Million Year Boom | Notes to Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse

This post is part of a series: Adalbert Arcane’s expanded Notes & Theories to Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse by Tom Kaczynski (Fantagraphics, 2022). This time we have Arcane’s notes on the celebrated Million Year Boom, a short dark-ecology comic. All posts in this series can be accessed here.

Million Year Boom, the best-known story by the author, found its way into the celebrated Best Nonrequired Reading anthology. It’s another Ballard-influenced story that excavates the primitive drives concealed within us under a thin veneer of civilization.

Green Boom

We demand a greener future. Global warming is irrevocably changing the planet. Humanity has become a geological agent, like asteroids, tectonic

shifts, or bat guano. Our civilization will leave a mark on geological strata. “This is the Anthropocene! We are the gods of destruction. We must do something!” At least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves.

Techno Primitive

Our late-capitalist societies (late for what?) should account for all undervalued externalities (think greenhouse emissions, exporting waste, etc.) in our biosphere. Imagine this scenario pushed to the absolute limit. Under this new regime, the entire biomass of the planet would have to be counted, weighed, measured, understood, and monetized. This kind of hyper-rationalization of all matter and biomass on the earth will result in a new scientific techno-animism.

Science and big tech do not create knowledge but clouds of data. We see science and data as a solution, but we should view them as another kind of pollution, a destabilizing process that deterritorializes societies. The most advanced science and technology are rapidly retribalizing and re-primitivizing societies. It is a paradox that most scientists and intellectuals do not want to confront. 


Cyclical theories of development grasp this intuitively. When there’s enough moisture in the atmosphere, the wet season arrives. When water falls to the ground, things grow. This repeats every year. The cycle can break, of course, but it eventually restabilizes into a new cyclical process. What kind of weather do clouds of data bring?

Agrarian societies think in terms of growing cycles:

• spring > summer > fall > winter > spring …

Cosmopolitan societies (Greece, Rome, Medieval Europe, etc. [ 1 ]) think in terms of great ages:

• golden age > bronze age > decadent age > the fall > golden age …

These above modes are analogous. 

Broken Wheel

Modern society, on the other hand, thinks in terms of binary eschatological teleology (BET):

• present > g a p o f t i m e > utopia or dystopia.

In other words, the future is binary (good/bad) and exists at an unknown distance from us. The critical difference is that we no longer view ourselves as human animals. Since we broke the cycle, we now see ourselves as beyond nature.

Even green activists who want to protect the planet imply we are more significant than nature. Or when they insist that we must de-industrialize (i.e., devolve) — the implication is that our current stage of evolution is already beyond nature. There is no understanding of the forces that we unleashed in this paradigm. [ 2 ]


To continue as a species, we need to understand two things: the cycles of a planetary society and who we are. There is no one cycle, but there are two that matter above all:

• Art > Religion > Science > Magic > Art …

• Conquest > Consolidation > Conquest …

We are animals who master territory. Mastering is conquest/consolidation. The Conquest / Consolidation cycle will be dealt with in a future post. [ 3 ]


The valuation of all capitalist externalities is analogous to the valuation of attention (screen time, participation, engagement, and other such metrics). However, we must supplement this process of material valuation with a spiritual (mental, ethereal) valuation. Nietzsche tried to convey this with his “reevaluation of all values” notion in Genealogy of Morality. Marx’s theory of value makes similar claims. [ 4 ] These reevaluations will happen whether we like them or not, so we must do so in a controlled fashion.

Two-Pronged Fork

The future is a choice between two options. [ 5 ] Option one: global society will destabilize and (d)evolve into techno-cyber-animist magic niche-cults competing for scarce planetary resources. We remain an Earth-bound civilization. This is the end of history, the apocalypse, the final revelation of the BET mentality.

The other option is harnessing off-planet resources. In other words, to continue our unstable but productive expansionary economics, we must expand our energy inputs using extra-planetary resources (see Utopia Dividend). This option extends our understanding of ecology beyond the planetary biosphere and creates a new cycle.

Re-Demonetize Everything

If every blade of grass has monetary value, how is that different from the animistic kami of Shinto religions? Already we can see the sprouting of this ideology in the green movements. The recent rumored correspondence between Greta Thunberg and infamous eco-terrorist Ted Kaczynski (no relation to the author as far as we can ascertain) is one of the many signs.

Remonetize money

Why does everything necessary to life become expensive? Because inflationary money is worthless. In economics, money seeks stability. Since inflationary currency constantly leaks value, it must colonize all things that stay valuable. If money were stable (deflationary), all other goods would become less expensive [ 6 ]. In mythical terms, inflationary currency, Midas-like, turns everything into gold; it destroys everything. Deflationary currency, on the other hand, is Alladin’s lamp, powerful but limited by the user’s wisdom.

Economics and religious sentiments must not mix. The economic sphere must remain autonomous and independent. We must take steps to forcefully bracket economic activity from intersecting with spiritual matters. The mixing eventually results in for-profit religions, magic, and art. The blending is exciting but counter-productive. Material valuation of immaterial spheres is a recipe for disaster. These spheres should remain independent. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [ 7 ]

Algorithmic Marxism

Though we would be loath to admit it, Marx attempted a Nietzschean revaluation of capitalist values into communist or socialist ones. Unfortunately, his critique smuggled religious, psychological, and magical values into economics. His famous formulation: “All that is solid melts into the air,” is the equivalent of “let there be light” or god’s breath that animated dead clay. If Marx flipped Hegel right side up, then we must do the same with Marx.

The Base > Superstructure formulation is another pyramid scheme. These formulations clarify in the same way that a pyramid explains the power relations embedded in society. By naming the devil (Capital), Marx gave it power unimagined before. The subsequent invention of Marxist analysis and critical theory by the Soviet states and the Frankfurt School is almost algorithmic:

• Input: a critique of the power of Capital

• Output: Capital increases its power

Critique: A Summoning 

Critique constantly invents new ways for Capital to win; it is an incantation and invocation [ 8 ]. Words are the key to postmodern critique; it relies almost entirely on verbal games. These are forms of magic. The theorists are under the impression that they are banishing the entities they describe. Instead, they give them more power by concretizing, naming, and materializing them out of a previously fluid notion [ 9 ]. Many demons are born in theory courses. 

