Sunday, February 27, 2022

I would have been perfectly happy for Ultimate Spider-Man to have remained a story...

I would have been perfectly happy for Ultimate Spider-Man to have remained a story. I would have been perfectly happy for it to have remained in its own, hermitically sealed conceptual space with no wormholes or passages connecting it to any other Spider-Man, living or dead. Ultimate Spider-Man was obviously and utterly dependent on the Ditko/Romita/Lee comic books; retelling them, riffing on them, creating a new thing out of them; a story about a story. A meeting between the Brian Bendis Spider-Man and the Stan Lee Spider-Man would have felt like a category mistake: like Pooh winking at the audience and the little boy from the Princess Bride being taught fencing by Inigo Montaya. 
It's not so much "comparing apples with oranges" as "thinking you can take a cubist pastel rendering of a bowl of oranges and make marmalade with it".

A Picasso is as good a thing as a jar of Golden Shred. Maybe even better. And you could imagine Picasso taking his still-life fruit bowl and using it as the first frame of a comic strip about nude marmalade making. But what you'd have at the end is still a picture of a jar of marmalade. In a square jar, very probably. You can't spread it on your toast. Although you can draw a picture of yourself spreading it on a piece of toast. You can even draw a picture of yourself drawing the picture.

This is not a pipe. And this is not a pipe. And even this is not a pipe is not a pipe....

Help. I am stuck in an infinite

Ultimate Spider-Man took the old Spider-Man stories -- in truth, took fan memory of the old Spider-Man stories -- and asked "How would we tell those stories if we were telling them for the first time today?" -- where today meant "On or about the turn of the Millennium." So, Peter Parker -- married twenty-something going on thirty something  -- reverts to being 15. Aunt May, permanently at death's door now looks old enough to be his Mother's sister, i.e, not very. While Peter Parker works as a freelance crime photographer the Ultimate version works part time for J.J.J as a web-designer. Ho-ho. The magic pixie dust which infected the Spider which empowered the high school student was genetic modification rather than radioactivity; and it was part of a deliberate experiment by Norman Osborn. The powers that be, in the shape of Nick Fury, take an interest in the young, amateur superhero from the beginning. He ends up dating Kitty Pryde. Several of these ideas were borrowed for the 2002 Spider-Man movie.

But, obviously, the story was not being told for the first time; and vanishingly few readers were reading it for the first time. It generated meaning and significance through intertextuality. It relied on our memories of those older, primary, and some of us still thought, real comic books. When someone called Gwen turns up, we readers have an inkling that she may come to a bad end. When Peter and MJ make out for the first time, she exclaims "Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot" and everyone in reader-land smiles wryly.

Probably. It doesn't matter if they don't: the story makes sense anyway. 

If we were still talking about fan fiction, which thank Galactus we are not, we would ask whether "fan- fiction" ever meant anything more than "a story about another story". We could then wonder out loud if all stories are about other stories; and if it therefore follows that everything is fan-fiction, even if when isn't.

Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four were never quite so good. The X-book was only superficially distinguishable from the mainstream X-books, and the F.F book was a perfectly good science fiction story which didn't have a great deal to do with the source-text. But the Ultimates, a team consisting of (stop me if you've heard this before) Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Ant Man was enjoyably extreme, and exerted considerable influence over the cinematic Avengers. Before Ultimates, Nick Fury was a cigar smoking white guy from New York; after Ultimates, he was irrevocably Samuel L Jackson. But Ultimate Captain America was a gung-ho nutcase, and all the more fun because of it. ("Surrender? Do you think this A on my helmet stands for FRANCE?")

Around the time of the one hundred and fiftieth issue of Ultimate Spider-Man, writer Bendis had the bright idea of killing Peter Parker and replacing him with a new spider-enhanced teenager. It was a clever, back-to-basics move. Ultimate Spider-Man started out trying to be more like Spider-Man than Spider-Man: dropping decades of clones, dead relatives and resurrected super-villains, and taking us back to a contemporary character who we nevertheless still recognise as Stan and Steve's 1960s ubernerd. But a decade of Ultimate stories (none of which were dreams or imaginary tales) left us with a Peter Parker who was equally recognisable as the original Spidey.

That's how stories work. Either stuff happens, or else nothing happens. Either the hero changes, or he stays the same. Umberto Eco, yes that Umberto Eco, thought this was where the whole idea of Imaginary Stories came from: a way of allowing Superman to both change and not change at the same time. 

The Death of Spider-Man gave Peter Parker closure; and wound us back to the core idea of Spider-Man. A very young lad; still in high school, lumbered with powers he never chose, doing his best to be a superhero but screwing up all the time. The new incumbent, Milers Morales, came from an Hispanic background, which made racists very cross indeed.

For me, this stuff worked because Ultimate Spider-Man was, well, an Imaginary Tale. If the Marvel Universe Spider-Man, as created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were to have been killed off -- well, it might make a good story, but you would know -- absolutely know -- that next month or next year or possibly the year after, the original character would be restored to life and everything would carry on as before. No-one dies forever except Bucky. Ultimate Peter Parker could drop dead because, ultimately, he's not real and it doesn't matter. This brought a playful naughtiness into the proceedings, as if the writers were saying "Let's see if we can get away with doing things to these characters that we could never do to them in real life." When New York gets flooded due to the evil actions of Magneto, Spider-Man stays behind to help survivors. When J.Jonah Jameson witnesses this, he realises he's been wrong all these years, and becomes as obsessed with boosting Spidey as a hero as he had been in denigrating him as a menace.

But Ultimate Spider-Man could not remain a story.

In 2012, a perfectly nice story called "Spider-Men" happened, with the Miles Morales version of the character dimension-hopping and meeting up with the original Peter Parker. At that moment, we had to stop thinking of Ultimate Spider-Man as "a story about a story" and start thinking of it as "a different part of the multiverse". 

Fans sometimes refer to the Marvel Universe by Alan Moore's 616 designation; although this terminology is reportedly not much liked inside the camp. According to this nomenclature, the Ultimate Universe is apparently Earth-1610. Some of the other worlds have been given phone numbers: the world in which Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four is apparently Earth-772.

And in 2015, Marvel succumbed to the inevitable. It did what DC had done thirty years earlier. It rebooted the universe. Earth-616 and Earth-1610 crashed together, destroying both, and creating a new setting, an amalgamation of their respective good parts. Miles Morales ended up in the same universe as Peter Parker. This was probably a bad idea. But it led, indirectly, to the Best Spider-Man movie and very probably the best superhero movie.

Into the Spider-Verse had one huge advantage over the three live-action essays. The common herd had never heard of Miles Morales: there was no baggage. The movie had to sell Miles Morales to a general audience as a character. It couldn't rely on our familiarity with the tale. On the other hand, there was no danger of anyone saying "Oh, god, not that Uncle Ben thing, again, again." Sam Raimi's Peter Parker had to some extent been the very famous and archetypal Peter Parker with his own theme tune and tee-shirt. Miles Morales was just some kid. 

Which was the original point of Spider-Man: the Hero Who Could Be You.

The movie had to sell non-comic book audiences on the idea that there could be more than one Spider-Man; and many critics must have been perplexed by the hoodie-wearing-hero on some of the posters. In the comic books, Miles' extra-dimensional origins were a matter of narrative necessity: he was a character from a discontinued line of comic books. In the animated movie, his status as "the Spider-Man from another universe"  became his unique selling point. The movie persuades us that there could be two different Spider-Men by offering us eight. But it also spends an inordinate amount of time just showing us Miles being Miles; his parents, his uncle, his graffiti, his awkward first day at the gifted school. He starts out as a viewpoint character in a universe where Spider-Man is real. We are offered a quite shameless piece of wish fulfilment -- fan-boy meets hero -- and follows it up with a cruel tragedy -- fan boys sees hero die. "Fan-boy tries to take hero's place" and "Fan-boy is not very good it at" follow quite naturally. We are still processing all this when we work out that the dead Spider-Man, the red-haired Spider-Man is not our Spider-Man. He is, if anything, Ultimate Spider-Man, with a young, understanding Auntie and a Spider-Cave full of Spider-Suits. At which point the idea of the Spider-verse is made explicit: the other Peter Parker, our Peter Parker, appears in Miles-world. 

