I found World Without End almost completely by accident, or rather, in a chain of events that led to a name and a title. It began when I finally read AARGH! for the first time. I read a story called “Growing Out of It,” told by Mark Vicars and in particular written out by Jamie Delano. Originally, I misinterpreted the narrative and thought it was Delano’s personal story. Then I wondered if he was some relation to Deborah Delano, one of AARGH’s editors and did some research on him. After that I found out that he was a friend of Alan Moore’s and that he was one of the first generation of “Post-Moore British Invasion” comics writers in the 1990s. It was at that point that I was led to a review of World Without End reprinted in Black Gate Magazine by John R. Fultz called Exploring the WORLD WITHOUT END and it was reading this that inspired me to check out this dark world for myself.
Fultz’s “Exploring the WORLD WITHOUT END” and the afterword in the collected edition “WORLD WITHOUT END: AMEN: An Appreciation by Stephen R. Bissette” go into further detail about the industrial, cultural, and political climes that led to the creation of the comic. Unfortunately during the period of 1990 to 1991 in which this miniseries ran, apparently DC Comics didn’t quite know how, nor cared to particularly advertise or support a mature science-fiction themed story without a superhero element. As a result, all creator-rights to the comic went back to its creators once it stopped making any significant profit, according to John Higgins who is referenced in Bissette’s afterword of the collected edition: the latter of which made possible by Dover Publications. The afterword even makes a point of the fact that Karen Berger, who made the so-called “British Invasion” possible didn’t manage to create her Vertigo imprint until 1993: two years after World Without End was finished.
But as I said, this is all information you can find in the former two sources and in interviews with both Delano and Higgins online. What I am more interested in talking about here is the world that the two creators actually make and how relevant its themes remain. One thing I really thought about when I first encountered this story was how it compares and contrasts to Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s more contemporary ODY-C: because, inevitably, it too plays around with the differences between traditional binary gender and the near-destruction of one and the ascendency of the other. Whereas the male gender was obliterated by an exasperated extra-dimensional being in ODY-C, the virtual extinction of the feminine in World Without End seemed to have happened due to more banal reasons.
This was where I’d almost made another mistake. I thought that the society that evolved in Delano and Higgins’ world had somehow managed to remove the female gender, if not its biological sex, out of their species generations ago. I wasn’t sure how this would have been possible, of course. After all, if you take the example of ODY-C and other science-fiction tropes before it, it’d far easier to eliminate men than it would women: especially in a technologically advanced society where sperm can be preserved or genetic material replicated. But that assumption is already challenged by a few factors. First, I had no idea where this was a story taking place in the Earth’s far future or if it even involved humanity at all. Second, what would male or female, or masculine and feminine even be or mean millennia from now? And, thirdly and fourthly that people would still needed to make other people, and that World Without End would even be about individuals instead of their place in the environment.
Fultz goes into depth on John Higgins’ art style and his favourite snippets of Jamie Delano’s grimly poetic writing. I don’t have much to add to this, except to say that Higgins’ dark and Gothic aesthetics of a dying world is reminiscent of both the end of the Earth in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness.” Even its most baleful colours and subdued by the grittiness of the air and the harsh, angular, unforgiving peaks of a hyper-masculine surface architecture and civilization. And in a poetic style not unlike that within Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, or if Rorschach from Watchmen somehow found himself the narrator of a documentary about a dystopian ecosystem, Jamie Delano tells us an interesting story.
There is a city named Bedlam. It rules the surface of a world called The Host or The Flesh by its inhabitants: a people called the Gess. The Gess are all male: the whole lot of them. They are a society composed of various “Gilds,” not the least of which being the Gild of Cartographers, the Gild of the Ritual Masters, the Gild of Reportage, the Gild of Scriveners, the Gild of Inquisitors and so on. They are all, in turn, influenced and secretly ruled by a group of geneticists and eugenicists called the Brotherhood of Stern Resolve. They are able to use The Host, a world created entirely from toxic liquids and biological matter, to continue growing their city of Bedlam and developing their Yuth: more young men that can be integrated into their societal structure. At the very bottom of this world order are the Bellops, Portas, and the Roam-Servers: a majority of humanoid male creatures called the Stuff that are genetically engineered servant or working class descendants, made into servants and slaves.
Yet in contrast to the Yuth are the existence of Skittons. At first, I thought they were something like Dune’s axlotl tanks: except instead of being biologically female and humanoid, they were a non-humanoid outlet or node in The Flesh: not unlike the womb-like structures that one of the stories protagonists uses to create life out in the wild. But Skittons are not for creating other Yuth, for Delano doesn’t let the Gess simply or cleanly eliminate the presence of any feminine elements, or have – from what I’ve seen anyway – homosexual relationships as the only accepted gender that exists.
