Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Art of the Retcon 3: Time and Heroism in the Multiverse

Morrison's 18 Days retells the great Mahabharata in an animated CGI drama on Youtube (you can watch it here). 18 days is the length of the battle in the Mahabharata. Image Source: Broken Frontier.

The wavering fictional reality of DC Comics resembles theories from today's quantum physicists.  A comic book fantasy of multiple Earths and multi-dimensional universes aligns with contemporary scientific ideas of a fractured multiverse and mysterious dark matter.  It makes one wonder: if our physicists are right and the multiverse is real, what sort of creatures are we because of it, and how do we feel its effects?

Multiversity #1 (October 2014). "Every comic you ever read is real." – Grant Morrison. Behind the Panels review: "Morrison directly challenges the reader. 'Whose voice is speaking in your head anyway? Yours?' The same narration urges us to stop reading. That’s when things get beautifully weird."

Are we pawns of a larger order we will never perceive? Scottish writer Grant Morrison would say: yes. He is delivering his long-promised crossover, Multiversity, right now via DC Comics, and a glance at the multiversal map below shows that he is combining years of esoteric interests - mind expansion through drug dreams, a fascination with ancient Indian epics and religions, and a belief (expressed in 2012's Supergods) that modern superheroes are manifestations of ancient gods. More importantly, in Multiversity, the heroes exist along a metafictional continuity with our reality and time. They are part of humankind's long quest to define the line between creation and destruction, from which everything else follows in this world, and other worlds too.

DC's map of the Multiversity (August-September 2014; click to enlarge). Image Source: DC Entertainment.

From 2009 to 2013, Morrison worked with Dynamite Entertainment and Liquid Comics to produce 18 Days, a retelling of the Mahabharata, in which a classic Indian battle sees the age of gods give way to the age of men. Two of the founders of Liquid Comics are author Deepak Chopra and his son, Gotham Chopra. Deepak Chopra famously discussed these ideas with Morrison at several comics conventions; the Chopras also published a book about it, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes (2011). CBR reported on one such discussion in 2006 in San Diego:
Superheroes, in Chopra's view, are not external beings. "These are archetypal beings that stoke the fire of life and passion in our own souls. These are potentials that exist within us, and by creating these superheroes through our own collective imagination, we are in a way serving our deepest longings, our deepest aspirations, and our deepest desires to escape the world of the mundane and the ordinary and do things that are magical."
Morrison draws from Indian traditions to marry that consciousness to the cosmos of existence. Thoughts become physical substances in other dimensions. The great epic of the multiverse involves the genesis of values in that consciousness through dharma and karma, action and negative action, creation and destruction, good and evil. In our reality, mythical heroes are legendary archetypes. But Morrison insists that these paragons embody physical forms in other times and places.

18 Days concept art by Mukesh Singh. Images Sources: Decode Hindu Mythology, Comic Vine, Concept Art, Dynamite Comics, Planet Damage, Mukesh Singh.

18 Days trailer (2013): "From superstar creator Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman, Batman & Robin, The Invisibles), comes 18 Days, the story of three generations of super-warriors, meeting for the final battle of their age. 18 Days is a re-imagining of the great eastern myth, Mahabharata, and follows the course of the climactic war that concludes the age of the gods and begins the age of man. It is the prototype for every war ever fought. The scale is epic, wherein the biggest armies ever conceived face one another across the ultimate battlefield to decide the fate of the future." Video Source: Youtube.

18 Days, Episode 1 (27 August 2013). Video Source: Youtube.

Closing the Gap between the Real and the Unreal

What is truly Millennial about Morrison's work on 18 Days and DC's Multiversity is the blurring between the real and the unreal. Millennial myth-making ramps up the literal-minded conviction that fantasy is real, somewhere, sometime. Morrison gravitates to Indian mythology because it rests on that synthetic metaphysical premise and is the antithesis of the western fixation on the mind-body relationship as a 'problem.'

