Thursday, May 1, 2008

May: One, DC Universe: Zero


I am a nerd and will spend this month blogging about things of interest to my kind (I was even featured in a video clip shot by Jennifer Howd on this website, where you can at least still see my photo talking about how to cope with being a nerd).

For beginners interested in learning the way of the nerd, I can recommend the fifty-cent sampler comic book that hit comic shops yesterday, DC Universe: Zero, and you’ll find a fairly digestible overview therein of what the Justice League members are up to these days, as a storm gathers called the Final Crisis (the first issue of that seven-issue miniseries, written by Grant Morrison, will be my Book Selection of the Month in four weeks, prior to which this culture will experience the nerdiest month in film history, with each successive Friday bringing Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

But this is not a month of blogging for beginners — it is for those who know, indeed who know far, far too much. And be warned: in this entry, you will learn far more, including the surprises from DC Universe: Zero (hereinafter Zero), if you have not already read it.


Like a fascist flag on May Day (and after all, fascism, including its color scheme, arose from socialism), Zero is all about the red and the black — and indeed, I think the plan, concocted most likely by co-writer Morrison, is to suggest that everything has always been about the red and the black, at least since 1985 and possibly since the dawn of time. Like the color scheme of intense red and terrifying darkness in the photo above of me at last night’s Mind Games (where the crowd heard me interviewed about health scares by Jen Dziura), red and black in Zero suggests a terrible conflict not so much between good and evil but, I would suggest, between life and death.

Consider: It’s not just, as with other Crises, that disruptions in the fabric of reality cause “red skies” (OK, that’s not a comic book link, it’s a link to the Fixx song by that title, and this makes eleven Fixx links on the blog so far — that last one is more fun if you vow to figure out what it “means” before watching).

Morrison — who may be a mystic but is just as prone to the impulse to systematize as us rationalists — knows that red in the context of a Crisis in the DC Universe (particularly one involving the New Gods, as this one will) can suggest several things, previously unrelated but now brought ominously yet subtly together:

•Red is not only the color of the skies when parallel universes “bleed” together in times of Crisis, as the narration in Zero puts it.

•Red is also the color of “the Bleed,” the matrix (in the root meaning of that word) from which worlds are born in the current multiverse, as we learn from Wildstorm comics, now owned by DC and incorporated into their reality.

•”The Red” was the color of blood and thus of living things, all part of the universe-spanning morphogenic field tapped into by Animal Man when his adventures were written by Morrison fully twenty years ago (an idea inspired by “the Green” that the Earth elemental Swamp Thing served and protected).

•”The bleed,” in turn — luckily for the metafiction-loving Morrison — is a term for the edge of a page in comics or magazines, where the ink is allowed to run to or beyond the end of the paper. And Animal Man, famously, is perhaps the only non-comedic character in the DC Universe who knows that that universe is a work of fiction, or at least can be perceived as such when seen from a higher plane — a rather vaunted position to be occupied solely by a second- or third-tier superhero with animal-mimicking powers…unless being an embodiment of the Red is the most important thing there is.

•The red-costumed Flash, of course, appears to be in the midst of a resurrection in Zero — the savior of the universe in 1985 and now apparently come again in the aftermath of a “war in Heaven.” The idea that there is not merely a contingent but an organic connection between Crises and Flashes makes so much sense, really, that it’s amazing it hasn’t been suggested before: The multiple universes are kept apart by their vibrational-frequency differences and who but the Flash can easily leap those vibrational divides? It begins to seem like no coincidence that he was the first character to encounter his other-world doppelganger (and in an interview about Zero in the New York Daily News, Morrison explicitly calls Flash “the God of the modern world” due to the ever-increasing pace of all life — Flash says time and progress like no other Justice League hero).

•That war in Heaven, presumably involving Morrison’s “Fifth World” revision of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (New Gods) characters, is glimpsed in Zero only as a falling figure bathed in red flame (later appearing charred black), but given Morrison’s fondness for inverting traditional moral polarities (such as Order and Chaos), I would not assume that frightening, cast-out figure is the villainous Darkseid (especially since we are told evil won this particular war) — red is the color of Darkseid’s son and archfoe Orion (both his hair and costume). Perhaps none of the gods will be pleasant in this new Fifth World, but I suspect the vigorous Orion will fight on the side of life against his father’s destructive machinations.

