The Reality Anchor (Book Three, Part 41: Aenigma Regis, The Candlemaker)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Late in Morrison’s run they brought back the Brotherhood of Dada, who were spectacularly killed off in an arc full of a bitter and angry cynicism that their run had not previously indulged in.
“It exists outside space and time, but is also technically in the same place as Earth, because of the reality anchor we dropped there.” – Warren Ellis, The Authority
Nothing about the arc overtly points to the end of Morrison’s tenure being near, but there’s a clear sense of finality here—a sense that the whimsical party that’s been rolling on for thirty-three issues now is coming to an end. To some extent, of course, this was an inevitable direction for Doom Patrol to go in. Morrison opened their run by making the book about trauma, and their subsequent focus on whimsy could only ever be borrowed time. Eventually the book would have to pay off the implicit promise of that first issue—the sad and mournful question of what you do when you just can’t be strong anymore. The party had to end, and had to end for the exact reason Mr. Nobody said in his dying words—that people don’t want a strange and magical world of madness and wonder. They want to get up, go to work, and vote for George fucking Bush. And so the sudden and violent turn into that, with John Dandy unleashed and everything going terribly and brutally wrong for the Brotherhood of Dada, was inevitable. Because that’s what normal people have: safety. In the end, this is what happens to the queers and the madmen of the world: the cops come and shoot them dead.
In the wake of the second Brotherhood of Dada arc Morrison followed with two one-offs—the Jack Kirby pastiche already mentioned, and an issue entitled “Aenigma Regis” that focused on Rebis, who had shed their bandages and gone through some sort of strange and inscrutable ascension back at the end of the sex arc. This issue was an oddity within Morrison’s tenure. Much of their run was “weird,” at times aggressively so, but “Aenigma Regis” tipped wholesale into symbolic narrative, providing a deeply inscrutable narrative that was by some margin the closest the comic came to actually mirroring the heavily associative storytelling of Kenneth Anger or Maya Deren. The result seems to have gone over a fair number of readers’ heads. Tom Peyer, when the letter column finally got to covering the issue, offered the laconic assessment that “Some of you recognized Grant’s exploration of alchemy in issue #54’s ‘Aenigma Regis’ Some of you were puzzled by it” before suggesting buying “a textbook on alchemy” and rereading the story. No letters representing the “recognized the alchemical themes” side of the ledger appeared, however, save for one by Rachel Pollack, a writer and Tarot scholar in the Hudson Valley of New York who had been engaging in a long-running joke of writing into the letter column asking to take the book over when Morrison left.
Broad alchemical knowledge certainly gives a framework for what is happening in the issue and clarifies a few of the details within. Rebis’s name had always come from alchemy, describing the hermaphrodaic being that emerges from the great work, fusing the solar and lunar energies. And this is basically what happens in the issue, which sees Rebis copulate with themselves and produce a new being. And many specific images within the comic are clarified with an alchemical background. The section, for instance, where Rebis retells “The Spirit in the Bottle” from Grimm’s Fairy Tales makes considerably more sense when one realizes that the demon in the story, Mercurius, shares its name with both a lunar crater and the Roman name of Mercury, which is used by Jung when discussing the alchemical figure in his Psychology and Alchemy.
But the imagery goes far beyond that—the repeated egg imagery, for instance, can only loosely be attributed to alchemy (where one of the key vessels used to heat materials was egg-shaped, resulting in a lot of egg imagery, including one in which Rebis is framed in an egg shape), but when paralleled with the repeated serpent imagery seems to come closer to the Orphic Egg, which is also an egg from which a hermaphrodite hatches, but which does not actually belong to the alchemic tradition per se. And much of the issue’s symbolism simply comes from the trappings of the comic—Eleanor’s longstanding fascination with Russian nesting dolls gets explained as “a metaphor. The same doll giving birth to itself endlessly,” while the issue begins with a retelling of Larry Trainor’s doomed flight. Ultimately, the focus on alchemy is misleading—Morrison is using alchemic imagery as part of a larger focus on the idea of the divine or sacred hermaphrodite, hence the inclusion of imagery that draws more from Orphism. The central concept is not alchemical work but the idea of a dual-gendered being.
