Upgrade Your Vision:

3D Comics and Narrative Purpose

Within the narrative of Final Crisis, Morrison wrote a two-issue mini-series called Superman Beyond 3D (2008-2009). This story was placed into the Final Crisis collected publications, forming an integral part of the complete narrative. However, as it was originally published, the story existed in two single issues, and could be read independently of the main story. The differing forms of publication are important in this instance, due to the original issues’ use of selective 3D printing techniques, as certain parts of the story took place in levels of diegetic awareness, and included 3D glasses to accompany the issues for the reader. Once it was collected into the hardcover and softcover book versions of Final Crisis, this aspect of the story was eliminated, removing the 3D aspect of the narrative, and forcing the story into a linear order within the main narrative.

As readers open up either of the single issues, the enclosed 3D glasses greet them. The glasses are folded into and stapled between the pages of the comics, and require the reader to remove and assemble them. By doing this, the reader is actively engaging and participating with the text. Where comics are normally collected and left in pristine condition, to read and experience this story properly, the reader has to destroy part of the issue. The glasses have a print of gold rust on them, sharing a similar aesthetic appearance to Superman’s Cosmic Armor, and symbolizing a connection between readers, who place the glasses on their faces, and Superman’s own transformation later in the story. The print on the glasses is also a part of this participation. Not only does it stand as directions for assembly, but also as extradiegetic element of the story, as they state:

We’ll be traveling through Bleed space between the universes, but you’ll need to upgrade to 4-D vision to truly comprehend what you experience. Prepare yourself by wearing these Overvoid Viewers forged from Superman’s own Cosmic Armor. Your ability to see 4-D perspective will develop spontaneously when you need it. It is crucial you cut your Overvoid Viewers out of the placard holder as indicated by the dotted lines, or they won’t function properly. When properly formulated, your Overvoid Viewers should have the green part over your right eye and the red over the left with the rusted armor facing out toward the page. (Morrison, Mahnke and Alamy, 2008)

Because the written text on the glasses references the internal narrative of the comic, the glasses themselves become a textualized element of the story. The glasses exist within the world of the comic as well as in readers’ hands, and when you put them on, you share Superman’s perspective. You see the world of the comic in simulated 3D the same way that Superman would see his own universe and the same way that we view our own, as an existence of full dimensionality. This removes a level of diegetic reality between the character and the reader and increasing the engagement between the reader and Superman.

, John Thiem describes textualization as being “lost in a book,” a pleasurable phenomenon associated with the hobby of reading and imposing yourself onto the characters and story. To Morrison, the concept is much more real. In an interview with Mark Salisbury on comic scriptwriting, Morrison states:

I realize now that you can go into any comic or any piece of fiction wearing a Fiction Suit. This is pioneering stuff, we are now astronauts entering fiction as a dimension. I can go into the comics world wearing a Superman body and walk around and tell them stuff like what’s going to happen on page sixteen if I want. I thought, what if you treated that reality as being its own real autonomous world? In the same way that those hyperbeings could get me out, can I get anyone out of there? (Salisbury 213)

While it may seem like a particularly odd concept to discuss in an interview, to Morrison it is all too personal. Morrison is connecting his encounter with extra-dimensional beings, and his removal out of his own reality, to the way we view comics. The desire to achieve that same level of interaction is Morrison’s goal in creating his fictions. One should note that this interview was published in 1999 and took place possibly a few years before that. Morrison mentions a “Fiction Suit,” and we see this in Superman Beyond, as a representation of the totality of fiction itself, which coincidentally (or perhaps, quite deliberately, if one accepts Superman as the first comic superhero) bears the form of Superman. The reader is also able to wear that very same “Fiction Suit” as embodied by the 3D glasses, and engage in the story as Superman, since when wearing the Cosmic Armor/Fiction Suit, Superman is merely a concept, rather than a specific character. He becomes a metaphor within the diegesis, an abstraction to which we can apply ourselves. We are seeing aspects of the Superman Beyond story being discussed here a decade before it was published, alluding to Morrison’s continued and deliberate use of textualization and magic as a form of narrative construction.

