Forgotten Comics: Atomic City Tales

It seems like a good time to mention this. I only ever read the one issue of this Jay Stephens Nineties (?) superhero-reconstruction, but if you like Milligan and Allred, you’d like this too.

I don’t know that there’s much more I can say about it, as far as a review goes…Milligan and Allred are well-known for being the guys who are playing in the old original Sixties sandbox, pumping up tired cliches for a twenty-first century audience: the brio of their X-Force/X-Statix/Deadgirl adventures is, I hope, a veritable pole star of “how to do it now” for readers of this blog…you have that look, but you also have that edge, right? After the Eighties of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, the long long “deconstruction” of the superhero by too many artists to mention…then the Reconstruction period of Kurt Busiek and Grant Morrison and even Brian Bendis. I talk a lot of shit about Bendis, but he’s more complex an artist than his shit-talkability implies, and I like to remind myself of this by thinking of his Alias, wherein he went all magpie on the Reconstruction folks: Captain America’s secret identity crisis being a shout-out to Jack-In-The-Box of Astro City; the Purple Man’s failure to break the fourth wall an homage to Morrison…

Something of that urge to Reconstruction still remains, ten years further on down the road: in his way, Geoff Johns is trying to do it too. Azzarello has tried it on, in his own particular accent. Darwyn Cooke, whose “great idea” for a Watchmen sequel has sadly turned out to be just more corporate hype, has flirted with it. More, too: from Carlos Pacheco to Abnett and Lanning to Mark Waid. It’s a long list, and it’s a list of (mostly) praiseworthy efforts. Hey, even the Mad Wizard of Northampton himself got in on the act, somewhere back there! With his audacious Stan Lee imitation in ABC…but mostly, mostly, the Reconstruction has gotten adulterated, if not actually derailed. Most people, you see, just didn’t know how to do it…didn’t know how to do it, anymore than they knew how to do Watchmen and DKR.

Milligan and Allred still have their eyes on that prize, however. Oh, when will we next see such a hip, pop thing as X-Force/X-Statix? It could’ve been an Image project, with its eye on the big business of celebrity, but it was so much better without the serial numbers filed off, it was so much better for not being a riff! Sometimes that does happen: to really get at the right meat, you have to crack the right nut. Though occasionally…

…You don’t even really need the riffing, or the thing goes beyond riffing and into some more cogent commentary through being its own thing. File “Bulletproof Coffin” in here, with all the other things that looked like they should’ve been high-concept-driven but weren’t. And file Atomic City Tales in here too: as retro-looking on the outside as a box of Quisp, yet a bit too Dan Clowes in its heart to wear its Reconstructive intent easily. Perhaps, in a screwy way, the best comparison is Ed The Happy Clown?

The “what it’s about” bit creeps up on you.

A young man, while playing his bongos, accidentally hits upon the “primevibe”, the basic vibration of the Big Bang, and gains unlimited reality-manipulating powers. But of course, all this does is force him to wear his psychology on the outside of his head…which is to say, it forces the world to wear what’s on the inside of his head. Nevertheless, the paradox stays as whimsical as indie-pop until he encounters “other superheroes”, led by the admirably gruff Doc Phantom who quickly finds a way to cut the Primevibe powers in half! And the female member of the super-team, whose name escapes me at the moment (Z-Girl?), shows herself capable of equalling Big Bang in the omnipotence department: “With your Primevibe and my Dream Machine powers,” she exclaims, “what a team we’d make!”

