Thursday, October 12, 2017

Twin Peaks: Audrey's Return

Among the original-series characters who returned in Twin Peaks: The Return, one of the last to appear was Audrey Horne, who wasn't seen onscreen until well into the second half of the season. Despite this late reintroduction, Audrey's four scenes stood out prominently in a number of ways, being strange, then increasingly strange, and finally abruptly ending the season's second-to-last broadcast. The Audrey scenes are hard to decipher in any sensible way and because of – not "despite" – this, may be among the most important of the season.

First, I offer a quick overview of the four scenes with Audrey. More details of these scenes and related ones will follow later:

Audrey's four scenes occur near or at the end of episodes 12, 13, 15, and 16. In each of them, she interacts with only one person: her husband Charlie, who has never been seen before and does not appear in any other scenes. In the first three, they are in what appears to be their home, discussing whether or not to go to the Roadhouse to look for a man named Billy. The conversations they have are remarkably bitter and hostile, frequently nonsensical, and include the information that Audrey is having an affair with Billy. They discuss other people, including Chuck and Tina, none of whom clearly links to any characters we can otherwise identify. In their fourth scene, Audrey and Charlie appear at the Roadhouse, where the M.C. introduces a song from Season One as "Audrey's Dance." Audrey dances alone to it, then a fight breaks out, and she suddenly seems to wake up disoriented in an all-white room.

There are many oddities, as stated above, and we must almost certainly conclude that the Roadhouse scene is a memory, dream, or delusion. However, the first three Audrey scenes also contain remarkable inconsistencies that make their reality suspect as well:

• Audrey and Charlie's conversation remains on a single topic, going in circles, while multiple days pass for the other characters in the show. Much is made of putting jackets on or not, and in the transitions between them, jackets are suddenly on or off, while all of the other clothing remains the same. It is hard to explain those scenes as taking place consecutively or on different days.

• The dialogue is very strange in tone and emotion. Charlie seems minimally hurt when Audrey makes exceptionally cruel comments. She seems like a young girl speaking with false confidence about things like contracts as though she is pretending to understand them. She is very aggressive in the first and third scenes, but whimpers defensively in the second.

• The dialogue is frequently illogical on a factual level. Charlie claims that they can't look for Billy because there is a New Moon. This is not only irrelevant to looking for someone indoors, but contradicted by a shot showing a crescent Moon. The third scene begins with Audrey saying almost exactly what she said to begin the first scene. Audrey says that they have already looked everywhere else for Billy, which certainly can't be true (e.g., he could be in another state). Charlie protests that he is too sleepy to look for Billy. Audrey sarcastically asks if Charlie has a crystal ball, and he answers her literally, not understanding the sarcasm. (Remarkably, he says that he does not have a crystal ball, but there is a crystal ball right there on his desk.) Audrey suddenly asks if "this" is Ghostwood. Charlie threatens to end Audrey's story "too." Audrey asks what story that is if it's "the story of the little girl who lives down the lane."

• Audrey's hair is quite different in the final "wake up." If her hair looks like that now, the scenes with Charlie are probably not happening close to the current time, if they ever happen(ed) at all.

• There are numerous references to someone being an unreliable narrator. Audrey says that she has details about Billy from her dream in which he is injured. Charlie suggests that Audrey is on "drugs." Audrey says that she's seeing Charlie as though he's a "different person" and doesn't feel like she is herself.

Suffice it to say, the first three scenes, no less than the Roadhouse scene, are difficult to explain as a real interaction between two married people, and we should suspect that all four of the scenes are unreal, with the final "wake up" showing Audrey's actual situation, which seems to be an institution.

We may also note that in several of Lynch's films since Twin Peaks last aired, main characters dream or imagine their lives to be very different than they are, and the viewers are shown extended scenes that are part of a delusional reality; the viewer, like the characters, face the challenge of realizing what is real and what was the delusion. This pattern holds true in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. There is also a prominent scene in which Gordon Cole says that in one of his dreams, he is told by Monica Bellucci that their lives are like a dream, but, the question is, who is the dreamer?

