Principia Comicbookia, Part 3

So…

If you’ve read this one and that one and those other three, and you’re back here wondering what the next step is and where-do-we-go-from-here, I have to tell you that I’m not entirely sure.  Maybe…

…A “Marvel Crisis”?

Buddy, we’ve been in one for the last ten years…and we’re not out of it yet. Over decades, the publishing realities that condition the physical laws of the fictional universe tend to encourage stability…every writer reaching for (and operating within) a sort of artistic homeostasis, even when they’re at their most inventive, and all this is reflected in Noether-like symmetries within the construct. We’ve all noticed them: reader sympathy is both predicated on them, and is a driver of them. So though it all looks very simple, there’s a science to it…even a science to the question of who could beat up whom!

And it’s this very spirit of science that’s been lost. If you consider it a matter worth assigning blame over, then the first impulse is clearly to point the finger at Brian Bendis…for though he is not old enough to be altogether to blame, he has done a lot of things that make it quite clear our modern Marvel is no longer interested in scientific justifications of the old type. And indeed, it isn’t just that he’s made it clear modern Marvel isn’t interested in that spirit, but he’s also made it clear that Marvel is actively rejecting it. For consider if you will the last issue of What If? that I ever remember seeing, in which the Watcher is replaced by Bendis himself, telling the certified true and never-before-revealed story of “What If…Jessica Jones Had Joined The Avengers?” Which is a most curious sort of a What If story, and not just because one bald guy’s replaced another! For what happens in it, is simply that…

…Everything works out fine.

Avengers: Disassembled never happens. House Of M never happens. Everything Brian Bendis ever laid his hand to at Marvel, just…never happens. And the result is, unambiguously, that things are better.

Which is crazy, right?

Because as discussed somewhere back near the beginning of this long multi-part diatribe of mine, the kind of stories the Watcher has been wont to show us in the pages of What If — explicitly for our edification, note! — can be parsed in a manner somewhat “quantum-mechanical”, in that stories upholding a status quo in which everything works out as it should, are really demonstrating the manner in which that “should”-ness is reinforced, summoned statistically from a sea of possibilities…and stories in which everything goes wrong and everything gets destroyed, are shown as statistically de-selected. However, in Bendis’ tale we are given a glimpse of a “should”-ness that actually did not happen…a story in which the heroes saved the day, and the status quo was restored just as it always is, except now this outcome is reconstructed as the outlier, you see? And thus winnowed out of eventuation, in favour of main-line outcomes we would typically recognize as the “What If…Everybody Died?” type.

Bendis, in the pages of the comic, looks out at the reader and explains that they may not like this What If…but he’s writing it and they’re not, and they can’t prove this actually wasn’t what “might have happened”, and so it is what it is, and that’s all there is to say. You can take it or leave it.

So what does this –rather clever, actually! — message of Bendis’ imply, for the physics and cosmology of the MU? Well, nothing less that a pretty severe shake-up, really…a quantum-mechanical crisis, in which the calculation of amplitudes suffers an inversion, and the natural tendency of light to travel in a straight line can no longer be counted upon…or rather, cannot be counted upon to happen for reasons we can understand. Oh, don’t worry about the TVA’s need to be rewritten, friends! Because that’s really the least of our problems, as far as the spirit of science goes! For none of that stuff that lay in the standard basket of Kirbyish influences, the stuff shared by Thomas and Gerber and Englehart and Gerry Conway too (I really should mention, if I haven’t already, that Gerry Conway was one of my favourite writers?), is in the basket which is shared by Marvel’s new architects. With the possible exception of Warren Ellis, they’re all interested in completely different things now…and, heck, Bendis even retconned the Beyonder into having been a disgruntled Inhuman, so can any part of this enormous and never-not-teetery-in-the-first-place edifice of supposition of mind continue to stand, where a thing like that is now made true?