•Red may be opposed to black (most explicitly in Joker’s two-suite hand of cards in the Zero scene with Batman) but it is itself a volatile and morally-ambiguous color in the DCU scheme of things, with Darkseid (toward the end of his Fourth World incarnation, just prior to the events in the awful and largely irrelevant series Countdown to Final Crisis — and thus toward the end of the “One Year Later” period that followed the series 52), proving that even a god can get confused when handled by sloppy editors, calling the fire-elemental-related hero Firestorm an embodiment of “the Red” — though the Red is living things, not any of the four traditional mystical elements such as fire. But let’s run with that: maybe Red (like Black) is a creeping, growing influence in the overlapping and not entirely consistent systems of mystical order used as backdrops in DC Comics stories. After all…

•Zero also shows us that there is not only an air-elemental-related robot hero named Red Tornado (as we’ve known for decades) but also a presumably earth-elemental-related robot named Red Volcano, and it has previously been suggested there is a fire-elemental-related robot named Red Inferno (likely one more, related to water, is on his way).

•The depictions of quasi-elementals as robotic servants would seem odd — had it not already been established that the elementals, despite seeming so life-related, also each hold a portion of the dreaded Anti-Life Equation long sought by the evil Darkseid, its one certain, oft-affirmed power the ability to rob people of their free will, in effect replacing the vitality and plenitude of the Red with robotic behavior, making Darkseid the ultimate authoritarian and a sort of zombie master.

And this brings us to the Black…

•For not only is Darkseid depicted wearing black (and literally as being disguised, along with all his major henchmen, as African-American in Morrison’s miniseries Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle three years ago) but he seems to share certain zombifying tendencies with…

•the currently-active characters Lady Styx (who, as it happens, is the only villain ever to kill Animal Man, who was promptly resurrected by aliens who ostensibly existed beyond the boundaries of fictional comic book reality) and the Black Hand (not to be confused with the Black Glove that Joker warns Batman about during his card-shuffling), a once-trivial villain who now appears destined to lead a zombie Lantern Corps against Green Lantern, fulfilling in the process the prophecy of “the Blackest Night” from the decades-old Green Lantern vow (drawing upon the power of the undead Anti-Monitor, instigator of the most famous Crisis, from 1985, to do so).

•The Blackest Night storyline, of course, is scheduled to take place after the more immediate Final Crisis spin-off miniseries about a war between different parts of the Lantern Corps spectrum, Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns, but despite my falling ever so slightly off the no-comic-collecting wagon, I will not be buying that — only Morrison’s core seven-issue Final Crisis miniseries itself and the George Perez-drawn five-issue miniseries Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, in large part because it promises to have Time Trapper as the villain, and Time Trapper may be DC’s most intriguing character, as I’ve twice mentioned before: knowingly and happily possessed of multiple contradictory life histories and living as an embodiment of Entropy at the end of time — much as Krona, who I depicted in the one DC Comics story I wrote that actually took place in the mainstream DC Universe, is an embodiment of Entropy from near the beginning of time and responsible for the beginning of the multiverse, which has always made me wish they’d reveal that the Monitor and Anti-Monitor (defender and destroyer of the multiverse, respectively) were created with Krona as their template, since even in comic book reality, the idea of such beings springing to life spontaneously always seems implausible to me.

(Sidenote: If Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns want to give religious/apocalyptic overtones to their multiversal and Green Lantern-related storylines, perhaps they’d be wise to use the swell characters I created in that one issue of JLA Showcase, the cultish Hand of Krona — who implied an awareness of multiple Earths even back circa 1999 when there supposedly hadn’t been any — worshippers of the multiverse-making Krona, led by the fanatical Bajoc Veyl. Make him popular enough to warrant an action figure and I even get royalties. Just sayin’.)

•But to get back to Black for a moment: I can’t help thinking that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (friends of DC Comics executive editor Dan Didio, which sadly may be the only way to really know what’s going on in DC reality these days) gave us a huge piece of the Final Crisis puzzle back in their first Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters miniseries two years ago when (almost exactly as I had planned to do, by sheer coincidence — or rather because all Morrisonian minds perceive the same dialectical logic at work in some of these DC mystical schema and long to bring it to fulfillment) they revealed in an offhand comment by one villain (a U.S. government thug, as it happens) that Anti-Life, Anti-Matter, Chaos, and Darkness are all a single, looming, otherworldly force for evil, not the unrelated concepts as which they’d largely previously been treated.

