Universe Part Eight: Bonfire Of The Novelties

Or:  “Superhero Sex:  Skypeing With The Devil”

Everytime I think I’m out, I keep pulling me back in.

Best of the midwinter season to you, Bloggers — or as we call it for some reason, the beginning of winter — and though I should really be wrapping presents [EDIT: or returning them, it being a few days later now] [EDIT EDIT: or not even thinking about them at all, it now being the middle of February and thus well into the New Year], I find myself with (somehow) more to say about teh sex and teh superhero comics. But, I thought I’d covered it all already?

So, why is there suddenly more to say?

Perhaps because the topic is a more general one than I’d first thought. You see, it isn’t just about how one can write oneself into a story in many different ways, nor merely about how the value of an escapist fantasy is dependent on what one specifically wishes to escape to or from, but it’s also about the larger systems of the real world that give all escapist fantasies their general context: their general applicability to any potential reader who happens to be trapped in a world he never made. Thus all incoherent rambling about art as pedagogy must eventually find its other half (its secret identity?) in a clever Marxist analysis of art as industrial relations…and then together wind their way back to the Lawrentian root of art as psychotherapy…

Which brings us to Doctor Doom, and libertarianism. Not that I’m saying old Victor, everybody’s favourite metalhead, is himself a libertarian — heck no, he’s a monarchist! — though some libertarians, hmm, are also monarchists really if you peel away the bullshit — but to the extent that a deep seam of libertarianism runs through the political perspective of the comics cliffside in general, he is every day in more and more danger of becoming a libertarian icon. Which, I have to think, is not a very good look for him…

And perhaps more unfortunately, it isn’t a very good look for libertarianism, either. You see, the problem is that this word “libertarian” is a hotly-contested one in this current cultural moment: outside of conversation with the Noam Chomskys among us, it really has no functional definition beyond its feeling definition — is really just a convenient label for a bundle of feelings (“strength through feelings!”), an “-ism”ness that seems to put those feelings into an historical, perhaps even developmental perspective, while really taking them further and further away from any meaning at all save what happens to be found on the skin of the bubble of the present moment. Bertrand Russell’s dictum that all memory of the past is just the artificial construction of the present is here revealed as more than a mere observation: now becoming a politically-charged tool of the propagandist, who like Raymond de Seze seeks to tunnel through sophistry to an unassailably retroactive triumph of pure, implicit logic equal in effect to God saying “dude, it’s okay, I’ve got this”. And not to get too far off topic too fast, but if you want to think of this kind of thing in terms of mathematics then you wouldn’t exactly miss the target…because strange loops, as any time-traveller would tell you, can do anything at all, that’s possible to be imagined: they can make the only possible theological proofs of the existence of God, simply by invoking the paradoxical nature of His inarguable unprovability; they can stop the catalogue of total knowledge from ever being assembled, simply by reading it; they can make new things by making new words for things; they can cause even the deadest and driest list of facts to become infused with a sudden lively humour that cannot be predicted or accounted for. Heck, they can even write the plots of superhero comics, AND WHAT’S MORE…!!

…They can write computer code, too, but we’re not quite there yet. We’ll get there, but not yet! When for now all we’re dwelling on is the fact that “Mathematics” may not itself be the description of this deep principle of thought-orderliness, but mathematics is certainly the thing we’ve invented to describe it, and it describes it very well indeed…and thus even though math isn’t itself the thing it was created to describe, it is nonetheless uniquely situated within it as part of it, in such a manner as to be able to affect it in its own strange loop…the model changing the thing it models which in turn creates a model for itself…

And where we are going to get to — uh, in theory anyway! — is the place where that unique feedback is exposed as something whose specific efficiencies also are conditioned by a more general context that lies outside their ambit of comprehension…in “the real world”, as it were…


Thankfully, we’re not there yet. We’re just talking about the word “libertarian”, remember?

And about comics.

Speaking of which…

Some comics people on the Internet have this real serious thing about Doctor Doom, have you noticed? That great, iconic villain with the puffed-up ego…they identify with him a little more strongly, these days, than perhaps can be accounted for by his beautiful design and long history of character development. Doctor Doom is a putz, of course: a walking inferiority complex wedded to a sad genius, a tragedy of lost human potential. Everyone is better than him, largely because he wants to know if they are…but he avoids changing by living in a fantasy world in which none of that matters, in which he isn’t like that and doesn’t have that flaw, and so doesn’t have to admit a thing about a thing. A quote from Simone Weil comes to mind here, courtesy of our old pal Harvey Jerkwater:

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating. Imaginative literature, therefore, is either boring or immoral or a mixture of both.”

And perhaps that may be a bit harsh for lovers of imaginative literature like you and me, but it certainly describes the problem of the supervillains: never satisfied because never satisfiable, more than anything else in the world they need their heroic antagonists to keep their illusions of proper and dignified selfhood afloat. EXCEPT!

Doctor Doom has gone beyond this, into a fugue state so complete that every action of his at once composes its own justification. Absolutely and permanently enveloped by his brilliant armour, everything he touches turns to totalitarianism, that -ism so wonderfully enabled by technocracy…but, he doesn’t see it. Because he doesn’t have to. Because he doesn’t need honesty as his credential, all he needs is his “personal code of honour”. Doctor Doom reeks of malevolence and evil, petty vindictiveness and disgusting Satanic pride…but, he’s got that “honour” thing going for him, and you have to give him that.

Don’t you?

Well…I dunno about that, frankly. The thing prevalent among young men in my culture that I call Bullshit Honour is just so damned cheap, so ephemeral and so filled with hypocrisy, that it kills thousands on the roads each year…bearing the same relation to the real thing “honour” as the false repute of “celebrity” does to actual fame, and oh wow how vain, without the merit, is the name! So many lines in so much sand, so hurriedly drawn with whatever stick happens to be most handy! Honestly, dude, you should not drive home, you should crash on the couch instead…

But to those who have nothing else, Bullshit Honour is the most precious thing in the world, even as the positions it produces are the most precarious: I am respectable, I am good, observe me as I don the armour of my character, see how it gleams. And don’t judge me by the things I do or say…!

But judge me fairly, by my history.

Though of course history is always in flux, as any time-traveller would tell you. So, the intersection of Doctor Doom with the libertarian ideal of modern times and antiquated thoughts: a self-interested actor who can call himself good by his own lights simply because he possesses motivations, that perhaps are really not much different in nature from those the good people possess too…smart, superbly capable in his own milieu, and terribly misunderstood by the sheep around him because they can’t fathom the superior poignancy of his struggle, he is the romance of imaginary evil personified. Who is better and finer? Who could possibly have more just cause, for taking any given action? The thing proves itself, at every instant: Doom is the best.

Doom is the best.

But…we didn’t used to think that, did we?

Didn’t we used to think of Doom as the worst?

Wasn’t that, in fact, what was so great about him?

Here’s that quote again, from Blue Box #1:

“Bulliet has a theory that posits comic books as keenly accurate depictions of the inner lives and imaginations of the teenage boys of that particular era. “What distinguished the comic book industry of the 1960s and ’70s from the book publishing industry was that it was more demand-driven than supply-driven,” he says. “Stores were very cautious about what they stocked. Owners knew their stock very well, and they paid attention to what boys were buying.” The output of the industry became totally reflective of the desires, fears, and dreams of the boys who were fueling it. “You can watch, in the comics of the era, the evolution of a sensibility that is specific to a demographic,” continues Bulliet. In Bulliet’s view, comics provide a window onto an otherwise undocumented history.”

