Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse: Notes and Theories to 10,000 Years by Adalbert Arcane

Adalbert Arcane’s expanded Notes & Theories to Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse (by Tom Kaczynski, Fantagraphics, 2022). This ongoing series of posts started here.


10,000 Years, p 1.

Slumbering Towards the Future

On the surface, 10,000 Years (10K YRS, originally published in MOME 8, 2007) resembles science fiction classics like HG Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, or Edward Bellamy’s utopian magnum opus, Looking Backward. It follows the familiar trope of a sleeping man, who awakens far in the future through some unexplained time fluke. Most variants of this trope, depict the future as something concrete: something we fear or desire. The future tends to be either positive or negative, utopia or dystopia.

The main protagonist is probably named after Edgar Cayce, the famous Sleeping Prophet. Cayce is best known for predicting that Atlantis would be found in the ’60s in the vicinity of the Bahama Islands. Atlantean lore is an ongoing concern for the Author. A genealogy of this ancient lost world was explored in Trans Atlantis. Edgar Cayce also figures prominently in the notorious and unreleased “lost” chapter to Trans Terra [ 1 ] cycle of stories.

From unreleased Trans Terra

The one thing our modern imagination cannot fathom is a future that remains fundamentally the same. And yet, this was the state of humanity for millennia. Imagine a caveman troglodyte living during the paleolithic 40-50 thousand years ago. Was there a future for such a creature? Did he imagine a world of tomorrow? Was he imagining new super-Neolithic technologies? Judging by the scant evidence left to archaeologists, not much progress or change happened for tens of thousands of years. It seems impossible, yet it DID happen at some point. How? When? (See Music For Neanderthals). The gap between them and us is vast and difficult to bridge.

10,000 Years, p. 8, panels 7-9

The Eternal Present

We see the eternal present as the provenance of non-human animals. Can we look at our ancient ancestors as less human? Modern humans have a glitch (or a gift, depending on your POV). We have an internal mirroring process (aka self-consciousness) that enables us to become stuck “out of time.” This glitch/gift is what makes us human.

At some point, we began to transform the environment around us. That transformation required more significant and fantastic planning (i.e., awareness of the future; more on this in future notes). Future awareness scales with human numbers. When humans began to congregate in large settlements, the gap between the future and the present decreased. 

Paradoxically the past conditions the future. Depending on the success or failure of a community, the future imagination becomes influenced by past events. It becomes constrained by previous events. The community can develop a sense of helplessness and anticipate a future apocalypse. Or, a series of successes can instill visions of a brighter future and perpetual progress (of some sort).

End of History

We, the moderns, are split. We imagine either utopian possibilities or dire catastrophes. The one thing many of us cannot conceive is an unchanging present extending infinitely into the future. And yet, this is the predicament we find ourselves in. Since the mid-1970s, progress (technological, etc.) has stalled in many ways. The future imagined by our ancestors from the first half of the 20th century has stalled. No flying cars, no moon bases, etc. The technologies which have progressed since then: computers, digital communication, virtual reality, etc., are primarily cybernetic in the realm of personal augmentation. In fact, most of these technologies can be seen as elaborations on the mirror. 

10,000 Years, Page 3, panels 9-11 (patent pending)

10K YRS story is remarkable for being written and published years before Peter Thiel’s Zero To One business screed. In this book, Thiel (did Thiel read this comic?) posits that the economic development of atoms (machines, devices, physical items, energy) has not kept up with the growth of bits (programmatic computer products like VR, big data, etc.) The power and speed of computers have increased, but we have not made much progress in the physical realm. Much of the world relies on the infrastructure invented, built, and developed in the 20th century. 10K YRS anticipated this analysis and stretched this idea into the far future. 10K YRS is a concise and prophetic elaboration of Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. We are forever suspended in this world like a dead fetus floating in embalming fluid unless something or someone can get us out.

10,000 Years, p. 9, panel 1

Mars Attacks

The protagonist learns that he is a Martian or potentially Martian in the final sequence. It represents the author’s intuitive understanding that the current static social and political consensus can only be shaken loose by something external to capitalism, communism, civilization, humanity, and the planet. 