While the blurring between the fantastic and the real is specifically Millennial, it grows out of the preexisting trend in 20th century fantastic story-telling, which drew an artificial continuity between cultures of the past and present. Morrison depends heavily on 1970s' comics which retold traditional tales. Again, the fact that he takes them literally is a Millennial innovation, but his mythical tastes see him following in the footsteps of the most legendary of all comic book creators, Jack Kirby.

It is hard to underestimate Kirby's importance. Christopher Knowles states that Kirby was the most significant creator in 20th century comic book story-telling. That is because Kirby developed the divine and epic origins of the heroic pulps:
It is impossible to talk about the modern superhero without talking about Jack Kirby. No single individual - not even Stan Lee - is more crucial to the development of the superhero and its influence on the culture at large than Kirby.  No other writer - not even Alan Moore - has infused into superheroes even a fraction of the mythological resonance that Kirby did. Kirby is far and away the most influential creator within the superhero comic-book world, and nearly every important artist and writer in the field in the past forty years cites him as a major inspiration for their own work. Ultimately, it is Kirby who is most responsible for turning superheroes into gods. (Our Heroes Wear Spandex, p. 190).
So what we see here, firstly, is the artificial imposition of increasingly divine roles on superheroes over a half century period. Superheroes became more than costumed vigilantes, military heroes of a patriotic World War II, or post-combat veterans returning to the noir worlds of drugs, horror and crime of late 20th century America.

Secondly, Kirby's assumption that the heroes could be deified changed how comics were read and appreciated: Morrison is only the latest and most intense creator to explore the audience as fantasy's direct participants. Kirby's mythological borrowings began to change how people identified with superheroes, and reflected a shift in popular cultural thinking. Superheroes became more real, objects of loyalty, emotional attachment and belief. Perhaps this was because social change, crime, threats began to overwhelm the public, and inspired the need for a intimate connection to superbeings.

Christopher Knowles likens cultish behaviour at comic book conventions through the 1990s and 2000s - especially cosplays, where attendees dress up as their favourite heroes - to ancient Greek practices, where parading initiates dressed up as their patron gods. Religious worship changed in ancient Greece to become less the stuff of offerings, libations and sacrifices, time-honoured observances and distant oracles - and more a matter of direct, participatory Panhellenic mystery festivals, each with their own processions and sporting events. At other times of upheaval, such as the Middle Ages, formal worship gave way to ritualistic participation, indicating similar popular tastes for the fantastic-as-real. When times change, people want gods whom they know, not moral and didactic abstracts.

Kirby's comic book deities had a third implication. From 1970 to 1973, he created an epic for DC called the Fourth World of New Gods. Kirby's New Gods series underpins the whole DC universe. That universe rests on the gnostic conviction that there is always a bigger story, and beyond that bigger story, an even larger epic beyond any action we see, where ever-higher heroes battle closer and closer to the dramatic core of cosmic existence. This idea led to a sharpening of heroic hierarchies. It also explored increasingly flawed and broken heroes down through the DC pantheon.

DC's trinity, its highest heroes. Image Source: George Perez's Fanpage on Facebook.

DC's superheroes are organized in a celebrity-like pecking order, an A-list through D-list, which determines their proximity to the largest saga. The most powerful, popular superheroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) once fought little battles in small town streets and city alleyways. Then they fought global threats. Now, they are powerful enough to fight in cosmic conflicts that come closest to the central workings of the multiverse. In DC's stories, the smaller heroes are important too. Even the minor character who performs an initial act of good by fighting a small crime is already on the lowest rung of a ladder to power and enlightenment.

How do heroes evolve? Ever since 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC's crossovers have featured the compression of multiple universes, followed by their atomization. In DC's crossovers, three themes reflect this laddered transformation of heroism: firstly, time in DC's narratives appears as an autonomous force, which generates overlapping time streams and periods (as with the crossovers Zero Hour and Flashpoint) and contracts and expands the multiverse. Secondly, in this cosmic process, the individual hero is fractured, dies and is reborn in the Revolving Door of Death. Thirdly, a catastrophic fusion brings shattered and now-flawed individuals and universes back into a single system.