Bullshit Honour is on occasion the best honour, because unlike its non-bullshit other half it doesn’t actually require principle, or hardship. It certainly generates hardship, by using principle…! But it doesn’t require these, if you see what I mean. All it requires is a certain amount of very specific cleverness, which is good news indeed if such cleverness is the only stock you’ve really got to trade. Romance? This is not the mid-twentieth century, when everything seemed pretty well on the upswing after an unimaginable disaster had finally been gotten through, so we bloody well need romance…the strange families that dotted the television dial throughout the postwar era, and filled the pulps and the comics as well, were born from the ruin of chaos and the abyss of lost time — all those sitcoms are about survivors, people! — but they also live in a time of mass reinvention because of that, a time of (if I may say so) “mass possibility”. But not so, the survivor-fictions of today! In which the only loss figured is the loss of reputation…

But mind you, that’s not an unserious type of loss either. It’s more abstract, sure; but it also hits at the heart of human social sensitivity. We’re pretty robust creatures, and can thrive even under tremendous environmental variations and enormous physical setbacks, but there are still a few problems we have no answers for. Wars and storms, we can sometimes get out from under; but endocrine imbalances and loss of public respect drive us to our knees every time. And it’s that second one that’s the kicker currently under review, of course: peacetime anxiety, that admits of no solution but medication. Even if that medication is a bar fight. Or, on the other hand…

…You can cheat. Libertarianism. In its current feeling-form, it’s a kind of ethical fugue — these problems are too hard, so we must make them less hard. These responsibilities weigh too heavily, we must make them lighter. When Rousseau did it, it was called “conjectural history”, but today we just call it Glenn Beck’s America. And comics people love it, in an odd conjunction with dotcom billionaires who somehow managed to fail up more spectacularly than any other people who have ever lived…comics people and software billionaires both, they feel the access of a greater and cleaner world banging shutters in back rooms in their heads, calling out to them down the back hallways, promising to break through the dimensional barriers into reality, through the wardrobe’s doors and into real life, bigger on the inside, the glove simply turned inside-out. All we have to do is fix it, all we have to do is do this thing, all we have to believe is a belief without seams and flaws…a better belief, a perfect belief. All we have to accomplish is perfection.

Hey, how hard could it be?

It’s a curious age, this early part of the twenty-first century. It has a lot of uncertainty in it, bubbling away beneath the surface. So it shouldn’t be too surprising if smart people, superb in their metier, whose personal poignancy is subjectively superior to the poignancy of others around them, find themselves going Frank Miller one better: and not wanting to use identification with the villain to interfere the more strongly with the hero, and through the hero the text, but instead wanting to identify with the villain as the actual mirror of the reader, and frankly the text can get lost. I mean, Brian Bendis and Mark Millar were fine for the early oughts, but their beats seem a bit tired now, you know? Be the villain you want to see fucking the hero in this world, and all that…in 2012, it’s almost naive. Heck, even rape has gotten passe; even anthropophagic sex is still, y’know, sex. And we’re running up against the limits of how to sublimate it. Oh novelty, novelty, all is novelty! So make a bonfire of all your novelties. Once upon a time, in the superhero world, jolly and harmless violence tapped the root of libido, and by marvellous chemical transformations (aqua regia!) accomplished remarkable alchemical ends: mercury vapour transmuted into mere steam, exiting the reaction harmlessly. Even: fruitfully. Then, later, the sordid and grim sexual escapades of the superheroes reversed the equation: where once all violence coded for sex, now all sex coded for violence, and it was all very far from “harmless escapism”, like finding a way to mix milk and eggs and chocolate and sugar in such a way as to produce plutonium. I won’t say it wasn’t fascinating at first! Since it delivered a unique frisson: in the wake of postmodern appropriation of everyday instructional texts, and even more everyday para-instructional texts, superhero comics discovered a novelty that like magic itself only worked within the bounds of the fantasy kingdom, the Narnia map — as they appropriated themselves, “by their bootstraps” as it were. And, I consider it an open question…

Was this truly a “postmodern” exercise?

Well, it could’ve been, obviously: pedagogical plutonium porn, a handbook for misery that reverses the aspirational quality of existentialism. How to torture, how to sicken, how to cheat, why the superheroes have never faced a menace like this before…! And indeed I think one could argue that this has occasionally been tried on, and that it’s even worked pretty well from time to time. Er…

While literature was giving us “Tintin And The Real World”, superhero comics were giving us “The Filth”?

Regardless, in superhero comics at any rate the prime directive is that the Neovore must be fed, so quite-exactly-postmodern or not the feeding bloody well got done, and for a while the beast was satiated. But then like a Risen Doomsday it got hungry again, and not for the same old crap it had last time. So? When postmodern sex doesn’t work anymore? Doesn’t give up the same thrills? The answer was, as Grant Morrison might well have predicted, highly ritualized masturbation. Not that I’m saying that’s the kind of comics that he writes! Though I’m not not saying it, either, but the point is…

Sometimes it’s magic — partaking of the freedom of magic! — and sometimes it’s just more organized religion.

And therefore, partaking of the organization of organized religion.

You know?

Through the looking-glass, I suppose we are through the looking-glass here people…this is going to be a digressive one, almost as digressive as a Universe one, hell I should make it a Universe one, why this bloody well will be James Bond! Because magic and theology share a root, or perhaps more accurately I might say they share an intersection…and have you not noticed how the unique genius of Christianity is that it stubbornly makes every connotation a denotation? Jesus went up, up in the sky…hell, not even Levy-Bruhl’s “primitive” people believed shit like that, eh? And in fact not even Christians believe, not even the flippin’ Pope believes, in the literal Ascension, yet…

…There it is, and we can’t seem to get rid of it. So let’s return to time-travel, which is a fancy way of saying let’s return to mathematics…and the age-old problem of whether God can make a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it, and then can he lift it anyway. Ask a rabbi and you’ll get sighed at: “so, you want to tell God what to do, eh? So why ask me, how is it my business that you disapprove of God’s lifestyle?” Judaism, like most religions, is “realistic”, you see: connotations and denotations maintain separate residences until marriage, because otherwise the cousins get confused. And to be fair to the Catholic Church, on the level of the ground troops it does a most square-jawed and manful job of keeping the latrine separate from the mess hall, for such individual parishioners as may be (understandably) perplexed from time to time. Because there still are wider principles that master the incestuous possibility created by rogue axioms, you see, and in mathematics as in nuclear chemistry there are “forbidden” transactions, that are forbidden mostly because they’re just plain forbidden, but also which are forbidden because they’re, as my old Phil. of Sci. teacher had it, “scientifically possible but philosophically absurd”. Just so de Seze’s argument, that if there is no divine right but the sufferance of the People, then it goes against democracy itself to remove Louis…is a valid theorem anyway, but one that even Hobbes might balk at, not for its callback to Leviathan but for the way it outrages what he himself described as the essential character of science: “the dependence of one fact upon another.” All these centuries later, it’s still the one thing Hobbes said that’s the hardest to argue with, and perhaps as good a description of science as any we will ever have — since it neatly encapsulates the nature of science that we continue to struggle with today: that knowledge has limits which can’t be broadened just because we stand there and wish at them to be broadened, yet those limits can’t be made any narrower by any amount of wishing either. Don’t expect us to stop being puzzled anytime soon, by how the social construction of science manages to coexist with science’s goal of objective truth-seeking! Because it might be a relief of a sort if we could figure out how to say that even facts are socially-constructed, but they still are not; and yet if we attempt to cure the problem the other way, by saying that science has no social dimension to it, then we go against the findings of science itself, and look like damn fools into the bargain. Science is done in communities, and done imperfectly because of that: politics and presumption begging every question they can get their hands on, because there are wishes and wishes, and they all act together untraceably to produce the indispensible context of facts that is called theory. Yet every theory still has to deal with the reality of the world as it is somewhere along the line, and that reality is fairly wish-impervious; a thrilling argument can be made for anything, and perhaps it thrills even more when it’s so radical as to argue specifically against the need for reconciliation with reality, but in the end there is still Fact’s windowpane, that Wish’s nose must contend with one way or another, or you don’t have a model of anything but your model. Every fact is dependent on some other fact, and in the end even a “perfect” belief is no more than a belief…

