In my last post I talked about about the nature of time in the context of superheroes, and I feel that there was one important point I didn’t hit upon that I still want to discuss. It has to do with the nature of change and growth within a fictional universe and why change is not just important, but necessary for the story to continue. First, however, I need to talk a bit about the nature of a fictional universe.
Fictional universes are a weird sort of thing. Reality has… well, reality. It’s filled with real places and real people who have a concrete existence independent of my observation of them. A fictional universe is, by definition, not real and it operates according to an entirely different set of operating principles: the rules of verisimilitude. Its existence is predicated only on the appearance of reality, and only those objects actively being observed by the audience have a determinate state.
I talk about this principle, which I call “Narrative Uncertainty”, in some detail in my book. It is the idea that persons, places, and events that are not actively being observed by the reader don’t exist in any one particular state, but rather all possible states.
Batman for example, appears on the page. He is in a particular place and state of being. When the reader moves on to the next page Batman enters a state of superposition where he could literally be anywhere and doing anything. He might be in the kitchen making a sandwich, or he might be fighting ninjas. Because we’re not observing him both states are equally real—or not—until he shows up on the page again. Batman—along with everything else in the universe the reader isn’t directly looking at—is in a state of superposition (not unlike that of Schrödinger’s famous cat) until the reader observes him and his narrative waveform collapses into a single discrete state.
In the context of the book I was speaking in terms of a game master and a roleplaying game, the idea being that a canny GM could easily move people, places, and events around to create the illusion of a universe without constraining the appearance of free will. That rather than saying “the players must go to the magic valley”, you need only have the players pick a direction and then place a magic valley, mountain, ocean, forest, or whatever in their path. The fictional reality of the game-world can reshuffle itself at will in response to the needs of the story.
The form of events is mutable in this context because the fictional reality the characters inhabit is only real in a bubble of observation around them. In the same sense, the reality of any fictional universe is only “real” around the point the audience is observing at a given moment. This is especially the case in a newly imagined universe. Until the moment the audience looks at the first panel of the first page of the first issue the universe is completely blank and without form. With each moment of the story that passes that universe is slowly filled up with narrative “stuff.”
This narrative “stuff” isn’t stuff in the way we think of it in relation to our own world: rocks, trees, buildings, etc. It is more like the idea of stuff. New York City, for example, is a bit of narrative stuff (let’s call it a “thing”). Because it’s fictional it has no concrete reality, it’s only an idea. In this case it refers to a real thing, but it doesn’t have to. The planet Krypton is also a narrative “thing”. So are Spider-Man, Boom Tubes, Inhumans, Nth Metal, and the Living Tribunal. They are “things” in the fictional universe, but they don’t directly refer to anything in our own reality.
However, objects are not the only sort of “things”. Events are also “things”. The death of Gwen Stacy is a “thing”. So is the death of Superman. Every time Batman catches the Joker or Captain America throws his shield, that’s another little bit of “stuff” that occupies a part of the fictional universe.
Every individual “thing” in a fictional universe is an idea; a concept that has the appearance of reality (that verisimilitude thing). Some of them refer to real things in our own reality while others are wholly imaginary. And collectively all of these narrative “things”—all the “stuff”—forms the universe itself. In the way our reality is composed of particles, a fictional universe is composed of ideas.
And like stuff of our own reality, all this narrative “stuff” has mass and it takes up space. When a universe is new it’s basically empty: an infinite canvas in which any and every concept could potentially be found. Every idea that you add to the universe, however, adds a bit of weight and occupies a certain amount of space.
Once that space gets occupied, it excludes something else from occupying the same space. The Marvel U. has its cosmic level characters like Galactus, the Celestials, and the Abstracts like Eternity and Infinity, Love and Hate, Order and Chaos, etc. At this point its very difficult to add a new cosmic threat, because those roles are taken.
Galactus is this awesome immortal world-killing threat that roams the galaxy eating planets. Basically everyone’s heard of him and are scared shitless by him. It would strain credulity at this point in the Marvel U. to add another awesome immortal world-killing threat that roams the galaxy that has conveniently never been mentioned before. So we see Galactus recycled over and over again. And every time he shows up and gets defeated he gets a little more familiar, and a little less interesting. We as an audience have simply seen it all before.
The same is true on a smaller scale as well. You have your various world-spanning criminal organizations, like Kobra and Intergang, or AIM and Hydra. But there can only be so many world-spanning criminal organizations.
Same with heroes. New York City can only handle so many crime-fighting vigilantes before you figure that each of them is protecting about one square block. Not to mention that one wonders why people even live in NYC when it’s getting blown up by Magneto, conquered by the Green Goblin, conquered again by the Kingpin, levitated into space by Graviton, smashed by Sentinels, and teleported into Hell itself by Belasco, or the Goblin Queen, or whoever the hell was even behind that (I honestly don’t even remember at this point, but I am suddenly kind of shaking my head in the general direction of Chris Claremont).
