Why We Still Need Heroes

I am not sure how I stumbled across it, as I was so appalled by its content that I chose to quickly navigate away from it in disgust, but a few days ago I wound up reading some silly person’s column on Workers.org about why Americans should abandon their super-heroes. The column, titled “We don’t need superheroes,” tries to make a connection between fascism, classism, and super-heroes. Writer Caleb T. Maupin writes that in The Dark Knight Rises, “the police are portrayed as useless and restrained by civil liberties. So, in their place, like a caped George Zimmerman, Batman goes out to protect ‘law and order’ when oppressed people are duped into rising up.” Maupin then goes on to echo the tired argument that The Dark Knight Rises is pro-1% propaganda before reminding us all that a very small minority of wealthy people run everything, as if any of us had forgotten.

Maupin ends his column by saying that the solution to America’s problems is not to hold out for a savior figure but to band together and “seize society.” He then props up working class revolutionaries as “self-sacrificing, heroic individuals” before reminding us again not to wait for a savior. It’s really here that Maupin shoots himself in the foot. Surely he must know that super-heroes are a fictional phenomenon. People don’t go to Batman’s movies under the impression that they are watching newsreel footage of some valiant rich white man who is saving everyone. They go primarily to be entertained and, whether they know it or not, to be inspired.

Batman is a symbol, he is meant to inspire people. He is a man without super-powers who has decided to use the material means at his disposal to become more than a man, and he did it to help people. Nobody watches Batman films and then actually goes home and waits for a Batman figure to solve their problems. They watch them to see the difference one man can make, as depicted with fantastical elements and plots. Readers don’t put down their Batman comics and run around outside with a gun and an itchy trigger finger thinking that they’ll accomplish whatever it is that the police can’t do.

First of all, Batman is staunchly anti-gun, which completely nullifies the comparison to George Zimmerman as well as any belief that Maupin has seen the film that he is criticizing. Batman has also proven to dissuade others from taking the path of a vigilante without the (largely fictional) training and resources that only he himself can provide. The thesis of Batman is not “become a fascist, lawless authority figure,” it is simply an urban myth about a man with extraordinary means and talents that he employs for the greater good of his community.

One of the primary inspirations for the character of Batman is the pulp hero Zorro. The typical idea behind Zorro is that he’s a member of the upper class who lived in California in the 1800s and would secretly retreat to a cave at night, switch into some creepy black duds, and then hit the city as a swashbuckling hero for the downtrodden. Batman is, therefore, a 20th-century New York Zorro, plain and simple.

The main idea of these two heroes is not to paint the rich as saviors for the lower class, it’s to inspire imagination and to teach people that having wealth or status doesn’t exclude you from being morally responsible and helping your fellow man. The same can be said about the story of Robin Hood, a character who serves as the obvious inspiration for the Watson to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes: Robin, the Boy Wonder. Batman and Robin are more or less Zorro and Robin Hood. These are folk heroes that have rejected their social castes in order to help those less fortunate than themselves. (See also Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Buddha.)

So, at this point, I believe I’ve presented an acceptable counter-argument to Maupin’s piece. It is way out of line to say that Batman is a form of propaganda for the 1% and for gun-toting, fascist conservative wingnuts. But what’s even more out of line is the declaration in the title of Maupin’s piece that we don’t need super-heroes. We absolutely do need super-heroes. We always will. Super-heroes serve as escapism when times are tough, they inspire us to do great things when the chips are down, and they teach us important life lessons. They are not saviors – it’s still up to us to get our asses out of the fire – but they represent the idea of the savior within us all. They are our best qualities given form, and to paraphrase Grant Morrison, we can take any bad idea or mortal fear and pit it against the super-hero and the super-hero always wins. Super-heroes are the better idea; they are the embodiment of selflessness, rationality, responsibility, and compassion. We’re always going to need them.