It is impossible not to read this in light of Morrison’s eventual coming out as nonbinary. Their early career fascination with the idea of a dual-gendered being as some sort of spiritual perfection reads inevitably as a dysphoric longing they wouldn’t wholly make sense of until they came out. But Morrison has actively rebuked the idea that in the wake of their coming out “all the work in the past is given a new cast by this moment of truth.” Indeed, they insist that their nonbinary identity is present throughout their career, citing Rebis alongside Lord Fany in The Invisibles as examples of “living” their nonbinary identity. Given their insistance on their nonbinary identity as a lack of change, and, more to the point, their bizarre clim that “doing drag” and “dancing on ecstasy” constituted being “very actively publicly, demonstrably, non-binary”, one is forced to confront the fact that Morrison’s engagements with gender noncomformity throughout their career are, broadly, a deeply mixed bag. For instance, Danny the Street must surely also be read as adjacent to Rebis—a second instance of Doom Patrol dealing with genderbending. But Danny the Street, charming an idea as he is, is also fundamentally a titilated joke about drag queens. Danny is an unquestionably sympathetic chracter, but they’re still fundamentally a joke about how assigning the adjective to “cross-dressing” to something is funny.
More to the point, however, Rebis has to be taken in the context of Morrison’s outright transphobic jokes in Zenith, their plans to use what they described as a “tranny Joker” in Arkham Asylum, and a whole host of other engagements with gender nonconformity that can accurately be described as transphobic, including their continued use of the word “tranny” years after they should have known it was a slur. The fact that they’re nonbinary puts all of this in a different perspective, yes, and renders Morrison a somewhat more sympathetic figure on this front than they for many years appeared to be, but it does not mean that these clumsy and harmful moments did not, in fact, do harm, nor does it mean Morrison has renounced or apologized for them to any extent. Even in the case of Rebis, there’s a sense of fetishization and exoticism—the genderqueer body is not simply a thing that is allowed to exist but must be a fantastic object of mystical transcendence to be stared at in a full-page splash. (This is comparable in many ways to some of their missteps with Crazy Jane.) “Aenigma Regis” is, to be sure, one of the best and most interesting moments of their engagements with gender nonconformity, but it is not and cannot ever be separate from that long and often tortured lineage.
The Rebis issue marked the last standalone issue of Morrison’s run before they launched into their grand finale arc. This arc broadly ran for nine issues, although it could readily be subdivided into three smaller and interconnected arcs. The first of these ran for three issues and featured an A/B plot structure. The A plot, at least in the first two issues, concerned Crazy Jane as she investigates her past and both learns and makes peace with what happened to Miranda. (Spoiler: it’s more sexual abuse.) The B plot in these issues, meanwhile, sees Dorothy growing increasingly concerned about the candle-headed creature that killed the Telephone Avatar underneath the Pentagon and going to Josh Clay for help. Clay, in turn, goes to the Chief, only to be shot and killed by, it’s revealed in the cliffhanger to Doom Patrol #56, the Chief himself.
This sets up the double-length Doom Patrol #57, in which Morrison heavily retcons the entire history of the Doom Patrol to recast the Chief as a villainous manipulator. In this Morrison was hewing close to the old Moore playbook developed over a decade earlier on Marvelman in Warrior and developed further in Swamp Thing, The Killing Joke, and his early work on what became Watchmen before he revamped it away from the Charlton characters—the “everything you know” is wrong remix of continuity in which the charming innocence of old comics is torn down and a new and more sinister reality is revealed in which everything that had once seemed silly turns out to be cruel and calculated. By the time Morrison did this in mid-1992, this was a cliche, and more than that a cliche they had railed against in numerous interviews when they denounced the crass and facile realism of the post-Watchmen industry.
It is not quite fair to accuse Morrison of selling out their principles in a desperate bid to inject some spice into a flagging run they were out of ideas for. For one thing, Morrison had by all appearances been planning this for quite a while, so it can’t simply be blamed on a run in its dotage. For another, it’s not quite that simple—Caulder’s heel turn is decisively undercut in the final pages of issue #57 when he’s quickly killed by Dorothy’s candelabra creature, who she lets out in a doomed attempt to bring Josh back to life. (He does so, then kills him again two panels later.) The creature decapitates Caulder, seemingly kills Cliff, and then triumphantly proclaims itself the Candlemaker, setting up the second phase of the arc. This development certainly undermines the series of reveals about Caulder that preceded it, essentially crumpling up that plot development into a ball and chucking it into the trash. And yet it comes after three issues of ominous developments and twenty-eight pages of villain monologue in which Caulder elaborately retells the entire history of the Doom Patrol. This doesn’t all disappear in the face of a shock ending, nor does it stop feeling like a betrayal of Morrison’s aesthetic principles—a decision to make the end of a book that had gone in so many directions utterly independent of Moore to, at the last gasp, step meekly back into his shadow.