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

Mars in our present is a distant anchor of possibility. A tether stretches between Earth & Mars; Zarathustra’s rope upon which man/superman must learn to walk. The only other option: the slow entropic death of the last man flattened by the oppressive gravity of mother earth.

10,000 Years, p. 9, panel 4

The external event alluded to is the colonization of Mars. (see Utopia Dividend) This event, in theory, would accelerate [ 2 ] technological development in the material sphere, exploit vast new energy sources, and generate a vast quantity of new economic opportunities in the off-world colonies (see Blade Runner).

Haunted or Haunting?

The vision of Marxist zombies on Mars is a nod to the specter that has haunted history: Marx and Marxism and the idea of progress itself. At one point, a Marxist revolution begins unfolding on Mars. The Marxists are depicted as zombies, an explicit call-out to George Romero’s later zombie films, which identify the proletariat with zombies. In his earlier films, zombies were bourgeois consumers wreaking havoc in shopping malls. Now zombies are the proletariat, forever hated, reduced to a zombie-like state; empathy withdrawn.

zombie karl marx

The Zombie is a figure that acquires new abilities and meanings during different epochs. 

The author (Tom Kaczynski) melds those two interpretations via zombie Marx’s detourned speech: “A specter is haunting Mars – the specter of consumerism. […] Consumers of the solar system, save your receipts.” It is a haunting passage that both reaffirms that the revolutionary class is dead and permanently subsumed by the consumertariat. 

The revolutionary potential of Marxism has been drained of all energy by the grey vampires [ 3 ]. Zombie Marx embodies the current form of late-capitalist-socialist activism: specifically, the “I’ve got the receipts” [ 4 ] brand of cancel culture that haunts social(ist) media. [ 5 ] The communism—the engine of the events of the 20thcentury—that haunted Marx’s 19th century is now a rotting husk of flesh shambling, decomposing, and liquefying into toxic sludge. Can anything grow in its wake?

Of the twin towers of the 20th century: capitalism & communism, one has already fallen. How long can the other stand?


Notes:

[ 1 ] The collected edition of Trans Terra has yet to be released.

[ 2 ] This is distinct from accelerationism.

[ 3 ] See Mark Fisher’s Exiting the Vampire Castle.

[ 4 ] Sometimes also manifested as complaints to managers or bosses in order to cause economic damage to the “canceled” person.

[ 5 ] It should be mentioned that the term “cancel culture” is controversial. It’s ontological status is generally questioned by the agents that perform the “cancelling.”

Social Media is a Web2 technology, and as such, it is seen by many as something new and unprecedented and by others as a simple, linear intensification of Web1 (the original internet). Initially, Social Media was hailed for its potential as a tool against authoritarian regimes. Who remembers that the Arab Spring was hailed as a beautifu Twitter Revolution? Today, Twitter Revolution bring connotations of “dark internet,” or “misinformation.” It is now viewed with more suspicion. Why is that? A case has been made (and more on this in future posts) that Social Media (as instantiated in the Web2 context) has achieved its true form. In form, it most resembles the Stasi citizen spying program developed by the East German Communist regime. It weaponized daily social interactions and created incentives for citizens to “keep tab”s on each other.



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Doctor Zero 1-5 (1988)

By DG Chichester, Margaret Clark. Art by Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz. 

image
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz (left), Kevin Nowlan (right)

Manufacturing Superheroes

Doctor Zero [ 1 ] is just one series in an interlocked line of comics, called Shadowline. It’s a bit difficult to understand what’s going on in the first issue. The story follows several disparate events, a US bombing raid in Libya, nuclear terrorists on the Empire State Building, a missile attack on World Economic Forum in Davos. The common thread is Doctor Zero, who seems to be orchestrating the events from behind the scenes. He sets the wheels in motion, only to show up—last minute—and save the day. In a way, this is the most obvious way to be a superhero in the world. The idea of ‘patrolling’ the streets seems impossible. How do you patrol the streets of a city of millions? Even the police can’t keep up! By manufacturing events in advance, Doctor Zero can easily ‘superhero’ them. He knows what’s coming, and he prepares, not only for the event but the media frenzy that follows.

