curiously the same. Decades pass as waves of immigrants ebb and flow through the neighborhood. Different ethnicities move in and out, but the tension between the old and the new remains the same. The fear of difference and foreigners animates the stories of the inhabitants. The 19th century resembles the 20th. Eisner avoids the question of the original inhabitants of New York, the Lenape tribe of Native Americans displaced by European colonialism. Perhaps that is the original sin that haunts the tragic streets of Dropsie Avenue. As if the stories followed some grander logic of eternal recurrence. Psychic scars are etched deeply into the geographical area now known as the Bronx. Its stories piled up and stratified into geological layers of meaning. Will Eisner was the cartoon archeologist who excavated a small part of the city buried underneath.

NOTES:

[ 1 ] The term ‘graphic novel’ predates A Contract With God, but the book’s success popularized the term. At its publication (1978), the ‘graphic novel’ was sufficiently unknown and undefined to be considered new.

[ 2 ] Of course, Eisner does not do away with panel borders entirely. He uses them quite frequently, but as a whole, the first story, A Contract With God, feels much more open and less contained than the average comic book. The Spirit occasionally uses similar approaches, but rarely to such a large extent.

[ 3 ] Perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that by the 1990s, graphic novels and comics, in general, had achieved significant gains in respectability. In 1992 Art Spiegelman’s Maus was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Creating comic books (literary or not) did not carry the same stigma as before. It was, therefore, a kind of return to tradition.

[ 4 ] One wonders if Eisner had read Jane Jacobs’ The Death And Life of Great American Cities (1961)? Jacob’s description of the life of a city street and her activism against ‘urban renewal’ was very much present in the contemporary conversation.