…Even if it’s essential to divining what the facts are, or may be, and of course this is one of the things we use time-travel stories to explore: what are the limits, that lie outside logic? Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it? The rabbi would perhaps say “You mean might he make such a stone, and so I’m here to tell you: no, he won’t.” Can anything go faster than the speed of light? Sure, lots of things can do that; they just don’t.

But, if we imagine that they sometimes do…then Elsewhere becomes available to us in our time machine, and so we can try a great many arguments out, just to see — hypothetically — what they would look like if they didn’t already happen to be impossible. What would they look like, and what would they imply, and what structural necessities (if any) would obtain once the question has been freed from the uselessness of being asked? What new or more basic reality would remain, in the hypothetical crucible that has burned the old arbitrary reality of “forbidden” things away? As it turns out, what this looks like, and what is left, is a thing not 100% divorced from what’s left in similar stories one finds in different cultures; yet at the same time there is some novelty here too, that’s quite suitable for bonfire-making, for on some deep level the modern exercise of science is bound up with a Christian worldview that tolerates the manufacture of paradox — the multiplication of entities! — as other worldviews do not, and thus it is one in which only a paradox can adequately answer another paradox, the crucial dependence of facts one upon the other still remaining even when factuality itself has been insulted, and emptied-out as a category. Consider Doctor Doom, for example, and his attempt to get his hands on the magic jewels of Blackbeard by sending the Fantastic Four back in time to steal the pirate’s chest. Well, we already know it won’t work out for him, not just because Reed Richards is smarter than he is, but because (as it turns out) no time-travel story that takes this form of argument ever survives its own arguing….in whatever culture it is found, however the unique “Western” accent here is one wherein you’re not simply barred from plundering the past because the superior mathematics of Zeus will stop you, but the reason you can’t plunder the past is that by entering it you make it as active a place as the present, indeed you can’t enter it with plunder in mind without making it active actually as the present…and thus open to the fresh sting of Necessity that can only occur where multiple outcomes are possible. And so the Fates no longer have anything to do with it; there simply becomes here, and here there, as the line of cause and effect becomes unstuck from its customary placement. So it isn’t like visiting Ajax in the Underworld! But instead the tale has rather a different moral than simply “the monkey’s paw will claw you in the end”, for that matter has a different one even than “the infinitesimal calculus has demonstrated why it is that Xeno’s arrow will indeed hit its target”: as it reminds us instead that this is not, can never be, the best of all possible worlds even in potential, no not even with time machines and magic jewels and everything…!

Which is surely, I think you’ll agree, a moral befitting the unspeakable niftiness of modernity…

But it doesn’t even stop there, you see. Because, moral or not, as long as you continue to have a time machine in this story…

…Then you can even flee that nifty modern moral in search of a niftier and even more modern one, and then flee that one too, and the next one, and the next after that, and essentially you may keep on fighting Necessity as you like pretty much “forever”, because when present and past are this sheerly promiscuous then the future matters so little that it barely exists at all. And therefore it can’t be better, as it can where there aren’t any time machines: where things in the past stay where they’re put.

And of course that’s not the only moral philosophy we farm via time-travel story in the West. But as for Doctor Doom, he’s never tried anything else but fixating on the past’s putative changeability, so…we should pity the guy, perhaps, almost. He can’t see what’s in front of his face…but he might. There’s something wrong in him, but it could be fixed; he doesn’t have to be this way! However in his distinctly Onanistic (yes!) pride, he also won’t be anything else. Why should he ever change his mind? Why should he ever condescend to acquiesce to the world, when it’s never done the same for him? Who does that damn Reed Richards think he is, the blasted boy scout? Second-rater, when did he ever invent a time machine…?!

But in a way, and naturally enough…he doesn’t have to invent one, because he already lives inside one. Because in a way, a superhero comic book is like a time machine, or anyway it can be. The planes of story, neatly-clippable into squares and rectangles, form just the sort of universe that can be ably presided-over by puzzle-piecing Intellect, by story-building Narrative, yet there’s more to this as well; for to read a comic book is to be once again catapulted into the time when one first read a comic book: the endlessly-serial storylines, the endlessly-reconfigurable postures of characters. What if, the imagination says, the Silver Surfer fought the Son of Satan? Then those scenes might be these ones. What if, the Original X-Men fought The Invaders? Or what if red fought blue, or green fought white. Part of the jouissance of superhero comics is in imagining what other set-pieces might lie behind the ones one is currently considering: what does the Thor vs. Hulk fight imply for all the other fights? What does it imply for me? The mind of the comics reader is deeply embroiled with the card-values of each of the characters confined inside the square and rectangular arenas of his seeing, rolling out the fabric of the present moment as the values multiply, and providing a pleasing alter-reality analogous to the past while still not being at one with it: eternally re-livable and re-playable, and as a consequence not binding on the reader but instead freeing. What if, Julius Caesar fought Hannibal? There’s a transgressive air to the putting-together of conflict here, a weird untethering of cause, to produce ever-more thrilling effect. Call it trash culture, not to say rap-battle, not to say promiscuous imagining: what if, Napoleon fought Einstein? Or what if the Jack of Spades fought the Jack of Hearts. In the square or rectangular windows to a time not here and a place not now, these infinitely-stackable symbolic wagers are our news bulletins and weather reports, these are our personality quizzes and Rorschach tests, this is all polymorphous eventuation not yet cemented, an alternative historicity waiting to be born…but, the significant point for our purposes is that it is nevertheless not born. Limitless potential values in the hand, tales shuffled into being at random out of the deck! But it’s all, ultimately…

Solitaire, as the reader writes and reads his own readings and writings. Immersion in the comic book is thrilling because it is a private experience, somewhat illicit as it’s temporarily rule-free. We sport with possible fates! Things we might do! Or not do. But for the ordinary reader in the ordinary pedagogical scheme, this is primarily rehearsal — “what kind of hero do you want to be, when you join the larger social game?” — rather than advanced retrospective. The time machine that is the comic book isn’t a tool for fixing what’s gone wrong, because although it obeys its own internal logic it is not compelled to obey the larger logic of the outside world: “realistic” details of cause and effect within a comic book are confined by authorial intention instead of Fate, and possibilities and necessities external to authorial intention do not in truth “exist” to be speculated upon. Even the time machine within the story can only do so much! And of course this is just as it should be, because one is not supposed to get stuck in the comic book’s balancing act of force vs. force; one is not supposed to become attached to its re-enactments for the power they quite plainly don’t have. That the hero wins, by expressing himself or herself openly, is the only way the arrow of time gets printed on the pages, because it’s the only arrow of time that matters; it isn’t about Dr. Doom.