So we are back to postmodernism, folks! Sauron and The Mimic and “mutant energy” and the “chemical cause” of mutation! The kinds of “powers” there are, are unlimited…awaiting only a name, to make them spring into existence. Awaiting only a name, too, to tell us how they work. Slightly in advance of another post on postmodernism, I’ll reveal a secret to how the magic trick is done: all you have to do, really, is accept crap evidence at face value. Accept it at face value, and then ask yourself what it may, or must, imply. Of course, the evidence is frequently garbage! Only an idiot would accept it at face value! But don’t let that stop you. Find a way to make it make sense. Tunnel through the implausibility. If someone uses the wrong word, imagine that it was really the right word, if you could only discern its special accent of meaning. And once again: don’t decode, encode. What kind of powers could rival the Primevibe’s omnipotent force? “Dream machine” powers, absolutely…what, did you think that once we hit the word “ultimate” or “omnipotent”, that was the end of the road? These different powers don’t necessarily contend, you see…after all, if superpowers were a zero-sum game, there wouldn’t be any superpowers at all! So anything can be fixed; anything can be fudged. Big Bang controls the primal force of Creation; Z-Girl can make things happen out of dreams. Neither one is limited, and neither one is limited by the other. However, Doc Phantom can limit Big Bang’s powers, through the interesting device of knowing how to do it…knowing, just to keep it clear, how to halve an omnipotent power, essentially by saying so. So what’s half of “can do anything”? Before Doc Phantom submitted his new rule to the game, supplied his new contextual restraint on the sentence-making, made up the idea that infinity can be halved, there was obviously no chance of such a thing happening. But, now that it has happened, can’t we find some reason for it? Perhaps infinity can be halved…but only halved. Might there not be something magical about the segmentation “One-Half”, that we can work with? Up in the far reaches of the number line, no arithmetical operation will work properly in the presence of a lemniscate, but with the lower numbers something might be done. How large is the string of numbers that begins with 1 and takes off infinitely forward? That string of numbers is infinitely long. What about the string of numbers that takes off from -1 and heads off infinitely backward? That string, too, is infinitely long, because it’s exactly the same size.

But now…what if we add those two strings together, now how long is it?

Twice as long as either part?

Actually, no…it’s the same size still.

Counterintuitive, no?

Hell, it may even be more than that, but this is comics, and so all we need is some kind of reason. We just have to find a forgiving word, or change an unforgiving one. Much of postmodern theory relies on the ol’ reductio ad absurdum: for is it not true that if a man with only one hair on his head is bald, then a man with ten thousand hairs on his head must be ten thousand times as bald? Well, no…of course not, but what about the exception proving the rule?

Oh…yeah, I forgot…that’s not what that means either

But the strange thing, and the hardest thing to grasp, is that it truly doesn’t matter if one begins from nonsense when one practises this sort of discipline (and if you don’t think it’s a discipline, just try doing it without being schooled-up in it!), so long as one ends somewhere interesting, somewhere with more branches of supposition leading out, than originally led in. No one said this was science, did they? And a good thing too, because it isn’t science — it’s literature. And all this mad theory is not about measurements and objects and facts, but about biases arising from linguistic structures. For as it happens, words — that is: Ideas — are not provably Things at all, but then again even Things are not provably Things, and so why do we assume that they are what words exist to indicate? When words may make them up, for all we know, and honestly it doesn’t seem like too unjustified an assumption. Those of you perspicacious enough to have read Minutes To Midnight may find this all sounding a bit familiar right now…

…As, roughly forty years after the Nicaean Council physicists call Solvay, postmodernism bursts on the scene to seek quantum mechanics’ accent in the humanities. And this relationship was to be the subject of a long-ago paper by me called “The Neutral Angels”, a fine title which I am still hoping to use someplace. “The Neutral Angels”! If you can find him, you can ask Wolfram von Escenbach about them…those angels that didn’t take sides in the War between God and the Devil, but instead brought the Grail to Earth for safekeeping while the conflict raged on. But, hold on…

What do you mean, “the angels who didn’t take sides in the War between God and the Devil”? What kind of nutso angel refuses even to pick a side? Over here you’ve got God: pretty much All-Good as far as the angels are concerned, unless that is they’ve “turned their faces” from God in order to follow Satan. But if you’re an angel who turns your face from God at this juncture, then you are picking your side…are you not? And you’re picking a side if you don’t turn your face, too. When the Absolute makes war with its opposite, everything around them becomes Absolute too. There just isn’t any middle ground on that battlefield!

