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Peter's Pit

Three Comics Creators In Search Of Reality…

"One word balloon in From Hell completely hijacked my life. A character says something like, 'The one place gods inarguably exist is in the human mind'. After I wrote that, I realised I'd accidentally made a true statement, and now I'd have to rearrange my entire life around it. The only thing that seemed to really be appropriate was to become a magician. I've always sympathised with Brian Eno's theory, that if you were a mechanic you'd want to know what to look for under the hood if the car seized up. I'm dependent on writing for a living, so really it's to my advantage to understand how the creative process works. One of the problems is, when you start to do that, in effect you're going to have to step off the edge of science and rationality."
Alan Moore interviewed by Steve Rose in The Guardian

…and of course Mr Moore is right. Possibly more than he's aware of. Of course that coupling of science with rationality might look a bit shaky in the next few minutes.

Imagine this. You are standing in front of a wall, higher than your head. In the wall there are two slits, roughly at your head level. You have a gun and you begin to fire bullets through the slits, alternating between the two. You can imagine what happens. If there was another wall behind the wall you are looking at bulletholes would be distributed with some variety across it, constrained by the hole.

Now imagine the same wall, but this time it's a harbour wall, with water on each side. As the water on your side laps against it ripples are produced on the other side of each of the slits, that fan out and eventually intersect each other producing an diffraction pattern against the far wall.

OK. Most of you will know (and this is a wild over-simplification, but bear with me) that light is a wave, made up of particles (electrons). If you shine light through a wall with two slits in it and you have photo-sensitive material on the far wall what you'll get is a diffraction pattern just as with the water.

Here's interesting point number one: if you fire the light one electron at a time - i.e. only one particle at a time is passing through each alternative slit - you'll still get the diffraction pattern. Now this is kind of interesting because the electrons are leaving as particles, and arriving as particles on the photo-sensitive material but producing a diffraction pattern that you would expect from a wave when there are no other electrons to produce the interference. If we close one of the slits we get the kind of distribution pattern we would for the bullets. If we open the slit up, we're back to the diffraction pattern. Almost as if the particles 'knew' whether either or both slits were open. An electron passing through one slit knows not only whether the other slit is open, it knows how the single electrons that have travelled through it were so as to produce the diffraction pattern.

Interesting point number two then. In recent years it's been possible to place sensors in the slits, monitoring when the electron arrives - i.e. observing it. When this happens the patterns on the material revert to the distribution you'd expect if you fired bullets through both slits. The electrons not only 'know' whether the slits are open or not - they know if we're watching them. Simply put, when we try to observe a spread-out electron wave it collapses into a particle, but when we are not looking it keeps its options open. More simply still:
When we observe the world we change it. More than we know.

"It's frightening. You call out the names in this strange incomprehensible language, and you're looking into the glass and there appears to be this little man talking to you. It just works."
Alan Moore, ibid

So Alan's god might not be such a strange occurrence after all. If part of the fabric of the universe changes its behaviour when we look at it, gods don't seem so incredible.

Scott Adams, author of the popular Dilbert strip wanted to have the most widely distributed strip in the world. Scott believes in affirmations - writing down, or repeating to yourself your goals every day. He did this and to his surprise found that it appeared to work. Well, he has the sales to prove it. He wrote about this at some length in The Dilbert Future, and got roundly criticised for it. His response:
"I say in the book, and I say now, that there's no reliable scientific evidence that affirmations shape reality. The reflex response is to test it and find out. But logically, is such a thing testable? How can you test whether consciousness influences reality? As long as the test itself is part of reality, the test is tainted. There can be no control experiment. Once an alternate reality can be imagined, it becomes rational to try strategies that might work better if the alternate reality exists. Then see for yourself what happens, as long as there's no risk involved."
Scott Adams replying to David Bloomberg

Hmm, alternate reality eh… that sounds a bit like Hugh Everett's solution to the Schrödinger's Cat problem (look it up if you don't know - we've had far too much physics for one column). He posited a universe of alternate realities, all 'real' and overlapping. When we make a measurement at the quantum level our observation cuts the ties between these realities and separates them, each reality containing its own observer who thinks he has the 'right' answer.