Except that, strangely at the current time, for some people, it sort of is.

And that’s a most curious development, don’t you think?

Well, I blame irresponsible storytelling, but I did say we were going to get back to mathematics, so let’s get back to it. What is it, that encourages so many people who work with it all day to embrace the nouveau-libertarianism of the American right wing? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of prolonged exposure to conceptual shorthand: from inside mathematics (as from inside Science in general), it’s a time-saver to concentrate on the romantic rather than the real…to treat the romance as though it were real. Terms and operations become objects and relationships, and it all works on its own level: understanding is the same thing as doing, and doing is understanding. The mysteries of the really-real world — the substrate, you could call it — do not answer very readily to the powers of logic, having no particular allegiance to it: even time and space are abstractions, and the nature of matter especially is a prey hunted eternally but never caught. Don’t expect us to stop being puzzled anytime soon, by how the abstractions of our thought relate to the objects of truth we aim to find in the world! For the whole business falls into the gap between reality and romance, between model and thing-being-modelled. And, on some level that’s just getting way too complicated, isn’t it?

Because: can’t the thing just be itself?

All very well to insist that the past is merely the product of the skin of the present’s bubble, but how are we supposed to operate that way? It definitely ain’t easy, to be stuck asking questions that aren’t even proper questions, all to get answers that cannot be proper answers, and it’s all made even harder by the fact that there just isn’t any alternative

…Unless, that is, you cheat. Because who’s to say there is a reality outside the romance? Mathematics lets you make fortunes and atomic bombs with equal facility, seems to be the only useful handle one can get on the world anyway, so what possible logical reason is there to conclude any “substrate” exists at all, except a simpler and more elegantly abstracted one that more closely adheres to the approved method of looking at it? Why can’t mathematics, indeed, just be “Mathematics”, if indeed it looks and walks and quacks like Mathematics, eh? And who cares about when Newton said that no mathematical description could ever quite match the evanescent curve of reality?

Of all things, even religions, Science is the best at making reactionaries. Strange loops, you see? They produce results — they’re the only things we know of, that produce them so damned efficiently! — and the results all have a certain soothing quality of self-similarity to them, fractal patterns pointed all the way down, fractal pattern pointed all the way up, and Man is the measure…and, look, here’s the thing about the libertarian comics people and the libertarian tech billionaires, okay? They are flip sides of the same coin largely because of what the coin is made of. Peter Thiel and his damaged Randian ilk imagine impossible moments of triumph brought about by the manipulation of belief, in the standard Doctor-Doom-sized package of pure engineering…the Singularity calls to them with its promise of ultimate convergence, all knowledge joined into one point of infinite computability, a portal to Elsewhere that leads away from the necessitous confinements of ordinary time and space. But, as I think I’ve mentioned before, the Singularity is really just a fictional inversion of where the world is really heading…i.e. not to the ideational Big Bang but to the ideational heat-death, the dissolution of Theory in the ionizing light of constantly-improving technical prowess. The more we find out, the less we know! The more we observe, the less we understand! At least for now, for now…and sure, we’ll catch up eventually…

But that’s the really-real reality that the Singularity indicates to us: something not the Singularity, something antithetical to it, where instead of things self-organizing themselves until they fall right into our hands, we get them in our hands first and find it’s all too damn much to organize and hold at the same time. I mentioned before, too, that science fiction is our most ironic literature? Well, we’ll get back to that too, but Not Today…for today I’ll just point out another instance of SF’s ironic inversions (as, again, I think I’ve done before) in the 90s SF tales of genetic superbabies conceived of CEOs and oil barons, better than your own progeny in every way, because you of the underclass can’t afford the services of the high-powered neo-natal engineers they employ. Because of course this is just a dream as well, isn’t it? There aren’t any genetic superbabies, and there aren’t gonna be any, because biology doesn’t answer to politics: we don’t know what a “super” baby would even look like, we wouldn’t know how to “make” one if we did, our polarized and self-satisfying opinions about what qualities people have are ones that nature has never heard of, doesn’t understand, and thinks are too silly to waste any time on. A “better” person…well what’s that? A “smart” person, a “superior” person…

Who’s ever heard of such a thing?

But just because the idea of genetic superbabies is irrelevant, doesn’t mean the tales of genetic superbabies were (or are) similarly irrelevant…because that same technology the story uses to do its impossible neo-natal engineering, in the real world we use for neo-natal testing, and neo-natal testing on a large scale promises social upheaval and moral confusion far more profound than what a handful of upper-crust superpeople could possibly generate. It’s genetic engineering, all right, but it’s pointed down toward the bottom of the feedback loop; hey, we won’t make superbabies, but we’ll sure be able to weed out un-super ones…!

And that’s the reality that such SF tales inversely indicate, which is the reality we all must live in. Unless, that is…

…We cheat, and find reasons to believe in the inversion rather than the thing it indicates. And people who work in Silicon Valley, whose failures make fortunes, excel at this…as do comics folk whose successes make no changes to the world at all but symbolic ones, and even those more utterly fleeting than just about any other symbolic changes that can be imagined. The comics industry in North America, at least the superhero stuff and its accessory products, is dying faster-than-fast, and the wagons are all circling…and Ayn Rand is not gonna ride over the ridge with her libertarian cavalry. It’s a pretty brutal reality, for a field of such light and reassuring fantasy! Wherever the heroes are, they’re not here…!

And down in Silicon Valley, is it so very different? At some point the realization must become unavoidable, that all this is the product of merest chance…that you aren’t better and smarter than those around you, nor even (if we put down the bank statement for a minute) more successful, and all your victories go only as deep as the skin on the bubble of time-travelling memory. Well, naturally enough! After all, do we really expect billionaire twentysomethings who eat ramen over the sink to discover new social realities by anything but accident? In the Marvel Universe where Doctor Doom lives, even anthropologists can build giant self-aware robots…but that doesn’t mean the real world supports software engineers who can do world-class anthropology! We’ve had bubbles before, and they’ve burst, but all we need is another carefully-narrativized illusion to conveniently forget it…hey, for that matter, remember when the Dow was just going to keep climbing and climbing forever, after having passed through some veil of possibility that ensured scarcity was left behind in another, smaller dimension? The Financial Singularity, how well I remember it! We were like angels then!

Just: not angels on the winning side, as you might expect when our leaders are all people who read 1984 and came away thrilled with the utopian promise of really cool interactive TV; when what they took from Huxley was the joy of being able to scientize Plato’s Republic. So what of the bottomless concurcopia that is social media, what of the endless celestial procession of apps that all our phones-that-are-not-phones promise? Every time Doctor Doom makes a plan he is convinced that it is the best plan, but it turns out really to be the worst…then he makes another “best” plan and it fails too. But is he to be judged by this? Of course not; after all…

…His history’s not finished being written.

And he has his Personal Code Of Honour.

And, damn it, he thinks he’s going to win!

But, we might ask…why does he think he’s going to win? What makes him so sure? Well, maybe it has to do with the fact that he lives inside a universe that’s in a constant boil of possibilization, where the liberating power of magic’s ability to let Lesser affect Greater is always at hand. In a fictional world, to figure out a different way to say something is to make that something differently-actual, and so comic-book science always has an answer for everything. Mathematics! The lines between the model and the thing it’s modelling are so thoroughly, fatally blurred that mere genius becomes an Archimedean lever, sufficient to any task! Doctor Doom never repeats himself, so never learns from any of his mistakes; but then why would he, when all is novelty where he lives? Meanwhile up here, all is repetition…or so it must seem, to Weil’s “real” evil…and even the allure of magic becomes not so much about freedom but about order. Oh, if there was only a bit of order to our lives!

