Showing posts with label Hey-Zeus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hey-Zeus. Show all posts

Friday, 4 January 2019

The Fiction-Suit

“IT IS NOT TOO FAR-FETCHED TO PREDICT THAT SOME DAY OUR VERY OWN PLANET MAY BE PEOPLED ENTIRELY BY SUPERMEN!” Joe Shuster assured us back in 1938, but comic-book reality predicts developments in our own in many other ways. 

What we construct in our imaginations, we have a knack of building or discovering. We may not have flying men or invulnerable women racing among us, but we now have access to supertechnologies that once existed only in comic-book stories. “Mother Boxes,” empathic personal computers like the ones in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World story cycle, are already here in embryonic form. 

Is the soothing contact offered by the Mother Box so different from the instant connection that a cell phone provides? 

Twenty-four-hour access to friends, family, and the buzz of constant social exchange can make us feel cocooned and safe in a reportedly hostile world. 

In many cases, Mother herself can be summoned on the Box. 

Metron was Kirby’s avatar of ruthless, questing intellect, whose Mobius Chair twisted through time and space to make him the god of couch potatoes, surfing channels, gathering information, without ever leaving the comfort of his armchair. Metron’s magic furniture seems less a wonder of supertechnology than a fact of daily life. 

As Kirby tried to tell us in his book of the same name, we are the new gods, just as we are the old ones, too. There is already technology that allows people to drive remote-controlled cars with their minds. What’s to stop someone becoming Auto-Man, the Human Car? Secretly, he sits in his room, munching Maltesers at his computer screen, while he listlessly pilots his incredible RV supercar around town to save lives and fight the crime that ordinary police cars just aren’t fast enough to handle. In so many ways, we’re already superhuman. Being extraordinary is so much a part of our heritage as human beings that we often overlook what we’ve done and how very unique it all is. We have made machines to extend our physical reach and the reach of our senses, allowing us to peer into the depths of space and outer time. Our cameras and receivers allow us to see across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. We can slow down, freeze, and accelerate time on our screens. We can study and manipulate microscopic worlds, print our names on single atoms, analyze soil on Mars, and observe the rings of Saturn at close range. Our voices and our photographic records of everything we’ve seen are carried at the speed of light on an expanding bubble of radio, into the infinite. Television broadcasts of the first moon landing are still traveling, growing fainter as the waves spread out. If you had a powerful enough receiver and a TV on a planet forty light-years from here, you could watch Neil Armstrong take his first step on mankind’s behalf and hear our silly, hopeful summer 1969 songs. Our space machines are the remote physical tendrils of our species launched across gulfs of nothing to land on other worlds or to travel, gathering data until the signal fades, or until there’s no one left to listen. These ultimate extensions of human senses thread our awareness into the absolute freezing dark 10.518 billion miles from where you’re sitting. As I write, that’s how far Voyager 1, humanity’s farthest-reaching finger, has extended. Launched in 1977, it remains connected to its home world by radio and by the silver thread of its passage through time from launchpad to interstellar void. Individual humans are not super, but the organism of which we are all tiny cellular parts is most certainly that. The life-form that’s so big we forget it’s there, that turns minerals on its planet into tools to touch the infinite black gap between stars or probe the obliterating pressures at the bottom of the oceans. We are already part of a superbeing, a monster, a god, a living process that is so all encompassing that it is to an individual life what water is to fish. We are cells in the body of a singular three-billion-year-old life-form whose roots are in the Precambrian oceans and whose genetic wiring extends through the living structures of everything on the planet, connecting everything that has ever lived in one immense nervous system. The superheroes may have their greatest value in a future where real superhuman beings are searching for role models. When the superhumans of tomorrow step dripping from their tanks, they could do much worse than to look to Superman for guidance. Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow. Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need. To find out what higher dimensions might look like, all we have to do is study the relationship between our 3-D world and the 2-D comics. A 4-D creature could look “down” on us through our walls, our clothes, even our skeletons. Our world would be a Cubist X-ray, and perhaps even our thoughts might be laid bare to their gaze. As comics readers gazing down from a higher dimension perpendicular to the page surface, we can actually peer inside characters’ thoughts with balloons or captions that provide running commentary. We can also control time in a comics universe. We can stop on page 12 and look back to page 5 to check a story point we missed. The characters themselves continue to act out their own dramas in the same linear sequence, oblivious to our shifting perspective. They can go back in time only with the help of supermachines, like the Flash’s cosmic treadmill, but we can look at 1938 Superman next to 1999 Superman without colliding the two stories anywhere but in our heads. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could send drawn versions of themselves into the created world of Fantastic Four, and those little drawings of Stan and Jack were like angels, UFOs, avatars from a higher universe, entering a world they’d made to interact with its inhabitants. 

They created, as I came to call them, “fiction suits,” like space suits for sending yourself into stories. 