So to find “neutrality”, we have to find the space for “neutrality”…which definitionally does not exist. Solution?

Change the definitions, by supplying additional context. It isn’t science — half of infinity is still infinity, no matter what you do — but it borders on science, perhaps even fictionally models science. Certainly HPS is implicated, as one can’t help being reminded of Menocchio from The Cheese And The Worms, stubbornly interpreting written history according to an oral tradition…and you can’t blame it on the lack of “progress” in 15th century Italy, as we walk among many Menocchios today, too! Every amateur, including myself, struggles to apply the rules he or she has already abstracted from the world to a new field with new processes in it…and even impressively-credentialled scientists can’t be expert in fields not their own: are amateurs somewhere. So Perplexity is forever being turned to face Orthodoxy, in order to produce a synthesis any given amateur can live with…and out of the overwhelming mass of absurd mistakes this produces, we do in fact get some important new scientific discoveries. Hell, even Menochhio’s not wrong, you know? He has a big problem with transubstantiation because it doesn’t make sense, so he insists that during Communion it must be that the Holy Spirit enters the host! Good scientific thinking, if you ask me…and so Menocchio’s conclusions may not have come to much, but there was nothing particularly wrong with them. Science is just like this: false starts and wrong steps, that over time sum to knowledge. And it rather reminds me of something I was going to say on Andrew’s blog, except I was bleary-eyed and didn’t do something right, and the comment was lost…he was discussing publishing in our modern times, and how publishing as we know it might have to change to survive, and I thought maybe there was a chance that it wouldn’t have to change, because the value to society of having a great big publishing industry may be irreplaceable. Bestsellers float on the voluminous product of inefficiencies…without these inefficiencies, I wanted to suggest, it wouldn’t be a world with only bestsellers but a world with none. And certainly a world without unforeseeable long shots like J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown! And in a way, to me, this is simply a restatement of the overall problem with capitalism that we unfortunately see all around us these days: its natural soil is democracy, but democracy also produces terrible inefficiencies as far as the successful doing-of-business goes. So, naturally, many of the very wealthy among us think that things would be better if these inefficiencies were reduced! And they’re partly right; except that to reduce inefficiencies that democracy creates, you must reduce democracy, and if you reduce democracy you must also reduce capitalism. As the last few years have shown, there’s a battle going on between people who enjoy a democratic society with plutocratic overtones, and those who would much prefer a plutocratic society with some democratic mechanisms left as window-dressing…but what this latter group forgets is that plutocracy isn’t the natural soil of capitalism, and it can’t grow there. Wealth is something that has existed since the first cow got put in the first barn, and there’s no question it would exist in a plutocracy…but efficiencies kill the people who are in charge of them all the time (use your wrist to whack shit with that machete, not your arm!), and mere efficiency doesn’t make a robust polity. Robustness is dull, slow, not spangled with stars and adorned with gold leaf, and this perhaps offends those who would like to live in a world that is all like that all the time…but it may very well be that such a world simply cannot exist…

…As of course no Utopia can (by definition!), and here you may take as read that there’s a reference to the “reducing atmosphere” of the early Earth (the bane of all would-be terraformers!) and that new Big Bounce theory that says the Big Bang is just where it looks like you get to if you run expansion backwards — a sort of attractor, but not a destination you can reach — and holy smokes, I should stop here before I drag in every possible reference that fits a Bell curve…

Because it’s The Neutral Angels that we’re talking about here, and their strange at-a-stroke changing of the rules of the definitional game, simply by inserting a contrafactual. Which is an operation that does indeed border on science, since it is as though a Michaelson-Morley experiment was done in the realm of religion and culture, except (amusingly) no such experiment was done, so there is no actual “disproof” of God’s Absolute All-Goodness offered, but it is merely assumed

And not without cause, since how this supra-paradoxical All-Goodness is compatible with the existence of rebellious angels in the first place is…shall we say, an open question?