[mild The Dark Knight Rises spoilers ahead]

Oh, and for the record, The Dark Knight Rises is not conservative propaganda or an indictment of the Occupy movement. It’s just a big dumb action movie. And if you want to get technical and connect the dots of half-baked political ideologies that are presented in the movie, you have to remember that Bane is not fighting for the 99%, he just says that to play to the sympathies of the middle and lower class while biding his time before the bomb detonates. He’s a charismatic terrorist / dictator, and he’s just trying to win people over by telling them what they want to hear before blowing everyone up. The movie makes this fact very clear. The true message of The Dark Knight Rises, if there is one, is that Batman can be anybody, and in the end, it’s a working-class kid, an orphaned cop, who (presumably) takes up the mantle of the Bat. And that is a pretty democratic theme, if you ask me.

Originally published online by Sequart.com.

John Carter Vs. Superman

With the recent release of the Disney film John Carter (which may or may not still be in theaters by the time you read this piece, judging by the film’s reviews) it seems pertinent to take a second and ruminate for a bit on the literary roots of contemporary superhero comics. In particular, it’s fascinating to me how much the character has informed the creation of Superman. In the same way that Zorro is the spiritual predecessor to Batman, John Carter, Prince of Helium, can be considered the grandfather of the Last Son of Krypton.

If you’re like me, you probably weren’t too aware of John Carter before a few weeks ago. You might have heard the name once or twice, and you might remember references to it during the prologue of the second volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or in Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” but the world of Barsoom was more or less a blank slate in your mind’s eye. I always knew that the character spear-headed the Space Operas that I loved so much, but I never took it upon myself to seek out the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and explore the rich Martian mythos. I knew just enough to make me want to seek out the film on opening weekend in IMAX 3-D for a totally immersive planetary romance the likes of which I’d never experienced.

Well, the movie sucked. It didn’t totally suck; it wasn’t as glaringly awful as The Phantom Menace, which I had just re-watched in 3D a few weekends prior (yes, you are allowed to laugh at me). The look of the ships and the aliens were all pretty good, and the action pretty much did it for me, but the acting was awful and anytime the plot slowed down for a painful “info dump” dialogue scene you could see how crappy the sets and costumes were. I also noticed a very Disney-ish goofiness about parts of the film that didn’t work for me at all and ruined the tone, which I was hoping would place somewhere closer to the Frank Frazetta end of things. It was almost like a lighter version of “Cowboys and Aliens.”

So that was a bet of a letdown. However, the movie did perform perfectly insofar as being an advertisement for Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, which I went and bought immediately, and which I have been completely obsessed with ever since. I would feel some kind of shame for never having been introduced to these amazing stories earlier in my life, but I’m too busy hacking and slashing at the green martians of Warhoon.

At any rate, the other thing that the movie served to do for me was to call my attention to a glaring similarity between John Carter and Superman. Until that point I was unaware that such a parallel could be made. I knew that Carter’s adventures on Barsoom accounted for the Flash Gordons and Jake Sullys and Luke Skywalkers of the world, but didn’t know he also played a part in the formation of the Man of Steel. And yet, when Carter took his first steps on the surface of Mars his earthly muscles sent him shooting through the air. In short, he was able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. In fact, it was this ability to leap far higher and further than the people of Mars that won him the admiration of his would be captors.

But that wasn’t the only similarity. Just as his leg muscles were powerful enough to turn mere steps into great leaps, Carter’s human physique also afforded him the Martian equivalent of super strength and agility. Here’s this man, who looks more or less like the humans of Barsoom but with noticeable differences, who has arrived on this new, dying planet from out of nowhere, only to ascend to being its greatest hero. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t take a lot to see where Superman is almost the exact inverse of this idea. He was sent from his world, a dying one, to Earth as a baby, where our world’s lighter gravity allowed him to leap tall buildings and smash through tanks, and eventually he became our greatest hero. Rather than wearing a loin cloth and sandals, Superman wears tights and a cape, but it’s basically the same premise but flipped so that we’re the bewildered natives in the equation. Like I said, it doesn’t take a lot to put this stuff together, but it’s important that we appreciate it. There is, however, some deeper subtext between the two heroes.

