Guest Column – Dystopia in the Graphic Novel and Postmodernism: A Jamesonian Reading

Caleb Stokes is back again with an article about dystopia in comic books. Enjoy!

No matter how many tons of ink we’ve spilled on it over the years—comics itself—has always been a blank page—for each new hand that approaches.

–Scott McCloud, Making Comics

The critique of comic books has recently developed into a mature theoretical discourse.  The graphic novel movement—defined as the re-discovery, publication, and popularization of so-called “art” comics—has legitimized the medium to the point that critics are no longer constricted by the need to justify the object of their study as worthy of consideration.  Comics are officially art, and the resolution of this debate has shown a liberating effect on critics and a proliferation of theory.  However, the scope of comics as a medium is untenably large, encompassing Manga, American comics, European comics, comic strips, webcomics, and film adaptations, to name just a few.  Despite this, any serious review of the literature reveals a general attempt at unification.  Whether the basis be historical (The Ten-Cent Plague), structural (the work of Scott McCloud), or merely a veiled attempt at canon-building (Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life), comics theory is preoccupied with definition in way the study of Literature left behind years ago.  This is understandable considering the comic book’s long history of persecution, but no serious literary critic would attempt to link Shakespeare and Bukowski in anything but the vaguest, least useful terms.  Nor would any art critic be satisfied merely to say that an artist’s painting was an attempt at personal expression.  Comic’s theory, at present, is content to do just those things.

Comics, if they are to be fully realized as an art form with rich theoretical implications, need to be understood as an extremely diverse field of genres, each of which constitutes a meaningful cultural discourse through both form and content.  In short, any discussion of comics can only be carried out one genre at a time with extreme regard given to that genre’s historical location within a larger medium, and that discussion, if it is to be relevant, should seek to place that genre within a larger, social totality.

This paper seeks to place a specific genre of comics narrative, that which will be referred to as dystopian graphic narrative, into the larger cultural framework of Postmodernism as defined by Fredric Jameson.  My arguments are three-fold.  First, I briefly trace the structural nature and historical development of comics up to the eventual emergence and popularization of dystopian graphic narrative, in order to claim the form and genre as excessively postmodern artifacts of cultural production.  Secondly, I provide a literature review of the genre in question, illustrating some ways in which both the manifest and latent content adheres to Jameson’s defining characteristics of postmodernism.  Lastly, I make the claim that recent developments in the dystopian comic book display a proliferation of postmodernist themes so extreme as to suggest the need for an expanded theoretical model of what might be called Late Postmodernism.

The following few pages will consist of an extremely brief structural and historical overview of comic books as a whole which, at first, may seem to distract from this paper’s specific interest in the dystopian graphic narrative of the mid-90’s to 2000’s.  However, if we are to truly understand the Jamesonian postmodern as it both brings about and is represented by the genre under examination, historical placement is of vital importance: “Unless that situation—which has vanished into the past—is somehow mentally restored, the painting will remain an inert object, a reified end-product, and be unable to be grasped as a symbolic act in its own right, as praxis and as production” (Postmodernism 194).

On a structural level, the medium of comics is rife with work that “in its inert, objectal form, is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth” (195).  The best theorists in comics—who are paradoxically guilty of the “comics-only” theory discussed in the first paragraph—have often correctly pointed out the form’s propensity for ideological depiction.  Douglass Wolk, in his book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, briefly engages the topic with lines like, “comics are particularly well suited to extended and large-scale metaphors” (Wolk 21).  Additionally, the author claims that the compression of time and place possible in comics—the mind must animate and narrate the symbols on the page simultaneously and almost instantaneously—make comics a good form for representing ideas of totality and the sublime because “they’re a good medium for conveying a sense of physical hugeness, or even infinity” (55-56).

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud essentially makes the same argument in the much more authentic manner.  McCloud has long been the pioneer and ultimate optimist in comics theory, and his expert examination of the idea of cartooning reinforces the comic book’s advantage in depicting “large-scale metaphors.”  The comics creator makes the claim that all visual art is in some way a form of cartooning, in that it involves “amplification through simplification” (Understanding 30/4)[1].  McCloud goes on to assert, “When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details” (30/5).  The discussion proceeds to issues of “the gutter,” the space between the panels previously referenced in Wolk’s book.  McCloud claims, “Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea” (66/4).  The reader of comics must take two visual stimuli—both often accompanied by a complicating linguistic presence—and connect them into a cohesive whole despite both being disconnected in time and place. Returning to Jameson, the theory of postmodernism is essentially an attempt at totality where all has been lost; a grasping for periodization “at the moment in which the very conception of historical periodization has come to seem most problematical indeed” (Postmodernism 190-191); in other words, postmodernism involves the connection of disparate cultural fragments to form a coherent idea of global capitalism.  If we are to adhere to McCloud’s analysis, the very act of comics literacy mirrors the impulse toward totalizing theory, much in the same way Jameson’s dialectical sentences offer a microcosm of the dialectical critical assumptions behind all his work.

