Sunday, February 1, 2009

Superman, Hypertime, Design, and Continuity

In the Graphic Novels Seminar this week, we're reading Angela Ndalianis's excellent essay "Enter the Aleph: Superhero Worlds and Hypertime Realities" from her edited collection The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (a useful collection that Routledge has, for some reason, only released as an incredibly expensive hardback). In the essay, Ndalianis usefully complicates Eco's ideas about Superman as a mythic figure who must remain static despite the serial nature of the comic book form (see "The Myth of Superman," anthologized in Arguing Comics). That is, in order to be mythic, Superman must remain essentially unchanged and "unconsumable" so that whatever happens to him, his essential characteristics remain intact. That's what accounts for so many dream or "Elseworlds" stories and, though Eco didn't foresee it in 1972, the whole concept of parallel worlds that DC has been both spinning out and trying to control over the years.

In trying to contend with these parallel worlds, DC writers have often had to retroactively change the continuity (or retcon, to use the current term) in order to rationalize the characters and their relationships to each other (which also keeps the essential quality of a character like Superman intact). However, as Ndalianis asks, "how can entire fictional histories and the characters who participated in them be wiped from the memories of readers who had experienced them? (280). The answer: they can't. Superman did die. Superman did marry Lois Lane. The rocket carrying the baby who would become Superman did land in Russia.

Ndalianis addresses this notion of the role of the reader in narrative continuity through reference to Grant Morrison's idea of Hypertime in which "within the diegetic universe, multiple versions of a superhero work together to create the version that eventually becomes the legend" (281). Every character within the serial form of comics is thus always in process in complex ways that are dependent on the experiences of the actual readers (as we discussed last week in class with All-Star Superman). In contrast to what Eco writes, then, for Superman, what is created is "a mythology that is both already said and which is in the process of being said" (Ndalianis 284).

I bring up these ideas to complicate our thinking about Eco, but also to begin to explore this idea of Hypertime in relation to the concept of Design (which also complicates Eco's ideas). Design, as formulated by the New London Group, is a dynamic and recursive process that involves three elements: Available Design, Designing, and the Redesigned. Available Designs are the resources that each of us has for Design. Available Design acts as the array of resources we bring to any text, but they do not determine exactly how we will make meaning from that text; individual agency is also important because each of us makes individual decisions about how to use those resources.

When each of us use our Available Designs we engage in the process of Designing or making meaning (whether through writing or reading). Designing is an active process, both for creators and readers of multimodal texts; when we engage in the process of Designing, we use the resources of Available Designs based on own social situatedness, history, life experiences, and interests and we do so within and as a result of our past experience. Such experiences are part of the ongoing process of Design. These new meanings created in Designing become the Redesigned, new resources, part of our newly configured Available Designs. For example, whenever we read a story about Superman, that experience and those meanings become part of our Available Designs and cannot help but influence our future readings.

There are definite parallels between Hypertime and Design that I want to explore further in the future, especially in relation to the notion of continuity. For now, I think it's enough to point out the way that these two theoretical ideas nicely complicate Eco's ideas about Superman.

Finally, reading Ndalianis provides an interesting perspective on It's a Bird, the text for tomorrow's seminar. It should be a fascinating discussion.

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