The most recent issue of Action, issue #13, is superdense with themes and plotlines and grand interconnectivity that produces an absolute masterpiece. The Phantom Stranger makes an appearance, in where else but the Phantom Zone. For that matter, writer Grant Morrison brings back not only the Phantom Zone, but also Krypto, Superman’s much beloved pet from his homeworld of Krypton. And in a not-unpleasant twist, introduces the theme of a preexisting Halloween—Halloween as an idea about the world of the spirits and the human world being connected. An idea, that exists on Krypton, even before it exists on Earth, that exists without the Kryptonians even articulating it in the way we do. From that moment with heart, where Superman and Krypto are finally united, right down to the moment where Superman becomes the first Kryptonian to willingly enter the Phantom Zone, there’s a lot to this issue. But the real story, the real heart of the book, is somewhere else entirely.
The real heart to the book, lies in that strange tango between the primary story and the backup story. It’s a profound point about the nature of and the need for a backup story. And an even more profound point about the medium of comics themselves. And, looking out over the devastation in the Northeast this morning, it maybe says something about the idea of self-rescue that’s architected into the simple act of reading comics.
By now, you’d already have read Action #13, you’d know that Krypto and Kal-El forged an immortal friendship almost at the time of Kal’s birth. You’d know that, by the end of the primary story, Kal rescues Krypto from the Phantom Zone. Krypto, Dear Reader, had launched himself into the Phantom Zone in the dying moments of the planet itself. His sacrifice had ensured that Jor-El and Lara were free to launch baby Kal in the rocketship to a distant Earth. And trapped in the Phantom Zone, free from the relativistic effects of time and space, Krypto chased that rocketship down to Earth, and unseen and unheard and unfelt, remained with Kal ever since.
It’s a magnificent reunion story that Grant tells in the primary. It’s both haunting, and beautifully moving. And… And it’s complete. So why shell out the cash to Sholly Fisch for that backup story, “A Boy and his Dog”, beautiful as that story may well be? After all, that backup gets told square in the middle Krypto’s story. Well after his launching into the Phantom Zone and long before his rescue by Superman.
The primary story that becomes a framing device for an “incomplete” backup story ties in flawlessly with the great and secret beauty of reading comics. Call it the “fractionated moment”. As readers we’re thrust into a moment we can only partly understand. Unlike television or films or prose, comics forces us to focus on one single aspect of that moment. On either a sound effect, or a piece of dialog, or the narrative caption, or the image itself. We see only part of the panel, but thrust into things the way we are, we can already imagine a point at some moment in the future, when defractionation occurs. A point, after we’ve read all the disparate elements and can piece them together in our own, internal, personal narrative structure.
Except of course, piecing together the panel, only leads us to the search for an even greater context. The panel we discover, is only one of several hundred panels that will appear over the course of the average comicbook. And rather than be defeated by the sheer mass of things, we find we’ve been empowered by the “victory” we’ve already achieved in reading that one panel. We already have the tools, now we get to use them on a grander scale. Comics, my parents and yours will be glad to hear how right they were all along, really does rot your brains.
Or maybe “rots” is far, far too judgmental. Maybe the word is “remodels”. Remodels based on the brain’s own inherent neuroplasticity. A concept we’re only just beginning to understand. And that more than any other, is the reason why, a backup story needs to be told, dead in the middle of a rescue whose outcome we already understand. And if you feel like I’m not telling you the whole story, or making those connections explicit… go ahead and push those two thoughts together, it’s easier than you can know…
Happy Halloween, be called, but also be safe and be warm tonight.
For those of us who found themselves in the path of Sandy, and for our own Associate Comics Editor Michael D. Stewart, our thoughts and our hopes are with you now as much during the aftermath, as they were during the storm.