Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law: The Kingdom

I hated The Kingdom when I first bought and read the trade all those years ago. It’s really not a bad comic; it’s just very different from its predecessor, Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come was, along with Marvels, Supreme, and a few others of that period, a book that tried to look back to an earlier age and recapture something about our superheroes. With The Kingdom, Mark Waid has similar interests, but he goes about them differently. The Kingdom functions less as a coherent story and more as a polemic about our heroes, about continuity, and, yes, about that great and misunderstood beast, Hypertime – the law of do as thou wilt.

Like Final Crisisand, as we’ll see, so much of The Kingdom prefigures Final CrisisThe Kingdom begins with an impossible murder: Superman is killed. And, as he explores the afterlife, the crime becomes even more impossible. He’s not the only murdered Superman. His killer, he discovers, has been going back in time and killing a new Superman each preceding day. As Superman observes, this is impossible; it’s a time paradox; “the space-time continuum ought to be hemorrhaging chaos!”

His killer, it turns out is Gog, a ridiculous, delusional, and worthless villain whom the Quintessence – the five most powerful beings in the DC cosmology – endowed with absurd powers.

He’s an exaggerated version of Magog in Kingdom Come, who was himself a parody of the bloodthirsty, feckless, cookie-cutter anti-heroes of the 90’s. The Quintessence gave him the power basically to do anything, including time travel, in order to get him to go back to the present day and destroy Kansas. They have a few half-baked ideas about why they want to do this, but Gog’s intentions are singular: he hates Superman; he spouts off banal quotations from the Book of Revelations about how Superman is the anti-Christ; he time travels to his past (our present day) so he can destroy Kansas, blame it on Superman, and then kill him. So some heroes from the future follow Gog back into the past to stop him. But the particulars don’t really matter. They’re just set up. What matters is Hypertime.

All of the time travel causes damage to, and raises some interesting questions about, the nature of time and the universe. As a dead Superman asks, how can he have multiple spirits hanging around the afterlife? As the heroes from the future fear, won’t going back in time to stop Gog change the future? In fact, the main plot of The Kingdom only occurs over two issues of the seven part series. The middle five issues are about the descendants of the heroes we know and love – Robin’s son, Flash’s daughter, Batman’s son, and others – dealing with the fact that their present (our future) will soon cease to exist.Meanwhile, strange things are happening to the time stream. In a Planet Krypton – a superhero themed restaurant run by Booster Gold – the ghosts of superheroes who never existed are walking around.

Or rather those superheroes did exist – just in different continuities, mostly before Crisis on Infinite Earths. And, as Batman says, they invoke an emotional sensation, a kind of nostalgia for these characters and these things that have been written off and discarded or, even worse, said to have never even existed.

In the book’s dénouement, it’s revealed that those heroes from the future have, with the help of the time traveler Rip Hunter, gathered in Planet Krypton weapons from different times and worlds to combat Gog – times and worlds that, by the rules of post-Crisis continuity, should not exist.

Armed with a spectrum of weapons representing the range of possibilities that imagination and the DC Universe can offer, these heroes face down Gog, the agent of that bird-brained Quintessence that’s trying to remake the universe and continuity for ill-conceived reasons. Sound a little familiar? Batman even finds and uses on Gog an old-fashioned Phantom Zone projector – a style of projector that, I believe, hasn’t been seen since Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.

They defeat Gog, of course, but the real questions remain: how is all of this world-hopping working? How come time and continuity haven’t fractured to pieces? Will the heroes of the future simply cease to exist?

The answer is Hypertime. Rip Hunter explains:

Everything is true; everything happened – and more than everything. At every decision, a timeline diverges. Sometimes the strands intersect; sometimes they don’t; but it all exists and it’s all true.

The concept is Morrison’s, and Warren Ellis (drunkenly) remembers him explaining it thusly:

Take a glass sphere studded all over with holes, and then drive a long stick right through the middle of it, passing exactly through the center of the volume. That’s the base DC timeline. Jab another stick through right next to it, but at a different angle, so that they’re touching at one point. That’s an Elseworlds story. Another stick, this one rippled, placed close in so that it touches the first stick at two or three points. That’s the base Marvel timeline. Perhaps others follow the line of the DC stick for a while before diverging, a slow diagonal collision along it before peeling off. This sphere contains the timeline of all comic-book realities, and they theoretically all have access to each other. In high time, at the top of the sphere, is OUR reality, and we can look down on the totality of Hypertime, the entire volume.

