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.

The Psychogeography of Gabrielle Bell Uncivilized Territories

Tom Kaczynski talks to Gabrielle Bell about her recent Patreon comics. The conversation takes a life of its own and takes many strange turns and sidetracks… and quickly détourns into odd crossroads where Dorian Gray meets Nietzsche, comics are a performance, opera trumps comics, scapegoats are formed mimetically, walking and thinking go hand-in-hand, and psychogeography rules. There's more too!  Gabrielle Bell's Patreon | Gabrielle's Books Tom's blog TransAtlantis I Tom's Books Uncivilized Books.
  1. The Psychogeography of Gabrielle Bell
  2. Cartoon Dialectics and The Dangers of Nostalgia

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!

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.

Infinite Hyperobjects: Crisis on Infinite Earths

crisis on infinite earths crop

The upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths (COIE) article that will appear in my TCJ column ended up with a lot of extra material that didn’t make the cut. In the process of writing the article, I generated many concepts and ideas, and thousands of words that don’t quite fit the article. A lot of this stuff is interesting on its own and deserves to be aired. I plan on following up on these ideas in the future. I already posted about Atari Force, the odd precursor to COIE. And a few days ago I wrote about George Perez’s maximalist aesthetic.

Infinite Hyperobjects

One of the first frameworks I tried to use to think about COIE was the concept of hyperobject developed by philosopher Timothy Morton. The massive size of the narrative DC Universe (and the Marvel Universe (MU), which cannot be left out of the discussion) and its enormous influence and its emanations into general culture (via film, TV, toys, games, etc.) seemed tailor made for a concept like hyperobject.

In The Ecological Thought, Morton developed the concept of hyperobjects to describe objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity, such as global warming, styrofoam, and radioactive plutonium.[3] 

COIE was a massive event that grappled with the metaphysics of the even more massive DCU. The title alone evokes parallels to global warming. A planetary crisis but multiplied infinitely. Maybe looking at DCU through the lens of hyperobjects could be useful.

What is a Hyperobject?

Timothy Morton enumerates five characteristics of hyperobjects:

  1. Viscous: Hyperobjects adhere to any other object they touch, no matter how hard an object tries to resist. In this way, hyperobjects overrule ironic distance, meaning that the more an object tries to resist a hyperobject, the more glued to the hyperobject it becomes.[29]
  2. Molten: Hyperobjects are so massive that they refute the idea that spacetime is fixed, concrete, and consistent.[30]
  3. Nonlocal: Hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space to the extent that their totality cannot be realized in any particular local manifestation. For example, global warming is a hyperobject that impacts meteorological conditions, such as tornado formation. According to Morton, though, objects don’t feel global warming, but instead, experience tornadoes as they cause damage in specific places. Thus, nonlocality describes the manner in which a hyperobject becomes more substantial than the local manifestations they produce.
  4. Phased: Hyperobjects occupy a higher-dimensional space than other entities can normally perceive. Thus, hyperobjects appear to come and go in three-dimensional space but would appear differently if an observer could have a higher multidimensional view.[32]
  5. Interobjective: Hyperobjects are formed by relations between more than one object. Consequently, objects are only able to perceive to the imprint, or “footprint,” of a hyperobject upon other objects, revealed as information. For example, global warming is formed by interactions between the Sun, fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide, among other objects. Yet, global warming is made apparent through emissions levels, temperature changes, and ocean levels, making it seem as if global warming is a product of scientific models, rather than an object that predated its own measurement. – from Wikipedia

Let’s see if the Marvel or DC universe fit into Morton’s definition.

Viscosity

DC & Marvel have viscosity. Object stick to the DC / Marvel universe hyperobjects. For example, both companies have absorbed other companies and their respective ‘universes.’ No matter how long they try to ‘keep them separated,’ inevitably Charlton heroes, New Universe heroes, Fawcett heroes, etc. end up getting sucked into the voracious universes. Even more interestingly, in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a series of official and unofficial crossovers between these two universes. That means, that technically Superman exists in the same fictional universe as Spider-Man. Given enough time, it’s possible to imagine a massive media conglomerate owning both universes, and bringing them together into one super-massive multiverse. Disney’s plan for 2050?

Another way DCU and MU demonstrate viscosity is in their effects on readers. The two universes are ever-expanding and sticky virtual worlds that can be inhabited by the fans to a disturbing degree.

