The Most Escapist of Fantasies (Book Three, Part 7: Continuity, Postmodernism)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Moving towards the end of their run, Grant Morrison began paying off the threads they’d been setting up for more than a year, moving the book towards something nobody else at DC was willing to engage with: Crisis on Infinite Earths.
The old world had been too incompetent and incomplete for words. The new world was the world as we’d always dreamed it could be—a golden dawn rising on an age of miracles undreamed of, except, perhaps, in the most escapist of fantasies.—Neil Gaiman, Miracleman
Some of this, to be sure, was a product of precisely what Morrison was doing, which was manifestly not trying to undo Crisis on Infinite Earths, a proposal that DC would never have let them do anyway. And outside of their distinctly idiosyncratic approach there weren’t a lot of uses for a villain whose existence fundamentally challenged the prevailing consensus of how the DC universe worked. But it wasn’t just Psycho-Pirate that nobody but Morrison was willing to touch; it was the entire vast and weird edifice of Crisis on Infinite Earths. As the 90s dawned, Morrison was the only writer at DC with the combination of bravery and foolishness to poke the bear of what, exactly, collapsing a multiverse into a single universe meant.
It was not that this was an intrinsically weighty and worthy topic. The implications of Crisis on Infinite Earths were not some towering literary mountain to scale. In any context outside the narrow and obsessive concerns of comics fans it paled before their earlier furious rants about animal cruelty. But it was a conspicuous ring to grab for—something that any fan who looked at the DC Universe of the late 80s immediately saw and wondered about. And Morrison was the lone writer to look at it and decide to go for it. More than that, they went for it almost immediately, beginning the plotline less than a year after their DC debut on the very first title they got. This may not have been literary ambition, but it was very clearly ambition all the same—a brash drive to stand out from everyone else in the field.
Beyond this, Morrison had a tangibly distinctive approach to the material—one that was well-tailored to mitigating the most obvious flaws in tackling something as abstruse as the nature of the erased multiverse, a concept that on its surface has few obvious paths to human relatability. For Morrison what was interesting about the idea was not the bombastic grandeur of “worlds will live, worlds will die,” but rather in what deleting universes from continuity meant for the people in them. As Animal Man confronts his pre-Crisis version in his peyote vision, his predecessor rages, “What happens when the continuity changes? What happens to all those lives? Who’s responsible? They twist us and torture us. They kill us in our billions. For what? For entertainment,” insisting that “Our lives are not our own. It’s not fair. Wasn’t I good enough?” Nowhere was this clearer than their penultimate issue of Animal Man, which saw Buddy questing through comic book Limbo, “where all the old characters end up. The ones nobody cares about anymore. You know, the dumb ones and the old-fashioned ones.” A vast and featureless wasteland inhabited by characters who, in Morrison’s view, were now being punished for being fun instead of violent and pseudo-realistic.
In this regard, Morrison’s approach to the metaphysics of superhero universes was of a kind with the more personal work like St. Swithin’s Day they were producing at the same time. For Morrison, the DC Universe was much like Thatcher’s Britain—a place where people who didn’t care a whit about you casually redeveloped your world out from under you. As Morrison often explained, in their view “There were real superheroes, of course. They did exist. They lived in paper universes, suspended in a pulp continuum… Real superheroes lived on the surface of the second dimension. The real lives of real superheroes could be contained in two hands. They were so real they had lives that were longer than any human life. They were more real than I was.” In which case there were few differences to be had between continuity reboots and neoliberal economics.
The most flagrantly and distinctively Morrison element of this concluding arc, however, came in the specific threat that Animal Man faced upon arriving at Arkham. In amidst the characters Psycho-Pirate enthusiastically delighted in the return of came one from “a bad world. A world where everything’s gone wrong.” This was a clear parody of Miracleman, where “all the superheroes are part of a government experiment,” and where a rampage by the original superhero Overman (from whom all others “are modified clones grown from his cell scrapings” results in a ruined world of “smoldering cities. Human fat burning and turning the sky black.” Morrison, via Psycho-Pirate, is withering about this world, asking “who makes these awful worlds? Whose idea was this?” and flatly describing the world’s basic premises as “a stupid idea” because “there’s no fun in it.” Nevertheless, Overman breaks into the DC Universe, and with him a Doomsday Bomb that can destroy the entire world.