The Fictional Time / Real Time Overlap

Countdown to Final Crisis #42 (11 July 2007).

Time allows a shift between dimensions; it is a gateway between multiverses. Alterations in time streams also change realities within a single universe. Over the past three decades, DC aligned these temporal themes with moral values and heroic archetypes, as well as its real world publishing format. Time thereby becomes a metafictional bridge between the fictional world and the real world. It becomes the readership's bridge over the Fourth Wall.

Time is evident to the reader through DC's manipulation of the monthly serial format. DC publishes successive annual crossover events that play with the readers' actual temporal experience, either by turning monthly serials into weeklies (as in the year-long weekly series, 52), or by counting down to another event (as with two Countdowns, one to Infinite Crisis and one to Final Crisis) or by forcing a temporal jump. In DC's famous One Year Later gap, the company jumped all its characters forward one year in its regular books from one month to the next. It then explained what happened to them in their 'missing year' with a weekly crossover entitled 52. This real time alteration of the traditional publication schedule transforms the content of the comics narrative.

By overlapping the audience's temporal reading experience with the temporal context of fictional characters, DC strangely bridges the divide between fiction and fact. Beyond the broken and dead characters, the rebirths, the Revolving Door of Death - this manipulation of time marks the start of a new brand of heroism. This trope has been seen elsewhere in the new Millennium, such as the popular TV series 24 (2001-2010). That series offered one-hour episodes that claimed to cover one hour of real time in the lives of the characters. And the season ran for 24 episodes, so the season covered one day in the characters’ continuity.

Playing with the timing inside the story of a narrative and medium structure so that it mirrors the audience’s timeframe is a true, Millennial phenomenon. DC has attempted this innovative narrative trick several times since 2000. One aspect of this trick was accelerated production: some limited series were published fortnightly or weekly instead of monthly. Production increased right at the moment when paper publishing collapsed. In its place, digital media shattered the heroic values of the traditional monthly paper serial. New digital media create new templates for story-telling. That new narrative context demands new moral values. But we are nowhere near the point where we know what those heroic values of the Information Age might be.

Dimension-Crunching, Time-Shattered Characters

All of DC's crossovers contemplate imperfection, embedded in the core of creation, which can cause reality, matter, consciousness - and the heroes who embody moral ideals within creation - to splinter. The multiverse crunches back together and what unity and wholeness exists is defended by heroes - while villains try to enjoy and perpetuate the chaos.

Crossover stories follow macro and micro dimensional changes. Macro stories describe the trials of individual heroes as they lose their way, fail or die. The failures of the trinity of Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman (aka Truth, Justice and the American Way) occur here, in a supernarrative that America tells itself about its role in the real world. The macro crossover stories involve the big epic behind the scenes - the Monitors, Anti-Monitors - the drama of the whole fictional reality and the incredible powerful beings seeking to control it. Blackest Night (2009) was a crossover where the dead walked again and wielded heroes' emotions against them. But this was only a fragment of a much larger cosmic genesis story - that all life had originated on Earth, and that life carried a critical flaw.

Micro crossover stories involve the trickle down effect of cosmic problems. Something is wrong with reality, and the heroes, as incarnations of certain pure values in that reality, acutely reflect those flaws. At the micro level, the re-fracturing of the universe in 52 forced its heroes into strange, bad decisions. The main storyline involved Lex Luthor's granting scores of teens superpowers at the push of a button. The story described an entitled young generation who wanted everything handed to them. These Generation Y characters did not know that heroism involves shock, alienation, exile, suffering, struggles, self-doubt, and hard work.

