Posts Tagged ‘secret avengers’

Marvel comics are filled with strange words and phrases: negative zone, infinity gem, cosmic cube, Shi’ar, Kree, K’un L’un, Genosha, vibranium, Immortus — but a few words I never expected to see in a Marvel comic were Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius.

They’ve been cropping up a lot lately in Ales Kot’s Secret Avengers, appearing for the first time in issue #6. Afficionados of Latin American literature might recognize these three nonsense words as the title of a 1941 short story by Argentine master (and my personal favorite author) Jorge Luis Borges. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like many of Borges’ greatest stories, combines literary criticism and fantasy fiction in a format that is as rigorous as it is imaginative. The story is narrated by Borges himself and features other real-life 20th century literary figures such as Bioy Casares¹. It concerns the discovery of an encyclopedia which is otherwise sound but includes an entry about Uqbar, a province in Asia Minor with a rich and detailed history that also happens not to exist.

“The literature of Uqbar,” we are told “was a literature of fantasy…its epics and legends never referred to reality but rather to the two imaginary realms of Mlejnas and Tlön.” Thus Borges glimpses the edges of a centuries long conspiracy which culminated in a massive effort by a group of linguists, scientists, writers, cartographers, and eccentrics to imagine, in its vast breadth and minute detail, the fictional world of Tlön:

“I now hold in my hands a vast and systematic fragment of the entire history of an unknown planet, with its architectures and playing cards, the horror of its mythologies and the murmur of its tongues, its emperors and its seas, its minerals and its birds and fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical controversies — all joined, articulated, coherent, and with no visible doctrinal purpose or hint of parody.”


“Who, singular or plural, invented Tlön? The plural is, I suppose, inevitable, since the hypothesis of a single inventor — some infinite Leibniz working in obscurity and self-effacement — has been unanimously discarded. It is conjectured that this ‘brave new world’ is the work of a secret society…”

How does this all tie back to comics? When this story first appeared in 1941, the idea of a team of slightly mad individuals devoting their lives to rendering every detail of a fictional universe probably seemed far-fetched. By the time the first English translation appeared 20 years later, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were about to embark on just such a task with Fantastic Four #1, the first entry in what would become one of the most elaborate and fully-realized fictions of all-time: the Marvel Universe.

Comics fans often hear that the decades of complex continuity inherent in properties such as Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman are intimidating to new readers and keep the superhero comics genre from growing.  But it is the long term commitment to world building that actually defines the genre.  Marvel and DC comics are not the best comics on the shelves, with rare exceptions (like Kot’s SA, natch) they are not artful examples of the potential of sequential art.  But a Marvel comic offers something that a Chris Ware or Joe Matt comic cannot:  50+ years of history, collectively constructed by hundreds of writers and artists and millions of fans.   Continuity is not what hinders corporate comics — it is actually the one thing that makes them unique and wonderful.

Realizing this, the most successful writers of such comics over the last decade have been those who have engaged with continuity as the defining feature of superhero comics.  Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns stand out as the two writers who have made the biggest recent impact on corporate superhero comics by actively engaging with the long history of DC comics, untangling and retangling the insane histories of Superman, the Flash and the Justice Society, retroactively altering history just like the magical hronir in Borges’ story.

Many of Borges’ stories end on a dark, or at least foreboding note, and “Tlön” is no exception.  In the postscript to the story (which is dated 1947, even though it was published along with the original story in ’41), JLB discusses how the discovery of the complete cyclopaedia of Tlön has rapidly remade the world.  Fictitious history has replaced the real — a scenario which does not seem so far-fetched.  It is not unlike Baudrillard’s state of hyper-reality, a world in which in reference to pop culture has become the dominant, and perhaps only, relevant form of communication.  Behind all of that slash fic, those reaction gifs, those cosplays, is it possible that we are all actually losing touch with reality, replacing it with a new one sewn wholecloth from imagination? Or, to put it another way, “Shaka, when the walls fell?”


¹ Borges and Casares engage in “A vast debate over the way one might go about composing a first-person novel whose narrator would omit or distort things and engage in all sorts of contradictions, so that a few of the book’s readers — a very few — might divine the horrifying and banal truth.” This is just the strategy later employed by late-postmodernist authors such as Paul Auster and Gene Wolfe, writers reared on the continental literary theory which was largely inspired by Borges himself. Of course, this excerpt is not only a suggestion to future generations of writers, but to future generations of readers, who may begin to question everything they are told by “Jorge Luis Borges,” the narrator of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”


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modok conspiracy wall

Comic-Con was last week.  I didn’t hear anything about any comic book news coming out of it.  “Comic books” are a mainly a genre of TV and movie now, in case you didn’t know.  This *could* actually be good for some creators — Mark Millar has shown one way to create a sustainable model in which he’s able to put out creator owned books on his own terms, pay his artists a living wage*, and fund it all on the back end with movie rights.  So if you’re creating the kind of comic book that could conceivably be transformed into a summer blockbuster or a multi-season ensemble TV spectacle, hey, there might be some money in that for you.

If you’re creating a comic book that is designed to be a comic book and take full advantage of the beauty and flexibility of the form, doing things that can only be done on the illustrated page,  I recommend the restaurant industry, freelance technical writing, or house/petsitting as ways to make extra money on the side.

