Saturday, November 05, 2005

On Multiplicity: The Pleasures and Politics of Infinite Crises on Infinite Earths

In 1985, my DC Universe was three-tiered. At the top was a trio of utterly transcendent books: The New Teen Titans, Batman and the Outsiders, and Swamp Thing. Below these were DC books that I enjoyed and bought occasionally (the quirky Blue Devil or pseudo-science fiction titles like Legion of Superheroes and Atari Force) as well as recently cancelled, proto-Vertigo masterpieces (Thriller and Night Force). Finally, below this middle tier was a whole sea of titles featuring iconic DC heroes that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern: two of my three favorite titles were team books, and on the whole, I preferred teams to individual heroes, so it’s little wonder that I wasn’t interested in these graying heroes who all seemed so stodgy and flat anyway. Of the old guard only Batman exerted a mild gothic tug of attraction. (I had, after all, bought the occasional issue of Detective Comics in the days before I styled my 13-year-old self a “collector.”) But even Bats was only ever really palatable to me as part of an ensemble like the Outsiders. In fact, “my” pre-Crisis DC Universe was rigidly and snobbishly “new.” This is why, despite my love of team books, the venerable Justice League of America and even ostensibly “newer” teams like All-Star Squadron, and Infinity Inc were completely unreadable to me back then. The latter two were tied to an incomprehensible history (the history of my parents’ generation at that!) and JLA was made of heroes I didn’t care about. If Superman embodied everything that bored me about the classic pre-Crisis DCU, Batman’s resignation from the JLA on the cover of BATO #1 was, in retrospect, emblematic of precisely the direction I intuitively wanted my DC comics to take.

As it turned out, DC editorial was way ahead of me, for this was exactly the direction they did take in 1985 with the launch of Crisis on Infinite Earths. At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to buy this “maxi-series” at all. I had heard about Crisis before The New Teen Titans #6 (vol. 2) came out, but it wasn’t until I read Marv Wolfman’s terrible confirmation in the letters page of that issue that George Perez was leaving the just-launched “hardcover” Titans series to work on Crisis that I really made up my mind to see what all the fuss was about. If I couldn’t have Perez on Titans, I may as well at least enjoy his art on this new book (which had the added attraction of being written by Wolfman), even if the premise didn’t completely hook me and despite the lousy in-house ad featuring a silhouette of the Monitor that (inexplicably) did everything possible to hide the fact that Perez had drawn it. Crisis was the first book I ever decided to buy, sight unseen, on the strength of the creative team that was producing it.

I wasn’t disappointed—Wolfman and Perez’s work was sensational and involving. But the experience of reading Crisis on Infinite Earths—particularly the early issues—was very, very strange. Suddenly, I was reintroduced to characters that I hadn’t thought about for years (The Crime Syndicate?) that I had never associated with the universe in which the Teen Titans operated (Blue Beetle? The Freedom Fighters? Captain Marvel?) or had never heard of at all (Psycho Pirate? Kamandi? Solovar?). As a reading experience it was truly uncanny—the floor of “my” DCU had just dropped out from under me, and beneath it was a deep, puzzling history that I had been, until that point, quite successfully ignoring. Reading Crisis was therefore both exhilarating and unsettling, familiar and strange—my very small DC Universe was being given extraordinary depth and complexity at the very moment that this complexity was about to be collapsed to a fresh new singularity.

Of course, the “uncanniness” of Crisis stemmed not just from the confrontation of my own self-created mini-DCU (Titans, Outsiders, Swampy) with the “repressed” (i.e. ignored) contents of its history (Superman, the JSA, the Golden Age, etc., etc.), but was a basic structural feature of the series’s paradoxical premise. On the one hand, it was written to solve a problem that I (without realizing it at the time) embodied utterly. As everyone knows, Crisis came about in the first place to simplify a universe whose continuity had become unmanageable and was costing the company readers—specifically, new readers like myself who weren’t interested in the adventures of geriatric supermen whose books looked and felt like the remnants of an older generation’s diversions. Crisis on Infinite Earths was written specifically to get people like me to buy something other than Teen Titans. And yet, by its nature, the story (despite a cast of thousands), had to revolve around two unappealing groups of characters: those iconic characters that interested me the least, whose books I did not buy, and those obscure characters that I had never heard of, but was at least beginning to discover in the pages of Who’s Who, which DC had cunningly begun publishing at exactly the same time with exquisite crossover-implied Perez covers. For the first few issues of Crisis, I found myself looking (in vain!) for Titans and Outsiders among the panels, but ultimately the story won me over, and I found myself moved literally to tears by the deaths of characters that I had never cared about, and in some cases of whom I had barely even been aware. A strange experience indeed.