Oh, if only wonderful, marvellous ME could be set loose from these chaotic constraints imposed by the irrationality of others…!

And yet that isn’t the way the world works, as we continue to discover. The structure of spacetime masters all, establishes all basic symmetries, creates both Number and Relation and — yes — forbids the impossible, in some strange way that acts to drag us down from the lonely mountain of identity outside the world, into the messy archipelago of complexly-interpenetrated substances. Consciousness chops continua into antinomial categories, but the only thing that’s “natural” about such chopping is that it’s consciousness that does it…the categories themselves only tenuously bound to the substrate of the really-real world, and at constant risk of breaking loose and becoming conceptual flotsam, drifting aimlessly to-and-fro across…

What else?

The surface of the present moment.

So what “window onto an otherwise undocumented history” are comics providing us with today? In these swirling 21st century times, our escapist fantasies have become like counters in a public game, that we used to play alone…belief in what’s inside the pages has gained a peculiar resonance it never had before, even as the enterprise producing the pages spirals ever closer to the drain. Different notions of escape — who escapes, and from what, and into what — become more important as clues to the external factors that condition the “need” for escapist fantasy in the first place, and the morals of the stories become more weirdly transportable to the outside world as their kinds proliferate…it’s not about learning how to build a crystal radio set anymore! Nor is it about becoming acquainted with the general atmosphere of a technosocial culture, and (sadly) it isn’t even about how sex is the opposite of death. All that stuff’s been emptied out, it seems: its factuality insulted even as the abstract necessity of factual relations — let’s call ’em pseudofactual relations, eh? — maintains its insistent force. So what’s left? Well, I guess when you take away the instructional aspect of these odd little four-colour dreams (did you know that we use dreams to rehearse waking actions that the brain figures are necessary to our survival?) (it’s true!) (but that’s Not For Today either), what you’re left with is an instructional format without any significant instructional content, and so…

The reader just has to supply that out of their own pocket. “Doctor Doom works in secret, and talks to no one!”, Steve Englehart once declared from second-person caption-space…

Doctor Doom, alone in his castle with the apparatus of masturbation all around him. Only faithful Boris to make sure he keeps his annual appointment with the Devil. And to the Devil, might not all these annual meetings seem as just one? The same meeting, over and over, in temporally-detached higher (or lower) space?

You know, I take it all back: maybe “libertarian icon” is a good look for him!

17 responses to “Universe Part Eight: Bonfire Of The Novelties

  1. Of all the characters who might challenge Frank Miller’s interpretation of the Joker in DKR for the title of Most Besotted Fool, surely Doctor Doom might come the closest to taking that crown, eh?

  2. Of course a less convoluted explanation of both Dr. Doom and non-academic libertarianism might be put thusly:

    Libertarian: Give me free things! I’m special!

    World: No. And you’re not.

    Libertarian: But you’re giving free things to other people! And they’re not specialler than me!

    World: How do you know? But we’re giving them free things because they need them, and you don’t.

    Libertarian: Then they don’t deserve them! And especially if they need them they double don’t deserve them, because it’s doubly unfair to me that they get them while I don’t!

    When it all comes down to it, libertarianism, even Objectivism, would probably be fine if the “gimme” part were only taken out, eh? Ditko’s latter-day work could so easily be read as a rebuke to bad libertarians and Objectivists, who continue to operate on the code of the playground…

    So that’s Chomsky and Ditko who don’t suck, anyway.

  3. You pretty much covered it in that last comment, but I wanted to add that the mere fact of being a monarch himself wouldn’t make Doom a monarchist. His attitude to other monarchs could only be “What injustice that such undeserving wretches have been given power they use so poorly! Why am I alone the only monarch worthy of his station?”

    And in this, he is VERY MUCH a libertarian. Randism is just like Christianity in postulating there is a right and proper equilibrium that things naturally want to achieve…and wherever the real world fails to match this prediction, that’s just proof that the agents of Karl Marx or Satan are working behind the scenes to knock everything off course. Once they can be identified and eliminated, the world will be restored to its rightful balance and I will be on top, the way I was always meant to be.

    And that’s why Doom makes such a good commentator at Fox News.,

  4. He is the yelliest!

    And I’m guessing you’re right about the libertarianism match — ha, I would like to hear what a Bad Libertarian would make of that! No doubt you’d be sternly corrected and made to understand that Doom is a job creator, perhaps he’s John Galt with a streak of altruism, not content to hide away in his mountain fastness but never able to resist trying to help the people outside it…the funny thing is, that in a way he’s the perfect Atlas Shrugged character, he really does make new metals and time machines and all that stuff…but all he really cares about is attacking the Fantastic Four, and he really doesn’t need to but it’s the straight up sin of pride. So…hmm, yeah, I know what the Bad Libertarian response to a critique of Doom would be, but could there be a Bad Libertarian critique of Doom?

    A curious thing is that apparently something called NEO-FEUDALISM is quite the rage with your Silicon Valley types these days — that’s the thing where they use the Internet to make money, and you supply free labour to their efforts? — so maybe Doom is actually a better libertarian than most of the ones we’ve got. After all, he doesn’t ask for free government money, and he never claims he’s actually spurring Reed Richards’ creativity by helpfully building death-traps to catch him in…never asks for a tax break to fund his vendetta…say what you will about him, he is not about the money. Which I guess is no more or less than the basic qualification for Supervillain Status, but there you go…I think probably back at State U. when he was asked to write an essay on Paradise Lost (you have to figure they made them take some arts classes, I mean after all: highest seat of post-secondary learning in the world, right?), it’s a bit tough to imagine him doing the old “sympathetic Satan” gloss? More likely he’d have utter contempt for the story because it introduces the flip-floppiness where Satan’s a relatable guy — surely Doom’s ego would never let him buy into identification with the defeated bad guy who can’t escape his pride, simply because he wouldn’t accept that he himself couldn’t overlook his pride?

    Yep; I guess I’m saying Doom thinks Milton’s a fraud…his paper was probably just a couple of sentences about how Paradise Lost’s childish narrative is unworthy of the attention of Doom…now excuse me while I get back to building a portal to the Netherworld in my dorm room…so I can wrestle the Devil…

    One wonders how this would all read if things had gone another way. After all, the business with Doom’s mother and Boris and the whole thing, although it’s a fine addition to the Doom story is just that: an addition. All we actually begin with is his attempt to contact the “Netherworld”, a plain act of some kind of hubris, apparently never repeated…that then sends him out wandering in the snowy wastes. There’s an alternate origin story there where Doom is perhaps motivated by greed as much as pride, and perhaps seeks power in FF #5 so he can secure a position, not that he believes is so much his by right, but that he simply wants. Of course, that this Doom doesn’t last gives us a character who’s more than just a villain of the week, but I think somewhere under the current Doom is a figure of jealousy, avarice, envy…I think maybe that’s the first Doom we see, when we first encounter him as children reading comics: just the bad kid on the playground, not sophisticated enough to flee into pride’s justifying embrace, but just furious at that bastard Richards, who got away clean without a mark on him from their first encounter. Well, we all know someone who bombed out of college, and we all know someone who lightly made a decision they soon found they could never take back…Doom might be looked on as a high-tech drunk driver, really…

    Huh, so maybe his origin is structurally similar to Nighthawk’s?