From my understanding, Skittons — perhaps a disturbing word combination of “skittish” and “kitten” when you look at what follows — seem to be young girls genetically engineered over time to never experience menstruation or sexual maturity. However, the society of the Gess is so patriarchal and anti-feminine that even the mere mention of the feminine in reference to anything, especially Skittons, is forbidden and considered one of the greatest of heresies. To be honest, I didn’t even know what a Skitton was – even when they are all slaughtered by the advent of the story’s antagonist and the city’s new leader – except that they were used by the Gild of the Ritual Masters as servants or perhaps more…. sexual purposes.
If we are looking at analogies here, it is pretty clear what that Gild is supposed to represent in our world given that they are the closest things to a religious presence in the society of the Gess. It is even more horrific when you consider that Skittons seem to have been ritualistically killed even before the rise of World Without End’s antagonist: perhaps as a symbolic act of the masculine perpetually debasing and obliterating the feminine. It also can’t be overstated that if such a thing is happening in that world, it might be a form of “virginal” sacrifice at work.
The spirit behind these rituals also affects the Gess. From what I can read, pleasure is seen as something illicit in that society and only pain – especially among the Inquisitors – is an acceptable sensation to experience as a purging mechanism: a tradition of sadomasochism. It is a conception of the masculine over-exaggerated and taken to its inevitable extreme.
Essentially, Bedlam and the Gess are what happens when the genetic caste-system of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is combined with misogyny and one of the central ideas inherent in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: of men being able to create life without women and the potential horror that can result. Even the grim futuristic feel of this world is something like a story you would find in 2000AD: an appropriate link when you consider that John Higgins is an artist for that series. But how did the world get to this point? What caused it? And what happens that challenges the status quo?
This is the point where, if you want to read the miniseries, that you might want to beware of spoilers.
It is much farther along that we find out that this story actually does take place in Earth’s future. Earth becomes so badly polluted and its ecosystems ruined that it needs a new structure in place. The protagonist finds out – though perhaps we as readers understand this information more – that Bedlam was originally a pleasure resort and colony created by an influential group of men: philanthropists, businessmen, politicians, scientists, and engineers. They – most likely those that would form the Brotherhood of Stern Resolve – devised a genetically engineered organism that made originated from Bedlam that covered the entire world and allowed them to manipulate and control it at an unprecedented level. This became The Host or The Flesh. During this time, they recruited a population of women: many of whom were performers and, most likely, sex workers. It is unclear, at least to me, how it happened – either due to my own failure in capturing all the details or the fact that such information was lost to history in that world – but over time the women rebelled against a more misogynist order forming in Bedlam.
At some point in their development there was a war between them – perhaps using The Flesh against each other – and apparently the people who became the Gess – the men – won with the help of one of their earliest champions: a vicious warlord and “champion” named Brother Bones. From that point on, Bedlam outlawed the feminine and women and considered the existences of both to be the greatest of heresies.
Women supposedly no longer exist in this world as people or even as concepts. But one day, in Bedlam, one does. A Skitton menstruates: a “flaw” in the genetic engineering protocols set by the Brotherhood for The Host. In fact, the actual story starts off with mention in the narrative that The Host isn’t functioning as well anymore and not creating nearly as many Yuth for the Gilds to train, amongst other issues…. and apparently one of these “issues” was the creation of a woman named Rumour. Rumour was left to die in “the wilderness of The Flesh” beyond Bedlam by a group that was terrified of being exterminated by the Inquisitors for even having her among their Skittons. But Rumour actually saved herself by discovering that she could manipulate and create life from The Host herself.
Rumour ends up transforming herself to resemble the Gess’ conception of femininity: a malformed, twisted hag of bloated stature and bulbous curves. While it’s possible that she takes on this aspect to make the Gess fear her, it may well seem to be her only understanding of what something reviled like a woman should look like. Rumour literally wears her own internalized misogyny while attempting to own it. She attracts a large number of the Stuff – of the lower engineered Gess classes – not unlike a medieval witch or a devil recruiting a perverse coven and begins to creating her own form of life: monsters that can possibly fight against the Gess at some point in time.
But, ironically enough, the Gess’ champion Brother Bones also suffers from a twisted conception of gender identity. When an Inquisitor discovers Rumour and her coven, completely horrified, he returns and reports to the Brotherhood of Stern Resolve, after a ritual lashing to purge himself of his sins and base desires. After they kill him, to keep this matter silent and not alarm the populace, their Elder Brother clones and presumably mnemonically resurrects Brother Bones to bring Gess’ corpulent society back into order and destroy Rumour once and for all.