John Carter is of Mars. During his time on Earth, he would gaze longingly up to the red planet, which ancient peoples named after the God of War. Carter was a former Confederate soldier, a veteran of the American Civil War, and said that for him, “the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment.” When he is transported to Mars, he finds a plethora of cultures that are built on war and killing, and he fits right in.

He is a master swordsman and quite adept with a gun as well, and he and his allies leave a mountain of bodies in their wake by the end of the first novel alone. He is the masculine God of War and Battle and Strength. He’s the guy who sword fights naked in the forest for hours on end and when it looks like he’s not going to make it out alive, he says something like, “well, they’ll at least be telling my story for a long time.” It’s exciting, swashbuckling adventure at its finest, and when you read it, you feel like you could be that guy too.

Superman also represents a celestial body, but the one that he embodies isn’t the warrior spirit of Mars but the nurturing, fatherly spirit of the sun. When Superman’s origin was later revised to take into account the yellow rays of Earth’s Sun (Sol) as opposed to the weaker, red rays of Kyrpton’s Sun (Rao, which was worshipped at one time by the Kryptonians), his most important character trait was finally locked in. Superman, unlike John Carter of Mars, is not a warrior. He doesn’t kill, he doesn’t use weapons and he wasn’t a soldier in his former life.

In his former life he was the son of a scientist, and was then raised by a couple of kindly farmers, people who based their livelihoods upon the sun’s light. While he was rocketed to a planet full of savage, warring humans, his way was not to beat them at their own game, but to teach them to rise above it. He brought with him the light of the sun to illuminate and enlighten the human race, to teach it to shine on with compassion and wisdom even in its darkest moments, even when faced with its darkest enemies. Superman protects everybody, he touches everybody and while he may occasionally lay down his life for us, he never stays dead for too long. He’s the sun, our solar savior, so to speak.

Soldier and savior, war and wisdom, combat and compassion. It’s infinitely interesting for me to ponder the archetypal nature of these characters, and how the germinal idea of Superman might have been planted with John Carter. It not only speaks to the idea that such super-heroic characters are the start of a new mythology that is taking shape around contemporary pop culture, but it also raises the idea that perhaps we as a people are moving from one of these iterations to the next. Perhaps we too are moving our of the realm of Mars and into the realm of the Sun.

Or perhaps we just like reading about handsome guys with huge muscles kicking the crap out of aliens and hooking up with lots of hot women. That’s fine too.

Originally published online by Sequart.com.

How Batman Made Me a Buddhist

As I write this, Hanukkah is in full swing and Christmas is days away. Typically around this time of year you find something in the air that people call “the Christmas spirit,” which is basically something that inspires people to commit small acts of kindness that serve to warm each other’s hearts in spite of the winter chill. One has to wonder why, if being kind feels so good for everyone involved, it isn’t something we try to do all year ‘round. Maybe it’s because it wouldn’t feel as special if it happened all the time. Or it could be because we all like to tell ourselves anyway that we are already the nicest people in the world and our daily lives already reflect that. Sometimes that’s true, but more often than not, it’s all a bunch of bullshit and we could all benefit from being more compassionate.

It’s times like this where I stop and reflect on morality. For instance, why do we get each other gifts? Is it because we feel the need to spend a day at the end of the year thinking of what other people need, or is it because our capitalist society uses holidays like this one to obligate us to stimulate the economy? Why are we nice to each other? Is it because we genuinely feel we should be, or because a religion tells us to be or because it’s expected of us by our family and our neighbors and the people in TV commercials?

Where does morality come from? What is it that taught us right from wrong? A religion or a government? When I stop and question these things in myself, I find that the greater part of my morality comes from comic books. Specifically, superhero comics. Specifically Batman. Now, in recent years it has been shaped heavily by my studying and practice of Zen Buddhism, but it seems to me that even this might just be an extension of what Batman taught me as a kid.

