Monday, 30 April 2007

Countdown To Countdown 2

Sorry for the delays on today's post - I've been working on a paper that took a little longer to sort out than I thought. To make up for it, I'm going to do two posts today - the usual one going over this (last) week's 52 and DC Universe stuff, and then later I'm going to talk about Bryan Talbot's incredible new graphic novel Alice In Sunderland.

After the horrible disappointment of 52 50 and World War III, 52 51 is much, much more like it. I've accepted for a while that 52 isn't going to have a satisfying end as such - the middle was much too flabby and 'decompressed' and now the writers are rushing to try to get as much in as possible in these last few issues.

This issue manages to resolve quite a few different bits from the storylines I'm most interested in, now that the tedious Black Adam nonsense is over and done with. There's still three pages of moping about Superboy being dead (given that only a month or so ago Black Adam killed over twenty-six million people, this suggests a certain lack of proportion among the people of the DC Universe, but anyway...) but otherwise this issue nicely wraps up the Space Odyssey storyline and sets us up for the big reveal next issue (you know, the one Dan Didio spoiled a few weeks back).

The big twist - Mister Mind's whereabouts - had been guessed by a few people a while ago, but was done very nicely. But it's the little details that made this issue - Starfire coming from across the universe to make sure Buddy gets his jacket back. And it's nice that in the space story at least, everyone (for now) has had a happy ending.

Is that a... Countdown on the cover, incidentally?

I don't have much more to say about 52 except that I'm looking forward to Thursday (I'm in the UK, in a strange timewarp where we get our comics... a day late! The horror!) and I intend to take a day out at some point and read the whole thing from beginning to end.

One of the things I'm hoping for in Countdown, and something I've only got occasionally in 52, is the creation of ideas with far more potential than the creators realise. This kind of thing happens more when creators are pushed against impossible deadlines. Half the reason Jack Kirby was so great was that he was so productive - during the time he was working on the Fourth World stuff, he was producing four comics a month (correct me if I'm wrong - I don't think any of them were bi-monthly) - essentially writing and drawing a weekly comic by himself.

As a result, a lot of Kirby's stuff has resonances he was quite possibly not aware of himself. That's not to say the power of his work is accidental - obviously he was a craftsman with decades of experience working on something he considered his masterwork - but there are resonances there that might not have been there if he'd had more time to think things out more coherently.

Take Darkseid. Darkseid is one of the characters with a major role in Countdown, and one of my all-time favourite characters. Darkseid was for a long time over-exposed, used every time a lazy writer wanted something really bad to scare our heroes (parodied exquisitely by 52/Countdown breakdown artist Keith Giffen in an Ambush Bug miniseries in which every issue ended with a splash page of Darkseid doing something innocuous with our hero exclaiming "Darkseid!"). But in preparation for Countdown DC have wisely taken him off the board for a while, using him only in Seven Soldiers in the last few years.

Many comics bloggers (myself included) tend to assume a familliarity with characters and creators that is perhaps unwarranted (whether this is a cause or an effect of the increasing tininess and incestuousness of the comics fan community is left as an exercise for the reader). I will probably make that mistake time and again, but I would like this blog to be readable by those who do not have a Masters in Kirby Studies and a PhD in Ditkology, so I'm going to try to provide links to anything necessary for understanding these posts. (Not always possible - some of the ideas here are from a conversation I had with my songwriting partner Mr Tilt Corazón Araiza, and I can't link to that - but where possible I'll link it).

Those of you who don't know who Darkseid is should, of course, read Jack Kirby's original Fourth World comics (wait for the forthcoming colour reprints - the current black & white paperbacks lose a lot of the impact of art that was intended for colour). But as a quick primer you could do worse than check out Newsarama's Counting Down To Countdown article on the Fourth World. Greg Morrow has provided a more entertaining explanation, but Marc Singer has provided the best summary of why Darkseid is such a great character. As Marc puts it " imagine a Hitler who's both physically intimidating and not the slightest bit insane. Darkseid is what Hitler wanted to be, the visions he sold to himself in his sleep made real. A walking dream, or nightmare, of total control."