image

Mysterious Doctor

He’s got all the trappings of a superhero: costume and powers; but Doc Zero seems to have an agenda all his own. Being a superhero seems to be part of some kind of nefarious plan he’s been concocting from the ‘shadows.’ Apparently, he, and ones like him, have been living in the shadows for a long time. They appear to be a parallel race of humans that have a variety of powers; sort of like Marvel’s mutants or Inhumans. Anyway, as Doc Zero is engineering another superhero event in Africa, he is ambushed by St. George—another one of these shadow beings. Doc Zero kills St. George and appears to suck out her energy. Maybe he’s an energy vampire? Hard to tell. We’ll have to find out in the next issue.

Divine Intervention

As the series continues, Doc Zero is revealed to be an immortal (or at least very ancient) roaming the planet since before humanity evolved. In fact, in one caption, he says he walked on Gondwana, which would make him several hundred million years old(!!!). Maybe ‘zero’ means he’s the oldest of the Shadowline beings? Are his Machiavellian machinations some kind of god-like need to intervene in human affairs? Humans need saving, for they know not what we do. These kinds of ruminations are frequent with Doc Zero. He clearly has a god complex.

image

Occasionally there are hints of something else. For example, Doc Zero also swims with dolphins. He seems to be a good friend of dolphin-kind, who, according to him, “flaunt their abilities openly.” What does that mean? No explanation. Of the dolphins, he says, “I’ve reminded them of my offer to take them with me when I go…” Go where? Is Doc Zero, and by extension, all Shadowline characters, alien? Or is this just another way to play with his godhood? It’s never explained in the five issues I read.

Questions

Art by Denys Cowan is awesome. These pages look a bit like his work in The Question, on which he was working at the same time. In fact, Doc Zero is a dead ringer for Vic Sage. The whole package seems to be lifted from DC Comics. DC had a number of titles packaged in a similar way: premium paper, painted covers by Bill Sienkiewicz, and mature content inside. The QuestionThe Shadow, etc. [ 2 ] In other words, The Shadowline books appear to be conceptualized around the successes DC was having with anti-heroes and ‘real-world’ superheroes. In a way, this is also a more mature-readers parallel to Marvel’s New Universe, which strived towards more “realistic” stories. New Universe was a conscious effort to start a “new” Marvel superhero universe, but with one extra constraint: everything that happened in New Universe became ‘real, and unchanging history.’ It was a new Marvel universe, but with consistency and constrained by ‘reality’ in a way that the main Marvel Universe never was. [ 3 ]

Dream Team

All issues (except #5) are drawn by Denys Cowan and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz. Each issue has a different cover artist. Apparently, Shadowline used the same cover artist across the line each month. It gave the titles a nice visual unity on the stands.

As mentioned above, Cowan and Sienkiewicz were also working together on The Question at the same time. Through this ongoing collaboration, they developed a strong rapport. The finishes on Cowan’s art are really remarkable. Sienkiewicz zeroes in on the strongest parts of the image unerringly. His black spotting is key. Once the basic blacks are spotted, and composition is secure, the rest can be whatever flights of fancy he deems right for the moment. He just goes balls out using all kinds of tools and techniques with occasional odd choices. A messy perfection that never disrespects Cowan’s pencils.

image

Just look at that weird white-out mustache on the last panel of the left side of the spread!

NOTES:

[ 1 ] A version of this post originally appeared on the Ink Slingers Tumblr. It has been re-edited and slightly expanded.

[ 2 ] Eventually these various mature readers-oriented efforts would coalesce into DC’s Vertigo imprint in 1993.

[ 3 ] It’s not a coincidence that New Universe began during the time of narrative “crisis” in both Marvel & DC fictional Universes. The “white event” that instantiates the New Universe can be seen as an emanation from the Crisis of Infinite Earths or Secret Wars. It was a spark that reboots reality and sets a new consistent Universe consistent with rules first outlined in Omniverse magazine. Big event series like Crisis of Infinite Earths attempted to reboot the massive inconsistent superhero histories that accrued over decades. New Universe was doing the same thing but from scratch.