McCloud correctly goes on to claim the peculiar artistic implications of “the gutter” as sole property of comic books:

The comics creator asks us to join in a silent dance of the seen and unseen.  The visible and the invisible.  This dance is unique to comics.  No other artform [sic] gives so much to its audience while asking so much from them as well.  This is why I think it’s a mistake to see comics as a mere hybrid of the graphic arts and prose fiction.  What happens between these panels is a kind of magic only comics can create. (92/2-4)

In short, the inherent structure comic books makes the form an exceptional gauge for the postmodern cultural landscape for two reasons: the very act of reading comics models the larger process of totalizing theory, and this modeling is unique to comics and comics alone.

Any analysis of the structure of comics cannot be complete without an examination of certain materialist realities.  Referring to their famous theory that all cultural production is co-opted by ideology and commoditized in a capitalist system, Adorno and Horkheimer famously claimed that, “The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry” (Adorno 409).  The medium of comics, while spending the majority of its existence fighting to be labeled art, differed from other arts in that it never claimed to operate outside the materialist reality of the culture industry, never ascribed to the outdated ideas of liberal humanism that still rule some schools of thought in literature and the visual arts.  Comics’ most vocal proponents acknowledge this situation readily.  As Douglas Wolk puts it, “The medium was incubated in the marketplace, and for decades, cartoonists knew that their work had to instantly give pleasure if they wanted to eat” (Wolk 22-23).  The medium acknowledges itself as all mediums must, as “an accident of history and economics” (119).  Even Scott McCloud, self-proclaimed comics revolutionary that he is, is careful to add a disclaimer to his argument for the validity of self-publishing: “A lot of young artists see the comics industry as vast, remote, and beyond their control, and in many ways it is.  But the control that system has over them—only extends as far as their desire to be a part of it!” (Reinventing 57/3-5).  Thus, the medium of comics as a whole is privileged in the list of postmodern cultural artifacts because its origins were entirely concurrent with the emergence of global capitalism.  On every level of production, the industry remains largely self-aware of this fact.

The early days of comics perfectly matched Adorno and Horkehiemer’s definition of the culture industry.  The mass distribution and advertising of the product towards youth audiences through drugstore and grocery magazine racks led to a market dominated by two major publishing houses, Marvel and DC.  The “Big Two” implemented mandatory house styles of drawing that they thought catered to the desires of their audience—dramatic perspective, exaggerated anatomy, and extreme symbolic representation (to put it another way, the bad guys always looked like bad guys).  Furthermore, many cartoonists’ found half their duties outsourced to popular writers practicing the unofficial house narrative, the adolescent power fantasies of the superhero still so embarrassingly associated with comics to this day.   With both Marvel and DC trying to outdo each other with their own house styles, each of which was comprised of the same components, the entire industry fell squarely into Adorno and Horkheimer’s predictions: “Hence the style of the culture industry, which no longer has to test itself against any refractory material, is also the negation of style” (Adorno 411).

But as Jameson so elegantly implies with his entire career in theory, the proliferation of global capitalism demands an epic expansion of ideas concerning the culture industry.  Comics’ history mirrors such an expansion.  In the 50’s and 60’s, the adolescent audience of the mainstream superhero book was growing older and the subtle persecution of readers by proponents for “high art” escalated.  The veiled fascism of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent further complicated issues, leading to book burnings, McCarthy-like inquisitions, and a self-imposed censorship that gripped comics for decades.  To survive, the industry attempted to de-popularize itself, moving from the drugstores into a small number of interspersed specialty shops.  By the 70’s, Marvel implemented the “Direct Market” policy of subscription, effectively cutting off the casual consumer from comics altogether.  Comics had become a sub-culture, a nerdy Other stagnating under rigid censorship and meaningless nostalgia, all under the watchful eyes of the unchanging superheroes.

As always, money brought comics back into the fold of mainstream culture.  Book burnings and the inherent disposability of comics (22 pages printed on cheap paper once a month) meant that a collector’s market emerged, first out of a noble sense of historical preservation, then out of speculation alone.  Market speculation effectively doubled comics’ readership; there were those who loved the form and content, and there were those who simply saw themselves as making investments, each book a lottery ticket that might pay off fifty years in the future.  The struggling comic book industry exploited the speculation through the advent of trade conventions, tellingly nicknamed “cons,” and the saturation of the market with variant covers and collector reprints.

Comics began a financial recovery through what is called “The Silver Age” of the 60’s through the early 80’s.  But though they were making more money, American comics were still essentially selling the same story, the same style they’d been selling for years, perpetuated by financial speculation, nostalgia, and the unwavering domination of Marvel and DC.  However, more money meant more creators and more experimentation, most notably the migration of a number of European comics’ artists and writers.  The new blood, combined with the unique political influences of the times (Thatcherism, Reganism, the Cold War, etc.) lead to what comics aficionados call “the Class of ’86,” a series of revolutionary books that so thoroughly deconstructed the form of comics that it practically never recovered.