Except it isn't the Peter Parker we know. It's an overweight, drop-out Peter B Parker who has quit Spidering.

At which point, all bets are off, and we are given lady Spider-Gwens, manga Spider-Droids and a very silly black and white film noir Spider-Rorschach. And yet the focus of the film remains resolutely on the character of Miles Morales: how he gains the confidence to be a hero in his own right. By the time all the other Spiders go back to their correct times and places we have accepted that different universes have their own web-spinner, and Miles has got as much right to take up the mantel as anyone else.

The different versions of Spider-Man are not presented as What Ifs... There is no single moment of choice which could have resulted in Miles Morales turning into an anthropomorphic pig. They aren't Imaginary Stories either -- they have autonomous reality and make sense on their own terms. There isn't much sense that the same Being appears in different forms in different times and place. No-one has read the Spider With A Thousand Faces. Miles Morales is not an avatar of the Eternal Spider.  There just happen to be different Spider-Men who are similar in some ways and different in others. 

I think that even the most the casual film goer can see that Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir (at least) are literary takes on the character: different ways of telling the story.  Not "Peter Parker as he could have turned out if things had been different" but "Spider-Man as he might have been imagined in a 1930s pulp novella" and "Spider-Man as he might have been imagined in a 1950s Warner Brothers Toon". 

Peter Porker is not a cartoon character. Or, at any rate, he is a cartoon character; but he comes from a different universe which functions according to cartoon logic. Spider-Man-Noire is not a character from a black and white movie. He comes from universe where colour literally does not exist. Characters who are logically "just stories" are autonomous beings who can interact with the flesh and blood Miles. But then Miles himself started out being "just a story" and might have remained so. "All stories are true" is now a logic according to which the universe functions. 

Peter Porker looks like a cartoon. But despite a lot of metafictional pyrotechnics in the actual animation, Morales himself never feels like a comic book character. He feels like a young lad in the real world who is finding out what great power comes with. 

Friday, February 25, 2022

If stories are only valuable if they are Pretend-Real; and if one particular Author(ity) has the power to say which stories are Pretend-Real and which are not -- then it is quite reasonable for fans to feel sad or aggrieved when the Author(ity) suddenly changes his mind.

If stories are only valuable if they are Pretend-Real; and if one particular Author(ity) has the power to say which stories are Pretend-Real and which are not -- then it is quite reasonable for fans to feel sad or aggrieved when that Author(ity) suddenly changes his mind. (His mind. I think canon-keepers are probably male. I think the canon is probably a patriarchal construct.) The reader has spent a decade reading stories in one particular way: she is suddenly presented with a Disney Encyclical telling her that she has to start reading those same stories in a different way -- a way, which for her, deprives the stories of their purpose and point.

"You are no longer allowed to treat these texts as news and information from a secondary world. From next Tuesday, you have to treat them as being stories. And what is worse, on the following Wednesday we are going to start issuing new and completely different texts, and you are to rebuild the secondary world in their image."

So, it is not very surprising that some Star Wars fans were quite genuinely sad when Disney announced that all the novels and comics and computer games set after Return of the Jedi would be, for the purposes of Star Wars VII, VIII and IX, non-canonical. The much reviled prequel trilogy was still canon; but the widely enjoyed Heir to the Empire novels were not. You could still read them if you wanted to, but you could not read them to learn about the Star Wars universe. They had been re-designated as “legends”. I think a legend is probably the same thing as an imaginary story. If you want to call them fan-fiction, I certainly cannot stop you.

No high-budget mass-market reboot of the Star Wars franchise was ever going to be an adaptation of a twenty-five year-old spin-off novel. But some fans honestly couldn't conceive of it being anything else. They weren't saying "Heir to the Empire is a really good novel. We would have liked to have seen it realised on the Big Screen with Big Screen Special Effects. We are disappointed that Admiral Thrawn has been replaced by General Hux." That would have been a perfectly reasonable thing to say. I myself think that Galactus is a really good supervillain. I would have liked to have seen him realised on the big screen with big screen special effects. I was disappointed that the second Fantastic Four movie decided to replace him with a big cloud of purple smog.

But I think that the Star Wars Expanded Universe fans were saying something different. I think that they were committed to Star Wars as a saga with a fixed an immutable history. I think that they thought of the Star Wars universe as a collection of facts, not a collection of stories. A film in which Luke Skywalker doesn't marry a bounty hunter and become a dark side disciple of the Emperor's clone (*) is no longer a Star Wars film; in the same way that a book about Neville Chamberlain leading an Anglo-Japanese alliance against the communist Americans is no longer a book about the Second World War. Ye canna change the facts of history any more than ye can change the laws of physics.

Plus it had girls and black people in it. That made some Star Wars fans very cross as well. (**)

“All the time I spent reading those books was wasted, because some exec in America has announced that they didn’t really happen.” I literally heard a man say that in Forbidden Planet.

I was tempted to mutter "...but then, aren't they all..." . Or perhaps point him to Douglas Adams riff about Lalaffa the poet. The books are exactly the same as they always were, so what’s the difference?

I wonder if he was the same man who told me, all those years ago, that the Phantom Menace had raped his childhood all those years ago?


There is a solution. It’s a very good solution, and it seems fun for a few minutes, but if you are not very careful, it ends up ruining everything.

We have agreed that, in Doctor Who and Star Trek and Marvel and DC Comics there are allowed to be parallel worlds in which the Brigadier has an eyepatch; Captain Kirk is a fascist and Uncle Ben never died. These parallel worlds are part of the secondary reality: the Watcher can observe them; and the Flash can open a wormhole between them. The Justice League and the Justice Society can have get-togethers on a regular basis; and Marvel/DC crossovers are not out of the question. So why can we not say that the Star Wars "legends" are part of a branching timeline; one more strand of the infinite multiverse?

Wouldn't that be fun?

Instead of complaining about the despoiling of the canon, why not look forward to the moment when Ben Solo (son of Leia and Han) slips through a wormhole and meets up with Ben Skywalker (son of Luke and Mara).

Several Hon Members: "Mara? Who the hell is Mara?"


Great Stories can be told and retold in lots of different ways. I came up with five different fictional Mary Shellys without trying. I ran out of fingers before I ran out of Robins Hood (***). No sooner had the idea of Superman been thought of than there was a Superman comic book (1938) a Superman newspaper strip (1939) a Superman radio show (1940) and a Superman cartoon (1941). They didn't form one big story. Hell, the comic book wasn't even that consistent with itself. No-one felt the need to explain why Superman leaped tall buildings in the Action Comic, but flew above them in the Cartoon; or why Superman’s existence is a secret on the Radio but public knowledge in the Comic. They were different stories; or the same story told in different ways.

When I was very small indeed I could already see that the TV Wombles were different from the Book Wombles and different again from the Wombles that appeared each week in Playland comic (which was way too babyish for me in any case.)

So: why not take the final, fatal step.

Box Three stories are the only true stories.

Box Four stories are essentially without value.

But if a Box Three reality can contain multiple versions of itself then it doth follow as the night the day that no box Four Story need ever exist. Put everything in Box Three and call it a parallel world.

Nothing is only a story.

Everything really happened.

The Superman who appears on the Radio is part of the same reality as the Superman who appeared in the comic, but exists in a different strand of the multiverse.

Evaluative criticism can be dispensed with; all that is left is endless Watsonian scholarship.

