Principia Comicbookia, Part 1

(Happy Canada Day, Bloggers! And just under the wire, too. For a month I’ve been working on this thing, at the expense of many other activities which contribute to that condition of fantastickal rumour called “having a life”, and it is very possibly the dorkiest thing I have ever done, and I’m inordinately proud of/embarrassed by it. An absurd excursion into nitpickery in six tedious parts, it all begins right here, right now, right before your eyes, and my advice to you is…


…Pack a lunch?)


Are we living in a fictional world?

It’s a popular question nowadays, because it has some amusing answers. If we were living in a video game, for example, we would expect to see the world around us conforming to certain limitations understandable as “videogame-y” in nature…the “screen” would have a refresh rate that imposed limits on how fast new environments can be drawn, and that’s the speed of light; there would be a limit to how much you could magnify an image before it turned into fat pixels, and that’s the Planck length. So…the short answer is…


Of course, this kind of answer is amusing because it inverts the ordinary sense of things: such restrictions on a player’s freedom within a game aren’t arbitrarily imposed, but come about because computers themselves are subject to the laws of physics — the limitations we see in games are analogies, really, for the physical limits that obtain in the real world. Your computer just transmits these into the game environment, in a sort of “heredity of lawfulness”…just as though the Second Law of Thermodynamics applied to principles as well as heat, and made sure they always always always got into any system somehow, trickling in or seeping in or wearing a false face, but always somehow, under some pretext or other, whatever it may be. So the joke, as Larkin might have said, is funny because it’s contrafactual…

In other words: funny because it makes you think.

So, okay: let’s think.

The Marvel Universe, for all its outlandish SF and fantasy elements, was made on purpose to roughly conform to real-world physics, chemistry, and biology…not much in the way of space-unicorns, despite some of the excesses fostered in the Shooter Era…but sometimes the conscious design strains against the unconscious pattern whereby real-world science gets into the MU without anyone intending it, and when this happens we are sometimes told things that aren’t true, as things are given names that cover up their actual function. For a more detailed look at how the real physics of the MU must operate, nevermind what its writers sometimes say, the reader interested in getting into the real tl; dr nuts-and-bolts of MU cosmology can look for a link at the bottom of this turgid mess to the Aleph of all tireless efforts…but we are not going to talk much about the cosmology type of physics right now, but instead about the how-things-work type of physics…albeit with a lengthy preamble, but then if you’re even here at all then you probably guessed at that particular albeit?

The thing is, that as a fictional universe (one, moreover, that is being actively-written) the MU’s rules are pretty flexible. Fiat pronouncements by the narrator, authoritative remarks by people in the know, and indeed the semiotic content of the stories themselves are all, ultimately, diegetic compostables subject to constant (and in fact ongoing) decomposition: stories within stories, linked to other stories still. Nothing can be taken for granted, not even things the editors say…not even the things editors say in interviews that may otherwise be relatively frank. Because in the MU, everybody and everything is an unreliable narrator, except for one thing alone: that what happens in the published comics, the ones you can find on the racks of your local store, is the only true record of the fictional events that take or have taken place in this fictional universe.

And everything else is secondary, to those experimental results.

Therefore much of the assumed structure of the world, universe, and multiverse that constructs the MU as a whole, is actually not what it appears to be. There is, for example, no such thing as a “multiversal singularity”…I know we’ve all been told that the Living Tribunal is a multiversal singularity, but as I shall immediately show this is merely another compostable remark. Because there is a published Marvel story in which the Living Tribunal might destroy the Earth, isn’t there? Yet because of the actions of Dr. Strange, he doesn’t. Therefore whatever eternality the Living Tribunal may lay claim to has been affected by the eventuality of a particular comic; he might’ve destroyed the Earth but didn’t, which means if someone at some point wants to write a “What If?” story in which he did, simply “because” things in that comic went a slightly different way, then there would be no necessity for that story to be discarded. So not only does that possibility present us with a situation in which the content of the published comics is always trumps as far as “reality” goes, but it also gives us a situation in which that content is so trumps that it also conditions what cannot happen in any given hypothetical comic book as yet unwritten, even over and above any authoritative statement to the contrary…a state of affairs that claims the Living Tribunal’s super-exalted cosmological status as merely its first casualty. For, either he must be singularly present in each divergent What If universe, or he must be variously present in as many divergent versions as exist, but at such extremes of postulated “specialness” such hair-splitting affirmations can’t really count for much — affirm what we like, we still can’t prevent characters in comics from being characters in comics. Paper covers rock, and line-wide editorial positions too…because you can either have divergent universes or not have them, but even if the contextual meaning of comicbook events is subject to revision by “theory”, those inky facts are still facts

And facts are bedrock.

Which is actually sort of interesting, isn’t it? Because if there is such a thing as “bedrock” in this artificial sub-reality, then there is an Archimedean point from which we may apply the lever of reason to the otherwise-immovable and rather lumpish semantic quanta of this remarkably changeable universe. The Marvel Universe is fictional, and writable…however it isn’t just infinitely, arbitrarily mutable, instead having its own rules that it must play by, even if the nature of the rules is largely hidden. For example, despite all authoritative remarks and even narrative diegesis, the Living Tribunal doesn’t dwell outside the peacock’s tail of divergent universes…nor does Eternity, or any other Cosmic figure you may care to name, and in fact a lot of these Cosmic figures have the wrong name for what they are, because the bedrock requires that those names are wrong, but…hold on, hold on, I am already skipping ahead a bit and this is just the bloody preamble, so let’s all just sit down again, and nobody do anything crazy.


Okay. Because as far as anything at all is “factual” about the MU, it’s that it’s completely under the sway of extra-universal forces. From an artist’s interests to a writer’s ambitions, to a publisher’s business decisions, to the cut-and-thrust of economic forces in the marketplace that is far too complex to track in terms of specific outcomes, the real world constructs the Marvel Universe atom by atom. And because of this there are a few rules we might abstract, about what proceeds inside the tiny model of causation that is the MU.

#1: The real world and the fictional world can never meet face-to-face.