•Ah! So suddenly, it doesn’t seem so strange that an anti-matter being like the Anti-Monitor is making Shadow Demons from members of the same race who created fear-based Lanterns or that Eclipso, created in part by the Anti-Life-seeking Darkseid, battles the Order-serving Dr. Fate. After all the convoluted and varied battles and cosmic rationales, perhaps there are only really two sides here, the Red and Black, finally on display in what Morrison has called “the final saga of the multiple Earths” and “the Lord of the Rings of the DC Universe.”

It’s all, in short, connected, from the vibrant Speed Force that gave us the multiverse-rescuing Flash (and taketh him away and now apparently giveth him back) to the affinity between the so-called Princes of Darkness depicted in a story by Morrison’s Zero co-writer Geoff Johns: Chaos-worshipping and at one time Time Trapper-displacing Mordru, Order/Chaos hybrid and atom-elemental-displacing timewarper Extant, and Kaliyuga-hastening (and thus arguably Fifth-World-spawning) Kobra, not to mention Green Lantern-spawned being of living darkness Obsidian.

Not light vs. dark, then, but red vs. dark — blood vs. death, and thus not the tidiest arrangement no matter which side gets the upper hand. Ugliness ahead seems likely, as dire as that aforementioned fascist flag or the red-on-black variant S-shield of the Earth-22 “Kingdom Come” Superman, now facing in the pages of Justice Society of America a version of Gog created by Johns who is meant to be a left over Old God of the “Third World.” Red and black, like the harlequin costume of Joker’s deranged sidekick. Red and black, like the costume of Anti-Monitor’s fear-inducing, Flash-torturing, zombie-making henchman Psycho-Pirate, at one point the only being who remembered the old multiverse.

I’m not for a moment, mind you, saying ingenious DC editors had all this planned back in 1985 (I don’t think they even know for sure what they’re doing next month), only that the pieces were all there to be systematized by someone who thinks like (Tarot-loving, chaos-magic-practicing) Morrison — and I guess to some extent I do, which is why the one time I bumped into the aforementioned executive editor Didio at a bar and pitched him a thirty-second story idea (before having to exit to meet up with Scott Nybakken), namely the idea that the robots have always run everything in the DCU and Donna Troy is a threat to them precisely because (as was always depicted in the earliest Wonder Girl stories) she began life as a computer simulation and thus knows reality has metafictional levels, Didio responded (fairly enough) by saying, “Yeah, that sounds like an idea Grant Morrison would handle well and everyone else would screw it up.”


And if you think it’s just me that thinks in this overly complicated way about what are, after all, just guys in tights beating on each other, read this chronological summary of the world depicted in Grant Morrison’s last big solo-written DC project, Seven Soldiers. Did you click on the link and read that? Head hurts now, doesn’t it? Yeah.

Of course, Morrison has done things that are complex without being intimidating or scary — I just read for the first time his now ten-years-old saga DC One Million about the Justice League of the (brace yourself) 853rd century, edited by my friend Dan Raspler, and it’s about the most fun, accessible, exhilarating, and optimistic thing you’d ever want to read, indicative not only of the “Silver Age” nostalgia then sweeping comics but the dotcom-boom optimism of the culture in general — and interestingly, Morrison has quite openly said that the current tone of comics, by contrast (with its pessimism, sadistic gods, frequent dismemberments, and government authoritarianism), is partly a product of 9/11 and the ensuing air of paranoia — about which, more tomorrow, when my weekly Retro-Journal entry finally looks back at that pivotal time.

Speaking of pivotal times: Native American legends tell of a bizarre, sexual, and violent intra-family conflict (involving a character called the Red Man) that mystically causes the sky to become half red and half black during a battle. Morrison may well know the story of the Red Man, given his likely familiarity with other Native American legends such as the Hopi idea that a Fifth World will be born soon — around 2012, some say, a la the much-ballyhooed “end” of the Mayan calendar, mentioned by X-Files, eco-mystic Daniel Pinchbeck, and soon another awful Roland Emmerich movie.

And speaking of ancient folklore, it’s fitting that Zero, which reveals that two of the pagan gods have decided to try replacing the (female) Amazons such as Wonder Woman with (male) Spartans, comes out the same week that the news breaks that the isle of Lesbos is suing to get Greek gays to stop using the word “lesbian” and thus (purportedly) smearing and mischaracterizing their island. (Will Holland sue dykes?)