Equal Opportunity Sacrifice

The dénouement of the story (p. 69-70), the awkward conflagration between Segway-riding (remember the Segway?) security guards and amped-up business execs, and the resulting bloody sigil — a blood offering and a sacrificial act — are a prophetic sign of things to come.

The valuation of all matter is flat metaphysics (flat ontology), where all objects (biotic, abiotic, or virtual) exist at a single value status. These flat (read, democratic) systems often carry primitive valuations akin to ritual sacrifices. For example, a society can achieve balance only by sacrificing entities (humans, animals, etc.). The value of each entity is equivalent in some way to the perceived value lost or gained. Power diffuses and becomes difficult to ascertain. Eye for an eye. Everyone is a potential rival. Justice can only be immanent mob justice.  


Hierarchical modern and proto-modern societies paradoxically lack these mechanisms. They do value some entities over others. But, the value of entities at the top emerges from the collective value of entities below. In other words, value flows up (in contrast to trickle-down economics—another name for socialism) and aggregates.

These systems are unstable but very productive. Generating higher hierarchical levels (CEOs, Popes, politicians) can only be accomplished by raising the aggregate entities below. The higher-level entities act as anointed ‘sacrifice kings,’ ready to receive collective punishment through revolution or social scorn. It crystalizes and directs power. Justice is transcendent: law.

The hierarchical system can only improve through increased instability; this is Capitalism’s danger and paradox. Only a continuously increasing (extra-planetary) energy input can temporarily stabilize it until the next growth crisis/cycle. All stable systems (ecological, social, seasons, etc.) are only durable for a limited time. (see Utopia Dividend, 36th Chamber of Commerce). 


[ 1 ] Please note that I am primarily concerned with western cyclical notions. The work (Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse) is a commentary on the decline of the west.

[ 2 ] Bizarre inconsistencies arise from these lines of thinking. On the one hand, we must protect nature from humans, but on the other, we must devolve our civilization to be ‘natural.’ If all energy must be sourced from natural biomass again, we will consume all biomass. By re-naturalizing, we will destroy nature like the locust. Paradoxically, “unnatural” energy sources (like nuclear) allow us to leave biomass alone.

[ 3 ] This is expressed as territorialization/deterritorialization in Deleuze, Solve/Coagula in Alchemy, etc.

[ 4 ] How To Philosophize with a Hammer And Sickle by Jonas Čeika. Repeater Books (November 9, 2021).

[ 5 ] I know I am being very binary-eschatologically-teleological.

[ 6 ] This is a gross simplification, of course. Price fluctuation would continue depending on supply and demand. But, holding money would be analogous to how ‘investment’ works today. But, the ‘investor’ would only need to hold money instead of figuring out how to game the inflationary system by manipulating the ‘portfolio’ by following financial bubbles (property, commodity, crypto, etc.). 

[ 7 ] Mark 12 : 17, The Bible, King James Version.

[8] For example, see Foucault’s work on the discursive construction of sexuality in the 19th century. 

[9] This is how demonic summoning works.

Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar 9-10 (1982)

Note: This post continues an ongoing series on Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, an underrated creator-owned comic from the early 1980s. You can start by reading the post linked below or click here to see other posts in the series.

Dreadstar #9


Issues 9 & 10 contain the much anticipated final confrontation between Dreadstar and Z. Still, the first thing to notice is the color. Starlin & Epic used the “blue-line” painted method in these two issues. Richmond Lewis (colorist of Batman: Year One, The Shadow (1987, #1-6), and others ) has an excellent and precise description of the process:

“In the “blue-line” process, the black-and-white inkline drawing (by Mignola and Russell) was reproduced on a sheet of clear acetate; the same drawing was also reproduced in light blue ink on a sheet of drawing paper. The colorist, using the printed blue lines as a guide, was free to color the drawing using any media (transparent or opaque) because the clear acetate could be dropped over the color in order to see what the final printed version would look like. (In the printing process, the color art was photographed for the color printing plates, while the inkline art was photographed separately for the black printing plate only, which kept the black line crisp).”
Dreadstar #10

The blue line technique results in much more color depth and variation than the typical flat color using most comics. It essentially allows the colorist to use whatever tools they want: markers, watercolors, gouache, etc. With the advent of digital color and scanning, this method is not used anymore. But the technique of layering black ink lines over a color layer lives on. It is still used today. Applications like Photoshop use the ‘layer’ as a primary interface metaphor. The artist can separate art and design elements into distinct transparent layers.


The blue line process was possible only because, from its inception, Dreadstar was printed on premium paper (called Baxter). At the time (the early 80s), most comics were still published on various grades of cheap newsprint. Newsprint is a very soft and absorbent paper. Ink ‘sinks’ into it and softens lines and colors. This results in most old comics’ classic soft ‘comic bookish’ color look. The premium paper used in Dreadstar is much less absorbent, allowing ink to ‘sit’ on top, resulting in sharper details and subtle, vibrant colors. Scroll down to the end for some additional resources on comics color process.

Final Destination

But enough about the process. Let’s get back to the story. Vanth is convinced Z is Aknaton. King Gregzor (who appeared killed by Z in issue 7) proves to be Z’s ace in the hole. Gregzor becomes transformed into a cyborg, and at a critical moment, the king—controlled by Z—unwillingly turns against Vanth. After a brief battle, Z subdues Vanth. Z reveals that he’s… not Aknaton! 

Spoiler Alert!

This is the culmination of a 10-issue story arc. Don’t go any further if you’re planning on reading the series.

The Coldest Revenge

He’s Z-7458! Wait, what!? Who!? He’s a Zygotean, the last of his kind, and the only other survivor from the Milky Way! He was on a deep space science vessel exploring the galaxy’s edges. At the same time, the Orsirisian / Zygotean war reached its crescendo. He followed events of the war via military ether transmissions. He learned of Aknaton, his plans, and Vanth and the Infinity Horn. He turned his vessel away from the Milky Way to flee the coming galactic holocaust. Someone had to continue the Zygotean dynasty. After the Milky Way’ ceased to be,’ he detects the mystical sphere containing Aknaton & Vanth. Instead of destroying them then and there, he decides that this is too easy. He begins to plot revenge, figures out where the sphere would land, sets a course to follow it, and enters suspended animation for a million years!