It is easy enough to adopt an interpretation, then, that Audrey is institutionalized and her vision of a very unhappy marriage with Charlie and a missing lover named Billy is just a delusion, and that the third scene repeats dialogue from the first because she repeats different versions of the delusion on multiple nights. We may also imagine that she has "Audrey's dance" in her dream because the original version of that scene, from 1990, was stirringly memorable, helping to give Sherilyn Fenn national fame and status as a sex symbol, and this is something that older Audrey may remember fondly as the best moment for her younger self. But then, the fantasy goes wrong and she wakes up. This explains the four scenes adequately.

However, that explanation doesn't go quite far enough. Audrey's scenes can't be merely her internal delusion because other scenes during the season echo things from the four scenes with Charlie. This is most obvious concerning a scene in episode 14, in which young women named Megan and Sophie discuss a group of people with names and biographical details matching the people in Audrey and Charlie's scenes. To be specific, there is a Billy who is bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth, and a Tina and another man who, in Audrey and Charlie's telling, is named Chuck. The last detail provided is when Sophie asks the name of Megan's mother, and Megan answers portentously that her name is Tina, and both characters pause strangely in response to this. It should be noted that this scene occurs in the approximate time slot of the fourteenth episode that Charlie and Audrey's scenes occur in the two episodes before and two episodes after, with the time slot as well as the character names suggesting that this scene is part of the Audrey-verse. They also mention a "nut house," which could match the appearance of Audrey's actual location. So perhaps this fifth scene is also part of Audrey's delusion.

But this, too, doesn't go far enough. Episode 7 ends with a man rushing into the RR Diner and asking for Billy. The music accompanying this scene is the 1959 instrumental song, "Sleep Walk." Perhaps this, too, is a hint that this scene, and all the Audrey scenes, are a dream.

We might, alternately, conclude that the Sophie-Megan scene as well as the "Billy" scene are real and that Audrey, inside the institution, has somehow gathered details of the real world because Megan is, as Sophie suggests, spending time inside a "nut house" and could spread gossip that Audrey hears.

And yet this still doesn't go far enough. There is a fight in the Roadhouse involving a Chuck and this fight leads to Freddie punching someone, and possibly inducing a bleeding nose and mouth. There is also a drunk who is bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth in a jail cell, where he mockingly repeats everything he hears. Moreover, both Audrey and The Arm in the spirit world use the same curious phrase "Story of the little girl who lives down the lane." The Arm says this in Episode 18, after Audrey has said the phrase. Now we require one of several exceptional explanations:

• Audrey is dreaming as much as is needed to explain all of the connections.

• Audrey is dreaming everything. Maybe no part of this season "really" takes place and Audrey is "the dreamer" of every moment of every episode. Note that the bleeding man in the jail cell is present when Andy says that he needs to take everyone upstairs, but is not present when they arrive upstairs. If that very important scene is part of Audrey's dream, it's hard to draw a boundary around her dream and everything else. And if she knows there's a Bad Cooper, then maybe even the second and/or first season of Twin Peaks is a dream, too.

• There is a real world, a spirit world, as well as Audrey's delusion, and something or someone is communicating between all of them.

• The similarities between Audrey's dream and the real world exist but are simply unexplained. In the Twin Peaks reality, we've seen this before. In particular, recall that when Leo was shot, there was also a similar shooting on Invitation to Love. And remember when inhabiting spirits MIKE and BOB's names mirrored high school Mike and Bobby. Probably quite close to why the word "Twin" is in the title, Twin Peaks shows things that align in ways that almost make sense, but not quite.

• Maybe the Audrey scenes work on a metalevel. Note that Charlie threatens to end Audrey's story ("too") and one episode later, the series does indeed end Audrey's story! This isn't explainable as a meaningful connection if she is having a delusion and then her life goes on as before. It would mean that the Twin Peaks show as a piece of fiction is an object within the Audrey-verse. We may further wonder, then, if Charlie is a stand-in for the creative forces on the show, perhaps for David Lynch himself. This would be the first instance, then, of the show breaking the fourth wall and making Audrey not the dreamer of part/all of the show, but as a fictional character aware (even if deleriously so) of her fictional nature.

