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Biocomics: Narrative Erasure as an Illustration of Industrial Biocapital

Ian Ross, 2011.

In When Species Meet, Donna Haraway explores in depth the interactions of technology, the human species, and other biological entities within the context of modern American economic, social, and industrial constructs.  Like her previous work in cyborg feminism, Haraway here claims that the interaction of human and other biological organisms creates a system in which the two become inescapably entangled in both their biological and technological existences, especially regarding the human/pet relationship as that of “companion species”. Haraway is concerned here with the ramifications which the pervading material and semiotic practices of what she calls “Biocapital” can have upon the bio/technological interactions which humanity engages in every day, such as animal testing, the purebred industry, etc. Biocapital refers to the growing industrial and economic forces based upon patenting and marketing biological processes, information, and eugenics.  In response, Haraway paints a picture of the ways in which these trends affect the condition of companion species, infoldings of flesh, and other cyborg relationships by closely examining the biological/historical contexts in which these relationships are forged and grown, as well as the ramifications and consequences of birthing consumer products within those contexts.

Here I plan to utilize this framework in order to form my own criticism of Biocapital through a decidedly less biological, yet no less organic, industry: that of American comic books. However, to work within the connecting branches of this industry, we must engage in a second theoretical framework: Bernard Stiegler’s “eventization” from Technics and Time 2: Disorientation, which examines the effects that a transference of social memory into artificial structures produces, essentially arguing that based on certain characteristics, an event can be erased from industrialized memory or immortalized by it.  The interactions and evolutions of the comic book industry throughout the American twentieth century often mirror the characteristics and ramifications of these kinds of “eventizations” as well as the critique of Biocapital which Haraway discusses, not only through narrative design, but also through copyright and patent issues, consumer demand shifts, and even the technological evolution of printing and distribution processes themselves. This mirroring reveals an organic and industrial product that functions very similarly to methods of bio-industrial production.  Therefore, using the term “Biocomics” to refer to entanglements between comic books, technology, and humanity, I will discuss the similarities between Biocomics and the biological entities affected by Biocapital in Haraway and Stiegler’s work as an illustration of comics’ ability to provide both literal and metaphorical voice to the victims of Biocapital.

Haraway’s discussion of “Jim’s Dog”, a photograph taken by friend James Clifford of a grouping of various forest fauna that when viewed from the correct angle and with the appropriate technology and social conditioning presents itself to the audience in the shape of a domesticated canine, illustrate the importance of historicity to any understanding of how an entity has come to be.  Haraway acknowledges the various entanglements necessary for this entity to emerge, saying, “We touch Jim’s dog with fingery eyes made possible by a fine digital camera, computers, servers… [and] infolded into the metal, plastic, and electronic flesh of the digital apparatus is the primate visual system that Jim and I have inherited.” (Haraway 5)  Therefore we see that it is impossible to understand Jim’s Dog through only one element of this lineage: the infoldings of flesh have become so deep that attempting to separate them is to dissolve at its core the very entity which they form. This creates a sort of “birthing context” in which the single entity is able to then be understood.

Before we go any further then, we must understand the “birthing context” of Biocomics in order to understand the destructive Biocapitalistic systems which attempt to guide its evolution. The birthing context of the American comic book is a very specific one. In his book, The Ten Cent Plague, David Hajdu discusses the origins of the genre saying, “The first mission of the funny pages was to convoke the lower classes…[In 1902] publisher Joseph Pulitzer decided to experiment with his populist New York World to increase its appeal to the public that did not read, at least not English…[he commissioned] what quickly became America’s first comics sensation and licensing bonanza, a cartoon series published as Hogan’s Alley…” (Hadju 9)  The series, about a group of adventurous immigrant children, was so successful in fact that only a few years after its initial publication, competing publisher William Randolph Hearst unabashedly transposed an exact recreation of the series, down to its title characters, into his own paper, the New York Journal. (Hadju 10-11)  This birth of American comics initiated several trends that existed in the industry for decades: comic books were often written by and for America’s lowest common denominator in terms of both class status and literacy, establishing a foundation that was built mainly upon the work of Jewish and Italian immigrants. (Hadju 15-16) Also, and perhaps more importantly, mimicry and plagiarism ran rampant within the industry because of an intense economic need to provide what the consumer base wanted, because of the low success rate in protecting intellectual properties, and because of an uneducated consumer base which did not care where their product came from.