Z waits for Vanth to establish a new life in the new galaxy and then proceeds to destroy it. Z manipulated Vanth the entire time! He engineered the Monarchy assault on Caldor to ruin his new life. And he desecrated the grave of Aknaton, making Vanth believe in Aknaton’s resurrection. Now the two lock into the final confrontation. The old cliche says, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” This revenge is a million years old and has a temperature of absolute zero!

What follows is a massive battle between the characters. This time Vanth plays dirty, setting a trap for Z. Starlin gets to show off his considerable action choreography chops. 

Sharp Dilemma

In the end, Vanth brutally kills Z with an iron chain. The mystical sword is too clean a death! I wonder why Starlin opts not to use the blade at this crucial moment? The fashion for sword & sorcery was waning in comics. In opting for the chain, Starlin was signaling that something different would be happening with Dreadstar in the future. Indeed, in later issues, Starlin dispensed with the blade altogether. 

Additional Comics Color Resources:

Check out Frank Santoro’s color riffs for those interested in learning more about old-school color techniques.

Kevin Nowlan talks color w/ Frank Santoro.

Steve Oliff interview.

The Cozy Apocalypse; Adalbert Arcane’s Notes and Theories to Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse

This post is part of a series: Adalbert Arcane’s expanded Notes & Theories to Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse by Tom Kaczynski (Fantagraphics, 2022). This time we have Adalbert’s notes on two short “cozy catastrophe” [ 1 ] comics: Phase Transition and Cozy ApocalypseAll posts in this series can be accessed here.

The two stories form a diptych. The Cozy Apocalypse functions as a spiritual apotheosis to Phase Transition. The intense, primal wish to cleanse the world with a torrential flood ends in frantic splashing in a shallow muddy puddle; a welcome respite from the daily grind; a cozy catastrophe.


“Walter Gropius published photographs of Buffalo’s grain elevators in the Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes (Yearbook of the German Association of Craftsmen) in 1913 (the same year Marcel Duchamp made the first of his many Bicycle Wheels).” Ten years later, in Vers Une Architecture, Le Corbusier called grain silos “the first fruits of the New Age.” [2] Almost 100 years after the inauguration of modernist architecture, we live in the civilizational equivalent of an orchard strewn with rotting fruit.

Silos from Vers Une Architecture

When one first encounters a silo, there’s a feeling of uncanny familiarity. The structure’s shape and presence are like experiencing a primal form, a template [3+4] for the world we encounter today; a beautiful, functional form but hollow, drained of its original functionalist context.

Our present experience is akin to the cave dwellers of the past. The world was built by someone else. We dwell inside the crumbling infrastructure like Cro-magnon inside caves. Outside our limited horizons, we stumble on unusual structures ripped from times past. Their presence, crumbling and puzzling, is an avatar of a past golden age.

beta testing the ongoing apocalypse


This is the state of the world. We indulge in apocalyptic scenarios like candy. We see the movies, read the books, and watch the news. “The apocalypse is around the corner! How awful! Why won’t somebody do something!? Wouldn’t our lives be more exciting if it really happened?”

We wonder performatively on social media from our cozy couches.

The personal is political. We have become accustomed to reading everything through a hyper-paranoid-critical lens. Signs of the apocalypse are everywhere. All events contain threads that connect them to something big and monstrous. We see local temperature fluctuations and immediately connect them to a global climate phenomenon. All phenomena resolve into apocalyptic hyperobjects.

The death of God left a void. Old rituals and myths that shaped the world around us have been displaced by the meaningless churn of particles, processes, and invisible forces. A new magical poetic has risen to fill the void: the butterfly effect. Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? [ 5 ]

We have become the butterflies, ritualistically flapping our wings, separating recycling, donating to causes, changing our social avatars, hoping not to trigger a tornado in Texas. Maybe if we flap a little less vigorously, preferably while comfortably watching the grim news, the tornado will not come? We monitor its progress on a billion screens, [6] unconsciously willing the worst-case scenarios into existence. “See, I told you it would happen! Global warming! ‘Nuff said!” We connect the dots on our cozy couches.


[ 1 ] In the 1970s, science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss coined the term “cozy catastrophe” to describe a fictional plot in which a bourgeois protagonist finds pleasure while the world goes to shit. “The essence of cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off,” Aldiss wrote. Quote from

[ 2 ] “What Modernism Learned from the World’s First Grain Elevator” By Jennifer Kabat (

[ 3 ] The temple was the original template. The hidden source of Plato’s eternal forms, which he glimpsed during his initiation into the Eleusis Mysteries (“blessed sight and vision” witnessed in a “state of perfection” 3).

[ 4 ] Murarescu, Brian, The Immortality Key, p. 24

[ 5 ] According to Edward Norton Lorenz, an earlier formulation used a seagull instead of a butterfly: “One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a sea gull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever. The controversy has not yet been settled, but the most recent evidence seems to favor the sea gulls.” We could go back as far back as Fichte to find similar ideas: “you could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby… changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.” Quote from

[ 6 ] What is the cost of all this real-time monitoring? According to Heisenberg, one implication of quantum physics is that the act of measurement always disturbs the object measured. “The physical reason behind this uncertainty is that measurement, by its very nature, requires using some sort of energy–for example, shining a light on the object to be measured. Light consists of discrete units, or quanta, of energy known as photons. Shining a light on an electron means bombarding it with photons, each of which has a big effect on the electron.” How does the Heisenberg principle square with Lorenz’s Butterfly? Is there a macro-version of the Heisenberg principle? How do you accurately measure planetary-scale climate phenomena without first creating planetary-scale measuring devices? And, simultaneously, do you not fundamentally alter the planet? The modern environmental movement, born on the first Earth Day (Apr. 22, 1970), was explicitly influenced by the images of Earth broadcast from the moon by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders (Christmas Eve; Dec. 24, 1968). Quote from

Tintin in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Nautical Chart

tintin red rackham's treasure

This one is just fun. The Nautical Chart by Arturo Pérez-Reverte is a love letter to adventure novels, well, adventure novels of the sea to be specific. In fact, The Nautical Chart could be read as an imaginative riff on a single Tintin panel. Instead of a review, I offer this extended quote that features one of the greatest comics adventurers, Tintin.