As someone with an interest in cybernetics, the phrase 'total control' makes me prick up my ears. What's really interesting to me, though, is that Darkseid is, in order to gain this control, after the Anti-Life Equation. The reason this interests me is that in real life there is, in effect, a real anti-life equation - and it is precisely that that stops Darkseid getting control.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is usually expressed as "in a closed system, entropy will always increase" or (as Flanders & Swann memorably put it) "Heat won't pass from a cooler to a hotter. You can try it if you like, but you far better notta". While this seems a fairly trivial result, it is possibly the most important single statement about our physical reality, underlying almost all of modern science. It is the rule that states why we can never have a true perpetual motion machine.

That rule essentially says that everything must decay eventually - columnated ruins domino, civilisations fall, bodies fall apart. It's essentially the law that says time's arrow moves forward to the heat death of the universe.

But it's this law that says Darkseid can't win - Darkseid can never have the absolute control he wants. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, as well as turning up in physics and statistics, has two secret identities. One is Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety , the fundamental principle of cybernetics. This states that to control a system, you need as many options as there are things that can go wrong. This means that to control the population of the universe - Darkseid's desire - he would have to have as many options as there are actions that everyone could take. This is clearly impossible. He would also need perfect information about every event in the universe. The Second Law, in its disguise of Shannon's Tenth Theorem - the most important theorem in information theory - says that he can't have this either.

So what Darkseid is doing when he searches for the 'Anti-Life Equation' is searching for a way to overrule the Second Law Of Thermodynamics. If he can control the universe, he can avoid decaying - he can avoid death. Darkseid is so terrified of his own mortality that he wants to make the universe in his own image in order to stop it killing him.

So why is this equation - the source, after all, of immortality (by my interpretation - I've not seen this stated explicitly in any comics, though some writers seem to imply this) - anti-life ?

Well, because the only way to get what Darkseid wants is to stop the universe from changing in any way. Grant Morrison understood this when he gave Darkseid the slogan 'Darkseid Is'. For Darkseid (or anyone) to have absolute control will mean an end to time. An end to change. Darkseid is - and always will be, unchanged and unchanging. An end to life, in short. As Kirby put it in Forever People 5 - "if someone possesses absolute control over you - you're not really alive."

Because Darkseid isn't scared of literal death (which he, after all, inflicts on others on a regular basis) as much as metaphorical death. To quote from Alan Moore's masterful examination of the tarot in Promethea:
Though this card sounds a funeral knell
It has another tale to tell
Death, our eventual, awful fate
Means nothing more than 'change of state'
One state must end ('tis common sense)
Before another may commence
This card permits, then, a fresh view
Death of the old that births the new.

Compare and contrast Mister Miracle. While Darkseid is the embodiment of order, Mister Miracle is the embodiment of chaos. He's the random element that can never be accounted for. No trap can be designed to hold him, because there's always one degree of freedom left for him to take advantage of. In both his Scott Free and Shilo Norman incarnations, he can get out of anything. One other way of phrasing the Second Law is "imposition of order = escalation of chaos" - every attempt to hem Mister Miracle in is doomed to failure, as is any attempt at control.

In Grant Morrison's Mister Miracle miniseries (part of his Seven Soldiers set of interlocking minis, which I consider possibly the best superhero comics ever created), Morrison shows an understanding of this. Shilo Norman eventually escapes from 'the life trap' and dies, but is resurrected. By accepting change, he overcomes it.

The only true death is stasis. Darkseid in his quest for immortality wishes to doom himself and the rest of the universe to this death, while Mister Miracle has overcome death by embracing change and the new. Mister Miracle adapts to the universe, Darkseid tries to deny the existence of the universe, of anything except himself and his own will. He is doomed to fail in this, but his great tragedy is that, because he's blocked himself off from anything he doesn't want to hear (an inevitable result of his kind of authoritarianism - control closes off lines of communication, by both Ashby and Shannon's formulations) he will never know.

In other news, there's apparently going to be a DC Countdown Myspace...


hilker said...

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen was monthly (for the most part), but the other three Fourth World titles were all bimonthly.

Andrew Hickey said...

That's one good thing about knowing you're reading - whenever I get something absolutely wrong about comics, I know you'll let me know ;)

plok said...

Wow, nice post! Now why didn't I think of that...?

Andrew Hickey said...

Hey plok! I'm glad you posted, because I used to get your site via RSS feed and hadn't realised that you'd moved (must have missed one post). I'll be adding the 'new' blog to the sidebar...

And thanks.