Aug 19, 2017

Only Silly Comics: Perception and Personal Responsibility in The Multiversity

Only Silly Comics
Perception and Personal Responsibility in The Multiversity
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

The smartest monster in the room, in Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity

I am only now getting around to understanding The Multiversity as a whole, single, cohesive work, and not as a collection of related short stories or themed larks. When it was being serialized, there was frequent hype about how each issue stood on its own, frequent responses along the lines of this issue being impenetrable, this other, too easily understood. We all missed a lot. All of us.

The Multiversity is composed of a wraparound story and a series of nested, smaller stories, most taking place on one or more alternate reality. An army of evil scientist doubles from each reality have banded together to move, reality to reality, conquering. Simultaneously, ultra-cosmic monsters, called the Gentry, haunt and stress-test the worlds, infesting the minds of individuals and corrupting whole cultures and nations. Fear of the masses. Overintellectualization convincing you that you’re secretly an idiot pretender. The fear of mortality and underachievement. The fear that the world is a madhouse. And, the only clues to save us all are in the form of comics somehow moving from the world of their creation to alternate worlds, seemingly at random.

Nothing on its surface told us it would be about colonization, except, everything. The baddies talk of gentrification. The characters experience and engage in bigotries. There are colonizing wars and the fall and rise of empires. The monsters specifically infest people’s minds and alter their behavior.

In They Make Us Like Them, Kelly Kanayama wrote elegiacally and disturbingly about the gentrification of place and of souls, of how The Multiversity brought her to tears, how a long game development upset her and proved a revelation. And, over on comics message boards and social media, she got made fun of and dismissed, a lot, mostly — and yeah I’m saying this because it matters — by white men.

That's how we, as a broad community of readers of the same piece of work, reading and digesting at the same time, in union, understood the comic. Broadly, we looked for the same comfortable touchstones, and we made the same trained and generic assumptions. And, we missed a lot.

If someone saw more than us, we shut them down. If we saw ourselves in the villains, if we saw our weaknesses in accusations, we flinched, and denied, and decried. Annotations sprung up immediately, and all the annotation attempts were incomplete, many of them were half-assed, most attempts didn’t even make it through every issue/story in the graphic novel/relay race that is The Multiversity.

The scale of the story was a bit beyond what we were trained to expect and what solicits sold us. We knew it was about multiple realities. We knew that so well, we really didn’t look for anything deeper than “it’s about alternate realities” and, “it’s about comics.”

The comic anchored itself on readers being able, eventually, to acknowledge logical fallacies. We can fear all these things, but we have to know, ultimately, that the fears only go so far before they become ridiculous and untrue. It’s okeh to fear death, but stuff dies. It just does. It’s good to worry if you’re being too pretentious, being too critical or not critical enough, but eventually, you have to take stock and trust yourself.

Largely, though, as we read these comics upon each release, and again even, when the collected edition first arrived, we did not take fair stock. We did not acknowledge the fallacies, but like the Gentry, themselves, we got stuck fast in the morass and muck of those fallacies.
None of This is Real

The biggest thing I’ve realized about The Multiversity, lately, is that the story that seems the most “realistic,” the most trapped, claustrophobic, bounded and intricate, the Watchmen riff entitled Pax Americana as well as In Which We Burn, isn’t real. I know it’s not a true story. I understood none of the characters breathed or were born for reals for real, but it’s a story about it not being real.

In In Which We Burn, The Question invoked “the hunchback” and “the soldier,” which are metaphors for the question mark and the exclamation mark, and thereby, synecdoche for the question and the answer. He does this during an investigation, so naturally, it seems like he is simply looking to turn his question into a conclusion. But, here’s the thing: The Hunchback and the Soldier is an Aleister Crowley essay about how, we know this world is false, an illusion, when we become enlightened, but even when enlightened, while we are in that illusion, we get caught up and treat it as if it is real and therefore of the strongest significance. Added to that, the answer, the exclamation to the Question’s line of questioning, his investigation is, it seems, the same as the ultimate answer in the Crowley essay: None of this is true. None of this is real.