“At that, clutching the two books to her chest, she began to laugh. She seemed like a different woman, laughing openly, happily, and then she said, “Thundering typhoons!” She deepened her voice and spoke like a one-eyed, peg-leg, pirate with a parrot on his shoulder. Then, as the sun turned the asymmetrical tips of her hair even brighter gold, she sat down next to Coy and again opened the brightly colored books and began to turn the pages. “The sea is here too,” she said. “Look. And adventure is still possible. You can get drunk with Captain Haddock—Loch Lomond whiskey, in case you didn’t know, holds no secrets for me. I also parachuted over a mysterious island with the green flag of the EFSR in my arms, crossed the borders between Syldavia and Borduria more times than you can count, swore by the mustache of Kurvi Tasch, sailed on the Karaboudjan, the Ramona, the Speedol Star, the Aurora and the Sirius—more ships than you, I’m sure. I searched for Red Rackham’s treasure, westward, farther westward, and walked the moon while Thompson and Thompson, with their green hair, performed as clowns in the Hiparco Circus. And when I’m lonely, Coy, when I’m very, very, very lonely, than I light on of your friend Hero’s cigarettes, make love with Sam Spade, and dream of Maltese Falcons while through the smoke I summon my old friends Abdullah, Alácazar, Joylon Wagg, Chester, Zorrino, Skut Oliveira de Figueira, and listen to the CD of the jewel song from Faust on an old Bianca Castafiore recording.

As she spoke she set the two books on the table, They were old editions, one with blue binding and the other green. The frontispiece of the first showed Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock in a plumed hat, and a galleon under full sail. In the second, Tintin and snowy were skimming along the bottom of the sea in a submarine shaped like a shark.

“That’s Professor Calculus’s submarine,” said Tánger. “When I was a girl, I saved my money from birthdays, saint’s days, and Christmas gifts to buy these books, pinching pennies as hard as Scrooge himself.”

Red Rackham’s Treasure, page 40

“She opened Red Rackham’s Treasure to page 40. In a large illustration in the middle of the page, Tintin, dressed in a diving suit, was walking along the bottom of the sea toward the impressive wreck of the sunken Unicorn.”

“Look carefully,” she said in a solemn voice. “That one picture marked my life.”

The Nautical Chart by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, p.96-97

BK Munn has a long-running blog showing books when they appear in various comics. Maybe I should start a series on comics that appear in books?

Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse: Adalbert Arcane’s Notes and Theories to the Sound Strips

This post is part of a series: 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 three short sound-themed strips: White Noise, Noise, A HistoryHotel SilencioAll posts in this series can be accessed here.

“The eternal silence of infinite spaces frightens me.”



When creating this story, the author claims he was unaware of Don DeLillo’s novel with the same title (see Hotel Silencio and Noise, a History).


Noise, a History was written and drawn before Music for Neanderthals. This one page distills the author’s interest in the development of sound, noise, and other auditory phenomena. One can imagine the Big Bang, the silent explosion of our universe into being, as containing all the sounds of the universe. Think of white light comprising all the visible and invisible spectrum colors. Noise, A History, functions as a signal detector filter that isolates specific notes and harmonies from the noise of the Big Bang.

When you add all the sounds together, do you get silence? Or a massive cacophony? We are constantly detecting new sounds produced by that ur-explosion. The history of civilization is discovering and manufacturing new auditory phenomena and the privatization of sound.


“In the absence of sound, you become the sound.”

The quietest room in the world is in Minnesota, approximately five minutes from where the author currently lives. The story was written before the author moved into the area. It is unknown if he moved to be closer to the anechoic chamber. The experience inside the room is described as maddening. 

It is surprising how much humans rely on principles of echolocation for their stability and their relationship to the world. It has recently been discovered [ 1 ] that memories are spatial. Our selves are built from accrued layers of spatially tagged memories—we are a memory palace. We exist in a personal echo chamber that constantly depends on outside sound to orient itself on the principle of echolocation.

The ambient sound of the world (see White Noise) acts as an aetheric substance that allows us to move through the world by orienting via sound and vision. It allows us to be outward-oriented, following the sounds and sights of the world or the desiring machine. This is also known as a ‘body without organs’ in Deleuzian terms.

That relationship is fundamentally broken when you ‘become the sound’ inside the anechoic chamber. The sound of your internal organs reminds you that there’s no there, there. There’s nothing to anchor you to the outside. The phone call (of your consciousness) is coming from inside the house! The desiring machine breaks down. You become ‘organ without body’… analogous to a schizophrenic steaming mass of microbial life arranged in shapes and patterns; a chattering miasmic fluid; a viscous semi-liquid bag of mostly water with skin stretched tight like a drum. Who is playing the drum?


[ 1 ] “Your Mind is a Vast Landscape” by Adalbert Arcane in Cartoon Dialectics #2, Uncivilized Books, 2020

Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar 7-8 (1982)

dreadstar 7 back cover

This post is a continuation of an ongoing series on Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, an underrated creator-owned comic from the early 1980s. You can start by reading the post linked below or click here to see other posts in the series.

Covers to Dreadstar 7 & 8

Dreadstar 7

Vanth goes to Caldor to access a “minimally defended small traffic monitoring station.” He’s after some secret data about catorlite, a mysterious substance valuable to the Instrumentality Church. He easily overpowers the guards and jacks—Neuromancer-like—into a telepathic computer network. It gets a bit cyberpunk over the following few pages as Vanth surfs the net searching for the info. Then, he gets attacked—telepathically from across the universe—by Dr. Anton A. Lanstrom Mezlo (what a name!), who ambushes him while Vanth scours the net for information.