But, of course…it may not have actually been made true, despite Bendis’ protestations. The spirit of science may be gone, but the publishing record still remains, and the interstitial fluid of Limbo still “remembers”. Bendis would have to spend years yet, years and years rewriting everything in sight, to abolish all the things that currently must be true, and that require the Beyonder to not have been an Inhuman. Jessica Jones having saved the Avengers he can have, and he’s quite right to say that none of us poor readers has the power to contradict his assertions there…but he can’t make anything true just by saying it is, no matter how privileged a position he holds. He can’t abolish the publishing record itself, and though he may have turned some of the MU’s major symmetries inside-out he has not yet removed their symmetrical nature…!

But, let’s get back to the Cosmic Cube.

As Victor von Doom saw, it was not a captured prism of the True Vacuum at all, because the True Vacuum is an unreachably pure Idea. An Idea, furthermore, that is not even an Idea…an Idea that eats its own Idea-ness in the course of its coming-to-be as an Idea. Well, you just can’t get there from here, when your premise is “can’t-get-there-from-here-ness”! In the context of the MU, it’s inarguable that there’s no such thing. And even Rick Jones doesn’t have the power to erase a memory from the register of the “interstitial fluid”…because if no power in the real world can truly erase a memory (as long as the human race is still alive) of what’s been seen on printed pages, then obviously no resident of the fictional reality, no matter how privileged, can erase a memory like that either. So we have, finally, another interuniversal axiom:

4. What can’t be controlled about the publishing record by the publishing company itself, therefore can’t be controlled by any character in the fictional reality it manages.

John Byrne has Reed Richards say it to The Beyonder, a being of truly unlimited power in the MU…that there’s one power he can’t defeat, unlimited or no…

“…And that’s the power of HISTORY, Beyonder!”

What Reed Richards means there is “the power of logical consistency within our fictional universe, Beyonder!”, but to us real folk his statement must mean “the memory of that fictional universe’s readers, Beyonder or no Beyonder.” Move them anywhere on the chessboard of real spacetime that you wish, the art’s audience can’t stop existing, even if the art itself does….and the older the Art, the more persistent the Memory. Hmm, and perhaps this is why Rick’s Imagination (which is really Memory) doesn’t simply summon Odin, or Zeus, to fight the Kree and the Skrulls, or indeed the Time-Keepers? Why it doesn’t simply summon G-D, and end the issue before it begins? Well, even le vrai Alan Moore Alternity can’t really summon up Jehovah…and perhaps, indeed, this is why the Godly Realms are at the centre of Universe and can’t be easily screwed with…

Because they’re older. And they have more insurance.

More branches, on the Tree of Whatever, to make them more robust. And recall, if you will, that salient fact in the history of Michael Korvac AKA “The Enemy”…that his machine-intelligence self freaked out on encountering Thor, much as the Space Phantom’s Limbo-power did way back in (“remember Alberich?”) Avengers #2…

…And that, possibly, it had much the same effect, but hold on…hold on…!

Because we were talking about The Beyonder…weren’t we? So as it turns out, the True Vacuum is not reached by creating a patch of spacetime in which no paths go in, and no paths go out. Hey, it’s possible that no paths do go in, and no paths do come out! But what is reached by creating a “vacuous residuum” is not the True Vacuum…it does seem as though what should be created thereby is the True Vacuum, but it isn’t…!

Because apparently where a portal to the True Vacuum might be created in the MU, what is instead created is a sub-universal link to the lightless realm of the mysterious Beyonders…another bubble of space, calved from the unreachable, but this time of a more unusual nature and with a more unusual purpose. Steve Englehart, raised on 1970s American Mysticism, believe you me has a faith in the “implied negative” of The Brothers Karamazov, the hidden ground upon which form-creation rests…and it does not get through to “true reality”, but it is still an enigma, and it is still special. The Beyonder, though a Shooter creation, did seem oddly connected to the numerology Englehart would later employ in Millenium to explain the nature of Kosmos…the all-encompassing One that became aware of itself, and in that moment summoned the necessary negative space of Two into being…the relationship between One and Two then becoming a Third factor in the creation of reality…but the Beyonder was a One who couldn’t see his Two, and who didn’t understand it. Hmm, maybe call him “Wuthering-Heights-Man”? With the astonishing power to not know how to individuate

And so, interestingly, an “ultimate” force…a force that could write the MU as well as Rick Jones could read it, but in the end no writing can surpass the reading, here, eh? A fiat power to simply make things so in the MU, is much like having a sort of determinism at work in it: everything is presupposed, and causality just becomes a bubbling stew. The unnecessary happens, and naturally enough it happens without any reason…well, can you imagine, the Beyonder took the Marvel heroes out of New York City, so that they could all meet each other and fight…!