Hypertime is a tool for the consideration of fictional reality.

I wonder, though, whether Waid with his explanation or Ellis with his got Morrison’s idea exactly right. Waid’s explanation seems to privilege a central timeline that others flow from and sometimes return to, but that doesn’t seem exactly right. Part of the point is that no timeline matters more or is more real than any other. “Central” is purely relative; “central” can only mean the timeline the writer is writing and the reader is reading about.

Ellis’ formulation sounds like it privileges our reality and our timeline, as if we’re sitting in “high time,” looking down at and divorced from the dynamic play of the fictional time streams. But we know even from Morrison’s early work that this isn’t true, no matter how much we lie to ourselves about a firm barrier between fiction and our reality. Recall, for instance, one of the most famous panels in comics, where in Animal Man 19 Animal Man comprehends his fictionality and looks in horror at the reader:

When we read that panel, when Animal Man has that moment, isn’t our reality intersecting his? Later in the book, Morrison chooses to insert himself into the comic and argues with his character; there, his timeline or plane of reality intersects Animal Man’s in a very direct way. In All-Star Superman 10, Superman, in preparation for his imminent demise, creates a universe without a Superman to see what would happen. The result of the experiment is our Earth.

One might call these relatively weak interactions ordered by an imaginative author – but consider, too, Alan Moore’s two encounters with John Constantine or even Morrison’s meeting with Superman in our reality.

Hypertime isn’t “a tool for the consideration of fictional reality”; Hypertime is a tool for the consideration of realities. It’s a kind of metaphysics.

I think Waid is aware of its true nature, even if he doesn’t say it directly. Near the very end of the book, the child of the Superman and Wonder Woman from the future appears. The Batman of the future is his godfather, and he is the one and only being with power over Hypertime: as he himself explains, “with three uniquely archetypal parents, he is a living alchemy of imagination and wonder.” Explaining Hypertime further, he looks directly at the reader and says:

He’s not just talking to the other characters in the comic. He’s telling this to us: the wonders of Hypertime and the power of imagination are immediate and real.

Hypertime was a controversial theory when it debuted here. The consensus seems to be that it was a strange, interesting, and possibly dangerous  idea that pretty much immediately fell out of use. As I hope I’ve explained, it isn’t an idea to be used or not to be used, but a model for explaining all realities. Furthermore, we see its appearance throughout Morrison’s work.

Its most clear appearance is in All-Star Superman. A long defunct blog, The Gold in Us Will Survive In You, has argued convincingly and at length about intersections between Morrison’s DC 1,000,000 and All-Star Superman. The author is perplexed about how characters from the universe of  DC 1,000,000 (the supposedly canonical universe) could appear in All-Star Superman (an alternate universe). The answer is not travel through the Bleed or help from Monitors; it’s Hypertime and its intersecting tributaries.

Morrison’s run on Batman uses Hypertime extensively too, though in a way that’s more subtle and more careful to integrate its effects with continuity. The strange craziness of the Silver Age Batman stories, all erased by Crisis on Infinite Earths, are reintroduced during Morrison’s run. Some were hallucinations; some were real. The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh and the Bat-Radia in particular are reintegrated to great effect.

In The Kingdom, some characters are unaware of Hypertime and operate under the assumption of a single, linear timeline. They think in terms of continuity, which is a broken and incomplete model of reality. They’re the Linear Men, Rip Hunter’s erstwhile colleagues.

As Rip Hunter explains, the Linear Men claim that alternate timelines are a myth and are vested in an inflexible view of reality. They think an orderly, cataloged continuity is preferable to a kingdom of wonder. Of course, the Linear Men aren’t just Rip Hunter’s friends, Waverider, Liri Lee, and a few others, who travel through time and prevent or resolve paradoxes. Marv Wolfman is also a Linear Man; Dan Didio and Geoff Johns are probably as well. Fans who are more worried about continuities than reading good stories are too. The Monitors in Final Crisis, self-declared custodians of the universes and continuities, are Linear Men. Darkseid, who in Final Crisis wants to use anti-life to bring to pass a single, cruel narrative about life, is the ultimate Linear Man.