The test of multidimensional realities and entropic existence is felt most strongly by derivative or secondary characters, who constantly fall prey to retcons. The younger characters are less seasoned and powerful, and thus are expendable 'echo' figures. They pay the price of change by having their existences destroyed, while DC's principal heroes retain their higher, senior rank in the pantheon with relatively undisturbed continuities.

A hero compressed back into a single continuity through the Infinite Crisis crossover. Garfield Logan was retconned due to his connection to the Doom Patrol, a team with rebooted continuity. TT vol. 3 #32 (Mar. 2006).

One of the Monitors who oversees the Multiverse kills Duela Dent because she is a Multiverse anomaly. Countdown #51 (9 May 2007). Explained further in Countdown #40.

Duela Dent forcibly removed from continuity, because she belongs to another Earth in the multiverse. TT vol. 3 #47 (Jul. 2007).

The Monitor, Jason Todd and the death of Duela Dent. Countdown #51 (9 May 2007).

Two Titans (Donna Troy and Jason Todd) - Generation X heroes - who weave in and out of the connections between multiverses discuss death and resurrection. Countdown #48 (30 May 2007). The Monitors plan the execution of these anomalous characters in Countdown #38.

The Monitors discuss flaws in positive matter universes. The repeated fracturing and convergence of multiverses coincides with temporal and moral shifts arising from a breakdown of classic heroism: with every multiverse 'crunch,' heroes become less heroic, more flawed. Countdown to Final Crisis #42 (11 July 2007).

Someone has to watch all of this drama from a higher vantage point to make it make sense. The first landmark series in 1985, Crisis on Infinite Earths, killed off Supergirl and the Flash in a battle against rampant anti-matter. COIE compressed the whole DCU multiverse into a single universe. The series introduced a bizarre race of überwatchers - the Monitors - pictured in the panel above. At the beginning of COIE, only one Monitor appeared. The Monitor - the living embodiment of all positive matter universes - was assigned to keep an eye on the main Earth and main universe of the DCU. He had a pretty blonde sidekick called Harbinger, a sort of super-archivist keeper of the scrolls, who recorded the history of all reality. He also had an alter-ego villain nemesis, the Anti-Monitor, who released anti-matter waves to destroy the positive matter multiverse.

Where the 1980s imposed a pop cultural message of consensus, now the multiverse has shattered again. Morrison's Multiversity describes our broken real world social consensus and how we must adapt to change. There is a sense that we need new heroes and new gods for the task. Multiversity takes Kirby's New Gods and places the DCnU in the post-Kirby Fifth World, which has been developed at DC since 2007. The Fifth World is a pet project of DC's Co-Publisher Dan DiDio; his new saga carries a Boomer-centric generational message, bearing the legacy of 1970s' stories into the 2010s:
Talk about death — Kirby blew up worlds at the start of the [New Gods] series. The story started with, 'The Old Gods Died!' which made room for the New Gods — we’re picking up that thread and launching the DCU into the future. ... In Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books ... it’s pretty clear that the New Gods have known about Earth for a long time and in JLA ten years ago, I suggested that part of their interest in us was rooted in the fact that Earth was destined to become the cradle of a new race of 'Fifth World' super-divinities — an eventuality Darkseid is eager to prevent from occurring.
In 1998, Morrison had the Kirby-created character Metron deliver the following speech:
"How like little children you appear to me. How small is your comprehension and yet... there is a seed in you... The Old Gods died and gave birth to the New. These New Gods, even such as I, must also pass, in our turn. Our search was long and our war continues, but we found the planetary cradle of the Gods to Come. ... you are only forerunners."
Fifth generation heroic gods signify, in this corner of American pop culture, a fifth level of consciousness between mind and matter. How Morrison will make them synthesize new archetypes remains to be seen in Multiversity.

All DC Comics stories, characters and the distinctive likenesses thereof are respectively Trademarks & Copyright © DC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

See all my posts on The Art of the Retcon.

Read all my posts on the Revolving Door of Death.

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