Ditkoesque sequence

Psychic Ditko

While the start of the info-retrieval sequence visually owes something to cyberpunk, Mezlo’s psychic attack shifts into Ditkoesque mystical/psychic realms, complete with portals, suspended pathways, Ditko-tendril (a Ditko analog to Kirby dots?), and psychedelic colors. Starlin has long internalized Ditko’s visual conventions as the proper way to depict magical realms and psychic combat.

Steranko collage

Cyberpunk Aesthetics

But it is, the cyberpunk-flavored telepathic computer interface is the most exciting innovation here. Over several panels, Vanth is suspended in cyberspace, which is depicted as printed out dense lines of programming code. It’s a rare instance of collage in comics. Kirby and Steranko innovated the collage technique in comics by creating surreal cosmic modernist images out of magazine clippings. Starlin’s cyber-collage has a different flavor. I don’t know for sure, but it appears to be xeroxes of printed (on a dot-matrix-printer?) computer code collaged with original art. If anything, this speaks to the increasing availability of printers and copy machines in the early 80s. This technology will be used increasingly in comics in the coming years. 

Cyberpunk sequence

Cyber Typography

It is also an early foreshadowing of cyberpunk visual typographical chaos. Think of the animated strings of code present in the opening titles of Ghost in the Shell or the Matrix films. This issue (Nov 1983) predates even the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (July 1984, though some of his short stories have already appeared). I can’t think of an earlier version of Starlin’s cyber-typographic innovation. The only parallel that comes to mind is Ken Bruzenak’s fully-integrated typography in Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! Though Chaykin’s comics have a very different and unique design. Please comment below if you can think of other similar instances. 

From Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! #5

A psychic battle ensues, and as Vanth appears to have lost, he is saved last minute by Willow, who cuts the connection, rendering Mezlo unresponsive, “completely catatonic.” They didn’t get the information they wanted, but now they know where to go next: planet Glaxen. Vanth wanted to check on something else on Calador, a grave… and the grave turns out to be empty. An ominous sign.

Meanwhile, the Monarch’s Vizir Z, last seen in #4, shows up at the end to cause some chaos. The fully armored and masked mysterious figure is always a good bet to be hiding some kind of revelation, usually related to the history of one of the characters.

Dreadstar 8

Vanth Dreadstar tells his crew who he is: a million-year-old being from another galaxy—one of only two survivors of the complete annihilation of the Milky Way. We get the whole story: Milky Way was dominated by two alien civilizations at war. The first, the Orsirosians, were great scientists and magicians who built their civilization on truth and fairness. The other society, the Zygoteans, were just as skilled in magic and science, but they went wrong somehow and found meaning only in warfare and conflict. 

Deep Time montage

Infinite War

As the Zogoteans wreaked havoc on the Milky Way, the Orsirsians had no choice but to enter the conflict. The war in the Empirical galaxy lasted 200 years, but the war in the Milky Way lasted for hundreds of thousands of years. The Orsirisans, led by Lord Aknaton, began work on a doomsday device, the Infinity Horn (a precursor of Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet?). Death was preferable to Zygotean conquest. As the war continued, Aknaton looked for the correct beings to activate the Infinity Horn. He planted seeds on many planets to find the right individuals. Vanth Dreadstar was one of these individuals. 

The Infinity Horn activates

The mystical sword eventually wielded by Vanth was planted on his planet by Aknaton years before Vanth was even born. Vanth’s finding and mastering the powers of the blade primed him to join Aknaton’s crusade. As the Zygoteans final assault on the Orsirisians approached, Aknaton and Dreadstar held them off as long as possible before activating the Infinity Horn. They succeeded, and annihilated the Milky Way. Only Aknaton and Vanth survive in a mystical bubble. 

Million Year Memories

They entered suspended animation, and the bubble traveled the spaceways for a million years until it crashed-landed on planet Caldor in the Empirical galaxy. Vanth, crazed from grief and insane from survivor guilt, kills Aknaton and becomes the sole survivor of the Milky Way.

BUT, Aknatons’s grave is empty! Vanth suspects that he’s Monarchy’s Vizir Z. Aknaton had lost his arm in the last phase of the Milky Way conflict, and Z is also missing one. Z is also powerful, able to mystically shield himself from Willow’s powerful telepathy. Vanth, Skeevo, and Oedi travel to Jewel World, the capital of the Monarchy, to see if they can find any more information on Z to confirm Vanth’s suspicions. And they are RIGHT! In the process, Oedi gets almost killed, and they find out that Z has betrayed the Monarchy and opened the door to an Instrumentality invasion of Jewel World. Vanth sends his friends away and stays on Jewel to confront Z.

Deep Time / Flat History

The Dreadstar mythology is absolutely bonkers. A million years separate the destruction of the Milky Way and current events in the comic. Add another several hundred thousand years for the galaxy-wide war, and time stretches immeasurably. This is deep time, cosmically deep! Characters like Vanth and Aknaton have lived for incredible amounts of time. All of our current human civilization would fit into only a tiny sliver of that history. Our very species is younger than the wars Dreadstar describes. 

At the same time, there’s a weird flattening of time. Events from millions of years ago are present with us in glorious detail. The memories of these characters don’t seem to degrade. Their motivations and loyalties stay locked in. Revenge can build over a million years and be as fresh as at the conception. This is the logic of the comic book series or TV series. Each new episode “resets” the timeline. Even as events and history accrue, the characters remain essentially the same. Many of the comics of the 70s and 80s still had this ahistorical characteristic.

A new sensibility was creeping into comics around this time—a more novelistic quality, where meaningful events and a real sense of history emerge. To give Starlin a bit of credit, Dreadstar does a bit of both. He attempts to provide weight to the stories, but he’s confined by the demands of an ongoing series, where change, almost by definition, must be minimal.

Mutants, Supermen, New Soviet Men, and Homo Superior: Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John

Odd John

Odd John by Olaf Stapledon is a fascinating science-fictional artifact. Written in 1936, it anticipates much later science fiction and comics developments. The story traces the life of “Odd” John Wainwright, a genetically superior human specimen, a homo superior (Stapledon coined this term). We witness his growing pains as he develops his superhuman intellect and abilities. We also follow his journey worldwide as he tries to find others like him, and eventually, his demise, on a remote island where he sets up a utopian community. This post is not a full review of the book, but I want to note some interesting things.