If this first phase of the arc ended with Morrison retreating to the timid ground of overt post-Moore comics, the second served as a clear showcase of their own tendencies. The Candlemaker is established as the apocalypse-bearing avatar of humanity’s anxieties about the atomic bomb (though by the end of 1992 it was increasingly evident that Moore’s spell had worked, with the iconic doomsday clock spiralling backwards a full fourteen minutes over the course of Morrison’s Doom Patrol run). Its emergence, meanwhile, sets up one of the “world where evil won” situations that they were simultaneously exploring in their final arc of Zenith over in 2000 AD. The resultant arc is far from Doom Patrol at its weirdest or most distinctive. It starts strange, to be sure, with a sequence running the better part of Doom Patrol #58 in which Cliff’s consciousness, preserved in a virtual world, tries to make sense of what’s happening, giving Morrison the opportunity to do a hallucinatory horror piece of a flavor that had not really been done yet in their Doom Patrol.
For the most part, however, this was an arc that saw Morrison defaulting to something altogether more straightforward. It was still weirder than most things on the stands in 1992—it would have had to no longer feel like Morrison’s Doom Patrol to not be—but it was, at the end of the day, more of an action packed finale than an elaborate attempt at weirdness. But this was what Morrison was going for; they said in a 1992 interview that “ I want to put my foot on the throttle, straight down; take no prisoners. Compared to the other stuff I’ve done, it’s probably more of an accessible storyline; not as outré, as avant garde. I just want to concentrate on the characters’ personalities, and because I’m wrapping things up, many fairly unexpected things happen. It will be exciting. In this last story, everything that has been unexplained or left up in the air is finally pulled together. From now on, every splash page at the end of every issue has some horrifying, unpleasant event in it.” And the results were suitably apocalyptic and grandiose, with the Candlemaker tearing through the bulk of the team. Crazy Jane is pulled into a portal and dragged away to hell as Cliff screams after her that he promises to find her, Rebis is vaporized and reduced to a skeleton, Danny the Street torched, Cliff brutalized, and Willoughby Kipling’s arm is vaporized down to mere bone before he finally unveils Rebis’s egg from “Aenigma Regis,” which hatches to reveal a new version of Rebis that attacks the Candlemaker, weakening him to where Dorothy can deliver the killing blow. It’s far from the most interesting moment of Morrison’s run, but it’s an effective conclusion—a burst of operatic grandness that takes everything as far as it can possibly go, then further.
Following the destruction of the Candlemaker, two issues remained in Morrison’s run. The first of these, “Planet Love,” serves to wrap up the lingering threads around the Niles Caulder revelations as, after the defeat of the Candlemaker, it becomes evident that Caulder’s evil schemes are about to destroy the world by reshaping it completely with nanotechnology. This is something of a feint—the situation is revealed with another couple pages of Cliff diving into the virtual world and confronting a virtual Caulder (a severed head with a plant as a hat), with the back half of the issue concerned with the revelation that Danny the Street actually survived his fight with the Candlemaker and has been reborn as a fully fledged alternate dimension, Danny the World, a pocket dimension with extensions into every city and every town in the world, full of wonder. “A world of infinite novelty, it’s impossible to visit the same place twice, unless you want to,” as Cliff explains it. Danny the World resolves to provide a haven for all the weirdos and outcasts who want one, and everyone lives happily ever after in a glorious and mildly queer utopia, save perhaps for Dorothy, who is last seen being greeted by a smiling balloon, which she asks to take her to the real world and then floats away upon. [continued]
March 24, 2022 @ 10:47 pm
the Orphic Egg, which is also an egg from which a hermaphrodite hatches
Now I find myself trying to remember if Cornelius Brunner hatched out of an egg at the end of The Final Programme, or if the people entering the birthing chamber, after the chymical wedding of Jerry Cornelius and Miss Brunner, just found the composite entity waiting for them. I have a very clear memory of the egg into which Jerry and, if memory serves me right, Cathy have entered at the end of The Alchemist’s Question having the last word, echoing Corn’s observation “It’s a tasty world.”
April 12, 2022 @ 2:48 am
” nor does it stop feeling like a betrayal of Morrison’s aesthetic principles—a decision to make the end of a book that had gone in so many directions utterly independent of Moore to, at the last gasp, step meekly back into his shadow.”
