Comic Books, Möbius Strips, Philosophy and the Greek Gods

Ian Hornsby

Ian Hornsby

John Barth’s “frame-tale”, which opens his 1966 collection of short stories, ‘Lost in the Funhouse’, takes the form of a Möbius Strip that loops infinitely to create both the longest and shortest story ever written.

This frame-tale invites the reader to cut along the dotted line on the right-hand side of the page to produce a thin strip of paper with the words: ‘Once upon a time there’ on one side, and ‘Was a story that began’ on the other. We are then asked to twist the loose ends of the strip and fasten them together to form an endless tale in the form of a Möbius strip.

Barth’s frame-tale is an example of “literature as philosophy” and not simply literature used to elucidate philosophical concepts. Other artists such as American sculptor John Ernest (1922–1994) and Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher (1898–1972) have also used August Ferdinand Möbius’s discovery of a non-orientable, two-dimensional surface, transformed into an infinite single surface in three-dimensional Euclidean space, to create works of art that are in themselves philosophical questions concerning time, space, perception and illusion.

It is the use of the Möbius strip as a representation of the infinite that I would like to explore in three comic books, Silver Surfer #11, Omega Men #9 and Promethea #12, each of which are texts that offer up a set of conditions from which philosophical discussions on the One and the Infinite can emerge.

This research will explore the idea that comic books are Philosophy. In other words, not simply seeing them as supplements to philosophical ideas, or as a convenient and accessible form by which to elucidate difficult philosophical concepts; but rather, to see comic books as philosophy in themselves, as texts that offer up the possibility for philosophy.

I want to suggest that our engagement with comic books during their short history has brought about a measurable shift in our interpretation of time, space, text, image, and composition, as a combined intensity. In this sense, I am suggesting that the comic book form runs parallel to the leap that has taken place in our understanding of the world since the early years of the twentieth-century, which has shifted paradigmatically from a Newtonian worldview to one of Quantum Physics.

This is similar to the shift that took place during the Renaissance as new approaches to painting were adopted that ran parallel to the scientific discoveries in linear perspective, motion, and mathematics, that we associate with the leap made in science from Aristotle and Euclid to that of Copernicus and Galileo.

This article is not a history of comics that maps the development of this process through the twentieth- and twenty-first-century, although I would invite and encourage historians of comics to undertake this research.

Nor is this article an examination of comic books which set out to elucidate complex scientific and philosophical ideas via the medium of sequential art, such as Thibault Damour’s ‘Mysteries of the Quantum Universe’ (2016) or Nick Sousanis’s ‘Unflattening’ (2015). However, it does examine the form of three contemporary comic books that are a part of popular culture and which engage with the continuing tradition of the myths and folklore of heroes and heroines.

Although I do not have space to fully explore and explain all of these complex points in this article, I will, at the very least, attempt to lay the groundwork for future writing and research. Therefore, contrary to approaches that engage with comic books as complements to philosophy, I have set out to examine the manner in which comic books develop both epistemological questions concerning our knowledge of the world, and ontological questions concerning the nature of existence, and most especially how these can be seen in the form of the popular genres of comics that are bought each and every Wednesday.

In this article, I want to look briefly at three connected areas of philosophy that Silver Surfer #11, Omega Men #9 and Promethea #12 address in their own unique ways. The first is Eudaimonia, the Greek term for human flourishing. This is a term that Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics sees as a way of “identifying a manner of living well” (2001: 1095a), and what his predecessor, Plato, speaking through the character of Socrates, writes of in the Apology and the Republic, as the form of the Good and Justice that is essential to living a good life and being true to one’s own soul and not merely to the representations of truth and justice in the way one is perceived by others.

This question concerning “the good life”, suggests that there must be “the bad life”, an inauthentic manner of living which is not best for either oneself or others. This binary opposition brings into play the second philosophical idea that each of these three comic books addresses, namely, the concept of truth.

How to define, understand, and set some kind of foundation upon which to understand what is best and what is a good life. Does this truth need to be singular, and as such, point to the idea of the One? Or can there be multiple truths, which would point to the concept of the Infinite? Both of these previous philosophical questions lead in turn to the third and final question that I want to explore here, and this question is concerned with the nature of creativity, the idea of the new, or novelty.

How does anything new come into existence? Can something come from nothing, creation ex nihilo? If not, then we are forever in a determined world where everything is derivative and where nothing new can ever grace our existence. But if the new can come into the world, where does it come from? Is it from outside the limits of our understanding, transcendental as it were, as if from God; or does it emerge immanently, unfolding from inside the world in a manner never perceived of before?

Each of these three comic books opens up the possibility of exploring these questions in how they address the concept of finitude and infinity through the different manifestations of the Möbius strip that they employ.

Marvel Comics Silver Surfer #11, ‘Never After’, from June 2015, created by Michael Allred, Dan Slott, and Laura Allred, is a fine example of a comic book that utilises many of the unique aspects of comic book form in its fabrication. Not only does it explicitly use the form of a Möbius Strip in the telling of its tale (2015), but it also uses this device to challenge our methods of reading and understanding through the elements that make up the issue, from its elongated panels, distorted images, chevron style gutters that lead the eye around the page, fascinating perspective angles, split page orientations, and in its use of flat primary colours to build its world.