    Now there’s an odd thought…

    • See, now I understand why Gerber’s Von Doom in the KISS comic totally ruled. Just think of what we could have seen if Doom had gone up against the Defenders and Dizzy the Hun.

  5. On a side note: all this reminds me of a discussion at Will Shetterly’s blog where I argued that the most libertarian character in comics is Lex Luthor of the Silver and Bronze Ages, as written by Edmond Hamilton and Elliott Maggin. The funny thing is, unlike Rand or Von Doom, the Luthor of Hamilton and Maggin actually believes in the human race. He’s angry because he expects better of us. He wants us to be worthy of Einstein. “Any one of you could do what I do! You could decide to be intelligent just like I did! Why don’t you? Because you’re all standing around waiting for that alien to rescue you and fix all your problems! He’s destroyed your will to achieve! I’ll prove to you he’s not as all-powerful as you think he is! You’ll see a free human being is the greatest thing in the universe!” Which could also be a capitalist talking about socialism or an atheist talking about deism, it just happens to be a bald mad scientist talking about murdering a big blue boy scout.

  6. Luthor and Doom are both interesting in a peculiarly comic-book way, in that as evil scientists they’re utterly unimpressed by theory. Which, yes, sure: comics, but over and above that…or perhaps under and below it, or even off to the side…

    They may be great geniuses, but they’re shitty scientists. Imagine having such a tremendous intelligence that you could afford to overlook the theoretical, almost as a second-order phenomenon? A frill: young Luthor creates life in his laboratory, but after the laboratory is gone he remembers nothing about how to do it…the experiment is unduplicatable. This is sort of the antithesis of science — he should’ve made discoveries in that little bunker, discoveries that couldn’t then be lost! But he didn’t. Likewise Doom invents a time machine, yet all it’s good for is plundering the past…Reed Richards is motivated by curiosity to the point where he gets a little absentminded, but Doom doesn’t care what he finds out.

    It’s interesting in a couple of ways. The first way is, it’s clearly science that follows the rules of magic, and not just any magic but the magic that flows out of the personality itself. Consider Tolkien, where Feanor makes the Silmarils one time, and afterwards can never duplicate the effort. But, why can’t he? What makes it unduplicatable? Andrew Rilstone would have a better answer than this (well, I would myself if I just could just think where I put that essay on Feanor), but the quick-and-dirty approximation is that in Tolkien these things are matters of essence, not matters of knowledge. Not even matters of skill! In Maggin’s Last Son Of Krypton, Lex has genius within him, a power to overleap what is known…almost an evolutionary potential for inventiveness, but as with all evolutionary potentials it can’t be shared out horizontally. And each genius of this sort is unique, as the powers of the Fantastic Four all come from saturation with the same “cosmic radiation” but take different, personal, non-repeatable forms. So it’s powers and purposes and personalities again? Yes, but where the power is “genius”, it’s also inseperable from an attunement to the universe’s hidden principles, that can’t be shared. Basically it’s Destiny vs. Fate, again…where Destiny gives no second chances if Fate should take the first ones away…

    I like Tolkien’s treatment of magic, by the way, because it’s really magic magic — nothing about it is reducible, and nothing about it is explicable, except that maybe the explication is inherent in the thing itself. The True King can heal the sick because he’s the True King, ipso facto…Glorfindel can beat the Nazgul at the ford because the elves are good, and furthermore they’re mighty. That’s really all there is to it: the use of natures. Heck, the elves make Ents out of trees just by hanging out with them, and as for the Rings they’re not created by the finding-out of some technical secret, but they’re made by harnessing a secret that already exists! But once the secret’s been used, it’s also used-up…unavailable, once the charge of magical knowledge is dissipated. You can know it one time, like making a wish! But then afterwards if you were to look at your notes you’d find them meaningless.

    Which brings us to the second interesting thing: like I said up above, Doom never repeats himself because his universe is too a-boil with possibilities (another way of saying it’s being written into existence, with words preceding things)…it’s not just in the local effect of Doom being unable to get Blackbeard’s treasure chest until a Blackbeard comes into existence to own it, but then once the chest is dumped it isn’t Blackbeard’s anymore so he can’t try to get it again…the past becoming “present-like”, it can’t be replayed any further, so the timeline it may have promised is pinched-off…but Doom can’t even refine a scheme that almost worked, and try it again later! He invents these things, but he’s blind to the theoretical aspect that would make them repeatable…it isn’t just ego, for he never repeats anything in order to prove he was right all along about it, never even builds another Netherworld-contact device! Luthor never even tries to create life in a test tube again, hell he never even works on a cure for baldness for that matter…

    Sorry, kind of lost track of where I was going with this…maybe the judicious application of some coffee…

  7. Jumping off the “great genius, shitty scientist” thought: Doom and Luthor lack a certain discipline, which we might (I might, at least) understand in a closer-to-home way as the lack of discipline in writers that refuse/resist editing their own work? “I just finished writing this (story/novel/screenplay/whatever), and now I’m expected to go through it AGAIN? Screw it if it’s not perfect the first time around, I’ve got other things I want to try.” Doom creates a trap for the FF that turns out to have one fatal flaw; the SMART thing to do would be to just recreate the trap and fix the flaw, but he never does. He can’t be bothered to really see his ideas through; he’d rather build a whole new mousetrap than reset an existing one.

    Hey, what do you make of Byrne’s “This Land is Mine!” in relation to this discussion? It sort of illustrates Richard’s point about the monarch who is not a monarchist, because he totally does not care about Zorba’s legitimate claim to Latveria, but the story makes it out that Doom is right to disregard legitimacy in this case. The story does seem to point toward “The fittest person to rule is the fittest person to rule,” but I do hesitate from interpreting it as actual relevant political commentary from Byrne as some of the contemporary letters pages did; I don’t think Byrne meant it to mean anything but what’s on the page (which is sort of his deal), do you?

    Incidentally, the Doom we see in the early FF issues is an interesting character in relation to the post FF Annual #2 version, isn’t he? Once his rule over Latveria is established, he has a status quo, which is something the earlier version doesn’t have. He’s just a crazy dog who goes from one story to another, becoming increasingly dangerous: he gets lost in space only to learn a mind-transference technique, he gets shrunk down to nothingness, only to discover a subatomic kingdom to conquer. I was raised on the “does sort of care about Latveria for its own sake and does sort of have his own code of pseudo honor” version of Doom, which made his instability really interesting the first time I read those early issues.

  8. Yeah, the “dangerous dog” Doom is kind of great, isn’t he? You don’t know what he might do! He has a time machine! He has a tiger! He thinks he’s Rama-Tut, basically just because he meets him! He is out in the world, doing crazy shit. But then we get the Doom you could maybe feel bad for, for a minute or two — the operatic Doom, which is really the Doom…except you can still play with the dangerous dog too, I think that’s what the “overthrown by Kristoff” thing was about, probably? Get him out of that Latveria straightjacket for a while, no more spider sitting in the centre of his web…instead, an action-oriented Doom, and some lovely moments came out of that, with him going around the world trying to find allies…

    The idea of Byrne making a “political” statement is kind of interesting, because Byrne most definitely has a filter on everything he does, he has a very strong sense of “fitness” himself and he’s not shy about following through on it. Oh, the crazy things he’s done out of pique, contrariness, sheer bloody-mindedness! Yet he can tell a story well enough (when he’s of a mind to) that it can all make enough sense to get by on. Lee and Kirby pretty well established that Doom ran Latveria in about the same way that Hitler ran Germany, so…who would really want Hitler back? Byrne plainly just wants to restore “dignity” to Doom, give him back a little of his regal edge, I would guess he is not really thinking it through because COMICS COMICS COMICS!, yet at the same time that particular sort of “not thinking it through” is political as well? And it’s bananas for Zorba to have to be a “bad sovereign” and for Doom to be a “good sovereign”, just because Doom’s a better character than Zorba and the Lateveria shtick’s too good not to have back! Seriously, what is Byrne thinking?