“My comic book is about the really really real Batman; the dark, tragic vigilante who fights terrifying, psychotic enemies. Your dumb TV show is just some pretend parody of ther Batman with zaps and kapows and lame villains that some jerk made up out of his head."

“No, on the contrary, my TV Batman is as epistemologically real as yours, he merely happens to exist in a different one of the myriad realities that make up the DC universe....”

“So how come you can literally see the sound effects, huh?”

“Interesting. We must investigate how sound and vision function on the plane known as Earth TV.”

It seems to me that even if it is happening on a parallel world, the TV Batman is still pretty dumb; but if you found it fun and clever then you can carry on finding it fun and clever even if it's just a story some fella made up.

But, you know.


Fair enough.

If it helps, it helps.

Whatever gets you through the dark knight.

Superman on the Radio comes from an actually existing parallel world called Earth-R.

Superman on the TV comes from an actually existing parallel world called Earth-TV.

Superman on the packet of cornflakes comes from an actually existing parallel world called Earth-Kellogg.

And there is no reason on Earth-Prime why one day they shouldn't all meet up and have a reunion. Radio Superman punching people on the chin and attending church; Silver Age Superman retreating to his clubhouse with his super friends and super pets; post-Crisis-John-Byrne-Yuppie-Superman locking phantom zoners in death chambers with black Kryptonite...

Alan Moore said that all stories were true. I think he really meant that no story was true. Tash is no more than Aslan. More than once he imagined dream-time cities populated by every possible version of Superman and every possible version of Captain Britain. It was Alan Moore who first decided that the primary Marvel Universe, the one which isn't a parallel or a What If... should be called Earth-616.

And this is essentially what Spider-Man: No Way Home has done. It has taken a weird copyright muddle and turned it into a cosmological principle.

(*) He gets better

(**) And some of them just didn't think it was very good.

(***) Walter Scott
T.H White
Erol Flynn
Richard Green
the chap in tights I saw in Babes in the Wood at the Intimate when I was ten,
the Clannad One
the Kevin Costner one,
that Other One Which Came Out At The Same Time as the Kevin Costner One
the Sean Connery One Where He’s Old
the Serious 1970s BBC One That I’d Like To See Again If It’s Ever On Britbox
the Russel Crowe One I Didn’t See
the More Recent BBC One Which Wasn’t Very Good
the One in the Spires and Boden Song
the one Huw Lupton does as performance piece
the Silent Douglas Fairbanks One
the Spoof With One With the Guy From Princess Bride
the Disney One Where He is a Fox
that Time They Did It On The Muppets
the New BBC One I keep seeing trailers for
the very old lost TV one with Patrick Troughton
the Tony Robinson Maid Marion One

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

More than one person has told me that they like Star Wars but that they don't like "the fan fiction"....

More than one person has told me that they like Star Wars but that they don't like "the fan fiction".

They mean that they like the Trilogy but not the Prequels; or that they like Episodes I - VI but not Episodes VII, VIII and IX; or that they like the movies but not the cartoons, or that they think the Mandalorian contains too many inside references for its own damn good.

One old friend in the Twittersphere says that there is only one Star Wars film ("it is called Star Wars") and that everything else is fan fiction.

Well, from a critical point of view, this is not a million miles away from my own position. The 1977 movie "Star Wars" -- the one now known as Episode IV, A New Hope -- had a unique flavour, and nothing since has come anywhere near recapturing that flavour. As Star Wars critic and theorist Andrew Rilstone once said, the Empire Strikes Back doesn't extend the Star Wars Universe; but it is just about possible to retrofit Star Wars into the universe created in Empire Strikes Back.

But "everything else is fan fiction" is a really, really odd way of expressing that thought.

"The Book of Boba Fett is fan-fic" is a snarky way of saying "The Book of Boba Fett is not canon". Which, in the first place, isn't true. And in the second place, is unnecessarily demeaning to the folk who actually read and enjoy fan fiction.  And in the third place -- well, why does it matter if it is canon or not?

Sometimes, when I watch Star Wars -- a New Hope -- I choose to watch it as if it was a stand alone fairy tale set in space. As if Obi-Wan told the truth, and Darth Vader really murdered Luke's father. As if there was nothing incestuous about Luke and Leia's kiss.
You might say that I am pretending that no such movie as The Empire Strikes Back was ever made. You might say that it does exist as an artefact, but that it didn't really happen. That it doesn't have secondary reality. That it is only a story. That is belongs in Box Four. 

Or, if you absolutely insist, that it is fan fiction.

Sometimes when I watch Star Wars Episode IV I choose to watch it as if it were one component of a vast space saga stretching from The High Republic to the Rise of Skywalker and beyond. I like that kind of thing: Dune and the New Gods and the Thanos saga. Star Wars is bigger and more fun than any of them. In which case you might say that I am treating The Empire Strikes Back (and the Force Awakens, and all hundred and something episodes of the Clone Wars, and all fifty something issues of Doctor Aphra) as if it were canonical. As if it "really happened"; as secondary reality; and belongs in Box Three.

I suppose most of the time we hold both readings in our head. Obi-Wan is both lying and telling the truth; Leia is both Luke's lover and Luke's sister. See Threepio is both a droid and a man in an uncomfortable metal suit. The desert is both on Tatooine and in Tunisia. Wherever you go in the universe, there is a loud orchestra playing, but Luke and Han and Leia don't seem to be able to hear it.

I don't see how any of this is clarified by saying "fan fiction".

You could take the line that the only Star Wars Universe is the one George Lucas created. J.J Abrams ideas about how Han and Leia's marriage turned out and what they named their son has the same status as a piece of Han/Leia erotica on a Star Wars word-press blog. (Tash is no more than Aslan.) 

That would be an intelligible approach. I believe that fans of the Other Franchise used to say that only episodes Gene Roddenbury had a direct hand in were canonical. 

I myself am sometimes inclined to think that the first decade of Marvel Comics -- say from 1962 to 1973 -- are the only "real" Marvel comics. The primary text is the text that Stan Lee directly created; everything else is other writers riffing on his material. Some of them were very good writers; some of them produced very good riffs. But none of them was Stan Lee. But on this definition it would be deeply odd to say that The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith -- three films over which Lucas had complete artistic control -- are "only fan-fic". Fan-fic is pretty much the opposite of what they are. The Clone Wars TV series is probably as close as we can get to George Lucas's original, unadulterated vision of how he wanted Star Wars to be. The true identity of Luke's father wasn't in George's original notebook: but the Midichlorians decidedly were. 

Is Attack of the Clones a good movie? No, it is not. 

Is Attack of the Clones a good Star Wars movie? No, it is not. 

Do I think that Anakin's massacre of the Sand People is going to be a major plot point in the forthcoming Tatooine-set Obi-Wan TV show? Yes, I do.

Okay then. You could simply say that you really liked the prologue to Return of the Jedi, in which Boba Fett met an ignominious end in the Pit of Sarlacc, and really dislike the way the Mandalorian changed the story and said that he survived. 

There is nothing wrong with that. Where there are two versions of one story, it is quite natural to prefer one to the other. In Pygmalion, Eliza leaves Higgins and opens a florist shop with Freddie. In My Fair Lady, she goes back to the Professor. The original ending is better, in my opinion: the musical comedy version feels like a cop-out. Both exist; both were approved by the Author, who recognised that movies and stage-plays had different rules.

"Did you really just reference Jabba the Hutt and Eliza Doolittle in the same paragraph, Andrew?" 

Yes. I am rather afraid that I did.