Regarding this year’s Eisner Awards: congratulations to Los Bros; the fine folks behind Saga, Sex Criminals, Battling Boy, The Wake, and The Fifth Beatle; and Hall of Fame inductees Irwin Hasen (Dondi), Sheldon Moldoff (Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Batman), Orrin C. Evans (All-Negro Comics), Hayao Miyazaki, Alan Moore, Dennis O’Neil, and Bernie Wrightson.   Here is a link to a full list of the winners.


southern bastards 2 cover

Southern Bastards #2 by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour.  Image, 2014.

I was a bit harsh on the first issue of this series.  I had been stoked about a JA title set in the deep rural south, especially after what he did with the North Dakota reservation setting of Scalped.  But Southern Bastards #1 just read like one long cliche to me — more a parody of the South than something derived from lived experience there.  Issue two shows that some of those broad strokes were necessary to set up where this first story arc is going.  It seems like the idea is that Craw County is not just another chicken-fried locale where High School Football rules and the sweet tea flows freely.  It is all that, but much worse, because the football culture is linked to a culture of corruption that pervades the entire county.  By digging a bit deeper, Aaron and Latour have turned cliche into metaphor, with much success.  I should have known that they just needed a little time to get going.

star spangled angel

The Star-Spangled Angel by Scott Roberts.  Self-Published/Ubutopia Press, 2014.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read the origin story of Captain America or the Hulk in the form of a highly abstracted, nearly wordless indie comic?  That’s basically what this is, and it’s totally awesome.  The story of Star-Spangled Angel is pretty simple: two childhood friends join the army and then sign up for a science experiment in order to avoid the worst of the combat.  The experiments transform them both beyond recognition, nearly killing them in the process.  They develop superpowers.  Later, a robot designed by one of the pair loses control and goes on a killing spree.  It’s kind of like the short-short-short version of the first few years of The Avengers.

But it’s also a really gorgeously hand-printed three color risograph featuring truly absorbing artwork and imagery.  Roberts really uses the artwork to get deep inside the mind of someone undergoing a profound and frightening transformation.  There are only about 125 words of text in the entire comic, yet there is more nuance and psychological realism here than in even the most ambitious mainstream versions of similar “science gone awry” origin stories.

Roberts created this comic for Brain Frame, Lyra Hill’s long-running performative comics series that has been a focal point of the Chicago alt comics community for three years now.  You can watch Robert’s performance on Vimeo.  There is didgeridoo involved.  Sadly, Brain Frame is nearing its end, but there are still tickets available for the last ever Brain Frame, to be held at Thalia Hall in Pilsen on August 9. (Conflict of interest report: I work for the company that owns and manages Thalia Hall).

wonder woman 111

Wonder Woman #109-112 by  John Byrne with Patricia Mulvihill.  DC (Warner Bros.), 1996.

My big goal at C2E2 was to find as many of the ’90s Wonder Woman issues with Brian Bolland covers as possible.  I fantasized that a few hours of crate digging would lead to a complete set, but what I found was that very few of the vendors had any Wonder Woman from this, or any, era.  What I did find was a complete run of John Byrne on the title.  In 1995, Byrne came on Wonder Woman with issue 100, in the hopes that he could do for the title what he had done a decade before for the Man of Steel.

The results were…mixed.

Byrne doesn’t seem to have much of a feel for the character, the biggest disappointment being the somewhat retrograde portrayal of gender roles.  Byrne’s artwork is decent but hardly belongs on the same shelf with his best work — the inking is sloppy, the layouts are jumbled and sometimes barely readable, and many of the character designs seem to be lifted directly from Byrne’s own Next Men series.

The one standout storyline buried in the middle of this morass is the four issue arc starting in issue #109.  Wonder Woman encounters The Flash, who is running rampant and carelessly destroying the city.  Even more shockingly, it’s not Wally West (who was the Flash at the time) but Barry Allen, who was supposed to have died a decade early during the Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Soon, Diana also runs into Sinestro and Doomsday, who are acting similarly out of character and, of course, leaving trails of destruction in their wake.  Needless to say, there’s a mystery to be solved and a hidden actor pulling the strings.  It’s a pretty hokey story, and Byrne’s understanding and depiction of computer and videogame technology are particularly laughable today, but it’s a very nice self-contained arc that makes for a really fun and satisfying read.  Recommended, but skip the rest of the Byrne run and treat yourself to some vintage Fantastic Four or Uncanny X-Men instead.

clap for modok

Secret Avengers #5  by Ales Kot and Michael Walsh with Matthew Wilson.  Marvel (Disney), 2014.

Oh, Ales Kot from Zero is writing this?  Mmmm, Tradd Moore is doing covers?  M.O.D.O.K. is one of the main characters and there’s a big ‘ol conspiracy wall with M.O.D.O.K. at the center of it?  Whoa there, you can stop sellin’ cuz I’m ready to sign on the dotted line.  HAWKEYE AND SPIDER-WOMAN ARE IN THIS TOO?  Are you serious?  Take my fucking money, here please just take this $20, keep the change, okay thank you bye.


* That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, of course: “I’ve started having all my artists sign on to not work for other publishers while they’re working with me, because creator-owned can not be part time,” he added. “The rates I’m paying are better than the rates at Marvel and DC, generally, so I say, ‘You have to commit to this for six or 12 months.”   What I don’t know is whether Millar also shares any of the profits from his Hollywood licenses with the artists behind the books.   I’m pretty sure John Romita Jr. did get a fat payday for Kickass — if you can confirm or deny this, leave it in the comments!

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