Frank Santoro on Beta Testing The Ongoing Apocalypse

This is a blast from the past. I was organizing some old links and this jumped out immediately! It’s an old ComicComics (who also misses ComicsComics?) post written by Frank Santoro. My comics at the time were appearing in the MOME anthology published by Fantagraphics. Frank’s take on my comics was an important and eye-opening moment for me. As I’m posting Adalbert Arcane’s notes to the new edition, it was fun to revisit this take. The post predates (by a few years) the first collected edition of Beta Testing the Apocalypse.

Frank has a fun no-nonsense writing style. A few snippets:

“This isn’t a review or anything that attempts to cast a truly critical eye on the comics work of Tom Kaczynski. It’s more of an appreciation. For me, Tom’s work is an oasis in the desert. And the desert is contemporary alternative comics. I find 80% of today’s alt-comics poorly constructed — a veritable colony of lean-to shacks that could be blown over in a strong wind. In contrast, Tom K builds comics that could be likened to a brick house. These are solid comics. Is it any surprise that many of his stories have to do with architecture or that he went to architecture school?”

[…]

I feel firmly rooted in Tom’s stories. I understand where the characters are, where I am as a reader. Never a bottle-necked area of the page or spread. It’s all very clear and airy, like walking through some Beaux-Arts 19th century library building. There are clear sight lines and strong centers on every page.

On 100,000 Miles:

The “Highway Story” (100,000 miles) is interesting because it balances a certain sense of movement along with a realistic, believable sense of scale. Cars packed on a highway in slow motion, car crashes, cars lined up in a parking lot. Close-ups of the protagonist in his car and long shots of endless highway ribbons. It’s a short story, maybe only 8 or 9 pages—yet within the first couple pages a world is defined by the landscape itself.

On 976 sq ft:

The “Condo Story” (976 sq ft) in contrast is less about balancing movement & scale as it is about scale itself. It opens with a couple on a rooftop looking down on to the street where a woman is walking a dog. So immediately here is the set-up: Seeing the world, or more specifically a neighborhood as a scale model. There is also a wonderful transition where the condo in real life fades into an architectural scale model of the same building.

Million Year Boom, p. 2 panels 5-6

On Million Year Boom:

The “Corporation Story” (Million Year Boom). I can clearly see in my mind how perspectives & sightlines carry the reader across panels and the spreads of this story. There are very strong “horizontals” in this story (almost in counterpoint to the strong “verticals” present in the “condo story”). The corporate headquarters is low & wide, and the page compositions are tailored to convey the sense of open yet contained space. There’s a great scene when the protagonist dives into a long rectangular pool that spans two panels.

On Influences:

I really enjoy his writing and drawing. He definitely owes a debt to the works of J.G. Ballard and Daniel Clowes. This is not a bad thing. Ballard was a surgeon with his words and the same could be said for Clowes with his drawing. Kaczynski has incorporated both masters’ approaches into his own work in a way that I find inspirational. He went through his influences and came out on the other side with something new, something his own. Like some hauntingly familiar “house style,” the approach fits the subject matter like a glove.


I can’t overemphasize how personally important this post was back when I was working on these stories for MOME. It’s rare when you find a reader that looks at your works this closely and just groks the vibe. Frank zeroes in on several sequences and moments that I agonized over. To have a reader unpack the structure of the comics with such precision was (and still is) personally very gratifying and gave me the oxygen to keep working on this material. I don’t know if I ever said thank you? Thank you, Frank!



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36th Chamber of Commerce in A Batalha

I should’ve posted this ages ago. My 36th Chamber of Commerce story was translated into Portuguese and featured in the A Batalha newspaper. A Batalha is Portugal’s oldest anarchist newspaper (the original version was established in 1919) and a fitting place for the story. It was an honor to be included and very cool to see my work translated into Portuguese for the first time.

36th Chamber of Commerce originally ran as an 8-page story in World War III (B&W), and in Cartoon Dialectics #1 (with spot color). The A Batalha version had to be reformatted into a larger newspaper format and ended up with three oversized pages.