My parents didn’t raise me to be religious or to have any sort of political bias, outside of my Mom telling me early on that hating gay people for being gay is wrong (in relation to a news story about homophobia that came on the radio once) and that war is never justified (in relation to her time growing up during the Vietnam War). I consider myself lucky in that respect, as I’ve seen some very bad examples, especially here in the Bible Belt where I currently reside, of what happens when people raised under fear of deviating from their parents’ often antiquated belief system have to reconcile it with their own adult lives. I was able to decide for myself what my thoughts were on existential and political matters and I knew that whatever I decided, it wasn’t going to change the way my parents thought of me.

I think I was about four years old when I discovered the old Adam West Batman TV series (which was, needless to say, utterly mind-blowing for me as a kid). I remember I always wanted to be Robin because I liked the idea of Batman being a mentor or sensei figure. Then right after that the Tim Burton Batman film came out and I saw a less silly version of the Caped Crusader, a version that looked like it could be happening somewhere in real life. At least that’s what I thought at the time. So it all sort of came together for me. Here was this guy with no superpowers who was so determined to live by the rigid standards of his own moral code that he became a superhero, and probably the best superhero at that. And if he ever came across a troubled kid who had their lives affected by the crime in Gotham, he would take them aside and teach them how to turn their loss into a way to help others.

Batman was always a dark character, and lately he’s become a very morose character, but his enduring quality is that he isn’t mean-spirited or psychotic or obsessed with revenge. Underneath all of the demonic trappings and theatrics, he represents two very important pillars of human morality. The first is that you don’t need an authority figure lording over you to do the right thing. If you have the discipline and the strength to do it, and you are comfortable enough with your own dark side to use it to your advantage instead of letting it hinder your actions, you don’t need a law or a police force or a god to tell you when you should or shouldn’t help other people (as well as when not to abuse your powers, such as killing in the name of justice).

The other thing he represented was compassion. Batman teaches us that people, regular human beings, aren’t perfect, but through discipline and exercise and meditation, we can find something within ourselves that is perfect, a compassionate nature that in this context is called a “superhero.” In Buddhism it’s called “Buddha nature.” This is the part of you that can go out into the world, whether it’s Crime Alley or your local Walmart, and help people that can’t help themselves. Batman also understands that crime is not a disease, but a symptom, and that the criminals that he fights are still ultimately members of the community that he is struggling to save.

These are some pretty heavy themes I suppose, but the mythology of Batman is so brilliant that his core themes are easily absorbed by the youngest of minds, even if it takes them more than twenty years to figure out that’s what they were learning in between all the “Bap!” and “Pow!” sound effect cards. And as I got older I found that those ideas could be elaborated upon in a more mature manner by studying Buddhism. Now, I don’t mean to say that I have even a tenth of the moral fiber that Buddha had or Batman has, but achieving those heights is certainly not unattainable by me or by anybody, provided the right level of self-discipline is employed.

So that’s what I think about during the holiday season. How Batman made me a Buddhist. Or something like that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a ton of last minute Christmas shopping to attend to. I could really use a butler right about now.

Originally published online by Sequart.com.

Galactus: Meditations on a World-Eater

The Uncreator. The Universal Endbringer. The Anti-God. Gah. Lak. Tus.

Whether it’s in the form of a giant man, a plague of cyborg insects or just a giant hungry storm cloud, Galactus is one of the most prolific and terrifying characters in superhero comics. Rather than being simply a diseased freak of nature out for revenge against our favorite superhero or a deranged scientist looking to force his will upon the world after gaining powers in a terrible lab accident, Galactus has no earthly motivations for what he does. Similarly, he has no extraterrestrial motivations for what he does, either. He doesn’t want to enslave humanity or conquer the planet, or use the planet as a theater for battle against other outside forces. He isn’t an alien either.

What makes Galactus so scary, and this is what was so ingenious on the part of his creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, is that he is a god. He existed in a universe that predates the current Marvel universe, a universe that we could never possibly comprehend. He was alive before the current universe and has existed as a predatory force of ultimate extinction since even before our star was formed. This primal, outside force could conceivably be the starting point for all of humanity’s fundamental fears and nightmares.

