[26 August 2014]
In 1972, Doubleday published a book by science-fiction writer Philip José Farmer. The book was called Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke and it blew my mind. The premise of the book was that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous tale of the great and noble jungle lord was based on a real person. Farmer’s work was a careful analysis of all of Burroughs’ Tarzan books with the purported purpose of distinguishing fact from fantasy. Like the scholarly tome it pretended to be, Farmer’s book contained, as addenda, documentary evidence to support the central claims of the author. At the beginning of the book Farmer printed Tarzan’s family tree, a two-page spread that I studied for hours at a time in the summer between the fifth and sixth grades. Not only was Tarzan real, but he was related to other famous “fictional” characters: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger, Doc Savage, Nero Wolfe. They were all a part of this illustrious family. They were all real.
This revelation was shocking. I could not sleep for a week. I had read most of Burroughs’ Tarzan books, and his John Carter of Mars books as well, so I was well aware of the literary devices often used by that author to establish the veracity of the extraordinary stories that he told. Farmer’s book was different, however. Looking at it now, I see that Farmer seized upon that particular literary device as the whole point of his book. He was taking Burroughs’ own tendencies and expanding them, reshaping them into something grander. But when I first read the book, in that mid-70’s summer, I believed every word of it and it shook me to the core. If Tarzan was real, and Sherlock Holmes too, then what of Moriarity? What of Mary Shelley’s monster? What of Mr. Hyde? If heroes, why not horrors?
Before that, before I was even born, in the pages of Flash #123, way back in 1961, Silver Age-Flash, Barry Allen, accidentally traveled to Earth 2 and met Golden Age-Flash, Jay Garrick. When the two Flashes met, in the classic story by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, Barry Allen explained the he knew all about Jay Garrick’s career as the Flash. He knew about the origin of his powers and about his secret identity. “You were once well-known on my world,” Barry Allen explained, “as a fictional character appearing in a magazine called Flash Comics! When I was a youngster—you were my favorite hero! A writer named Gardner Fox wrote about your adventures—which he claimed came to him in dreams!”
Barry Allen’s experience was the same as mine. His heroes turned out to be real.
With that the DC multiverse was born. Two worlds, Earth One and Earth Two, in time became infinite. There were new heroes, new worlds. There were new ideas, infinite ideas. Then came the crises. Barry died. The multiverse died. Neither would stay dead. While the Marvel universe remained mostly stable, the DC universe struggled and strained. In time, Barry was back and 52 worlds with him. But there were only 52, like the weeks in a year, mundane, repetitive, infinite only in their eternal return, their constant recurrence.
I read Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity and I don’t know what to think. It’s like he swallowed Farmer and Fox and Infantino whole. It scares me, this story of multiple worlds, where fiction is fact, and comicbooks are true. In this tale, life is layered on top of life, world on top of world. How can the universe, multiverse or not, hold this many facts? Given the infinite time that has gone before, wouldn’t they all be flattened by now, like flowers petals pressed between the pages of a book, like Frank Future, Marvel’s Mr. Fantastic in the DC multiverse, flattened and stretched out of shape, beyond recognition, beyond hope? And, sure enough, in this real world of the DC multiverse, where comicbooks tell true stories about life and death on other worlds, things are amiss, the pressure is on, the horrors are on the march against the heroes, things are broken and dying, stretched to the limit. The last of the Monitors, Nix Uotan the Superjudge, is in jeopardy, both mortal and moral. The Gentry are coming, destroying world after world.
Against the forces of evil stands a bizarre mix of heroes, most notably President Superman from Earth-23, Barack Obama as we all want him to be, a character more reminiscent of the old-Superman than of the new, the Superman from before the Crisis, before Flashpoint, before the New 52. At his side is Captain Carrot - the Easter Bunny in a mask - and a diverse remix of heroes strangely familiar and yet new. (I want these heroes to be real. Don’t you? Especially this Superman, especially this Man of Steel aboard Air Force One, off to save, not the country, not the planet, not the universe, but the whole god-damned ball of wax. ) And the thing is that it is all REAL. There are messages in this comic book for us, words from other worlds speaking to me, and to you, as we read.
So, I’m shaken again, scared like an eleven-year-old boy. I’m shaken because the evil here is complex and dark, and I’m shaken precisely because this evil seems so very real. Not that I expect the bat-winged herald of the Gentry to appear on our city streets in such obvious form, but because I am afraid that it already hides among us, is already banging at our door demanding our rent; demanding that we work longer hours for less pay; demanding that we can do without so that it can grow stronger, fatter, and richer; demanding that the corporate gentry that rule our world be given all the rights of real human beings while real human beings are left out in the cold; demanding that creativity and diversity and the infinitely wondrous be sacrificed for order and oneness and profit. Perhaps the bat-winged herald is an apt depiction for Morrison’s own corporate masters, champions of the Bat above all else, content, it sometimes seems, to let corporate needs dictate order and sameness at the expense of the creative and the new, content to show us only 52 worlds, when we could have an infinite view. Yes, I’m shaken and scared; you should be too.
But, and this is important so I’m saying it again, just in case you missed it the first time. It is the most important thing that I have to tell you, a secret I learned one summer long, long ago, a secret the gives me hope and courage, a secret that I sometimes forget but that I was reminded of this week as I read this comicbook.
Tarzan is alive. Barry Allen, too.