A Batalha was nicely put together. There were other comics in there and they had nice illustrations. You don’t know how much you miss illustrations from magazines and newspapers until you open one up with lots of them inside.

Here are some pics of 36ª Câmara do Comércio in A Batalha. Special thanks to Chili Com Carne for making this possible!


Adalbert Arcane’s Notes and Theories: 100,000 MILES

Introduction

We begin a new series of guest posts from Adalbert Arcane, the writer of Notes & Theories section of the new edition of Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse (BTTOA). The story covered is the first in the BTTOA cycle. This is the story that launched this project in the first place.

Who is Adalbert Arcane? Adalbert Arcane is a noted psychogeographer and the co-founder (with Tom Kaczynski) of Omniversity. He has an honorary fellow at OPA (Office for Psycho-Architecture).

Notes & Theories: 100,000 MILES

100,000 Miles by Tom Kaczynski page 1
100,000 Miles, page 1

AOL / TW

The author (Tom Kaczynski) claims personal events inspired this story. The details are sketchy, but some information can be pieced together from various infrequent interviews. The author did live in the Washington, DC area at the time of the creation of this story. He claims his commute to his job (when he was employed on a secret prototyping division of AOL/TimeWarner (AOL/TW) headquartered near the Dulles airport) was approximately 45 minutes each way. This is plausible as traffic in the DC/Virginia tech corridor is notorious.

The imagery of the comic resembles the freeway edgelands of the Herndon/Reston/Sterling suburban sprawl one would have to traverse to reach the AOL/TW HQ.

100,000 Miles, page 6, panel 1 by Tom Kaczynski
100,000 Miles, page 6, panel 1

Ballard

J.G. Ballard’s car novels influenced 100,000 Miles [1]. The author makes this explicit on the page (see p. 14, panel 1). This author wears his influences on the sleeve.

Ballard’s Crash! and Concrete Island explore the psycho-sexual relationship between vehicles and drivers. Cars’ sleek chassis and leather barely conceal their latent deep pathology and violence. Drivers enter into a primitive hypnotic state as they begin to physically merge and identify with their vehicles. Violent collisions are moments of truth. The moment of the crash results in an erotic merger of steel, leather, and flesh [2]

In 100,000 Miles, the car is ubiquitous, commonplace, and tame. The Ballardian charge has already dissipated [3].

The protagonist drives aimlessly, trying to avoid work. The drive is a tedious and uneventful background that serves as a blank canvas for rumination and reverie. Is it a deliberate counterpoint to Debord’s Derivé, where a flaneur traverses the city in rapid succession of ambiances? The car is a sensory deprivation chamber—a theme that the author returns to repeatedly (see Hotel Silencio, Million Year Boom, and Music for Neanderthals)—floating through a generic suburban wasteland. Occasionally the Real bursts through accidents and traffic jams. Like in Goddard’s Weekend, the traffic jam and the accident reveal the occulted meaning beneath the freeway concrete.

Break With the Past

This story distinctly breaks with the author’s other work (to be collected as Trans Terra, which attempts a sharp social critique in comics form) both formally and narratively. The Beta Testing The Apocalypse (BTTA) project seeds already appear here: obsession with numbered titles, easter eggs that connect each story, sly references to the source material, absurd fictional scenarios, etc.

100,000 Miles, page 7, panel 3 by Tom Kaczynski
100,000 Miles, page 7, panel 3

Traffic Jam / Hyperobject

At what point is the traffic jam real, a real object, an entity that has existential status? The author complicates the ontological status of the traffic jam. Sometimes we drive, and traffic seems to flow without delays, but another traffic jam is already forming somewhere ahead of us. Is each traffic jam a distinct entity? Or is the entirety of the automobile fleet simply in various states of the same continuous global traffic jam in various states of territorialization and deterritorialization?

These ideas parallel Timothy Morton’s work on hyperobjects and the contemporaneous work of the Object-Oriented Philosophical clique. OOP proposes novel metaphysics, reevaluates the ontological status of objects, and posits a positive flat ontology (more on this in notes on Million Year Boom).