The members of the movement were not adherents to any cohesive aesthetic movement beyond that of comic book creators, so which titles to include in “the Class” remains debatable.  For this paper, I’ll defer to theorist Douglass Wolk’s naming of Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns (Wolk 44).  Art Spiegalman’s Maus was the first comic book to combine historical material, advanced representational cartooning (Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, etc.), critical acclaim, and high sales numbers.  Spiegalman’s success led to artists like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Robert Crumb being snatched up by publishers normally uninvolved with comics, eventually leading the graphic novel movement seen today.  Thus, a third player intruded on the Marvel/DC market share: the independent art comic.

Meanwhile, Alan Moore’s Watchmen (and to an even greater degree, MiracleMan, though it was only readily available in Europe) tore the traditional superhero story to pieces.  The author consciously used ideas of the superhuman to invoke terror rather than truth, justice, or the American way, illustrating the ways in which the character type terrifyingly represents both the ideas of human nature without constraint and total ideological enforcement.  Furthermore, Moore lambasted the form of mainstream comics in which he was working by inexplicably embedding a pirate narrative throughout the pages of his superhero book.  When it is revealed that the pirate story is actually just a typical comic book within the world of the story—a world in which superheroes are commonplace—Moore makes the reader question the perplexing nature of comics content; pirates are as arbitrary as men in capes and spandex.

Finally, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns altered the industry on two levels.  Firstly, the book’s popularity was owed to a manifest content that saw some of the most popular superheroes ever, Batman and Superman, engaged in gritty dialogue and brutal violence.  Such a thing had never been done before, and the book constituted a funeral bell for the censorship that had constricted comic books for decades.  More importantly, Miller’s latent content deconstructed the dominating superhero genre even further.  Previous incarnations of Batman had depicted a billionaire who seemed only to play at detective and superhero with his friends, exhibiting unmistakable homosexual tendencies all the while.  However, the 80’s Batman was a dangerous psychotic, just as insane as the villains he fought, coupling violence with a keen awareness and manipulation of his image as means toward enforcing a system of proto-fascism on Gotham City.  Miller’s Batman illustrated the ways in which superheroes could be, and always had been, manipulated as ideological representations of their times.

The proliferation of “art” comics in graphic novels, increased industry speculation, the death of the Comics Code, and the inherent contradictions now apparent in the mainstream superhero genre all lead to the industry crash of the early 90’s.  The comic book market became saturated with speculation-geared publications and copycat books that reveled in violence for violence’s sake.  Older readers were drawn away by the emerging independent scene and even the most traditional books, such as Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, made the leap towards meta-comics.  Creators completely usurped characters as the selling point for books.  Thus, Superman was killed, Captain America was cancelled and reinvented endlessly until, just recently, he too was assassinated.  By 1993, Marvel had declared bankruptcy and DC followed shortly thereafter.

Fredric Jameson states, “The last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism, in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that:…taken together, all of these perhaps constitute what is increasingly called postmodernism” (Postmodernism 188).  Comic books were postmodernist cultural artifacts long before the crash of the early 90’s, but the death throes of the Silver Age, the “end” of the superhero’s misguided Romanticism, and the fracturing of comic books into the extremely diverse genre and market classifications we see today all constitute one of the most blatantly postmodernist ideological shifts seen in any artistic medium.  After the “Big Two” publication houses lost control, what was once the fairly unified field of American comics exploded into a number of diverse voices.  Previously suppressed foreign, ethnic, and female voices telling new kinds of stories became popular.  As Jameson would put it, “The former work of art, in other words, has now turned out to be a text, whose reading proceeds by differentiation rather than by unification” (213).  The unification of continuity and the safety of house style, that which Wolk calls “nostalgie de la boue” (Wolk 69), was no longer supported by readers after the speculation crash.  The industry could only survive by catering to a series of diverse, overlapping market interests.

However, Jameson is quick to point out that artistic innovation is not resistant to totality in the world of global capitalism, quite the opposite, in fact: “What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally” (Postmodernism 192).  Postmodernism reduces artistic innovation to the status of commodity.  In the 90’s, owner-created properties such as Image comics flourished if not for their skills in story-telling than for their sheer newness.  The flagship title of the publisher, Spawn, remains infamous for the terrible, inconsistent writing of its creator Todd McFarlene, yet the book was wildly popular for the fact it depicted a superhero from Hell, something which would have been impossible even a decade before.  Silly variation was passed off as avant-garde.

No one so gleefully engaged in innovation for profit than Vertigo publishing.  Vertigo began as something of a secret laboratory for its owner, DC Comics, telling stories otherwise too out of character for the rigid continuity of the superheroes.  But after the crash of the mainstream houses, the creators of Vertigo were largely given carte blanche in their comics, and the stories they told became popular enough to serve as financial life-support for DC until such a time as they could re-carve a superhero niche into market, a niche which they again inhabit today.  Though the type is by no means exclusive to the publisher, Vertigo largely pioneered and popularized dystopia in the graphic novel.  An examination of publishing line’s most popular titles, in addition to other relevant sources, makes clear the ways in which the genre of dystopian graphic narrative is exceptionally symptomatic of postmodernism, a genre in a medium with an already developed allergy to the fluxuations of global capitalism.