Molten Lava

Both universes operate on a multidimensional level and consistently break and violate the contiguity of their fictional spacetime continuums. This may or may not be by design. But, the continual inconsistencies that creep into the universes need constant vigilance, reboots, etc. A good example of that is Ed Piskor’s X-Men Grand Design. Piskor sutures decades of X-Men continuity — originally written and drawn by many different contributors — as if it was a single-story all along. The comic retelling functions like a history book, creating a unified narrative out of disparate historical events.

Both universes have lasted for decades and have produced an enormous amount of artifacts.

Nonlocality

Within their internal narrative logic, both universes are massively distributed in space and time. Both universes encompass universes (multi-verses even) and timelines stretch billions of years into the past and present. Reading a single Marvel or DC title never gets you even close to the totality of those universes. Beyond internal nonlocality, it is also nonlocal in the real world. The characters and concepts have spilled out into other media, books, TV, Film. Most recently Marvel Studios succeeded (before DC again) in porting the shared universe into film.

Picking up a single DCU or MU artifact, a neophyte is aware of a larger context, but the enormity of it eludes even the hardcore fans.

Phased

Both universes are phased and higher dimensional. They have this quality in both, their physical manifestation (as comic book made of paper) and in the fictional universe that emerges from their pages. We lack the perceptual apparatus to comprehend them in totality. We can only experience it one comic book, one TV show, or film at a time.

Additionally, we are largely unaware of the hidden forces behind the scenes, corporate decision, editorial mandates, moods of writers and artists, etc. all of which have effects on the universe we actually see.

Interobjective

This is maybe the clearest parallel. Each comic book, TV show, film, etc. is a footprint of something larger. Each one contains breadcrumbs in the narrative that can lead us to other corners. Crossover titles deliberately intensify narratives to reveal more of the universe. Seeing Wolverine appear in a Spider-Man title gives us a small glimpse of the massive X-Men comics continuity. Which itself is largely invisible, though interwoven with, the continuity of the Avengers, or The Punisher.

How to Manage a Universe?

COIE is perhaps the only comic book that attempted to map and manage a hyperobject as vast as the DCU. In fact, paradoxically, it’s an attempt to manage… to de-hyperobject the DCU at the narrative level… in order to expand the hyperobject on the commercial and cultural level.

If you’re someone interested in comics as a medium either as a reader, or as a professional, the DCU and MU, were something that would confront you whether you wanted it or not. You may consciously avoid it, or just have no interest in it, but almost any conversation around comics would have to contend with DCU or MU. These two behemoths nearly consumed comics as a medium.

Infinite Terror

“Hyperobjects invoke a terror beyond the sublime… A massive cathedral dome, the mystery of a stone circle, have nothing on the sheer existence of hyperobjects.” Morton’s description evokes Lovecraftian cthuloid entities.

In an interview, Dan Clowes (Eightball, Ghost World, David Boring), recounted many moments of mounting horror when a stranger on an airplane asks him what he does. Once he’d answer that he made comic books, inevitably the immediate follow-up questions would be, “Which superhero do you draw?”

Ultimately, I’m not sure if DCU or MU qualify as hyperobjects, though they share some qualities. They may however be emanations of a much more vast hyperobject… the massive industrial-entertainment complex that generates hyper-immersive fictional narratives inhabited by billions on this planet. It consumes massive resources and functions as an ideological safety valve for capital. These infinite worlds are multiplying rapidly around us as we hurtle through the yawning cold universe to our ultimate final crisis.

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

Cartoon Dialectics #1

I bring my cartoon-theoretical focus on contemporary neuroses, obsessions, and contradictions. Did you know about the 36th CHAMBER OF COMMERCE? Get productivity tips from a master of Shaolin kung fu! Is there any possibility of Utopia after an orgy of modernity? What are komicxs? Irreverent, funny, and DINKy-award-winning Cartoon Dialectics becomes a regular series.

Notes on Comic Book Maximalism

crisis on infinite earths by george perez

Maximalist Aesthetics

Maximalism, in modern art, is usually seen as a reaction to minimalism (a post-WW II current in modern art). The art world tends to be very solipsistic and looks at its movements on a fairly narrow spectrum. I want to use the term a little more broadly. I want to think about maximalist aesthetics as a more general tendency in art, and specifically comics. There is a minimalist aesthetic as well, but that’s beyond this little post. I’ll develop that another time.

I’m in the process of writing about Crisis on Infinite Earths (COIE) for my Event Horizon column, and I wanted to classify George Pérez’s art in some way. He is famous for drawing comics stuffed to the gills with lots of characters and detail. He takes pride in this. According to Rob Clough, once on a comics panel, he said, “why use three lines when you can use TEN!”

