Praxis

/Co/operation and /co/mmunity in /co/mics: 4chan's Hypercrisis

Tim Bavlnka

Chicago, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The Hypercrisis—an online attempt by fans of DC Comics to create an overarching story across the entirety of the history of the comic company's line—provides insight into online comic book fandom. Comic fans on 4chan (http://4chan.org) began noticing connections between this overarching story and the canon of comics writer Grant Morrison's work. However, the Hypercrisis is entirely fan made; it is not a part of DC Comics's continuity and not necessarily a part of the possible published futures of the comics; nor is it officially part of Morrison's work. However, the fans continue to create and discuss the developing Hypercrisis, providing deep analysis and intricate images. Part of what makes this process interesting is that it is developed and maintained entirely by an anonymous Internet group. Further, it focuses on the work of one particular creator, Grant Morrison. Because of the brief display time, no one on 4chan knows or is able to maintain any consistent relationship to any other user. Yet the Hypercrisis has remained a prominent and powerful part of this particular Web culture. The group has maintained this theoretical event, exhibiting remarkable consistency and a nuanced understanding of the texts. The group's analyses explore important aspects relating to Morrison's work and to DC Comics.

[0.2] Keywords—Anonymous; Comic books; Comics; DC Comics; Fan communities; Fandom; Final Crisis; Grant Morrison

Bavlnka, Tim. 2013. "/Co/operation and /Co/mmunity in /Co/mics: 4chan's Hypercrisis." In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. doi:10.3983/twc.2013.0442.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In November 2009, comic book fans on the popular Web site 4chan (http://4chan.org) began questioning certain aspects of recent issues published by DC Comics. The discussions held on these message boards, which originated as forums for comic book fan speculation, quickly developed into something more than the typical musings heard in one's local comic book shop or the theories of a fan awaiting next month's issue. The online posts of these fans focused on the many works of comic book writer Grant Morrison, which led to analytical discussions that developed into a narrative event now known to the participants as the Hypercrisis. Minor details over the breadth of Morrison's creations were brought to the surface, and fans created elaborate collages to help explain their theories to other community members, all while maintaining a consistent focus on and development of the Hypercrisis. The fans at 4chan have thus created a unique practice, one that breaks the established confines of comic fandom as occurring in bookstores and at fan conventions. Although fandom can grant social agency to those who are culturally disenfranchised through the rejection of mainstream culture, subcultures privilege individuals and practices through the development of subcultural capital, limiting the expressive possibilities of those who may not identify with the more socially visible aspects of a fan of comics and privileging individuals deemed authorities. The lack of persistent identities on the anonymous Web site rejects the development of subcultural capital, and the online space negates the formalized actions necessary for establishing a true fan identity. The Hypercrisis represents a space of developing Internet-based fandom that focuses less on the dependency of fandom rituals and hierarchies and more on the participative engagement of texts and cultures.

[1.2] 4chan is one of the largest and most notorious Internet communities. Hundreds of thousands of users from around the world access the site every day, where they engage in a variety of postings, discussions, and group events, all while developing a close-knit community. As of February 1, 2013, 4chan has accumulated 1,149,144,201 total posts and over 100 gigabytes of content. Unlike more conventionally popular social networks like Facebook, 4chan users are almost entirely anonymous. One of 4chan's subgroups occupies the Comics & Cartoons board, where members share favorite images, create fan art, develop their own style of collective humor, and discuss various texts. This specific board is known as "/co/," in reference to how the board's digital location appears in the site's URL: http://boards.4chan.org/co/. Playing off the board name, the users of /co/ often refer to themselves as /co/mrades, thus establishing them as a close-knit Internet community and allowing participatory culture to flourish. Users can engage in the creation of the Hypercrisis in the intimacy of a community that allows for individuals to speak in an open environment about their favorite texts. The power of the Hypercrisis is built on the affective texts of Grant Morrison, but the participative audience and the content of discussion (in all its forms) have created something more.