If the final possibility is indeed true, and the Audrey scenes work on a metalevel, then there is added significance to the two uses of the phrase, "story of the little girl who lives down the lane." This opens the discussion wider to a consideration of what the phrase means in Episode 18, and to what Episodes 17 and 18 mean overall… Here, I will conclude the portion of the discussion that focuses on Audrey and take up the topic again in another post. Suffice it to say, the scenes with Audrey seem deeply significant, far more than those of other characters and may encompass what the show's entire story in fact is.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Kirby's Fourth World

A hundred years ago this week, Jack Kirby was born; it is striking to observe the medium of superhero comics begin to approach its own century mark, something that Kirby and his contemporaries brought about in their early adulthood. In an earlier post, I discussed Kirby's first work at DC, taking over the existing Jimmy Olsen title. Here, I break down Kirby's three original titles that presented his Fourth World.

Kirby's Fourth World work is a case study in extremes. Kirby came to DC from Marvel with a gigantic reputation and a new vision to match. DC practically could not debut his new work fast enough; he was first given control of the poorly selling Jimmy Olsen title. Kirby's ideas expanded in the three new titles he was allowed to launch: Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. In the span of his first few months (and issues), he introduced numerous characters who have been, individually and collectively, among the most enduring in DC's history. This is a remarkable achievement, and one that virtually no other creator has approached or matched.

And yet, this splendid body of work failed to thrive. The original work itself is not widely read / republished proportional to its creative power, and in its own time was not embraced. None of Kirby's three original titles caught on and two were cancelled before reaching their twelfth issue – an ignominious sign that would normally be interpreted as failure. There is some controversy regarding the reasons for this, whether it was outright disappointing sales, unrealistic expectations, or something else, but amid the brilliance and creativity there is a scattered, unhinged nature to the work itself that asks a lot of the reader's attention. Kirby's original Fourth World work has many qualities of a cult work – adored by a few devotees, but not loved or even liked very much by the masses.

The central fact of the Fourth World is an almost perfect division into two parts, one good and one evil. Two worlds exist opposite one another in both physical space and morality. The good world, New Genesis, is named after a beginning and the first book of the Bible. The evil world, Apokolips, is named after the last book of the Bible (alongside the more popular name in English, "Revelation," are alternate names involving the word "Apocalypse"). Those books, in turn, are not the beginning and end in terms of mere page order, but in terms of a narration of the human race itself, describing its origin and its annihilation. These names alone say a great deal about the Fourth World – the strict binary division, generous inspiration from classical and Judeo-Christian culture, and religious overtones.

Kirby's three new titles, while centered on different characters, also offered different kinds of dynamics. The Forever People acted as one unit, very much like Kirby's jovial, wonderous Hairies from Jimmy Olsen, and though they had distinctive names and appearance, they didn't have much characterization to distinguish one from the other. Fittingly, they were capable of unifying physically into one, nigh-unbeatable hero (though the metaphysical explanation was that they simply switched places with the Infinity Man rather than became him). This was a fitting tribute to the Youth Movement of the time, with a group of individuals becoming more powerful when they acted together. The Forever People's time on Earth memorably began with a guest-starring role by Superman in which his yearning to know other super-people was so evocative that the story earned a place in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told.

New Gods centered on Orion, who went to Earth and formed a small squadron of ordinary people to aid him in his battle against the forces of Apokolips. Subtle hints from the beginning led up to a dramatic and brilliant revelation in flashback that a secret pact between Izaya and Darkseid had them exchange their young sons so that neither of them could tolerate what would otherwise be an all-encompassing destructive war between them.

Among Kirby's Fourth World titles, Mister Miracle was the only one to last more than 11 issues, but it too was short-lived, ending after issue #18. Scott Free, the son of Highfather and raised by Darkseid in the trade with Orion, lives a heroic life on Earth, alternately performing as an escape artist and fighting for his life against various plots launched from his home world of Apokolips. Along the way, he befriends Oberon and begins a romance with Big Barda. Maybe this title outlived the others because Mister Miracle more closely resembled a conventional DC superhero. Maybe it's because he really was the greatest escape artist.

