Some Sort of Pulse of Accelerated Time (Book Three, Part 42: Catastrophe Theory, The Empire of Chairs)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Grant Morrison’s final arc of Doom Patrol was a massive, apocalyptic epic.
“Some sort of pulse of accelerated time, radiating out from the Worldshaper. Seasons are coming and going in seconds!” – Grant Morrison, Doctor Who Monthly
Underlying this entire arc is Niles Caulder and his plan, which he explains in terms of the mathematical notion of a catastrophe curve, which Morrison explains as a “topological model which represents the introduction of sudden, discontinuous change into a stable system.” In slightly more layman’s terms, it studies the way in which change within a system can suddenly move from a linear, sensible change to a sudden, rapid, and potentially destructive change—the way, for instance, a bridge will happily bear weight right up until the moment it dramatically stops doing so.
Catastrophe theory was first developed in the 1960s by French mathematician René Thom, but was popularized in the 1970s by the British mathematician Christopher Zeeman, who talked about the subject in his Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution, televised on BBC Two in 1978. Its supposed applications were widespread—there was a vogue in trying to use it to model international relations and the way in which two nations could go from smoldering tensions to open warfare very suddenly, and for a while it was the hot scientific concept du jour in popular science articles. It is in this spirit that Morrison invokes the concept, with Caulder revealing that he caused the accidents that created the Doom Patrol out of a desire to study the results of catastrophes on people, and that he now plans to use catastrophe theory to enact mass social change in a manner reminiscent of what Vernor Vinge, following John von Neumann, called the technological singularity.
Ultimately, however, Morrison turns his back on the idea of catastrophe curves, and not simply because Caulder’s scheme was, broadly speaking, some supervillain shit. The conclusion of the arc, which sees Cliff delve into Caulder’s computer and experience a form of ego death, suggests tat Morrison was aware of the common critique of catastrophe theory, which is that it required an aggressive simplifying of systems—international relations, for instance, had to be modeled entirely in terms of the variables of how threatened a nation felt and what the cost of action was, which is self-evidently an egregious oversimplification of how foreign relations take place. And in a book that had aggressively been about the value of the glorious and variable weirdness of the world, this simplification was enormously suspect.
Although ultimately Morrison’s comment that they “made a conscious decision to be arty rather than scientific. Interestingly, I used to be fairly good at mathematics and physics, and then I became hopelessly inept at them overnight. I don’t understand science, but I’m interested in it in a poetic fashion. It’s not hard science, it’s science used as metaphor” suggests that they were not engaged in a critique of catastrophe theory per se, one can readily identify the competing trend within popular science that they were inclined to sympathize with by glancing back at the same essay in issue #20 where they cited the influence of experimental filmmaking and When Rabbit Howls. In their list of influences, they also cite Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 pop science classic Gödel, Escher, Bach. This is one of the most successful popular science books ever, exploring a bevy of neat ideas in the general vicinity of the emerging field of computer science just in time to entrance the first generation of teenagers to grow up with personal computers. But the book is not especially about computers in any direct sense. Indeed, it begins, perhaps unsurprisingly given the title, with a story about Johann Sebastian Bach, which Hofstadter uses to introduce the notion of a Strange Loop, which he defines as when “by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.” Among the simplest examples of this Hofstadter looks at are simply self-referential statements, particularly paradoxical ones like “this statement is false.” An echo of this influence is seen early on in Doom Patrol, in the resolution to Crawling from the Wreckage where Rebis confronts a pair of clock-faced bishops one of whom always tells the truth and one of whom always lies, then successfully destroys Orqwith by getting the one that lies to assert that “there is something instead of nothing.”
But this is a relatively narrow influence for what is a very broad book. Gödel, Escher, Bach sets out a sprawling theme that incorporates core concepts of computer science with meditations on art, music, and language, interleaving its analytical chapters with fanciful dialogues riffing on Zeno’s Paradox, which described a race between Achilles and a tortoise to prove that motion is impossible (and which was also riffed on by Lewis Carroll in an article for Mind). These begin relatively simple, but quickly morph into elaborate formalist exercises like a palindromic dialogue or one that plays elaborate games with embedded stories so that it can cheekily end in a different level of its hierarchy than it begins. The book is sprawling, ambitious, and yet generally, as Morrison describes it in Doom Patrol #20, “perfectly lucid in [its] explanations,” eventually building towards the suggestion that consciousness itself is a sort of Strange Loop. These themes never make it into Doom Patrol explicitly, and yet the overall tone of the book, with its elaborate but accessible meditations on consciousness, identity, art, and language and its playful tone, is perhaps a closer match for what Morrison actually did in Doom Patrol than any of the influences with a more direct and immediate bearing on the series.
