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.

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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

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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

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Black & White Urban Noir On Ted McKeever's Eddy Current

My Comics Journal column about Ted McKeever’s Eddy Current is live! See how Eddy fits into the 1985-87 Event. Also, I couldn’t help myself, but I go into a fun tangent on the portrayal of cities in superhero comics. Here’s a taste:

As required by superhero conventions, Eddy lives in a fictional city with a ridiculous name: Chad. The city resembles New York, especially the New York of the 80’s: grimy, with underfunded infrastructure, populated by lowlives and criminals, and loomed-over by gleaming towers of the ultra wealthy ruling elites. Chad is Metropolis and Gotham in one. This is where McKeever really shines. His keen eye really brings the city to life. He finds moments of stillness and quiet beauty in studied depictions of abandoned warehouses, gas stations, desolate alleys, and diners. Clean lines, attention to detail, exquisite framing. These moments make Eddy stand out from other comics of the Event.

Read the whole column here. Oh and check out some Eddy Current art outtakes in my previous post.

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