My memories of Crisis on Infinite Earths are thus not the memories that a slightly older fan might have, a fan who had some investment in the question of which of his or her childhood favorites would live or die, or of how the unruly multiverse would be “rationalized” and reordered. Rather, my memories are a curious mix of intense, but relatively contentless affect. I was moved by the nobility of Flash’s death, but I didn’t really know who Barry Allen was. I mourned for Kara, like everybody else, but really, she was just an image of a pretty girl, brought momentarily to life by the sublimity of Perez’s rendering. The into-the-sunset happy ending given to the old Superman and his Lois, to Superboy and young Luthor, was genuinely touching, but aside from Luthor, these were all characters in which I had no substantial investment. Emptiness and affect. It would be fair to say that, for me, the emotional payoff of Crisis on Infinite Earths was all form and no content.

Or nearly so. Several characters did excite me, aside from my perennial favorites, and these were, not surprisingly, the new ones: Harbinger, Pariah, Luthor, and Lady Quark. This remarkable group now embodied the uncanny dead history of a multiverse of which I had barely been aware, and as such, were immediately supercharged with an unusually intense spark of being. In other words, when the dust had settled, these new characters were Crisis: they gave form to the intense but non-specific affect the series produced (through its relentless representation of death, through the strange absence of an object for a young fan like myself to mourn). I was thus genuinely disappointed that they all but disappeared from the DC Universe after the Crisis had been resolved.

The reemergence of some of these characters—particularly in the pages of Gail Simone and Dale Eaglesham’s exuberant Villains United—is one of the reasons that the build up to Infinite Crisis over the past few months has been such transgressive good fun. The original Crisis became, in effect, a new sacred text for DC, a rewriting of history so profound that even the characters who had been introduced through it became strangely taboo. How else to explain, for instance, why Lyla has never really been revisited? why the Anti-Monitor has never returned? why even a relatively straightforward character revamp like the female Doctor Light has never been able to generate more than a glimmer in the post-Crisis DCU? (Did Lady Quark show up again in L.E.G.I.O.N.? I can’t remember.) Crisis served its purpose and clearly the company’s writers felt that to revisit these characters in any significant way would be too much of a reminder of the very history that DC was trying to convince a potential new readership to forget.

As a reader whose enjoyment of the original series was rooted precisely in the way that these Crisis-survivors (especially Lyla, who becomes the recorder of DC history, a double of the Monitor and a sort of prototype for Oracle) embodied both a rich but mysterious past and the thrilling affect of the series itself, I’ve been delighted by the reintroduction of Luthor, Pariah (all too briefly!), Lady Quark, and the Crisis-era Dr. Light in various DC books over the past few months—reintroductions (in the case of Pariah and Luthor) that are thrilling precisely because they violate a taboo.

Blasphemy is always welcome, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s high time that DC returned to its sacred text (complete with a Kara/Christ and a Superman/Pieta) and radically desacrilized it, lovely as that Christ/Pieta reversal is. If Infinite Crisis is going to reopen the Pandora’s box that the original Crisis slammed shut, so much the better. As much as I enjoyed the promise of coherence when I was thirteen, and of course I still love “continuity,” these days I prefer a comic book universe that is nonetheless complex, multiple, labyrinthine, and contradictory, because such a universe gives us better tools for thinking about the world in which we live than a universe that gives an illusory sense of unity and simplicity. We live, frankly, in a world that would profit from less piety and more multiplicity, a world in which the metanarratives that structure how people think and behave—be they religious, national, or economic, though often all three—have ossified into catastrophically regressive and murderous ideologies of singularity that only masquerade as something like a respect for “multiplicity” (I’m thinking, of course, of “globalization,” “the free market,” “the global village” and other such code words for imperialism, still the dominant singularity of our time, albeit in an altered, “postmodern” form). We live, in short, in a world that is genuinely multiple, but caught in the grip of extremely powerful, sometimes overlapping ideologies that always present themselves as singularities. Only in such a world could multiplicity be considered a “crisis.”

