Thursday, 2 October 2008

Remembering The Men of Tomorrow

1. Getting Ready For the Floor

I'm really sorry. If I could think of another way to do this I would, but I can't, so here we go. What can I say -- I'm damaged in a lot of fairly common ways. If I wasn't, none of this would matter to me. If I wasn't, I wouldn't even be writing here at all.

2. Getting Tired of the Chase

So the final issue of Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant's All Star Superman is out now, and it's another beauty.

The best thing about it? The fact that it manages to be so genuinely aspirational. Sure, it has to go through some of the usual genre machinations in order to avoid charges of soft-core fascism, but the final issue makes it absurdly clear that there's something worth rooting for here.

The fact that this is made clear by, of all characters, a superpowered Lex Luthor is just gravy here. Early on in the final issue, Lois Lane tries to stop Lex by appealing to the sense of sympathy she knows Superman's powers generate. Of course, Luthor just spits vitriol right back at her, but as the issue advances and the blows keep on landing on Lex's head he starts to see things differently, starts to put things together.

Hell, he almost figures out Superman's secret identity, and in the weirdest of circumstances:


Spoilers follow.

The conclusion? Well, Lex doesn't quite get there, but as the fact that Superman has him beat becomes inescapable, he starts to understand how his nemesis sees the world:
Sorry... sorry, these new senses... I can actually see the machinery and wire connecting and separating everything since it all began... This is how he sees all the time, every day. Like it's all just us in here, together. And we're all we've got.
The day-glo optimism of this sentiment is both jarring and wonderful, but like amy poodle has been so careful to explain, sometimes it's good to just open yourself up to the ASS love. Some readers have pointed out that this plot point echoes a similar dramatic turn in Mark Millar's Authority, in which a supervillain gained access to immense cosmic power only to find his malice neutralised by his widened perspective. The fact that Frank Quitely drew both scenes certainly underlines their similarity, but I think that All Star Superman is actually best seen as the culmination of a theme Morrison has been working since at least JLA. Somewhere in the middle of the frantic finale to that series, the human race becomes the superhuman race, and they're urged into saving the day using the following rhetoric:
Don't be afraid... what we're feeling are new structures opening up in our brains... it's like a preview of evolution.

All this amazing stuff you're seeing and feeling is what Superman feels like all the time... It's why he wants to save us... hah!
Of course, All Star Superman makes this point far more effectively since this childlike, playful way of seeing is conveyed in every panel of Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant's artwork.

As amy poodle put it:
Quitely’s art is like a window into a gorgeous homunculus mini-universe, a la Qwerq, where on the surface of things - at a glance - everything seems simpler and less dense, but then one’s eye gets drawn in, closer, by subtle nuances of gesture and facial expression, and closer still by the freeze framed trajectory of tiny dented bullets as they bounce off steel hard super-skin, and still deeper, into and across the suburbs, satellite towns, far away villages and mountain ranges of shrunken Kandor, and out… until we’re lost in the burning, lonely pink wastes and skeletal mining farms of doomed Krypton. Imagine the Kenner plastic Hoth set of your childhood sprouting the kind of fractal complexity necessary to transform it into a fully functional world - a real war zone, where the Force is a living thing and goodies and baddies really duke it out for the future of the universe and the heart of an alien princess. Imagine the functions your imagination performed every day as a child. That’s what Quitely, Grant and Morrison conjure here. That’s what this work reminds us of.
I can't say it better than that, so I'm not even going to try! It occurs to me that with Frank Quitely, Morrison's work is as effortlessly bizarre and out there as Jack Kirby's, contrary to what I said at the end of my post on The Eternals. Quitely makes Morrison's constant quest to give fresh life to old fantasies seem graceful, elegant even.

Hell, as a team they can make even the hoariest, most cliched of moments seem absolutely essential. See this page, from issue #10 of the series, for a perfect example of this "no ma, I did not just tear up while reading my comics!" effect:

All Star Superman ends on an intriguing note, with superscientist Leo Quintum (a Willy Wonka lookalike and the anti Lex Luthor, as Jog pointed out) unveiling a wonderful piece of graphic design:

I'm pretty tired of mainstream superhero comics at this point, pretty damn tired of the constant chase for no damn payoff, of the overwhelming feeling that I'm reading corporate fan-fiction (thanks to Noah Berlatsky for making an obvious point with style! [1]). But this series, right down to this final image, made all of this seem fun again. That modified Superman logo, with its obvious intimations of a sequel that may never be, should be just another sign that his shit will never stop. Instead, it ends up looking less like a number and more like a question mark -- what is Quintum going to do with the Superman/Lois DNA? Will Super-vision (aka Quitely-vision!) become universal? I don't know, but for once, I'm actually eager to find out, eager to rejoin the chase. [2]

And if that's not a magic trick, then I don't know what is. [3]

3. Getting Closer To The Sun

Ok, so I'm way late in saying this, but David Foster Wallace RIP.

I don't really have the capacity to say what I want to say about Wallace and his work right now, so I'll keep this relatively brief. It strikes me that one of the big things that DFW was trying to do with his writing was to see more deeply, and in more dimensions, and to help (force?) the reader to do the same. Several of the writerly ticks that seem like postmodern gimmickry at first -- the footnotes, the abundance of jargon and abbreviations, the Pyncheon-esque absurdities -- are in fact attempts to convey in almost crushing detail what it's like to live in our perpetually ironised, information heavy world. This is something that comes through most winningly in the essays, particularly those in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, but the fiction is what's hitting me hardest at the moment.

Now, DFW's fiction can sometimes be hard to get into, but it's worth persevering with, because some of his most intimidating works are also his best.

