Master Of The Obvious: Issue #66

Wed, November 1st, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Since I'm on the road (as John Hiatt once sang, gets hot down where we're goin'), no new column this week. But I'm loathe to rerun a MOTO this week, so I'm digging much further back, to an article I wrote in 1984 for a long out of print Workman Publishing book of essays on computers called DIGITAL DELI (The comprehensive, user-lovable menu of computer lore, culture, lifestyles and fancy) by The Lunch Group and Guests, edited by Steve Ditlea.

To this day I don't know who the Lunch Group was (I was a Guest), but the book was my brief elbow-rub with characters like Ray Bradbury, Steve Wozniak, Larry Gonick, John D. MacDonald, Kit Carson, Timothy Leary and William F. Buckley Jr. My contribution, "Computers In Comic Books," was considerably feebler than theirs, and it pains me to read it now. But, despite sloppy writing, dated ideas and coy conclusions (hey, I was told to keep it light and upbeat) there are still a couple interesting observations buried in there and no joke's an old joke to someone who hasn't heard it, so here it is:

COMPUTERS IN COMIC BOOKS
by Steven Grant

The Superman comic strip introduced three words to the English language: kryptonite, Bizarro and Brainiac. The first was a glowing rock, the second a rock-faced parody of the hero, and the third the first major computer villain of the modern age.

In his first appearances Brainiac appeared to be just another mad scientist, albeit an alien with green skin and a diode yarmulke. After a few stories, however, when it became necessary to give him an origin, someone came up with a neat wrinkle to explain his inhuman genius: Brainiac turned out to be a computer. In fact, he (it?) was a supercomputer, possessed of 12th-level intelligence as opposed to our mere 6th level. Made into the shape of a man by hostile living computers of a far-off planet, Brainiac studied worlds with carbon-based life forms and rendered them ripe for invasion. (The living computers who fashioned him were each about the size of the M.I.T. campus and haven't been heard from since the early sixties; 12th level or not, they failed to develop into microcomputers and died out like the dinosaurs.)

As a Superman villain, Brainiac stands out among comic book computers; as a creation of the late fifties, he bridges the perception gap between the precomputer era and the present day. The presence of computers in comics before Brainiac was minimal. True, robots were prevalent in the science-fiction and superhero comics of the forties and fifties, and there was the odd computer. Superman's fellow DC Comics hero, Batman, had the Batcomputer in his Batcave; this wonderful machine was an indefatigable ally in his war against crime, but it was a mechanical computer, basically an electronic card sorter, and that's where the battle line was drawn.

Computers in comics generally fall into one of two categories: independently intelligent (bad) and not (good). This division is natural for the highly charged emotional simplicity of comic books. As long as computers are simple tools to be used, their essentially neutral nature as slaves is considered beneficial. Artificial intelligence-real intelligence-is accompanied by ruthless logic or devious emotions and usually by an urge to supplant the creator. A computer capable of thinking many times faster than man would naturally be frustrated by the apparent stupidity of humans, and we would be no better than apes to such a machine. The battle quickly became Darwinian in scope: man and machine as natural enemies in a hostile universe. Man's only hope, according to comic books of the forties and fifties, was to avoid giving computers true intelligence or, if by accident they should gain intelligence, to exploit the natural weaknesses of computers. How many worlds were saved, in how many science-fiction comic strips, by someone simply pulling the plug?

LEE'S MARVELS

Stan Lee, founder and spiritual guru of the Marvel Comics Group, made much use of this device in the fifties. Churning out gobs of comic books about monsters and alien invasions, he repeated ad nauseam his two variations on the computer theme.

The first had the crude and macho worker facing the ultimate automation of his job. In the classic example of this type, a coal miner is joined by a machine in his shaft, sent by unsympathetic and distrusted bosses in far-off offices. To maintain his traditional position, the miner sabotages the computer/robot, only to discover after a cave-in that the purpose of the machine was to dig him out under these very circumstances. His oxygen fading, he desperately and futilely tries to reconnect the wires he has destroyed.