Kirby himself even attested to Galactus’ primal ferocity when he recounted his creation of the character, saying, “and there I was in front of this tremendous figure, who I knew very well, because I always felt him, and I certainly couldn’t treat him the same way that I would any ordinary mortal.” If there is an underlying existential panic inherent in every individual aspect of the universe, it is the knowledge that something from outside of it is now within it, feeding upon it. That something is called Galactus. Eat your heart out, H.P. Lovecraft.

Unfortunately, for being a character of such epic proportions, so large that he defies human comprehension, he seems to be too big for filmmakers to translate onto the big screen. In the 2007 film “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” the character appeared as a very big cloud with sort of tornado tendrils that reached down to Earth to feed upon the planet. This was explained as an effort to keep the character discreet, with the director saying that with the character being veiled in a cloud a future Silver Surfer movie spin-off could do its own version of the character.

Making the character a cloud also smacked of the filmmakers thinking the character was too big and silly to work on screen. As Mark Millar wrote in the dialogue of his post-modern superhero series, “Kick-Ass,” audiences would be hard-pressed to buy a giant dude in a purple skirt walking around on screen. He has a point, I suppose, although when the movie came out I was pretty pissed about them making Galactus a non-character.

To be fair, clouds can be scary. A few years ago I was shopping in the mall here in Pensacola and a tornado landed outside (not something that happens here a lot, we mostly get hurricanes), causing some windows to explode and wind to start rushing in, and a torrent of screaming shoppers to rush in my direction. It sounds goofy, but it was not a fun experience. From the ground, I suppose a tornado would be pretty similar to experiencing contact with Galactus. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t do the character justice. It’s too terrestrial of a concept. We need to go bigger.

So how do we bring the character to life in a way that is larger than life but not too silly for the big screen? Warren Ellis did a pretty good job of it with his Ultimate Galactus trilogy, which was published shortly before the aforementioned motion picture came out. In fact, in the novelization of “Rise of the Silver Surfer,” the author even used Ellis’ more alien-sounding name for the character, Gah Lak Tus.

With the Ultimate Galactus trilogy, Ellis told the story of a race of intergalactic locusts that swarm the cosmos, uncreating any planetary system that it came across. The character of the Silver Surfer was introduced as a sort of mercurial puppet, sent to Earth as a point man for Gah Lak Tus who would infiltrate the race of whichever planet was being targeted, in this case Homo sapiens, assume their form, and act as a kind of prophet that would pacify the populace with its teachings, making them ready and willing for their eventual extinction at the hands of the Anti-God.

The series also introduced the android Vision, who was sent to Earth in advance of Gah Lak Tus as a warning from an alien race that had already fallen prey to the hungry swarm. Vision’s messages, which were received by telepaths and communication networks across the globe, sparked spontaneous mass suicides resulting from the despair that came from the visions of destruction that Gah Lak Tus had brought to other planets throughout the cosmos. In the end, the heroes of Earth defeated Gah Lak Tus by channeling an explosion from the Big Bang of a baby parallel universe into a beam of energy that took out a few members of the swarm, in a bluff that would trick Gah Lak Tus into thinking Earth possessed weapons powerful enough to destroy it.

Ellis’ approach seemed to be inspired by Lovecraft in its use of religious cults, paranoia and madness in the handling of such a monumental character. I would think that these elements would probably aid a great deal in the effort to bring Galactus to life in the more believable context of a live action film, but it is still lacking a certain grandiosity. Having a bunch of space locusts, ostensibly born of this universe, traversing the universe and devouring things makes for a good science fiction bad guy, but doesn’t necessarily make for a good god. I’m still much more disturbed by the image of a single giant entity from a universe older than our own coming down from the sky and eating us whole. But as we said before, a big dude in a purple metal skirt walking around Midtown Manhattan and arguing with the Watcher is going to be laughed off screen.

