April 27th, 2008
‘It’s just superhero poetry’
Okay, I don’t have a link to it, but somewhere at the back of the collected Rogan Josh edition Milligan has a bit of a waffle about how you should read his book. I don’t know why it’s there – perhaps Karen Berger insisted on it, or maybe he just felt a mite uncomfortable about throwing it out there into the greasy mitts of the phillistines – but, regardless:
Who gives a flying fuck how to read this great shit?
Yesiree, it was all new back then.
The mind-bending stuff still had to come with the York Notes attached. Despite the fact that it had been entrenched, thematically and stylistically, in other media for decades, it took until the nineties for hardcore soft SF to finally find a voice within comic books, and it wasn’t until the middle of the decade that it really began to sing – before it attained any degree of consistent depth or subtlety. Before it became at home with itself.
Sure, Milligan’s work was a real step forward and Shade was a candyflossed book, incorporating as it did everything from Queer Theory all the way through to unjudgemental depictions of polyamory (indeed, it adopted a polymorphously perverse gaze in order to interrogate all of its major themes: sexuality, identity, gender, relationships, cybernetics….). In this sense, then, the world of Kathy, Lenny and Rac could easily locate itself with the soft SF cannon. Its primary area of focus was the realm of the post-human, where the knowable was something to be exploded in favour of a new landscape of shifting probabilities and constant ontological revision. Prophetic visions of the self, sexuality and society (?) augmented by a barmy power-suit. Perfect. Well, almost.
Inspite of some incredible high points and a real grasp of the issues it sets out to interrogate, re-reading the first two thirds of Shade now can, for this poodle at least, be a bit of an exercise in forgiveness. Its not that I don’t enjoy it, but sometimes the metaphors feel a bit too heavy-handed, the symbolism a little in-yer-face and, well, see above for my feelings on comic creators ladling on the exposition and providing a how-to manual for all the blurry bits. And it’s the same with the other early Nineties’ soft SF heavy-hitter, The Invisibles. The first volume employs a really simplistic thematic schema – the ‘war’ behind the scenes between The Forces of Chaos and The Forces of Order – that clunks around for a good twenty or so issues before things get less transparently obvious, more complicated and a lot more interesting. And when does it really start to shine? Well….
We’re here to talk about Soft SF and superhero comics, and I think it’s telling that just at the point that The Invisibles was getting really good, Morrison hits the ground running with The JLA.
By the time all the bizzaro conceits, magico-technologies and experimental writing techniques find their way into a Superman book and nobody bats an eye-lid, you know they’ve fully established themselves. Everyone’s comfortable with the approach. Even the kids. Especially the kids. Yep, kids do still read comic books and there’s nothing like a kid, and their fave avatar of choice for venturing into imaginary worlds, the superhero, for open-mindedness and an ability to negotiate concepts-from-beyond. It makes perfect sense that ideas it took whole issues or arcs to fully explore in The Invisibles should be summed up so quickly and succinctly, in such a compressed form, in the Justice League book. The Hand of Glory? It took most of volume 2 for anyone to get a handle on that thing (if they ever did), but the JLA and Luthor have its DCU counterpart, The Wirlogog, sussed in a flash. The Fifth Dimension? The vast majority of The Invisibles‘ run was dedicated to mapping that one, but Crisis Times Five wasted only three issues on it. Lord Fanny and pals spend years preparing Jack Frost to consume The King Archon, but Superman’s assimilation of Mageddon is given only the briefest of nods – probably a couple of panels – and there’s fuck all build to it.
The point being that the DCU is the spiritual home of the Gamma Gong, the Invisible Plane and the Boom-Tube. These ultra-gadgets fit in there with little or no justification or rationalization. In fact, to explain these things away would be unnecessary and, in a fundamental sense, it would only serve to weaken them as ideas. Soft Sf doesn’t care for analysis and to approach the above works in this spirit is to unweave the rainbow. Indeed, it is telling that Grant’s JLA run found its core ideas, not in Arthur C Clarke, but in Greek Myth – The Justice Leaguers representing the Olympians – and continues to plough this fantastical furrough throughout its run: from the Grail Myth that informs the Rock of Ages storyline, to the DCU’s very own mythosphere, The Fourth World, that acts as the historic backdrop for the final arc, World War Three.