George Pérez

His drawings are not what distinguishes his approach from others. Pérez draws his figures and backgrounds squarely in line with comics realism, an approach, which, in the American context, is traceable back to Neal Adams. This style is more realistic (realism here is relative to older approaches like Wayne Boring, it’s still a mannered realism) figure rendering, finer inking, focus on light and shadow, and how they add depth to the figure. One day I’ll have to unpack this more. In any case, Pérez’s basic style owes much to this approach.

Where Pérez differs from the pack is in how he approaches the comic book page. He draws a large quantity of detail in each panel. But, he also has a tendency to layout the page in a very dense manner. In COIE especially, each page has a lot of panels. 10-12-15 panels per page are not uncommon, sometimes more. Overall, Pérez approaches art and layout in a hyper-detailed and dense way. His layouts are complex, imaginative, and despite the density and enormous amount of detail, very clear. He’s is a maximalist in form and content.

Maximalism: A Definition

To summarize, here are some qualities of maximalism in comics:

  1. Quantity: large amount overwhelming detail: Geof Darrow, Hard Boiled.
  2. Depth: a lot of secondary details, jokes, etc. scattered in the panels that may or may not related to the main narrative: Will Elder, Mad Magazine.
  3. Density: of information or layout: George Pérez on COIE.
  4. Scope: massive narrative length, scope, breadth of influences: Dave Sim, Cerebus (this definition developed by Tim Callahan). 

Many other examples exist out there. The maximalist tendency is present in comics from the beginning and can be traced from Windsor McCay, to Jack Kirby (especially his later work), to S. Clay Wilson, to Gary Panter, to contemporary practitioners like James Stokoe. The above should be seen as an exhaustive definition, rather as notes towards one. Let me know if you have ideas or suggestions on extending or improving this definition.

Oh and check out this Twitter thread on Maximalism for additional suggestions and ideas:

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

Atari Force 1-13

atari force 05

S-F Heroes

Atari Force is a title I admired from afar. I always loved the Jose Garcia Lopez art, and the fact that it was Science Fiction (S-F). With Gerry Conway writing, it always looked like it’d be a solid title by two creators at the top of their game. I had a few random issues, but I never read any.

After acquiring issues 1-13 in a quarter bin not too long ago, I finally got around to reading them. It’s written by Gerry Conway (one of the great Bronze Age comics writers whose credits are too numerous to list), most of the art by José Luis Garcia-Lopez, with a few fill-in issues drawn by Ross Andru (and inked by Lopez), and Eduardo Barretto. The lettering was done by Bob Lappan—a delightful surprise—as he is one of my favorite letterers. Colors by Tom Ziuko.

I’m also currently re-reading and researching Crisis on Infinite Earths for another TCJ Event Horizon column (more on Even Horizon here). As I read through Atari Force, it became clear there were some interesting similarities to DC’s huge event series that came out only a few months later.

Art & Type

Lopez’s art is crisp and light. He makes that classic bronze-era comic-book realism look so easy. His choreography of fights is always complicated but clear. He’s able to take difficult movements and postures and render them with a grounded lightness. He never skimps on environments either.

José Luis Garcia-Lopez deep action. Fresh title type by Lappan!

Bob Lappan’s sound effects typography reaches sublime and absurd heights. Quirky, bizarre, odd, and awesome. Is there any other mainstream letterer that takes this much pleasure in rendering sound effects?

Stylized directional SFX in perspective
Imaginatively stylized SFX. Note the rivets in CLANK!

Star Wars

The narrative follows the Star Wars formula. A collection of ‘broken’ individuals has to come together as a team to defend the Multiverse against the Dark Destroyer, a Darth Vader-like menacing figure. A lot of Star Wars-like tropes abound. Alien planets, bounty hunters, an ‘force’ that seems to be undermining the lives of the heroes, etc.

The Dark Destroyer. Nice type on the bottom!

Multiverse Is the Place

One interesting aside is the use of the Multiverse as one of the driving engines of the story. In Atari Force, Humans have gained the ability to travel between universes, and one of the characters inherits the ability when exposed in the womb. Conway uses the idea as part of the universe… the multiverse increasingly became an important concept at both Marvel & DC. At DC it was at the core of the mythos since “Flash of Two Worlds” (Flash #123) established parallel Earth-2… and would become a key concept to revamp the DC line during the Crisis on Infinite Earths event.

