Kali Yuga, Kali Yuga Men Have Named You…

Another comics post, prefatory to the big Mark Millar-centred post which, seriously, is coming any day now.

Let’s talk about my favourite experiment in the world of Big Two comics: DC’s post-Crisis era.

I’ve talked about this before, of course. I believe, in referring to it, I might even have let slip the words “God Bless Chaos”. Really, this was the most exciting era of “grown-up” superhero comics that there ever was — until the vision failed.

Quick overview, for new readers (ha ha) of the vision:

Post-Crisis, as Grant Morrison informed us in Animal Man, all the paper-thin fantasias of magic rings, animal powers, glowing meteorites, and impossible physics, that had previously existed as an infinite number of soap-bubble-skin universes over a yawning higher-dimensional space of “as if”, suddenly got agglomerated into one universe, and as a result that universe acquired a much greater logical density. Things that previously didn’t make sense, except it didn’t matter, became things that didn’t make sense except it did matter. And as a result, all the characters got thrown into a tizzy: they couldn’t know what was happening to them, as all their past histories became consolidated, rationalized, and realigned — but they (at least some of them) suspected that something was happening to them.

And from his throne in the Dreaming, Morpheus saw it all…or did he?

I just want to say, I don’t know if Neil does these things on purpose, or not! He has never presented himself as a Master Planner! But consider Crisis in the context of Destruction seeking freedom, if you will…in the context of Delight’s turn towards Delerium. I know, I know: there’s already a story behind Delight’s transformation.

But just consider it, for a moment.

Anyway if Morpheus doesn’t see it all, at least he sees a great deal of it. But beyond the Endless, there’s another group of demi-gods who definitely do and did see it all:

Whose names are: the readers of DC Comics.

The post-Crisis heroes don’t know about the Crisis: they don’t remember it as it was. Their memories have been altered to conform to the post-Crisis reality, because they’re in the post-Crisis reality. They know Barry Allen is dead, but they don’t know what he’s become. They know Buddy Baker is going through some shit, but they don’t know what it is. They think they know their own history, but they don’t know it.

Only we know it.

And thus there are clues, clues everywhere, to what the new DC universe looks like, and what its new structure is, and how it works, that only we can see.

You want metatextual stuff? You want a self-aware universe?

In the immediate post-Crisis universe, we were that self-awareness. We were that metatextuality. And for that reason the universe in which the DC superheroes resided became a frighteningly open and spontaneous one (if they had only known it), because we were making up our minds, page by page and book by book, about just what it was going to be: writers, artists, editors, and readers all together. There were suggestions of order everywhere, but they no longer emanated from a spot — any spot — inside the DCU. Instead, they radiated in from outside it, raining on it, hailing on it. And so it was a multi-centred seeding pattern of past causality, yet to be established; it was chaotic, and rather beautiful. It was a reinvention, it was an ascension, it was an explosion — it was an ecology of comics continuity, in which different impulses of order sometimes conflicted, and in doing so inflated the “skin” of the new universe, making new space and new niches that had never been seen before. And yet which had “always” been there, instantly as soon as they emerged from primal nothingness.

Great, eh?

But, it did not last. “The Devil howling ‘ho!/ Let Einstein be!’/ Restored the status quo”…if you catch my drift.

(And if any of you Bloggers happen to know where in the hell that line comes from, I’d be much obliged if you could fill me in…somehow I imagine it is from a Poul Andersen book…)

Eventually there was an idea, in DC Editorial, that matters couldn’t stand thus. Too many faultlines out of Crisis; too much confusion.

Zero Hour was born, to do away with this rephrasing of static multiplicity into a complex and growing singularity…to do away with narrative uncertainty, but also the feedback that fed it. It was a “nuke ’em all from orbit!” strategy…to block the access of the intercommunicating parts of this new universe: you, and me, and the guy writing the book, and the artists bringing it to life, and the editors riding herd on it all with partial success…

That all had to go. From orbit!

And, it went.

Except!

It didn’t.

Because the Crisis is still the cause of Zero Hour’s “regularized” DC universe…everything in the post-ZH DCU flows from the Crisis, inevitably. The Crisis is the substratum of the DCU, inevitably. And it is still the time of the Kali Yuga! Therefore, one might have predicted, all the ZH fixes for Chaos would have done is to make the scary expansion of spontaneity, which had prior to this been governed by the implicate scheme of the “secret origins” that only Harbinger and the readers/writers/artists/editors knew…well, ungoverned.

Crazy, neurotic, non-self-knowing, promiscuous, infectious…bad.

That’s exactly what happened!

There was no order (which is to say: no disorder) shaping things anymore!

Except!

There still was.

Welcome to the post-Infinite Crisis DCU of about a year ago or so (if I’m not wrong): where for just a moment, Scipio’s mathematical description of what “the 52” looks like held sway! I’m sorry, I can’t find the link right now…

I will plug it in later…I saved it in a bookmark…

And here was the victory of Order, the pushing-back of the Kali Yuga.

Um, wasn’t that we wanted?

It did not last…!

