Sunday, 29 June 2008

Rock Of Ages - Darkseid's New Clothes

So, before my own verbosity got the better of me, what was I going to say about Rock Of Ages? (For those who are wondering, I'm writing this before getting to the comic shop this week. I'll be looking at Final Crisis 2 probably on Monday).

One of the descriptions I've read of Morrison's JLA run is that it's a 'Cliff Notes for the Invisibles', and nowhere is that more true than in Rock Of Ages. The connections between the present-day story and the Invisibles are obvious, of course, but it's the near-future dystopian story that covers a lot of the same themes. Fundamentally, Rock Of Ages is about the impossibility of totalitarianism.

Morrison is one of the few writers in comics who actually seems interested in science, and appears scientifically literate. While many comic writers use 'scientific' terms seemingly at random to handwave away problems (and to be fair Morrison does this to in New X-Men with the extinction gene, although there he was playing with a Marvel genetics that has been established as very different from real genetics) - see for example Byrne's 'Godwave' which was somehow able to cross the universe twice in 40,000 years - Morrison uses scientific ideas as jumping off points for new stories. Sometimes those ideas will be fringe ideas rather than mainstream (see his use of Sheldrake's morphic resonance hypothesis in Animal Man) and quite often the interpretation he uses of (say) quantum physics will not be the most mainstream one, but he's clearly actually interested in science.

And one of the sciences he seems to be most interested in (although he doesn't namedrop it in the way he does 'cooler' ideas such as brane theory) is cybernetics - not computing, but cybernetics in its original meaning of regulating systems.

And cybernetics shows that totalitarianism - and indeed any attempt to control human beings - has some inbuilt flaws. Any system that doesn't allow for feedback will eventually go off the rails, and any authority relationship is one where accurate feedback is not possible - if someone has the power to sack you, or have you imprisoned, or have you killed, you're going to be very careful about what you tell them. Authority breeds lies - the cheque's in the post, the dog ate my homework, it's my grandmother's funeral - and then the person in authority has to make decisions based on those lies. Garbage in, garbage out. (This, incidentally, seems to explain the decisions made by a lot of political leaders, and may also explain the apparent paranoia often exhibited at the very top.)

Robert Anton Wilson - a big influence on Morrison - called this 'the burden of omniscience' and contrasted it with the 'burden of nescience' in the people who are being controlled. In any system where total control over people is attempted, the person doing the controlling has to be aware of every factor relevant to the decisions. Those being controlled, on the other hand, have to do what they're told even when it goes against their own experiences.

Darkseid, of course, wants absolute control of the universe. As he puts it, "I will remake the entire universe in the image of my soul, Desaad. And when at last I turn to look upon the eternal desolation I have wrought... I will see Darkseid, as in a mirror... and know what fear is."

The problem with this kind of ambition of course is that it depends on everyone else being deaf-blind-mute - or acting like it. The future portion of Rock Of Ages is ultimately a rewrite of The Emperor's New Clothes - as long as no-one tells the emperor what's going on, everything looks fine from his perspective, but as soon as one person tells the truth the whole edifice of control comes tumbling down.

This is, of course, why the 'zombies' in Rock of Ages, in possibly the most disturbing image Morrison has ever come up with, come out of the 'Wise Monkey' factory with their ears, eyes and mouths covered up by hands. And it's in this context that Darkseid's defeat is so interesting.

Firstly, because the efforts of the superpowered time-travellers are actually unimportant in his defeat - it's the literally powerless who bring him down. And secondly, he's defeated by Ray Palmer shrinking to the size of a photon and entering through his eyes and into his brain - in other words, he's defeated by information.

The whole of Rock Of Ages in fact is about control and information, and about attempts to reform the universe or part of it in the image of someone's mind - from the holograms controlled by the Joker, to Darkseid's plans, to the Philosopher's stone - and the defeat is always by people understanding those systems better than the controllers - J'Onn changing his brain to match the Joker's, Batman getting Desaad to put his mind into a reprogrammable computer, persuading Metron to become human.

It's also about disguise and replicas - Batman as Desaad, Plastic Man as the Joker, the duplicate Philosopher's Stone, the holograms of the League at the beginning, the hologram of Luthor at the end. J'onn making himself think like the Joker also plays into these ideas of identity.

In the end, the comic shows that attempting to control people by imposing your will on them with brute force is stupid - the way to get what you want is to attempt to understand your enemies, to walk in their shoes, and to understand the world around you. Luthor is shown as more intelligent than Darkseid, with his 'corporate takeover' plan and his way out of criminal charges, but Batman is shown to outthink both of them.

These themes turn up all the time in Morrison's work, and we'll definitely return to them as I continue looking at Final Crisis, the second issue of which I'll be getting to shortly.

1 comment:

Chad Nevett said...

Last summer, I reread Morrison's JLA and found it quite interesting that nearly every villain or group of villains is defeated either by a powerless hero or by a superpowered hero who doesn't use his or her powers. Batman and the White Martians, Green Arrow and the Key, the power of "will" against Starro and Mageddon, Catwoman taking down Prometheus, and, of course, Green Arrow and the Atom killing Darkseid. For a book about the biggest and most powerful superheroes in comics, Morrison really preferred the idea that human ingenuity and inner strength over that of superpowers.