In my opinion, the superhero book is at its most confident and exciting when it chooses not to hot-link to other mythologies. The fact is, it’s got all this mad shit already inbuilt. It is its own myth, just a modern one, dressed up in gleaming spandex and employing the tropes of sci-fi in order to immerse the reader within the magical and the numinous. For contrast, just check the worlds of modern fantasy writers like Phillip Pullman, where a kingdom of wheely beasts becomes a soap-box for the theory of natural selection and The Divine? Well The Divine’s only there so we can kill him.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But there’s an equal pleasure to be had in wallowing in mystery.
So this can only be leading to one place: the book where Grant ditches Zeus and Co., where he refers only to the Man-in-Pants (literally) for inspiration.
If one was to compile a list of core super-hero soft SF texts, then Flex Mentallo would have to take pole position. It’s contains all the genre requirements: it prizes imagination over the science it represents, it makes deep forays into experimental writing, functions as a cartography of impossibles worlds and, above all, it consciously manipulates and subverts conventional SF approaches in order to destabilize notions of rigid categorization and fracture the boundaries between the solid and the imaginary.
Soft SF is by its very nature a post-modern medium, in that it posits science fiction as just-another-narrative, refusing to afford it the privileged status of the realistic. It ditches the vanity of the Jules Verne school of SF and asks, ‘Of what is this genre made?’, or, ‘What does it feel like?’, as opposed to, ‘How would Nemo put together a fully functioning Nautilus?’ And Morrison knows full well what the super-hero is made of…. Indeed, that’s the primary focus of the book: the Ages of the Superman, from the naive, radiant Gold Era to the free-wheeling, shape-shifting Silver to the deconstructionist Dark; the functions he performs, from the masturbatory power-fantasy to the spring-board to the transcendental and, ultimately, to the fifth dimensional shape of the the hero seen from above, blasted into the over-sphere by a teleporter and fragmenting into individual comic panels. In the last example *technology* is utilized to push at the Source-Wall of the medium itself and expose the cracks. There’s no pretense at trying to describe exactly how an actual teleporter would operate, but I think the comic is all the more interesting for it. We create an imaginary diegetic throughline in order to understand the characters in a comic book. We fill in the blanks. But what do Flex and the rest really look like viewed from high altitude, from the satellite HQ of the Legion of Legions? They look like the cover of Flex 3.
Story-board as exploded atomic structure.
Costumes as super-skin.
The Crisis on Infinite Earths as drug overdose as nuclear holocaust as the crisis of adolesence.
In fact the foundation of the Flexverse rests in science-fantasy. The Universe is the product of quantum fucking – the love-child of Nanoman and Minimiss – both of them trapped, mid-orgasm, in the throws of the, errr, Big-Bang. All of us, the comic argues, are caught up in the bright lights of manifestation and we only have to stop, look around and take possession of ourselves in order to create a new reality. The engines of creation, it suggests, reside in our mind and that ‘before it was a bomb, the bomb was an idea’. We can conjure a better reality, we just have to have better ideas. And here we arrive at the meat of it – Flex, for all of its nods to futurism and future science, is, in the end, only concerned with these things insofar as they gesture towards the road-map to Utopia. The Omniscopes and oscilloscopes are metaphors for the self cybernetically enhanced by dreams, just as the ‘gloomy canyons of Satellite City’ and the ‘far-away orphanages of Farville’ outline the topography of a remythologized Earth. Why would anyone settle for shoes when they can have boom-shoes, Grant asks? Why tolerate the flat surfaces of the everyday, when one can imbue even the most mundane things with meaning? And that’s the point of Flex – to re-energize our world. We can wank on and on about the processes that inform it and how they can be harnessed, but isn’t it important to marvel at them too? In the final analysis, Flex Mentallo is, like so much of Grant’s output, a romantic work and we can be cynical about that or we can embrace the insights it offers. It doesn’t mean we simultaneously have to deny Newtonian Physics.
