Alan Moore’s done it. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee did it. Osamu Tezuka did it. Grant Morrison did it so regularly and intently that he gave it a name. Comic book creators seem to have a habit of inserting themselves into the stories that they write. Sometimes it can be as a quick cameo or a wink at the camera to break the fourth wall. Sometimes they can act as actual characters in the story, influencing the outcome of various events. Either way, it’s an important step in blurring the line between fiction and reality.
The very act of blurring that line between is the basic concept of Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s amazing 32-issue series, Promethea. Throughout the series we follow a creative young girl named Sophie Bangs who, using poetry and storytelling, is transformed into the superhero Promethea, much like how young Billy Batson is transformed into Captain Marvel when he says his own special magic word. Promethea is the avatar of communication, creativity, and magick, and has inhabited various creative females (and effeminate males) throughout history. Sophie’s iteration is said to be the most important yet, however, as it is Sophie’s Promethea who will guide humanity through the apocalypse.
As the series progresses, we learn that Moore’s definition of the apocalypse is one of a mass enlightenment event in which the realms of the imagination collapse upon the material world, creating a new, more powerful form of existence and revealing the true nature of the universe to everyone around the world at the same time. In issue 30, as this event is unfolding and Promethea is talking us through it, we start to see glimpses of the world outside of the comic, and of us looking down into it. Then, on the penultimate page, both Moore and Williams look over their shoulder to gaze into the eyes of the reader, each giving a startled “oh @#$%” or “Uh oh” as they see us and we see them.
By creating this sort of scenario in this particular comic book, Moore isn’t merely breaking the fourth wall, he’s reinforcing everything that his comic book is trying to say about the nature of fiction and reality. Just as Promethea’s narration is explaining to us that all of time is happening in a single moment, we are shown a glimpse of Moore and Williams looking across the gulf of time and space and reality into our eyes as we read their comic. No matter who reads it, when they read it, or how many times they read it, that moment will always be playing out the exact same way for all of eternity, just as Promethea said it would. We can put the comic away and come back to it years later and that moment will still be there, just as fresh as ever, as though time itself wasn’t a line at all but panels on a page that we could flip through, forwards and backwards, at our own discretion.
To be sure, Moore wasn’t the first author to do this. I recently just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, a story that dealt with the author’s painful experiences being a prisoner of war during World War II and surviving the firebombing of Dresden, a military act that killed about twice as many people as the bombing of Hiroshima (so it goes). The author uses his own first-person perspectives to bookend the story, but the majority of the novel belongs to the story of Billy Pilgrim, a young soldier in the war who became “unstuck in time.” However, as Pilgrim and the author lived through the same harrowing experiences, Vonnegut does sometimes appear throughout the story as an extra in his own novel.
At one point, Pilgrim peeks into a latrine full of American soldiers to see them all sick from a welcome feast they partook in upon arriving at a Nazi prison camp. He hears one of the sick Americans shout that everything is leaving him except his brains. The American then shouts “there they go,” meaning his brains. Vonnegut then writes “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.” By doing this, Vonnegut was immortalizing himself in that moment, no matter how unglamorous and self-deprecating it was. For Billy Pilgrim, a boy who saw that all of time was happening at once and that everyone is always alive somewhere, that young soldier crapping his brains out will exist forever.
Another writer who famously met his characters by writing himself into their stories is Grant Morrison. Exploring the nature of fiction and reality is the basis for much of Morrison’s work (as it is for Moore), and it has played a role in his writing since the very beginning of is career. Rather than writing a character into his own life experiences as Vonnegut did with Billy Pilgrim, Morrison ventured down into the 2-D superhero universes that his characters inhabited and met with them on their level. This was achieved, according to Morrison, with what he called a “fiction suit.”
Toward the end of Morrison’s run on Animal Man, the titular character, who had just seen his entire family murdered, was starting to become more and more aware of his own existence as a cartoon character in a superhero comic book. Searching desperately for answers, he finally came face to face with the cruel tormentor who was to blame for all of his anguish: Morrison himself. Appearing as a monotone, grayscale illustration (and, shockingly, with hair) Morrison explained to Animal Man that the superhero was, in fact, living in a comic book and that his destiny was shaped by words that Morrison had written. He said that the brutal murder of Animal Man’s family, while tragic, was a necessarily evil in the world of monthly episodic fiction. In a move of bold iconoclasm, Morrison explained to Animal Man that by introducing violence and tragedy into the character’s story, the writer hoped to make the fictitious character seem more “adult,” more “realistic.” “God help us if that’s what it means,” Morrison said.
From Morrison’s perspective, journeying into a world of imagination and ideas (and telling the inhabitants of that realm about the malevolent human overlords that shape their destinies) is almost like inter-dimensional travel, and is achieved with a fiction suit, which is the fictional shape he attains when sending his thoughts into that idea space. Later, Morrison would come to find out that not only can a writer influence the world of the imaginary via the use of a fiction suit, but that the reverse is true as well. According to the writer and long-time practitioner of sigil magick, the trials and hardships that he inflicted upon his character King Mob, a sort of fiction suit that he created for his series The Invisibles, soon found their way into his daily life. It wasn’t long before Morrison himself was undergoing the same torturous battle with death and disease that he had put his character through. It was after that point, Morrison said, that he decided to give King Mob an easier time.
Morrison, Moore, and Vonnegut aren’t the only authors who have thought to insert themselves into the fictional world that they created. I’d wager that most of the time, when a writer really works hard to flesh out the universe that they’re writing about, somewhere in their map of that universe they are able to pinpoint their own location, even if it’s never relevant within the story to show the reader. Perhaps it is part of the writer’s nature to see themselves and the world around them as being another form of fiction, one that can be interchangeable with the ones that they are writing or can exist alongside it. Perhaps, as in the case of Vonnegut, who, through his writing, gave eternal life to himself and to all those that he saw die senselessly in the firebombing of Dresden, we can use the world of fiction to influence reality. As Promethea herself once said (and is still saying), “What’s important is understanding that mind and matter aren’t separated. They’re just different points in one system… Changing the world’s as easy as changing your mind. It’s just that matter’s thicker and more viscous than imagination, so it takes longer.”