With every character or concept you introduce and every story you tell, the universe gets a little bit heavier and a little bit more full. It becomes less and less possible to add new characters and concepts, or tell new stories that aren’t either repeating or contradicting what’s come before. I like to describe this as a narrative singularity: the point at which the narrative gravity of a universe has become so strong no new stories can escape its pull.
So where does that leave us? I said at the top that change is not just important, but necessary for the continuance of a universe. I think a great way to examine this is to look at one of the great American art-forms: the sitcom.
Sitcoms typically exist in what is ostensibly “the real world”, have a set cast of half-a-dozen characters, a broad set of attributes, and a status quo based around a particular location. They also tend to have a shelf-life of about 3-5 years, although the really good (i.e. popular) ones can last a bit longer—perhaps 10 years, at the outside. Even the best are starting to feel old and worn out by that point, however.
Because of the constraints of the format actual change is practically non-existent, and as a result the number of stories that you can reasonably tell is actually pretty small. The fictional universe itself is itty bitty, existing in one tiny corner of a world which is otherwise identical to our own. You quickly reach a point where you’ve done all of the interesting variations of that handful of characters interacting. That universe has been filled up.
You can extend the life of the universe by altering the status quo in some way—a new character, a change in setting, or by inserting a little bit of fantasy. TV history is littered with 7th-season dream episodes, time-travel plots, and non-canonical “what if?” stories. But every time you do that it takes a little more energy, and you get a less powerful result. The universe is simply too cluttered with narrative “stuff” for the new things to have room.
There was a time when comic books were a lot more “sitcom”-y. In a long conversation with my mother she talked about the comics of her youth, stating:
“When I was reading Superman c. 1952-54, it was all small-scale traditional stuff. He lived in Metropolis, fought criminal masterminds, and prevailed through his general man-of-steel-ness. It was a world where Lex Luthor might accidentally encounter two other crime bosses while going down the spiral slide at Coney Island and hatch a plot to take out Superman.
Then after I got to be eight or so and outgrew superhero comics, they went all weird — mainly for lack of any new stories to tell. I’d see them on the rack at the newsstand and it was all that weird what-if stuff, or Bizarro, or Mr. Mxtyplyx or whatever his name was. And I’d shake my head at the silliness of it all and move on.
But fast forward another half a dozen years and by the time I encountered Marvel comics in college it was all going cosmic. The conceptual universe had expanded radically to take in vast expanses of space and time and other dimensions and evolutionary change (mutants, aliens). And that expansion had the effect of creating lots of blank space on the canvas that comics have been exploiting ever since.”
And she’s right. The Golden Age heroes were mostly vigilantes and tough guys beating up crooks and mad scientists, with a few occult characters like Dr. Fate and The Specter around the edges beating up monsters and evil wizards. It was full of characters like the original Atom—who was just a short guy who could punch hard—or Green Arrow, who could shoot a bow well.
In contrast the Silver Age was a far vaster and much stranger place, brimming with fantastical persons, places, and things with which to tell stories. Its relation to our own reality became in many ways only tangential.
This expansion provided them with a much greater volume of space to fill with narrative “stuff”, particularly when you pull out from “present day Earth” as the setting and look at the galaxy, the universe, and the multiverse. One can hardly expect Full House to tackle the personification of all that is, was, or will ever be manifesting in the living room and commanding the assembled Tanner family to take a soul-shattering journey through psychic realms and distant planes of actuality to confront ancient gods of madness. For Dr. Strange, however, that’s a pretty standard Tuesday.
No longer were these universes simply concerned with bank robbers and plans for world conquest. They were dealing with existential threats to reality itself, making journeys of discovery to new places like The Negative Zone, and confronting civil strife and tackling real-world issues.
But beyond that, Marvel and DC both have demonstrated little problem with ditching “stuff”—be it characters or whole universes—to make new room. A look back at comics past will reveal dozens of characters who have long since been consigned to the trash heap, remembered by few and mourned by none.
The combination of these two factors—the scope of the universes and the willingness to change—have allowed the superheroes universes to continue far longer than they otherwise might have. Yet even ditching old stuff to make room feels increasingly like trying to bail out a sinking ship.
It feels as though in many ways the days of wildest imagination for Marvel and DC are behind us—at least insofar as Earth-616 and Earth-1 are concerned—and we are once again approaching that point of narrative singularity.
I grew up reading superhero comics, and I still read and enjoy them to an extent. But I strongly believe that they are in danger of sinking again into the sort of quagmire of inanity that they did in the 50s, unless an entirely new mandate for the very existence of superheroes can be found.
It’s not clear to me at this point what new realm of imagination they might expand into, as they did back in the 60s, but I believe that they have to find one if superheroes are going to retain their potency as vehicles for imagination. It is a question I’m leaving open, with the intention of exploring it further in future entries.