#2: The exigencies of the publishing business form the only reliable conception of physical law within the fictional universe they manage.

#3: The symbolic meanings extractable by characters within the text are absolutely secondary to the symbolic meanings extractable by their readers.

I’ll give you a brief example of this, in the ludicrous Cosmic Personification known as Anthropomorphos, the personification of the tendency of cosmic principles to become personified. Now obviously at first blush this looks like a thing that nobody, but nobody, needs in their superhero fiction…and my own first reaction to Anthropormorphos was something halfway between impotent rage and helpless laughter. Is this how damnably reflexive and programmatic Marvel’s fictional cosmology has become? Can no one see that the days of The Galactus Trilogy are long gone, and that it’s been a quarter century since anyone has even managed to recapture a spark or two of that lightning, in this by now quite cloudy and overtired bottle? Sure, the externalization of interior forces into larger-than-life figures in weird helmets that punch each other is a staple of the superhero story, but do we really need explanations like this, that explain themselves away into pure silliness? I knew that the “cosmic” scene in the MU had become hopelessly cluttered from the moment Whoopi Goldberg showed up in an issue of Power Pack, but I had no idea it had gotten so cluttered as to make this sort of convolution necessary. “Anthropomorphos”, indeed! Try “Ouroboros”, instead…

That was my first reaction. But, I may have been hasty to be so dismissive? For as it turns out Anthopormorphos does represent something in the way of a cosmic principle in the MU, it’s just that we have to apply Rule #3 to get at it…or rather to internalize it, since we have actually already “gotten” it in the sense that we already have said what it is in plain language. Just to touch briefly on the subject I intend to go into on Nate’s blog, the MU’s multiversal arrangements actually are capable of a (sort of) quantum-mechanical interpretation: its “space” is not only constantly expanding to swallow new domains previously separate from its continuity (Buckler and Moench’s Deathlok being a good example of this, as would be Rom or the Micronauts to a lesser extent), but also its expansion is being driven from inside by a process analogizable to pair production in the quantum vacuum. Creators may not like to waste their original ideas on Marvel anymore, but that doesn’t mean the pressure to produce New Stuff in the corporately-owned domain has lessened accordingly…in fact it seems likely that the pressure has only increased, as the demand for novelty outstrips the supply of it. Thus anything becomes necessary in the main depths of the MU, even if it’s not a good idea to do it; because some semblance of novelty is what writers and artists are employed to produce, they have no choice but to produce it. Furthermore, for the massively “significant” event, in the hallowed tradition of The Galactus Trilogy, this production-pressure is particularly intense…and cosmic revelations are by this time de rigeur for such exercises. Marvel can’t absorb original properties, license successful media tie-ins, or make newer and shittier variations on their old good stuff fast enough, to keep their universe’s expansion going smoothly…and everywhere the expansion encounters resistance, greater pressures appear. Up in the real world, these pressures take the form of headaches, mostly, as the “expansion” is a thing measured in terms of exploitable IP…however, down in the fictional reality, the expansion is spatial and the pressures are matters of force.

And “Anthropomorphos” is actually a pretty fair marker of this. Is there really a tendency for cosmic principles to become personified in the MU, even when they are hardly admissible as “principles” at all? There is; but it isn’t a tendency that dwells inside the universe. Self-evidently, the MU needs no excuse for harbouring Cosmic Personifications — if it didn’t need such an excuse for its first thirty years of tremendous mass-market success, it hardly needs one for its post-Nineties decline. It works fine without Anthropomorphos, so there’s no necessity there…and where there’s no necessity there can be no cosmic principles…but just because there’s no necessity there, doesn’t mean there isn’t any here, and from the perspective of the reader as a reader (and not, if you see what I mean, a co-participant with the objects of identification inside the story) Anthopomorphos clearly symbolizes the anxiety of the writer tasked with coming up with more Galactuses and Dark Phoenixes and Eons and if necessary even Hyperstorms. Oooh, Hyperstorm was a bad one, wasn’t he? A real space-unicorn, for sure…

Likewise it isn’t hard to parse the real significations of these Cosmic Beings, if we look at it from the standpoint of a simple reader instead of an absorbed fan. Galactus symbolizes Possibility, as a meaningful subject in the history of Jack Kirby’s artistic ambitions…as Eternity symbolizes Story, the all-powerful quintessence that informs Dr. Strange that he doesn’t need to cheat in order to overcome Dormammu. Ditkoesque, no? Death, that most intriguing later addition to the Galactus Set, symbolizes the necessitous nature of Time. Thanos, oft-cited as a cheap rip-off of Kirby’s Darkseid (though some disagree), despite a very important superficial resemblance actually symbolizes untempered Intellect, half in love with death. And I think you can see there how Starlin isn’t interested in the same thing Kirby’s interested in, can’t you? Since Kirby’s “unchecked intellect” is Metron, who actually has a positive effect upon the universe…

I could do this all day. Curious about the Ultimate Nullifier? In the pages of What If?, we were once told (and it is awfully hard to contradict things that are revealed in issues of What If) that the Ultimate Nullifier can wipe out all that its operator can understand…but from the perspective of plain old literary analysis this is, as well, not quite it. Because it isn’t the Ultimate Annihilator, is it? And we don’t even know why the hell Galactus keeps it around. Or…

Do we?

For, what is “the ultimate nullification”? Only one thing, Bloggers, and it’s the same as it’s ever been…

…But actually we can get into that in just a minute or two, now that I think about it. So anyway everything in a story has a meaning that’s extractable by the person sitting down and reading it, and it doesn’t change those meanings just to give them funny names and have fictional characters unable to see past the funny names. Ego The Living Planet represents Greed. Odin, All-Father of the Aesir, represents Love. Lord Chaos and Master Order don’t actually symbolize Chaos and Order, but simply stand for Dualism when taken together. Eon is Wisdom. Abraxas is Self-Loathing. The Watcher is Knowledge. The Phoenix is Lust. The Living Tribunal is (rather straightforwardly) Fate, and Anthropomorphos…


Which is an interesting cosmic signification to have inside a fictional universe, don’t you think? But if the workaday anxiety of that mundane fellow the writer must wear a terrifying mask of consequence inside the universe he writes — and it must, it must! — then it’s hard to see how it could signify anything to that universe’s fictitious denizens besides a discontinuity in the order of their world. If they were capable of suspecting their universe was fictional, which for the most part they are not, this would be their great Clue to the artificiality of their existence — though Howard The Duck, at any rate, would probably be unsurprised — and maybe it is even a necessary clue?