What is dystopian graphic narrative?  Though the graphic novel movement certainly makes the collection of stories into books more likely, the genre is not confined to so-called graphic novels: dystopian graphic narrative can be found in anything from traditional comic books to webcomics.  It is also important to point out that dystopian graphic narrative is not necessarily apocalyptic.  An examination of the post-apocalyptic motif in popular comic books would contain so many titles and thematic variances so as to be theoretically useless.  For the purposes of this paper, dystopia is to be understood as a fictional society which functions from day to day despite its many faults.  This distinction is vital because, as Jameson reminds us, “Dystopia is generally a narrative, which happens to a specific subject or character, whereas the Utopian text is mostly nonnarrative and, I would like to say, somehow, without a subject-position” (Utopia 384).  Dystopian graphic narrative should be understood as concerning a society and its members in a narrative of perpetuation rather than at an end.  Unlike utopian fictions, the reader’s analysis of this society is primarily limited by the individual perspectives of the characters used as access points.

Continuing with this argument’s operant definitions, the dystopian graphic narrative to be discussed adheres to the following passage by Wolk:

The broader philosophical implication of many comics, to one extent or another, is: there is another world, which is this world…The cartoonist’s image-world is a metaphorical representation of our own…it can be mapped onto ours.  It can even be more meaningful in some ways than an accurate depiction of our image world—the same sort of relationship that prose fiction has to reportage. (Wolk 134)

Further engaging McCloud’s previously mentioned ideas of amplification through simplification, Wolk explicitly states the foundational goal of all Utopian/Dystopian fictions: a discussion of current cultural norms by pointing out the impossibility of a certain fictional culture.

Wolk is quick to point out that “experiencing a world that’s in the same place as ‘default reality’ but significantly different is also a working definition of schizophrenia” (134).  Schizophrenia is as good a place as any to begin our discussion of the postmodern as portrayed in dystopian graphic narrative.  Jameson—as well as many other thinkers—find the condition to be the default operating system for a postmodernist world.  Describing schizophrenia as “a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” (Postmodernism 210), Jameson claims “the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases this present of time from all the activities and the intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis” (210).

In the dystopian graphic narrative of the mid-90’s and 2000’s, expressions of the schizophrenic can be found in multiple titles.  Garth Ennis’s popular Preacher showed symptoms in the form of total genre-collapse.  The story follows the adventures of the Rev. Jeese Custard after he is given the Word of God (a superpower) by an angel/devil hybrid (religious allegory).  He is accompanied by his girlfriend Tulip (romance), who also happens to be an assassin (Action/War stories), and an immortal vagrant named Cassidy (Irish history) who happens to be a vampire (Horror).  Finally, Jeese is haunted by visions of John Wayne throughout all nine volumes, a recurring motif that “grounds” the book as a Western about the search for and assassination of the Christian God (Ennis v1-9)

The “series of pure and unrelated presents” seen in Preacher, ranging from fantastical to realistic, from historical to contemporary, all coalesce into a final climax where the angel of death kills the entire host of Heaven and takes the throne of God (v9.218/1-4).  The “Saint of Killers,” as the character is called, is actually the ghost of a legendary soldier from the days of the American west.  Artist Steve Dillon draws the character throughout the series wearing a cowboy hat and duster, wielding Colt pistols, with a face reminiscent of Lee Marvin.  Thus, the madness of Preacher’s construction ends with a scene terrifying in its implications: a classic symbol for American ideology murders and usurps God.  Capitalism trumps ideas of transcendence and the ultimate schizophrenic redefinition of cultural identity occurs.  Ultimately, Ennis’s series constitutes a cessation of the struggle the modernists had with the death of God.  As Jameson states, “The death of God and the end of religion and metaphysics place the moderns in a situation of anxiety and crisis, which now seems to have been fully absorbed by a more fully humanized and socialized, ‘culturalized’ society.  Its voids have been saturated and neutralized”(Culture 266).

The schizophrenic condition also deeply informs Brian Azzarello’s and Eduardo Risso’s ongoing series, 100 Bullets. Though by no means participating in genre-collapse to the extent of Preacher, the crime drama utterly fragments any idea of the subject.  Seldom are more than a few issues linked by the same protagonist; the perspective of the comic constantly shifts between an ever-fluctuating cast.  Furthermore, the majority of the characters are life-long criminals and con men, unreliable narrators at best.  The plot of the book concerns a mysterious group of criminals known as the Minute Men that have given up their position as the enforcement branch of a worldwide conspiracy called The Trust.  However, the reader never knows why the Minute Men split away from The Trust, nor what they hope to accomplish.  The characters themselves, most of whom have had their memories wiped, can’t even remember what side they’re on for the majority of the book.