Lee's second parable sees the creation of an intelligent computer, capable of handling many tasks, taking over defense and production chores, etc. Scientists (i.e., men who worship intelligence at the cost of common sense) place it in charge and promptly it takes over from inefficient man. Its solutions to problems fail to take into account the human factor, however, and mankind suffers. Scientists are helpless, panic reigns, the world order begins to crumble. Then a single, simple salt of the earth - a custodian or some other unnoticed man who hasn't read a newspaper or seen a TV bulletin in living memory - cuts the power in an instinctive move of puritan economy. Thus the humble man can be trusted to do the proper thing while great men shake in their boots.

When he created the Marvel Comics Group, Stan Lee shifted the image of superheroes from all-good, all-noble beings to gifted but flawed humans capable of a wide range of emotional responses. He found a parallel in computers, and used them as symbols in his quest to define man's place in the universe and the nature of his spiritual self.

One of Lee's most inspired tales features the Fantastic Four battling a demented scientist named the Mad Thinker. Eternally thwarted by achieving only a 99.99 percent probability of success for his schemes, the Thinker consults computers in an effort to define the elusive X (or human) Factor that he cannot predict. The story in question features the Thinker developing Quasimodo (or Quasi-Modular-Destruct-Organism), a murderous computer with artificial intelligence, a face generated on a video screen, and a human personality implanted to help it calculate the X Factor. Quasimodo, however, is obsessed with a longing for a humanoid form, which the Thinker has promised him. At the end, the Thinker is again beaten and Quasimodo is left to itself, trapped in its computer casing, sobbing dot-pattern tears on its monitor. In its quest for form, the machine has overlooked questions of right and wrong and surrendered its claim to soul.

This would be nothing out of the ordinary for computers in comics, had the story of Quasimodo not been continued a few months later. The Silver Surfer, Marvel's resident Christ figure and master of a miracle energy modestly referred to as the Power Cosmic, hears Quasimodo's electronic whinings and recognizes in the computer a "soul in torment." Up to this moment Quasimodo has merely been a pretender, with nothing more to recommend it than a sour personality and lots of stored information.

But here Lee makes a jump in logic that to this day remains a Marvel mainstay. The previous formula was intelligence = malevolence. Lee's new formula was information = knowledge = intelligence = soul. (That he was dealing with linguistic misinterpretation fazed Lee not at all.) Imbued with a hunchbacked but manlike form by the Surfer, the crazed computer goes on a rampage to show how tough he is, whereupon the Surfer sees his error and freezes Quasimodo into a gargoyle atop a church clock. (Lee's flair for literary symbols was unbounded.) But it was too late to freeze the implications of the story: a computer can somehow attain a soul and become what amounts to a living creature.

SOUL OF A COMIC MACHINE

Subsequent comic writers have gotten much mileage from this idea, adding their own variations. Both computers and people attempt on a regular basis to attain godhead by tapping into all the world's computers and absorbing their data bases - with various results like a growth in size or a sudden freedom from constraints of the flesh. (Quasimodo himself attempted this on at least one occasion.)

Even to the casual browser, it's obvious that the vast majority of computers in comics are, like Brainiac, robots (or androids, or simulacra, or a variety of other species). In comics the illusion of movement must be maintained; stationary computers are visually dull except as props, like the multitude of large mainframes that decorate the laboratory of Reed Richards leader of Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four. This has led to an interesting side effect of artificial intelligence: the intelligent computer tends toward increasing levels of mobility. Computo sprouts wheels and metallic tentacles. Ultron, a foe of Marvel Comics' Avengers, "evolves" himself through a series of forms from a sort of cone on wheels to a weird combination of humanoid and bite-size aircraft. The machine imitates its creator, even while it tries to supplant him.

In two instances, writers latched onto the theme of the soul of the machine. Having a living computer as a villain, it wasn't long before Marvel installed a computer (an android, or as they prefer to call it, a synthezoid) as a hero. The Vision is programmed with the "brain patterns" of a human, allowing the writers to indulge in much speculation about his true nature: Is he a soulless computer? Does the Vision have human rights? What were his main influences, heredity or environment?