But enough about the absurd real world — let’s get back to the DC Universe for a moment, where things are making more sense with every moment and with every mouthful of this Diet Coke I chug. For those excited about the apparent return of Barry Allen, I will say one thing to rain on the parade a bit: It’s not like the guy’s been at all idle while being dead for the past twenty-three years, as this list of his post-death activities reveals. Would that we all got so much stuff done after dying.

And since that list was written, we have also seen Barry’s “ghost” (or Speed Force avatar or what have you) hanging out with Bart and Wally on what may have been (the new) Earth-2, while the latter two lived there for a few years after trapping Superboy-Prime in the Speed Force (Wally living on that Earth longer than Bart, who returned to the main DC Earth and died just before Wally returned to it, several more years having by then passed for Wally and his family).

All right, that’s enough nerdery for this May Day (and here’s hoping all the communists out there celebrating gnash their teeth in three weeks when Indiana Jones kicks commie butt in the new movie, which takes place circa 1960 instead of WWII — but again, I’ll try to avoid politics until we know the outcome of the Libertarian Party convention near month’s end).

Oh, and since Morrison likes to scramble and transcend simple dualisms (as did Nietzsche, the real father of superman), as in the conclusion of his magnum opus, The Invisibles, when authoritarian and anarchist conspiracies merged circa 2012, I expect and hope that this Final Crisis will end with something decidedly more interesting and strange than the Red defeating the Black by blowing up the Black’s mountain HQ with dynamite or something. I want art. The brilliant device of having the black narration captions in Zero slowly turn red over the course of the book as Flash regains his memories and lightning finally strikes is a great start. Here’s hoping Final Crisis #1, in stores May 28, tosses us a few moves just as clever.


T.A.B. said...

To further your theory, think of the color schemes of the Marvel family. You have Captain Marvel, the good guy representing life, dressed in red and Black Adam, in black obviously, representing death. If memory serves, this idea is being furthered along with Cap Jr. becoming the new, red Captain Marvel and Mary switching to the dark side.

Todd Seavey said...

By the way, one neat touch about that black/red narration not directly related to the color scheme: Though it’s implied Barry Allen is one with the universe, if you look back at page 1 carefully, you’ll notice that when he says “This is everything” it seems to take in the whole cosmos depicted on that opening spread — but look! Near the “This is me” caption is something decidedly smaller than the universe as a whole: Is that? Yes, it is! A tiny yellow lightning bolt. So whether Barry is/was the whole universe or just a little energy speck in it remains an open question (as does his relationship to fellow one-with-the-universe guy Libra — who, as noted by Newsarama, takes his name from the only _non-organic_ Zodiac symbol, interestingly enough).

Jacob T. Levy said...

Wow. I’m fully persuaded that you’re reading Morrison in ways that are something like what he intends– and in ways that indicate that you’re really mentally channeling him in a way that almost worries me. Essentially *none* of that would have occurred to me. I’m glad you’ll be writing our readers’ guides to Final Crisis.

The Time Trapper plot gets going in this weeks’ Johns’-written Action.

Todd Seavey said...

Hey, wait a second — do you realize your name is an anagram of that villain I mentioned creating earlier who worships Krona, the one named Bajoc Veyl? What are the odds of that? Man, the connections go deeper than I realized. What’s next, a comment from a relative of Veyl’s rival, Galactic Pope Nokmek?

Ali Kokmen said...

“What’s next, a comment from a relative of Veyl’s rival, Galactic Pope Nokmek?”

Oh, for the heck of it, sure!

Todd Seavey said...

By the way, Googling reveals that Bill Finger’s abandoned original design for Batman’s costume was consciously very red-and-black, and Morrison gave this line to Joker (referring to his own new mouth scars, imitated in the late Heath Ledger’s upcoming film version of the character) in the story that recently revamped Joker, “Clown at Midnight”:

“Red and black. Like a bat. In a dream. In a window.”

Not that Joker’s obsession with the colors is in doubt — the cosmic stuff above is a bit more speculative. But Animal Man’s love of the Red, at least, is no doubt something close to Morrison’s heart, animal rights advocate that he is. Vitality vs. entropy and decay. Life vs. control (from his left-anarchist perspective).

Todd Seavey said...

You know, another, far simpler, indication of where things are headed in Morrison’s hands is probably the line “If I was [sic] scared, I wouldn’t be Batman” — meant as bravado but perhaps a chilling bit of foreshadowing as well.

Douglas Wolk said...

Todd, this is fantastic. That’s really all I have to say…