And now we are somewhere else. God knows where we’ll end up. Back in the immediate post-Crisis days? I hope so, but I don’t hope very hard. I don’t know if even Grant Morrison, author of the Yellow Aliens, first to see what a post-Crisis universe could be for, is quite up to the job of expanding this “skin” any further. This skin, it seems to me, is hardening at a great rate.

So, it’s Flex Mentallo vs. The Snowflake, right?!

A race against time.

If there is ever a Planetary #36, I hope it will tell the story of this story.

Little joke there.

But now let me blow your mind a little, gentle reader: because none of this is what I came here to talk about today.

I actually came here to talk about The Ultimates!

“Mark Millar”, remember?

I turned to Ed one day over a steaming pile of comics, and said: “you know who the traitor in The Ultimates is?”

He said: “No, please do tell me, oh mighty know-it-all-but-always-wrong one…”

Quoth I: “It’s the Ultimate Black Widow. Because that’s what she did back in 1966. She was a traitor. She fucked over Hawkeye.”

“Ah…!”

It was the whole appeal of the Ultimate line: you know what’s going to happen, you just don’t know how.

And now my point: this is how you catch a comics fan. You set a comics fan, to catch a comics fan. You make it a puzzle: we love puzzles. You make it a game! We loooove games.

You make it fun for itself, but you also make it an interactive game in which the comic-geek’s knowledge counts for something, and is rewarded by something. And that’s how you make money — that’s how you get people trying to move up the ladder of knowledge, which means buying back issues and repackaged content…that’s how you give the spender of $120.00 per month a way of feeling he/she’s gotten some bang for his/her buck/dollar.

It’s how you do online multiplayer games, in fact.

Fake Stan knows I’m right, because he knows how to move with the times. You gotta massage the fans. You’ve gotta make them fall in love with you, and your mysterious smile. What am I hiding, comics fans? What do I know, that you don’t know. Lean close, and I will whisper it in your ear. So long as, you know…you stay a Fearless Front-Facer.

This is the kind of thing that could save a beleaguered industry. Knowing who their fans are. Somewhere out there is a vast sea of fans-who-were, who could be again. Marvel and DC have both written those fans off as dead or dying. Marvel and DC have both made half-hearted gestures to reclaim them, only to find half-hearted gestures receive half-hearted gestures in response. Oh, hi.

Hey, hi.

Behind the status quo of pathological repetition lies the Crisis. The Kali Yuga provides surf. Some know how to catch the surf, but only for a minute: then they pose with their surfboards for a half an hour after. And then they go to the bar, and talk about surfing for another couple of hours, trying to pick up chicks.

And this may work, for them. But talking about surfing doesn’t get much surfing done. And we’re here to surf.

Or, to drown.

Or, to fuck off back to the hotel and wait for the phone call from the documentary crew.

The appeal of the Ultimate universe died. Was it for the same reason the appeal of the post-Crisis DCU died?

Well, you can’t surf in scruff.

Listen, I actually haven’t bought a comic that wasn’t written by Alan Moore or Eddie Campbell or Jack Kirby or Jeff Smith or Lee Falk or Walt Kelly or Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison or Los Bros Hernandez for nigh on three years…but I’ll tellya something, I WOULD.

If anyone knew what the hell I wanted, I would buy it from them for sure.

Although maybe it’s too late, at that. I’m learning webcomics. I’m buying what Sean Witzke and Sean Kleefeld and Tucker Stone and Jog advise, now. I may be your Akira, Big Two comics. This may all be over; it may be too late. I may have launched my evil plan twenty-five minutes ago.

I hear Messner-Loebs’ “Journey” is for sale again.

Did you know Uderzo’s new Asterix of a couple years ago sold like seven million copies in twenty-four hours?

Do you even know what business you’re in?

There’s a lot of money in this market. It’s like a movie-sized market, only steadier. But you can’t get to it, it seems. So Marvel and DC, I accuse you of having a death wish.

I accuse you, in the great Steve’s words, of not knowing how to Dance the Rattlesnake.

But I’ll give you some free advice, though you won’t like it.

Ready?

Editor-In-Chief Rick Veitch.

Okay, so maybe you don’t like that. But the time to try and hold back the tide was ten years ago.

Time to be someone else now.

This bubble’s about to burst.

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8 responses to “Kali Yuga, Kali Yuga Men Have Named You…

  1. Lots to think about as usual, but here’s one observation for now. Back in 1986 or so, J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen produced a Doctor Fate miniseries (the lead-in to a JMDM-written regular series) which postulated that the Crisis On Infinite Earths was directly related to the Age of Kali. Thus, Doctor Fate was one of the last watchmen on the wall against the age of chaos, etc.

    Sounds like I will have to dig out those old issues too, in order to get the exact verbiage….

  2. Yes, Tom…and pardon me because I am now going to bed..

    There were no DC comics in the pre-ZH age that did not reference the Crisis in some way, Chunk, for example, contained “dead” universes inside himself — where did they come from?

    The Kali Yuga was a big part of DeMatteis’ Dr. Fate…in fact a big part of all DeMatteis stories once he started scripting on a regular basis.

    Kali Yuga = Crisis’ aftermath.