The comics page depicted the flow of a different kind of digital time, expressed in discrete images, each of which captured a single visual moment and usually a snippet of audio time in the form of a balloon-dialogue exchange. The comics page, like the movie screen, took us through a story in a straight, linear progression from past read to present reading and future completion, but the comics page was a more personal and intimate interface than the cinema screen. It lacked the intimidating luster of the movies, and the images could be slowed down, rewound, fast-forwarded, and studied in detail. They could even be copied, traced, or improved upon, making this an ideal DIY medium for the imaginative and reasonably gifted. The pace of a film or television show was dictated by its director. The comics allowed its reader to direct his or her own experience of the story. And now there were two healthy universes living and growing inside our own. The DC universe was a series of islands separated for years, suddenly discovering one another and setting up trade routes. And there was Marvel’s beautifully orchestrated growth and development. Two living virtual worlds had been grown and nurtured inside conventional space-time. These were not like closed continua with beginnings, middles, and ends; the fictional “universe” ran on certain repeating rules but could essentially change and develop beyond the intention of its creators. It was an evolving, learning, cybernetic system that could reproduce itself into the future using new generations of creators who would be attracted like worker bees to serve and renew the universe. Just as generations of aboriginal artists have taken it upon themselves to repaint the totems, so too does the enchanted environment of the comic-book dreamtime replicate itself through time. A superhero universe will change in order to remain viable and stay alive. As long as the signs stay constant—the trademark S shields and spiderweb patterns, and the copyrighted hero names—everything else can bend and adapt to the tune of the times. These characters were like twelve-bar blues or other chord progressions. Given the basic parameters of Batman, different creators could play very different music. This meant interesting work could be done by writers and artists who knew what they were getting into and were happy to add their own little square to a vast patchwork quilt of stories that would outlast their lives. In return for higher page rates and royalties, of course. The parasitic relationship of universe to creator that saw the rebellions of people like Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby had become a little more symbiotic; following changes in the business in the eighties, creative people adding to the DC or Marvel universe would be ripped off with a little more reward on the back end. In this respect, a thriving fictional universe simulates the behavior of a “real” organism, but only as far as you wish to follow me down this path of conjecture. Nevertheless, human beings had built working parallel realities. Given market value as corporate trademarks, the inhabitants of these functioning microcosms could be self-sustaining and outlast their creators. New trademarks could be grown in the concept farms of fictional universes under the auspices of the corporate concerns that kept them under control, maintaining, trimming, and looking after their burgeoning gardens of newsprint and ink. Most important, they had acolytes: priests in the form of creative types such as artists who would grow up with a strange desire to draw Superman in motion and writers who would form early bonds that encouraged them to devote their talents to putting words in the mouths of characters they’d grown up with. These creative people would sustain the likes of Spider-Man, dripping their blood and sweat into the ink to give their lives to him. Batman could regularly feed on energy that kept him vital for another ten or fifteen years until the next transfusion of meaning. Emergence is a simple idea. The universe is the way it is because it grew that way. It emerged piece by piece, like a jigsaw solving itself over billions of years of trial and error. When atoms stuck together, they naturally formed molecules. Molecules naturally grouped into compounds. People naturally formed tribal associations that made them look much bigger to predators from a distance, and as a result of clumping together and swapping experiences, they naturally developed specialization and created a shared culture or collective higher intelligence. Everybody’s heard writers talk about a moment in the process of writing a novel or story when “it was as if the characters took over.” 

I can confirm from my own experience that immersion in stories and characters does reach a point where the fiction appears to take on a life of its own. 

When a character becomes sufficiently fleshed out and complex, he or she can often cause the author to abandon original well-laid plans in favor of new plotlines based on a better understanding of the character’s motivations. 

When I was halfway through the seven-year process of writing The Invisibles, I found several characters actively resisting directions I’d planned for them. 

It was a disorienting, fascinating experience, and I eventually had to give in and let the story lead me to places I might not have chosen to go. 

How could a story come to life? 

It seemed ridiculous, but it occurred to me that perhaps, like a beehive or a sponge colony, I’d put enough information into my model world to trigger emergent complexity. 

[ "Ray, the sponges migrated about a foot-and-a-half..." ]

I wondered if ficto-scientists of the future might finally locate this theoretical point where a story becomes sufficiently complex to begin its own form of calculation, and even to become in some way self-aware. 

[ There is Another Theory, 
Which States That ... ]

Perhaps that had already happened. 

If this was true of The Invisibles, then might it not apply more so to the truly epic, long-running superhero universes? 

Marvel and DC have roots that run seventy years deep. 

Could they actually have a kind of elementary awareness, a set of programs that define their rules and maintain their basic shapes while allowing for development, complexity, and, potentially, some kind of rudimentary consciousness? I imagined a sentient paper universe and decided I would try to contact it.


One of the biggest and most significant achievements of the Green Lantern/ Green Arrow series was its introduction of race issues into the comics in an unprecedented way. A heavily praised scene from 1970’ s Green Lantern/ Green Arrow no. 76, the provocative opening chapter of the O’Neil and Adams run, drew the blood of the times with razor precision and was often cited as an example of a fresh willingness to engage with real-world issues in serial superhero fiction. 