A truly fabulous occurrance, but it didn’t matter because it happened. Because whatever happens is just what happens: that’s the true meaning of Determinism, isn’t it?

Yet, oddly, it seemed as though even Shooter couldn’t make this sort of Determinism fly in the MU…even the Beyonder encountered obstacles, and in the end they were not obstacles that even he could overcome. “The power of HISTORY, Beyonder!” It isn’t actually “history” at all, obviously, because all you need to change that stuff is a time machine…and in a universe where symmetry reigns, all impossibilities are impossible for the same reason, so there isn’t much between them to tell one from the other. From Elsewhere, every unreachable place is equally-reachable…one logically-impossible thing is as all other logically-impossible things, and once you’ve let the cat out of that box it’s out

But that doesn’t mean you have removed the state of logical impossibility from the logically-impossible thing, once you’ve done it anyway….if you see what I mean. That a transgression may occur is a crazy supposition that nevertheless does appear to be not cared about very much by the MU…but the MU also doesn’t seem to care much for getting rid of the stuff that makes transgressions transgressive, by being what they transgress against. In a fictional reality you can have all this stuff, you see! You can’t have any of it in the real world, but since the fiction is in some general sense there to illustrate why you can’t have it, it can show it. It can explain its impossibility. And, given time…

…It can explain it away, as well. That’s what Englehart’s Beyonders were for: those great non-perceptibles who amused themselves by occasionally cubing the spheres of all those “True Vacuum” force-fields, making that Idea into a Thing that could make Ideas into Things. That was all the Beyonder ever was: just half of one of those Ideas. Absolutely a numerological Heathcliff! It isn’t “History” that confines his actions, but incompleteness: a paradox just means an incomplete description of the thing being measured has produced what looks to be a garbage result.

All of it, every last bit of it, the spirit of science…but it’s a literary sort of science, and it gets that way because it is not entirely intended by its creators. They can’t intend it, because they can’t keep it out of their creations: their reality, too, has its obstacles and limitations.

And to all that, too, we will doubtless get…

But man, could I really use shut-eye about now.

Anybody else feel the same way?

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7 responses to “Principia Comicbookia, Part 3

  1. Pingback: …Avengers Forever? (part three of three) | "How Would You Fix...?"·

  2. This one’s a bit of an anticlimax, isn’t it? My apologies to all for not making it longer, but Nate was lending me his login and I just had to get something linked back through to here, even though this last bit’s not finished, and so now it’s probably going to be a SEVEN-part escapade.

    Ai ya. What is wrong with me?

    Nevertheless: task cleared!

    Time for bed.

  3. Well I for one absolutely take pleasant experience in reading all of this at last, believe you me. But dammit, Plok, I would need to write a series of posts of equal length to enumerate everything you made me think while reading it. And I’m not going to write all those posts! In all honesty, you’ve changed the way I look at the Marvel Universe — I mean, even the very concept of it being a universe, per se — and you’ll have to be satisfied with that while all the rest of these strange new thoughts percolate in my head for a bit.

  4. What a compliment!

    Yes, I think I can be satisfied with that…

    But as you know, I’m not done yet, either.

    It could all still fall apart!

  5. I would be interested to know what precisely you think modern Marvel writers ARE concerned with. The “superhero community” itself, as Colin Smith so often lamented?