Not long after Kirby's titles were canceled, his Fourth World creations resurfaced in other writers' work, in memorable Justice League and Legion of Super-Heroes stories, a revival series penned by Gerry Conway, a key role in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and many times thereafter, including various animated features, Cosmic Odyssey, the post-Byrne Superman titles, Grant Morrison's mid-2000s work including Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis, the New 52, and soon enough in the upcoming Justice League movie.

Despite the conceptual symmetry, the Fourth World's good and evil beings have endured in different ways. Kirby's three titles were all named for good characters – the Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle – but the most compelling creation of this work is Darkseid, the central evil character. Generally speaking, Darkseid looms large in each title, sending different underlings in various plotlines to menace good people on Earth who are associated with the good New Gods. The overall effect is a stalemate, with the good characters winning almost all of the battles, which serves to neutralize one evil plan after another. In this regard, Fourth World stories are not unlike prototypical superhero comics.

The Fourth World came to belong to DC for contractual reasons, but it easily could have been Marvel's or even some other company's had one business relationship or another turned out differently. Creatively, the Fourth World wasn't very well tailored to fit into the DC Universe. The neo-mythological realm of the New Gods didn't span a Multiverse so much as it endlessly involved plots on Earth (which usually means the United States). Like the deities of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, the New Gods have a privileged relationship with Earth and it is little explained why, in a DC universe with countless civilized worlds, the New Gods are so transfixed with Earth as opposed to Rann, Thanagar, Oa, Daxam, etc. But obsessed with Earth they are. Darkseid has agents at work on Earth, searching for the Anti-Life Equation, but also doing evil for its own sake. Numerous members of the New Gods migrate to Earth and still others are shamelessly obsessed with its culture – cowboy movies, Prussian militarism, the Italian Renaissance, and more. Pragmatically speaking, the characters are obviously intrigued by these things because Kirby was intrigued by them, and they don't cite Thanagarian culture because it never existed. Later writers build on Kirby's slight hints that Earth is a particularly important planet as when Grant Morrison developed the plot line by which the Fourth World came to an end and the Fifth World began on Earth – a suitable backstory explaining their obsession with that one planet out of billions. And so, the New Gods – good and evil ones alike – readily obsess over terrestrial culture and the narrative is richer for it.

Kirby created a new mythology, with the various royal families and their followers engaged in a neverending war akin to similar epics in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies as well as the Bible, and akin in other respects to historical struggles between royal families. Darkseid and his following is explicitly patterned on Hitler and the Nazis. Kirby also choose names that pun so bluntly that one must wonder why characters in the story don't give pause frequently to point out the heavy-handed reference to inspirations such as "dark side" and apocalypse, Isaiah and Genesis, the Marquis de Sade, and unapologetic references to figures of speech and Earth culture such as the constellation Orion, the distinctly British phrase "scot-free," the Greek letter omega, and perhaps the biggest groaner of a pun of all – an evil team of underwater beings called the Deep Six. The "Fourth World" is an evocative phrase, inspiring curiosity as to what went before, not only the old gods before this generation but – apparently – two other generations before that; Kirby chose the name by extending the then-common term "Third World" to suggest that his inventions transcend reality in uncanny ways.

However much Kirby provided a big vision that spanned his four titles, the most apparent motif in his work is his wild inventiveness. Virtually every issue contains at least one new character who is weird and worth revisiting. The Fourth World concept allows Kirby to pile up great heaps of science fiction, technology, myth, magic, and mystery in his new characters. He is equally inventive in creating vehicles, disembodied concepts like the Anti-Life Equation and Omega Effect, making almost every issue entertaining to the point of disorienting the reader with a lack of certainty regarding what might happen next.

As an example of this, one Kirby trait is to end an issue with a cliffhanger, usually in the form of expository dialogue by a character in the story or expository text in a caption. But not all cliffhangers are equal. The typical cliffhanger in the 1966 Batman television series showed Batman and Robin in some elaborate death trap, from which they inevitably escaped at the beginning of the next episode. This plot device is notoriously formulaic, and is found even in many of the better comics and other forms of serial storytelling. Kirby's cliffhangers were different, often creating a threat whose true nature was unknown and even unguessable. Darkseid himself was created as such a cliffhanger, which hints at the magnitude and richness of Kirby's inventiveness.