After rescuing the tenants of a tenement block from a fire orchestrated by the unscrupulous landlord, Green Lantern, and by extension the whole Silver Age of superheroes, was called to account in no uncertain terms by an elderly black man who turned out to be less than impressed with our hero’s showy antics and had this to say: 


(For the first time in DC superhero comics, black people actually looked black and not like the traditional white men colored brown or loose-lipped caricatures that were more common. Adams’s photographic accuracy left no doubt as to the ethnicity of his characters. Italians, Orientals, Native Americans—all were given respect, dignity, and convincing bone structures by Adams’s talent and sense of inclusion.) 

In any real world where the laws of physics and some interstellar immortal judiciary permitted his existence, Green Lantern’s response would be all our responses to the same accusation: “I’VE BEEN SAVING THE ENTIRE PLANET EARTH AND EVERY LIVING THING ON IT, REGARDLESS OF RACE, COLOR, POLITICAL AFFILIATION OR SPECIES, SINCE GREEN LANTERN ISSUE NUMBER 1!” 

Instead he hung his head in shame as O’Neil subverted believability to hammer home his powerful indictment of the superhero’s role as weapon of the status quo and the ruling elite. 

Green Lantern’s sudden awareness of people suffering below the poverty line may seem almost farcical, but we can also choose to view the Lantern as a representation of the typical white-middle-class young reader and to see in the politically engaged Green Arrow a “fiction suit” for mouthpiece for O’Neil, using his art to open a few young eyes to some important facts of life. 

Changing values have lent a hollow ring to O’Neil’s sermonizing, but in May 1970, when the only nonwhite face in a DC comic belonged to the “glowing silhouette” character Negative Man, this felt like a challenging and provocative call to arms—a timely demand for the paper universes of DC and Marvel to acknowledge the human diversity of the real world in which they continued to grow and develop. 

The following issue was no less controversial, as O’Neal-Adams introduced a new substitute Green Lantern in the form of “Square” John Stewart, a black, inner-city architect with a chip on his shoulder, whose first mission was to protect a racist presidential candidate. 

This led to some slightly predictable but always amusing fun at the expense of “whitey.” The potential for tokenism was there, but Stewart was a strong character and has survived to the present day as a popular Green Lantern Corps member. 

As the acting Green Lantern in the turn-of-the-century Justice League animated shows, he reached a wider audience, on television, than any of his predecessors. Stewart was DC’s first out-and-proud African American superhero. 

Marvel, ahead of the curve on most things, had already introduced its Black Panther character in 1966, and by 1973 he was starring in his own title. 

Jungle Action, written by the radical Don McGregor (more about him later), and drawn by Billy Graham, a talented young black artist, became infamous for a controversial 1976–79 extended story line, “The Panther vs. the Clan,” which landed McGregor in hot water with the right wing. 

The undeniable dignity and majesty of the Panther (T’Challa, the proud king of Wakanda, a wealthy, culturally rich, and technologically advanced Marvel universe African nation that was as far from the stereotypical image of mud huts and scrawny goatherds as could be imagined in the sixties), was only marginally compromised by his failure to represent; T’Challa wore a full black body suit with a hood that covered his entire face. 

The completely masked black-hero trick was copied and improved upon to gruesome effect and great success decades later in Todd McFarlane’s Spawn comic and its associated transmedia spin-offs, but without the taboo-smashing impact of the Black Panther and John Stewart. 

Aiming a wink in the direction of the Black Panther’s modesty, John Stewart made a show of ditching his Green Lantern Corps domino mask in the panel after he received it: “I WON’T WEAR ANY MASK! THIS BLACK MAN LETS IT ALL HANG OUT! I GOT NOTHING TO HIDE!” 

After architect Stewart tore down the barriers, Marvel revved up the relevance bandwagon with its own next-level take on the Green Lantern/ Green Arrow formula, teaming Captain America with a flying Harlem social worker who fought injustice as the Falcon.

 June 1972’ s Hero for Hire introduced blaxploitation hero Luke Cage, aka Power Man, whose dialogue bowdlerized urban argot into Marvel universe–friendly oaths like “SWEET CHRISTMAS!” “MOTHER!” and “JIVE TURKEY!” Cage was a rough-and-tumble enforcer with steel-hard skin and the semipermanent grimace of the framed and wrongly accused. 

He wore a length of chain around his waist to remind us of history’s cruelties but soon outgrew his origins to develop as a rich and enduring character, still central to the ongoing Marvel story decades past Shaft and Jim Kelly.


I’d already contrived to meet Animal Man in his own environment, creating with the help of artist Chaz Truog what I came to call a “fiction suit.” 

This was a way of “descending,” as I saw it, into the 2-D world, where I could interact directly with the inhabitants of the DC universe on their own terms, in the form of a drawing. 

I wanted to take that direct contact idea further, to explore the interface between fact and fiction in a more personally involving way. 

I wondered if I could arrange an exchange that would affect my life and real world as profoundly as it would the paper world.