Candyfloss Horizons*

April 17th, 2008

For those unaware of the distinction between hard and soft sci-fi, the former spends its time postulating imaginary futures that unfold out of pre-existing science/theory, whereas the latter jettisons notions of the possible, concerning itself with the imaginary part of the equation. In its most basic form, it deals with the psychological and sociolological impact of tomorrow – the soft sciences – but at its logical extremes it details societies, internal states and/or technologies beyond comprehension, whose function and form defy simple explanation. It’s the really far-out stuff that we’ll be focusing on today. Think Phillip K Dick or Slaughterhouse 5. Just when you think you’ve modeled the universe successfully, Dick gives you the finger and you’re unsure whether Valis is a satellite broadcasting psychic signals from behind the moon, a program hard-wired into the human genome designed to free us all, God, the ramblings of a psychotic mind or all of the above. The surfaces of things becomes slippery and the gravitational core breaks down. At its most exciting, soft sci-fi displays an anarchic disregard for reductive, straightforward readings and, resultingly, often ditches conventional prose altogether, segueing into deeply subjective, experimental and non-linear writing styles, a la Jeff Noon or Steve Aylett. The emphasis in these books centers around technology as pure aesthetic. The designer drugs of Noon’s cybernetic Manchester frustrate the boundaries between the inner and outer worlds. The psychic environments described by his fiction allow for a free exchange between fantasy and reality –– creatures are wrenched out of trips, the main drug of choice, the Vurt feather, is itself discovered in virtual reality and at points the characters themselves seem to collapse into pure text…..

And all of this is well and good, but what has it got to do with Man-Ape, you might ask?

Weeelll… I reckon our medium of choice has been smoking this shit for ages.

Despite its apparent obsession with the nuclear-age and the science-possible, fifties’ and sixties’ comicdom just loved to flirt with the liminal and the soft zones. It was the era of the superdad, sure, but the superdads were always being transformed into mer-men and super-apes and the Batmans lost their ontological footing too, forever finding themselves booted out of Gotham and The-Worlds-We-Know into outer-space. I accept that the writers themselves were inspired by the hard sci-fi of the day, but, just as in the 80’s the computer and cyberspace became a jumping off point for a million adventures that transcended the actual possibilities of the technology itself, the subatomic scientific paradigm of the sixties spawned a host of ludicrous, improbable escapades, unfettered by anything other than the author’s wildest musings. Oh, and the comics code. This stuff still seems futuristic today because it’s so out there. The stuff of acid flashbacks, not e=mc2.

Moving on, just check out this bastard.

Jack Kirby had it down. Who knew what the buggering phuck that thing Galactus is operating was? Alright, there might be an in-comic explanation of its purpose but the sheer, balls-out weirdness of the thing bares its arse, Braveheart-style, at any kind of rational interpretation. The man’s work was inundated with these dream machines – in fact the Kirbyverse at large, from The Fourth World to The Forever People, visually and conceptually, always skirted the realm of the easily understandable. This might go some way to explain why a lot of his projects failed to attract a wider readership. It certainly explains why his work has remained such an enduring influence on writers today and why it has come to represent the apotheosis of comics as pop art. It’s all about the aesthetic and the aesthetic is so strong. Pure soft sci-fi. Who gives a monkeys about grounding fictional worlds in realism when you can represent the cosmic principle of death as a black-clad, skiing Space-God?

I know I don’t.

And that’s the thing; the sheer absurdity of Kirby’s ideas, from the Silver Surfer to Granny Goodness, combined with his auterly visual style, afford his work the ability to transcend simple kitsch, catapulting it into the realm of the truly alien. The truly mindfucking. In some cases, the truly terrifying. Why on Earth does Norrin Rad patrol the space-ways on a bloody surf board? Is it because he was spawned in the sixties or is it because in the Marvel Universe everything is just a bit odd and things have reached the point where reality isn’t constrained by rationality or logic?

Technology as unbridled imagination.

What is so important, is that Kirby and other loons like Steranko have formed a huge part of the imaginal backbone of The Big Two and, no matter how many grim and gritty fictional environments Frank Miller, Mark Millar and co., throw up, this stuff is always there seething away behind the scenes. Its influence will always be felt.

