…A “Marvel Crisis”?
Buddy, we’ve been in one for the last ten years…and we’re not out of it yet. Over decades, the publishing realities that condition the physical laws of the fictional universe tend to encourage stability…every writer reaching for (and operating within) a sort of artistic homeostasis, even when they’re at their most inventive, and all this is reflected in Noether-like symmetries within the construct. We’ve all noticed them: reader sympathy is both predicated on them, and is a driver of them. So though it all looks very simple, there’s a science to it…even a science to the question of who could beat up whom!
And it’s this very spirit of science that’s been lost. If you consider it a matter worth assigning blame over, then the first impulse is clearly to point the finger at Brian Bendis…for though he is not old enough to be altogether to blame, he has done a lot of things that make it quite clear our modern Marvel is no longer interested in scientific justifications of the old type. And indeed, it isn’t just that he’s made it clear modern Marvel isn’t interested in that spirit, but he’s also made it clear that Marvel is actively rejecting it. For consider if you will the last issue of What If? that I ever remember seeing, in which the Watcher is replaced by Bendis himself, telling the certified true and never-before-revealed story of “What If…Jessica Jones Had Joined The Avengers?” Which is a most curious sort of a What If story, and not just because one bald guy’s replaced another! For what happens in it, is simply that…
…Everything works out fine.
Avengers: Disassembled never happens. House Of M never happens. Everything Brian Bendis ever laid his hand to at Marvel, just…never happens. And the result is, unambiguously, that things are better.
Which is crazy, right?
Because as discussed somewhere back near the beginning of this long multi-part diatribe of mine, the kind of stories the Watcher has been wont to show us in the pages of What If — explicitly for our edification, note! — can be parsed in a manner somewhat “quantum-mechanical”, in that stories upholding a status quo in which everything works out as it should, are really demonstrating the manner in which that “should”-ness is reinforced, summoned statistically from a sea of possibilities…and stories in which everything goes wrong and everything gets destroyed, are shown as statistically de-selected. However, in Bendis’ tale we are given a glimpse of a “should”-ness that actually did not happen…a story in which the heroes saved the day, and the status quo was restored just as it always is, except now this outcome is reconstructed as the outlier, you see? And thus winnowed out of eventuation, in favour of main-line outcomes we would typically recognize as the “What If…Everybody Died?” type.
Bendis, in the pages of the comic, looks out at the reader and explains that they may not like this What If…but he’s writing it and they’re not, and they can’t prove this actually wasn’t what “might have happened”, and so it is what it is, and that’s all there is to say. You can take it or leave it.
So what does this –rather clever, actually! — message of Bendis’ imply, for the physics and cosmology of the MU? Well, nothing less that a pretty severe shake-up, really…a quantum-mechanical crisis, in which the calculation of amplitudes suffers an inversion, and the natural tendency of light to travel in a straight line can no longer be counted upon…or rather, cannot be counted upon to happen for reasons we can understand. Oh, don’t worry about the TVA’s need to be rewritten, friends! Because that’s really the least of our problems, as far as the spirit of science goes! For none of that stuff that lay in the standard basket of Kirbyish influences, the stuff shared by Thomas and Gerber and Englehart and Gerry Conway too (I really should mention, if I haven’t already, that Gerry Conway was one of my favourite writers?), is in the basket which is shared by Marvel’s new architects. With the possible exception of Warren Ellis, they’re all interested in completely different things now…and, heck, Bendis even retconned the Beyonder into having been a disgruntled Inhuman, so can any part of this enormous and never-not-teetery-in-the-first-place edifice of supposition of mind continue to stand, where a thing like that is now made true?
But, of course…it may not have actually been made true, despite Bendis’ protestations. The spirit of science may be gone, but the publishing record still remains, and the interstitial fluid of Limbo still “remembers”. Bendis would have to spend years yet, years and years rewriting everything in sight, to abolish all the things that currently must be true, and that require the Beyonder to not have been an Inhuman. Jessica Jones having saved the Avengers he can have, and he’s quite right to say that none of us poor readers has the power to contradict his assertions there…but he can’t make anything true just by saying it is, no matter how privileged a position he holds. He can’t abolish the publishing record itself, and though he may have turned some of the MU’s major symmetries inside-out he has not yet removed their symmetrical nature…!
But, let’s get back to the Cosmic Cube.
As Victor von Doom saw, it was not a captured prism of the True Vacuum at all, because the True Vacuum is an unreachably pure Idea. An Idea, furthermore, that is not even an Idea…an Idea that eats its own Idea-ness in the course of its coming-to-be as an Idea. Well, you just can’t get there from here, when your premise is “can’t-get-there-from-here-ness”! In the context of the MU, it’s inarguable that there’s no such thing. And even Rick Jones doesn’t have the power to erase a memory from the register of the “interstitial fluid”…because if no power in the real world can truly erase a memory (as long as the human race is still alive) of what’s been seen on printed pages, then obviously no resident of the fictional reality, no matter how privileged, can erase a memory like that either. So we have, finally, another interuniversal axiom:
4. What can’t be controlled about the publishing record by the publishing company itself, therefore can’t be controlled by any character in the fictional reality it manages.