Odd John. Cover art by Richard Powers


“They do their simple jobs with more style than man shows in his complicated job. Watch a gannet in flight, or a curlew probing the mud for food. Man, I suppose, is about as clever along his own line as the earliest birds were at flight. He’s a sort of archaeopteryx of the spirit.

Odd John (p.33)

Birds have evolved to be birds with style and maturity. Man has only begun on his evolutionary journey. “Odd” John is aware of his evolutionary superiority and already sees ordinary humans as living fossils. While John ordinarily is a kind and peace-loving being, he also contains a Nietzschean core. Maybe he does not quite live up to being an apex predator—a majestic raptor in flight-ready to devour its prey—but walks the tightrope between animal and superman.

Future Shock

“The have-nots with very good reason exercise their hate upon the haves, who have made the mess and can’t clean it up. The haves fear and therefore zestfully hate the have-nots. What people can’t realize is that if there were no deep-rooted need to hate in almost every mind, the social problem would be at least intelligently faced, perhaps solved. Then there’s the third factor, namely, the growing sense that there’s something all wrong with modern solely-scientific culture. I don’t mean that people are intellectually doubtful about science. It’s much deeper than that. They are simply finding that modern culture isn’t enough to live by. It just doesn’t work in practice. It has got a screw loose somewhere. Or some vital bit of it is dead. Now this horror against modern culture, against science and mechanization and standardization, is only just beginning to be a serious factor. It’s newer than Bolshevism. The Bolshies, and all socially left-wing people, are still content with modern culture. Or rather, they put all its faults down to capitalism, dear innocent theorists. But the essence of it they still accept. They are rationalistic, scientific, mechanistic, brass-tack-istic. But another crowd, scattered about all over the place, are having the hell of a deep revulsion against all this. They don’t know what’s the matter with it, but they are sure it’s not enough.”

Odd John (p.77)

The above quote is an interesting analysis of modern civilization. Communism is generally seen as the rational solution to Capitalism. In John’s view, Communism sits at the apex of the mechanized cultural movement. In other words, it is the logical end game of modern civilization. But, Stapledon (via John) detects a more profound revulsion against contemporary society. He doesn’t expound on this further, but one can leap to various similar diagnoses posited by thinkers like Marshall McLuhan or Alin Toffler. He identifies a civilizational shift that McLuhan would probably identify as a movement from a flat literary/visual culture (through electrified technology) back to an immersive oral/tactile culture.

As oral/tactile communication becomes dominant, the culture built on visual/literary communication becomes flat and inadequate. The people living in such a transitional phase become alienated. They instinctively seek new ways of being out of step with established norms. This transitional phase leads to Tofflers Future Schock, a period of social upheaval. Under this model, Communism and Capitalism are both civilizational technologies of the past. They were developed and brought into being under a literary/visual culture, which begins to feel strange and alienating to people immersed in aural/tactile film, radio, telephone, consumerism, etc. Political and cultural norms become unstable, outmoded, and inherently alienating.

The powers of “Odd” John are a kind of internalization of this new civilization’s technical capabilities. For example, he can communicate remotely (radio/telephone), he has prodigious memory (print/library), superior technical ability (modern science/technology), and can split the atom with his mind to power vehicles (electricity/fossil fuels). John’s abilities allow him to participate in the new alienating civilization as if it was natural. For John, modern society is almost as natural as a tropical forest to an apex predator. Eventually, John and his like will create the perfect superior un-alienated Communism.

Homo Superior

“As I was saying, it’s much harder to get in touch with people one doesn’t know, and at first, I didn’t know any of the people I was looking for. On the other hand, I found that people of my sort [i.e., homo superior] make, so to speak, a much bigger ‘noise’ telepathically than the rest. At least they do when they want to, or when they don’t care. But when they want not to, they can shut themselves off completely. Well, at last I managed to single out from the general buzz of telepathic ‘noise,’ made by the normal species, a few outstanding streaks or themes that seemed to have about them something or other of the special quality that I was looking for.”

Odd John (p.107-108)
The Cerebro device. Art by Jack Kirby

Just a quick note that John’s ability to find others like him also describes X-Men’s Cerebro device. Professor X uses the Cerebro to enhance his mental abilities to detect other mutants worldwide. 

Shadow King

“Meanwhile, he continued to improve his supernormal powers, and would sometimes use them to practice psycho-therapy upon his fellow-proletarians. But his chief interest was exploration of the past. At this time, the knowledge of Ancient Egypt was extremely scanty, and Adlan’s passion was to gain direct experience of the great race long ago.”

Odd John (p.131)

There are so many similarities between the homo superior of Odd John and Marvel’s mutants (frequently referred to as homo superior) that it can’t be a coincidence. For example, one of the first mutants Professor X meets is Amahl Farouk (The Shadow King), a powerful Egyptian mutant similar to Adlan in Odd John. They both hide their true abilities by posing as a crime lord (Farouk) and a ferryman (Adlan). Has there ever been anything written on this similarity? Has any of the many X-Men creators talked about reading Odd John?

Amahl Farouk vs. Professor X. Art by John Byrne

New Men

“Indeed one of his favourite occupations, as he plied his oars, was to expound to John with prophetic enthusiasm the kind of world that “John’s New Men” would make, and how much more vital and more happy it would be than the world of Homo Sapiens.” p.133

Odd John (p.133)
New (X) Men. Art by Frank Quitely

Another X-Men similarity! John’s ragtag team is called “New Men.” The words form a kind of mirror palindrome. When Grant Morrison took over X-Men in (2001), he explicitly renamed the team “New X Men” and expressly visualized the palindromic nature of New/Men in the new logo. 

Kill the Unfit

“For to-day the chief lesson which your species has to learn is that it is far better to die, far better to sacrifice even the loftiest of all ‘sapient’ purposes, than to kill beings of one’s own mental order. But, just as you kill wolves and tigers so that the far brighter spirits of men may flourish, so we killed those unfortunate creatures that we had rescued. Innocent as they were, they were dangerous. Unwittingly they threatened the noblest practical venture that has yet occurred on this planet. Think! If you, and Bertha had found yourselves in a world of great apes, clever in their own way, lovable too, but blind, brutish, and violent, would you have refused to kill? Would you have sacrificed the founding of a human world? To refuse would be cowardly, not physically, but spiritually. Well, if we could wipe out your whole species, frankly, we would. For if your species discovers us, and realizes at all what we are, it will certainly destroy us. And we know, you must remember, that Homo sapiens has little more to contribute to the music of this planet, nothing in fact but vain repetition. It is time for finer instruments to take up the theme.”