I know that some readers are irritated by the so-called “dark” turn the DCU has taken lately, symbolized most iconically in the “breakup” of the so-called trinity (the trinity for heaven’s sake!). But I say, break it up, let it all burn down. Shatter the old familiar unities and create a situation in which genuinely new sorts of relationships will have to be forged, relationships that are not pre-given or ideologically neat. This is what alliances look like in the real world where people who do not necessarily share the same world view must nonetheless come together and find ways to coexist, negotiate, and even forge strong relationships across difference. We all live “in” multiplicity just as multiplicity lives “in” us too, at the level of our own selves and our most intimate relationships. If we are really reading a story that is going to “undo” the work of the first one, DC will be poised to tell more interesting and more relevant stories as a result of its return to the language of “crisis.”

Significantly, moreover, as both of the Crisis series have shown, the term “crisis” does not simply signify catastrophe in the obvious negative sense, for what “crisis” actually becomes—through our experience of reading—is a form of pleasure (our delight in imaginary catastrophe) that projects both a version of our world (as all science fiction does) and thus, necessarily, projects an ethical or political vision that corresponds to that “world” as well (a wish-fulfillment, a satire, or as is usually the case with superhero comics, something in between these two poles). I can’t do justice to how this process might work in either series here (especially since the new Crisis has just started), but my sense at the moment is that the ethico-political implications of the two main DC Crises are diametrically opposed.

Wolfman and Perez’s Crisis ended up projecting a fairly conservative ethical vision in its reduction of the multiverse to a single universe, represented synecdochally by the singularity of earth itself. Johns and Jiminez’s Crisis promises a restored multiverse, or perhaps something even better: a single universe that is more internally riven, contradictory, and multiple than ever before. An Blakean “Infinite Crisis” within a single earth. Either way, this “blasphemous” story is about opening up artificially closed off spaces (the last panel of issue #1), about revisiting stories that had seemingly been “settled” (the happily-ever-after that wasn’t), and about shattering the (misleading) unity of personified abstractions like Justice (the JLA’s “trinity”). This is not a catastrophe but the basis for a vision of ethical and political complexity that refuses simplistic or totalizing solutions. It is also, potentially, a fortuitous (I don't claim that Johns and company "intended" this) symbolization of the critique of unity and identity that in some quarters is called anti-humanism, in others postmodern ethics, and in still others postcoloniality.

This, at least, is the Infinite Crisis I want to read. And if Grant Morrison were writing it, I suspect that it’s the Infinite Crisis I’d actually get. (Oh, wait, he is writing it—it’s just called Seven Soldiers. Never mind.) Despite the fact that Johns’s superheroes are more firmly rooted in a specifically American iconography than, say, Wolfman’s were, and despite the fact that Johns appears to have a more conventional political vision than Morrison (it would be hard not to), his political stories are always more complex and penetrating than one expects. Still, I have to admit that I get a little nervous when the thrilling subversive energy of a trinity in tatters is abruptly contextualized by the image of a dead (?) Uncle Sam. Is THAT what the shattering of the trinity must be reduced to? How else are we to read this panel? Or to read the earlier one in which Uncle Sam is struck down by Black Adam who announces: “So much for Freedom.” Johns’s earlier work on Black Adam was more subtle and interesting than this jingoistic caricature. (Though there is another way to read this: Black Adam as ironic commentator on America’s recent international adventures whose “so much for freedom” comment curiously echoes the Golden Age Superman’s own judgment on Uncle Sam as fraud, which I discuss below.) Beyond the specific issue of the politics of representation at play in such images of otherness, what I am wondering more generally is: will Johns take the progressive but abstract multiplicity of Infinite Crisis and immure it within by a much more conservative (nationalist) political aesthetic—even if this walling-off takes the form of an ambivalent critique of the “Spirit of America” as it seems to do here?