How can the messenger attack the messager? How can the word contradict the voice? It’s an interesting little bracket of thorns, very much our point, and whaddaya know it even brings Englehart’s numerology back in, as well as (perhaps) Queen Spacetime…in the Allness of Oneness, inevitably the contrast of a negative element appears, and then since between that One and that Two there is a relationship, then that’s Three…

But regardless of how permissible the cause is, there still isn’t any theory-contradicting experiment that’s done here, but the Neutral Angels simply show up, and suddenly we are left wondering about what creates their possibility…about what creates the conceptual space that they must have available to operate in.

And of course it’s nothing but words. Philosophy itself is nothing but words! Ordered statements in a linguistic hierarchy, and Man is the Measure, but how do we measure Man? Doc Phantom knows, just as children arguing on a playground do: a world of ultimate power is a world where the line between what’s inside our heads and what’s outside them is fatally blurred, and “action” is just another way of saying “expression”. If “anything, that is possible to be believed, must contain some measure of truth”, then anything that can be said in an atmosphere of belief must be made true…if you can only find the right formula for its expression: the right excuse. A Radical Cube! A modulation of the shield harmonics! Actually if you want to see postmodern lit-crit in action, you need look no further than the Engineering deck of the starship Enterprise-D: that place runs on recontextualization. But comics are even better for such things, and since Lee and Kirby sent the FF to Monster Island it’s become better still. The shared universe, so full of convolutions! So full of assertions and counterarguments! Occasionally in the comics descended from Superman, one sees someone who’s really ready to grapple with that sort of fictional-reality structure, beyond just using it as a setting for four-colour adventure or even a high-school chemistry lecture — the essential weirdness of it, that setting just one day announced, made up as though it had always existed, recursively drawing itself into a state of already-settled being! Is there an old comics fan anywhere, who hasn’t tried this on? Just make it up, just get it started! When we started reading these things, most of us, we were inevitably dropped into the middle of the action, right into the deep end of the pool, and it seems to me that’s the experience the post-Lee/Kirby people always secretly aim at reproducing with total faithfulness, but it’s actually a tough thing to do, and it’s probably worth remembering that they themselves didn’t do it that way…didn’t write it that way, but that’s just how we read it. So most attempts at recreating this childhood experience flop, some rare few of them flop publicly (for God’s sake, where are my Phantaceas?!), and then some of them succeed and there go your Astro City books, your Tom Strong books, and (pleasingly!) quite a few others more, than we really had any reason to hope for…

But then there’s that other category of successes: the ones in which play with an ab nihil shared super-universe approaches the philosophical. Milligan and Allred basically tried this trick on inside the Marvel Universe, which makes them the most devious players of this kind for using an existing universe to hide their own universe in, and not only an existing universe but the sponsoring universe…Hine and Kane, meanwhile, set the tropes of the sponsoring universe inside a universe that was a lot like it except fundamentally unstable, a trick that’s also been tried by many yet never before fully brought off. You think it’s pastiche, of a kind you’ve seen a half-dozen times before. You think it’s Reconstruction. Then slowly you become aware that it’s something else again

And then there’s Atomic City Tales, which I really liked because it’s a whole other approach to shit just happening. Rationales, even twisty and devious rationales, aren’t even the point: there’s Felix playing on his bongos, when the Primevibe hits him. He says:

“Whoa!”

I don’t know how you make it simpler than that. I really don’t. It’s a marvel. Z-Girl appears, speaking casually of “my Dream Machine powers”…you know, just as though that’s some sort of thing. And we buy it because that’s what we’re there for; we buy it because it’s the right word. These are the greatest superpowers that have ever existed: superpowers of mere assertion, and the assertion is fully stripped-down, with no wasted moves and no fixed positions. It’s all assertion. It’s nothing but assertion.

And it’s for nothing but fun.

Oh, and a bit of deeper stuff too, of course…problems of growing up, and all that. The independence of young adulthood, you know the drill. Fairly deep? It’s fairly deep, actually.