The now-famous denouement of the infinite traffic jam sets the stage for the ongoing questioning of the ontological status of everyday reality throughout the book. This sequence is likely the genesis of the whole BTTA project.

[1] Originally appeared in Backwards City Review, 2006. First appearance in color: MOME 7, 2007.

[2] Though not explicitly based on Ballard, the Tetsuo, the Iron Man film best visualizes the flesh-machine hybrid.

[3] Ballard himself (as a writer at least) moved on to other libidinal-liminal zones, shopping malls, resorts, etc. 



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Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse Update

The dates keep moving on the release of Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse. The release shifted from February to March 15th, 2022.

beta testing the ongoing apocalypse
beta testing the ongoing apocalypse cover by tom kaczynski

A few folks asked what will be different about the new edition. Besides being a hardcover, the new edition has a number of differences from the first edition:

  • A brand new cover (see above).
  • Three more stories. One previously unpublished.
  • An introduction by Christopher Brown.
  • Several pages of notes and theories by Adalbert Arcane.
  • Expanded Index.

You can order signed copies directly from me on this site:

or via Uncivilized Books here:

Order the book directly from Fantagraphics here:

Also available from Amazon, etc.

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Uncivilized Territories

Gabrielle Bell and I started a podcast, Uncivilized Territories. Comics are the core subject, but we will often detour into broader cultural territories. This one is about comics, what comics can do for philosophy and the dangers of nostalgia. Future episodes will be on magick, domestication of dogs and humans, comics of Olivier Schrauwen, astral projection, and much more. Two cartoonists exploring uncivilized territories… episode one below.

Stay tuned for more episodes every two weeks!

Cartoon Dialectics 2: Apocalypse Is The Suburb Of Utopia

The new issue of Cartoon Dialectics is almost here! We were able to score a leftover batch of Pantone 804 fluorescent ink for the cover! It should be the perfect radioactive glow for the nihilistic content inside!

Table of contents:

  1. Cover
  2. Your Mind is a Vast Landscape by Adalbert Arcane. New spatial analysis of the mind and the comics medium. Co-presented by Omniversity. Illustrated Mind-Scape by Tom Kaczynski.
  3. Trans Terra Continues: The End of the World and the Typical Post Apocalyptic Scenario
  4. Eschatological Book Club with Ransom Strange
  5. Trans Terra Continues: The Ignoble End of Igloo City
  6. Extinction Level Events: We Are Elementals
  7. Trans Terra Continues: Continent Wrecked on a Mysterious Island
  8. Aesthetic Education: Man / God
  9. Indicia: Language as World
  10. Uncivilized Books Paid Advertising + Mechanics of Enjoyment
  11. Back Cover Motto: Apocalypse Is The Suburb of Utopia and A New Logos For The Anthropocene

The first 200 orders get a signed print. The first 50 get print + sticker!

Universal Crisis

After weeks of teasing, my Event Horizon column on Crisis on Infinite Earths has finally seen the light of day! It’s pretty big, which is appropriate given the subject matter. I follow the history of the comic book crossover and how it eventually led to the emergence of shared universes. The article also explores superhero metaphysics, the role of fandom in all these developments, and traces Crisis’ cultural influence. Here are the first couple of paragraphs:

Crisis on Infinite Earths (COIE), published April 1985 to March 1986 was one of the quintessential and most influential comic book series of the Event (What is the Event? Read the introduction here.). It is overshadowed by comics like Watchmen or The Dark Knight, but it is arguably more influential than both.

What is remarkable about COIE is not formal or narrative innovation, but an intensification and scope of the endeavor of super-hero comic books. It is more appropriate to speak of COIE as an endeavor rather than as a specific comic book, though it is that as well. It is more important and influential AS an endeavor than as a comic book narrative.

Check it out, it’s up now on The Comics Journal. And when you’re done with that, check out all the related Event Horizon posts here:

Explore more posts related to my Event Horizon column about the comics from 1985-87.