[1.3] Grant Morrison has been working in the comic book industry for decades and is one of the medium's most prolific writers. Throughout his career, he has worked for a number of different publishing companies. He has written stories involving some of the medium's most iconographic heroes, reinvigorated barely remembered characters, and created complex worlds and individuals in his original titles. Besides his work in the comics industry, Morrison also practices various forms of ritual magic (Morrison 2006, 9). Morrison, who in the 2010 film Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods often refers to his creative process as "shamanic," infuses the fictional universes of his comics with his particular form of magic practice, giving his work a particular uniqueness. Fan knowledge of his esoteric lifestyle allows for easier interpretation of the abstract magical elements Morrison often includes in his narratives. Because of their knowledge of his beliefs and the minutiae of superhero comics, fans may forge more personal connections through participation with Morrison's work.

[1.4] United by an interest in superhero comics, /co/ users take pleasure in consuming popular texts. Henry Jenkins elaborates on the individual's connection to fandom participation as an "increased significance as [texts] are fragmented and reworked to accommodate the particular interests of the individual" (1992, 50). The Hypercrisis serves not only as a form of textual engagement, but also as a way for fans to participate in a community. Jenkins describes this as the "pleasure in discovering that they are not 'alone'" (23). As a community, /co/ members construct their elaborate paratext, the Hypercrisis, which intertextualizes Morrison's work and DC Comics's textual history as a way to interpret Morrison's often dense and esoteric narratives. Through this creative process, the users of the site have developed a complex understanding of their texts, institutionalized a collective knowledge of fictional stories, developed a future mythology outside of a formal published record, and constructed elaborate images demonstrating complex analysis. The anonymous nature of the group leads to a hierarchy-free fandom, giving fans an open forum for thoughts, ideas, statements, and interactions. This fan practice supports the complexity of the Hypercrisis: the user-constructed analysis is noticeably intricate, demonstrating the closeness and consistency of the community, the richness of content, and the users' relationship to their texts and to the Internet environment.

[1.5] While Pierre Bourdieu ([1979] 1984) discusses the affordance of cultural capital to high culture, John Fiske argues that subcultures such as fandoms also establish hierarchical limitations on those who participate: "Cultural tastes and practices are produced by social rather than by individual differences, and so textual discrimination and social distinction are part of the same cultural process within and between fans just as much as between fans and other popular audiences" (1992, 37). The socially constructed privileges of cultural distinction are equally present within fandom communities, but they are based on unique parameters. The hierarchies of distinction in fandom can be a way to establish and develop personal identity, but they can also control the extent to which others may acquire the distinction, and to what extent social mobility is granted individuals within the fandom. Jeffrey A. Brown, in his general framework for understanding traditional comic book fandom, notes that the level of fandom of comics readers can be determined by the level of participation with their texts and the associated culture. Although these "seemingly uncommitted readers" have less visibility within the subculture, their fandom can be equally as devoted as that of a hard-core fan (2001, 61). This affirms Fiske's theory: while someone may identify with being a comic book fan, certain cultural practices and figureheads can limit his or her involvement in a particular group and the agency granted through fandom.

[1.6] The perceptions of hierarchy in the subculture are determined more by the fan's presumptive visibility and participation in the culture than by the individual's sense of identity. Comic fandom identity is established through cultural construction as "the subculture of fandom operates for readers well beyond the purview of the producers" (Brown 2001, 67). A fan's ability to engage narratives, interact with other fans, establish an identity at a local comic shop, or be known within a subculture can increase his or her status as an authoritative subcultural figure. The presence of this possibility creates an intercultural fragmentation and a legitimacy to particular fandom identities not granted to others. Inclusion is enforced through the subculturally defined parameters of those with greater authority within the fandom. As Brown points out, many of these subjugated fans do not consider themselves any less devoted to the medium, but they are perceived as less valuable within the fandom community by those who are perceived as more ardent.

[1.7] Because 4chan is an expressive Web space without persistent user identities, it is more difficult to ascribe individual claim to the content on the site, thus allowing fandom practices to occur without the limitations of subcultural capital. This dismantles the hierarchical identity privileges granted by capricious rules of belonging. Without the restrictions of this type of privilege, fans can create and participate with texts in a way that grants more personal agency and creative expression. The Hypercrisis as a fandom event focuses on the act of participation with texts, moving beyond traditional comic book store discussions and casual conversations about favorite texts. 4chan's anonymous message board becomes a place for fandom to exist and flourish without needing to legitimatize identity in order to have a sense of belonging.