In this regard Flex differs fundamentally from the other knowingly modernist superhero texts, in that it breaks down the mechanisms of the super-narrative in order to build. The batmobiles and the owlships aren’t there to illustrate the character’s inadequacies, but, rather, to illuminate a brighter tomorrow. The childish urge to make Star-Trek tech a reality is celebrated, not berated, so long as it invigorates the reader’s interactions with the day-to-day. So long as it encourages hir to ‘go out and meet some girls’. This stuff is far from the techy, nerdy, anally retentive worldview of the misanthropic fanboy/hard SF enthusiast – we don the garb of the super-hero in order to act. Flex Mentallo is soft sci-fi that’s out and proud, and it has a mission. It attempts to condense and distill everything that’s wonderful about the super-hero and, by the end of the story, we’re permitted ‘total sychronization with the comic’ – we’re invited to share in this wonder, to utilize it, and make our daydreams flesh. Hard science fiction may well have similar goals, but, for me, it rarely induces the feelings necessary to galvanize any real creative work. Too much of it – all that fussing about tachyon drives and the rules by which the Federation interacts with, *yawn*, aliens – puts me in mind of those GM’s obsessing about rising property prices in Middenheim.
Personally, I think it’s telling that Flex draws so heavily from DC’s creative well as opposed to Marvel’s. The costumed adventurer it depicts sports a proper pants-over-tights, wrestler’s costume. There’s no shiny Iron Man kit within its pages. Flex Mentallo mail-ordered the source of his powers, the Muscle-Mystery For You! book, from the back of a comic book – it’s pure Golden Age shit. In recent years, as I have alluded to elsewhere, Marvel have become reliant on replicating the look and feel of the CGI, SF, action spectacular in order to flog its funnies, whereas DC, try as it might, finds it enormously difficult to shed its playful, fantastical roots. The strong whiff of the fairy-story suffuces the DCU, in stark contrast to Marvel’s increasingly teenage bent, and perhaps this is why Grant’s work in the early days of the new millenium interests me the least. New X Men is modern Marvel through and through. Sure, there’s some great soft SF concepts lurking beneath the surface, but the surface is so important . For me its impossible to ignore. And what comprises that gleaming veneer? Psuedo-science. Not technology as unbridled imagination, oh no, that’s not what we’re talking about here. No, this is just boring old waffle about X Genes, evolution and mutants, mutants, mutants. Mutants are the Marvel-verse equivalent of conventional SF’s aliens. There’s nothing wrong with the idea in theory, but Marvel have leeched all the life out of the fucker. Heroes shocked the shit out of me because, for the first time since I was a kid, someone really captured just how fantastic discovering you had superpowers really would be. Sure, the show absolutely isn’t perfect, but it is streets ahead of the X Men. But I’m getting distracted here. Marvel borrows from blockbusters, which in turn borrow from SF, but always making sure any of the really weird stuff is neutered. And that’s how Grant’s X-title read to me. Hedged in. Tramelled.
Time to break out:
We3 enjoys a pseudy sheen too (‘realistic and relevant’ according to The Washington Post - God, you couldn’t ask for a more depressing endorsement, could you?), but it more than makes up for it in every other respect. Grant keeps the content within the strictly science-possible, while allowing all the conceptual tilt-a-whirls that fuel the vast majority of his comics free reign within the formal sphere. It’s hard SF with a soft SF centre. Or the other way round. William Burroughs doing Isaac Asimov. At times, with it’s exploded, atemporal panel layouts and surveillance camera eye, it’s pure cut-up, in the best tradition of Robert Anton Wilson, the Soft SF poetry of the aforementioned Jeff Noon and a raft of Semiotext contributors. This isn’t simply an empty exercise in formal anarchy for the sake of it. There’s both rhyme and reason to Grant and Frank’s methods. Sure, watching Tinker slicing inbetween the panels as he attacks the soldiers looks good, but it’s also there to illustrate the sheer, lethal speed he possesses and the idea that the animals experience ‘time and motion differently’. Not only that, but the chaotic four-dimensional perspective, with panels ansychronously, almost randomly, layered on top of each other that Grant employs for most of that fight scene manages to convey the sense of blood-drenched mayhem far better than a more linear progression from event to event. And as for the surveillance camera eye-view – well that, as has been said elsewhere before, that creates in the reader a sense of both tension and confinement. What will the lense reveal next? ‘I WANT TO GET OUT!’ I could go on forever… We3 is fascinating in that it combines a hard SF high-concept – enhanced animals as biological weapons – with a storytelling approach more commonly found in its soft counterpart and Speculative Fiction. It could have been a farily mundane story updating the, WOOOAH!, super-pet for the 21st century, but instead we get a stylistic tour-de-force that, in all the ways in which it rocks, owes fuck all to Kim Stanley Robinson’s dull-as-dishwater Mars trilogy.