Perhaps the solution could be to show the giant metal man appearing from the sky, but only as part of visions and nightmares that foretell Galactus’ coming. It was explained before in the main Fantastic Four series that Galactus’ appearance varies depending on the sentient race that is perceiving him as he comes to their planet and wreaks havoc. This could play into the idea that his true nature is so vast, and so alien to creatures of this universe, that our minds have to compensate for it by cloaking it in something familiar and terrestrial. After all, Galactus is a god and gods have a habit of appearing to different people and different cultures in different ways. Then, when the true Galactus finally makes his descent to Earth, either from space or through a dimensional portal or wormhole, the filmmakers could design a being more demonic and terrifying, the sight of which is enough to shatter the fragile psyche of a normal man, leaving it up to the superheroes to face the creature. The Silver Surfer could still work as the leader of a Galactus cult or, since Kirby referred to him as a fallen angel, as a member of Galactus’ choir of silver seraphim who revolts against his master. If you really wanted to be on the nose about things, you could even say Galactus and his surfers are the inspiration for Earth’s Abrahamic religions. But that might’ve already been done before somewhere else.

It is undoubtedly ironic that such a terrifying and menacing concept as Galactus could be interpreted as being too silly to appear on screen. While the look of the character, especially in his earliest incarnations, might not be best for portraying him in a film, the essence of the character is timeless and primal. It captivates readers by bringing elements of religion, mythology and Lovecraftian horror into the realm of Marvel’s science-fiction superheroes. It was ahead of its time in 1966, and is still a very singular concept in superhero comics today. Maybe the character is simply one of those things from the comic book medium that just can’t work on the big screen. However, as a fan of the God of Oblivion, I still hold out hope for the day when I can see Galactus descend upon Earth and devour its myriad life forms in glorious IMAX 3-D. Here’s hoping.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my friend Wes and I have to finish our 800-foot-tall Galactus scaregod before Cthulhu wakes up.

Originally published online by Sequart.com.

Fiction Suit

Alan Moore’s done it. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee did it. Osamu Tezuka did it. Grant Morrison did it so regularly and intently that he gave it a name. Comic book creators seem to have a habit of inserting themselves into the stories that they write. Sometimes it can be as a quick cameo or a wink at the camera to break the fourth wall. Sometimes they can act as actual characters in the story, influencing the outcome of various events. Either way, it’s an important step in blurring the line between fiction and reality.

The very act of blurring that line is the basic concept of Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s amazing 32-issue series, Promethea. Throughout the series we follow a creative young girl named Sophie Bangs who, using poetry and storytelling, is transformed into the superhero Promethea, much like how young Billy Batson is transformed into Captain Marvel when he says his own special magic word. Promethea is the avatar of communication, creativity, and magick, and has inhabited various creative females (and effeminate males) throughout history. Sophie’s iteration is said to be the most important yet, however, as it is Sophie’s Promethea who will guide humanity through the apocalypse.

As the series progresses, we learn that Moore’s definition of the apocalypse is one of a mass enlightenment event in which the realms of the imagination collapse upon the material world, creating a new, more powerful form of existence and revealing the true nature of the universe to everyone around the world at the same time. In issue 30, as this event is unfolding and Promethea is talking us through it, we start to see glimpses of the world outside of the comic, and of us looking down into it. Then, on the penultimate page, both Moore and Williams look over their shoulder to gaze into the eyes of the reader, each giving a startled “oh @#$%” or “Uh oh” as they see us and we see them.

By creating this sort of scenario in this particular comic book, Moore isn’t merely breaking the fourth wall, he’s reinforcing everything that his comic book is trying to say about the nature of fiction and reality. Just as Promethea’s narration is explaining to us that all of time is happening in a single moment, we are shown a glimpse of Moore and Williams looking across the gulf of time and space and reality into our eyes as we read their comic. No matter who reads it, when they read it, or how many times they read it, that moment will always be playing out the exact same way for all of eternity, just as Promethea said it would. We can put the comic away and come back to it years later and that moment will still be there, just as fresh as ever, as though time itself wasn’t a line at all but panels on a page that we could flip through, forwards and backwards, at our own discretion.