    I haven’t read that Bendis story, so I don’t know what the tone of it was, but it seems pretty amusing in its self-aware contradictions. Bendis’ creation as a kind of Mary Sue–she saves the day AND gets to marry Captain America!–but Bendis’ stories are what she saves them from! It does seem like kind of a mission statement for Bendis, though: for HIM, I think, the upholding of the old status quo instead of the shocking changes he put into place may very well BE the “bad ending.” It might be interesting to ask him if he was a regular reader of What If? and if he liked those tastes of the “bad endings” and wanted them to be real…

    (Although, I don’t know if that story’s even an outlier anymore. I think the new What Ifs are more likely to not go with the Everybody Dies ending. I did pick one up a few years back where the premise was, after Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, Spider-Man does more work for the international intelligence community and becomes a super black ops agent. And Peter Parker’s killing people (bad guys, but still) and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and it never did; the twist was that everything ended up OK and possibly even more fulfilling than the “real” Peter Parker, and I think he got a girlfriend and everything who was also in black ops so he didn’t have to worry she’d end up like Gwen or something. I’ll have to dig that out again.)

    Anyway, I’ve been thinking, actually, about that sort of “the-reader-remembers as the ultimate truth” thing you’re talking about here, because I understand they’ve given Henry Pym a new redemption arc in the latest goings-on. Which, of course, they have been doing every few years since the Shooter Avengers run! So this isn’t overturning “continuity” per se, but there may be something similar about it? Hank hitting Jan is this black spot in Marvel history that resists covering up, no matter how many times they DO cover it up; everyone remembers Hank Gone Bad, but nobody remembers Hank Gets It Together takes one through five. The Old Stuff and the New Stuff are the most “real,” and everything in the middle is subject to being forgotten. Not INVALIDATED, just…ignored.

  6. Oh, yes, that’s right, they’re trying another Hank Pym redemption arc! At this point it really does seem pretty clear that they’re not here for the hunting, right?

    I quite like the bits of that What If where Bendis turns to the camera, I must say…and even if he isn’t thinking it through, like Roy Thomas with “mutant energy” he’s still not exactly getting it wrong…everything in that story does speak of a rather cheeky self-awareness, and the message seemed quite plain at the time:

    “Say goodbye to your old friend The Watcher…he won’t be coming around anymore…”

    The interests and influences of the new gang at Marvel (though they’ve really been there for quite a while) seem pretty easily-decoded to me, actually: first you throw in a youth spent reading Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and then you trickle in The Sopranos and Lost. Bendi, at any rate, appears to love TV and movies in the same way Kirby loved SF, and the idea that really shaking things up equals Drama and Good Stories is something that Eighties comics instilled in every dedicated reader of them…well, didn’t they? Also, the really notable Young Turks of the 80s were looking to make comics more cinematic, by their own admission. In TV and movies, too, there’s been a trend toward more “comicbooky” set-pieces and character beats, which sort of gives validation to this cinematization of comics — from a certain perspective, it’s really the same job just done two ways, and you can feel like you’re really doing something when you mess with convention in a way that (really) has already been so done and done that those conventions aren’t actually conventions anymore.

    But, as I’ve said before, that’s how things get quite programmatic after a while. I don’t really think the new crop of writers is interested in the community of superheroes so much as they’re interested in Quentin Tarantino and in the late lamented James Gandolfini…in Breaking Bad and in Mad Men, in Looper and in Heist. To a lesser degree, in Joss Whedon and in J.J. Abrams! And in James Cameron too. Bill Griffiths had a thing many years ago about how Young People had picked up the jargon of superagents and started using it to express their feelings about movies as audience members, chattering about “points on the deal”, etc. Everybody wants to be an insider, but also insider language gets diffused into the wider culture. As I said a really really long time ago, and on another blog, it all comes back to Hill Street Blues, a show in which cops were forever telling one another to “cut to the chase”…which was an expression, at the time, that was completely new to me. I didn’t even associate it with Hollywood agentry! I thought maybe it was just something hardass that cops said in New York City or something? But what was really going on was an elevation of moviespeak to some sort of noir-speak…and perhaps at the same time the idea that a movie should in its ideal form be really just like the pitch for a movie, a perfect preservation of the pitch, a laconic presentation of the pitch that you could point at and say “sort of like Mamet” or “sort of like Pinter”…I’m thinking Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts for it…

    Well, isn’t that what The Player was? Hollywood agent noir?