An unavoidable matter, this leaving of clues?

Philosophers are fond of talking about the “brain in a vat” problem, but perhaps they’d be better off if they were comic readers, because the brain in a vat is not a very sophisticated image; but the shared superhero universe is nothing if not perhaps even a bit too sophisticated. Could the brain in a vat really be fooled? Could the brain in a vat not compare its waking with its dreaming, to see that they’re identical states just with different anxieties attached? The philosophical proposal doesn’t go that far, because you really do need a Demon or a God to get the specifics of the problem neatly tied-up. Otherwise the brain in a vat might figure it out, we don’t know.

But the Demon or the God isn’t very sophisticated either, just a device for ensuring that what is supposed to be definitionally-true in the thought-experiment stays definitionally-true, and in this way the brain in a vat admirably points up the specific applicability of its Cartesian parent — since to lean on the power of God in this way is to already engage in a whole bunch of question-begging, unless “how can I tell what’s real” isn’t actually the question. To assume that the philosopher deceived by God can’t figure it out over God’s insistence that he may not, is a necessary first step in thinking about what the philosopher actually can know, will God or nill God…but “what is real” is already something beyond his grasp, because you can’t know “what’s real” and “what’s possible to be sure about” at the same time: both those questions concern the same state of affairs, but they’re in a complementary relationship. Know one better, and you know the other worse!

Well, that’s just math, and Descartes had it covered a long time ago. So, why do we need the example of the brain in the vat anyway? Just to take divine power out of the equation? Well, yes and no: yes, we want to take divine power out, but not to see if the cogito still holds in a world without it…rather, we want to see what kind of world the cogito makes without divine power there to restrain it. Through imagining divinity, we’ve found our Archimedean point…but as long as divinity exists, we can have nothing more than that point. Hmm, well actually it is a bit more complicated than that, because it all depends on what kind of divinity we’re talking about — there are different kinds, you know, just as there are different kinds of infinities — infinities, divinities, they come in all sizes! — but the basic point is without a real existing divinity we still have the Archimedean point, only now we can actually try to do something with it.

That’s sort of what it’s all about, Bloggers, that people are talking about “living in a videogame” now…The Matrix helped a lot, but really it’s just that the brain in a vat wasn’t very good, was only a first step, and we were looking for a better one. Games were a big improvement! But obviously I am saying that these large wish-fulfillment universes, with their many problems, are better models than even the games?

Because maybe we should expect to see inconsistencies, if we really are living in a simulation? Since our simulation would run on “real-world” physics too, and would thus — inevitably, by God! — not just be a simulation but a model too. Yet, you see, no model can ever be perfect…

No model can ever really be the thing it’s modelling…

And so we might expect some things to not fit…not mesh…not connect properly, damn it!

That is…unless the real world that our fiction was running on was not a perfectly-consistent world…

…As we all seem to assume it would be?

In which case we’d probably be looking in the wrong place for our inconsistencies…

Sigh, but I promised you physics, didn’t I? And here we are already at three thousand words or something, without a wisp of physics to be found…just the thing that nowadays they call “Philosophy Of Fiction”. Not that you don’t find a crossover between those two subjects, if you chase their implications far enough! Because you totally do, and it’s actually really interesting…fun stuff with definitions of the fifth dimension, an Aleph-One number of different universes…and “What If?” comics too, because isn’t it interesting that what the Watcher shows us is always a totally deterministic universe except for that One Little Thing that’s different? But it seems as though if there is a completely deterministic character to each little divergent universe we are shown, then there must also be sub-universes branching off from that one too, that also have a completely deterministic character…on and on in what you’d be forgiven for thinking was a pattern straight out of Maxwell and Feynman, but it actually ISN’T, because no matter how awesome your counting method it still matters what you’re counting…!

However, though there’s definitely a crossover between physics and Phil. of Fic. to be found, we won’t find it today. Because today’s for the Lego! Today’s for the Meccano! The preamble is concluded!

Let’s get to the meat and potatoes!

So the thing about the MU is that it had a principal author, in terms of the physics and cosmology in it…and it still retains that personalized character, despite all the amendments and adornments inserted into it afterwards by further writers whether good, bad, or even excellent. Of course many of the imaginative features of the MU, its technology and its other dimensions etc. etc., are kooky features…fun features, meant to expand the spirit of play and adventure, and I am not suggesting there’s any sort of inconsistency in that sort of thing because then I would be missing the point. Besides, even though the overall physics is not actually that outre, the whole point of extreme technology is that it’s not obligated to enlist only the most mundane of natural processes, to work its wonders…and after all there is much that even the most advanced Earthly science doesn’t know, and couldn’t understand. I should point out here, in my last allusion to the much more boring excursion I’ll shortly be going on over Nate’s way, that one of the things we don’t understand is how a “dimensional viewer” might work…?

Okay, and that’s about enough of that. But anyway the point is: sure, there’s no need to put limits on the fantastic nature of the MU. Time travel, subspace, Radical Cubes, Negative Zones! Let’s have ’em all! But let’s have ’em all while remembering that they only work by “super-science”, right? They don’t work by “different natures”…Reed Richards builds his magnificently Lovecraftian devices secure in the knowledge that (for example) a proton is a proton and an electron is an electron; neither he nor we need to assume there’s anything more freaky about these, than we’d find in our own world. Sure, the claims for what you can do with them don’t hold up to real-world scrutiny! But then again we don’t care about that. That isn’t the point. And even if it was, it still wouldn’t matter. In fact for all we care Reed Richards could even be right about stuff, you know? It still isn’t the point. Because the point is, leaving aside the extreme technology that may or may not be discovered as kinda-sorta true one day…leaving aside that, then everything else in the MU is pretty much as it is here.