Therefore, in order for us to fully engage with reading the story in this issue, we have to change the manner in which we usually read comic books. From page 2 of the issue, we have to follow only the top half of the story until we reach page 12 when the panels sweep downwards into the bottom half of the page where we read until page 23, still several pages from the end of the issue.

At this point, our eyes must sweep upwards once again, and this time move around the page by turning the book over in our hands so that we can follow the narrative back towards the beginning of the issue once more.

It is only on further readings of this infinite Möbius Strip story that as readers we can become the character of the Silver Surfer ourselves and actively choose to hear the words of the ‘Never Queen’, who is the embodiment of all possibilities and who exists in “the space outside of time, and the time outside of space” (Slot, Allred 2015: 1).

On hearing her advice, we can exert our free will and step off the infinity strip and “be the one who turns the page in the story of our life” (23). But free will, as we find out, has consequences and endless possibilities even beyond the closing of this folktale.

Unlike Barth’s use of the Möbius Strip in Lost in the Funhouse, Slott and the Allred’s example does more than simply draw attention to the dilemma of a double coded postmodern existence of being lost in the ironic hall of mirrors in an And/Both universe.

Allred and Slott’s science fiction folktale draws our attention to the connection between the Möbius strip world, on which both the Surfer and Dawn Greenwood are infinitely trapped, and our own neoliberal postmodern times in which all too often we are made to believe that the world is without possibilities, without future, and where time has collapsed in upon itself to breaking point where morals are without purpose and where truth has become an ironic fallacy.

Slott and Allred’s tale in Silver Surfer #11, is full of positive possibilities in the way it addresses the material existence of the subaltern classes, whom the Surfer is trying to save with his power cosmic.

This fairy tale embodies Marx’s materialist suggestion in the XI Thesis on Feuerbach, in which “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (1998: 574) A close reading of this story illustrates how both the words and visuals combine to break the infinite loop of ignorance and to tell four individual, yet connected stories, each of which addresses the possibility of something new coming into existence, of the belief in truth, and of seeking possible ways in which to live a good life.

However, the manner in which Slot and Allred offer up the possibility of escape for Dawn and the Surfer from the infinite loop of the Möbius Strip is unfortunately in the form of a Deus ex Machina and has very little rationality to it.

The fact that this story is about an alien surfer who travels intergalactically on a surfboard and uses “the power cosmic” to enable an earth woman to breath while travelling through the cosmos at the speed of light, is clearly irrational, but this aspect of the story is, to quote from the final lines from section 24 of Aristotle’s Poetics, “a likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.” (2001: 1482)

The impossibility of the character of the Silver Surfer is fine in fiction, it triggers our imagination, but the invention of the Never Queen to aid their leap from the infinite loop is an unconvincing improbability and a contrived device all too convenient in removing us from the “corners” we paint ourselves into. In order to deepen our understanding of the possibilities that are contained in this issue of Silver Surfer it will be useful to take a short detour into…

In the history of Western thought, there have been three major paradigm shifts in our understanding of the relationship between the One and the Infinite. During the period of classical antiquity, Being as such, was seen as finite in a cosmos that was limited.

The Greek Gods themselves were immortal but they were always finite beings in terms of the possibilities of their existence. The Greek term Apeiron (ἄπειρον) indicates that which is unlimited, or infinite, and this was seen as a frightening thing in the ancient world. The idea that there was an infinite world of possibilities was a terrifying prospect and would bring about a cosmos in which nothing could have certainty.

The very act of attempting to go beyond the limits of existence was for the ancient Greeks and Romans a form of hubris and as such would bring about tragic consequences. This can be seen in Greek tragic drama in which any act that attempts to go beyond the limit of the finite world would inevitably lead to death and destruction on a grand scale as can be seen in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

In the Greek view of the cosmos there was a tension between, Being as such, i.e. the finite world, in which there are harmony and perfection in the finite existence of the One; and on the other hand, the imperfections of unlimited infinite possibilities which could only ever lead to chaos and uncertainty.

The second succession of the tension between the One and the Infinite in the west took place during the middle ages and up to the late Renaissance with the rise of monotheism and most notably Christianity. This period sees the idea emerge of a God who has no limit, and who is beyond the limits of our finite world itself.

This omnipotent God is infinite but also takes the form of the One. In this view of the cosmos, there are two parallel realms of possibilities, there is the realm of finite possibilities, which is the realm of humans; and there is also the realm of infinite possibilities which is the realm of the one One, i.e. God.

During this period the infinite is the cause of creativity. It is from God that something comes from nothing into the realm of the finite. Whereas in ancient Greek times it was a form of hubris leading to tragedy to believe in something beyond the limits of existence, in the period of Christianity it is a tragedy not to believe in that which exists beyond the world of the finite.

To believe in God was to believe in a truth greater than oneself and to make a leap of faith towards the infinite Being beyond the limits of one’s finite existence.

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