Odd John (p.147-8)

You can detect shades of so many things to come—the conflicts of the Planet of the Apes, the human-mutant conflict, etc. Of course, Stapledon is playing with ideas already present in his time: Darwinian evolution, survival of the fittest, genetic ideas about race, advanced technology, etc. The way Odd John embodies these often contradictory ideas will prove very influential. John is Professor X (hero) and Magneto (villain) in one. It makes sense that as a species, homo superior (which internalized all the powers of the civilized world) would feel no moral obligation to the inferior homo sapiens. John represents the highest ideals and abilities of technological civilization, and at the same time, he contains all the unspoken terrifying consequences. 


“After many weeks of cruising, a suitable though minute island was discovered somewhere in the angle between the routes from New Zealand to Panama and New Zealand to Cape Horn, and well away from both courses.”

Odd John (p.150)
Map from the Marvel Atlas

Yet another parallel with X-Men. A faction of separatist mutants, led by Magneto, found Genosha, an island where they can live apart from regular humans. The specter of the fundamental incompatibility between the two species haunts Odd John and Marvel’s mutants. 

Individualistic Communism

“Comrades, you have the wrong approach. Like you, we are Communists, but we are other things also. For you, Communism is the goal, but for us it is the beginning. For you the group is sacred, but for us it is only the pattern made up of individuals. Though we are Communists, we have reached beyond Communism to a new individualism. Our Communism is individualistic.”

Odd John (p.183)

Interestingly, when he finally creates his perfect community, John calls it Communist. There are some correspondences between John and the Communist ideal man, also often called a “new man” or “Soviet Man.” The Communist man will be a “new man” with a better consciousness (not false consciousness). This new man can finally experience Communism as liberation (as opposed to oppression) and become a new kind of Communist individual. The idea that Communism can’t be realized with ordinary (read regressive or reactionary) humans is implicit. In Odd John and real-world Communist societies, this fundamental incompatibility ended in tragedy. 

Marx/Nietzsche Complex

As I read Odd John, I started Čeika’s How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle. It’s an interesting book that attempts to find common ground between Marx and Nietzsche—two thinkers usually seen as incompatible. Without going too deep into it, Čeika finds a lot of similarities between the two. Finding the Nietzschean superman inside Marx’s Communism is perhaps not a work of theory but one of archaeology. With Odd John in the mix, I had a kind of synesthetic experience. The two books rhymed with each other across time and space. Together they were dark mirror reflections of each other. By trying to incept Nietsche into Marx (and vice versa), we might be exhuming the undead mummified corpse of Soviet Man. I will try to illustrate this more in a future post.

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.


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, Noise, a History, and Hotel Silencio


[ 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!


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.


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.


[ 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.

Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar #3-4 (1982)

This post continues from the previous post which examined Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar #1-2. Some of the concepts and plots discussed here are continuations of the previous post. 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 #3

Vanth Dreadstar and crew continue to implement something called “Plan M.” We don’t know what the plan is, but it seems exciting and complicated. In issue 3 Willow, Oedi, and Skeevo steal new powerful teleportation tech developed by The Instrumentality.

Meanwhile, light-years away, Vanth & Syzygy try to distract Lord High Papal away from Willow’s activities. It works, but Lord High Papal, in his insane murderous zeal, nukes the city where Vanth Dreadstar & Syzygy are hiding. Vanth & Syzygy just barely manage to survive, but millions of innocents die. Vanth is already racked by survivor guilt (from his backstory told in Epic Magazine) and the nuclear holocaust makes him even more determined to fight.

Dreadstar #4

In issue 4, the crew arrives on Jewel world, where they intend to give the stolen teleport tech to The Monarchy. They want to make sure Monarchy & Instrumentality remain in balance militarily, so their rebellion can keep gaining ground. They end up getting recruited as bodyguards to the king. The Instrumentality sent a super-assassin to kill the Monarch and only Dreadstar & crew can stop him. This becomes Oedi’s turn to shine. His cat-like agility and animal senses detect the assassin where even Willow’s telepathy failed. He kills the bad buy, and in gratitude, the King gives them a bigger and better spaceship.

The Monarch’s Vizir is an interesting side character. He has a mask with breathing apparatus that makes him look a bit like a cross between Boba Fett and Darth Vader. Clad from head to toe in red, Vizir resembles the Crimson Guard from The Last Jedi. The king clearly fears him. The Monarchy isn’t quite what it seems when we’re allowed a peek behind the curtain.

Starlin seems to be having a blast on the series. It’s hard to describe how detailed the drawing there is. This is right up there with George Perez-level panel stuffing. The look of Dreadstar’s universe borrows liberally from various corners. Star Wars I already detailed the Star Wars similarities, but you can also see Moebius style vistas, Kirby-Esque energy crackles, and Magnus The Robot Fighter style robots and cyborgs. This is one of Starlin’s strengths. His work is an eclectic mix of influences that he is somehow able to meld into the setting for a galaxy-spanning adventure.

Dancer Not a Fighter

Starlin’s figure drawing has its own energy and vibe. It has always struck me as awkward, but I could never exactly put my finger on why that is so. His figures often lack the kind of grounded weight that, say, John Buscema is able to imbue into his characters. Starlin’s figures are always weightless. They move more like dancers than fighters. I’ll try to unpack this more in future posts.

Always Be Flexing

You can always see the musculature of the figures at full-flex. Again, this is not unusual, but even when we see the characters relaxing, they are still fully flexed; muscles popping. It gives everyone a constantly tense demeanor. I think seeing this constantly tense body language colors the perception of emotions of the characters. They seem to be over-acting as if always posing in a mirror to practice emoting. I used to dislike this. These days I am drawn to the over-the-top atmosphere created by this kind of figure drawing.