I hope not. I loved Johns’s blue collar take Wally West and was impressed by the Black Adam-JSA stories, but even though Johns’s work frequently juxtaposes a beautiful—indeed utopian—fantasy of America as “justice society” with the real thing, its critical impulses usually feel merely gestural because his stories remain so deeply attached to a dream of the American way—an ideal America that never was and is, to say the least, very far from being realized in the present. This, at least, is my impression. But the politics of Johns’s stories remain elusive and it may be that the question is undecidable in any absolute sense because there is simply a radical contradiction between the liberalism of the stories’ content (eg. the original Superman, the “real” Spirit of America will step in for Uncle Sam who, in Superman’s words in issue #1 only “believes he represents the American way,” only “claims he’s as old as the country itself”—in short, “claims a great deal”) and the radicalism of their form (the genre of superhero fantasy, the plot’s shattering of unity, the emergence of difference, the release of flows, the reproduction of multiplicity). Contradiction is fine, of course. Most works of popular culture contain precisely this kind of mix of reactionary and revolutionary elements, and such a mixture does not negate the exciting ethical or philosophical questions that Johns’s comics (and superhero comics in general) bring into representation through the extravagance of their fantasy. Still, I’m glad that DC’s justly prized “continuity cop” will be shadowed at Dan Didio’s DC by criminal mastermind Grant Morrison. (Who Watches the Watchmen? Morrison!) If ever there were two figures who could bring the singularity of Apollonian form and the multiplicity of Dionysian energy into perfect Nietzschean conjunction, Johns and Morrison are that pair. Gail Simone, of course, does it single-handedly.

Back in 1985, I didn’t know enough to care about the implicit political (or perhaps I should say “ethical”) messages my comic books were sending, much less notice them. And of course, I am in a sense wildly “overreading” what is simply a fun adventure epic, driven not by some nebulous impulse towards political allegory but simply by the twin forces that drive most mainstream comic writing: the desire to increase market share and to tell a good yarn. (Sorry, it’s what I do.) But the fact remains that comic stories, like all stories, mediate our relationship to the real world, become part of our consciousness, afford us imaginative places to work out ethical and political questions, and over time (often without our being aware of it) subtly shape our way of responding to and understanding the brute materiality of history. We can’t get away from politics in our art. So I say bring on a politics of Infinite Crisis. It’s past time to make an “infinite” peace with multiplicity.


Scott Cunningham said...

Brilliant essay, Jim. I can't keep up with your thoughts. I agree with you, and also invite the complexity and confusion that the new crisis is inviting by revisiting this Pandora's box and having the Trinity be broken apart. This event is extremely intense and electrifying. I read the first issue last night, and thought the confrontation between Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman on the moon was incredibly powerful.

Mark Fossen said...

So many things come to mind, but I'll start here:
"symbolization of the critique of unity and identity that in some quarters is called anti-humanism, in others postmodern ethics, and in still others postcoloniality"
Who knows where Johns is going for sure. But let's say he will restore the multiverse. The problem with interpreting the DC Multiverse as postcolonial thought is that multiplicity is not cherished as unique. There was always one "real" world - Earth-1 - and various "lesser" worlds. The multiverse was always viewed through the prism of Earth-1, and defined only in contrast to the "real" DCU.

It seems that the old multiverse was, in fact, highly representative of colonial thought. It acknowledged diversity, but only as it served the Superpower (Britian, USA, or Earth-1). Only a multiverse where all realities have equal weight in the narrative would be truly postcolonial.

Jim Roeg said...

Scott--thanks for the high praise and thanks also for commenting. Despite my quibbles I'm really excited about IC too. In fact, I haven't been this geeked out about an event for awhile, and that's saying something. I can't wait for Wednesday!

Hi Mark,
Re: It seems that the old multiverse was, in fact, highly representative of colonial thought. It acknowledged diversity, but only as it served the Superpower (Britian, USA, or Earth-1). Only a multiverse where all realities have equal weight in the narrative would be truly postcolonial.

