Friday, 4 May 2007

Countdown To Countdown 1 (52 Wrapup Part 1)

First, I'd like to say hello (and happy Free Comic Book Day) to all of you who've started reading in the few days since this blog was linked by Douglas at 52 Pickup and Heidi at The Beat. For those of you just joining me, the idea of this blog is to use DC's weekly Countdown series (which starts next week) as a springboard to talk about stuff pertaining to comics. Some weeks I'll be doing page-by-page analyses of the comic, other weeks I'll barely mention the content of the issue itself, but it'll always be relevant in some way.

The big Countdown news this week, of course, is the preview that is up at MySpace comics. I'll be going over that tomorrow. But today I want to talk about 52.

The last issue of 52 came out on Wednesday (Thursday over here in the UK), and I loved it. It has its flaws, of course (the Gotham Gazette on Earth-2 reminded me more than a little of Chevy Chase saying "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead") but overall it was possibly one of the best issues of the series.

So, with that read, I decided to sit down and read the lot. I also read, along with every issue, Douglas' summary/review at 52-pickup and Al Ewing's Diary Of Ralph Dibny. I'll be posting as much as I can about my reactions to the series over the next few days, until Friday when I can pick up Countdown 1 (Monday is a bank holiday in the UK, which means both New Comics day and my payday will be a day late).

This first 52 wrapup post will cover something I think a lot of you will find extremely pretentious and silly. So do I, as a matter of fact, but I still think it's a fun idea to play with. More normal commentary of the "why did we not see Most Excellent Super Bat?" type will appear in the next few posts.

One thing that struck me about the series on reread, that I'd not been able to say for certain until the last issue (in case the writers tied everything together more neatly than they did) is how little the main characters interact. For the most part, there are several different storylines going on here independently of each other, each of which meets up occasionally then splits off again.

What interests me about this, in retrospect, is how simillar the structure of 52 is to co-writer Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers project (which Morrison was working on concurrently with the early parts of 52). Both involved largely unknown or third-tier DC Universe characters fighting (largely independently of each other) different aspects of the same larger menace while telling their own separate stories. 52 could very easily have been released as (say) a Ralph Dibny miniseries, a Montoya/Question one, a Mystery In Space series, a Steel and a Black Adam one, with threads from each recurring in the others (much as one sees the same scene from different angles in Klarion 2 and Manhattan Guardian 2). This is very different from the normal model for a superhero crossover story, where everyone gets into a team to fight one big bad baddie, then splits up to fight a few smaller ones, then get together again to fight the real big baddie behind the scenes. (Not totally different of course, but the superhero crossover is as formalised at this point as a medieval passion play, and even slight changes in the way they're done can appear shocking).

In many ways 52 (and Marvel's Annihilation crossover, which I've not yet read, and which was largely the work of 52/Countdown layout artist Keith Giffen) is a mainstreaming of the Seven Soldiers structure, and a sign that we can hope for more stories using this model (which I prefer to the normal linear model of crossover storytelling). Partly, no doubt, this structure arose because of the fact that four people were writing the story (and while according to the writers themselves everyone wrote bits of everyone else's stories, each writer definitely had their own pet characters). But I suspect it was very strongly influenced by Seven Soldiers.

Now, one of the things I found most interesting about this structure in Seven Soldiers is that it (possibly just coincidentally) ties into one of Grant Morrison's more ludicrous-sounding ideas, which is that he wants to make the DC Universe sentient, through some combination of magic(k) and science - he's spoken about the idea that intelligence appears to be an emergent property of some complex systems, and how sometimes stories seem to 'write themselves', and wanting to see if he can get the DC Universe complex enough to write itself (for example in this interview on Fanboy Radio ).

Now, in this context the way intelligence appears is something that matters. Intelligence (as far as we can tell) is an emergent property of only some kinds of complexity. In particular, the structure of the human brain appears to be a type of network known as a 'small world' network.

Now, the small world network is also the way that most social interactions happen - the structure of the social network that connects you with your friends is structurally very simillar to the structure of the neural network in your brain. So if you were a comic writer attempting to bring a comics universe to sentience, one way to do that would be to make the structure of the social networks in the comics similar to the structure of real-world societies.

There was actually a study done a few years ago of the structure of the Marvel universe's social network (which we can assume is simillar enough to the DCU to generalise from). It showed that the MU had a very simillar structure to a real-world social network, but with a few significant differences. Mostly these were - characters were more likely to team up repeatedly with the same people in the MU than in the real world, characters collaborated in general with fewer others than in the real world, and a few important characters were far more important in the MU's social networks than in the real world.

So if you were going to go for a more realistic social network, the way you'd do it is get rid of a few of the major players ("a year without Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman"), raise the importance of some minor characters, and create a lot more links between otherwise-disconnected bits of the DCU. You wouldn't do this in the standard team-up manner, but in a series of encounters between peripheral characters. In short, you'd do what both Seven Soldiers and 52 do.

I'm not saying this was definitely the conscious intention of anyone involved, but it seems possible given Morrison's statements that it could be. But one thing that seems to suggest there's more to it than that is Mister Mind's final fate. There are a lot of different resonances to be found in what happens to Mister Mind - most obviously the way it connects with what he did earlier to Daniel Carter, trapping him in the same type of time loop (but a loop of 52 seconds rather than 52 weeks) - and Jog as always manages to find a lot of connections between this and other themes set up in the comic. But one thing it reminds me of is the 'strange loop' that Douglas Hofstadter claims lies at the basis of consciousness.

Of course, I don't think that the DCU is actually becoming sentient. Nor do I think this was in the minds of any of the creators of 52 with the possible exception of Morrison. But the fact that this kind of thing can be found in there suggests that 52 is worthy of more attention as a comic (as opposed to just as a comic-industry phenomenon) than has been paid it.


Anonymous said...

Do you think the rescue of Dick Grayson, a fictitious person, from Dan Didio, a real person, could be seen as an act of self-preservation by the emerging consciousness of the DCU?

--just curious.

Andrew Hickey said...

If anything the reverse. I must stress here that I *don't* think the DCU is sentient, and it's just a thought exercise, but if I did... well, you must remember that the sentience would be in the *universe*, not the characters, who could in a real sense be seen as analogous to cells. In that sense, characters who are continuity problems could be seen as diseased cells, like a cancer cell or one infected by a virus, that needed to be destroyed for the good of the organism as a whole. In that case the saving of Dick Grayson (which was done by fandom rather than the DCU, remember) would just show that comic fandom is essentially destructive, which I think we all already know ;)