There are other curious correspondences to Crisis on Infinite Earths. SPOILER WARNING: For example, it turns out that The Dark Destroyer is a double of the leader of Atari Force, Martin Champion. They are almost mirror images from disparate parts of the Multiverse. Destroyer’s goal is to annihilate Martin’s universe via an Anti-Matter bomb. These are obvious parallels to Monitor and Anti-Monitor and the matter vs. ant-matter struggle that propels the story of Crisis. Conway was one of the early architects of the multiverse concept that became increasingly deployed by both Marvel and DC throughout the 70’s and 80’s. As early as in 1972, Conway and writers Steve Englehart and Len Wein crafted an unofficial metafictional crossover spanning titles from both companies.

Gorgeous color and color hold art.

S-F Teams

The 80’s were a good decade for ‘S-F hero team’ comics. They seemed to multiply everywhere. Besides Atari Force, there was also Omega Men and The Wanderers. I suppose the popularity of the S-F tinged Legion of Superheroes had something to do with it, as well as the popularity of Star Wars and S-F cinema. Marvel (via Epic) had Dreadstar and Alien Legion. Inside of the Marvel Universe were the Swashbucklers and Guardians of the Galaxy (though their heyday would come later). On the indie side there was Nexus and American Flagg! could be included, at least for its S-F nature, though it was much more ambitious thematically and artistically than most of the others. I’m sure I’m blanking on others.

Comics are for Kids

Atari is very much aimed at young readers, but in an interesting way. There are characters like Babe and Hukka which are very much aimed at very young readers. Babe is literally a big baby (albeit very powerful one) and speaks with a limited vocabulary. Babe’s spotlight issue (#?) takes full advantage of this by limiting the words and action. Babe and Hukka riff off each other as they bumble and help revenge against (and genocide!!!) an invading force. Future issues feature Hukka back-up stories that use limited vocabulary, pantomime, onomatopoeia, and Bob Lappan’s lettering mastery, to maximum effect.

Babe & Hukka antics

All this is paired with a more traditional comic book fare: heroic characters, adult situations — but told from the POV of young adults, interesting S-F concepts like the Multiverse, villains with mysterious motivations, etc. The younger readers can come for the ‘baby’ characters, but grow with the rest of the book as they master new skills and language. This is pretty rare in comics and books these days. This kind of formula is more often deployed in blockbuster movies, which are designed to appeal to the ‘family’ audience. Comics have become a much more niche product catering to specific demographics. It’s rare these days that the family would read comics together.

Atari logo incorporated into the physical environment… and more great type!

Branded to Oblivion

The story is only loosely based on the Atari Force video game (and accompanying comics). It takes the concepts into uncharted new territory. Visually, it’s designed to capitalize on the Atari brand name. It’s jarring to see a comic book that was effectively a big Atari branding exercise. On every page some form of the Atari logo appears; as a patch, as a word, as a costume design flourish, etc.

Still, the creators don’t hold back. The characters are well rounded and interesting, the story is fun and propulsive, and the art is beautifully realized. It’s a pleasure to see top talent at the height of their powers. It’s a gorgeous comic book. It’s worth seeking this out in the original comic books… since it’ll probably never get reprinted due to licensing issues.

Ross Andru splash page

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

Us vs Them: Pandemic World

4.5.20

Levi R. Bryant’s fragmentary musings on the Covid-19 pandemic are interesting and beautifully written and worth a read. It sparked a lot of thoughts and musings of my own. I was in particular struck by Bryant’s speculation on the possibility of constituting an Us; a planetary Us:

“Paraphrasing Badiou, the problem of politics and ethics is not that of the different, but of how to construct the Same. Ontologically, he says, there is nothing but infinitely decomposable multiplicities without one. Between me and my identical twin – if I had an identical twin – there are as many differences as there are between me and the Chinese person across the globe. Difference, he contends, is just a trivial fact of being. The question is how we can draw a transversal line across these differences to construct a space of the Same. The virus is the great leveler. It refuses to be an elsewhere. It is indifferent to whether you are rich, poor, belong to the ersatz “middle class,” black, white, male, or female. As they are thrown out of work and suffer the disease, the “middle class” discover that they have more in common with the homeless person than with the billionaire.

[…]

The terrible and cruel injustice of our economic system, the tremendous inequality of power and representation, is revealed and laid bare for all to see, and in this it becomes possible – perhaps – to construct a One or a People.