Pretty much.

But not exactly.

One thing that’s different, for example, is the Higgs boson — rather a superfluous critter in a world that’s had the Pym particle since 1962 or whatever, eh? Although you certainly can’t make the Higgs boson into pills or gases that will shrink you down to ant-size or blow you up to 12 feet tall. Because that’s impossible two ways: one, you can’t make pills out of bosons; two, even if you could, and even if they let you shrink or grow to weird sizes, your human anatomy is not gonna survive that process. But “impossible” is all in a day’s work in the MU, and we could even make up some reasons for it…that is, if we had any reasons to make up such reasons, which we probably don’t…

Or, do we?

A while ago I was talking about Steven Padnick’s excellent “Why I Hate The X-Gene” post, in which he points out why it’s a disaster even for comic-book biology…and I guess it goes without saying that I agree with him! But there’s something else that bugs me about the “X-gene”, which is precisely why we find utility in it in the first place. It’s wrong and dumb, obviously! But what really gets my goat is that it’s wrong and dumb and useful…which it really shouldn’t be. Why do we have to need it?

What does it do for us, anyway?

Well, first and most obviously it handwaves away the fact that mutation doesn’t work like that…and okay, take that as read in a general sense, but let’s get a bit more specific with it too, and move beyond brains in vats to ask: what about mutation doesn’t work like that? And there are several answers to this question, but they’re not all of the same (pardon me) species. Steven has got you covered on the whole thing about how “mutie-ness” isn’t heritable, but what bugs me is what even the goddamn X-gene doesn’t explain, and why we should accept that it does when it doesn’t.


Two words, Bloggers: human tractor.

You might get away with saying that Reed Richards’ cells have gone all funny because of cosmic rays, or that Spider-Man somehow absorbed some qualities that a spider has. You might even get away with saying that the Hulk’s weirdness is the product of biological processes gone awry. You’d have to assume there’s a lot of shit we don’t know about biology, for that to be true! But it’s an awful long way from “because my parents worked in a nuclear power plant, I have something screwy with my DNA that makes it so I can turn into a human tractor“. You could kind of buy the Beast in Uncanny X-Men #1, eh? Maybe even, at a stretch, the Angel. And psionic powers we are just plain told by fiat exist in the MU, they just fucking do, and they’re not even that weird, so shut up. Heck, for that matter the idea that Bobby Drake can turn ambient moisture into ice because he’s got a “broken temperature regulator in his brain”, or that Scott Summers can fire force-blasts from his eyes because “solar power is all around us!”…these are things that are pretty fucking crazy, but they could be worn so long as most everybody else is Wolverine or something. Hmm, or even if they’re not, I guess, because…well, they’re not, but the “human tractor” thing? Or Nightcrawler looking like he does because of “a” mutation?

It doesn’t get bad right away. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t even say for sure just when it does get bad. Maybe when Roy Thomas starts talking about “mutant energy”?

No…no, actually for some reason that’s kind of fine…weird, I know, but there it is…

Or maybe it’s back in the Lee/Kirby days when Magneto had an “astral form”?

No…because in fact there is a lot of stuff in the early MU that kind of implies we’re not really seeing what we’re seeing anyway. Dr. Strange’s ectoplasmic form, as our good friend Jonathan Burns has pointed out, experiences physical strain…Spider-Man’s spider-sense, if anyone remembers, once seemed to be a complex aggregate of a lot of fairly well-known physical sensitivities, as when while hunting the Lizard his spider-sense is confused by rushing water…

And I think it was in the Lee/Kirby days, too, when Professor X was able to move an object without touching it by telepathy? As an adolescent I conceived an explanation for this: Professor X, I reasoned, was a “full-spectrum” psychic, with all the powers…it was just that most of them were weak. Later, in university, I conceived of him as a sort of psychic “blackbody”: like any star, emitting radiation in every band of the spectrum, but only peaking in one band. But, you folks see it I guess…that means Professor X, and Jean Grey, maybe Spider-Man, and Rupert Sheldrake and Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler and everyone else must emit a physical radiation from their bodies, with a measurable force, which drives things around in their vicinity? And Newton actually put a cheese knife in his eye-socket to disprove this “radiative” idea of sight, gravity, or what-have-you, so I don’t know why we’re even still talking about it since there’s nothing stopping any of us from doing the experiment, except we don’t have the guts and Newton did, so maybe we should just go with what he said…

Yet at the same time it definitely sounds a bit John W. Campbell, doesn’t it? Science-y: there’s no incomprehensible processes going on here, and everything has a logical explanation. We don’t know what it is, but we know what it isn’t…and it definitely isn’t “non-physical”…


…But anyway that isn’t where it all went wrong, as it didn’t go wrong with The Mimic either, or Hank McCoy discovering the “chemical cause of mutation” (?!), or the inexplicable relationship between Havok and the Living Pharoah (?!?), or even with Grant Morrison whose New X-Men I loved, and oh what the hell if I’m perfectly honest it didn’t really go wrong with Colossus either

But somewhere along the line it definitely became a problem, a problem I think Steven Padnick will appreciate, because…

Ultimately we’re just talking about the Periodic Table, right? DNA’s just a molecule. Elements are just elements. Some elements can do really cool things, like for example carbon has a LOT of interesting properties that come right out of the way protons and electrons and neutrons are arranged in its atoms. So, the arrangements of these constituents do matter, and they do produce astounding effects, but my problem with the X-gene is that you can’t get genes to do things like that anyhow, you just can’t, it’s impossible. There is no GENE for opening a dimensional portal, there is no GENE for sucking kinetic energy out of water vapour and then giving it back, there is no GENE for “mastery of magnetism” or being a human tractor. Not if matter is just regular old protons and electrons and neutrons. It doesn’t matter what the X-gene is, you know what I mean? It doesn’t even matter if it was put there by the Celestials. I mean, no doubt the Celestials could, super-scientifically, alter any physical structure in any way they wished to…but even the Celestials are operating with the toolkit of physics and chemistry that was here when they got here, and though they may enlist into their technological capability any insanely rare physical process a hyper-advanced Godlike race might discover they can NOT make common processes that even we puny terrestrials understand be other than they are. You can’t twist a bit of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen in just such a way that it makes one person a human tractor and another person a bird-man with hollow bones, and yet another person an occasional dinosaur that feasts on “mutant energy”…I mean, “pterodactyl Dracula for mutants”, HOW IN THE FUCK can there be a gene for that, even if it is all “X”-ed up?