What does Orion face? It has destroyed a god–and threatens the entire Earth! Don't miss SPAWN

What kind of world is it–that spawns gods of evil and lesser beings with horribly hostile hang-ups!!!?? You've seen some of its nasty products!! Now, come along with Scott Free and Big Barda!!–And take a fearful glimpse of– THE APOKOLIPS TRAP!!

It is Desaad's own little domain on Earth–A pilot project of purgatory–where torment is conputer–death is controlled–and escape impossible! Don't miss–Kingdom of the DAMNED!

Besides promising, and delivering, unguessable surprises, cliffhangers show another distinctive Kirby trait: unbridled, and shamelessly promotional hyperbole. Religious overtones and vocabulary of death and destriction permeate the text. Throughout the text of his stories, hyperbole is piled on top of hyperbole, and if I were to offer a fond parody, it would go something like:

To even attempt to imagine surviving the futility of meeting someone who would dare merely to contemplate speaking the name of Darkseid is sheer folly!

Of course, these words have to be backed up action, and Kirby no less than any comic creator offers scenes and entire issues packed with almost incomprehensible kinetic smorgasbords of punches, ray gun blasts, explosions, tumbles, and all sort of superpowers emanating from the hands, eyes, and minds of his characters. The human characters were no less bold, as one issue was devoted to the reckless heroism of normal human cop Dan "Terrible" Turpin going up against malefactors from Apokolips.

This disorienting quality is probably what made his work a cult classic – readers used to the more typically formulaic stories in other superhero titles probably found less of the strident heroism and more need to follow plot details than they were used to, and it would take an older reader to appreciate some of the cultural subtext, while the black-and-white morality of the concept offered less subtlety that such readers might enjoy. The Fourth World was for a particular kind of reader and those readers seemed not to be very numerous.

My comic-reading life began just months after Kirby's titles ceased publication. A few years later, I picked up the revival of New Gods scripted by Gerry Conway and found it memorably unsuited to my tastes. I wasn't aware then of what I see now, that this was the result of a new creative team trying to fill in for a master of his craft. Conway was a very good writer; he produced some of the best parts of the JLA Satellite Era, but DC's star superheroes have been the subjects of good stories from countless different writers. Kirby's work was different, and what makes it stand out is his distinctive style, not the greateness of his characters and his inventions. Many years later, as Final Crisis loomed, I went back and read Kirby's original Fourth World works for the first time, to understand better the villains at the heart of that story. Rarely have I felt so appreciative of the quality and originality of older material, and I now regard it a bit audacious for later writers to use Kirby's characters, because the difference between his handling of them and theirs is so readily apparent. And so, on the hundredth anniversary of Kirby's birth, I bid the great King Kirby a "thank you" from back down here on Earth. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dark Matter, Dark Multiverse

Galaxies Spin Faster Than We Can Explain
One of the things making superheroes different from ancient myths is the use of modern science – of course, not real science, but a fictional or misconstrued version of it – to explain the source of superheroes and supervillains powers and weapons. The first page of the first superhero story devotes some space to "explain" how the facts of insect strength make it plausible that a super-man could exist. Batman and Robin, back in the Forties, had communication devices resembling modern cellphones. The "Many Worlds" interpretation of quantum physics likely helped inspire the Earth Two (and, later, Multiverse) concocted by Gardner Fox and other creators. Antimatter helped inspire Qward and the Anti-Monitor. Radium and heavy water were used to explain kryptonite, the Flash's super speed, and various other things. The various Flashes use Einstein's theory of special relativity. Final Crisis mentions a graviton superhighway. Comic book pseudoscience draws upon real science– frequently newer and more speculative science, the results that have not been explained or understood completely. Dark Nights: Metal is the latest to forge a new connection between cutting-edge science and the comics.