[…]

In the constitution of a planetary Us we rediscover society and our interdependence with others.”

Levi R. Bryant

There is a kind of utopian underpinning to that Us. But every Us demands a Them? Who are the Them in this binary?

The Realignment

The now crumbling international, globalist, neoconservative consensus was already trying to constitute a planetary Us. It was constructed on purely economic terms. The Us, was the global consumer, undergirded by global transportation logistics which allowed goods and people to be made and transported anywhere in the world. The Them were countries like North Korea, or Iran. They were outside of the Us global consensus, but they were also constituted as ‘future Us.’ They were the barbarians that could (and should) become Us.

This system brought us to where we are today. As the pandemic spreads the limitations of this order are revealed. It is porous. Easy movement leads to easy pandemics. The global ‘just-in-time’ supply chain can’t keep up sudden demands of crucial goods. Additionally, offshoring the production of vital goods is a problem when ‘offshore’ shuts down due to a pandemic. There are many examples.

Workers of the World Unite!

Bryant’s new Us references classic Marxist global call: “Workers of the world unite!” Identities, racial differences, all fall aside as we continue the project of the left and try to re-constitute an Us that cuts across all identitarian lines. If the Us are the workers… who are the Them? In this model the them are the 1%, the billionaires, the class with capital. By doing this, aren’t we simply re-constituting the old global order but putting an accent on the 99%. That’s fine and good, but I’m not sure that is what’s happening.

The ‘perhaps’ in Bryant’s piece:

“…and in this it becomes possible – perhaps – to construct a One or a People.”

is doing a lot of work. Just as at the beginning of his piece he says:

” A world is ending. I do not say the world is ending, but rather that a world is ending.”

The world is not just ending, it is splintering.

Consumers of the World Unite

The global order constructed the Us via consumerism:

  • The consumer is an identity based on aesthetic difference.
  • The consumer identity (consumers of the world unite) unites by the need to express a particular individuality.
  • The consumer is constituted as an individual, and a target market.

Consumer politics were expressed via identity & grievance politics. Each identity (racial, ethnic, gender, nerd, political etc.) constituted a market with specific demands and needs. Us as United Colors of Benetton. Grievances are resolved by contracts or complaints to the HR department. For consumers, Them are those choose the wrong products, or those that don’t want to sign on the dotted line.

A New Them

That order was fraying for quite some time. Events like 9/11, 2008 financial meltdown, and now the pandemic keep revealing new weaknesses. We’re not constructing a planetary UsThe Us. We’re already busy constructing an Us, one of many Us(s)… and many Them(s). We’re proliferating new Them(s).

The response to the pandemic and the solution adopted—social distancing—is anti-social. It creates a new binary: infected/uninfected. Just as there are many clusters of infection, we also have many clusters of ‘un-infected.’ To remain uninfected, you have to create barriers: masks, distance, isolation, closed borders, etc.

Technologies of Unification

The consumer ‘global village’ was not very strong to begin with. But, with a proliferation of new Them(s) it will crumble. To preserve the current Us and the international global order requires massive investment and a new hegemonic deployment of technologies of unification. Listen to Zizek’s recent conversation (starts at timestamp 4:47):

“… it’s clear we need some kind of global healthcare system, some kind of mechanism to follow epidemics all around the world to act in a coordinated international way how to prevent them… so all this has to be controlled; and controlled at the world-wide level. This idea it doesn’t work, it’s not realistic. This is the dream of those in power.”

Zizek is describing a potential massive new global, neoliberal health regime… biometrics, quarantines, surveillance at levels unprecedented and hitherto unseen. There is already a global commercial quarantine system, set up to prevent the spread of non-native plants and animals, and to preserve unique local ecologies. This system has spectacularly failed so far. Adding infectious disease into the mix will not be easy… and it might be too late anyway.

Us or Them?

A (d)evolution of the global order into more local spheres of influence appears more likely. Will cities re-acquire walls and gates? Not for military defense this time, but as ways to lock down an entire population to prevent the entry of new diseases. Will countries strengthen their borders? Will international travel industry survive? European Union seems doomed in this scenario. Will there be a re-industrialization as some production returns from offshore? This will not be the end of trade, but the flows of people, goods, and money may become much more controlled. Is this the return of strong nation states again? Us vs Them will be constituted along new lines: infected/uninfected, local/foreign, citizen/non-citizen, etc. All these binaries have never left us, but under the current political order, they were deprecated as archaic, uncivilized, and intolerant. These tendencies (already gaining strength for some time) will be reinforced and gain new momentum in pandemic world. For many this is a nightmare scenario.