Don’t get me wrong, by the way. “Pterodactyl Dracula for mutants”, that is AWESOME. And also, check this out: we all just accepted it. It made graphical sense, it made supervillain sense, it made “mutant science” sense. So, no, the problem definitely isn’t in the craziness, eh?

Therefore it must be in the stuff that isn’t the craziness. Maybe the Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe, hereinafter (as you all well know) OHOTMU? Maybe that’s what made it all take a south turn for me. By this time no one else is reading, supercomics fans, so I can just say to you: Dimension Of The Optic Blasts?

For God’s sake, how many of our young optic blastlets have to DIE for your interdimensional war, One-Called-Cyclops?


As Kurt Godel saw, there is a point at which “making sense” becomes the vehicle that delivers the paradox you’re trying to explain away TO YOUR DOOR…and once you receive that package you can’t give it away again. In my opinion, the attempt to consolidate the MU multiverse into a hierarchy of staidly allowable things is kind of a Principia exercise…the general thrust of Godel’s thought, you may take it from me, is that the very instrument you use to excise all paradoxical outcomes from your system is what not only produces the paradoxical outcomes you sought to avoid, but also serves to logically require them?

To insist on their positive presence.

But, you know…

None of that is really necessary.

Because protons and electrons and neutrons really are different, in the MU. They don’t show it all the time, but they are…because they must be, because the Principal Author of this universe’s physics laid it down that they are, and all the teetery edifices of explanation that have come afterwards could be rock-solid if they only opened themselves up to getting that message. Look: the Marvel Universe is a universe in which ATOMS are the sovereign entities. They can flux back and forth between matter and energy; they can be one thing, a definite physical thing, and then flip into an energetic state in which they can change what pattern of physicality they can move back into, from there to process energy in a new way. This is “cosmic energy”, the thing with the Kirby Dots…the electron “holes”?…every atom is a tremendous burst of power that can change the universe, held only temporarily inside a skin of valences. And this is something the Cosmic Beings have complete control over. Vast gigatons of energy and life and change and possibility in every tiny child’s handful of sand. They can realize the full energetic potential of an atom, to change itself and be changed, so to them atoms are so many antennae…antennae picking up the power of Universe, that never-ending power flowing in and about all things, that sea of power and possibility we’re all swimming in, breathing in, though we hardly know it. It’s just knowledge, really, is what it is. Knowledge of the way things really are. Knowledge, which as they say is power.

But meanwhile down here on Earth, we don’t have this power. We don’t have this knowledge.


Well, in the MU there are a couple of people who know how to piggyback on it a little, even if they’re not totally sure what it is. Atoms are antennae for extradimensional energy as well; energy from other places constantly flashing over them, and then disappearing, Except every once in a while instead of flashing-over it is taken-in, and then ordinary matter changes itself to be something more…and then often it re-emits the energy whether into this universe or another, but again in a vanishingly small number of cases it keeps it and becomes more still. You find this happening mostly with biological organisms, to be fair…those long complex twisty-turny chains make a good sieve for extradimensional energy!…but every once in a while there is a tree or a rock too, that comes to something like “life”.

But mostly it doesn’t happen, even for beings made up of organic molecules. And rare beyond all understanding is the organic being who lucks into a charge of truly “cosmic” energy? Once in a billion worlds, in a billion years, some unfathomable quirk of the universe lets a non-cosmic individual tap into the total energy potential of the atom, just like Papa Galactus does! But mostly (and “mostly” here just means “reduce those proportions by a thousand apiece”), those primitive beings who gain the ability to access some of the carrying potential of the atom only access the tiniest squeakiest bit of flashover energy…the easy stuff, in other words. The obvious stuff. The stuff Galactus uses to run the clock radio in his guest room, because by his lights it’s energy like you get from sticking an electrode in a potato.

The “Pym particles”, for example. Planetary societies that are just above a simian level by the standards of The Watcher occasionally develop technologies that wring energy from the flexing curvature of nearby interdimensional space, figure out how to store it and use it…think, absurdly, that they’re as Gods for their ability to tap this energy. Quite sad, really, but every culture must have its growing pains I suppose…yes, the “free energy” that comes off the bending of the 5D manifold in certain places, certain regions of multiversal space in which a few universes might be “close” to one another…particles seeping in through micro-apertures, or perhaps not even that…perhaps instead particles that can kind of get through like they’re going through an interdimensional cheesecloth? Or just particles that respond to larger extrauniversal forces in like ways. Particles in one nearby universe do something, and because of the symmetry of the interdimensional flexion the particles in another universe do much the same thing. You could play interesting games with this sort of “entanglement”, subtracting particles from one universe and adding them to another, not in a massive way but as an…an efflorescence, if you will. Not like a person entering a room through a door, but more like a scent wafting in through a window…through a curtain. Oh yes, there are many interesting possibilities! Down here in the regular MU there are these strange emergent consciousnesses, your Gaeas and your Sets…possibly out in the space of a few nearby universes all responding to the same 5D pressures, there could be occasional emergent “macrogaeas” that sometimes achieve something like consciousness for brief periods? One imagines that some would persist long enough to tap larger sources of energy, but that most wouldn’t. Most would die, maybe.

Maybe the “microgaeas” fare better overall, because they’re smaller?

It’s a theme we’ll return to, I think. In the very large universe of the High Galactics, a lot of things are missing that we take for granted. Gods. Magic. “Spirits” of thus-and-such. We never hear that side of the story, because there’s a higher order out there, and we’re not part of it.