To be sure, Moore wasn’t the first author to do this. I recently just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a story that dealt with the author’s painful experiences being a prisoner of war during World War II and surviving the firebombing of Dresden, a military act that killed about twice as many people as the bombing of Hiroshima (so it goes). The author uses his own first-person perspectives to bookend the story, but the majority of the novel belongs to the story of Billy Pilgrim, a young soldier in the war who became “unstuck in time.” However, as Pilgrim and the author lived through the same harrowing experiences, Vonnegut does sometimes appear throughout the story as an extra in his own novel.

At one point, Pilgrim peeks into a latrine full of American soldiers to see them all sick from a welcome feast they partook in upon arriving at a Nazi prison camp. He hears one of the sick Americans shout that everything is leaving him except his brains. The American then shouts “there they go,” meaning his brains. Vonnegut then writes “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.” By doing this, Vonnegut was immortalizing himself in that moment, no matter how unglamorous and self-deprecating it was. For Billy Pilgrim, a boy who saw that all of time was happening at once and that everyone is always alive somewhere, that young soldier crapping his brains out will exist forever.

Another writer who famously met his characters by writing himself into their stories is Grant Morrison. Exploring the nature of fiction and reality is the basis for much of Morrison’s work (as it is for Moore), and it has played a role in his writing since the very beginning of his career. Rather than writing a character into his own life experiences as Vonnegut did with Billy Pilgrim, Morrison ventured down into the 2-D superhero universes that his characters inhabited and met with them on their level. This was achieved, according to Morrison, with what he called a “fiction suit.”

Toward the end of Morrison’s run on Animal Man, the titular character, who had just seen his entire family murdered, was starting to become more and more aware of his own existence as a cartoon character in a superhero comic book. Searching desperately for answers, he finally came face to face with the cruel tormentor who was to blame for all of his anguish: Morrison himself. Appearing as a monotone, grayscale illustration (and, shockingly, with hair) Morrison explained to Animal Man that the superhero was, in fact, living in a comic book and that his destiny was shaped by words that Morrison had written. He said that the brutal murder of Animal Man’s family, while tragic, was a necessarily evil in the world of monthly episodic fiction. In a move of bold iconoclasm, Morrison explained to Animal Man that by introducing violence and tragedy into the character’s story, the writer hoped to make the fictitious character seem more “adult,” more “realistic.” “God help us if that’s what it means,” Morrison said.

From Morrison’s perspective, journeying into a world of imagination and ideas (and telling the inhabitants of that realm about the malevolent human overlords that shape their destinies) is almost like inter-dimensional travel, and is achieved with a fiction suit, which is the fictional shape he attains when sending his thoughts into that idea space. Later, Morrison would come to find out that not only can a writer influence the world of the imaginary via the use of a fiction suit, but that the reverse is true as well. According to the writer and long-time practitioner of sigil magick, the trials and hardships that he inflicted upon his character King Mob, a sort of fiction suit that he created for his series The Invisibles, soon found their way into his daily life. It wasn’t long before Morrison himself was undergoing the same torturous battle with death and disease that he had put his character through. It was after that point, Morrison said, that he decided to give King Mob an easier time.

Morrison, Moore, and Vonnegut aren’t the only authors who have thought to insert themselves into the fictional world that they created. I’d wager that most of the time, when a writer really works hard to flesh out the universe that they’re writing about, somewhere in their map of that universe they are able to pinpoint their own location, even if it’s never relevant within the story to show the reader. Perhaps it is part of the writer’s nature to see themselves and the world around them as being another form of fiction, one that can be interchangeable with the ones that they are writing about or which can exist alongside it. Perhaps, as in the case of Vonnegut, who, through his writing, gave eternal life to himself and to all those that he saw die senselessly in the firebombing of Dresden, we can use the world of fiction to influence reality. As Promethea herself once said (and is still saying), “What’s important is understanding that mind and matter aren’t separated. They’re just different points in one system… Changing the world’s as easy as changing your mind. It’s just that matter’s thicker and more viscous than imagination, so it takes longer.”

Originally published online by Sequart.com.