The Influence of Quantum Mechanics and Borges’ Metaphysics on Superhero Comics

Dr Manhattan Before Watchmen

The origins of the Silver Age of comics date back to the 1950s and early 1960s. Fans often misattribute an augmented narrative use of aliens, monsters, spaceships, computers, robots, and nuclear mutants with the start of the Silver Age. While these tropes surely existed in the early Silver Age, the late Golden Age was rife with this stuff too. The primary thing that more accurately defines the switch from DC’s Golden Age to its Silver Age was a momentous storytelling shift energized by the cutting-edge scientific theories of Bryce DeWitt and new hypotheses about universal wave-function and particle physics by Erwin Schrödinger. The Newtonian model was replaced with the quantum perspective, ushering in a worldview that no longer focused on the physical but instead upon a field of probabilities. In the 1950s and 1960s, this burgeoning “Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics” reflected the inchoate fictive concepts that legends like Robert Kanigher and Gardner Fox were putting to pen and paper. If a multiverse could be a possibility in the real world, then it certainly had merit within sci-fi superhero comics. Of course, long before Schrödinger’s cat and relative state formulation, the Stoics of the 3rd century BCE (inspired by Heraclitus and Socrates before them) fleshed-out conceptual theoretical physics akin to contemporary Multiverse Theory. As unheralded comics muse Jorge Luis Borges notes in The Theologians, the Stoics believed in an “infinite cycle of worlds, with infinite suns, moons, Apollos, Dianas, and Poseidons.” As creators deftly layered the Stoic “infinite cycle of worlds” (i.e. a multiverse proper) into their superhero narratives, the superhero comic book genre entered into new levels of heightened visionary literature. These early superhero multiverse narratives, especially ones featuring the dimension-hopping heroes of the DCU, would stimulate the emergence of the literary genre of New Wave science fiction, which was born in the mid 1960s and flourished in the 1970s. Interestingly, despite being directly influenced by comics, New Wave science fiction novels would garner critical praise that the comics themselves failed to achieve a decade earlier (and wouldn’t achieve for decades to come). Such is the unjust history of “serious literature” thumbing its nose at “funnybooks,” I suppose. Without the multiverse of the Silver Age of comics, maybe we wouldn’t have had Michael Moorcock’s multiverse, and without that, we surely would have been deprived of Alan Moore.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the aforementioned “unheralded” Borges has always garnered recognition from someone within the world of superhero comics: Grant Morrison. Morrison built a great deal of his comics writing foundation upon Borges’ notions—from his early days on Doom Patrol (1989-1990) all the way through Batman Incorporated (2010-2013). Morrison was also equally influenced by Italo Calvino and William Gibson, two authors also indebted to Borges. Without Borges and/or the quantum mechanical theories of the 1950s and 1960s, we probably wouldn’t have Morrison comics. Same goes for the comics oeuvre of Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman too.

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While writers implemented metaphysics in terms of authorship and narrative throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, multiversial storytelling ultimately culminated with 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC’s first ever reboot, which ushered in the Modern Age. With this reboot, writers were forced to grapple with something new, specifically the impact of these metaphysics upon the characters themselves i.e. postmodernism via metafiction. By 1986, comic book characters were quite experienced at navigating the multiverse, but now they would be forced to confront a reboot—or, at the very least, would either perceive it or not perceive it. Was Batman, for example, cognizant of the effects of the Crisis? As we know from reading our comics, Batman and friends (most of his friends anyway) did not retain knowledge of what had been in existence before the Crisis. So they did not grasp that there had been a world prior to their current (re)existence.

There is, of course, literary precedent in regard to the human perception of a reboot. Bertrand Russell, in his 1921 masterpiece The Analysis of Mind, sums it up perfectly by supposing that the planet might only have been created a few minutes ago, furnished with a humanity that “remembers” an illusory past. As per Borges in Tlön (1940), this ostensible negation of time demonstrates that “the present is indefinite, the future has no reality other than as present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory.” Or, from another perspective, again from Borges, we could say that all time has already transpired and one’s life is “only the crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory.” These Borgesian approaches, especially the latter, are really exactly how characters within the world of the superhero genre experience (or rather don’t experience) reboots. For Batman, when a reboot happens, all his memories become nothing but a “mutilated” historical record that reflects an “illusory past.” Of course, Batman wouldn’t have anyway of knowing. And, if he were to even catch a slight wind of this—as he sometimes actually does in the comics—it would be far to much for him to fully decode.

In Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1972), literary theorist Gérard Genette coins the term “narratological metalepsis,” defined as “a paradoxical transgression of the boundaries between narrative levels or logically distinct worlds.”[1] In a nutshell, this is a more structural interpretation of “breaking the fourth wall,” which goes hand-in-hand with the meta-nature of how character’s interact with reboots. Following Genette’s further extrapolation of metalepsis in Métalepse: From Figure to Fiction (2004), scholar Douglas Estes, in The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel (2008), adds to (or simplifies) Genette’s thesis by describing metalepsis as occurring when an omniscient narrator enters the world of the story that they are narrating. This happens time and time again in literature, maybe most notably (in terms of DC Comics), when Grant Morrison himself entered the pages of his own Animal Man run in 1990. Genette’s metalepsis and any kind of fourth wall-breaking are close cousins to the Borgesian intellection mentioned above.

If you are looking for a less academic but equally heady explanation of how fictional characters experience reboots, look no further than David Wong’s John Dies at the End (2001). Despite the novel’s steady stream of sophomoric comedy, it also captures these ideas very well. Scientists, philosophers, and writers have long tackled these metaphysics, not just in regard to the fictional element, but also as a way of trying to understand the cosmic nature of reality as well. As Borges reminds us in A New Refutation of Time, some Buddhist texts say that the world annihilates itself and reappears six thousand five hundred million times a day. Who knows, maybe we’ve been rebooted more often than we can count—and more often than Batman.

Every character lives in a universe in a multiverse in an omniverse. These things are all on a single shared timeline that spans from the beginning of creation to universal heat death. A character could exist on a Universe in any number of Multiverses in the Omniverse. But whether this character is on Earth-0, Earth-5003, or anything in between, this character shares a timeline with everyone else (generally speaking). There have been several timelines (as detailed by the Real Batman Chronology), but there’s only ever been one “Metaverse,” a recent Geoff Johns-coined term from Doomsday Clock (2019) that refers to the single line of fictional history that includes all prior reboots. We (the readers) have always been able to see the Metaverse. The characters, on the other hand, normally cannot. And, if they do, as stated above, it is difficult for them to fully decode. It’s very significant to be able to comprehend the Metaverse, even more-so to be able to travel through it. Traveling through the Metaverse isn’t time-traveling, in which one goes back and forth on a single timeline. Traveling through the Metaverse is literally traveling through another layer of fictional history, almost like looking at the Gods of the Gods. I’m not sure we have the language to properly speak about this, but looking back to Russell, Borges, and ancient Buddhist mysticism is a great place to start to learn.

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  1. [1]COLLIN COLSHER: Narratological metalepsis is also known as (or can be broken down further into) “narrative metalepsis,” “rhetorical metalepsis,” “lectorial metalepsis,” “authorial metalepsis,” “narratorial metalepsis,” “ontological metalepsis,” “discourse metalespsis,” and probably more. For the purposes of this text, I’ll simply refer to the whole umbrella as “metalepsis.” For even more on metalepsis, see Marie-Laure Ryan’s “Metaleptic Machines” in Avatars of Story (2004), Monika Fludernik’s “Scene Shift, Metalepsis, and the Metaleptic Mode” in Style (2003), and John Pier’s “Metalepsis” in The Living Handbook of Narratology (2011).

About Collin Colsher

Collin Colsher, the creator of The Real Batman Chronology Project and disCONTINUITY, is a writer, filmmaker, teacher, and comic book historian that currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has lectured at various universities, libraries, and book fairs. Collin has also served on the jury for the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize, which is sponsored by the US Library of Congress.
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2 Responses to The Influence of Quantum Mechanics and Borges’ Metaphysics on Superhero Comics

  1. diego2024 says:

    Hey, Collin. I’ve read the last three articles in an addictive way. I already knew about this page, but I got here through TheRealProject’s Facebook. If you tide over this timeline… what will be left for us mere mortals? Haha. Anyway, as an Argentinean, it is a HONOR that you know and mention Borges and his work. He is a very difficult author to read at first, but when we gain experience he becomes a real delight. My respects to your talent and your discipline!

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