But in preferring "Boba died" to "Boba survived" we are not comparing two versions of one story. We are not talking about Return of the Jedi. Return of the Jedi is a film. It's the same film in 2022 that it was in 1986  (give or take a Haden Christensen and a couple of gub-gubs.) We are not talking about The Book of Boba Fett. The Book of Boba Fett is a TV series about space gangsters, which some of us liked and some of us didn't like. We are talking about some third thing, which doesn't exist in any particular text, but which is out there, in idea-space, in our collective imagination, in fan discourse. We have tacitly agreed that what we talk about when we talk about Star Wars is The Star Wars Universe. We approve or disapprove of Boba Fett and the Last Jedi and the Bad Batch because of what they do, or what they do not do, to that conceptual non-thing.

If everything was an imaginary story then you wouldn't be complaining about the pit of Sarlacc. You care about the change because you think that all the different bits of Star Wars fit together into one enormous story. It's that one enormous story you think the Book of Boba Fett has spoiled. You are only saying that it is fan fiction because you don't believe that it is fan fiction. 

I agree that Star Wars has taken some missteps. I think that Star Wars is irreducibly a comic-strip world of people in black hats and people in white hats. I think that once you start giving the scary savage natives their own culture and their own way of life, then the very thing which was fun about Star Wars goes away. But that's an artistic judgement. A political judgement, too, if you think that "cowboys and Indians" is a racist trope. Some of the novels and comics have gone so far as to say that The Jedi and The Sith are not forces of good and forces of evil locked in perpetual manichean opposition; but two different but perfectly valid ways of looking at the world. The Dark Side is Dark, not because it is evil, but because it is hidden. I think that this is a really bad idea. I think that Star Wars is about goodies and baddies or else it is about nothing. But I wouldn't frame this in terms of canon and fan fic. 

I will never love anything in the way that I first loved Star Wars. But I like the composite fix-up universe of which Star Wars: A New Hope is one component very much; enough to be rewatching all 150 episodes of The Clone Wars and trying to keep up with Marvel's infinitely extended War of the Bounty Hunters "event". I like baroque, complicated, fictional worlds. I particularly like the way in which sleazy space saloons; mystical space-monk retreats; honourable space-knights in space-armour; and thrilling space opera all fit together into one story. I think this is one of the things that The Clone Wars cartoon does very well. It's slightly bloated, ensemble format showcases the scope of the Star Wars Universe. 

There are some really interesting out-takes on Disney Plus. There's a clip of Harrison Ford meeting a fat human called Jabba the Hutt; and a clip of Mark Hamill talking to a man with moustache about the nationalisation of the shipping lanes. They offer a really strange lens to look at Star Wars through. A universe almost, but not completely unlike the one we are familiar with. 

Fan fic? Canon? Stories? Things which George Lucas wrote on the back of an envelope and crossed out. 

Shall I tell you a secret? I even slightly don't hate the Holiday Special, because it takes me back to my pre-Hoth world where Star Wars was just a movie.
The TV franchise -- from The Clone Wars to Obi-Wan and beyond -- treats Star Wars as a place and a history. It assumes that we want to know who took over on Tatooine after Jabba died and are interested in who the first students in Luke's Jedi school were. How much we care it depends on our degree of engagement with the franchise. If you have even the vaguest idea of what a Star War is, then you understand questions like "What was Obi-Wan doing on Tattooine in the years of his exile?" and "Had Luke met Old Ben before that day in the Dune Sea?" If you regard Star Wars: Rebels as being in the same category as Droids and Ewoks then "Where is Ezra Bridger?" is pretty much devoid of meaning.

I think David Filoni is doing a pretty good job of bringing balance to the franchise. Mr Canon Freak gets to say "That was a Lothcat, wasn't it? I'm pretty sure it was a Lothcat", while Mr I've Never Seen Star Wars can still get the gist of what is basically a  spaghetti western with ray guns. If you haven't seen Rebels, you can still grok that Ashoka is a former Jedi and a person of some importance; but if you have seen it, you smile knowingly when she mentions she’s an old friend of Luke’s family.

Some people like this stuff on general principles. Some people object to it on equally general principles. I am lawful neutral. I like fantasy worlds. I like the illusion of the Star Wars universe being "out there" and that it would carry on being "out there" even if no-one was telling any stories about it. I am not intrinsically thrilled when a baddie from one of the cartoons appears in one of the live action series; but I don’t run away whimpering “fan service, fan service, get a life, get a life, fan fiction, fan fiction” either.

Mr Ultra Hard Core Canon Freak likes internal continuity and hates it at the same time. He spends three months saying “Squee! Squee! That gangster who kid Boba used to hang out with a series two of ther Clone Wars is going to be in the live action series, squee! squee!”. But once they see the episode in question, they are like “You did it wrong! He didn’t look right! You changed it! You have raped my childhood!"

Star Wars can't be an imaginary world and at the same time not be an imaginary world. You can't add to the setting and leave the setting unchanged. You can't pretend Tatooine is a real place and avoid mentioning dewbacks and krayt dragons in case someone thinks you are a sad case who needs to get out more. If I point out that a female of Yoda’s race (named ‘Yaddle’) was a member of the Jedi Council in Phantom Menace, and wonder out loud if perhaps she is Grogu’s mother, then Filoni might very well say “Nice thought, but no, they aren’t related...” But he would be unlikely to say “Phantom Menace is only a film; Female Yoda was both on the council and not on the council because the council was made up out of George’s head and anyway Episode I was shit, get a life, this is an imaginary story, aren't they all”. On the other hand, if I were to ask what happened to Jaxxon the giant bunny he would naturally say “That was stuff that Roy Thomas made up for a 1970s comic book, before Empire Strikes Back even came out."

Unless, of course, David Filoni decided that a giant green leporine bounty hunter was exactly what the Galaxy needed. In which case he might very well write a new story which happened to have Jaxxon in it. Star Wars "legends" material continue to exert a gravitational pull on the new, post-Disney canon. Comics, books and novels and cartoons and computer games are being treated as a vast melting pot of tropes from which characters and storylines can be scooped. Ashoka mentions that she is hunting down an ex-imperial officer named Thrawn. Thrawn was the main villain in Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels: he was the eponymous Heir to the Empire who tried to keep things going after Vader and the Emperor were killed. That’s all been retrospectively de-canonised: but Thrawn -- a blue skinned alien, like an evil Sherlock Holmes crossed with an evil Mr Spock -- turned up as a villain in Rebels. Because he’s fun. Perhaps someone will decide that Jaxxon the Rabbit is fun as well.  

Disney has not retrospectively re-canonized an entirely different post-Endor history. But neither had it flipped Baby Yoda into a different part of the Multiverse where Ben Solo was never born, the First Order never arose, and the Starkiller project never occurred. The Star Wars universe remains resolutely singular. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

We comic books fans are very resistant to placing comics in Box Four...

We comic book fans are very resistant to placing comics in Box Four ("it's just a story") and very inclined to treating all our beloved characters as inhabiting Box Three ("it's an actual universe which just happens not to exist".)

There is no shame in this. It can be great fun. Some Sherlock Holmes fans like to pretend that the stories really are Doctor Watson's write-ups of real cases which a real detective really solved. It's a fine scholarly game and it's been going on for more than a hundred years. I myself had a great time pretending that the early issues of Spider-Man were historical texts: looking at maps of New York and Greyhound bus-timetables, checking up what things cost in the 1960s and working out, to within a few days either way, the precise date on which Spider-Man was trapped under the wreckage of Doctor Octopus's underwater base. 

Sometimes this illuminated the story in interesting ways; usually it didn’t. I did a similar thing with the text of Mark's Gospel and a Google map of the Holy Land, with similarly patchy results. But I knew perfectly well I was playing a game, and quite a silly one. So do all Sherlockians and most comic-book readers. New Testament scholars I would not vouch for. 

"How could Spider-Man possibly have web-swung from Forest Hills to Madison Avenue in three minutes" is a perfectly good question. "Maybe he can swing at 200 miles per hour" is one perfectly good answer. (That's presumably why he arrives at the scene of the crime just in time like a streak of light.)  "Perhaps he bumped into the Human Torch and hitched a lift" is another perfectly good answer. "I think I will write a piece of fan fiction about what happened while Spidey was in the back seat of Johnny's segment of the Fantasticar" is no more pointless than anything else which human beings spend their time on. 

