Jim Roeg has an interesting essay on Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis up over at Double Articulation. It takes an especially provocative turn after the post-Pieta break, where he uses the pre-1985 multiplicity of narrative worlds in DC Comics as a trope for a real-world multiplicity of ideologies and suggests that writing one might promote or reflect the other. In Jim's reading, DC's possible reopening of its old story universes is a chance to build (or rebuild) a network of stories founded on principles of multiplicity and difference; he fashions the DC multiverse itself into a symbol or hypostasis of cultural and ideological diversity.
It would be easy to sneer at the source material that sparks these thoughts--"You got all that from the comic where Bizarro kills Uncle Sam?"--but as a scholar of popular culture I wouldn't dismiss them out of hand. Nor do I want to; I find enough to trouble me in Jim's arguments just by taking them at face value. They remind me, in fact, of a familiar passage in Will Brooker's Batman Unmasked (2000) wherein Brooker celebrates the "radical implications," the "fluidity and play," the "interpretive pluralism" of that most revolutionary of comic books--The Kingdom.
Let me explain briefly for those of you who can't name the full line-up of the Justice Battalion or the Inferior Five. The Kingdom was a short 1998 miniseries that existed to plug in one of four quarterly holes in DC Comics' publishing schedule and to cash in on the popularity of Mark Waid and Alex Ross's smash hit Kingdom Come by tying its possible future into the normal DC continuity. The end result was the creation of Hypertime, a Grant Morrison concept never actually written by Grant Morrison, which conceded that all of DC's editorially-annihilated stories, characters, and parallel universes still existed somewhere, somehow. Brooker exalts Hypertime as "a textbook example of postmodernism, following Fredric Jameson's influential definitions," although he never gets around to mentioning that those influential definitions are highly critical of postmodernism for its institution of exactly this sort of empty pastiche--or, as Jim calls it in his comments thread, a purely "gestural multiplicity." (Incidentally, I'm paraphrasing comments I've already made in a review of Brooker's book for IJOCA--pardon the repetition.)
The Kingdom acknowledged only what comics readers--the sort of aging, nostalgic, lifelong comics readers likely to buy The Kingdom, anyway--already knew: that DC had published a bunch of crazy stories over its sixty- (now seventy-) year history, that its erstwhile managers preferred not to talk about them anymore, but that they had all happened anyway, as much as any story ever does. Since it didn't lead to any changes in the way DC Comics actually presented its characters or acknowledged their histories, the "interpretive pluralism" of The Kingdom amounted to little more than an attempt to reassure readers of the ontological value of a bunch of old comics that, depending on how you look at it, were either no more real than they were before, or no less.
It was a multiplicity without any practical effects, in other words--even in the hothouse atmosphere of DC Comics continuity--and an ontological argument that only mattered if you willed yourself into committing the most basic category error, the one Alan Moore tried to warn us about so long ago: "This is an imaginary story... Aren't they all?"
Infinite Crisis could go the same way, I suppose. Or it might not; Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, and company might reinstitute the multiverse, or create some other framework that allows creators to tell stories about different versions of characters within different histories that are no longer bound by a single overarching narrative continuity. To the extent that this fosters good comics it'll be worth doing, although past experience (The Kingdom included) teaches that a grand concept is nothing when it's implemented by the same old suspects who wrecked the toyshop the last time around.
But it's a pretty big leap from that kind of publishing implement to a politics of multiplicity. As Jim himself acknowledges, there's no guarantee that a new multiverse is going to lead to a postmodern "critique of unity and identity." Maybe it's just going to lead to more stories where Wildcat meets the Creeper.
That's okay. I like Wildcat and I like the Creeper. I wouldn't mistake a crossover that exists only to enact a minor reframing of the kind of stories we can read about Wildcat and the Creeper--correction: a crossover that has, in its first two issues, existed only to explain itself--for a political manifesto and, to his credit, neither does Jim.
My more serious qualms with his essay come with its celebration of multiplicity for its own sake. That argument reminds me--and I will say right here at the outset that this is a completely unfair comparison--of a short essay on intelligent design by Stanley Fish in the December 2005 Harper's. Fish notes that the argument that all viewpoints deserve an equal hearing just for being viewpoints, and particularly the arguments that intelligent design should be taught because it represents a minority viewpoint that has been suppressed by an "elitist" scientific establishment, have been appropriated from the multiculturalist movement's own celebration of multiplicity and difference.
Fish is almost as hard on the multiculturalists as he is on the intelligent design movement--too hard, I think, as he doesn't acknowledge that the authority the multiculturalists challenged (a canon that only acknowledged the artworks and histories of western European peoples) was based on arbitrary, indefensible principles of exclusion, while the one the IDers disparage is founded on an entirely defensible scientific method of observation and evidence and falsifiability. But he makes a point that too many left-wingers and academics ignore: openness and diversity are not always worthwhile goals in themselves, and certainly not the only worthwhile goals. They don't automatically guarantee a progressive politics, or even a diverse politics; the ease with which IDers (or, Fish notes, Holocaust deniers) cloak themselves in the mantle of tolerance for alternative viewpoints as a means of promoting their own exclusionary or intolerant views demonstrates the danger of mistaking a perfectly inoffensive principle for an end in itself.
I say this comparison is unfair because Jim knows there's nothing inherently radical about the multiverse, as indicated by his comments on its "abstract multiplicity." In fact, the first couple of issues of Infinite Crisis imply there could be something awfully conservative, at least in a generic sense, about a comic that tries to restore DC to its state of grace of twenty years ago. I'm with Jog in my hope that Infinite Crisis renounces that kind of idealization while providing us with something new. And it would be interesting if the Golden Age Superman were effectively the villain of the piece, although I doubt it will end with all of the angry, neurotic, brainwashing, murderous heroes of the present-day DC universe standing over his unconscious body and asking, "Who was that asshole?" But whatever course the crossover takes, I'm extremely skeptical that any particular narrative framework guarantees any particular type of politics.