Brother Bones speaks in an ancient dialect, as he existed somewhere in the distant ancestry of the Gess, and he resembles Sauron’s armoured form from The Lord of the Rings. Brother Bones is all hard angles, spiked helmet and shoulder-pads, black armour, and pain incarnate. There is nothing soft nor yielding about the man and he is constantly filled with anger and hate. The only pleasure he seems to take is in killing and destroying, even if it has to be his own men, and the Brotherhood itself barely controls him: if at all. It is Brother Bones that orders all Skittons to be exterminated, and the Gilds brought to heel and under his direct control. He fancies himself both a messiah and a great warrior that will end the “degradation” and “soft weak rot” of the Gess, destroy all femininity, and bring “a new order” to The Host. As a clone of the original Brother Bones, he symbolizes the pathological drive of the Gess and their city of Bedlam: in accepting the poison and pollution of their world as something natural, in exulting in pain as the only outlet for release, and is overall – literally – destructive and toxic masculinity made incarnate.
However, as it turns out Rumour is not in fact the only woman left in existence. After Brother Bones and his Gess army destroy her creations and kill most of her Stuff, she and a few stragglers escape underground, past even The Flesh to fungi-dominated tunnels where they discover the ruins of the old world – presumably not unlike our own – and are in turn discovered by another group…. called the Fams. Fams are women who, led by their priestesses called the Scarlots and their Dam, essentially exist in a communal matriarchal society.
On the surface, their surviving society is ideal. The Fams practice art, healing, and the martial arts. The Scarlots are those that allow them to continue reproduction and they free the rest of them, Gurls and Fams to their own pursuits. They have mastered pharmaceuticals and substances to the point of chemical and psychiatric therapy. In addition, they do not utilize The Flesh in any manner. And, the Scarlots – the priestess descendants of the sex workers that existed in Bedlam – know a technique aptly called “the Trick,” that actually teaches women the secret of “true reproduction” without The Host. Unlike the stark, gritty aesthetics of Bedlam and the Gess, John Higgins makes the society and surroundings of the Fam colourful almost to the point of being ethereal: paralleling their embrace for pleasure and sisterhood in contrast to the “pain of clarity” and impersonal nature of the Gess. It is also made fairly clear that lesbian or same-sex relationships not only exist in the society of the Fam, they are pretty much the norm, unlike the Gess who do not seem to have any sexual or romantic arrangements of any kind.
Of course, the Fams are not without their own dark side. The Scarlots maintain a monopoly on reproduction and who is allowed to reproduce. The priestesses and their Dams insist on keeping the Fam in their hidden society: forbidding any excursions or explorations into the upper world. And as for their Trick, there is a reason they can perform it. As it turns out, somewhere along the line – perhaps at the very beginning of their subterranean life – the Scarlots took the male children they produced, lobotomized them, and keep them chained within their vicinity. They continue to do this as part of their tradition, training members of the Scarlots in their history and lore, while getting them to harvest the sperm of those brain-dead men to impregnate themselves. When a man cannot become aroused any longer, they will kill him and harvest the seed produced by his “big death” as opposed to the “little deaths” that are generally more consistent.
The Scarlots have founded their religion and the society of the Fams around the fear of men – of men being the ultimate flaw to reproduction – and maintain their rule over their society as such. There is even a statue of Brother Bones, the early Brother Bones, in chains representing the demonic nature of men and their mastery by Fam and the Scarlots through the power of the Trick: of taking their essence away from them. There is actually a faction of Fam that wants to change this dynamic: to find men that aren’t Brother Bones, to stop using the male children as nonconsensual sperm-donors and find out more about their world, but the Dam always has a significant amount of political and ecclesiastic power derived from ancient fear that keeps this from occurring: the very same acumen that she uses to seduce Rumour into the ranks of the Scarlots and away from this iconoclastic group.
There is something almost satirical about this grotesque dynamic between the sexes, these over-exaggerated and hyper-stereotypical gender caricatures clashing with and attempting to overcome one another. Part of it might have something to do with the fact that DC Comics, that sold this miniseries during the early nineties, wanted a story with both a clear heroine and villain – or advertised it as such – and Delano decided to play with this concept in a subversive manner, but I think he delves into it even deeper.
Look at the names he uses. Fams are a combination of female and family. Gess can be a corruption of “guys.” Yuth are derived from “youth” which is a word seemingly more associated with boys and young men as opposed to girls and women. The beings created from the Stuff are basically all servants, or “staff” on the lower strata of the former pleasure resort society. Hell, even the Inquisitors with their literal “wingmen” seem to be a wink and nudge towards both male pilots and the idea of men watching out for men albeit far outside of a barroom situation and World Without End is a nice reference to the American dream: of exploring and conquering the frontier and Manifest Destiny. And I don’t think I really need to go into what Scarlots represent as they are fairly self-evident: as “sacred whores” with their high priestess Dam or Madame in a Dune Honored Matre way ruling over their less than innocent H.G. Wells’ Eloi subjects.
