Mister Mxyzptlk and the Dilemma of Drawing in Five Dimensions

A 3-D visualization of Mister Mxyzptlk, courtesy of Mattel.

As evidenced by 2017’s “Rebirth” storylines, one of Superman’s more enduring adversaries has proven to be Mister Mxyzptlk, a contemporary entry into trickster god lore.

Across the second and third dimensions

The “imp from the fifth dimension” debuted in DC comics canon in “Superman” no. 30 (Sept., 1944) in a story by artist Ira Yarborough and the Man of Steel’s co-creator, the prolific writer, Jerry Siegel.

The initial design was reminiscent of early American comic strip characters, likely an effort to visualize Mxyzptlk’s otherworldliness, offsetting the realism of the rest of the renderings, while creating a corollary to rules-defying strips such as “Little Nemo” and “Krazy Kat.”

In 1955, artist Al Plastino created an appropriately Space Age costume that would become the character’s most identifiable look, thanks to decades of exposure via comics, cartoons and merchandizing.

A comic book accurate Mxyzptlk appeared in the 1988 live action “Superboy” television series, while the understated, black frock costuming in 2017’s “Supergirl” episode was a visual tip of the derby to the character’s appearance on “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” eleven years prior.

Mxyzptlk’s fifth dimensional form, as realized by Curt Swan and Kurt Schaffenberger, “Action Comics” #583 (Sept., 1986).

A glimpse into the fifth dimension

The “Supergirl” episode justified Mxyzptlk’s world altering powers by explaining that “between genies, jinn and leprechauns… humans have been documenting contact with reality-bending creatures for centuries.” That line of dialogue could sum up how creative teams approached most of the imp’s appearances over the years, with the notable exception of the two-part story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” published in “Superman” #423 and “Action Comics” #583 (Sept., 1986).

Alan Moore and Curt Swan were given the honor of telling the last Silver Age Superman story, an assignment that likely would have overwhelmed lesser talents. Instead, the young writer’s script matched the elegance of the veteran’s art, and the tale would become a classic.

Yet, this was still the same Alan Moore who wondered what use a Green Lantern would be in a world without a color spectrum, and suggested that the Flash’s hyperbolic existence must be akin to living in a world surrounded by statues. While most previous attempts cast Mxyzptlk as a catalyst for the plot’s action, this story was the first to explore the nature of the character, and how a being that existed in five dimensions would actually appear. The revelation of the imp’s true form baffles even hardened journalist Lois Lane, trying to recount the incomprehensible: “I can’t even describe what Mxyzptlk became. It had height, weight, breadth, and a couple of other things.”

A redesign of Mxyzptlk, from Stephen Sonneveld’s “Superman versus Cancer” (2016).

I employed Mxyzptlk as a plot device in my “Superman versus Cancer” project. Though I enjoy the character, I never much cared for his look. The redesign was based on Mxyzptlk’s three most lasting traits: he’s an imp, has a comic strip/cartoon influence, and evokes the Space Age.

The design suited a story where Mxyzptlk is the action-driving jinn, but for a project where the character is fully explored, where would the artist pick up, from where Swan left off, in visualizing a fifth dimensional life form?

For the purposes of this article, let’s explore that notion.

The undiscover’d countries

Part of the fun of artistic creation is unlocking mysteries such as what would 5-D look like, and finding logic in the fantastic for the world you are building. More than any other stage in the process, this is where research and imagination meet.

Having done my preliminary research on dimensions, I’m blank-page ready to begin the design process. Unfortunately, the Schlegel diagrams of five or more dimensions offer little inspiration, resembling honeycomb clusters, or bubbles within bubbles. As a result, this design process is about to become a logic exercise.

Mxyzptlk exists in five dimensions, and we already know the first three are height, length and width. Einstein suggested time was the fourth dimension. As a scientific layman, this makes sense to me; time as an imaginary capsule, enveloping and relative to all places.

Gravity is a force of nature, not a dimension, but what of density? Volume/mass/the weight of things must account for a dimension same as height, width and depth.

The problem, from a design sense, is that this brings us to five dimensions, and there is nothing inherently different from our current perspective of the universe that would warrant a version of Mxyzptlk outside of his relatable form.

To fully explore the multidimensional aspect, we return to our research. In his article “Blackholes, Wormholes and the Tenth Dimension,” Dr. Michio Kaku summarized the ongoing attempts in the scientific community to prove a “theory of everything”:

“At present, every event in the universe, from the tiniest sub-atomic decay to exploding galaxies, can be described by 4 numbers (length, width, depth, and time), not 10 numbers. To answer this criticism, many physicists believe (but cannot yet prove) that the universe at the instant of the Big Bang was in fact fully 10 dimensional.”

Further research is required to resolve what, then, comprise the other six dimensions? Writer Grant Morrison had the Caped Crusader’s trickster imp, Bat-Mite, assert that imagination is the fifth dimension (“Batman” no. 680, Oct., 2008). Imagination is certainly required to understand the enormity of the prevailing theories.

Writing for Universe Today, Matt Williams explained, “According to Superstring Theory, the fifth and sixth dimensions are where the notion of possible worlds arises. If we could see on through to the fifth dimension, we would see a world slightly different from our own that would give us a means of measuring the similarity and differences between our world and other possible ones.”