The only thing remotely resembling a point of reference in 100 Bullets is the dock scene.  Re-played throughout the series as the last act of the Minute Men before disbandment, the scene seems to be the key for decoding the confusing message behind the entire series.  Yet the dock scene is presented again and again throughout the run of the comic book, each time from a different perspective, each time with different, contradictory information added.  At the time of this writing, the same scene has been redrawn and rewritten from various perspectives no less than 10 times over 83 issues (Azzarello v1-11), and the practice seems in no danger of stopping.  Additionally, Risso’s artwork often denies the reader any idea of physical placement; he’s known for drawing scenes so dark that the only thing visible are the eyes and teeth of the characters in frame, each indistinguishable from the next (v1-11). In 100 Bullets, the reader is given a certain amount of consistent plot details, but they are denied any consistent perspective with which to form a situatedness or value judgment in relation to those events.  The entire comic is an exercise Jameson’s schizophrenic conception of the death of the subject, “the decentring of that formerly centred subject or psyche” (Postmodernism 199).

Dystopian graphic narrative’s propensity for schizophrenia is strongly related to ideas about the death of history and the rise of a new totalizing narrative: conspiracy.  Jameson famously tells us that ideas of the past have become “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum” (203).  This lack of historical referent leads to a desperate attempt at cohesion via an allegory of conspiracy: “In the absence of Utopia, however, things, remaining as they do contingent and ‘unequal’ to their own concepts, have to be pumped back up and patched together with allegory” (Totality 342).  Essentially, the utopian thinking behind the bygone ages of comics—where Superman will always manage to catch Lois Lane before it’s too late—died during the industry crash.  The Vertigo artists and others like them turned more consciously to the real world for inspiration.  In trying to comment on “reality,” in trying to write relevant comics with politically charged messages, the dystopian graphic narrative was forced into an allegorical position which often fell in line with theories of global conspiracy.  Jameson might argue that the times left no other artistic representation available, “the narrative cannot but remain allegorical, since the object it attempts to represent—namely, the social totality itself—is not an empirical entity and cannot be made to materialize as such in front of the individual viewer” (342).   Again, we return to Wolk’s guiding statement for dystopian comics: “there is another world, which is this world”(Wolk 134).

The creators of 100 Bullets and Preacher have no shortage of conspiracy in their pages.  As mentioned before, Preacher deals explicitly with the boldest conspiracy imaginable: God does not have man’s best interests at heart.  Additionally, the introduction of the Grail, a Vatican-like organization of religious repression, puts the world of the comic completely under nefarious control, both cosmically and tangibly (Ennis v3).  100 Bullets is an equally gross simplification of postmodernism; the only characters depicted who exist above the poverty line are members of The Trust, the evil organization with a secret history of world domination (Azzarello v1-11).

Of course, these are not accurate portrayals of the conditions of postmodernism; such a complete picture is impossible.  But Ennis and Azzarello do effectively invoke certain identifying characteristics of Late Capitalism, the ultimate cynicism in a post-religious culture and the unethical nature of class division, respectively.  Another series, Warren Ellis’s and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, is entirely focused with exposing conspiracy within its fictional world.  The protagonist, journalist Spider Jerusalem, spends much of the book trying to publicize scandal, specifically hoping to expose through reportage the assassins of the character Vita Severn.  The fictional news articles peppered throughout Transmetropolitan are of vital importance as cultural commentary.  Many contain not only exercises in totality through conspiracy, but musings on the death of history as well, the ultimate cause of conspiratorial thinking.

Ellis’s writing powerfully conveys the death of history in two ways.  Firstly, the author begins almost all his internet publications with some manifesto claiming that, “Futurity is one of my great interests” (Ellis 1) and it is plain to see that such thinking informs his writing.  The science fiction world of Transmetropolitan is designed to inspire future shock on every level.  Cannibalism is practiced regularly and commercialized (Transmetropolitan v0); “people” can survive as floating clouds of nanobots (v2).  The reader’s experience mirrors that of one of the recurring characters, Mary, a woman put in suspended animation and revived in a strange new world: “She’d been foisted upon a future already busy enough with its own problems by a past that couldn’t have cared less” (v2.109/5).

Secondly, Ellis provides the reader with no reason to believe that the characters have any more sense of temporal placement they do.  Like the postmodern audience, the cast of Transmetropolitan has trouble historicizing events, to the point where few people even know what year it is.  As Spider writes in one of his columns, “Therefore, because it’s difficult to refer back to the past, we tend to live in the present moment a lot more than we used to.  Or, at least, than we presume we used to” (v7.127/3).  The reader of Transmetropolitan is immersed a terrifying future and deprived of the story of its development.  The future shock of the book is allegorical to a sort of postmodern shock, the confusion of a world seemingly without origin.

Even the artwork displays sense of being overwhelmed by the present, each panel crammed with kaleidoscopic street scenes reminiscent of Geoff Darrow, composed of equal parts artistic allusion and visual nonsense.  For example, after a protest is met with police violence, Darick Robertson’s drawing of a newspaper photograph depicting the event is staged exactly to match the real-life photographs taken in the aftermath of the Kent State Vietnam protest in 1970.  However, the characters, though they mime the positions of the famous photo, are definitely constructions born of Ellis’s futuristic vision i.e. covered in body modifications and wearing alien fashions.  This seemingly random mash-up by Robertson using the “multitudinous photographic simulacrum” of history represents a culturally schizophrenic mindset as well as the end of meaningful historical thought.  In light of these ideological shifts, it is no wonder that conspiracy is one of few totalizing ideas by which narrative can still organize itself.