"Stan Lee isn't remotely interested in travel times" is a third perfectly good way of answering the  question. It has the virtue of almost certainly being true: Lee sometimes forgets that the Bugle is meant to be in Manhattan and that Peter is meant to lives in Queens. Indeed, he sometimes writes as if New York is a very small village where everyone knows everyone else. But "Stan Lee doesn't care" is a different kind of answer from the other two. Shelockians would say that it was Doylist rather than Watsonian. When you are reading a story, you kind of have to be Watsonian. When you are writing smart essays about it on the Internet, you can afford to be a Doylist. It is probably unwise to be both at the same time. 

Most of the time, most readers are quite happy to say "Spider-Man travelled from some place, to some other place, in the amount of time it was narratively appropriate for him to take and not a minute more.” But just occasionally -- as when the Angel seems to be able to fly across the Atlantic in ten minutes, or Shang Chi sees thatched cottages and taverns at the edge of Trafalgar Square -- our ability to suspend disbelief evaporates. 

Why can't I say "Spider-Man didn't cross New York in three minutes; that never happened; we can cross that bit out; it's just a story"? Because if I do, then I have admitted the possibility that the Burglar didn't kill Uncle Ben. And the fight with the Sinister Six never happened. And that we can cross out the bit where Doctor Octopus unmasked him. And the underwater base is just a story. If one thing isn't true, then maybe nothing is true. And if we admit that we can no longer play the great game. 

This applies to more serious matters as well. If maybe-possibly-perhaps Saint Matthew made up the story of baby Jesus and the star and the wizards to make a theological point then maybe-possibly-perhaps he made up everything else as well. If we admit that Jonah and the Whale is maybe-possibly-perhaps an Imaginary Tale, we might have to entertain the possibility that maybe-possibly-perhaps God is also an Imaginary Tale; in which case there would be no point in reading any of the stories ever again. Unless you think that stories have points in themselves. 

This is why there are YouTube videos of angry Americans who believe that dragons exist, dinosaurs do not, and that the rotundity of the earth is an elaborate hoax.


There is probably a very good piece of fan-fiction to be written about how Tolkien discovered the Red Book. I imagine that Ronald would be a kind of literary Indiana Jones, running all around Europe with his faithful companion Jack and his clever kid-sidekick Chris; chased by orc-worshipping occultists and Blue Wizard initiates, collecting precious MSS and bringing them back to the Bodelian where they can  be properly translated. The Space Traveller in Out of the Silent Planet is a philologist, fairly obviously meant to be Tolkien, and the book ends with a classic Box Three framing sequence in which C.S Lewis says that he is presenting real events as if they were fictional in order to get humans used to the idea that there are alien angels on Mars. The preface to Lord of the Rings strongly implies that a small number of very well hidden Hobbits and diminished Elves still survive in our own Seventh Age. Tolkien knew Lewis and Lewis met Yeats and Yeats new Crowley and Williams was an initiate of the Order of the Golden Dawn. If I had the slightest talent for fiction, I might try to write it myself. 

But Tolkien himself doesn't really go in for that sort of thing. The Red Book is something he takes for granted in order to give himself a viewpoint. The unfinished Book of Lost Tales -- what eventually became the Silmarillion --  did have a frame narrative about an Anglo Saxon sailor who travelled to what was still called Fairyland and learned the history of what were still called the Gnomes. And what became the Second Age of Middle-earth was introduced in an unfinished Time Travel story about a modern-day father and son who had inherited a kind of psychic race memory linking them with ancient Numenor. There may even have been a fortnight when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis intended their various stories to cohere into an Inklingverse. The Merlin of That Hideous Strength claims to know the magical traditions of a place called Numinor [sic]. These framing devices are largely missing from the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings and the published Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien infers, correctly I think, that the viewpoint of the Silmarillion is "the tales that Bilbo heard in Rivendell". 

But Tolkien always takes it for granted that his stories are to be read as Box Three artefacts. They are not Just Stories: we are to pretend that they are historical fictions based on primary texts. Books about the real world, set in an imaginary time, was one way he explained it. He maintains a -- so to speak -- Watsonian perspective even when he is writing informally or making notes for his own benefit. He never looks at an inconsistency and says "I wrote that wrong, I'll have to change it". He is more inclined to say "There are two distinct traditions" or to write a fresh text explaining how the apparent contradiction arose. Asked by a fan why Gollum thought that the Ring was a birthday present given that Hobbits don’t receive presents on their birthdays he improvised a long riff about the different gift-giving customs among the different tribes.

This maybe why some people find Christopher Tolkien so hard to take. Any illusion that Middle-earth is really, really real is thoroughly dispersed by the Twelve Volume History. What we thought of as fixed chronology turns into something contingent and unstable; a set of ideas that Tolkien was constantly changing and erasing and literally overwriting. Your respect for Tolkien the artist increases. Your secondary belief in Middle-earth takes quite a battering.

The trailers for the forthcoming Second Age TV series appear to indicate that there will be elves of colour and possibly Asian hobbits. The racists are out in force, saying that this is not true to Tolkien's vision. To which the only possible answer is "Which vision?"


There is a certain species of fan who feels that a story only matters in so far as it can be located in Box Three. Watsonian readings are the only ones which matter. A story is part of a sub-created world or else it is nothing. Marvel Comics are there to provide us with information about what happened in the Marvel Universe as opposed to entertaining us with unlikely yarns about people who wear their underwear on the outside. 

The Story of Superman Red and Superman Blue is, by common consent, delightful. What If The Avengers Had Fought The Kree/Skrull War Without Rick Jones is fairly obscure. But "being delightful" is not what puts a story in Box Three. Nor is self-consistency, good-story-telling or having something to say about the real world. A story goes into Box Three if the writer or the editor or the show runner or J.K Rowling says that it can go into Box Three.

In fandom, as in religion, that is pretty much what Canon means: a text which some person in authority has approved of.

Why is that book part of the Canon? 

Because the Canon-Keeper says so.

Who is the Canon-Keeper? 

The person who decides which books are part of the Canon. 

Only the showrunner, or the editor, or the Holcron Keeper can move a text from Box Four to Box Three. And once they have done so, they cannot be gainsaid. A story really happened if Stan or Roy or Mark or George or Kathleen says it really happened. No other considerations apply. The silly in-joke about the eleven faces of Doctor Who in Brain of Morbius is irrevocable canon because Chris Chibnall says so. 

To believe in Canon is to believe in the absolute primacy of Authorial Intention. Your job as reader is to read the text in the way that the author tells you to read it. 

In Chaucer's English, the word Author and Authority were the same word. 

I could read the 1993 Death of Superman story as if it were an imaginary tale, if I wanted to. And I could read the 1965 imaginary story with the same title as if it was canonical. There are as many head canons as there are heads. Frank Miller once half-seriously remarked that so far as he was concerned, after Daredevil 191 Matt Murdoch went home and quit crime fighting: all the subsequent episodes were "imaginary". I myself have said that I think that Steve Ditko intended The Final Chapter to be the end of the story of Spider-Man: that having purged himself of his guilt, Peter Parker quit being a superhero and concentrated on taking care of Aunt May and studying science. But a label which says "This is an imaginary story..." is a pretty clear instruction from the writer that we readers are not allowed to treat the story as canonical. A caption which says "Not a dream! Not a hoax!" is a pretty clear instruction to read it as if it teally happened. 

I can ignore the rubrics. But once you have denied the authority of the Canon Keeper you have, I think, denied the existence of Canon. And that might be a perfectly sensible thing to say. "I don't care if a particular sub-set of Spider-Man stories make up the true story of Spider-Man. I just see a lot of comics, cartoons, and movies. Some of them I enjoy. Other's not so much."