[1.8] The Hypercrisis represents an important communal activity for /co/, highlighting Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of participative thinking—that is, "committed, involved, concerned, or interested thinking" (1993, 86). The /co/mrades are intensely participating with their text; they are not engaging in random discussion. As they do so, they encourage participation with their fandom. This happens at an individual level, thus allowing users to think about the various comics and the Hypercrisis as it develops. However, it also demonstrates a form of group participative thinking where an entire community engages with these texts. When applying participative thinking to the Hypercrisis, the community's in-depth activity affirms a development of communal and individual knowledge and experience, as well as a complex fan practice.

2. The Hypercrisis

[2.1] What exactly is the Hypercrisis (note 1)? In terms of an institutional definition from DC Comics, it does not exist. Grant Morrison proposed an idea for a new event to DC Comics, but it was ultimately rejected (Brady 2009). His plan was to create a very large-scale event occurring over DC's universe of comics. This would have been much like Morrison's Final Crisis (2009), but with a plot spanning the entirety of DC's titles, rather than just a limited series. The idea was never approved, as it would have required Morrison to take over the company's entire lineup of publications, rather than simply getting his own special story to write. Original plot ideas related to this universe-spanning story line exist only in rumor, vague interview segments, and recycled ideas used throughout Morrison's other stories. Morrison has explained that his original Hypercrisis has lived on in other work, but he has never mentioned where, to what extent, or to what end.

Figure 1. Fan-made cover to the theoretical book version of the Hypercrisis. From 4chan (http://4chan.org). [View larger image.]

[2.2] Members of /co/ began noticing specific events from various Grant Morrison comics, mainly from his DC Comics event series Final Crisis (2008), his story arc Batman: R.I.P. (Batman issues 676 to 681, 2008), and his then-current Batman and Robin (2009) series and how they were beginning to coincide with each other and with other comics in the DC line. Ironically, Final Crisis was originally frowned upon by the /co/ collective for being meaningless in the grand scheme of the DC universe. This helped fuel the discussion, as it added an element of discovering significance in something previously ignored. Morrison has also commented on the poor reception of fans and how it found acceptance a few years later, after more of his comics developed from the event (Grant Morrison 2010). Months after the completion of Final Crisis, it has remained one of the main sources of research by the /co/mrades for their theory discussion.

[2.3] This constructed continuity of seemingly unrelated comics appears to be a primary goal of Morrison's work. In an interview in the fall 2010 issue of Comic Heroes magazine, Morrison states,

[2.4] The way it works is that everything I've done since I came back to DC is all tied together. The end of the Batman run ties directly into some stuff that I did when I took over writing the book in 2006. I've tried to connect it all together, so hopefully it will all tie up as one big story which says everything I have to say about the character. (Jewell 2010, 37)

[2.5] Although this remark seemingly refers only to his work with Batman, there is the implication that Morrison is trying to incorporate the entire run of Batman comics into one continuous story, covering over 700 issues since 1940. Morrison admitted this nearly a year after the members of /co/ began to notice this trend on their own.

[2.6] The /co/ group's creation of the Hypercrisis is not just a narrative analysis; it is also a participatory event—a group-based dialogic relationship. Mikhail Bakhtin defines this relationship with texts as reading in which one "interrogates [the text], eavesdrops on it, but also ridicules it, parodically exaggerates it" (1981, 46). The visual and textual narrative of comics means that this is happening with the printed words and the comic's art—the combined language of comics. Bakhtin describes the narrative of novels as being "inseparable from images of various world views and from the living beings who are their agents—people who think, talk and act in a setting that is social and historically concrete" (1981, 49). Unlike novels, where the diegesis is represented only by the text and the heteroglossic dialogism among author, text, and reader, comics allow the reader to see the world of the text, and strengthen their participation with it. One can see the actions of a scene or emotions of a character rather than gleaning information from descriptive text. Comics provide another level of discourse open to interpretive actions. The reader is having a conversation not only with the language (the text), but also with the art, thus allowing for a stronger connection to the overall narrative. The users of /co/ are connecting vague passages, panels, quotations, and ideas across various texts, trying to discover a hidden meaning and to learn the possible future of the comics they love. By establishing an in-group continuity and understanding of DC's comics, the Hypercrisis becomes not a simple act of media consumption but rather a mode of media participation.