While it proves cheaper and easier for DC to publish, as well as presenting the story to readers without requiring special glasses, this elimination of the 3D parts of the story and forced placement in the Final Crisis narrative proves damning to the content of Superman Beyond 3D. As the world around Superman changes, so must Superman adapt, and his vision is “upgraded” to 4D Vision when he needs to perceive the aspects of what is going on around him that exist outside his normal comprehensive abilities. When this occurs, so too must readers put on their 3D glasses in order to properly perceive and read what is going on in the world of the comic. The story of Superman Beyond 3D takes place between heartbeats of Lois Lane, who was kept alive solely by Superman. Superman is pulled out of time, beyond his current concept of reality. As originally published, this story existed as a part of, but also outside of the main Final Crisis arc, the reader is able to read the story as a part of the overarching event, but also not limited to a linear narrative experience. The story of Superman Beyond takes place between issues of the main Final Crisis series, but in the collected volume of Final Crisis the reader is forced to consume this story as a moment between other moments, as opposed to how Superman experiences it, as a moment outside of a moment. Since the story is told partially in 3D, and readers use 3D glasses at the same time that Superman needs to use his special vision, we are supposed to experience this story as Superman is experiencing it as an aspect of his own reality. Thus, when one forces the individual comics into linear story form, and stripped of this 3D, Superman Beyond is an incomplete reading experience, though integral to completing the Final Crisis story. In order to experience it properly, one must read them as single issues.

Though 3D comics might seem like a cheesy sales gimmick, it depends on how it is implemented into the narrative. Where most 3D media simply use the technology to increase the sensation of objects flying at the face of the audience, Morrison is constructing the printing technology into the narrative itself. Readers experience an extradiegetic narrative technique that fully utilizes textualization into the storytelling. That extradiegetic element is important, as it is something subconscious to the reading experience – it is hidden and taken for granted. The 3D aspects of the comic exist in the same construction level as the panel borders and text bubbles. It creates an immersive narrative experience and allows the reader to become a part of the comic, as they only have to acknowledge the comic itself. As you become Superman, the comic becomes about you and your achievements. You save the world.

(just typing out those two words should make you shudder). The art of Crossed 3D occasionally implements a first-person perspective, giving the reader a more physical attachment to the violence as the visual nature of the medium is making them look at themselves getting brutalized. But, this perspective is subtly hidden within the panels of the book. While in 3D, readers are constantly switching between human and crossed, as you become an unseen character in the book who is taking part in the action of both sides.

The comic uses textualization through the 3D glasses in the same way that Morrison does, by constructing it into the narrative of the story in the sense that readers will also become the crossed, as suggested by the image of the 3D glasses (very much in contrast to Morrison’s glasses, where we are told that we are Superman). This promises to have enormous potential for terror as you play the part of both victim and victimizer. Crossed is not written as a book to be enjoyed. It is supposed to disturb you and make you feel ill. There are different reasons why – the banality of mass produced horror films, the desensitization of youth from an over-mediated culture, the prevalence of violence and horror in our daily lives, etc. While it is easy to suggest that Ennis or Lapham are being over-the-top for shock value, it is an overly simplistic perspective to take. It is truly unnerving that Avatar is making you play the role of these psychopaths.

While the film industry tries to increase ticket sales by suggesting that their movies have an extra-special sense of spectacle, the limited use of 3D in contemporary comics has a more careful and conscious purpose to its usage. Thankfully, it looks like it is going to stay that way as well.


Salisbury, Mark. Writers on Comic Scriptwriting. London: Titan, 1999. [link: http://amzn.com/184023069X ]

Morrison, Grant, Doug Mahnke, and Christian Alamy. Superman Beyond 3D #1. New York: DC Comics, 2008.

Lapham, David, Gianluca Pagliarani. Crossed: 3D. Rantoul: Avatar Press, 2011.

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Tim Bavlnka has a Master’s degree in Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. He recently completed his thesis analyzing the works of Grant Morrison, titled Superheroes and Shamanism: Magic and Participation in the Comics of Grant Morrison and discusses how Morrison implements magic into narrative construction. His research interests include comics, digetic and extradiegetic narrative relationships, American black metal, contemporary forms of occult creativity, 4chan, and other internet communities. Tim currently lives in Madison, WI and occasionally writes on his blog PopCultureBomb.com.

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1 Comment

  1. David Balan says:

    Cool article!

    I’ve always stayed away from 3D comics for the opposite reason actually – I find that since the 3D is the breaking of the fictional space into my space (and in a very limited and stilted way) it actually distracts me from the story rather than involving me further. I become highly aware of the fictional, fabricated nature of the media (film or comic) and that makes me less involved. When the world is simply right there on the page (or screen) and I must enter it, I find that much more subtle techniques (usually involving good storytelling and shot choice to create space and involvement) are more effective, as they reach out and pull me into the fiction without having to physically do so – I’m not even aware of it when it works. I’m too busy experiencing the fiction.

    3D makes me instantly aware of it. That’s why I don’t like it. But, I’ll admit all the 3D stuff I’ve seen advertised has been gimmicky. I may give Superman Beyond a try!

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