Firm disagreement. Hear me out, please.
Yes, this is Morrison doing something that Moore had done — arguably, something that Moore invented. However,
1) As you note, Morrison had been preparing this for a while. In fact, it really looks like he had it planned from day one. From the first issue of his run, he had been recharacterizing the Chief as progressively colder, more arrogant, and less sympathetic. So, this wasn’t something fast or casual. It was a slow burn, three years in the making. And this wouldn’t be the last time Morrison would do this — see Xorn in his New X-Men, or various different plotlines in The Invisibles and his Batman run.
Moore does many different things well, but he doesn’t really do this kind of thing — specifically, a slow-burn buildup over many issues, with foreshadowings and bread crumbs and clues, culminating with a big reveal or plot twist that sends the reader running off to flip through several years of back issues. The closest he gets is in Watchmen, and the big reveal comes just nine issues in, and honestly it isn’t really foreshadowed all that well.
So you could argue that what was done here was derivative of Moore, but the /way/ in which it was done was pure Morrison.
2) In the general sense, retconning the “charming innocence” of older comics into “a new and more sinister reality… in which everything that had once seemed silly turns out to be cruel and calculated” is a correct description that covers both this and Moore’s Swamp Thing, Captain Britain, and Marvel / Miracleman.
But when you drill down a bit, this is /different/. It’s taking a minor but heroic figure from the Silver Age and twisting him into a cruel villain. It’s arguably more wrenching than anything Moore had done. I’m old enough to remember reading all these when they came out, and the emotional impact of the reveals was very different. For Swamp Thing and Miracleman it was something like “Oh my gosh, that’s so clever”. For Doom Patrol, it was more like a sickening punch in the gut.
Moore changed the core concepts of various characters — Swamp Thing, the Joker, what have you. But at the end of the day, Captain Britain was still a heroic figure and the Joker was still a bad guy. Swamp Thing and Miracleman became much more complex and morally grey, but they were still sympathetic protagonists. There’s no actual heel turn. This is different. It’s actually darker and crueler than anything Moore ever did along these lines.
So this would open Morrison up to charge of grimdark nastiness for its own sake… except that:
3) If you’re writing a comic book about “freaks” — about people who are alienated because they’re queer, bizarre in appearance, disabled, or whatever — then one concept you really need to address is betrayal.
Because unfortunately that’s a really central part of the alienated experience. The parent who won’t accept the queer child. The partner who can’t accept the reality of neurodivergence. The therapist who insists there’s something wrong with you that you need to change. The doctor who recommends the therapy that is actually destructive to your physical and mental health. Every false friend who nods and smiles and then backs away as soon as your disability or difference becomes an actual awkwardness or inconvenience to them.
The experience of betrayal is a brutally central part of the experience of difference. And this issue is Morrison putting that betrayal front and center as the Chief, the paternal authority figure at the heart of the Doom Patrol, turns out to be a selfish, treacherous monster.
This isn’t Morrison stepping meekly back into Moore’s shadow. This is Morrison taking Moore’s tools and using it to build something unique, horrible, and perfectly adapted to Morrison’s vision of the Doom Patrol as a group of alienated freaks. The male authority figure betrays the freaks who trusted him! Notice how perfectly this fits with the the story arcs before it (the male authority figures will kill the freaks) and after it (the male authority figure will try to “cure” the freak). Hell, even the Stan & Jack parody issue fits in here! It’s not just a silly finger exercise, it’s a freak dreaming of a world where freaks are beloved heroes, full stop. Of course it comes right before everything goes to hell.
I would argue that, far from being a meek retreat, the plot twist with the Chief is an ugly triumph. And it’s probably a big part of the reason that so many queer, disabled, and alienated readers responded to this comic so hard.
Matheus de Arruda
August 18, 2022 @ 5:03 pm
I largely agree with this. I’m loving the Last War on Albion but I do think there’s a broad tendency to brush Morrison aside whenever they deal with anything loosely related to Moore’s work. Moore didn’t wholesale invent these concepts and I don’t think he’s their sole, cosmological owner to the point that Morrison simply using a similar narrative device (in a different context, as you noted) dents the entire work or makes it irrevocably lesser than Moore’s. Moore is a fantastic writer and a gifted magician but at times it can border on “Alan Moore did (x) thing once, ergo no one can ever do it again”.