The sixth dimension is similar to what DC Comics has popularized over the years as a multiverse, comprising of multiple planets that began under the same circumstances (the Big Bang), but that develop different possibilities.

Put our cousin worlds from the sixth dimension aside, and gaze into the seventh dimension, which would include a multiplicity of worlds that began under different circumstances (those planets’ version of the Big Bang).

The eighth dimension is the same idea, just pulled back on the perspective to consider this multiplicity on a universal scale, and where all of those numerous and unique universes are guided by the same laws of physics.

The ninth dimension dials the POV back even further, where, not only are there the multiple universes guided by our shared laws of physics, but there exist multiple universes each guided by their own unique laws of physics.

In my opinion, the explanations for the tenth dimension I have found are just a rehash of the ninth dimension, where all things and possibilities exist. To me, once you acknowledge that the laws of physics no longer apply, all cards of existence are already on the table.

Claudio Rocchini’s diagram of a five dimensional cube.

Aye, there’s the rub

The human mind instinctively, inherently, understood the concept of infinity the first time we drew a circle.

What my mind cannot process is the phrase “infinite possibilities,” because you cannot have a possibility without there being an absolute reality all possibilities arise from.

String Theory suggests that the glue and guts of the universe are vibrational frequencies, the example frequently being that of a violin string reverberating after it is strum, which only begs the question, where is the string; where is the singularity that all the reverb emanates from?

My interpretation of the research is that dimensions five through ten are a contemporary equivalent of the geocentric model that presumed earth (mankind) was the center of the universe, in the sense that we are still looking at the universe from our point of view; that there must exist familiar worlds for us to comprehend before we begin the Russian doll journey into infinite universes.

According to Williams, “The existence of these additional six dimensions which we cannot perceive is necessary for String Theory in order for [there] to be consistency in nature.”

We return to Dr. Kaku’s article, answering why only four dimensions are evident in our reality: “Only after the instant of creation did 6 of the 10 dimensions “curled up” into a ball too tiny to observe. In a real sense, this theory is really a theory of creation, when the full power of 10 dimensional space-time was manifest.”

Williams’ article offers that the “fact that we can perceive only four dimensions of space can be explained by one of two mechanisms,” the “curled up” dimensions Kaku cited, or the notion that our three dimensional existence is honeycombed within a larger, more dimensionally diverse manifold.

My logic exercise reaches a simpler conclusion: what’s a bang without combustion? If our universe did require ten dimensions to spark, then the unseen six must have been the fuel that powered the Big Bang, and then burned away, rather than compacted, remaining unseen. These four dimensions, and this universe alone, are all that exist.

From a design perspective, the conclusion does nothing to provoke a creature such as Mxyzptlk, let alone a version in an unfamiliar, multidimensional form.

Unsatisfied with the research, I rack my brain to deduce another quantifiable aspect of the universe beyond height, weight, depth, time and density, and the only thing that makes sense is the “glue”/energy/vibration that connects every atom to every other atom.

It would be unfair to call this glue a dimension simply because we cannot perceive it. Whatever spectrum this energy is visible on, it does not exist on a different plane from us, it is surrounding and is even part of us; in our space, in our moment, binding everything to everything else.

Superman facing a fifth dimensional version of Mxyzptlk in this original concept drawing by Stephen Sonneveld. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Our challenge was to design a Mxyzptlk beyond his relatable form to resemble something 5-D, and the “glue” idea begins to provide a context that our necessary research of actual dimensional theory did not, unfortunately, rouse. Rather than justifying Mxyzptlk’s abilities as an imp/god, our storytelling logic justifies that he is part of the dimension that holds all of the other ones together, and thus, can manipulate our own.

I imagine the embodiment of this multidimensional sentience would resemble something like a CGI “Kirby krackle”. The reasoning is that from the atomic, to the cellular, to the cosmic levels, the circle is the natural shape of the universe, and circular movements are the natural flow. The design for Mxyzptlk would reflect this by being a swirling mass of liquid light, fading into the ether rather than having defined edges. Since Mxyzptlk’s self-possession is an anomaly on that dimensional level, “damaged” and oblong “cells” would be among the emitting objects.

In the electromagnetic spectrum, black is the absence of light, so I would avoid that color in the design until the moment of the character’s demise/ejection from Superman’s earth, relying instead on ultraviolet into the greens for when Mxyzptlk is being playful, and yellow into infrared for when things become sinister.

Photo of a boy in the third dimension, but no longer in the fourth, reading the first Mxyzptlk adventure.

Trickster gods have been a cornerstone of storytelling since antiquity, across all continents and cultures. Mister Mxyzptlk may not hold any religious significance like his ancient counterparts, but the character has proven to be a durable and memorable addition to our modern mythology – in whatever form he takes.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Sonneveld is the recipient of the Kennedy Center Outstanding Playwright Award, among other writing and acting honors. He freelanced for publications as diverse as MAD and Bleacher Report, wrote and illustrated the acclaimed comics Greye of Scotland Yard and Superman Versus Cancer, and has a blast writing and performing on The Don't Call Me Sweetheart! Show (a multi-format radio program he co-created with the talented Andrew Gregory Krzak). Sonneveld's Tumblr features free-to-read original comics and stories.

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