Though more recent and not published by Vertigo, the recent comic book Wanted by Mark Miller, JG Jones, and Paul Mounts serves as something of a culmination for dystopian graphic narrative.  The 6-issue story follows Wesley, a young man who discovers not only that superheroes exist, but that they have all been killed by a fraternity of super-villains who now rule the world.  Wesley is the son of one of these villains and the story traces his progression towards seizing his birthright.  All the aspects of postmodernism previously discussed weigh heavily on this work.  The schizophrenic death of the subject is enforced on the world—via a machine that suppresses all memories of the reality before the superheroes died—by a conspiracy for whom “reality itself can be rewritten” (Miller 47/4).  In short, the primary means of control by the super-villains is literally the destruction of history.  Postmodernism is the conspiracy.  But more than any of the previously mentioned titles, Wanted excels in illustrating the postmodern issues of inter-textuality and pastiche vs. parody.

To summarize, Jameson saw postmodernism as characterized by an artistic pastiche devoid of parody.  He defined the terms as follows:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy-linguistic normality still exists. (Postmodernism 202)

Since pastiche—this toothless allusion already mentioned in the discussion of Transmetropolitan’s Darick Robertson—is dependant on all that has come before it, issues of inter-textuality become vitally important because they operate “as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect” (204).

Returning to the comic under investigation, Wanted essentially seeks to demystify the postmodern condition, pointing out its more negative aspects by using the lens of fictional conspiracy.  The reader is forced to consider how they would feel about their own existence if his/her illusion of choice was taken away.  The comic ends on the disturbing claim that the truth would make no difference whatsoever:

You used to think the world was always like this, didn’t you? The wars, the famine, the terrorism, and the rigged elections.  But now you know better, right? Now you know what happened to the superheroes and you know the funny thing?  You know what makes me laugh now I’m on the other side?  You’re just going to close his book and buy something else to fill that big empty void we’ve created in you life. (Miller 138/4-5)

The quote constitutes a bold break of the forth wall, resolving the Jamesonian conspiracy with the “specific historical referent” (Totality 353) of both the reader and the comic book.  However, powerful as this device is, it is telling that there is nothing intrinsic within it that requires engagement with the superhero genre.

Dystopian graphic narrative is an optimistic and noble genre of comics that reveals many of the harsh truths about postmodernist society, but no amount of demystification can lead to exoneration from the system.  Wanted’s delight in the evils of post-humanism has no reason to engage with the history of the superhero genre save that is what is expected of the comic book form.  Furthermore, the foul language, gratuitous sex, and violence of the story are meant to distinguish the villains from the former “reality” of superheroes.  But at the time of its publication, Wanted and the comic book industry were at least two decades removed from the “truth” and “decency” of the Silver Age.  The book’s vulgarity is a rebellion against a state of affairs which no longer exists; everyone is gritty now, even superheroes.  Miller’s work involves superheroes solely because its medium is expected to involve superheroes; nothing in the content necessitates the inclusion.  One is again reminded of Adorno and Horkhiemer and their claims for the “negation of style” (Adorno 411).

Wanted is a meta-comic.  To decipher all its character types and the connections between its form and content, the comic book requires what Wolk calls a “superreader,” a person steeped in a lifetime of comics canon.  When all this is coupled with the fact that a movie adaptation is in the works—one in which all references to superheroes have been removed—the inter-textual issues entangled within this extremely recent cultural artifact become stupefying.  Due to the persistence of outdated stylistic norms in the comics industry, all dystopian graphic narrative must engage in meta-commentary to some extent.  The dizzying proliferation of cross-references that results is precisely that which characterizes the postmodern condition so accurately.

The second part of this paper’s argument, in which I provide a Jamesonian reading of the comic book genre I’ve labeled dystopian graphic narrative, is concluded. It is my hope that my literature review has suggested some ways in which the analysis of comic books as cultural production might be used to inform large, usefully demystifying theories of social totality.  However, I would be remiss if I failed to point out that recent developments in the comic book are not adequately theorized by Jameson’s postmodernism, especially in the genre of dystopian graphic narrative.  The emergence of fiscally viable webcomics and successful self-published titles, combined with technological advances in production, distribution, and audience participation, suggest a new age of comic books and cultural production on the whole.  I do not claim the intelligence necessary to dissect this new stage of global capitalism, nor do I claim such a stage is in existence or will soon be in existence.  However, there are examples of cultural production within the medium of comic books (my only professed area of any expertise) which current theoretical models fail to adequately account for.  An examination of these examples calls for either an expansion of postmodernist thought or the creation of a new theory for an as-yet-unnamed cultural logic.