You are perfectly free to say "I don't agree with the Pope on this one. In my Head Canon, Thomas is part of the New Testament and there are Four Persons in the Trinity." But not, I think, to say that and still think of yourself as a Roman Catholic. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

All the stories in the world can be placed in one of two boxes....

All the stories in the world can be placed in one of two boxes.

Into the first box goes stories which didn’t really happen, but invite us to imagine that they did. 

Into the second box goes stories which don’t pretend to be anything other than artistic creations, made up by a story teller for our entertainment.

What if... stories and tales of Parallel earths go into the first box, along with epistolatory novels and first person narratives and pretend diaries and True Confessions.
Imaginary tales go into the second box along with most jokes and ballads and fairy tales and parables. 

You might expect the first box to contain all the sensible stories about housewives and businessmen and school cricket teams and regency country houses; and the second box to contain all the ridiculous stories about space men and monsters and vampires. But if anything, the opposite is true. It is in the first box where you would find The Lord of the Rings and Tarzan of the Apes and Call of Cthulhu, along with Sherlock Holmes and Robinson Crusoe. It isn't just that Tolkien pretends that he translated Bilbo's memoirs from an ancient Red Book; and that Edgar Rice Borroughs was told the tale of the ape-man from one who had no business to tell it to him. It's that these kinds of stories are only fun if you kind of pretend that there really was a Detective as clever as Holmes and a cast-way as resourceful but obtuse as Crusoe. We aren't actually fooled -- but we have to play along with the game if we are going to enjoy what are (as a matter of fact) rather silly stories. But if you want eminently believable stories about witty ladies trying to find suitable husbands and thwarted young women trying to do good in the world, it's in the second box we have to look for them. Lovers misunderstand each other and old Aunts act snobbishly in many country houses on many days of the week. But Jane Austen would not think of trying to convince us, even playfully, that her novels are true. She isn't creating fake news or fake gossip: she is creating a work of art: making things up. From time to time she points out she has determined or altered the course of events based on her personal sense of morality and decorum. Any work of fiction with an "omniscient" viewpoint wears its fictional status on its sleeve. Watson can't tell you what Holmes is thinking, because he doesn't know. George Eliot can suddenly jump into the head of Rev Casaubon because he's her character and doesn't exist outside the story.

(Boys stories and girls stories? Let's not go there.)

In fact, I am far from sure that two boxes are enough. If we are going to divide all the stories in the world into piles, I think we may need as many as five. You can imagine them placed inside each other like a Russian Onion, if you want. They are very probably made of ticky-tacky.

Box Zero contains the real world: things which happened yesterday; and things which happened eight hundred years ago. The conversation with the nutter you had on the bus goes into Box Zero; so does the Battle of Agincourt. Unfortunately, Box Zero is empty, because no-one can get inside your head and no-one can travel back to St Crispen's day 1415. The only way of talking about real things which happened in the real world is to turn them into stories. 

Box One contains news, and first person testimony, and autobiography -- stories, certainly, but stories which are doing their level best to tell you what really happened and not deceive you or make good art or even necessarily be particularly interesting. That funny story I told you about the nutter who sat next to me on the bus last week goes into Box One; so does the first hand testimony of one of Henry V's herald.

Box Two contains stories. But it only contains true stories: stories that take stuff we found in Box One and dust it down, polish it up, make it interesting and palatable and enjoyable. If I take my funny anecdote about the bus-ride and turn it into a short play for Radio 4, I would have to put it into Box Two -- alongside Shakespeare's Henry V. True stories contain lots of stuff which is made up. We don't know or remember what we said yesterday, or what anyone said eight hundred years ago. But if someone asked "Is Goodbye Christopher Robin a true story? Is Shadowlands? Is Nowhere Boy?" we would reply: yes: A.A Milne and C.S Lewis and John Lennon did roughly those things under roughly those circumstances?

Box One and Two contain True Stories: but Boxes Three and Four contain Stories. Everything in them is fictitious and any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental. Ghost stories and love stories and cowboy stories and superhero stories all go into these boxes. 

But some Fictional Stories pretend very hard to be True, They tell you about battles and bus-rides as if the person telling the story was on the bus or at the battle; even though the battle or the bus-ride never happened. They might even have happened in made-up towns and made-up countries. Those kinds of stories go into Box Three. You might call these stories Lies -- and certainly some Lies would fit nicely into Box Three. But in general, no-one is trying to fool anyone else. We are just pretending. 

This leaves us with Box Four. Box Four  contains all the stories beginning Once Upon a Time and A Funny Thing Happened to Me On The Way To The Theatre and "so this man walks into a bar, right" and "come all you young girls and I'll tell you a tale." But it also contains all the very serious novels in which the novelist doesn't pretend to be anything other than a novelist.

So, in ascending order of fictionallness:

0: What happened

1: Me telling you what really happened

2: Me creating a work of art about what really happened

3: Me making up something which never happened but pretending like it did

4: Me telling you a thing I made up

I don't know why so-many far-fetched, pulpy, genre fictions are to be found in Box Three. Maybe the idea of an invisible crime fighter who learned magic in Tibet is so hard to believe that you can't read it at all without pretending that the stories came from The Shadow's Own Private Files. Maybe the sorts of people who become pulp writers are not quite so clever as the sort of people who become literary writers. Maybe Jane Austen can make us believe in Fanny Price because she describes her so beautifully; maybe Maxwell Grant can only make us believe in the Shadow by swearing blind (in quotation marks) that such a person really exists and appears on the wireless every Thursday evening. 

The most famous and important stories in human history are utterly and irreducibly in Box Four. The only conceivable answer to the question “Why didn’t the Levite help the man who had been set upon by Brigands” is “Because Jesus wanted to make a point about sectarianism and the Temple.” Anyone who tried to infer things about the man’s psychological make up or what he had for breakfast that day would have utterly missed the point of the parable.

Some Christians do utterly miss the point. Some Christians insist that every single word in the Bible comes straightforwardly from Box One. The story of Adam and Eve isn't a metaphor or an allegory: it is there to give you information about who the first Man and Woman were. If someone doubts that they were real, they can be instantly silenced with the killer question "Were you there?" If there is a parable about a certain man who had two sons, then the certain man with two sons must be an historical fact -- you aren't calling Jesus a liar, are you? Some of us think that reading parables as history annihilates them as parables. There are, of course, almost as many Christians who think that every single word in the Bible is a parable -- even the bits which are pretty obviously historical.

I think that my boxes will go quite a long way towards solving literary criticism. When they become well known I expect them to replace Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell as the standard models of narrative 


Mary Shelly and Lord Byron really did tell each other ghost stories during a wet summer in Italy (Box 0.) 

The preface to Frankenstien describes the competition as Mary Shelly remembered it. (Box 1). 

The event has been turned into a story in such works as Gothic, Bloody Poetry, The Bride of Frankenstien and The Haunting of Villa Diodati, (Box 2).

(It might be that Mary Shelly's preface has been fictionalised. It night be happier in Box 2 than in Box 1.) 

But the story of Frankenstien is not presented as a spooky story that young Mary is making up. It works very hard to create the illusion that Frankenstien lived in the real world: it is presented as a series of letters and diary entries written by the sailor who finds Frankenstien wandering in the ice; which contain Frankenstien's own first hand account of what happened. Nevertheless, the existence of the ghost story frame reminds us that it is in fact only a story created by Mary Shelly in order to scare us (Box 4.) 

Indientally, Frankenstien is the name of the scientist who created the monster, not the monster itself.

Or, again - to take the most delightful example of all:
William Goldman is a real screen writer and director, who really wrote a novel called the Princess Bride and really struggled for decades to get it turned into a film (Box 0). 

