Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar 7-8 (1982)

dreadstar 7 back cover

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

Covers to Dreadstar 7 & 8

Dreadstar 7

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

Ditkoesque sequence

Psychic Ditko

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

Steranko collage

Cyberpunk Aesthetics

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

Cyberpunk sequence

Cyber Typography

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

From Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! #5

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

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

Dreadstar 8

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

Deep Time montage

Infinite War

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

The Infinity Horn activates

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

Million Year Memories

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

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

Deep Time / Flat History

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

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

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


Dreadstar #5-6 (1982)

dreadstar jim starlin

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

Dreadstar #5

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

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

The Commune is immense.

Deep Time

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

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

Tueton Smash!

Tueton Smash!

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

Dreadstar #6

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

Messiah Complex

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

Maxillon the Messiah. Bow to him!

Futurepast

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

Fight Fire With Fire

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

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

Superhero Dillema

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

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

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


Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar #1-2 (1982)

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

By Jim Starlin. Colors by Glynis Oliver

Intergalactic Refugee

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

Church & State

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

High Polish

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

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

Star Wars

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

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

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

Dreadstar #2

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

Willow

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

Ditkoesque

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

Soul Searching

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


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


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.


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.

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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