[2.7] The /co/mrades are creating a theoretical mythology for the DC universe that is both unrelated to the actual narratives of DC and based entirely on its published history. This theoretical mythology is a way for fans to "raid mass culture, claiming its materials for their own use, reworking them as the basis for their own cultural creations and social interactions" (Jenkins 1992, 18). In terms of predictions, the Hypercrisis may or may not represent what will actually happen in the future of these comics. The participants do not care if they are right; rightness has no place in the discussion. They are having fun sharing ideas and developing their own concept of knowledge, with discussion constantly in flux and analysis presenting infinite possibilities. They are putting together a huge puzzle that may or may not have any specific solution. Whether or not this supposed grand idea is diegetically real in the comic world (that is, formally planned for publication by DC creators and editors) is irrelevant to the actual process of community participation.

[2.8] The range of ideas pondered within the early 4chan threads highlights the complexity of material that is being discussed: /co/mrades discuss characters as common as Batman and as obscure as Qwewq, a sentient universe. The texts they mine for meaning come from many different sources, including Final Crisis (2008), Blackest Night (2009), Blackest Night: Batman #1–3 (2009), Batman and Robin (2009), Batman: R.I.P. (2008), Batman: Last Rites (2008), 52 (2006, 2007), Death of the New Gods (2009), and DC Universe #0 (2008). These texts remain some of the core materials for analysis, although fans focus heavily on Final Crisis and how it interacts with the larger continuity of the DC universe. Over the first several months of the creation of this community, the reading list increased in size and complexity. However, the titles listed above have become the core reading for the Hypercrisis and serve as the base for the group-constructed continuity of the DC Comics universe.

Figure 2. Fan-made reading list for the Hypercrisis. From 4chan (http://4chan.org). [View larger image.]

[2.9] The growing textual complexity demonstrates several things about the /co/ group. The first set of comics explored by fans was published from 2006 to 2009, emphasizing an importance of contemporary work. Second, as hinted at by post 13000226, "I…I think I need to re-read Final Crisis," communal competency with the texts in question is implied. Users assume others will have more than just casually read a comic. The members encourage others to critically engage with the content and play with continuity ideas. Not living up to the standard of critical analysis on /co/ can be dangerous: "Good god. You guys have an amazing ability to invent stuff from nothing. To totally invent story lines that aren't there. To create connections in order to save Morrison's shit from being irrelevant trash" (post 13000844). This particular user may be a troll, but he or she is implying that some people read for simple enjoyment. This post is in response to post 13000862: "When this all turns out to be true, your face is going to be so red" (Hypercrisis 1). This user is stating that not only is he or she having fun with the texts, but he or she is also representing a collective belief that the group is onto something big, and participation is required.

[2.10] Whereas the first thread represents a deep textual analysis of contemporary comics, drawing basic connections between works and developing ideas, the second official thread starts something far more complex. The first post involves a compiled image of 10 panels from two different comic series and compares symbols and dialogue in Batman and Green Lantern comics to create connections between two seemingly unrelated characters and stories into one larger narrative. This use of user-constructed images becomes a recurring trend throughout the Hypercrisis discussions. This process of image creation continues throughout all the newer threads, and the images become increasingly elaborate. Later on, an image focuses on the diary entries of a therapist in Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum: Serious House on Serious Earth (1989), which describe a specific patient. The user applies Freudian psychoanalysis to help establish a greater understanding of the history of events in Morrison's work and its intertextuality with other Morrison comics. In a later thread, a user connects the appearances of a minor character in Batman comics, General Slaycroft, who has appeared only in three minor stories: Robin Dies at Dawn (1963), Batman: Venom (1991), and Batman #673 (2008). The image opens up 45 years of comic history to be considered for interpretation, collects the appearances and pertinent information surrounding this seemingly forgettable army general, and establishes his relationship to the purpose of the greater narrative. This interpretation suggests that Morrison is indeed attempting to establish the entirety of DC's comics as a single story, not just those related to Batman, as he states above.