Continuing with the understanding that any relevant discussion of comics must necessarily be carried out as a part of a part of a whole—a genre within a medium within culture—the discussion shall remain centered on dystopian graphic narrative for the sake of consistency.  This is not to imply comics that might be labeled “post-postmodernist” are exclusive to topics of dystopia.  On the contrary, there are multiple examples across all genres, but as there is no concrete theoretical framework for this expanded postmodernism or new cultural logic, specific cases can only be identified by their resistance to current critical models.  Briefly, I would mention Lauren Wienstien’s Girl Stories, Sid Jacobson’s and Ernie Colón’s The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, and some of the webcomic efforts by various internet “flash mobs” as all suggestive of something beyond postmodernism.  However, for the sake of brevity, I shall restrict my comments to a single work.

Warren Ellis’s new series for Avatar Press, Doktor Sleepless, is innovative in both its form and content.  The books premise, in the author’s own words; “Someone stole your future.  Don’t you ever wonder who?” ( 1).  Set in the American city of Heavenside a few decades into the future, the title character is a mad scientist who is attempting to remedy a world where “the future is moving very very fast.  But the culture has stopped dead” (Arrant 1).  In the Doktor’s own manifesto, he states, “We’re going to burn it all down.  Because this is not the future we were promised.  And if we can’t have that, then we shouldn’t have anything at all” (Ellis iss. 6.15/1).

Tales of misanthrope technologists trying to bring about the end of the world are not in short supply, but Ellis’s new project is so much more.  Most noticeably, the book cannot be understood in the traditional media format of production, reproduction, and distribution.  As the author is careful to point out, “There’s more information in the book than can be fitted into the pages…so becomes the book’s shadow, containing the information that would distort the shape of the book” (Arrant 2).  By shape, it is understood that Ellis means the physical object of the comic book; there is more information than can be realistically included in a print source.  Therefore, more than a fan’s blogring; it is a fully operational and updateable wiki managed by Ellis himself.  Entries and threads include everything from detailed essays on texts mentioned within the comic’s pages, links to technological specs for existing technologies that the comic uses as a basis for its speculative fictions, and intricate conspiracy theories as to what the ultimate conclusion of the series will be.  Recently, a podcast has been added to the site claiming to be the “voice” of the title character.  In actuality, it is a fan a radio show broadcast by KPFA 94.1 FM that uses the character’s backstory without any supervision from Ellis at all (  Fans have as much authority on the wiki as the author, as much say in defining the fictional world of the comic as the creator.  Most interestingly, since Doktor Sleepless is an ongoing series, it would be safe to say that fan reaction will have a very real and immediate influence on Ellis as he is forced to manage it on a daily basis.

The idea of an accompanying wiki as necessary rather than supplementary to understanding is reflected in the content of the book.  Every character in the comic is linked via cybernetic networking devices which are as inseparable from their bodies as from their everyday existence.  As early as the first issue, the character of Sing Watson learns of her friend’s death not by any delivered message, but the friend’s mere absence from the IM network (Ellis 6/5).  Later, the reader discovers that the “shrieky girls” can even share physical sensations across a bioware device (iss. 2.9-12)

The proliferation of the network has been a topic of theoretical discussion for many years.  In 2000, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri stated that “all economic activity tends to come under the dominance of the informational economy and to be qualitatively transformed by it” (Hardt 193), so it is no wonder that comic books have expanded into the internet.  But the “informatization” (190) of Doktor Sleepless is more than a marketing gimmick; it is essential for the work’s understanding on levels ranging from the most basic to the most advanced.  The comic book—a traditionally one-way, undemocratic media format—finds itself dependant on the heterogeneous world of the internet not only for advertisement, but for the act of decoding itself; no longer reveling so much in postmodern inter-textuality as an emerging extra-textuality draws comics into the realm of “new media,” a term that theorist Clay Shirky defines as the typical consumption model of media augmented by the additional fields of production and sharing (Shirky).  Ellis’s new comic seems quite aware of Shirky’s assertion that “media that’s targeted at you but does not include you may not be worth sitting still for” (Shirky).

The dependence of Doktor Sleepless on (and vice versa) invariably brings up issues of post-humanity.  After all, without the material prerequisites of a computer and internet connection, complete deciphering of the comic is impossible.  But the connections between man and machine go even further.  Ellis claims that he plans on including semacoding into future issues (Arrant 2-3).  A semacode is a glyph readable only by specialized phone technology that can scan images and decode them into secret URL addresses.  This technology is not widespread, yet it is pivotal to understanding the overall message of the comic book series.

Again, the content of the Ellis’s work mirrors its innovative form.  The title character’s main following in the city of Heavenside is Grinders, people who purposefully augment their bodies with cybernetics despite the social stigma it brings (Ellis iss. 1-6).  At first, the inclusion of this sub-culture may seem no more than typical science fiction fair, but the alternating revulsion/admiration felt towards Grinders by mainstream society is telling indeed.  Put simply, no comic in existence today implements technology to the extent of Doktor Sleepless (webcomics may necessitate a computer for consumption, but no other title I’m aware requires specialized reading tools in addition to standard computing technology).  The Grinders and their love/hate relationship with Heavenside are entirely analogous to Doktor Sleepless in relation to the comic book industry.  The book receives critical praise and high sales, yet is at the same time its weird ideas are banished to one of the smallest presses in the industry, Avatar.