Is it possible to envision a new utopian world under those circumstances? Without holding on the world that is crumbling today? Is it possible to proliferate many new communities of insiders and outsiders without creating new tensions or awakening old ones? In other words, will it be possible to co-exist with Them and see them as Us?

Pawn of the Demon: Batman and the Fractal Self-similarity of Superheroes

Batman_Fractal_crop

I’ve got a new entry in my Event Horizon column over at The Comics Journal. This on is about Batman: Son of the Demon (BSOTD) by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham. I did a lot of writing around this episode, much of which didn’t make the final cut. Here’s a bit that got left on the cutting room floor. One thing I found myself struggling with is the large body of Batman literature. Much of this literature is very similar to itself, with small differences. The more I thought about it, the more it resembled a fractal structure. And when zooming out on this fractal, Batman and superheroes in general acquire a fractal self-similarity. But I get ahead of myself.

Ba(TM)an

How do you write about Batman? How do you write about a property like Batman? Specifically, how do you write about a single episode of one of the longest running comics properties in the world? How do you write about something like Batman: Son Of the Demon ?

After 80 years of continuous publication — after countless issues, series, specials, graphic novels, novelizations, TV & film adaptions — what is Batman? Which Batman do you write about? Batman the character or Ba(TM)an the franchise? When you write about BSOTD, which Batman do you compare him to? Is it possible to evaluate BSOTD on its own merits? How can you evaluate Batman’s behavior and story arc in this book? If you don’t know the history between Ra’s al Ghul & Batman will this make any sense? If you know it only in-part, is that enough?

More Than You Can Read

If you’re critical of a work like this, is it because you don’t ‘get it’? Is it because you’re not a fan, and haven’t taken the time to become more familiar with Batman mythos? Is it not for you? Or, is it possible to consider BSOTD out of the general Batman context and say something meaningful about it? This doesn’t even begin to tackle Batman in the context of the broader DC Multiverse; all of his guest appearances, his relationships with Superman, Wonder Woman, The Justice League, and many of the other DC superheroes. Does any of that matter? Or, can you just write about BSOTD?

I have read many Batman comics, seen most of the ’66 TV show and all the Batman films since Tim Burton’s. Even with all this, I have not read more Batman, than I have read. This of course is true of just about anything. During our lifetime we will have not read more than we will have read.

One way is to just not worry about it too much. Each Batman incarnation fits the era in which it was created. Each Batman era owes as much to the general cultural context, as to the writer/artist/editor team that worked on the comics.

Batman Fractal
Batman Fractal

Fractal Self-Similarity of Superheroes

All that said, when you read a Batman comic, no matter how out of continuity, and how random, if you have read other Batman comics, and other superhero comics, most likely it’ll have a quality similar to those other comics.

There’s a self-similarity to superhero stories in general. A self-similar object “is exactly or approximately similar to a part of itself (i.e. the whole has the same shape as one or more of the parts).” [Wikipedia] Batman is like that. On transcendental level, Batman is a set of characteristics and story tropes. When looked at from a distance each part of the Batman canon is like another part. As you zoom in there are differences of course. But the differences circle around repetitions; like a fractal.

Pawn of the Demon

Anyway, back to the column. In this episode I start to zero-in on some of the general qualities of comics of the Event. (What is the Event? Read the introduction) This time I read Batman: Son of the Demon (BSOTD) by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham. It’s a more traditional entry into the Event Horizon narrative.

I created a handy little chart that maps various Event titles onto art-narrative axes and with an experimental-to-traditional scale for each.

Event Horizon Fourfold Structure

Comics of the Event can be mapped onto a fourfold structure of two intersecting axes. On the horizontal axis, we have the ‘art’ continuum, which ranges from experimental (or innovative) on one end, to traditional on the other. The vertical axis is ‘narrative,’ which has a similar range.

Because comics are a unique melding of narrative and image, the intersections between these two continuums can result in unusual juxtapositions. Traditional narratives can be executed in experimental art styles, and experimental narratives might be assigned a traditional artist. These discrepancies were intensified during the Event, especially in commercial comics published by Marvel, DC, and other publishers where writer and artist are distinct figures.

At some point in the future I’ll probably come back to the fractal self-similarity of superheroes. But for now, read the new Even Horizon column here.

batman son of the demon cover back

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