It has to be remembered that inspite of a sizable adult readership comics were, originally at least, primarily written for children, so strict science-accuracy wasn’t really necessary and I say we’re all better off for it. This combined with the fact that DC and Marvel had to incorporate fantasy and other genres into their little homunculus universes, means that superhero comics have always been difficult to position, inspite of first appearances, within a rigid, hard scientific framework and are consequently an incredibly mercurial, expressionistic and, dare I say it, poetic medium. The DCU always has to accomodate the next property – be it Western, Romance, Space-Opera or Swords-and-Sorcery – that Warner Brothers lays its hands on. A poor writer, or a writer unconcerned with the big picture, may experience this internal genre-splicing as an inconvenient sense of fragmentation or disconnect, each world jostling uncomfortably with the other, vying for space, but in the right hands it all makes perfect sense, and, as I said elsewhere, the possibilities become endless.

I guess the X-Men is the next stage in terms of comics really starting to explore the cultural and psychological whammy of herodom (in that it details the way in which super-people are received by society at large and the affect that has on them as people – an essential ingredient of the superhero book from the mid-to late seventies up until the the present day), but this thematic thread really doesn’t interest me that much. It’s where it leads – Its culmination in Watchmen, the springboard for a new era of unshackled superheroic experimentation, and the Vertigo line.

The childishness of the superhero had, by the late eighties, become for many writers a creative straightjacket. People wanted to push their favourite Men-in-Pants further (oo-er!) than the code would allow. Afterall, there was all that delicious history to mine, all those bizzare conceits, and didn’t the outright oddness of it all demand some kind of recontextualization in the light of what was now an adult readership, with a new set of demands and expectations?

And so, in the late eighties and early nineties, in books like Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison gives us a super-team who not only find their inspiration in the nineteen sixties, but also in Burroughs, Dadaism, mental illness and psychedelic states. Mystery-Men who by their very nature, eschew the notion of the superhero as cipher for literal technological advancement. Inevitably the text mirrors the subject matter and, as a logical side-effect, the story-telling – the form itself – becomes increasingly whimsical and playful. But Grant isn’t alone… With the incorporation of a truck-load of 2000AD-ers (a magazine always concerned with the weirder end of sci-fi) into the Vertigo fold, we find a gaggle of other writers, most notably Peter Milligan, playing in the same sand pit.

It seems fitting that Shade, a character spawned by the third part of the sixties gonzo-triumivrate, Steve Ditko, should be one of the central players in the nineties’ comic revolution. Someone from that loopy crucible had to be. Afterall, I am contending that the British Invaders were the natural inheritors of the psych-comics era and its loopy crown. Yep, it’s all distilled in Shade, in all its demented glory. Shade’s M-vest is a piece of imaginal technology utterly unconcerned with the whys and wherefores of conventional science, instead acting as an outlet to explore whatever bonkers idea Milligan could come up with. The focus of the stories revolving around it and the Madness-Zone are largely psychological as opposed to physical, subjective as opposed to objective and experimental and explorative as opposed to A to B. The subject matter was the warping of reality in favour of a world enflamed by archetype, mystery and madness. The actual tech involved didn’t matter, and, if that aspect was interrogated, the answers, the book suggested, would be more out-there still.

I can’t help but believe Milligan was directly riffing off the insanity implicit in Ditko’s, Kirby’s and Steranko’s creations. That the inspiration was found in his first early poreings over those cosmic-coloured pages and the freakish, haunting, irreducible impressions they left in his young (or not so young) mind. On a personal note, this is why Morrison’s Fantastic Four: 1234 worked so well for me. My first contact with these characters wasn’t with the wacky Hollywood funsters they’ve turned out to be, but, rather, with the demented sixties shit that, even then, in the early eighties/late seventies they were chanelling. The Mole Man wasn’t a figure of fun. He was the little man at the edge of my bed. Milligan’s coming from the same place. It’s all about dreams, not rocket science.

I suppose this trend found its ultimate expression in works like Brendan McCarthy’s Rogan Josh, where tandori restaurants rub shoulders meaningfully with the ancient Indian pantheon, Rudyard Kipling and kitchen-sink realism. Here, in the outer reaches, reason is simply another lens to be subverted and the narrative divides and sub-divides, weaving back in and around itself. Here the pattern becomes more important than the content. Sure we’ve got superheroes, magic, religion and super-science, but this stuff is just there for texture and flavour, slaved to the aesthetic. And this is all well and good. But in the end McCarthy’s meisterwork is still representative of a new form that is, at this time, around ninety one-ish, still relatively immature. It’s loud and brash in its approach, and perhaps a little clumsy. The new psychedelic, soft sci-fi comic-book has yet to grow into its boots, let alone find its feet.

That comes later.

Tune in next time for part 2 – Candyfloss Horizons Forever!

This post was brought to you by Superpitcher, Bogdan Irkuk and the candyfloss horizons of Crossover.

* Oh, and I know I should provide more examples, etc., but this was always going to be a cursory glance at a huge subject and so, well, shut up, cocks.

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