But meanwhile…back on Planet Earth, where we are a part…

Henry Pym discovers a “flashover” energy that attaches to certain particles. The energy involved is actually quite small, and there’s some doubt that it’s actually usable (paging Warren Ellis, paging Warren Ellis, your Zero-Point train is leaving) but Dr. Pym figures out that he can concoct a substance that will concentrate that sparkling energy over time. The screwed-up thing about it, is that it doesn’t seem to be good for much. I mean, you couldn’t run a power plant on it. You couldn’t build a starship that runs on it. It has a potential utilization, but that utilization affects organic matter only, and even that only in strictly-described ways. Using the pills or the gas as a kickstarter, you could get it to “shrink” your body (actually it might be more accurate to say you could get it to change your body), and as your cross-section went down it would cost less energy to make it go down further, and so on, and so on, until you hit an equilibrium point like the one that obtains in nuclear reactions, where it would cost more energy than your shrinking cross-section can provide, to shrink further. And…


Why, in fact, couldn’t it go the other way therefore?

I mean…if the operations have a mathematical content, then they can be worked out in several different ways…?

It occurs to Henry Pym almost right away, but it’s a couple of years until he has any time to work on it. And it’s many years before he realizes the other mathematical significance for his theory that had been brought to him by the Creature From Kosmos and the Living Eraser. Because essentially these are “Pym Particle People” as well, travelling between dimensions without anything you could strictly call a “dimensional portal” or “travel machine”…they just sort of show up, rather like bad smells, in universes whose Pym Fields are doing things much like their own are. All of these people have found a way, just like Henry Pym has, to use interdimensional “flashover” energy that would otherwise just disappear…and though they all use it for different things, they all use it in the same way. It’s pretty fleeting stuff, you can’t really concentrate it very effectively, you can’t store it up…but it’s excitingly bizarre biophysical technology, and a neat problem besides. Given the limitations of the stuff, how do you best use it? How the hell does it really work?

What is it, really?

Henry Pym will never find out, not really…and neither, it seems, will anyone else. Not really…

But we will, Bloggers!

Tomorrow afternoon!

Same Ant-Time, same Ant-Channel!


38 responses to “Principia Comicbookia, Part 1

  1. Filling in links later!

    Had to get it published before the end of Canada Day!

    Man, I just don’t know about this thing…

  2. “my problem with the X-gene is that you can’t get genes to do things like that anyhow, you just can’t, it’s impossible.”

    This is a problem that has actually been solved, by George R.R. Martin and the other Wild Cards writers. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Wild Cards books (if you aren’t, they come with my highest recommendation).

    The premise is this: in 1946 a bunch of spores are released into the jetstream above Manhattan. The spores contain an alien virus that soon becomes called the wild card. If you catch it, if it manages to write itself into your DNA, you’ve got a 70% chance that nothing will happen at all, that it will remain latent within you. If it doesn’t remain latent, if you turn over your wild card, your odds are not good. First, you’ve got a 90% chance of dying in some unpredictable, unique, and exotic way; that’s called “drawing a black queen”. If that doesn’t happen, you’ve got a 90% chance of being transformed into some kind of monstrous or semimonstrous creature; that’s called “drawing a joker”. But if you avoid both of those fates, what happens to you is you get superpowers (“drawing an ace”), and those powers may be literally just about anything. You could become a powerful telekinetic or a tantric magician or a werealligator or a guy who has no powers but can become five different superpowered beings depending on which combination of psychedelic drugs you take or a genius who can build the best android anybody ever thought of.

    Again: there’s no gene for all that stuff.

    But we get an explanation for how it works, in the back of the first book. Basically, in the Wild Cards universe, there is a such thing as psionic powers. The aliens who created the virus have excellent psionic powers, but the potential exists in humans too. What this virus does, when it becomes active in someone, is to reach into the back of that person’s mind and grab the first notion it sees. Then it uses that person’s psionic power to reshape them according to that first notion. If the topmost idea in your subconscious happens to be “fire”, well, you’ve just drawn a black queen and burned yourself to death. Or maybe you’re a joker who’s going to go through the rest of your life with hot black flaky skin and smelling of smoke. Or maybe you’ll luck out and become an ace with the power to throw fireballs around. So: no gene for throwing fireballs, but nevertheless a one-size-fits-all genetic explanation for how all these different powers and stuff can come to be.

    Which is not to say that Marvel mutant powers work the same way. But, you know, they could, without anybody ever saying so. Is there something to forbid it? You’d know better than I would.

  3. I loooove “werealligator”. That would be a very weird “were-” assignment!

    As to alien spores and psionic powers, though…well, “alien” here is probably applied in the way that was learned from Jack Kirby? Not just “from another place like this one, only further away”, but “of a strange and different and inexplicable kind”, no?

    Common word.

    Then, the unusual word: “psionic”. I love the idea of “whatever’s the first thing you think about” almost as much as I love “were-alligator”, but the thing about the term “psionic” is, that in this context it means “higher order”: the psionic power can rewrite DNA…

    But, can it rewrite carbon and oxygen, to be elements with different properties than they have? The “psionic” stuff, then, must be merely the agent whereby protons and electrons and neutrons are rearranged in such a way that absurdly massive changes can happen. Dude shoots fire from his hands! But flesh doesn’t produce flame: if it did, one out of every hundred billion capybaras would be like an atomic bomb…and I daresay even in the Wild Cards universe that isn’t the case.

    So there must be a molecular code, beyong the genetic code! Unless, that is (and I’m not ruling it out) it’s true that by stacking a circle on a square you can make it into a triangle.

    But then that too would necessitate a “code”?

    This thing where I can’t see the cursor in the comment box makes replying rough! My apologies to all if I sound curt or brisk. WordPress is my friend, but like all computer companies it has its own ideas about the Optimal User. For example (in case anyone’s forgotten) its advice to the new Blogger is to keep your posts fucking short, and your comments shorter still.

    Otherwise, apparently, people will get bored of reading about the intersection of Kierkegaard and Spider-Man.

    If you can imagine such a thing.