But it wears its depth on its sleeve!

You know, if I had the sense God gave a goose, I’d probably run right out to the LCS and see if I can’t find a copy of an Atomic City Tales TPB…hmm, while I was there I could look for some Bulletproof Coffin as well, I guess?

Uh…

SORRY BLOGGERS MUST DASH MORE LATER

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5 responses to “Forgotten Comics: Atomic City Tales

  1. Geez … with all the “forgotten comics” I own and post you’d think I’d remember Atomic City Tales but I don’t know a thing about it. You do have me intrigued though. Lately I’ve been running after comic reading suggested by Jim Steranko on Twitter, and I definitely need a change of pace! :)

  2. The “my [name of power]” construction is pretty powerful and loaded — there’s not only the reassurance of “don’t worry about how exactly I see through objects, we’ll just say ‘x-ray vision’,” but there’s also a declaration ownership and self-knowledge. It’s not “There’s this weird pinprick feeling on the back of my neck when I’m near this guy,” it’s “My spider-sense tells me this cop is really the Chameleon!” — it’s not some kind of mysterious external phenomenon that happens to him, it’s something Peter Parker asserts HE IS DOING: he understands it, has given a name to it, and interprets it.

    Even Claremont’s much-derided “explain your powers while you use them” trope (which may or may not have been some kind of decree from Shooter ANYWAY) gains something from this. Strangely enough, there IS a degree of showing and not telling, even in its expositional nature, because it demonstrates how extremely studied and well-trained the X-Men are in their singular mutant abilities to say “I’m focusing the totality of my telepathic power into my psychic knife” instead of “When I think really hard, this pink shit comes out of my fist that really messes people up.”

  3. It’s like a constant process of affirmation, isn’t it? “This makes sense; I am okay.” I don’t need to freak out! Way back in “The Joy Of Cheese And Stars” I talked about how in the pre-Star Wars days you just had “acting to the powers” going on in things like the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man show…and for a comics reader the lack of exposition/affirmation was kind of jarring, obviously! Somehow just another thing that made it not like the thing it was supposed to be like…and today it’s easy to see that it’s another component of the written-and-drawn thing working there, that caused that strange absence. Today they’ve perfected the replication of what’s on the drawn-and-written page probably about as much as can be done, with the result that there’s an awful lot less acting to the point of “hey you guys, something really weird is happening to me over here…could someone give me a ride to Emergency?”

    And maybe that misses something, slightly. The affirmations are interesting to me because they normalize the reading of these things, too…”what the fuck’s up with the pink shit that comes out of this chick’s fist, these things are stupid!“…”no, man, don’t you see that’s her psychic knife that she focusses her totality through?” Okay, and that’s why that sort of explanation/excuse always fails pretty hard, because that is stupid…and how much stuff is there, especially from Claremont, that normalizes stuff that isn’t even normalizable for comics? I think it starts with Stan Lee, obviously, a certain winking bombast, but then later writers fall into these interesting little self-referential whirlpools…I still think the whole “critical mass” think works as beautiful Atom Age poetry, but the “overloading the powers” thing is a good example of something which is not really a principle of the real world, yet there it is in the comics just as though shit worked like this…the last person to make that make sense as anything but a fiat expression of the relevance of fake physics was Englehart in his FF, I believe…and, you know, there’s a lot of “saving people with the combined power of Our deep deep X-Men Love” and appalling shit like that, but also what about that bit where the hyperevolved being goes off to find a new destiny in the stars? That’s not a Thing either, yet it became a formula that kind of suggested “yes, that’s what would happen”…

    Since you bring it up…I think I kind of love that quality of affirmation, actually. A bit like superhero puberty, maybe…”holy fuck, what the hell is happening to my dick?!” It’s cool, Peter Parker…you’re not sick, man…you’re gonna be okay. It isn’t happening to you…

  4. Pingback: Principia Comicbookia: APPENDIX I | A Trout In The Milk·

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