The thing is that Scott, vilified or not, isn't the only person who has noticed that writing your goals down seems to increase the chances of you achieving them. Harvard Business School, amongst others, have noticed that those who write their goals down have a ridiculously high chance of achieving them compared to those who don't. So how does that work? The nice thing about businessmen is that they tend not to care - if it works they write a best-selling book about it. You've probably heard of Buddhists who chant for money? Works as well.

That's the point you see: does it work in the world? And to your advantage? Scott Adams has his strip (and books, and TV), Alan Moore has his god (name of Glycon apparently), the chanting Buddhists have their money… there's a real world test right there. So, do we only hear from the winners? Is that's what's happening?

Uh-huh. Dave Sim, writer/artist on Cerebus has his own reality that he likes to talk about in the back of his comic. In Dave's reality the world is run by the feminist/homosexualist axis and his response to this is to discard the trappings of the 21st century, pray, fast and become interested in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

I once interviewed crime writer Gary Phillips. Gary is in his forties, a comics fan, has kids, was a union organizer - all things we have in common. What we don't have in common is our skin colour. I'm white, Gary's black. We talked about this - more accurately the way it would affect our kids - in the article. I received the article pages in the post one day, with assorted abuse scrawled over them in large black felt pen. In amongst the suggestions as to what sexual favours I'd provided for black men was an accusation that I was supporting a black people's conspiracy to take over the world. As I said in an email to Gary: 'Can I suggest you've been going about it the wrong way?'

Back to the real world, you see. If women and gays have been trying to take over the planet in a grand conspiracy then ineptitude thy name is woman and/or homosexual. Let's see: lower wages, discrimination, marginalisation… and that's in the countries where they have some power. I don't reckon Dave looks at Africa (where women with AIDS is the norm now) or India (were they've cunningly arranged the practice of bride-burning, the little minxes) or indeed anywhere outside North America.

Moore and Adams have an idea, and are testing it against the world - no matter whether you believe there's a god at Mr Moore's house, he can see it. It's a fairly small and definite matter. One god - easy to count. Dave Sim, by contrast, has an idea and has included every woman and gay in the world in his reality. Think he's been around to check?

The plain fact is that we all create realities for ourselves: we wake up in the morning, it's raining, it's a 'bad day'. Well, no it's not - it's just wet outside. Listen to people at the office talk about what a character in EastEnders did last night, as if they were real people. Listen to comic fans (myself included) talk about what Superman or Batman (characters in coloured pamphlets for children, remember) would or wouldn't 'do'.

What's happening here? People like consistency - that's how Marvel are selling everyone the Spider-man story for the umpteenth time. Consistency can be useful, but more often it just makes you a mark. Congruence is more useful, let me suggest. It's been noticed by many people (especially those who write self-help books) that because of our power to 'believe' things, human beings are spectacularly good at reducing their options. If rats in a maze find food in one of the alleyways they'll return to it only as often as there is food there. Human beings will keep going there because there was food there once. Rats are congruent to their mission, which is getting food. People are consistent in their beliefs. This is why Buffy the Vampire Slayer has continued for three series beyond where it should - we had a good time there once. Didn't we?

Alan Moore and Scott Adams seem congruent to me: what they're doing is increasing the options available to them. Dave Sim seems to be in the business of reducing his to a world that is hostile and negative. There are enough hostile and negative aspects to existence: imagining new ones seems to be a good recipe for making yourself really miserable. If you're going to have beliefs why not have ones that generate creative options for yourself, rather than ones that limit you?

And so to the logical conclusion. In this column I've documented my dissatisfaction with being sold and re-sold the same basic stuff in most of the comics I buy. Most are gone now - the good ones I remember, the bad ones I don't care to. What did I keep? The single most remarkable comic I kept is by the aforementioned Mr Moore: The Birth Caul, with Eddie Campbell. Why this astounding piece of work has eluded the plaudits that the pot-boiling From Hell gets I don't know. James Robinson's exceptional Starman is around for another read: a comic that manages to incorporate his love of the form without phoney nostalgia. And Sandman Mystery Theatre: with adult orientated graphic novels on the rise DC are missing a trick not re-issuing these four-parters. Other stuff as well, but not much.

This is the last TG. Next time I'll be writing a column focusing on the business end of the fantasy industry. That's all there is: there isn't any more.

Peter Mann

This article originally appeared in comics trade magazine Tripwire. For more information on Tripwire look here, athough the site does seem to be a bit out of date....

That's all for now, pending any new material from Mr Mann, but you can read last week's columns here