Agreed, agreed--and very well put (I shamefacedly admit that my musing on this point was sloppy). You're right that the old multiverse gives us, in effect, a colonial version of difference that is always another version of "the same." The most I could legitimately claim about that part of the argument is that the original multiverse figures a "gestural" multiplicity that is compromised in precisely the way you describe. Would a new multiverse simply restore such a system of pseudomultiplicity? Probably. My suspicion is that American superhero comics can't really represent the type of "full" multiplicity that many of us would like to see--at least not in terms of a cosmic/geographical allegory (i.e. Earth-2 as a cipher for the so-called Third World, or something). The inevitable failure of representing genuine multiplicity (or pluralism) on the level of a multiverse allegory in an America-centered comics universe, however, might not be the end of the story.

I've clearly collapsed a number of very complicated issues into a sort of homeostatic blob in that sentence you cited (anti-humanism, postmodern ethics, postcolonialism) and certainly these terms describe several notions whose doubtful compatibility is the source of many arguments (eg. both postmodernism and postcolonialism offer a critique of the unity and self-presence of the Western subject, but not on the same basis, and not to the same ends, or rather, there are areas of overlap between both, but also significant areas of difference). The argument I had in mind (but was too lazy too work out properly) is that although the (new, projected) multiverese might necessarily "fail" as an allegory of multiplicity that would "cherish uniqueness," the movement out of singularity towards contradiction within what remains a "Western" or "American" form of self-reflection (i.e. the Justice League) is not just "a step in the right direction" (a weak but necessary argument) but more importantly a subversion on the ideological "unity" that this self/nation projects. In short, I'm really arguing that the issue of the multiverse (which may, after all, not even be reintroduced per se, especialy given Johns's love of synthesis!)is only one of the ways in which the current Crisis could be read as (almost) politically progressive.

My highly qualified defense of the politics of Crisis (at least so far) is that even if it fails to provide a "positive" image of multiplicity (because its form as an American superhero comic makes that nearly impossible--how could Uncle Sam ever symbolize alterity?) its turn towards fragmentation and contradition within at least provides a "negative" critique of singularity (which I see as having affinities with antihumanism and postmodernism--though maybe you're right that "postcolonialism" is taking things too far). I would even be almost willing to see things like the sort of fake-multiplicity of "Infinite Earths" as a "weak" version of real multiplicity that is struggling to emerge from a genre that is formally arrayed against its possible emergence (i.e. Power Girl's "impossible" presence might almost be read as a symptom of a repressed multiplicity that is coming into representation, but can't do so in a "genuine" form because the codes of text--"American superheroes"--are intrinsicaly limiting). Or maybe I've just been reading too much Fredric Jameson.

At any rate, I'm speculating that the book as embodies some fairly radical contradictions! To weasle out of this, let me say simply that it's too soon to tell! :)

RobB said...

Great essay Jim! I am really interested to see the status Quo of the DCU after this event. I also though Villains United was a lot of fun.

I was moreso writing about one of your sidebar links, specifically Bakker's The Darkness that Comes Before - Thanks for linking to my (sffworld) interview with him.

I hope you are enjoying the book, I just finsihed the final book in the trilogy - The Thousandfold Thought last week and I was blown away.

joncormier said...

Good to have you back Jim. Fantastic post, again. It's got me excited for tomorrow. This really is a great example of postmodern comics. It introduces the possibility for many options that are all more or less the same anyway. Does it matter which cola you drink, it's all cola?

Right now the term "new status quo" makes me chuckle. If it's new, it can't be status quo. You can have new boundaries or parameters in which to operate, but status quo is organic and involves a process occuring over time.

It's also kind of neat that the multi-verse was too hard to keep track of, now continuity is too unweildy and everyone is aching for the freedom of "doing what they want with the characters."

zack soto said...

You and I had very similar childhoods.

Mark Fossen said...

Jim -

I've spent the day tying to track down a quote. I give up.

I remember one of the Crisis architects (I think Waid) said something like "it's almost as if they each were in their own universe, isn't it?"