Therefore, while one might assume the development of a non-biological consumer product and industry would emerge with a certain degree of premeditated control by its founders, we see here that the immediate evolution of the comic book industry is no less organic and malleable than the development of, for example, a specific dog breed: in order to reach a newly forming market of consumer demand, the comic book industry, like the purebred industry, combined elements of preexisting product characteristics in a controlled setting to create a niche in the market which conformed to that demand. For instance, specific animal breeds do emerge based upon a combination and manipulation of previously existing physical characteristics as dictated by consumer demand shifts. However, once that new biological category is released into the market, imitators, entrepreneurs, and amateur breeders remove absolute control from the hands of the original creators.  Instead, the breed becomes an organically evolving and progressing biological organism emerging from a birthing context that not only includes economic demand and industrial action, but also an organic and essentially uncontrollable process of evolution.

Having illustrated the partially “organic” nature of the industry, it is important to discuss the degree to which startling similarities begins to arise between the bio-industrial elements of the comic book’s evolution and much of what Haraway is discussing.  These infoldings of flesh also exist within the narrative, visual, and thematic structures of the products themselves, not just in the legal and financial context from which they emerged.  For example, continuity is a prominent buzzword within the comic book community, referring to the cross-publication fictional histories that emerge out of narrative necessity as multiple characters begin to exist and interact within the same narrative universe.  However, as characters are bought and sold across companies, integrated into preexisting continuities through liquidations and company mergers, and narrative characteristics are forced to change because of anything from legal attack to evolving social taboos, comic book continuities are altered significantly, sometimes to the detriment of the legitimacy or even the acknowledged existence of previous events within the narrative, which is where Stiegler comes into play.

I would like to engage, therefore, in a discussion of “retconning”, a term short for retroactive continuity coined by fans of the industry to refer to instances when, in the name of economic interest, fictional histories are altered, manipulated, or even erased to conform to the demand of the consumer market.  I believe that on a surface level this practice takes place for many of the same economic reasons as genetic manipulation, animal testing, and other such practices within industries of Biocapital. Bernard Stiegler’s theory surrounding what he refers to in his text Technics and Time 2: Disorientation as the “Industrialization of Memory” is vastly important to understanding the potential and ramifications of retconning.  The industrialization of memory as Stiegler understands it deals specifically with the results of human memory and experience being placed outside of finite biological memory potential through various technological processes, including everything from handwriting to networked computer systems to digital streaming of live broadcasts, and is specifically important to this particular discussion of Biocapital and Biocomics in its handling of “eventization” and erasure.  Eventization is the degree to which an occurrence is made to have “taken place” officially within social memory because of the technological processes recording and distributing it as well as the economic, social, and political demands which decide its importance/relevance.  Examples of this abound within the industry’s publication history. For instance in the mid-nineteen-fifties, in an effort to combat the homophobic and reactionary claims of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’a Seduction of the Innocent, DC comics made several radical changes to its flagship Batman series that directly conflicted with established continuity in order to foster a sense of sexual homogeneity. (Hajdu 241) In one example of this, Commissioner Gordon, a childless main character in the series, was given a teenaged daughter named Barbara, so that she could become Batgirl and exist as a romantic foil for Robin. (Stewart 92)  Like the eventization process which Stiegler describes, a series of birthing contexts here come together in the face of empirical truth (truth in the sense that these changes conflicted directly with hardcopy products that had already been publically dispersed) to reorganize and re-categorize events in the name of industrial, consumer, social, and political interest.

The similarities between eventizations such as the retconning which goes on within the comic book industry and the genetic manipulations/eugenics programs which exist within Biocapital research and development are often startling.  In her book, Haraway uses the work of an animal advocate named C.A. Sharp as a way to illustrate the dangers inherent in failing to acknowledge the histories and birthing contexts which surround biological products.  C.A. Sharp works heavily with Australian Shepherds, a purebred category of canines which commonly suffer from a genetically inherited eye disorder called Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA) because of the very genetic histories and birthing contexts which produced them as a breed. (Haraway 111-12) The existence of this problem in the breed is an illustration of the kinds of damage which genetic manipulation has  done in the name of consumer interest. It also connects directly to my discussion of Biocomics.  For example, both Australian Shepherds and the Batman comic book series have been crafted into an economically viable product in opposition to their organic progression, and as a result both have experienced negative effects. For Australian Shepherds that effect is a genetic disease, and for the Batman series that effect is a homophobic reactionary narrative, but despite their differences, the metaphorical results are the same.