But when you strip away the stereotypes and keep the gender politics of the nineteen nineties and eighties in mind, there are some heavy mythological and spiritual aspects explored in World Without End. Rumour, after her cult and creatures are destroyed by Brother Bones and the latter injuries her, begins to change. Brother Bones managed to rip her layer of flesh, her mutated witch costume, off of her body revealing the true woman underneath it. Once she finds herself among the Fams, she embraces the Scarlots and learns their lore and ways. She finds peace and realizes that she is not an aberration. There are others like her and, for the first time in her whole life she finds a mother-figure – unfortunately – in the Dam. And, through the Scarlots, she practices “the Trick” on a captured and lobotomized wingman: even though she is reluctant and, if anything despite everything she’s gone through, actually wants to provide him with the necessary “little death” instead of the “bigger death” that will happen if he fails to function.
Yet this peace, this literal safe space of “free Fam” is taken from her once Brother Bones and his army track her down and obliterate the entire Fam society: Scarlots, factions, and all. This loss of her closest link to family, and a woman that she grows to love – the first kind of romantic love she has ever experienced – turns Rumour to a darker place. Even before she met the Fam and the Scarlots, Rumour knew the power of the Moon and its link to female blood. She calls on this aspect, on this chthonic focus, to create a powerful monster that she uses to defeat Brother Bones and take over Bedlam: unleashing a reign of terror like the dark goddess that she has ultimately become.
Rumour becomes merciless, not unlike Brother Bones. She kills all Gess in her way and accepts sacrifices of Yuth and Stuff from them. From the deformed witch to the summer child to Innana Rumour has travelled on something of a dark heroine’s journey through various feminine archetypes before she realizes that destroying all the Gess and Bedlam won’t fill the emptiness inside of her: that she has almost internalized the patriarchy of Bedlam and Brother Bones in a reactionary manner that won’t bring back the Skittons or the Fam.
And it is at this point, for me, that I can finally voice some of the issues that I have with this story. Aside from the fact that the Gess seem to lack romantic relationships and that perhaps the Fam might have considered raised their Yuth differently instead of lobotomizing and using them, I couldn’t particularly relate to any of these characters. Not the almost cartoonish Brother Bones nor Rumour. Perhaps I can empathize with Rumour more due to the horrors she has faced by just existing and by what she has lost, but even then she is still more of a concept than a person. In fact, all of World Without End feels like just one giant epic poem of conflicting concepts coming towards some kind of Hegelian dialect of resolution: a thesis, antithesis, and final resulting synthesis.
In the end, Rumour realizes that in order to save this world – to make a better one – she has to perform her “Trick” on the tortured Brother Bones in what is basically a “sex ex machina” that encourages The Host – that may or may not have made Rumour on purpose to escape the “viral” nature of the Gess – to fuse fully with the Earth in a Yin-Yang, masculine-feminine cycle, and restart all life on the planet: essentially bringing all life, all animals, and eventually prehistoric humankind “back to the start” in what seems to be intersex form.
There is not much more to add here. I found World Without End relatively hard to follow. I didn’t always know what was happening, especially at the beginning, and Delano’s poetic language makes you truly need to closely read what is going on along with examining the immense detail of Higgins’ artwork. I will just tell you right now that Brother Bones’ dialect can be truly difficult to get through, but at the same time I would not change that for the world. His mental programming comes from an earlier time in that world with different syntax and grammar and it is one of the more interesting elements about him. At one point in Bissette’s afterword Jamie Delano explains that there were attempts to normalize Brother Bones’ speech, but Dover kept the original language such as it is. It is reminiscent of Russell Hoban and even Alan Moore’s linguistic experiments: the kind of verbiage that you can understand if you just let your mind hover over the words intuitively. Nevertheless, there is even a Gild of Reportage article at the end of one of the chapters – originally one of six documents of in-world back-matter at the end of each issue – that helpfully goes through the effort of translating Bones’ most commonly used words.
As for the rest of it, I appreciated the nightmarish world and how Delano and Higgins make us think it is a story about people, but it is really a narrative about people as a part of place, if that makes sense. Much of it feels like they started off, like Matt Fraction and Christian Ward did with ODY-C from Barbarella and went into a much darker direction with it. It helps to think about how ridiculous a lot of the elements actually are, and how it satirizes stereotypical gender relations and how we treat our own planet. Unfortunately, only small aspects of language and technology differentiate our contemporary era from the eighties and nineties with regards to reproductive rights, women’s rights, toxic masculinity, gender conflicts, and environmental disasters. There is another aspect to consider when you think about the title to Jamie Delano and John Higgins’ World Without End: that this is a world, an idea, that is a cycle and we might never know if or when it ever truly will end.