The Omniversal Method

omniverse

I will continue teasing my upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths (COIE) article (part of my Event Horizon column) by dropping another interesting bit of comics history that had to be mostly left on the cutting room floor. Here’s the story of Omniverse magazine, a 70s fanzine founded by Mark Gruenwald. Gruenwald, for those who don’t know, was a Marvel editor and writer best remembered for creating the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (1982), his long run on Captain America (1985 to 1995), the Squadron Supreme mini-series (Sep 1985 – Aug 1986), and Quasar (1989–1994). But, what many don’t know, is Gruenwald’s interest in fictional continuity — especially in the Marvel and DC superhero universes — indeed he can be considered one of the foremost theoreticians of the concept. The story of Omniverse magazine is largely also Mark Gruenwald’s story.

A Universe Emerges

By the mid ’70s, a new generation of authors and cartoonists entered the comics bullpens. They had grown up reading superheroes. As fans, they brought with them a new level of understanding of the superhero universe. They understood the value of the comic book crossover as fans, as readers, and now as writers. What was once valuable in terms of sales (crossovers often produced temporary sales bumps, especially when lower selling titles featured a popular character as guests), now became valuable on a narrative and mythological level. To this new generation, the value did not reside in each character, it resided in the world of characters. Crossovers became more frequent and created valuable narrative connections between comics and characters. Fans were encouraged to read more titles, as not to miss out on what happened in other corners of the universe. The story they were reading in Fantastic Four might have origins in another one in The Avengers. Heroes and villains could help each other out in different books. A shared narrative universe emerged out of a series of loosely related titles.

The Journal of Fictional Reality

The Fan press understood this as well. One of the most interesting fan publications of that era is Omniverse: The Journal of Fictional Reality, edited by Mark Gruenwald. The first issue, from fall 1977, is a masterpiece of theoretical world building. In the editorial, Gruenwald lays out the case for reading Marvel and DC comics as coherent universes. The entire magazine is devoted to explicating, explaining, and justifying the connections between the various inconsistent realities of the Marvel & DC universes. It’s grueling metaphysics, building the ontological maps for the weird-reality of the two universes. The seeds of the massive crossovers of the Event were sown here. Even some of the graphics prefigure the visual identity of COIE.

Gruenwald defines “omniverse” as “the continuum of all universes, the space/time matrix that comprises all alternative realms of reality.” He also does not limit the omniverse to only comics, “In times to come, we hope to broaden our scope and place all forms of fiction under scrutiny. Til then, OMNIVERSE, will emphasize comic books over non-pictoral prose, due to the editors’ background in comicology.”

Reality Rating

One of the more fascinating items in Omniverse is its review column. Most fan press reviewed comics based on the quality of art or writing, but Omniverse had to be different. Its review column, “Case Studies” (Omniverse #1, p.19-23), rates comics on their ‘Reality Rating’. The Reality Rating rates comics based on their overall depiction of reality. The ratings go from A to D:

  1. Enhances continuity or illuminates some new facet of reality.
  2. Despite some minor oversights, solid in its depiction of reality.
  3. Major problems in its depiction of reality, but still explainable.
  4. Detrimental to the reader’s understanding of reality.

The ratings are not concerned with how well the comics conform to OUR reality (the one we live in), but how well they conform to the fictional reality they are part of. Special praise is heaped on comics that expand the scope of that fictional reality. For example, What If #3 gets an ‘A’ “by virtue of its tighter terminology about parallel dimensions.” (Omniverse #1, p. 23). On the other hand, Thor Annual 5 gets a ‘C’ because it introduces an inconsistency with the Norse & Olympian Gods within the Marvel Universe. The story depicts the gods as needing the ‘belief of mortal men’ (p. 20) to exist, when in fact they have been previously depicted as independent other-dimensional beings without the need for ‘belief’ to sustain them.

The Reality of Reality

For much of their existence, comics stories for the most part existed in a kind of ‘situational comedy’ vacuum. Sure, there was some continuity, but for the most part, when an adventure ended, the world ‘reset’. The consequences of previous issues rarely had an impact on subsequent issues. Often, they introduced contradictions instead. For example, it might be written by someone less familiar with that particular character’s mythos, or simply because it was an interesting use of the character. Tight continuity, or consistent history of the character (the one exception being the origin story), had no value for a long time. The idea of a major character dying, and remain dead, for example, was still shocking at the time. It was a frequent trope to kill a character, only to resurrect them again later via some implausible deus-ex-machina plot device.