  4. This particular werealligator is a gay Cajun who has fled his abusive family to New York and got a job working in the sewers. Good character, but the writer who came up with him wasn’t my favourite of the Wild Cards writers and he tended to appear in the least good stories.

    In this case I mean “alien” = “coming from the planet Takis”, which is the home planet of one of the major characters, and the setting of one of the later books. Obviously we don’t need that part when we’re talking about Marvel, we can just say “there’s an X-gene that sometimes expresses itself”.

    I used the word “psionic” because you did; in the Wild Cards appendix the fictional scientist called it, italics hers, [i]psi[/i]. I’m not sure the books settle on a general term for it.

    And, no, the psionic power doesn’t rewrite carbon and oxygen; it rewrites the ace’s own mind so that he or she now has the psionic power of creating fire so that it looks like the fire is coming from his or her hands. And it’s all handled subconsciously; there’s no necessary reason why any ace’s powers have to work the way they do except that subconsciously the ace is convinced that they do, and there’s really no way around it.

  5. But anyway: Cyclops is sort of the tipping point, right? The harder you try to make his powers make sense, the worse it gets. (Unless you have an absolutely BALLS-CRAZY unified theory on deck, but man…) The interdimensional aperture, the lack of recoil, his and Alex’s total immunity to the beams. I mean, the GLASSES! Just try to figure out how they’re supposed to do what they’re supposed to do. I had a horrible moment of realization as a kid that there’s about a finger-width space between your eyes and your glasses; unless there’s ruby quartz RIGHT UP AGAINST HIS EYEBALLS, shouldn’t the beams be shooting at the glasses ALL THE TIME? Shouldn’t he just constantly be glowing about the eyes and emitting that zapping sound they give him in movies and cartoons? But then didn’t they try to explain that, too, by saying the portal to the optic-beam dimension actually materializes a little bit IN FRONT of his eyes, just sort of floating there?

    So I think Cyclops becomes kind of a test, right? At the moment you try to rationalize it–like really in-canon rationalize it, not just do a thought exercise–you’ve lost. His powers are a question on par with “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” and “Why doesn’t Superman solve world hunger and stop all wars?”

  6. Mostly I just think of the X-gene as writers writing about stuff they don’t understand, but when I’m in the mood I imagine it as some sort of marshalling gene that co-ordinates changes in other genes. When the X-gene is present and switched it flips multiple sections of your chromosones necessary to make you look like a demon and teleport or have a healing factor.

    Obviously such a gene would have to be working by random flipping, so mostly you’d end up with a non-viable person. The vast majority of individuals with an X-gene would be miscarried or at best stillborn, and the vast majority of survivors would be horribly deformed, but they’re hardly going to show that in a comic. Unless they’re Warren Ellis.

  7. The glasses are the messed-up part, for sure. Ruby quartz? For God’s sake, why? But there can be no why. Even to just handcuff Cyclops in a room whose walls are made out of ruby quartz is to ask “why” too strongly. Ha, actually “ruby quartz” is such a big fat nothing of a substance that it’s almost like saying “I need these special glasses made out of just about anything to block my deadly optic blasts…”

    And what a trial-and-error thing that must’ve been, to finally hit on ruby-quartz glasses! I bet those are pretty hard to make…meanwhile nothing but holes all over the orphanage…”try tinfoil!” “Shit, it didn’t work!” “Try silly putty!”

  8. That’s a bit of a can of worms too, isn’t it Clone? Interesting to consider that the human genome is just secrety really plastic

    But, we’re getting to all that!

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  13. Way late on this, but finally have some time to read it all straight through. I feel you may have missed a bet in not calling it Children of the Atom, but admittedly that was already taken…!

  14. Jonathan Richards/Hyperstorm was a bad one for sure, but if the son of Franklin Richards and Rachel Grey this might suggest, if we go by Jim Valentino’s plans for Guardians of the Galaxy, the son of Frank and Rachel is Jonathan Raven/Killraven… and I’d take that a step further and suggest Shatterstar is Jonathan Raven in a reality where Mojo, and not the Martians, ruled!

  15. Hey, Nate…well, maybe it’d be better to say “a person residing in a fictional universe can’t meet a person residing in a non-fictional one” — due to the fictional person not being a person — and the non-fictional person not being a fiction — but maybe it’s all a bit tautological at best?

    Or, maybe not! If the fictional world inherits qualities from the non-fictional world that created it — that is, if that’s not just doubletalk — then we could indeed say that the fictional world is genuinely subordinate: i.e. it actually has a specifiable relationship with its non-fictional parent. So we need not rely entirely on tautology, perhaps, to draw ontological distinctions here…

    Of course if we ourselves were to reside in a fictional universe, then anything might happen.

    As to the bedrock being responsible for cosmic personifications having the wrong names…well, it is, but only because writers get these names wrong! Sometimes (maybe) out of a proximate necessity, but sometimes not…

    • So when Grant Morrison claims he had a conversation with Superman in the street prior to writing All-Star Supes he was either stoned or in bad fait!h;

      But perhaps I should’ve asked, given our fictional characters are influenced by a range of variables, including our dreams/ flights of fancy, our thoughts are likewise influenced by a range of variables. So if our ideas are influenced by Forms then are fictional characters/ worlds necessarily dependent upon us to become fictional or will they manifest without us in some form if the idea is so strong? Did Sheldrake have thoughts on this? I don’t think I’m getting this out properly…

  16. Yes, I’m with yourself and Steven on how does the ability to shoot laser beams out of your eyes translate to the old ‘survival of the fittest’ especially in a modern? Sure, to a tribe of hunter/gatherers, it would have been a positive boon, and I can see Kirby coming up with a whole bunch of laser-beam eyed savannah-walkers, but does it translate to getting a lot of child-producing booty in a society with birth control and television?

    However, I still cannot be turned from the X-gene and just cannot let go of the idea that the most reasonable explanation is that there’s some kind of alien civilisation living on mutant DNA, living as hitch-hikers on the inert introns of it, with some having so ‘over-developed’ their hosts that they’ve started the expression of mutant powers as a microdimensional version of global warming.