While this functions in direct connection to the retconning and narrative manipulation applied to comics in the name of consumer interest, it also directly connects to issues of eventization and erasure within the American perspective. For instance, Sharp relays through Haraway the difficulty in getting the American public to even acknowledge the existence of and the damage caused by CEA, saying, “…it was more than Aussie breeders who denied the existence of CEA in these dogs. Simply put, Sharp explained, ‘collie eye anomaly in Aussies wasn’t ‘real’ when we started working with it’…Sharp recalled breeders around the country telling her about attempting to get genetic advice from vets who told them to relax-Aussies don’t have CEA; it’s not in the literature.” (Haraway 112, emphasis mine) Therefore we see that the industrialization of memory allows Biocapital to achieve historical informatic manipulation through processes of eventization and erasure in addition to the genetic manipulation already discussed.

The thing that makes this discussion beneficial then, is that unlike the biological victims of these practices in Biocapital industries such as Australian Shepherds, the very nature of comic books is that they give a voice (albeit a fictional voice) to characters who experience the ramifications of these eventizations and erasures to their artificial histories and continuities as a part of their narrative existence, making comics a unique realm from which to metaphorically criticize such practices and their outcomes.  Grant Morrison, an avid animal rights activist and prevalent comic book author, is a perfect example of an author who takes direct advantage of comics’ unique position.  In his 1988 limited series Animal Man, Morrison takes a previously established second rate superhero named Bucky Baker, AKA Animal Man, and uses him to deconstruct the effects of retconning and erasure in comic books.  Upon becoming aware of the multiple conflicting histories which make up his origin story (caused by the purchase of the character by DC comics from a competing publisher in the 1960’s) Bucky Baker slowly becomes aware of his own fictional existence, eventually visiting a limbo of discarded and “erased” characters before finally coming face to face with Morrison himself.

Wandering through “comic book limbo”, as it is referred to by its inhabitants, Baker witnesses a hellish and barren landscape full of economically unviable characters without purpose, all hoping for reinvention in a way that would make them culturally relevant once again.  As one inhabitant points out regarding his Mad Magazine-esque super team, “I think the Inferior Five must be due for release any day now. They could even do us serious: Dumb Bunny could be used to make a feminist statement…” (Morrison 189) Others rage at the injustice of their own predicament: as Baker comes across a figure and asks who he is, the man angrily replies, “Well, Who do I look like, for God’s sake? Don’t you know me? I’m Mister Freeze. What’s the matter…has everyone forgotten me already? I was one of Batman’s greatest foes! I shouldn’t be here at all!” (Morrison 196) When Baker eventually emerges from this terrible place, only to meet Grant Morrison in person, he is so enraged by the fact that his life is nothing more than manipulated entertainment for others that he throws Morrison through a window, killing him.  However, Morrison appears immediately behind him, explaining, “I made you do that. Sorry, I just thought I needed some action at the start of the story to keep people interested. You can’t hurt me.” (Morrison 210-11) Baker is horrified by the lack of control over his own history, personality, and even actions.

Therefore, through this hopelessness and emotional trauma, we see within this text a metaphorical criticism of the damage done by economically fueled genetic manipulation which allows for the victims of this manipulation to voice their grievances.  Morrison, in this series and out of it, is an outspoken advocate for animal rights, touching upon animal testing, poaching, animal cruelty, and other such thematic within the series.  Therefore it does not take much imagination to see that Baker’s suffering and manipulation fits neatly into a critique of treatment of animals.  After all, the character’s name is Animal Man, which makes the animality he experiences at the hands of his creator and his audience’s gaze all the more overt.  By achieving this critical literacy within both the medium and the genre, Morrison is able to appropriate the unique narrative opportunities of serialized comic books to critique industries of Biocapital in many of the same ways as Haraway, and to critique industrialized erasure in many of the same ways as Steigler.

Works Cited

Hajdu, David. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed 

America.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet.  Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Morrison, Grant. Animal Man: Origin of the Species. New York: Vertigo Comics, 1989.

Morrison, Grant. Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina.  New York: Vertigo Comics, 1990.

Stewart, Stanley and Jeffrey Kahn. Caped Crusaders 101: Composition through Comic Books.

London: McFarland & Company Inc., 2006.

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time 2: Disorientation.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.