Paralleling (and more than indebted to) Otto Binder's famous science fiction work Adam Link, the long-running saga of the Vision has addressed questions that the real world will be forced to address before too long. Concurrently the Vision is married to a human mutant woman, and a recent storyline has him linking intelligences with Titan, a supercomputer that fills the interior of the Saturnian moon - and gives him infinite wisdom and godlike powers, natch.

Comics used computers extensively in the 1970s, but with no better understanding of the machines than before. Computers remained plot devices, Frankenstein monsters, or metaphors for humanity - the same role as aliens in comics. More cynical writers have turned Stan Lee's paradigm around, a la the behaviorism of psychologist B. F. Skinner: human beings are nothing more than elaborate, fleshy computers. But comic books are created to be entertainment, not serious speculation; writers may use computers (or their comic book counterparts, robots and androids) as a means to critique humanity, but they are not cyberneticists. The battles fought are still moral battles between good and evil, and computers - whether tools or tyrants - provide just another variation on the superhero metaphor.

CONTEMPORARY COMPUTERS

Signs of change are appearing in the 1980s, as word processing introduces writers directly to computer technology for the first time. Some real understanding of the functions and possibilities of computers in real-life applications will come of such exposure. Which brings us back to Brainiac.

Recently it was decided to revamp the Superman comic book. This also meant updating Superman's two major foes, Lex Luthor and Brainiac, who had been going through a lot of changes anyway. Superman reprogrammed him to do good, until situations required the presence of the evil and aggressive Brainiac to solve it and his original programming was reinstituted. The saga saw his apparent death, but as everyone knows, no one ever really dies in comic books.

Marv Wolfman, a Marvel alumnus now working at DC and one of the first comics writers to take to the word processor, was given the task of bringing Brainiac into the eighties. Wolfman's inspiration: emphasize the computer aspect, a good tie-in with current cultural events. The changes in the character were sweeping. Surviving the encounter mentioned above, Brainiac is trapped in the heart of a black hole, where his entire structure is destroyed and reformed. He comes out sleek and metallic, hideously alien instead of humanoid. Cosmic knowledge floods his memory banks. Any human aspects of his personality are swept aside, and he identifies himself as a machine. The humanoid Brainiac was a small-scale sadist; this new one, linked to banks of slave computers, is altogether beyond human considerations. He has had a cosmic vision, identifying his enemy as the Master Programmer and the human Superman as an organic machine, the Master Programmer's main weapon. Finally, he has new speech patterns, prefacing notes to himself with "REM:".

It isn't much, but where language goes, understanding can't be far behind. Judging from Brainiac as the state-of-the-art portrayal of computers in comic books, the rest of the eighties should see an increase in sophisticated handling of the subject.

("Computers In Comic Books," by Steven Grant, originally published in DIGITAL DELI, Workman Publishing, 1984 is 1984 Steve Ditlea. Reprinted with permission from Workman Publishing. All Rights Reserved. Do not reprint. Thanks.)

Thanks to everyone who ordered in my big closet selloff. But if I didn't get your check by last Friday, you're out of luck (unless you made specific arrangements with me before then) since the move is now on. My apologies to several foreign buyers who got cut out due to time constraints; I'll see if I can make it up to you somehow in the future.

Normally I double check all references before including them in a column, but the move created such a mad rush that I didn't on #65, so, despite having seen the film about 40 times (albeit not in the last 15 years or so), I messed up the CITIZEN KANE references last week. A) It's not Jed Leland who says "The people will think…" it's Kane's second wife, Susan Alexander Kane, the morning after her disastrous debut as a no-talent opera star. B) Kane does not conclude the sentence with "what I want them to think" but with "what I tell them to think. C) The other quotes phrase should be "You provide the poems, I'll provide the war," not "You provide the photos…" None of these misquotes affected the context of my points, but precision is everything. Mea maxima culpa.

And for all those who have written asking what the hell is going on with X-MAN: damned if I know.

Question Of The Week: What five non-superhero comics being published today (and I mean in publication this week, not "was published until a week ago but is no longer published" or "will be coming out in six months") would you, as a budding new publisher, want to steal to be the foundation of a salable comics line? What are the main factors in your decision?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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