    Or, a quasi-virus not native to Earth that contains a message when reassembled alerting the X-Men that the thing that destroyed the builders of the message is coming. So who were the builders and who is the destroyer:)

    • Sorry when I think of the X-gene in comparison to mutation of real science I immediately think of John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, since what fun would it be if mutation only gave one variation? Oh and really good SF novels that come to mind about hidden genetic codes are Darwin’s Children and Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear.

      And as for what the payoff to this set-up would be: think of a global Uni-Mind tapped into the Phoenix power (like we saw in Uncanny #107), which would also explain why plain biological mutation could give a human access to a power that galactic empires couldn’t equal (which while I love Chris, it’s kind of ludicrous, isn’t it?) But the phoenix power is the One Great Discovery that came too late for the doomed race (or maybe destroyed them in fact) that they hoped, wielded by the whole race as one, could defeat the unimaginable menace.

    • X-gene = postmodern gobbledegook.

      Fortunately I quite like postmodern gobbledegook, and feel it’s good for something…who says a fictional analysis can’t yield good results? When a valid insight is still valid no matter where it comes from…

      • Well the Birth of the Clinic is my own personal Bible, so I’m with you on postmodernism there:)

        Now there’s an idea, the Marvel Universe as written by Michel Foucault…

        Oh and now you’re moving into relativism, which can be tricky when you apply that to morality since Chthulhu’s edict is then all fine and dandy!

      • By the way, everyone assumes Homo Superior to be the natural next step of human evolution. What if they’re not? What if they’re an attempt to subvert it, either from the Celestials’ baseline-Deviant-Eternal paradigm or whatever was going to happen before the First Host? Maybe mutants are actually a genetic misstep, which explains their scarcity on other planets; or the Celestials’ elimination of certain “failed” worlds.

  17. Yes his DOTS indicated Kirby was differentiating energies in the MU, but as you say a shame others didn’t join his party!

    On the instance of strange emergent consciousnesses like Gaea, I’m wondering what Ego was (or for that matter the Black Galaxy given all those electron “holes”). As for “microgaeas”, these were seeded throughout Peter Gillis’s Micronauts run!

    And now we’re to Henry Pym. No wonder he was a candidate for Scientist Supreme:)

    Well, onto chapter deux!

    • I prefer to believe that Hank didn’t make contact with Eternity…how could he?…but instead with the “macrogaea” of the Three Worlds.

      Seriously, that “Scientist Supreme” thing…just let him be a guy who can change size and talk to ants and build weird robots, already!

      • Oh I’m with you that the Scientist Supreme was stupid (I meant the smile to be a wink;) Reed’s the more likely candidate, which would be the perfect way to piss Doom off since it puts him up there with the Sorcerer Supreme!

        Yes Hank is better left to recording the engrams of insects and programming them into his robotic creations (well better that than the stupid iteration that Ultron was based on his own).

        Now what’s with this “macrogaea” of the Three Worlds:)

  18. Grant Morrison had a real conversation with an actual guy — distinguishable from the “real” Superman by not being made out of ink, having a body, etc. etc…

    I think there is congress between fictional and actual worlds, but it isn’t face-to-face, is all. If a character in a book has an idea, and it’s a good idea, then now that you’ve read the book you have the idea…or perhaps the fictional goings-on in a book indicates something the author hasn’t consciously thought or, or even thought of at all. Artistic collaboration sometimes throws up patterns unintended by other collaboarator; solo work sometimes discovers odd patterns in areas not foreseen by the author…the collaboration with oneself, maybe? The collaboration with the chain of other things seen, read, mentioned by others in passing, or experienced…we don’t really know how it is that pattern coalesces and ideas bump into one another, inside the darkness of our skulls: no one sits down and thinks “you know what would be a good idea, is to think of something, so I think I’ll go ahead and think up X”, then puts chin in hand and proceeds to carry through with the plan by thinking X…and people have interesting dreams, or religious epiphanies, that signify much to them…

    But you can’t shake hands with someone who doesn’t have hands to shake. The Grant Morrison in Animal Man, by that character’s own admission, actually isn’t Grant Morrison…

    This would be a very different conversation, though, if there was such a thing as a computer with a human-like consciousness. Unfortunately there isn’t, or at least so far as we can tell there isn’t. Indeed, so far as we can tell you can’t make consciousness by simply moving a lot of electrons down through wires, even if you double the number of wires and then double them again, and again. If we were fictional entities, then we could reasonably claim to share an ontological status with whoever made us up, if for no other than reason than by virtue of cogito ergo sum…unless whoever made us up can do logically-impossible things, but you know even then, because even the logically-impossible has its limits. The cogito, like Turing’s famous Test, has more to it than meets the eye — it isn’t that we do think that makes us Things That Are, but because we “do thinking”…an omnipotent power could fake the record of thoughts having been thunk, but it couldn’t do much about thoughts being thunk in the process of thinking. Beyond the logically-impossible lies the cognitively-unimaginable, which is a whole other kettle of wax…

    And it’s a bit like the problem of the brain in the vat, all of this, because dreaming and thinking are two different things: the senses deliver inputs to cognition that the brain can’t duplicate without them — it can only fake them, concocting chains of operations that aren’t acting on anything. Paths go from the Universe outside our heads, to the Limbo inside them, and back out again: it’s enormously complex, and depends on an inexhaustible reservoir of things to be sensed…if you like, it depends on the Planck length, since it’s a matter of how fine-grained the universe is.

    It’s pretty fine-grained!

    None of which is not to say that Grant Morrison didn’t actually meet a guy going by the name of Superman, which I guess is a fictional identity and WOW WordPress is being slow right now, there must’ve been an “upgrade”…

    I’d better stop.

    Cherish these days of really long comments, friends!

    They won’t be with us forever!

    Quite inefficient, you see.

    • All writing, including fiction, is magick isn’t it, and is bound to create ideas anew since we “spell” words don’t we!? So is the compulsion to write, some contemporary form of spell-casting, the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will (as the Great Beast would say:), though we realise it not? How thelemic! The sentence is up;)

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