Sunday, 5 August 2012

Graphic Intertextuality

I compared James Blish's prose fantasies, Black Easter and The Day after Judgement, with the Justice Society, Justice League, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Sandman and Lucifer graphic fantasies by, variously, Roy Thomas, Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey (see here). All these works share the fantasy premise of the literal existence of supernatural beings. Such beings may be gods, angels, demons or new fictitious characters, in particular Gaiman's "Endless," who are anthropomorphic personifications of aspects of consciousness. Some of the Endless - Destiny, Death and Dream - have been personified before but never as well as here.

The graphic series listed are of two kinds: superheroes - the Justice titles; dark fantasy - the rest. Further, Hellblazer is not only dark fantasy but fantasy horror. Superheroes is a composite genre incorporating fantasy:

the origin stories of Wonder Woman and of Captain Marvel refer to classical gods;
Superman's origin is extraterrestrial, therefore science fictional, but he coexists with WW, Cap and other characters whose powers are magical, not scientific;
the earlier Hawkman's origin was not extraterrestrial but reincarnational;
the Spectre and Deadman are ghosts. 

In addition, Thomas' Last Days of the Justice Society of America features the Aesir and Millar's Justice League: Paradise Lost features the angelic host which is why these two works are listed here.

In Black Easter, we are told that the demons are winning Armageddon because God is dead. In The Day After Judgement, Satan has become God but offers Godhood to mankind. In Gaiman's Sandman, Lucifer Morningstar retires as Lord of Hell. Thus, both Blish and Gaiman show us the Devil after he has ceased to be the Adversary, although they are different versions of the Devil. Blish shows us the Dantean Satan, albeit in a changed context, whereas Gaiman's Lucifer, especially as developed in the sequel by Carey, is dedicated to self-will, not to malice.

Blish's two fantasies refer to the Bible, Dante, Milton and CS Lewis. Moore and Gaiman also make scriptural and literary references. Additionally, the publishing schedule of comic books generates an indefinitely prolonged narrative that can become merely self-referential. A single company publishes several interconnected monthly titles for many years or, in some cases, decades. In the few works mentioned here, a continuous narrative stretches from the Spear of Destiny, which pierced Christ's side on the Cross, to a new universe with no Hell. Hitler uses the Spear to conjure Ragnarok. The Justice Society, merging with the Aesir, endlessly re-fights Ragnarok, thus indefinitely postponing its expected outcome, the destruction of this universe. Or so they think. That is where writer Roy Thomas leaves them.

Gaiman reveals that the endlessly re-fought Ragnarok, with its versions of Odin and the other Aesir, is a simulation in a transparent sphere held in the hand of the Odin who co-exists with the title character of Sandman, Dream of the Endless. Lucifer has retired, expelled the damned from Hell and given the Key of this now empty realm to Dream. Odin and others want the Key. Odin hopes that Dream will exchange the Key for the miniature Ragnarok. He is puzzled by the intrusion of human heroes into the sphere but hopes that Dream will be interested because one of these heroes is the earlier, very different, version of Sandman.

In Lucifer, the retired Lucifer must cope when God also retires and is succeeded, after some confusion, by his granddaughter who abolishes Hell. Thus, a fictional continuity with three authors - Thomas, Gaiman and Carey - indirectly links the Spear to the new universe. However, it is not necessary that anyone notice this. The reader of Lucifer need not remember or even have read Thomas' story. Events of comparable magnitude, like an attempt to destroy Heaven in Moore's Swamp Thing or the Swamp Thing becoming God in Millar's Swamp Thing, have occurred between the Second World War and Carey's Second War in Heaven but these also need not be remembered. 

Each story is worth reading in its own right and they present an interesting sequence if read successively but that sequence is very much in the background and for immediate story purposes might as well not be there. I have summarised some interconnected narratives that I have valued but they have been left behind by subsequent events that I have not read. Lucifer has gone but there is a new Dream and something else is happening with Swamp Thing. Comics continue and I might revisit them in future but for now I am re-reading Moore, Gaiman and Carey whose stories at least are of lasting value. 

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