Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Ouroboros Ring Around the World: Arcanum vs. Incorporated
(or) Science vs. Magic in Grant Morrison's Batman

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. It comes from the Greek words oura (Greek οὐρά) meaning "tail" and boros (Greek βόρος) meaning "eating", thus "he who eats the tail". The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end (the mythical phoenix has a similar symbolism). It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting before any beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished. The ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in Alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the Alchemist's opus. As well, it is also often associated with Gnosticism, and Hermeticism. In alchemical texts dating as far back as the 2nd Century such as The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, Alexandria encloses the words 'hen to pan', ie; "one is the all" in it's black and white halves that represent the Gnostic duality of existence. As such, the Ouroboros could be interpreted as the Western equivalent of the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol. The Chrysopoeia Ouroboros of Cleopatra is one of the oldest images of the Ouroboros to be linked with the legendary opus of the Alchemists, the Philosopher’s Stone. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw the Ouroboros as an archetype and the basic mandala of alchemy. Jung also defined the relationship of the Ouroboros to alchemy: "The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia (or Philosopher's Stone) of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which unquestionably stems from man's unconscious."

But enough with the ontological history lesson. And here, discussing a comic book, you ask? Certainly! If that comic is written by Grant Morrison. So, it should be iterated at this point, this is a post for the readers. If you've not done the reading on Morrison's run on Batman Incorporated, do not proceed with this post. - SPOILERS - SPOILERS - SPOILERS - SPOILERS - That said, and warning given, year 5 in his ongoing Bat-tale has met with a lot of hiccups along the way, largely editorial and publishing in nature. Subsequently he's had to do rewrites and issues have been narrative-crushingly late, but the big picture is starting to form on this, Morrison's final 'season' (as he's been calling it), of his 6-year tale. Where the first book was about, in-part, a meta-premise: "The entire written history of the character as the extraordinary and surreal life of one man. What kind of toll would such a life take on his mind, and what if there was an ultimate villain who knew and exploited that history?" the second was based on the larger mythological theme: "Man's primordial battle with evil; the tyrannical monarch, the wolf, the dragon - and the creation of his own myth in the face of such evil. A myth where Ultimate Evil turns it's gaze on humanity and humanity gazes right back and says... gotcha." The overarching concept of the third and final book is finally beginning to coalesce as the meeting of two factions; one a crimefighting Global Corporation of finance, know-how and technology as it prepares itself for the other; a dark Cabala of Druidic Magick, Arcane Superscience Cults under the employ of post-WWII western governments. The first obviously being Bruce Wayne's global crimefighting organization; Batman Incorporated. The latter, born of the fallout of espionage organizations like Department Zero and Spyral, akin to a expressly sinister version of Operation Paperclip which sheltered the mad scientists and technological wizards of DC Comics Cold War history; the international shadow-cult Leviathan.

Of Leviathan's prominent antagonists, the Ouroboros has particular significance to one Doctor Dedalus. Shown early on in issue #5 as being initially under the guiding hand of the Reich, discovering and employing various arcane Magicks and artifacts to the Axis cause, later on, preempting the War's conclusion and under the guise of researching and excavation of pre-Celtic Arcanum in a tomb in Scotland, (where we see that he gains his 'powers' and 'Cloak of Smoke' as it were), then surrendering himself to the British. In his surrender to the Brits he reveals his research into a "fifth form of matter," "lost to prehistory and the fall of primordial, unknown empires." To reference primordial, unknown, pre-Celtic empires in Grant Morrison's version of the DC Universe, you need look no further than the origin of Arthurian culture as was depicted in his Seven Soldiers. A book which intertwined Welsh and Jack Kirby mythology with a time-spanning epic fight against the Sheeda/Sidhe, fairies who turned out to be not from a 'other' dimension but rather, the far future (the Celts called it "Annwyn"; Morrison terms it "Unwhen"). Dedalus then in their employ, forming the UK espionage and supersceince organization Department Zero, which later became Spyral and was deemed 'too dangerous' for the modern world and disbanded (with force) by the UN para-military with aid from their existing roster of metahumans. Of significance, the metahuman's job as depicted in issue #3 is to lock Dedalus in a tower, echoing the actual myth of Daedalus in which he was locked away in a tower to protect his knowledge of the Minotaur's Labyrinth. The Minotaur and the Labyrinth being themes we will be seeing again shortly. Dedalus for decades after (still dressed in his 'Cloak of Smoke') imprisoned on the Falkland isles, by a metaphysical weapon of his own devising. Yet even here, in oration to/with himself, it's shown that he's far from powerless; (it's no coincidence that Morrison chose to have Dedalus' semblance resemble that of the Magician card in the Tarot) in the midst of his rambling about the ultimate superweapon of his conception, "the ring around the world": Oroboro - we're then witness to his uncanny weather-changing abilities, out of a blue sky, right on cue.