    Who the hell would want Doom back?

    And yet…YEAH. Distressingly, real people do have such crazy political desires all the time — desires for “a strong leader” and crap like that, yet also a willingness to prefer monarchs who “care for their people” (excuse me while I barf though), or are at least sort of seen to? And maybe Doom does provide the basic necessities to his people (barf at “his people”) and maybe they did miss him…and Byrne is good enough at walking between the raindrops that it passes a smell test there, perhaps, if we did want to call it “commentary”! Then again, anyone with a Byrne-ish attitude themselves would be happy to retcon all that as a trick he played on the FF, and actually didn’t someone do that, now that I think of it? But the “twist” ending of the story is a lot more comics! than politics!, fittingly since Byrne seems to be as clear about the first as he is cloudy about the second…

    I dunno, he did a fairly okay job of leaving loopholes for future writers, that is when he wasn’t busy smashing the toys to enforce his own sense of fitness. But did he like the “regal” Doom? Oh yeah, you have to think so, and though I wouldn’t beat the guy up for it I also wouldn’t call that preference Not Conservative, really…

    But, as you say, Richard makes the “monarchist/not-monarchist” point pretty nicely: Doom’s only meaningful political affiliation is Egotism. Englehart had a great bit during the Kristoff years where Doom goes to the Black Panther for support, fellow monarchs etc., and T’Challa basically scorns the shit out of him and then right there</i< you also see Doom not really believing in the "fellow monarch" thing himself anyway, it's just another Doomish ploy like something he'd say to Namor, and it's made very clear that Doom doesn’t respect weak kings, which basically means he doesn’t respect any kings but himself…or rather, it’s in the reverse order: he doesn’t respect any kingship but his own, therefore he doesn’t respect any “weak” kingship because he needs a rationale that makes him look good to himself…just as Richard said up above, and it’s actually very interesting in terms of authorial choices, because always with Doom there’s the bit about his code of honour, and it is bullshit but he’s still got it — he sets the value of great art above petty revenge, for example! — so that’s a potential conflict in his presentation and Englehart is very skilled at walking around it, at walking around his conflicting impulses, his self-deception in this way. Hmm, I guess I go on about this because I’m thinking about an email Richard sent me in which he described the wonderful through-line of character Luthor was gifted with from Jerry Siegel down to the present day — that was all about me saying I liked the Luthor who would occasionally think (“choke!”), who could’ve been a good man and secretly still would kind of like to be a good man, much more than I like the “Humanity First” glibertarian Luthor…and Richard ably pointed out that those two Luthors are exactly the same guy, and there’s no conflict between them…

    (…But actually, I wondered, was Byrne’s Luthor really that same guy? In hindsight he still seems to me to be nothing more than an amoral glutton, a moustache-twirling caricature without any real ideas, whether they’re about being good or bad…Biff from Back To The Future 2, rather than the guy who would occasionally think (“choke!”)…

    Oh, but what a strange world of emotional relevance there now seems to be in those (“choke!”)s!

    But I am probably colouring all that with a little too much hindsight; given Byrne’s proven raindrop-between-walking talents, if I read his Luthor again I’d probably have to concede “yep, same guy again”…)

    …So Doom, too, in the hands of a capable writer is just one terrible guy whose terribleness can look different from different angles, but doesn’t have to. Well, the dangerous dog bit you so brilliantly describe is consistent with the Latverian ruler too? Since that’s pretty much Doom’s boyhood! And adulthood? The guy should’ve died a hundred times, but he just bloody well keeps going on, and always finding a new handle, and just turning into more and more and more of a problem.

    What an opportunist!

    Yet in another way — and I think this is consistent too, not just with his history but with the “libertarian” thing — it’s actually all just luck, isn’t it? Luck the monks find him, luck the Ovoids pick him up…it’s funny to think of his encounter with Rama-Tut as the libertarian mindset SWERVING away from the acknowledgement of chance — “hey, you must be me!” “Hey, yeah…I guess I must!” We’ve always thought of that as just some Stan-garble, but if you look at it as just another example of Doom thinking it is ALWAYS ABOUT HIM, it’s actually quite neat and tidy…

    Oh, my…is that really the time?


  9. I feel like you could write a whole book (a short book, and no one would read it, but still!) on “This Land is Mine!” and how it does and does not engage with its subject matter. I mean, it’s INSANE that you’d do a story in which the heroes have deposed a tyrant only to have a worse tyrant take over and consequently then allow the less-worse tyrant to take control again — and steadfastly ensure as the author that it doesn’t mean ANYTHING but re-establishing a status quo. But the story is so entertaining, so well paced and put together that even when you recognize this weird refusal to do anything with the implications of the text, you allow it. Well, I do, anyway, I’m a sucker for the whole run.

    Hey, another funny thing about Doom-as-monarch-but-not-monarchist: Doom doesn’t really have a formal title as ruler of Latveria, does he? I think people call him “the master” or “Your Excellency” but he’s not like, “King Doom” or anything, which I think nicely illustrates his egotism. A king is but a role but there is only one Doom; there’s no succession plan because why would Doom even conceive that he’d need one (outside of Kristoff, but Doom’s robots try to make him into an exact copy of Doom anyway)?

    But if we’re talking about Doom as libertarian/objectivist, I think it’s worth taking a look at Doom in the 90s (my area of expertise, for my sins), particularly in crossovers. I think it first shows up in Infinity Gauntlet, where Doom recognizes the severity of Thanos’ threat and teams up with the heroes, but it’s even better illustrated in the final chapter of the Onslaught crossover (Mark Waid wrote it, so you know there was at least some thought put into it, and certainly more than was strictly needed): Doom is helping the Fantastic X-Avengers fight Onslaught, and when Rogue asks why, he says it’s because he has no interest in betraying them just to rule a world of cinder and ash. He proves to be an invaluable ally, but just the same–! When the heroes are sacrificing himself, Doom’s trying to use some device to absorb Onslaught’s energy for his own use. He plays a very similar role in the Heroes Return story (Peter David: also some thought, not totally satisfying though), where he’s instrumental in getting the FF and Avengers out of Franklin’s pocket universe, but then decides that Franklin’s power is a neat opportunity and tries to kidnap him. (Paraphrasing: “I would not hurt a child for all the world, but for all a universe–?!” It illustrates nicely the limits of his bullshit code of honor.)

    So Doom in these otherwise plot- and marketing-driven 90s stories is presented as a rather interesting figure of rational self-interest: he helps the heroes because a.) saving the universe is in his own best interest because there’s no universe for him to rule if it’s destroyed, and b.) there might be something to gain in the process anyway. And he’s not just some hanger-on: he’s legitimately contributing to the effort, and the heroes would be considerably (perhaps irretrievably) worse off without him. Yet, he’s always trouble once the main threat is taken care of. The lesson to be seemingly taken from this, then, is that a totally self-interested person like Doom can be useful, even invaluable, but it comes with a price: you have to be on your guard because eventually he will stab you in the back if he can. Ayn Rand is right to a point about rational self-interest, but past that point all bets are off. It’s far more interesting than Onslaught/Heroes Reborn/Heroes Return OUGHT to be.