This is, of course, the archetypal Morrison threat, portrayed here without a trace of metaphor or distance. This is simply the Bomb, in all its annihilating horror, positioned here both as the endpoint of Moore’s vision of realism and as the antithesis of superheroes themselves. On one level this was a serious misunderstanding on Morrison’s part, although in 1990 Morrison could be forgiven for not realizing that the rapid unraveling of the Cold War was in fact a direct consequence of the very style of comics they were criticizing. On the other, one of the biggest aesthetic differences between the two was that Moore rejected the franchise-based superhero comics that Morrison was so passionately defending here.
Morrison resolved the problem by having Animal Man use his newfound understanding of his medium to defeat Overman, stepping outside of the panels and then trapping him within a slowly shrinking one until it finally implodes and destroys him while he desperately pleads, “Let me out! I’m not like you! I’m real! I’m realistic! This can’t happen to me!” As for the bomb, they simply have Animal Man turn it off, calling back to the Invasion! tie-in some eighteen months earlier, a winking and charming undercutting of the idea that the bomb was ever all that in the first place.
All of this served as a culmination for Grant Morrison’s stated ambition to “make it almost impossible for someone else to do the book because I wanted to give the next writer a hard time. The whole thing was planned from issue #5, which was when I decided to do that stuff. It sounds mildly pretentious, but I wanted to do a post-modern comic.” But “postmodern” is probably the most contested term in 20th century aesthetics, and discerning which postmodernism Morrison was aiming at and how their metafictional engagement with Crisis on Infinite Earths fit into it is no easy task.
Central to understanding postmodernism is, as the name suggests, modernism. As this is probably the second most contested term in 20th century aesthetics, however, it is less than straightforwardly useful. The easiest place to start is perhaps the name and its attendant declaration of immediacy—its claim to be a movement of the here and now. Or, more accurately, of the there and then, the movement having arisen in the early 20th century. This provides the central irony of modernism, which is that it was almost a century old by the time the War broke out. But its calendrical context provides a key insight into its name. These were new times and demanded new art. Indeed, this formed the most succinct account of the modernist aesthetic in the form of Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new.”
And yet within this modernism provided an impossibly broad tent. This was not a narrow aesthetic in the sense of American superhero comics’ post-Moore/Miller obsession with gritty “realism,” but a sprawling behemoth that freely crossed media. Modernism was the elaborately formalist southern gothicism of William Faulkner, the jagged exploded perspective of Pablo Picasso, the iconoclastic rhythms of Igor Stravinsky, the starkly geometric buildings of Le Corbusier, and the looming shadows of F.W. Murnau. And it was yet more than that, encompassing more visionaries in every field it touched, which was, as the century crept onwards, every field there was.
No single clear concept unites these, and many significant ones fail utterly to. Modernism’s politics, for instance, spanned from Picasso’s communism and André Breton’s anarchism to the fascism of Ezra Pound and the Italian futurists. What can be distilled are a field of tendencies that on aggregate form a movement. Pound’s directive is certainly one. But in terms of birthing postmodernism the key tendency was an interest in the formal properties of media and how formal experimentation can birth new modes of expression. From Faulkner’s embrace of radical new prose styles to Picasso’s reinvention of perspective to Corbusier’s embrace of raw materials, modernists were broadly united by their tendency to look at a given medium as a piece of technology and to ask “what can this do?”
In this regard, then, Watchmen could be seen as modernism’s very belated arrival to comics, the great bastard medium that had managed to make it through most of the century without being touched by modernity. Moore’s aggressive formalism and exploration of what the incessant ticking of the nine panel grid could express was intensely modernist, as in many regards was the resultant work’s at times almost inhuman austerity. And this, of course, was the thrust of what Morrison found distasteful about the work, and indeed the thrust of what they disavowed in their own work on the first four issues of Animal Man.