Morrison’s final issue was Doom Patrol #63, was entitled “The Empire of Chairs,” and, perhaps inevitably, focused on Crazy Jane and what happened to her after the Candlemaker sent her to “hell.” This turns out to be an alternate universe, devoid of superheroes, in which Jane is picked up by cops and deposited at that universe’s equivalent of the hospital that Cliff had been in and out of throughout the run. The issue is narrated by Marcia, the psychiatrist there who most often talked to Cliff as she details her efforts to treat Jane. Here Jane’s inner landscape has shifted, becoming instead the eponymous Empire of Chairs, a world where sentient chairs are locked in an eternal battle against the vast city of the Keysmiths, who “think every question has an answer and they won’t rest until there are no questions left. No mysteries.” (Unsurprisingly, this once again has roots in Truddi Chase, who describes an aversion to chairs in her book.) Marcia seeks to treat this via therapy, opposing both heavy psychiatric medication and electro-convulsive therapy, which her colleague Bill continues to push for, often while making homophobic remarks about her treatment being influenced by her supposed attraction to Jane.
This structure allows Morrison to engage in an overt self-analysis of their run. Morrison has Marcia both praise their inventiveness (“Bandaged hermaphrodites, metal men… Jesus! If she had an agent, she could make a fortune in Hollywood”) and unpack their themes, noting how “Keysmiths, Scissormen, Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E.—they all seem to represent faceless forces of authority, but it’s an authority that’s incomprehensible. The other characters she’s spoken about—Red Jack, Shadowy Mr. Evans, the Candlemaker—are all nightmarish male oppressor figures. The omnipotent bad father.” Like most of Morrison’s post-facto accounts of their work this is not entirely satisfying, asserting a cohesion that both doesn’t quite come out in the actual stories and that seems to flatten them somehow, sanding off their more interesting elements in favor of, well, ensuring that there are no questions or mysteries left. But here Morrison undermines this analysis by giving it to a character who is sympathetic only inasmuch as she’s the counterbalance to her bigoted asshole colleague. As Marcia notes shortly thereafter, “People like Kay inhabit a world where everything is alive and significant. So we cure them. I thought she liked me, but in the end I’m just one more Keysmith. As the issue proceeds, Bill eventually seizes control of Jane’s care and forces her to undergo ECT (symbolized within the Empire of Chairs as an electric chair), which sees the Keysmiths overrun the chairs, holding her down and unlocking her secrets, reverting her into her sixty-four personas, all nice and neatly solved. As she screams, the comic cuts back into the “real” world where a vacant-eyed Jane lies strapped to a table. As she’s wheeled away, she presses something into Marcia’s hand.
And that’s the last Marcia sees of her. She narrates how a “cured” Jane was discharged from the hospital and “got a job in the city. She worked all day, slept all night, went back to work, ate, watched TV, shit, slept all night, like everyone else. She didn’t ever paint again. I don’t suppose it was a bad life. People have had worse. But I keep thinking of her standing on the battlements, overlooking a world that burned and sang with strangeness. A world where chairs weren’t just something you sit on.” And then she explains how one day Jane left her apartment, leaving only a note reading “It’s not real,” and went to the bridge and disappeared.
As the comic ends, Marcia sits in her office, reflecting, as Morrison trots out the old Alan Moore elliptical narrative structure—Marcia’s narrative began the story with “They still haven’t found the body,” and it ends with her explaining that “That night, when they were wheeling her away from the ECT, when I ran to hold her hand, she pressed something into my palm. I hope they never find it. I hope they never find the body,” she says, as she opens her hand to reveal a coin with a question mark on it, which one of Jane’s chairs had pressed into her hand as the Keysmiths began their final attack, explaining that it’s “the mystery coin.” One last thing that can never be explained, a final, inscrutable mystery, forever beyond the reach of all the Keysmiths of the world.
The reader, meanwhile, is given another explanation. As Jane stands on the bridge, crying as the rain beats down on her, clearly contemplating ending her life, there is a spray of light and color and Cliff suddenly appears on the bridge. She stares at him, stunned, as he reaches out his hand. “Come in out of the rain,” he offers once again, and the comic ends with Cliff and Jane happily ensconced on Danny the World.
It is by some margin Morrison’s best issue on the book—a poignant and heartbreaking return to their best themes that offers a clarion call about the way the world is and the way it should be. In many ways it’s the closest they come to making right their debt to Truddi Chase, offering a searing indictment of the way in which the world in practice treats people like Chase and Jane and, for that matter, Dorothy and Rebis and Cliff and Danny. And if the comic’s resolution, which finds salvation in a made up world, is slightly hollow in practice, it’s also not strictly speaking wrong. The big accomplishment of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, in the end, was that it was a bracingly weird bit of comics that people found comfort in, and that proved a rallying point for any number of freaks and outcasts to bond over. Whatever the flaws of Morrison’s treatment of Jane, Rebis, or Danny, there were real queer, mentally ill, and plural people who read Doom Patrol and saw themselves celebrated in a way that nothing else in the late 80s and early 90s offered, and that frankly not a lot in the decades that followed did either. It didn’t end the Cold War or define the secret heart of the twenty-first century. But it is, in its way, the better and more noble accomplishment. There are undoubtedly people in the world whose reason for living one night was that they wanted to see the next issue of Doom Patrol. There are far more who are simply better, weirder, queerer people for having read it. You can ask for more than that from a comic, but why would you? [continued]