Which brings us to dualism and back again, to the Ouroboros. As themes of aspect and counter-aspect arise in the book, the serpent and "it's black and white halves that represent the Gnostic duality of existence" become the repeated image over a narrative that spans decades, where Kathy Kane the Silver Age Batwoman and her legacy tie into Department Zero and connections with modern-day events in Argentina. It's revealed that the intelligence organization the then 'Agent-33' (who is the modern day hero of Argentina, Gaucho), has worked for is none other than Otto Netz aka Doctor Dedalus' twin-shadow organization; Spyral. Gaucho, having done no small amount of investigation into the post-Spyral underworld has discovered a (again) decades long conspiracy and secret organization operating out of Argentina. An organization who's doctrine and fictional 'history' are lifted almost directly from the works of Jorge Luis Borges - himself a real-world author who's darkly florid fiction, explored the fluid 'between' states of mind, perception, and experience, most well known for his plumbing of the subconscious though the metaphor of the Labyrinth and as one of the progenitors of the literary genre which came to be known as Magic Realism. So there's the Labyrinth again, and there he is; Jorge Borges. First with the Daedalus and the Minotaur reference and now quite literally quoted structurally in issue #3, from Borges story "Death and the Compass" ...not to mention, you knew it was coming; "El Oroboro" - the name of a fictional book written by the Florida Group (of which Jorge Luis Borges was a collaborator and contributor) under the collective pseudonym Espartaco Extrano (ie; Strange Spartacus). Much like Extrano's life, the Florida Group was itself an artifice, the product of a literary feud between itself and their ficto-literary adversaries, the Boedo Group. Again with the duality. Again with the mirrored-self, the mirrored-fiction, the mirrored-organization. The fictions reflecting reality, reflecting fictions. The reflected-selves together comprising the whole. The Yin-Yang. The Ouroboros.

This theme also informs Morrison's obvious dualistic, mirror, positive/negative critique of Capitalism; Batman Incorporated represents a example of a ‘good’ business form, where profit can be equated with helping others and the company’s gross worth with the net result of its ability to save - or in real-world terms ‘better’ - society. Leviathan is the ‘bad’ model, the old post-Colonial/ Military Industrial Complex model, where Capitalism is a blind machine that finds its moral base only within the whim of the market and exists not for the betterment of society or the human condition - but singularly for the reproduction of itself. Both simultaneously mirroring one another in the establishment of factions/representatives from each organization, geographically creating a ring around the world and in doing so, strategically targeting Argentina, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, England, France and the Great Plains of the United States. There's also a curious, secondary interpretation to these two approaches; where Incorporated is about building that legacy and continuing the work beyond Bruce's own investment/participation/lifespan as the enduring 'concept' of Batman - the idea of immortality as living on through others, where knowledge, skills, values are passed from one generation to another - the benefits of which belong to all of society. Leviathan by contrast is the old bromidic Capitalist 'material' solution, the single-minded attachment to the physical world, the hiding behind the accumulation of things; life as objects, power, money, influence. Like Leviathan's brainwashed consumers, as vehicles for their drug/virus, far from ensuring immortality, this attachment serves only to substantiate those very fears and anxieties about the world. And in-particular about mortality and death. It's revealing then, that Leviathan's logo development described by Grant in the commentary pages of Batman: The Return is that it should resemble the sigil of Kali's Yantra. Kali, the Hindu goddess who's name is derived from Kala, literally translates in various interpretations as "black, time, death". The correspondence between the logo, and the Tantric sigil is striking, and no happenstance in their shared symbolism. As a further reduction of the Capitalism metaphor; in the end with Incorporated vs. Leviathan, it’s down to competing products and their marketing being the divide between exploitation or appealing to a beneficial need. And don't overlook the fact that it's predominantly children who are getting hooked on Leviathan (note the significance), children, and teenagers in 3rd World cultural and economic crisis; the drug cartels of Argentina, the gangs of Native American reservations in North America, the armed 'tribal purging' of South Africa. These are all of the places that Leviathan is offering their product... at the cost of life-enrollment in the World Serpent.