Seven Soldiers is the hard stuff. As I mentioned in part one, the DCU, like smulchy science fiction generally, can accommodate everything , from swords and sorcery, to hard-boiled, horror and straight-as-u-like SF, and that’s exactly what SS sets out to capture – that imaginal melting-pot. I’m not saying Marvel is incapable in this area, just that at the present time it’s disinclined to break from its fairly staid, but commercially viable ‘Look, it’s a SPACESHIP!?! From the mooovies!!!111!’ approach. Grant’s mega-series is a love letter to DC’s past, present and future and a big thank-you for all the outlandish thematic and conceptual kinkiness it allows. It relies only on the universe’s internal mythos for inspiration – just as upstairs I’ve argued superhero comics should – and it finds within those kaliedoscopic, zany environs all one would need to generate a fully formed sense of place, history, drama and epic resonance. Sure, the series had its faults, but at its best it was totally brilliant. I mean, who could argue with a (meta) book that effortlessly incorporates everything from Subway Pirates, lives as (literal) prisons for fallen Gods and a potted creation myth of the DCU Earth itself? The stiff contours of hard science fiction find themselves springy and permeable within the pages of Mister Miracle, Klarion, Frankenstein and the rest, bending, breaking, popping and yielding to the whims of imagination.
To sum up then; I believe that this understanding of DC’s fictional potentiality is evidenced in Grant’s earliest forays into its universe: right there, at the end of Doom Patrol, Morrison chronicles the last days of the battle between the Key-Smiths, obsessed with the knowable, versus the bastions of the odd, the Chair-People; and then there’s the big reveal that Danny The Street is really Danny The World, where all realities are equally possible depending on the heart’s desire…. Morrison chooses sides from the get-go, rejecting the masculine, clean-and-proper body of the late eighties super-hero text – an approach that, one would argue, is inrinsically bound up with hard SF – in favour of a smoother, fundamentally less certain narrative and creative attitude.
Actually, I would go further and suggest that, like Milligan’s, Morrison’s approach to the super-hero is polymorphously perverse in aspect – that it shape-shifts, refusing a fixed identity – and that it recognizes in its subject matter, particularly the DCU, a like-minded beast. Superheroes kick-ass so bad because they can, have and do transcend the apparent constraints imposed on them by their ideological essence – men and women of Tomorrow who serve as more-or-less transparent ciphers for the latest scientific paradigm – by fixating, like soft SF, on the Tomorrow part of the equation. And the World of Tomorrow cannot be explained away as a simple extrapolation of modern technological trends. One also has to include revised and radical roadmaps of the self and the soul and, most importantly, the mysterious.
Because the future is hidden from us, behind the frontier.
I know this post has been very Morrisoncentric, but that’s because I believe Grant to be the best modern exponent of this kind of writing. He is as important to the creative zeitgiest of the Nineties as Moore and Miller were to the Eighties. And thank the Highfather for that. Grant’s sense of utopian futurism is so hopeful – it allows us something to look forward to and to aspire to. It’s grown-up, not in the trenchcoats-and-rape sense, but in its avante-gardness, its willingness to play with new ideas, reject traditional modes of storytelling and make deep and bold incursions into the unknowable. So the end is drawing near and I think I’ll come right out and say it:
Soft science fiction is BETTER than its grizzled predecessor.
For all the reasons Morrison’s writing is so good. For all the reasons Jack Kirby still does our heads in. For all the reasons Superman’s still up in the sky.
Soft SF ram-raids and runs with the optimism embedded in the earliest victorian science fiction and brings it slap-bang up to date. It’s hard SF’s 20th century counterpart. Its evolution. Recent hard SF seems so wanky in comparison, what with its fetishistic obsession with the operating manual and what lies beneath the pants of the futuristic societies it slavers over. It also feels terribly stuffy and conservative. Vanilla. ‘Nothing will essentially change’, Star Trek, Stargate and the rest of the drivel explain, ‘but we will have faster aeroplanes that move about in outer-space’. Well, bollocks to that. Do you think anything will be recognizable a million years from now, if we survive that long? I don’t. Least of all ourselves. And as for the stories that inform our new world? Grant and a few others are intuiting them now. They’re showing us what might be – charting the candyfloss horizon.
The ‘dreamy piling up of the weird and the impossible’ The Whip describes in Seven Soldiers is actually a ladder from here to who knows when. We must scale it if we want to reach for the stars.