Way back in 1940, when Flash Comics #1 debuted some of the first science-based superheroes to follow Superman, Hawkman's power of flight was said to depend upon the use of "ninth metal." Presumably, the first eight were those metals known to the ancients, which did indeed number approximately, if not exactly, eight (copper, tin, lead, iron, gold, silver, antimony, and mercury). By the time 1940 rolled around, the periodic table had dozens of metals, but the ancient Egyptian setting of Hawkman's pre-reincarnation origin made eight a more plausible number, and so one could imagine that some unknown, undiscovered metal would have unique new properties. The fictional ninth metal in the Hawk-universe, with anti-gravity powers and various bio-enhancements, is considerably more interesting than whatever the actual ninth metal to be discovered was (possibly bismuth, platinum, or nickel, depending on the source). As comic book science caught up with the real world post-1940, someone realized that "ninth" metal was discovered a long time ago and so the number ought to be bumped to the vague, but similar-sounding "nth." This substance is due to play a starring role in Dark Nights: Metal, and its already-impressive list of properties is certain to grow.

The (pseudo)scientific surprise in Metal #1 was the notion of the dark multiverse being something based on the (seemingly) real scientific phenomenon known as dark matter. Dark matter is real, or at least it's a serious proposition that it may be real.

A realization that goes back to Isaac Newton is that the paths of bodies in space are predictable given their masses and initial positions and motion. If you watch bodies in space move for a while, you can figure out their masses. This was applied to the solar system and worked like a charm. But as soon as someone tried to apply it to galaxies, the results came out strange, seeming to indicate that galaxies were heavier than the number and size of stars in them would indicate. In the 1880s, this was noticed in our galaxy. In 1933, the same year that Jerry Siegel published his first character named Superman, it was noticed in other galaxies. At first, scientists figured that whatever they were missing would eventually be found, but 130 years later, there's still no answer. There have been plenty of ideas, but for one reason or another, none of them work. The stars we can see don't weigh enough. Clouds of dust and gas would glow softly in infrared. Scientists even came up with one idea if the dark matter came in big lumps heavier than the Sun (MACHOs = massive, compact halo objects) and another if they were tiny subatomic particles (WIMPs = weakly interactive massive particles). As of 2017, the explanations for dark matter fall into two categories: Disproven or Inconclusive. We still don't know what dark matter is. Along the way, there have been suggestions that dark matter may not exist at all, and maybe something else that we think is true is actually false. Maybe gravity works differently than we think. All speculative. Nobody knows.

But here's why dark matter is such a big mystery: If dark matter exists, there's a lot of it. Really a lot. It's not that we have a universe with regular matter and dark matter is a little something extra on the side. Dark matter outweighs regular matter considerably, by a ratio of 5.5 to 1. However much you weigh, there are five and a half yous worth of dark matter out there somewhere. The universe is mainly dark matter. Well, unless you count something else called dark energy, which adds up to even more than the dark matter. If you add up the mass-energy together, the dark stuff is 19.4 times as much as the regular matter we're made of. For every you, there are nineteen and a half dark yous. Granted, real science speculates that this is probably not grouped into things like you, but we really don't know how it's composed or arranged.

This little science lesson impacts the story as follows. Remember back in a little crossover called Crisison Infinite Earths when we had an infinite number of matter dimensions and one antimatter dimension? Well, there's a real physics tidbit behind that. In our universe, there really is a lot of matter and, so far as we know, only a tiny bit of antimatter. On paper, they are equal and in some ways opposite, but out there in space, matter is enormously more common.

So, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, in invoking a dark multiverse, aren't just paraphrasing a couple of sentences from a science magazine into their story. They're setting up this dark (and hostile) thing up to be something big, bigger than whatever our heroes and their multiverse have to throw against it. As Kendra Saunders explains briefly in Metal #1, "Dark matter and dark energy actually make up the great majority of our universe."

So, credit the Metal creators with this: They have followed a long tradition of drawing upon real science as the basis for comic book pseudoscience, and will probably educate readers at least a bit along the way. But for now, the more striking thing is the implication that Kendra's speech balloon introduced and this post explains in more detail – this promises to be the biggest threat that has been introduced yet. At least, if we measure threats in kilograms. Suffice it to read their intention: This thing is big and bigger than our heroes. Unlike the Injustice Gang, unlike the Joker, or Sinestro, Bizarro, the Antimonitor, or the Crime Syndicate, the bad guys in this story aren't going to be like our heroes' dark doubles, but as something much bigger, stronger, and more numerous. Wish them well.