John Byrne has Reed Richards say it to The Beyonder, a being of truly unlimited power in the MU…that there’s one power he can’t defeat, unlimited or no…
“…And that’s the power of HISTORY, Beyonder!”
What Reed Richards means there is “the power of logical consistency within our fictional universe, Beyonder!”, but to us real folk his statement must mean “the memory of that fictional universe’s readers, Beyonder or no Beyonder.” Move them anywhere on the chessboard of real spacetime that you wish, the art’s audience can’t stop existing, even if the art itself does….and the older the Art, the more persistent the Memory. Hmm, and perhaps this is why Rick’s Imagination (which is really Memory) doesn’t simply summon Odin, or Zeus, to fight the Kree and the Skrulls, or indeed the Time-Keepers? Why it doesn’t simply summon G-D, and end the issue before it begins? Well, even le vrai Alan Moore Alternity can’t really summon up Jehovah…and perhaps, indeed, this is why the Godly Realms are at the centre of Universe and can’t be easily screwed with…
Because they’re older. And they have more insurance.
More branches, on the Tree of Whatever, to make them more robust. And recall, if you will, that salient fact in the history of Michael Korvac AKA “The Enemy”…that his machine-intelligence self freaked out on encountering Thor, much as the Space Phantom’s Limbo-power did way back in (“remember Alberich?”) Avengers #2…
…And that, possibly, it had much the same effect, but hold on…hold on…!
Because we were talking about The Beyonder…weren’t we? So as it turns out, the True Vacuum is not reached by creating a patch of spacetime in which no paths go in, and no paths go out. Hey, it’s possible that no paths do go in, and no paths do come out! But what is reached by creating a “vacuous residuum” is not the True Vacuum…it does seem as though what should be created thereby is the True Vacuum, but it isn’t…!
Because apparently where a portal to the True Vacuum might be created in the MU, what is instead created is a sub-universal link to the lightless realm of the mysterious Beyonders…another bubble of space, calved from the unreachable, but this time of a more unusual nature and with a more unusual purpose. Steve Englehart, raised on 1970s American Mysticism, believe you me has a faith in the “implied negative” of The Brothers Karamazov, the hidden ground upon which form-creation rests…and it does not get through to “true reality”, but it is still an enigma, and it is still special. The Beyonder, though a Shooter creation, did seem oddly connected to the numerology Englehart would later employ in Millenium to explain the nature of Kosmos…the all-encompassing One that became aware of itself, and in that moment summoned the necessary negative space of Two into being…the relationship between One and Two then becoming a Third factor in the creation of reality…but the Beyonder was a One who couldn’t see his Two, and who didn’t understand it. Hmm, maybe call him “Wuthering-Heights-Man”? With the astonishing power to not know how to individuate…
And so, interestingly, an “ultimate” force…a force that could write the MU as well as Rick Jones could read it, but in the end no writing can surpass the reading, here, eh? A fiat power to simply make things so in the MU, is much like having a sort of determinism at work in it: everything is presupposed, and causality just becomes a bubbling stew. The unnecessary happens, and naturally enough it happens without any reason…well, can you imagine, the Beyonder took the Marvel heroes out of New York City, so that they could all meet each other and fight…!
A truly fabulous occurrance, but it didn’t matter because it happened. Because whatever happens is just what happens: that’s the true meaning of Determinism, isn’t it?
Yet, oddly, it seemed as though even Shooter couldn’t make this sort of Determinism fly in the MU…even the Beyonder encountered obstacles, and in the end they were not obstacles that even he could overcome. “The power of HISTORY, Beyonder!” It isn’t actually “history” at all, obviously, because all you need to change that stuff is a time machine…and in a universe where symmetry reigns, all impossibilities are impossible for the same reason, so there isn’t much between them to tell one from the other. From Elsewhere, every unreachable place is equally-reachable…one logically-impossible thing is as all other logically-impossible things, and once you’ve let the cat out of that box it’s out…
But that doesn’t mean you have removed the state of logical impossibility from the logically-impossible thing, once you’ve done it anyway….if you see what I mean. That a transgression may occur is a crazy supposition that nevertheless does appear to be not cared about very much by the MU…but the MU also doesn’t seem to care much for getting rid of the stuff that makes transgressions transgressive, by being what they transgress against. In a fictional reality you can have all this stuff, you see! You can’t have any of it in the real world, but since the fiction is in some general sense there to illustrate why you can’t have it, it can show it. It can explain its impossibility. And, given time…
…It can explain it away, as well. That’s what Englehart’s Beyonders were for: those great non-perceptibles who amused themselves by occasionally cubing the spheres of all those “True Vacuum” force-fields, making that Idea into a Thing that could make Ideas into Things. That was all the Beyonder ever was: just half of one of those Ideas. Absolutely a numerological Heathcliff! It isn’t “History” that confines his actions, but incompleteness: a paradox just means an incomplete description of the thing being measured has produced what looks to be a garbage result.
All of it, every last bit of it, the spirit of science…but it’s a literary sort of science, and it gets that way because it is not entirely intended by its creators. They can’t intend it, because they can’t keep it out of their creations: their reality, too, has its obstacles and limitations.
And to all that, too, we will doubtless get…
But man, could I really use shut-eye about now.
Anybody else feel the same way?