Postmodernism, then. Much as Morrison did with Moore, this movement rose up at once out of and in opposition to modernism. The core development came out of modernism’s sense of formalism and mediality. Once these become the focus of art it becomes gradually clearer then their limit points become inevitable destinations. Art and language get pushed to their breaking points, then past them, allowed to run anyway, just to see what happens, which turns out to be whole new modes of expression. Experiments with form move from means to an end to ends in themselves, and with this transition a playfulness sets in—a desire to see what interesting places the technology can go.
The transition from one to the other is necessarily hard to pin down. The fundamentals of postmodernism were always present in modernism, most visible perhaps in Dadaism and its impishly short-circuiting of the idea of artistic meaning. But as the twentieth century wore on these tendencies grew more and more pronounced, and as the century entered its latter portion they too were coalesced under the banner of an aesthetic and named the postmodern. As with modernism, the relationship with time is significant in understanding the name, which carries a sense of absurdist wordplay that is in its own way a product of postmodernism. Positioned after the contemporary, postmodernism gazed into the onrushing millennium and the collective sense that something that could concretely be described as “the future” lay just ahead. Whether this constituted a realm of boundless possibility, nihilistic meaninglessness, or indeed both was unclear, or perhaps, like much of postmodernism, a deliberate ambiguous game.
But like its predecessor, postmodernism was broad, and when Morrison set out to ensure that comics’ modernist phase would last no longer than a handful of years they had a lot of models to choose from. Some, while potentially interesting, they rejected; they had little interest in postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, complaining, “I hate postmodern theory because it’s just gibberish! The jargon is so dense.” But this in no way described all of postmodernism, which, for all its intellectual pretensions, had a strangely easy time filtering down to popular consciousness, whether in idiosyncratic pop hits like Laurie Anderson’s spoken word hit “O Superman” or the blustering Robert Anton Wilson gone house music swagger of the KLF or, as John Higgs compellingly argues, in the bracingly illogical iconography of popular video games like Super Mario Bros. Morrison has mentioned none of these in the context of postmodernism, but as a culturally engaged punk in the late 1980s they could not possibly have been beyond their influence.
In terms of explicit touchstones within postmodernism, however, Morrison mentions two. The first is a clear and consistent influence on his work, though Animal Man was far from the exemplar of the tendency: the brashly entertaining enfant terrible of the occultist scene that was chaos magic. Just as Crowley applied modernist techniques to the classical strictures of occultism, chaos magic took postmodernism’s impish sense of structure to reduce magic to the pure expression of will, turning ritual into a platform for freeform expression. [continued]
May 10, 2021 @ 5:41 pm
I’ve got my timeline a bit confused. Was Moore’s ‘In Pictopia’ before or after Morrison’s Animal Man? They are both remarkably similar
May 10, 2021 @ 5:46 pm
In Pictopia predates Animal Man by about two years.
May 10, 2021 @ 8:03 pm
Thanks. It’s interesting that at this stage of their career, even when Morrison was challenging Moore’s most famous works, he ended up in many of the places similar to where Moore had gone already.
Though Animal Man is the more thorough and complicated exploration of it of course.
May 10, 2021 @ 8:06 pm
Shit, misgendered Morrison. Feel free to delete the comment.
May 11, 2021 @ 2:34 am
Does anyone else think that elevation of Mr. Freeze as a major Batman villain who shows as a cameo here in the Land of Limbo railing that he didn’t belong here and could be a good villain if he was used right was an unexpected side of Morrison’s magic?
May 11, 2021 @ 2:35 am
Does anyone else think that elevation of Mr. Freeze as a major Batman villain who shows as a cameo here in the Land of Limbo railing that he didn’t belong here and could be a good villain if he was used right was an unexpected side-effect of Morrison’s magic?