The point is that hard notions about continuity are not only inaccurate models about fiction that are doomed to break down, but they also hobble the imagination, cripple our ability to tell stories, and even rob us of things we love. I noted above that a peculiarity of The Kingdom is that only the first and last issue deal directly with Gog and the threat to the timeline. The middle five follow the children of our heroes by fleshing them out and telling of their loves, losses, and failures. It’s a ploy, I think. By the time the final issue rolls around and that future timeline is rendered obsolete by events in the past, we’re forced to ask ourselves: are we willing to see such characters discarded and discounted because we are so slavishly devoted to continuity? Or can we read the evidence and accept a more real and more merciful model – Hypertime?

And if we can accept that, then the chaos magician’s proverb is half upended. Everything is true, and everything is permitted.

A (very) brief bibliography on Hypertime:

The Unofficial Hypertime Website

Hyper-Crimes in Hyper-Time

The Hyperposts

The Prismatic Age


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8 Responses to Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law: The Kingdom

  1. Duncan says:

    Hey, cool blog.

    I actually wrote the Prismatic Age piece, so was definitely interested to see what you were linking to it for – I’ve tweeted this page to Andrew Hickey and David Uzumeri, the other authors cited, so glad there’s an archive of that Hypertime page, thanks for bringing that to my attention, Andrew will likely be pleased too.

    You might enjoy his book, actually, which we recently reviewed; it’s a sort of edited and rearranged version of the hyperposts.

    • fourthage says:

      Hey, Duncan, thanks for writing. I like that Prismatic Age piece quite a lot, and I can only wish that I had encountered it a few years ago. I was also amused to find that you seized on the same quotation from Flash 134 that I did when I started this blog.

      I only started delving a bit into Hypertime after rereading The Kingdom recently, and I was surprised to find it wasn’t a hotter topic, given that it’s so emblematic of and implicit in comics today, particularly in Morrison’s most recent work, which has left such an impression on the DC universe. But I suppose he’s been very careful not to use the word “Hypertime,” despite the manipulations of and adventures in time and space in Final Crisis and Return of Bruce Wayne. I’m glad to hear Andrew Hickey has compiled those posts into a book, and I’ll have to check it out – it’s more salient than ever.

  2. ACMC says:

    Very enlightening and insightful, so much so I’ve decided to go back and reread the Kingdom as something more than an abomination, I saw it was originally. Sadly, I am probably a linear man too, I want my stories to progress logically and an untamed multiverse just hurts my head too much.

    • fourthage says:

      Hi,
      Yeah, I went back to read it because I started to think about Hypertime for some reason, even though I remember it being execrable too. As I mention, I think one of the reasons I must have hated it so much originally was because it really is nothing like its predecessor, which tried to reclaim our most important heroes for us and show us why they are quite rightly our most important heroes. I still don’t think The Kingdom is by any means an excellent book, and its actually story isn’t much to write home about, but it’s still pretty crazy and ambitious.

      As for the Linear Men business, I’m sure we’re all Linear Men to some extent. After all, it’s hard to have even a moderately coherent story without obeying some rules about characters and continuity, at least within the story itself. And while I’m convinced of Morrison’s brilliance, I do find even his writing frustrating when it gets too desultory. The real problem obviously arises when continuity is too prescriptive and confining and becomes an end in itself, rather than when it is simply a tool or framework for telling stories. I mean, how crazy is it that they threw out and tried to forget about decades of characters and stories because they were too weird, strange, or confusing, and it was impossible to sync them up with continuity and make everything tidy?

      By the way, a friend recently sent me this image from the pages of Great Lakes Avengers Christmas Special 1 – a clear barb aimed at over-obsession with continuity. Steve Ditko’s absurd Squirrel Girl defeats Thanos, and the Watcher insists it really happened. That’s canon now, I guess.

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