Now that would be the postcolonial multiverse you see. If we had a multiplicity of genre and character that was all of equal weight.

Jim Roeg said...

robb: You're welcome! It's a great interview, and what a terrific series! I'm looking forward to the subsequent books (though this may only happen in some future or alternate lifetime). A multiverse would solve a lot of my problems with time and sleep.

Jon: good to hear from you! Re: It's also kind of neat that the multi-verse was too hard to keep track of, now continuity is too unweildy and everyone is aching for the freedom of "doing what they want with the characters"--so true! the added irony is that with Johns at the helm, continuity isn't sacrificed so much as synthesized: the multiverse might really turn out to be "the best of all possible worlds" (literally!)--creative freedom + continuity...

Zack: We are legion!

Mark: I am going to (almost) resist interpreting the quest for the elusive quotation as symbolic of the equally elusive quest for achieved postcolonial multiplicity...! :)

Mark said...

Really nice piece. At this rate, I may have to buy this series, something I swore not to after the schlocky COUNTDOWN TO... issue.

Marc said...

Great essay (and comments thread). Like Mark, I'm a little skeptical that the old DC multiverse was inherently progressive or diverse--but I found I had so much to write on this subject, I ended up setting my thoughts down here.

Jim Roeg said...

Thanks, Mark (with a "k")! And for sure, give the actual series a try. The lead-up material (including that patched together Countdown "Special") was of mixed quality to be sure, but Infinite Crisis itself (regardless of how it turns out) is definitely an exciting read!

Marc ("Not the Beastmaster," Marc) - You made my day! I was delighted to discover your essay just a few hours ago when browsing my referers and have been mentally working on a response to your response ever since! Your piece very eloquently sets forth precisely the set of issues that I'm constantly chasing round in my own head, and my sense is that our positions are not all that far apart. (Despite evidence to the contrary in my essay, I am in total agreement with you about the dangers of "multiplicity for its own sake." I'll save my thoughts on this, though, for a more worked out reply, which should hopefully be up by week's end, if not sooner.) Again, thanks for the (immanent) critique--everyone should be so lucky as to have responses like this! (Anyone who has not yet read Marc's essay at the link above...what are you waiting for??)

Prankster said...

Actually, it's your final point there that was the most illuminating for me. I knew it was coming intellectually, but it only just "clicked" that, in the coming months, we'll be seeing Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison conducting a tug-of-war over the future of the DC Universe. That does indeed sound REALLY interesting and fun.

Filipe said...

I think it's worth mention that IC#2 acknowledge the collonial aspects of the multiverse when Kal-L tells Power Girl that "We let them [Earth-1 heroes] call us earth-2 even tough we came first" (in some ways the "plot-hole" of Kal-L claiming E-1 was the template for the new earth, something that never truly happens in the plot of Wolfman/Perez's Crisis but we all know be actually truth for editorial reasons, actually works in this direction too).

BTW, great essay.

gwalla said...

I think a true multiplicity could only be accomplished by rejecting implicitly shared narrative universes and long-term continuity altogether. Instead of having continuous titles like Detective Comics or Adventures of Superman, publishing all stories as miniseries or trades. In effect, making everything an Elseworlds (although it may make sense to retain the Elseworlds classification for stories that differ significantly from commonly expected premises, e.g. Superman in the Renaissance sans time travel) or the All-Star line. An author working on a Superman story would be free to write whatever he'd like, without having to worry that some previous story had, say, established that magic worked a certain way or somesuch. Or even that Superman had revealed his identity to Lois Lane. An older story would not necessarily impinge on a new one unless the latter explicitly claims sequel status to the former. To a certain extent, it'd be like the Golden Age, where most stories were self-contained even within their own titles

This isn't going to happen, though, since DC gets too much mileage out of continuous soap-opera plotting. And it does have other disadvantages. For example, there can't really be any character development between stories.

drunken lens: I think you misunderstand. He's not talking about literally stealing, only figuratively, as a metaphor for homage and pastiche. This seems to be common usage in the language of postmodernism. AIUI, it's similar to Harold Bloom's concept of "misreading".