  10. Also: Byrne’s Luthor bugs me just like all of Byrne’s Superman run bugs me (even when the stories are good, and his run WAS pretty good despite all the things I dislike about it; I think it’s worth reminding ourselves periodically that in his heyday Byrne was an absolute MASTER storyteller of the superhero tale, even though he’s never been what you’d call a “great writer”). Biff Tannen’s a really precise parallel: post-Crisis Luthor is just a bully, with nothing much to offer outside of the notion that he’d never believe Superman would pretend to be Clark Kent even when presented with the evidence. As cool as “Metropolis — 900 Miles” seems to be when you read it, there’s nothing going on there in Luthor’s head other than being a dick for the sake of it. Even Gene Hackman’s goofy Luthor has a certain exuberance and hungriness that you can choose to read as character, whereas Byrne’s Luthor just wants to slap your lunch tray to the floor so he can laugh at you, you nerd.

    I think you can probably read him as the same guy, but not in the text itself; I think Byrne even said he wasn’t interested in Luthor being anything but a naturally bad dude? I feel like something’s lost in trading “world’s smartest man” for “world’s richest man.” Isn’t part of what makes genius-Luthor interesting is that he’s possessed of the same exceptionalism that he perceives and despises in Superman?

  11. Byrne actually does something a little bit neat in “This Land Of Mine”, now that you mention it, drawing on some typical Lee/Kirby FF stuff involving a sort of moral twist, twist of perspective if not always exactly a plot twist…always something shocking to the FF’s (and our!) sensibilities, but with Reed there to explain that it’s a “cultural difference” — to the aliens this is normal, there would’ve been no point offering that guy help, at least he died a hero, Doom may be a villain but he has his own strange code of honour…what a scoundrel you are, sir, but in your own diseased way you seem to be a sportsman! All of these things are arguably of a piece, so that wherever they go the FF are partly relieved of any excess moral burden by the fact that they can only do so much comes about also by using an understanding of differences to throw a bit of cover (on occasion) over what might otherwise be interpreted as “exploitive” intervention. “No, Johnny…if Doom’s people really want him back, we can’t interfere!” Yes, the old non-interference thing, but it cuts both ways and so I think you might choose to draw a “Karl Marx vs. Carl Barks” conclusion from it all, if you felt so inclined…as yer basic non-interference principles always remain selective in nature. The Ducks go to the lost tribes of the jungle to prevent the Beagle Boys from plundering their treasures, and then the tribespeople are so grateful they simply give Scrooge the treasure anyway…but he’s the moral capitalist while the Beagles are just criminal ruffians, so he knows what to do with it, knows how to handle it respectfully. Man, I wish I could think where to find that essay again! Maybe it’s available online at TCJ…?

    So Byrne expolits this trope to have the FF put up with the worse dictator/better dictator tradeoff, which is crazy but at least it’s consistent with the overall moral position of FF comics, which…we could argue about how Barks-y it is, I think! Because there are a lot of directions in which that two-edged blade is capable of slicing, and the FF rarely walk away with cash from the deal, are largely a philanthropic organization that simply grapples with the conflict between human rights and cultural differences the same as any such organization must. I think I’ve said before that I like the idea of the FF being welcome wherever they go, with the one exception of Latveria? Another point in favour of Matthew’s contention that the FF are the Marvel equivalent of Superman, who is similarly the person you want to see in your neighbourhood if there’s trouble there, in part because you’ve pretty much got to see him as impartial. The Avengers operate with the sanction of the U.S. government, so there are places where no one wants to see them…but the FF are pretty much welcome everywhere on Earth, aren’t they?

    But the argument can still be made, that when the FF run up against a cultural difference that absolves them of further responsibility, then they don’t think twice, but Reed’s authoritative super-scientist voice comes through and tells them to quit every time. And, of course, when there’s no clean-handedness to be had then they don’t quit, they keep on intervening regardless of “cultural differences”. So…yeah, FF comics do have a bit of philosophy to them, they represent a perspective, and the only place to think where that perspective comes from, is Lee and Kirby and their own senses of what was “right” for the characters to do…

    …Not that Byrne has to do anything about making such political choices past aping what Lee and Kirby did, but it’s intriguing to think he might’ve also been conscious of this: after all, his Danger Unlimited went right on into Duckland with its faux-FF origin story, bit of Indiana Jones, which is to say a bit of Tarzan (etc.) perhaps…the FF reconstructed explicitly as archaeologists of the still-rather-imperialist kind, most definitely WHITE PEOPLE, doing what white people do…and then the big plot he had in mind of course had to do with alien carpetbaggers, didn’t it? So, possibly conscious of it all, yeah…conscious of the friction between the sense it makes and the sense it doesn’t make?

    I would cheerfully write a Danger Unlimited script, on the day the FF go into the public domain! If Byrne let me…make it really all about the white-people-with-the-powers, whose stories are ultimately derived from the hidden heritage of the brown people in the Amazon or wherever…and so who do represent that hidden heritage out in the Western world, even though their representation is more than a bit compromised, and not necessarily always soothing…


    On to Luthor!

  12. Yeah, so Doom’s “code of honour” is almost presented as an ethnic difference in a way, isn’t it? Hmm…

    Byrne’s Luthor, though, is more of a departure from orthodoxy. Because if you think about it, his particular “humanity first!” thing goes along with he himself not actually being exceptional, and I believe if you look at him closely you see a contempt for the exceptional: for the very idea of it. Luthor the businessman founds his fortune on the “Lex Wing” (groan), but did he invent it in a garage somewhere? That’s what the old Luthor would’ve done, but this Luthor seems more likely to have stolen it and then killed the original inventor…he’s not a genius, just (referencing 900 Miles again) a psychopath, he has geniuses working for him but he just keeps them terrorized, and sees them as essentially replaceable. So he appears to be a pirate, nothing more, until someone (I guess Morrison?) makes him at least a genius businessman, and so a believer in the exceptional again. In fact this was something I appreciated about Morrison’s JLA run, that the Luthor who shows up in it is one I can imagine as a guy who did invent the Lex Wing, who invented a lot of things, but it was all just too easy and he just got bored. Invention! It may thrill other people of lesser intelligence, but to Luthor it’s all drudgery. The pursuit of power is more challenging! But then that’s easy too…oh, how about screwing with random people’s lives? Fun for a while, I guess…


    Sparring with Superman!

    Now there’s a life’s work!

    So…hmm, yeah, Morrison is astonishingly good at reconciling past versions of stuff, perhaps even as good as Englehart, so in his work I did find Byrne’s Luthor recontextualized back into a shape not unlike the “real” Luthor…and then I don’t know what happened actually, because DC just kind of edged over more and more to the green-and-purple armour stuff? Without ever bothering to explain it…and maybe they didn’t need to, when another alternate Luthor was present in the JLI cartoon, who embodied a similar synthesis of scientist and businessman…the only place I ever bought President Luthor for a second, coincidentally, and isn’t that odd? I couldn’t maintain a suspension of disbelief for President Luthor in the DCU proper (I felt the same way about Gotham City having an earthquake), but in the cartoon I found it quite acceptable…better than acceptable…

    But anyway I’m not sure it really all counts as a “streaming-in” of all the Hypertemporal Luthorkind, if actually Byrne’s Luthor just sort of evaporates eventually, as I think he has. Who remembers the Lex Wing now?

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