    And darn good, too, but influences are double-edged swords I guess. Later on we get the elevation of military jargon into a sort of noir-speak, and real people out in the street talk like this a bit now too…then you have American gangster-speak, and that’s also out there now. Everyone’s the product of their environment, and a modern comic creator no less: everyone wants their own “Bullseye Killed Elektra” moment, they want a certain sort of dramatic character beat, they want the people in the audience to be in no doubt about exactly where and when and how this shit just got real. And there are visual conventions ported in too — hard light and extreme closeups: the Camera Triumphant, as the only way of seeing. The only way of seeing dramatically, that is…

    So, everyone’s a product of their environment, and conventions pulled from movies and TV form a big part of the modern Marvel style, as big as conventions pulled from the comics one really loved in one’s youth…and a love of a story where you can really “shake things up” in the name of Drama, that comes from both of those informing one another. But there’s a repetitiveness to all that “pulling”, too — the envelope-pushing gets harder to do as time goes on, maybe? I mean, it’s still the same old envelope

    Like for example the Hank Pym Redemption Stuff. It’s just too tempting, like Tony Stark having a drinking problem. It’s just such wonderfully low-hanging fruit! How do you not pick it? It isn’t like readers wouldn’t forget the Shooter YJ (and the Shooter Iron Man, for that matter) if the writers stopped going to that well, but it doesn’t seem as though they want to stop going, and…I dunno, there’s something complicated in there too. During Civil War, I remember people online saying things I thought were crazy, like “Reed Richards has always been kind of scary because he’s so smart and so distanced from people’s lives, hasn’t he?” Or “Nighthawk’s always been a wannabe, right?” So, the first one isn’t true at all, and the second one is just where the character started…and there’s a retcon-in-progress there, on the part of the fans themselves, that perhaps displays some programmatic shit they’ve taken on board too. Anti-intellectuallism is a weird sentiment to see in a world where every third person is a supergenius, but it’s always been out there in other media…and dissing the wannabe to elevate the badass is a tried-and-true Tell Don’t Show tactic. Well, without thought-bubbles you have to do something to get people on board with the dynamics of the action? But there’s other stuff too, like…well, TV and movies are full of little prejudices, like “watch out for mentally-ill people, they’re dangerous as fuck”, or “children should be with their birth-parents”…obviously there’s racism too, but we know about racism, and…well, have you ever noticed that a lot of TV writers just don’t understand the difference between Catholics and Protestants? A million laid-back hippie ministers being called “Father McSomething”…it isn’t bad like RACISM is bad, but it does get added to the pile of conventions, and after a time all assumptions become things that it’s natural to assume…like, in the last couple decades we’ve seen an amazing proliferation of lead TV and movie characters who are ex-Marines, right? Dozens and dozens of them, and this was happening before even the first Gulf War…

    Sorry, I lost my point. Oh yeah.

    I think the concerns are with any kind of story that can get you to a particular sort of Dramatic Moment, whether Quiet or Loud…a particular sort of Dramatic Moment that’s clipped from a playbook, something you’ve always wanted to put your own spin on…a way that nobody talks, well there’s nothing unusual about that, but it’s this certain way, and it’s this certain kind of setting. I’m not immune to it, it’s just that mine is a different “certain thing”…I could never bring myself to write anything that involves, as David Brothers said once, a dude walking away from an explosion…you know? It just isn’t my vocabulary, I don’t really receive the character information from that, that the writer intends to transmit. I can recognize that it is indeed a character moment! And I even know what it’s saying, I just miss all the ancillary information that it’s enwrapped by…I don’t connect with the convention, so it all spells out a different sentence to me. And, not to mention “what if the villains got smart”, that one has a comedic punch for me but not a dramatic one? Like “where’s the bathroom on the Enterprise” or “how does the Thing take a shit”. Well, to each his own…

    Wow, none of that was what I wanted to say, really…but how do I delete it after spending all this time typing it?

    Fuck it, in it goes.

  7. Pingback: Principia Comicbookia, Part 4 | A Trout In The Milk·

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