But once creators take continuity and ‘reality’ of the fictional world seriously, it’s a short distance to say, Watchmen (which imagines what our ‘real’ world would be like once you add superheroes, with all the dark subtext and unintended consequences laid bare). Much of the innovation in comics of the 80s was simply creators taking fictional words seriously (however absurd they may be) and telling the stories that resulted from that seriousness.

Seeds of Crisis

Reading Omniverse, there’s a palpable sense of the theoretical case that Wolfman made for COIE. Omniverse is perhaps the most sophisticated explication of the various narrative complexities of the DC and Marvel universes. If this is what ended up in print, one can imagine the various theoretical constructions that circulated among the fandom in the years prior.

When writing about COIE, many of the concerns cited by Marv Wolfman as ‘problems to be solved’ in DCU continuity (multiple versions Atlantis, inconsistent futures, multiple Earths), are already present and explicated in Omniverse. For example:

  1. The various manifestations of Atlantis are discussed, and possible explanations for the inconsistencies are explored.
  2. The inconsistent future(s) inside of the DCU are enumerated. For example, Kamandi’s nightmarish apocalyptic future does not match up with Legion of Superheroes’ bright technological near-utopia of the 30th Century.
  3. There is a lengthy explication of the various multiversal, interdimensional, and time travels of The Flash. Many of these stories were key to COIE.

Omniverse shows these ideas and concerns were already advanced and present in the fandom, and among the writers who would eventually be given keys to the DC and Marvel universes.

Crisis Identity

Another eerie premonition of COIE is visual. It is the graphic for the Flash article (“Reality Spotlight on The Flash” p. 24-28, art credited to Dennis Jensen, whose work I’ve never encountered elsewhere). The graphic depicts the Flash of two Worlds. The Flash from Earth-1 and Earth-2. Behind them there is a line-art graphic of four Earths, overlapping each other as if to suggest the multi-vibrational nature of the many Earths. This graphic treatment would become the logo for COIE. Perhaps there’s an earlier version of this graphical treatment? Maybe my readers know? Still, it is an interesting artifact that predates COIE by 8 years.

No Prize

DC & Marvel encouraged the fandom to make these kinds of investigations. The letters pages in most comic books were a hotbed of reader discussions on the many narrative ‘complexities’ haunting both universes. Marvel made this into a virtue, by instituting the No Prize. Marvel editors awarded a No Prize to readers who came up with the best explanations for odd inconsistencies found in their stories. In effect, the letters pages blended with the fictional worlds, and some of the explanations could, and maybe should be considered canon.

Prophecy

In an interesting aside, Gruenwald quotes Paul Levitz article from Amazing Worlds of DC Comics #12 (August 1976 p.8):

“The pivotal time will be October 1986… and in that month, the future of the world will be decided. Either the path of the Great Disaster will be taken, and civilization will fall, or the path of sanity will prevail and the Legion of Super-Heroes will emerge triumphant a thousand years later…”

COIE series ended in April 1986. Did Paul Levitz miss the mark in his prophecy? Did DC miss an opportunity to build on this metafictional prediction? However, if we consider the omniversal nature of comic book fiction, we should turn to another event that happened in October 1986: Marvel launched the New Universe… The New Universe was a new fictional superhero universe that was exactly like our real-world until the ‘White Event’. The White Event was a point of divergence; a diversifal, in the parlance of omniversal theory. The White Event is the moment when the New Universe, began to diverge from ours, and superheroes become possible… One of the main architects behind the new Marvel initiative was Mark Gruenwald… ‘nuff said.

The premise and execution of Omniverse were a bit bonkers, but they also pointed to a way of looking at comics beyond simple, fannish enjoyment. Omniverse should be seen as an interesting and important moment in the development of comics criticism, which at that time was undergoing a renaissance.

Explore more posts related to my Event Horizon column about the comics from 1985-87.