Another story/chapter in The Multiversity, is explicitly a fictitious document. Ultra Comics is a comic that exists on our Earth, our world, that can be read by us. It’s that in our work and in the fiction of The Multiversity. While the other stories represent many alternate realities that exist within the context of the whole story, in what is termed the “local multiverse,” that comic is just an artifact. The fictional world within is less real than the other fictional worlds, because it’s just a fiction.

That comic, then, draws attention to its irreal nature, it’s superfluousness if the only important thing is whether something is in continuity with and has physical, causal affect on other stories. The characters from any other two chapters of The Multiversity can meet, shake hands, kick each other, but the characters from Ultra Comics are fake even in the context of The Multiversity.

I was prepared for that. I could take that in. But, the irreality of In Which We Burn is different. And, the only difference is that other comics verified it’s “truth,” and that In Which We Burn did not at any point tell me, explicitly, that it was a work of fiction. That the closest to physical reality it will ever come is that there are ink on paper copies and there are digital reproductions that shine across screens.
We Are All Biased

The next thing I realized is that it is not only one small bit in this story, another angle in another story, that are about race or culture, but that The Multiversity is about ethnicity. And, it is about not only the biases of others in this respect, but our biases. We judge these worlds. We judge them on sight, and only slightly revise, for the most part, when confronted with elements we had not considered, but laudatory and condemning.

In #earthme, Sister Miracle, a young black girl, tweets about her life and, on learning of real alternate realities, ponders what it would be like to meet another her. And, as readers, we condemned her. We condemned her for throwing a party. We condemned her for tweeting — often in tweets. We were encouraged to with the selfish-sounding title of the story and a world where superheroes were unnecessary and people are, instead, painters and doctors, where children are simply children, who go to school and parties, who play video games and talk to one another.

And, in a later story, Captain Marvel and the Day That Never Was!, which is tonally structured as a nostalgic, simple, genuine superhero story, a white girl, Mary Marvel, literally writes out good deeds in a “good deed ledger” and, on learning of  real alternate realities, ponders what it would be like to meet herself, we cheered her on. We were ecstatic. So good. So pure. Just what the world needs.

Now, this Mary Marvel lives on an Earth that, in the 21st Century, has only just sent astronauts to the moon. It’s a world that is, according to what we see of one American city and a few other locales, exclusively white except for a couple time-displaced racial caricatures.

“Just what the world needs.”

We got fed biases and, largely, we accepted them. Those who did not were dismissed or made fun of.
We Can Discern

In The Multiversity, many characters read comics to learn, as well as to be entertained. They read to understand. Kyle Rayner flips through a comic in #earthme to see just what’s going on in modern comics. Characters try to solve mysteries by looking at the paper and ink quality as well as narrative content. A Flash (DC jargon for someone, usually heroic, who moves at super speeds) reads the set of comics that make up the majority of The Multiversity, to deduce the baddies’ plans and how to best thwart them. Reading for information and for tone is a common occurrence throughout the overall story.

We could follow suit.

Our first read does not have to be our last. It doesn’t even have to be the map we use.

We all have biases, just as the characters in The Multiversity, but just like them, we can look past our biases, we can feel a bias, feel internal tug of what feels right or believable, and still analyze that feeling and the situation, to judge appropriately and be fair.

Feeling that characters are real is not the same as knowing they are flesh and blood or believing so. It’s okeh to find one kind of characterization more believable than another. It’s okeh to recognize one kind of racism, but not another. To identify one kind of paternalism or sexism, but miss a different paternalism, a different form of colonizing dominance.

“There’s a sliding scale to what civilization will tolerate at any given time,” says Ultra Comics (the character) in Ultra Comics (the comic and chapter of The Multiversity). He is speaking to us, the readers, who are invited to see this fiction through his senses, with his perspective, and he continues, “Civilians who murder are criminals, while soldiers who kill are heroes.”