  3. Probably not a good idea to take my advice as I haven’t even bought comics in 3 weeks. You remember how I put up that braindump last week and you said you couldn’t top it? You’re a fucking liar.

  4. Also, maybe I didn’t punch this up enough: I really loved the first year of the Ultimates. Nasty, tricky, it spoon-fed longtime fans, but one spoon would be pure saccharine, another would be vinegar, another would be salt…inordinately clever stuff. I’ll probably say it somewhere else, but the Hulk’s dialogue in “Hulk Does Manhattan” is really worth the price of admission all by itself.

    But anyway — again, just in case it wasn’t clear — this was the appeal of the thing, indeed of the whole Ultimate line…and then that appeal largely went away. And why? If you ask me, it’s because the symmetry was broken when it became apparent that the game aspect of the thing was fading away. The pattern-matching became so much less important, and simultaneously so much more longwinded, that I had no goodwill left for places where the various titles deviated from riff. While it seemed like there was a plan to it all, I was thrilled by it — because that plan formed a very appealing structure, that made it possible for me to call it all “clever”. But once it was gone, the thing was just another bunch of superhero comics, only with a slight edge in its voice. Instead of a pronounced edge in its voice.

    Similarly, after Zero Hour it was damn hard for me to care about any “multiversal” crap at DC. Not to sound harsh, but it was like Johns took the reader-involvement element of the post-Crisis era, and revivified it just for himself, and not for me.

    But oh well.

  5. Another great piece of work Plok! You’re so ridiculously on the money to suggest that the appeal of the early Ultimate books was similar to the post-Crisis DC comics. I remember when the Ultimate line started and me and my friend Graeme were totally mad for those books (he was big on Ultimate Spiderman, but I preferred Mark Millar’s stories back then). My girlfriend of the time was hanging out with us both one day while we were discussing Ultimate X-Men, and curious soul that she is she asked if she could read a few of these stories.

    Now, being (relatively) young and feeble-minded as we were at the time, we handed her a bundle of these comics (Ultimates, Spidey, X-Men*) and gave her the company-line about these comics being friendly to new readers – ha ha indeed! A couple of days later, she came back to me with the books, which she’d basically liked but which she thought were emphatically NOT designed for the hypothetical “new” reader. How so, I asked. Well, she said, it’s like I’m just supposed to care about the minor differences in the Wolverine/Jean Gray/Cyclops love-triangle because I know that it works differently in the movie, or in some other comics or whatever. We had a wee discussion about how much it was fair to expect new people to be interested in some of this kind of stuff through movies, cartoons etc, but I had to admit that she had a point.

    Which… maybe these comics had as much in common with Planetary as they did with The Authority. Then again, despite its action movie sheen The Authority was another book that was ripe with meta-commentary, never more so than during Mark Millar’s first story, so… yeah, my brain went to town on that stuff for a little while. And then… I lost interest, in the Ultimate comics more than in meta-comics. Like you say, these story-systems tend to work towards being “just another bunch of superhero comics, only with a slight edge in its voice.”

    I still dig stuff like Alan Moore’s ABC work, Seven Soldiers, All-Star Superman etc, and man does that last title ever do what those early Ultimate books did, only far more elegantly. You can bring an immense amount of Superman or Grant Morrison knowledge to that book and not one bit of it will be wasted.

    But while I love this stuff—while it’s basically my entry point into the superhero genre, see Watchmen, Dark Knight, Animal Man and all the other usual suspects—I think Kieron Gillen’s right to worry that sometimes comics fans prize subtext over text. Which is key to all of this, I think – prismism is a wonderful thing so long as all that reader-knowledge and engagement is put to a good purpose. Now, this purpose can be high-faluting or it can be simple, but I think it has to be there to do something. I don’t care if it’s there to enrich a teen soap-opera or to prop up a discourse on moral authority, I just want there to be some sort of reason why, y’know? Some text to support, no, to become one with the subtext.

    Seems to me that purpose is something most superhero comics lack; they’re not aimless in a fun, playful way. In fact, more often than not they just seem like they’re obligated to exist, which I guess they sort of are… in a meek way. And if most of them are riffing on reader-expectations, then very few of them seem to be doing so with anything in mind except a meagre amount of profit.

    Which… hey, one thing I do know for sure: this stuff can be really fucking good. Morrison’s Animal Man leaves me in no doubt about that, so… yeah, I’m rambling on a bit now so I’ll stop.

    Can’t wait to read your big post on Millar’s work – I used to be a pretty big fan of his writing but I’ve been put off quite steadily for the last four or five years, so… I’m curious to find out where you’re at with the man’s work.

    *Is it any wonder that she dumped me eventually? Actually, the only surprise is that it took her a while…

  6. Coming back to this a bit later, I’m reminded of what it was like looking for work in Vancouver back in the mad old bad old days of 9% unemployment, in my youth…so many ads for such pointless work! It was all you could get. The work rode on the back of the money, it literally did not need doing, in fact what it mostly needed was not doing. I thought of this as an innovation, at the time — an annoying innovation. My grandparents and parents never made a single dollar that didn’t ride on the back of some needful work — I was going to interviews for jobs that might as well have been selling lint in a bottle.

    Subtext and text, right?

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