The novel "The Princess Bride" consists of an entirely naturalistic and believable frame in which William Goldman tracks down a copy of his favourite childhood novel and is disappointed by it (Box 3). 

This frame is presented so convincingly that many people believe it to be straightforward (Box 2) reportage, although in fact it is entirely made up: Goldman is not married to a child psychologist and didn’t have a ten year old son at the time. 

Goldman really did write Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, (Box 0) but he definitely did not base the cliff-jump sequence on a similar event in The Princess Bride. His convincing account of his childhood infatuation with the book is completely made up (Box 3). 

The bulk of the story is presented as something which an eccentric novelist named Morgenstern created (Box 4); with some embellishments by Goldman himself. He adds material to Morgenstern's story, but makes no suggestion that he is trying to get back to an original historical Box 1 version of Westley and Buttercup: he is just making stuff up to make it a better (Box 4) yarn. The double or triple framing sequence gives us permission to accept and enjoy far fetched events the resurrection pill and the left-handed sword fight -- because it is being presented, not as implausible history, but as an admittedly preposterous story. 

Characters can, of course, sometimes escape from their narrative boxes. There is nothing in the world to stop me from saying: “What if it turned out that Mary Shelly was not making up the story which so terrified Lord Byron: what if in fact Victor Frankenstien was known to her, and she had seen the Monster with her own eyes”. But all I have done in that case is created a new story with Mary Shelly in it. I have certainly not made the monster real! You could say that I have moved the Mary Shelly of the prologue from Box 2 (True Story) to Box 3 (Fiction Pretending To Be Real.) Or perhaps I have moved the monster from Box 4 (Fiction presented as fiction) to Box 3 (Fiction Pretending to Be Real). What I have certainly not done is made Frankenstien's monster real in the primary world! 

I cannot satisfactorily imagine a story in which Fred Savage (the sick boy in the movie version of the Princess Bride) steps through a portal and meets Westley and Buttercup (the fictional hero or heroine) or in which Westley and Buttercup drop by with some grapes to play Commodore 64 sports games with him and his grandpa. I can't even imagine the Boy going to modern day Floren and visiting Westley's grave. The characters in Morgenstern's Princess Bride -- in the story within the story -- don’t exist in another world; they don’t even exist in our world, a long time ago. They are only stories. They don’t exist at all.

I am prepared to defend, to some extent, Walt Disney’s desecration of Winnie-the-Pooh: the American accents, the gopher, the voice of the narrator, the dreadful songs, the misunderstanding of the metaphysical status of heffalumps. What I cannot quite forgive is the way the stuffed-toy-Pooh in Christopher Robin’s bedroom winks at the audience in the final frame. Pooh is a toy; Christopher Robin is a little boy; the Pooh-stories are made-up-stories, in a book, in which the narrator imagines the toy Pooh to be a real bear. The final scenes asks us to think that either Christopher Robin’s live action bedroom is actually part of the cartoon world in the book; or else that something from the cartoon book world has escaped into 1920s England. 

Similarly, in the final frames of Disney's Song of the South the cartoon characters from Uncle Remus’s tales appear in the flesh and start interacting with the live action children, while the old man rubs his eyes in astonishment. Is the message that Bre’er Rabbit was as real as the post Civil War South -- or the the post Civil War South is as fictional as a cartoon about talking bunnies? 

Song of the South has one or two other problems which we don’t need to go into right now.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Lets talk about the multiverse...

"Please, Aslan!" [said Lucy]  "Am I not to know?"
"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan. "No. Nobody is ever told that."

Prince Caspian

Let’s talk about the multiverse.

In 1977, Stan Lee’s arch disciple Roy Thomas created a comic book called What If...? Thomas was a smart guy. He'd spotted that Conan and Star Wars were the kinds of things Marvel should be doing when Stan Lee thought they should only be doing superheroes. Star Wars was a big hit and probably saved the company from bankruptcy. Conan was a slow burner, a critical success, sold steadily for decades, and was the main cause of Dave Sim.

When Stan Lee was pitching story-ideas at his stable of artists and co-writers, he used to say things like “What if Doctor Doom stole the Silver Surfer’s power?" "What if Doctor Octopus kidnapped Aunt May?" "What if the Thing quit the Fantastic Four?” Lee thought that being able to think up What If... questions was the very definition of  creativity. He and he alone had the power to say “What If Jonah Jameson hired a robot to catch Spider-Man?” Any old hack could then turn these solid gold ideas into workmanlike comic books. (By a strange coincidence, when he stopped working with Ditko and Kirby, the power to come up with surefire What If...? questions mysteriously deserted him.) 

At any rate, Roy Thomas would have had no difficulty convincing Stan that “What If...?” was a good title for a comic book.

The What If...? comic asked questions about the past, rather than about the future. Instead of taking a blank page and saying “What would happen if...?” it took an existing story and asked “What would have happened if...?” The first What If... took a narrative dead end from the first issue of Spider-Man and asked “What would have happened if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?” A bit of a tragedy, as it turned out: the Invisible Girl would have left Reed and married Namor, and the remaining members of the Fantastic Five would have been left wondering what would have happened if Spidey had never joined the gang. 

Some of them were based on questions that almost anyone could understand (What would have happened if Peter Parker had stopped that Burglar and Uncle Ben had not been murdered?) Others asked questions you would have had have been quite hard core to understand or care about. (What would have happened if the Avengers had become pawns of Korvac?)

Some of the stories were just plain fun. "What If The Original Marvel Bullpen Had Been The Fantastic Four?" is pretty much just a romp through comic book history, and the last time Kirby’s brush came into contact with those characters. But very often they felt more like commentaries: ways of illuminating what was good and essential about the original story; the reason why things could not have turned out differently. "What If Phoenix Had Lived?" was Chris Claremont’s explanation of why the character had to be written out of the X-Men when she was; Frank Miller’s "What If Elektra Had Lived?" plausibly showed that if his one true love had not been killed off, Daredevil would have quit being a crime fighter and lived happily ever after and there would have been no more stories. 'What If The Fantastic Four Had Never Got Their Powers?" is essentially John Byrne demonstrating how much the original F.F owed to Challengers of the Unknown. 

What If... has no morphed into an animated TV series, asking questions about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (We live in a strange post-fannish world where there is a thing called the Marvel Cinematic Universe you can ask What If... questions about.) But it is much more interested in creating fun, one-off versions of the movies than with asking clever questions about them. "What If Peggy Carter Had Been The First Avenger?" is an excuse to give us a lady Captain America with a Union Jack on her shield (and to put Steve in a very primitive Iron Man suit); "What If The Black Panther Had Become Star Lord?" is essentially a new Guardians of the Galaxy heist, with a not-evil Thanos sitting in bars talking about his plan to solve the population crisis.

Our friend C.S Lewis, who had probably not read many Marvel Comics, said that asking what would have happened was only ever a vivid rhetorical device for talking about what, in fact, did happen. 

DC also had a nice line in counterfactuals, which they called Imaginary Tales. Imaginary Tales tended to be utterly preposterous events which, if not marked “Imaginary” would destroy a character or change them beyond recognition. An Avengers comic in which a female Captain England was defrosted by Nick Fury in the twenty first century would only be a little different from the Avengers comic we know and love. A Superman comic in which Kal-El stays at home in an apron and changes the diapers of a pair of super-babies would no longer be a Superman comic in any recognisable sense. The formula was not “What would happen...?” or “What would have happened....?” it was “What might happen...” Imaginary tales were about possibilities, albeit very remote ones.

DC had a propensity to produce parallel earths by the sack-load: but they were part of the main storyline. There really was another universe where the Flash wore a funny tin-hat and the Green Lantern had a strange raised collar and cape. You could get from Earth-1 to Earth-2 if you ran fast enough. But Imaginary Tales were a different thing. There was no Earth-17 where Superman became President; or married Lois; or watched Lois marry Batman; or where he married Lois and Lana and Lori consecutively; got old; turned evil; turned into a gorilla; split into two distinct individuals... They were imaginary stories. The Batman versions were occasionally said to be works of fiction that Alfred was creating in his spare time!