And, on the same page, the comic itself, or the narrator who is not the protagonist tells us, “Think, man with the multi-mind — Think!”

If all readers are Ultra Comics while they read, why is he a man, and why is he a white man? Why is that our global avatar?

If Ultra Comics is the narrator and Ultra Comics, the character, is the comic, too, the pages and ideas of Ultra Comics, how can there be narration talking to him and us?

Because these are biases we accept with little question until we are made to question them. Pretty much, until we are told to. Even if you aren’t a white man, there's a part of anyone from an anglophone culture that expects to see white men as the realest and at the fore, as the majority, in anglophone entertainment. That expectation is a colonization.

Most of our anglophone entertainment, despite the sad cries of a few pathetic loudmouths, is through white male eyes, ears, and privileges. Even when it has a black face or a female voice, it’s often still dominantly a white male perspective. Because that perspective has more effectively colonized many of us, including flesh and blood white males, than any physical, societal colonization has accomplished. It’s not the voice of a real, or individual straight white generic male, but a voice that is in their heads, too, a voice some of us created and all of us have, in our way, fostered. Straight white guys have less reason to question it or see outside what it allows, in anglophone cultures, but it’s talking through all of us. It’s a colonization beyond nationalism, and more subtle than physical invasion, but no less warfare, no less about finance and control. Our brains are territorialized.
All Comics Are Ultra Comics

All comics are Ultra Comics; all stories. It’s all fake, it’s all unreal, even when we try to tell the truth of things. Perspectives are misinterpretation and riddled with assumption. Criticism has an angle. Every criticism has an approach and drive behind it. We achieve desires.

When the evil Dr Sivanas from multiple realities converge to conquer the heart of the multiverse, they do so by turning it into a pop up. They build something crassly mimicking the original architecture and shove track lighting and cubicles inside. They turn the mundanity of evil into a cartoon that seems harmless, except they’re destroying us all. And, they’re beat by condescending, self-congratulatory strongmen. That’s the moral axis of Captain Marvel and the Day That Never Was!

The Nazis, in splendour falls, aren’t only in the past or over there. They’re the world. They’re us and everybody else, because Nazi conquest became everything, and then, has to be nothing. The world has to appear to not have a unifying politic. That’s why some people get so bent out of shape when you say racism is global or talk of “the Patriarchy” or “patriarchies.” Nazi is so much nothing/everything, that the German agent, Dr Sivana, finds modern naziism not Nazi enough, and wants to overthrow Nazi Earth, to return to a purer, directed Nazi Germany.

The thing is, that’s not an alternate Earth, in the broad strokes. That’s us. All these Earths are us, the worlds, these realities. We are an overly simplistic didacticism of good vs evil. We are layers of racism and conquest slapped atop each other over generations. We are video game player and doctors, child laborers and soldiers. This is a world of naive magic and ceaseless variations of war.

And, we are also, not purely or solely any of these things. The same way, each of the fictive worlds is portrayed and embodied by a single comics story in The Multiversity, but our world is without, is outside the story, and the element we contribute is a document, and artifact we can read and they can read, but nobody can go down into because it is not, in that fashion real.

The smartest monster in the room, who doesn’t realize he only exists in comics

It is often difficult for us to reconcile the irreality of fiction and that it still all matters. That existing and mattering are not the same. That factual and felt are neither contrary nor reliant on each other.

We either continually think and accept new ideas, approach new data and interpolate it, or we resist that development and growth and remain stagnant. The stagnancy probably breeds fear, teases it to monstrous proportions, but learning and changing also puts us at potential risk. It’s hard for any of us to admit when we were bigoted or missed something. When we made an ugly assumption. When the wrong call felt, to us, to be the most reasonable.

We can be discerning if we want to be. We can be better. Can, is not is. It is not are. For that to be, we need to be vigilant, to be accepting, and to take action.

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