Take Infinite Jest, for example. Sure, it's 1,000 plus pages of dense text plus end notes, and its ending is a motherfucker, but you know what? It's one of those novels that actually is what it's about: instead of just writing about the desperate, insatiable need we have for fulfillment, DFW stimulates these very feelings. Once you get into it, Infinite Jest is hideously entertaining, and it's so good for so long that when it ends you can't help but feel angry that the needs it promised to satisfy are still raw and un-sated.

Or, like, with Mister Squishy -- that story is a slog, with its constant garbled ad-speak and seeming indifference to reader interaction, but about 2/3rds of the way through you realise that you've started to genuinely feel for these blank, unsympathetic characters in their blankly crowded world. Talk about magic tricks -- how did he do that?

Of course I don't mean to say that David Foster Wallace was a real life Superman or anything stupid like that. [4] What I will say is that part of his project seems to me to to have been to create a working, adult version of the childlike perception that All Star Superman generates. This comes across most obviously in his Kenyon College commencement address, where he says lots of things like this:
...the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. [5]

So does reading David Foster Wallace make you a better adjusted, smarter and more microscopically perceptive human being? Almost certainly not, but nevertheless his work does seem to present away to use the abundance of ironical and interlinked resources we have at our disposal to say or see things more fully, and sometimes that gives me hope. Because we might not be able to recapture that level of childish imagination where even inanimate objects have a life of their own, but we might at least aspire to take into account the inner worlds of other people.

I didn't know David Foster Wallace personally, of course, so I have no insight into his suicide and I won't pretend otherwise. As such I can only offer my distant condolences to those who did know him, and pay my respects to what I do know: the writing. David Foster Wallace as his best was as white hot and dazzling as the sun. Like the sun, there's way more to DFW's work than I can even begin to understand, but I'm willing to keep on staring into the light until the truth blurs into view.

Oh, and did I mention that he was funny? Because he really, really was. [6]

More soon, in the next episode.

[1] While I disagree with Noah's opinion of All Star Superman (as laid out in that very same post), I've got to admit that the man knows how to make a negative criticism stick! I mean, Noah's dead wrong when he says Morrison has no interest in the character, but some of the rhetoric in his post is pretty cutting all the same.

[2] Of course, all this talk of aspiration and reinvigoration would be nothing if All Star Superman wasn't also full of sadness and worry. Like Sean Witzke says, sci-fi "always seems to fail when it putting forth a positive and perfect future", and that's not what Morrison and co have done here. This series is driven by anxiety about age, mortality and romantic misunderstanding, and it has an antagonist full of great vanity and jealous rage (hey Luthor!), so... it's a fairy tale, but like the best fairy tales it's always mindful of what it's about, and how. Take, for example, that ending -- there's a lot of positivity there, sure, but there's still a bittersweet component. After all, the Superman/Clark Kent/Lois Lane romance plot is essentially left half-completed, with Lois waiting for a happy ending that may or may not come, still caught up in the neverending chase. And can't we all relate to that, both as people and as comic book addicts [a]--?
[a] And yes, these two states of being are inherently separate.

[3] Well, okay, I do, but The Dark Knight doesn't really fit into this post in any meaningful way. So... yay footnotes, I guess.

[4] Much as I was hamming it up when I wrote that faux-dramatic introduction, I am slightly embarrassed by the fact that the only way I could write about David Foster Wallace's suicide was through a bloody superhero comic. Talk about being immature and unable to escape your own (overworked!) frames of reference!!

[5] This statement might come across as a somewhat banal, certainly compared to a world of time travel and jet apes, but as DFW also said during that speech:

...the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
[6] Well, he makes me laugh anyway. Here's one of his short stories, A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life, in its entirety:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.


plok said...

Someone else got very fruitfully into the Willy Wonka thing at some point -- Marc Singer, maybe? Might have been Jog, around #1? No idea, and I wish I could find it, because I remember it being stellar.

And, the question mark/numeral thing is nice, isn't it?

Duncan said...

I kinda felt the same way with Wallace, David, it's just a confluence thing (+ I, too, am immature as shit). Sore one.

This post was great, btw, really superb work.

plok - I think it was Jog, but can't be arsed checking.

sean witzke said...

Fantastic post, David.

David said...

Plok -- yeah, I remember reading that too. like Duncan, I think it was Jog, but I couldn't find anything when I had a quick glance this morning. Well, except for a brief one-liner about Quintum giving Jimmy Olsen the equivalent of a a golden ticket back in issue #4, but... that's not really what I remember reading.

Has there been a mass halucination on the blogosphere or did someone get into this Willy Wonka thing properly? Only time, or google, will tell.

Duncan -- thanks mate. DFW's suicide sorta kicked the shit out of me last month, to an unexpected degree. I don't think I'd ever realised quite how huge an influence the man has been on my post-University life, but... damn.

Sean -- thanks man, and right back at you! Your most recent essay was at least partly responsible for me getting it together enough to write this post, so... yeah, thanks again, and keep it coming!

Speaking of which, don't I have another 8 issues of The Filth to write about? 'Pornomancer' here I come...

David said...

Oh wait, shit, I've still got 9 issues of The Filth to write about!

Would anyone believe me if I said I have a University-level Maths qualification? Sure, it's not a degree or anything (just another relic of my abandoned life as a computing student), but still -- how did I manage that?

Magic, true believers! the answer can only have been magic.
Well, that or a summer full of resists and headaches that seemed to make it impossible to ACTUALLY THINK!

Don't mind me, I'm just riffing and reminiscing here. Hey – it’s easier than finishing off my next Filth essay!

David said...

A summer full of "resists" -- ? Good times! Well, there's my English degree devalued as well.

"Resits", ladies and germs. The word I was looking for was "resits"...

David said...

And maybe there's a hyphen that's gone astray there too? What? No. No, we don't have any mad people here.

Thanks for asking though.