Spider-Man 121 has a front page caption: "Not a trick! Not an imaginary tale! But the most startling unexpected turning point in the webslinger's entire life! How can Spider-Man go on after this almost unbelievable death!" Marvel wanted us to believe that imaginary stories were cheating: that, at any rate, a non-imaginary story was more dramatic and important than an imaginary one? 

But why? If they are all stories anyway, shouldn't the tale be judged on its own merits? 

One is tempted to misquote Oscar Wilde: "There is no such thing as an imaginary or a non-imaginary comic book. Comic books are well written, or badly written, and that is all."

The answer is that a canonical story affects all subsequent stories. In Superman 149 Superman dies. There is no let-out clause, no unexpected happy ending: Superman is really dead. But because The Death of Superman is only an imaginary story, there is no expectation that he will remain dead in issue 150, 151, or 152. But once [SPOILER ALERT] Gwen Stacy is dead in Spider-Man 121, we take it for granted that she will remain dead in issue 122, and 123, and 124: and that we will see Peter Parker dealing with his grief, finding a new lover, agonising about his guilt. Gwen may be cloned; she may turn out to have a twin sister; she may even be raised from the dead. In comic books, no-one dies for ever, except Bucky. But the tragic murder on the bridge can never un-happen. 

The canonical story allows a writer to exert power over all subsequent writers. If Alan Moore says that the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine, then all subsequent writers have to depict her as a wheel-chair user (or give her bionic legs, or introduce a brilliant surgeon who can cure her.) 

The canonical story is one component of a bigger story. An imaginary story or a What If... in which Aunt May died would not be particularly interesting: she is very old and very poorly and was bound to pass away sooner or later. But it would be a very interesting development in the on-going Spider-Man soap opera -- because we would want to know what happens next month, and the month after, and in five years time. How will Peter Parker cope in the absence of his only relative and mother-figure? Does he now have any particularly good reason to keep his identity a secret? Will Marvel's most realistic hero sign a pact with Satan to bring her back from the dead? 

The distinction between canon and non-canon is therefore a litmus test of our fannishness. If you read Spider-Man as a soap opera, than stories which fall outside that narrative stream are a waste of time, albeit a diverting one. If you think that individual stories are merely bricks which make up a vast edifice called The Marvel Universe then an imaginary story is at best a piece of childish trivia and at worst a dishonest scam. But if you just read comic books, then the story is the thing. Comics are fun or boring, and that is all. A hard-core fan approaches the forthcoming Batman movie by asking "How will it interact with the Snyderverse?". The more casual fan and the normal movie goer is more likely to ask "Will it be any good?" 

"It's called ther Batman", said Christopher Robin. "Don't you know what ther means?"

Alan Moore’s 1986 story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is an elegiac tribute to Silver Age Superman comics; a celebration of everything Moore loved about them, and a vicious deconstruction of everything he found silly in them. It was the last time that the old 1950s world of super-pets and rainbow kryptonite would appear in a mainline Superman comic. Moore famously introduced it with the simultaneously wistful and cynical comment : “This is an imaginary story...but then aren’t they all?”
The previous 30 years of Superman stories were about to be "decanonized" in the Crisis reboot, so it was in one sense true that every single comic he remembered from his childhood was about to become, by editorial fiat, an Imaginary Tale. But at a deeper level, this story, like every other Superman story, and indeed every other story, was Imaginary -- a product of the human imagination. 

It was a good line. But we shouldn’t press it too hard. If a fan asks “Is Batman: ther Dark Knight Returns an imaginary tale?” it is unkind and unhelpful to smile smugly and say "Yes, but aren't they all?" Marvel and DC comics have spent decades building up the illusion that their stories take place in their own, self-consistent universes -- imaginary, of course, in the sense of not-really-existing, but with a continuity and a history in which events have narrative consequences. Some things "really happened" in that great story-made-of-stories; some things emphatically did not. It is not childish or contemptible to want to know on what side of the line a particular graphic novel falls. 

The future of a character is as much a part of that character as his past: as Alan Moore said, it is an important part of the Norse Thor that he will fall at Ragnorak; it is an important component of the yarns of David Crockett that he was killed defending the Alamo. I can read Dark Knight Returns thinking "this is how the story will end". I can reading it thinking "Frank is just taking the toys out of the boxes, fooling around with them, and putting them away again". Most of us take a little from column A and a little from column B. But it is simply wrong to say that it makes no difference. It makes a difference, not only to your reading of Frank Miller, but to your reading of every subsequent Batman story. 

The Disney What If... cartoon series begins with a speech by the Watcher:

"Time. Space. Reality. It's more than a linear path. It's a prism. Of Endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternative worlds from the ones you know... I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these infinite realities. Follow me. And ponder the question. What if..."

If you ask "Where is an imaginary story happening?" the answer is (by definition) in the imagination of the reader, the writer, or in some cases, the Butler. But a What If... story takes place in the Marvel Universe itself -- a different time line, but one as "real" as the one our own Peter Parker or Tony Stark inhabits. That's why we need The Watcher: there has to be a viewpoint. A What If... story has to command what our friend Mr Tolkien would have called Secondary Belief. 

This may have been one of the reasons Stan Lee was initially so reluctant to take on licensed properties. If everything Marvel published had to have Secondary Reality then everything which Marvel published had to link up into one vast Secondary World. If all Marvel Comics made up one big story, then the very act of publishing a comic about a real world stuntman called The Human Fly made The Human Fly a character in the same story as Peter Parker and Howard the Duck. So the first question to ask about a Star War or a Doctor Who comic was "“How will it fit into the Marvel Universe? Will Darth Vader meet Doctor Doom?” And you couldn't say "No, of course not: Star Wars is just a story" in case the reader thought "But then, aren't they all?" So Godzilla has to fight SHIELD agents, and Peter Parker has to meet Count Dracula. There was even a rather desperate attempt to send Spider-Man through time to meet Conan the Barbarian. (I seem to think that Mary Jane briefly becomes Red Sonja, although wild wildebeests wouldn’t make me re-read Marvel Team Up at this point.) 

Tolkien said that when children ask if a story is true, all they are really asking is whether or not it was contemporary. They understand that the story in the newspaper about the Orrible Murder is True -- that’s why they mustn’t wander off and talk to strangers. They understand that the equally terrifying story in the fairy tale books is Not True -- there is no danger of them actually encountering a child-eating witch with a candy cottage. But hearing a story about Hitler or Sherlock Holmes or Francis Drake for the first time, they don’t immediately know which box to put it in. The correct answer to “Is it true?” he said, was “Well, there are certainly no dragons in England today.”

We never thought that Spider-Man stories are true in that sense -- although when we were very small we pretended we did. But we wanted and needed to think that Spider-Man was true somewhere -- in some secondary world. The stories didn't really happen: but they really happened to Peter Parker. And this is a very specific way of reading. No-one asked why Charlie Brown didn't advance in age from 8 to 58 during the half century of Peanuts existence: but the fact that Peter Parker spent three decades stuck at the age of 17 is a genuine impediment to our faith.

It’s ironic that it was Marvel Comics where this approach took root. Stan Lee literally presents his seminal texts as imaginary stories -- as tales that he and his collaborators are making up; observing; commenting on; and presenting to the audience for their delectation. He is the puppeteer and he wants us to see the strings. Lee’s acolytes never saw the joke. As soon as the torch was passed, the Roy Thomas’s and Mark Gruenwald’s started talking about Marvel Time and Omniverses and writing pedantic stories which connected the Golden Age Captain America to the Modern One. “What If The Avengers Stayed Together After World War II” pointedly omitted the word “had” from the title. It remained canon for decades...