Science Heroes

The clothes are always skin tight. This is not unusual in superhero comics, but it sometimes feels off in a space opera like Dreadstar. In a recent Cartoonist Kayfabe interview, legendary cartoonist, Walt Simonson said that science fiction comic books were often perceived as low sellers back then. Perhaps Starlin is trying the fine line between pure sci-fi and superheroes to avoid this? Surely, the huge-selling Star Wars comics must’ve changed that general perception? Despite the science-fiction trappings, Dreadstar does feel more like a superhero comic. Each member of the team has unique superpowers and the team character dynamics would not be out of place in a typical superhero comic of the time. Ultimately, the vibe of the Dreadstar universe is not too different from Starlin’s Warlock (Marvel Comics). But maybe this distinction is not worth pursuing? The whole Marvel Universe can be seen as a sub-genre of science fiction.

Ditko-esque Starlin. Back cover to Dreadstar #3.

Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar #1-2 (1982)

Dreadstar #1 (1982 – I read the newsstand edition of #1, re-published in 1985), Epic Comics

By Jim Starlin. Colors by Glynis Oliver

Intergalactic Refugee

Dreadstar #1 opens with a long, long, long ten-page recap. Vanth Dreadstar is a refugee from the Milky Way, destroyed by war. He settles on planet Nimbus in the Empirical Galaxy, where he tries to forget his old life and live in Peace. But, inevitably, war comes to Nimbus, anyway. A Monarchy starship lays waste to the planet leaving Dreadstar, Syzygy Darklock (a powerful magician), and Oedi—a cat-human hybrid and farmer—as the only survivors. They vow to end this war and become the core of the rebellion against the war. They are joined by Willow, a blind cybernetic telepath who can see through the eyes of her pet space monkey, and later by Skeevo, a smuggler.

Church & State

The war is between the Monarchy and Instrumentality. The Monarchy is what it sounds like, a feudal dynastic monarchy ruling half the galaxy. The Instrumentality is a powerful religious order led by Lord High Papal. They have taken over the other half of the universe. Now the two powers struggle for supremacy over the Empirical galaxy. Starlin is playing around with classic themes of authoritarian dominance, whether monarchic or religious, doesn’t matter. He sees both as two sides of the same coin. Both are wrong, and the struggle between them kills innocents. Dreadstar & crew need to free the Empirical Galaxy, both literally and figuratively.

High Polish

The first issue is a heist. The crew attacks an Instrumentality space station which is full of precious metals. Vanth wants the hoard of wealth to give them the funds to escalate their struggle against both sides.

Starlin draws the crap out of this issue. The environments are fully realized. The crew fights hundreds of robots, all rendered on the page without common visual shortcuts. I’ve always liked the way Stalin plays around with the grid. He’s unafraid to chop the grid into tiny slivers to add urgency to the action. He really wants visual density on a page. All the pages have either a lot of panels or are rendered with a lot of detail. He also doesn’t skimp on text. He really wants to pack a lot of information into the comics. The result is a pretty satisfying read. Even if the intro info dump is a little much, you come away immersed into a huge story. It made me pretty excited for issue 2.

Star Wars

The whole thing is really reminiscent of Star Wars. It checks all the same boxes: 

  • Science-fantasy, check.
  • Mystical swords and powers, check.
  • Empires bent on galactic domination, check. 
  • A scrappy crew caught in the middle, check. 
  • A furry companion, check. 
  • You can keep going and keep finding more similarities. 

And it makes sense. Star Wars made space opera fantasy really popular at that time. Many comics featured high adventure in space (Atari ForceOmega Men, Star JammersAlien Legion, among many others). But Starlin is an idiosyncratic creator, making it all his own. He injects his favorite themes: mysticism, religion, authoritarianism, and a sense of cosmic grandeur. A lot here is reminiscent of Warlock & Captain Marvel, his 70’s psychedelic cosmic comics for Marvel. Dreadstar takes all these concepts, themes, character types and mashes them into a massive, sprawling space epic that is all his own.

Dreadstar #2

After loading up on cash in the first issue, Dreadstar & gang continue their rebellion against the 200-year war between The Monarchy & The Instrumentality. The 2nd issue focuses on Willow, the blind telepath. She can read and affect the minds of humans and machines. We start out with Willow being a total badass as she effortlessly takes out a squad of military police that endangers their mission. We see how valuable she is to the Dreadstar crew. She quickly retreats into her private quarters and begins to ruminate on her life, which of course, means we’re about to get Willow’s origin story.


The Dreadstar crew rescue Willow in another operation (these events were apparently told in Epic Illustrated). She leaves her unhappy life and stowaways in Dreadstar’s spaceship. When she’s discovered, she has a powerful psychic outburst. Vanth & Syzygy decide that having a telepath on board could be helpful, so they decide to keep her around. Syzygy trains Willow to use her mental powers, but she has some mental block that prevents her from reaching her full potential.


Most of this issue is an excuse for Starlin to go all Ditko on the art. Much of the training sequence with Syzygy and Willow takes place on various astral and mental planes, mystical dimensions, and other realms. Panels are full of cosmic psychedelia Steve Ditko pioneered in Doctor Strange and other books. Starlin has always been into this stuff. Warlock was full of Ditkoesque psychedelic touches. We’re treated to squiggly cosmic pathways, portals to unknown dimensions, and blinding white energy emanations that are the ‘force that dwells within all of us.’ Starlin’s psychedelia here is more abstract, with thin lines holding large overlapping color fields. This approach gives the ‘astral plane’ a less solid, etherial vibe.

Soul Searching

Syzygy manages to identify Willow’s block: She was sexually abused by her father (this proved to be very controversial in future letters columns). To overcome her trauma, she enters—against Syzygy’s warning—the white energy of her soul only to be permanently blinded. But she triumphs over her traumatic blocks and becomes a powerful telepath. She accepts the trade-off: blindness for power. Dreadstar gifts her a space monkey, and now, by seeing through the eyes of the animal, she’s not so blind either. The white light stays with her, and she can call upon it in times of need.

This article is part of the Event Horizon series on comics. Click here to see others in the series.