Link to DC Comics: "Batman Incorporated" - Grant Morrison's Batman Vol.9

So at the conclusion of the first season as Grant Morrison is calling it, we've seen these two forces embodied by the Incorporated and the Arcanum - each with their own agenda to create a 'ring around the world' in the establishing of their influence, reach, and even as it could be called, branding. Where Bruce Wayne's motivation was gained in a (yet undisclosed, but often referred to) future-vision from his time traveling Fourth World jaunt that was last year's The Return of Bruce Wayne. Leviathan, other than what's been discussed here, has yet to play or even fully reveal their hand. Or their identity. Some of the villainous cast we know; we have the Operation Paperclip ex-Nazi superscientist and spy Doctor Dedalus, we've seen the product of one of Leviathan's Middle East meta-human enhancement facilities in the form of The Fatherless/Heretic in Batman: The Return, yet, who is the death-masked, white-cloaked, mastermind that is directing the magic spell that will change the world with the creation of the Oroboro? Who (or what) is Leviathan him/itself? Much speculation has been made online by my betters. Two significant clues have been laid down by Morrison; the first being in The Heretic's confrontation with Damian Wayne in the issue noted above, he states "I know you...but... that day has yet to come. When it does...You will know me. But not... yet." implying a specific tense that alludes to Leviathan's knowledge of future events. Heretic bearing a striking resemblance to Michael Lane, the 'Satanic' Batman of issue #666 who, if you'll recall, not only is depicted in that future-flash-forward as having developed metahuman abilities, but referenced closely in the possible death/sacrifice of Bruce Wayne and Damian's ultimate decision in making a deal with the 'Devil'. (or; is The Heretic instead Talia Al-Ghul's genetically engineered 'perfect' version of her son, last seen in "Batman & Robin" issue #12 in an embryonic state; given metahuman abilities and born from the carcass of a dead whale, (again in "Batman: The Return"), who was after all referred to as "he who is called Fatherless"?). Corresponding with this, Leviathan has spoken in confidence with Doctor Dadelus of Bruce's time traveling and his ordeal at the hands of Darkseid and the Omega Sanction. In referencing these events, (largely only known to those close to Bruce Wayne) Leviathan dispels the rumor that in returning from such a cross-cosmos quest, that Bruce Wayne has returned a 'god'. The Second major clue, also lies in matters of time. This one in the hands of Incorporated; we see in issue #1 that in his first mission under the Incorporated banner, Bruce seeks out a object "more precious than diamond" which he then infiltrates and steals from the laboratory of one superscience mastermind Doctor Sivana. This object? The Suspendium Gem which last time we saw in the DC Universe, was in the hands of Sivana to the purpose of performing experiments on another DC science-villain; the larval Mister Mind in the DC event book "52". Experiments that, you guessed it, imbued Mister Mind with a time-altering, quantum consciousness that warped the nature of the 4th Dimension itself. Of note, the original appearance of Suspendium - which was designed by Doctor Sivana in the 1950's Golden Age comic of the Marvel Family - was to create a Stasis Bubble in which events were frozen, unaltered, untouched, trapped in time.

In riddling out all of that, with yet another whole year until the tale's conclusion, where do we stand? Right in the fray of a sprawling time-warping puzzle of 'tenses', labyrinths, historic political intrigue, superscience, global Magick spells, international conglomerates vying for markets, metahuman manufacturing, building of armies and a baffling, new, inscrutable 'unknowable villain'. A villain who's massive Machiavellian aspirations are being cast on the world as though he were the very architect of the story itself... or someone who has certain knowledge of it's outcome. And where might that knowledge come, if not... from the future? (Or is Leviathan simply an old nemesis in the form of Ras Al-Ghul's Sensei, the believed-deceased leader of the League of Assassins?) I can't decide which, but the latter seems just far too literal considering this story's tone. And with that half-educated stab in the dark, I'm going to part with words from the one individual who knows with certainty the future of this tale; the author himself. It's all you from here on out Grant: "[Batman Incorporated] is the return of Bruce Wayne to the Batman persona, and so I thought; 'what would Bruce bring to that'? It took off again, and I got really into the notion of doing [Incorporated] as a team-up book... in doing ten issues of these super-intricate stories, in the midst of which I noticed all the threads I'd left untouched. As I decided to tie up and pay off every thread from my Batman run, I realized there was still one big, final story to tell and it goes right back to the beginning of my time on the book. I wanted to bring them all together and do this absolute grand finale, a 12-issue rollercoaster ride through Hell, the biggest Batman story I could think of to wrap up my six years on the book. That's what the second 'season' if you will, became -- these twelve issues that will finish everything, dotting all the I's and crossing all the T's, and leaving no stone unturned. I'd found the epic finale for my whole run and I can't wait to write it..."

Link to DC Comics solicitation for "Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!"

Link to DC Comics solicitation for "Batman Incorporated: Leviathan"

Link to Comics Alliance 'Grant Morrison Talks About Action Comics, His Batman Mega-Story and Mothers'

Link to Rolling Stone 'Grant Morrison: Psychedelic Superhero'