In her famous essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway wrote, “I am making the argument for the cyborg as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings” (Haraway 315).  Ellis’s fiction seems to consciously embrace that statement, presenting a deliberately cybernetic cultural artifact in both form and content.  The comic represents a new stage of the gleeful boundary confusion between man and machine only hinted at in social and economic theories of postmodernism.

Perhaps the most suggestive element of Doktor Sleepless is its inherent confusion.  The book seems to both purposely engender contradiction in the reader at the same time as it struggles for self-definition.  After all, identity is the primary struggle of the protagonist, who begins the very first issue of the comic with the declaration, “Today I stop being real” (Ellis iss.1.1/1).  In the comic, the Doktor’s real name is supposedly John Reinhardt, but it is later revealed that a man under that name—and matching both in appearance and DNA—is in prison without hope of parole.  One of the men is an impostor, but it has yet to be revealed which one.  The only suggestion as to how such a hoax has been carried off is given when Reinhardt hypothesizes that one of his selves is actually a “tulpa,” a thought made manifest through meditation (iss. 3).  This suggestion is met with skepticism by both the inhabitants of the fictional world and the reader.

No one in the entire cast of characters, not even Doktor Sleepless’s assistant, understands what the protagonist is up to.  Couple this identity crisis with Ivan Rodriguez’s inclusion of a cybernetic angel in various panels (iss. 4-6)—which may or may not be “real”—and it is difficult for readers to construct any stable idea of the fictional reality being conveyed.

It is difficult to define a conception of reality by its absence, but that is exactly what Ellis’s work demands.  The author is a self-professed futurist attempting to write “another big political-sf graphic novel” (Arrant 1), yet his work seems to neuter itself of all political commentary by reveling in a landscape of crippling skepticism and elusive meanings.  The content of the physical comic book is confusing enough alone, and the internet wiki and embedded semacode glyphs only complicate matters further.  Quite simply, the reader is given no referent by which to judge what is “real” in the text.  The only term that seems accurate to describe the extent of Ellis’s aesthetic choices is Prryho’s ataraxia, a celebration of unknowability.  William Gibson also comes very close in his novel Pattern Recognition when he coins the term “apophenia,” which means “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things” (Gibson 115), a perception that is admittedly fallible, “an illusion of meaningfulness, faulty pattern recognition” (115).

Paradoxically, we must ask what does Doktor Sleepless’s avoidance of meaning ultimately signify?  I would argue that Ellis is essentially attempting to deal with the same issues as this paper: the problem of defining a current cultural logic for which no existing theoretical model adequately accounts.  Returning to Jameson one final time, the crisis which drives the action of the comic book forward is “the requirement of figurability, the need for social reality and everyday life to have developed to the point at which its underlying class structure becomes representable in tangible form” (Jamenson 290).  Ellis, ever the futurist, is trying to comment a totality which, though forthcoming, has yet to establish itself fully on the cultural landscape.  Doktor Sleepless’s quest to bring about the future is a symbolic resolution for his creator’s inability to do so, and by extension, every person’s lack of agency on the scale of cultural totality.  Until the new cultural logic has fully imposed itself and its edifices have solidified—until it is too late—no thinker can hope to theorize cultural totality with any degree of accuracy.

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4 Responses to Guest Column – Dystopia in the Graphic Novel and Postmodernism: A Jamesonian Reading

  1. Buzz McWailin' says:

    This dude write alot…alotta suck! Geez…SUCKY SUCKNESS OF SUCK ROFL LAWRZ LOL!

  2. Cathartic Lobster says:

    Oh Buzz, I’ve been waiting for your comments on this site. How I have missed you.

  3. Wow, I have always worried about what would happen to interior design when the distopian appocolypse comes… now I know it’s worse then I imagined.

  4. Burbick says:

    Loved the article. I’m not so much into graphic novels and your article provided me with some valuable insights in the dystopian subgenre. However, a critical note:

    Pastiche as understood by Jameson implies the imitation of other works without the sting of parody or satire. The examples you brought up – 100 bullets, Watchman, Wanted etc. – openly criticize rather than perform blank parody. This complicates your arguments of placing dystopian graphic novels within Jameson’s idea of postmodernism: they go beyond the ideas of a standstill postmodernism in which all is a compilation of quotes, by criticizing their own genre through meta-comic. In the beginning of your article, you stated that: “comics theory is preoccupied with definition in way the study of Literature left behind years ago (…)”, implying that in comic theory, it is okay to see comics as ‘just comics’. It seems to me that in writing this article you have taken the study of comics to just that level beyond: to the field of Literary study by giving comics the status of meta-genre rather than ‘just a cracking read’. With that, your arguments of placing comics within Jamesons framework, seem invalid, and you have already given way to that which you call Late Postmodernist critique. So my critical note is: I’m missing out on a point four: the elaboration of your understanding of Late Postmodernist critique and how it differs from Jamesons. I have a feeling there would be a very interesting article in that.

    Thanks for the read!

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