Figure 3. Fan-made image displaying the appearances of General Slaycroft (post 15229143, Hypercrisis—Oberon Sexton 3). [View larger image.]

[2.11] Another trend in the second Hypercrisis thread is a connection to other literary works. A user points out the cryptic slogan of a character, "Vengeance Arms Against His Red Right Hand," connecting this idea between the different comics the character, Red Hood, has appeared in and the overall message of vengeance that is prevalent with so many DC characters. Other users expand on this, and connections to John Milton's Paradise Lost, the source of slogan, enter the discussion. These literary allusions lead to a greater understanding of the overall tone of specific characters. As one user remarks, connecting the tone and allegories in Milton's work not just to a single character, but to a greater sense of characterization throughout DC's comics:

[2.12] This allusion gives us some insights into the mindset of the Red Hood. In addition to the reference to the Penitente Brotherhood, it suggests that the character may have a god-complex—or, at the very least, a belief in divine justification for his violent acts in a manner that's not dissimilar to the crusades of the middle ages. (post 13021733, Hypercrisis 2)

[2.13] This trend continues into later threads, as other users expand this process of literary connections as the identity of a new masked character, Oberon Sexton, is discussed by references to Shakespeare. To quote a user-created image, "Oberon—King of the Faries [sic]. sexton [sic]—a church groundskeeper. A Clown who is also a sexton and a gravedigger appears in the play Hamlet" (post 15229143, Hypercrisis—Oberon Sexton 3). This leads to the idea that Joker (the Clown Prince of Crime) is Oberon Sexton. This was revealed as true in Morrison's Batman and Robin series, which demonstrates that these details are significant and thoughtfully planned out, as opposed to simple coincidence.

Figure 4. Fan-made image displaying various Shakespearian allusions pertaining to Oberon Sexton (post 15229143, Hypercrisis—Oberon Sexton 3). [View larger image.]

[2.14] In Hypercrisis 3, something new develops. Included in this thread is a completely original image detailing the levels of power and control over the entirety of DC's comic universe. This connects Neil Gaiman's Endless characters (characters based on abstract universal ideas), the spectrum of Lantern groups (groups powered by a different core emotion), and the Seven Soldiers of Victory (an obscure 1940s super team that was revamped by Grant Morrison for an event in 2005). Users develop a greater collective understanding of the structures of abstract power within the fictional universe based on three entirely unrelated comic histories while also creating original media to help explain events. The shift to the conceptual also includes more artistic elements within the comics. Users are analyzing symbols, icons, scars, cave paintings, tattoos, and other diegetic markers relevant to the characters and narratives, even going so far as to connect the importance of historical shamanistic imagery to the iconography of DC's superheroes.

Figure 5. Fan-made chart by user Madman connecting several superhero groups by their power levels (post 13064208, Hypercrisis 3). [View larger image.]

[2.15] Where participative thinking helps a reader engage a text in a more fulfilling way, as a group, the members are able to collect their engagements into a communal dialogic process. Users help others in order to gain increased participation. When a user states, "I just realized I understood 40 percent of [Final Crisis]" (post 13000371), another replies with, "It's amazing—Final Crisis was the most picked-apart thing EVER in the history of /co/ but we are still discovering new [stuff] that was set up in it" (post 13000472; Hypercrisis 1). Besides coming up with new theories, /co/mrades help each other with readings. Scans of comic pages are common and are often used to remind others of past events or allusions to other texts, or to illuminate missed details. Bakhtin describes the dialogic process with texts as "a system of languages that mutually and ideologically interanimate each other. It is impossible to describe and analyze it as a single unitary language" (1981, 47). Narratives have multiple levels, given the realities of the characters and settings. The construction and interpretation of a text cannot be a singular process. The /co/ members help each other with this process. Users can bring in information from other canonical texts, but they also collect it for future discussions and to show to new users.

[2.16] The strength of this process is in part due to the group's ability to be wrong and to adapt discussions according to findings they decide are incorrect. The lack of importance of subcultural capital in the anonymous community allows for experimentation in thought and a lack of repercussions for incorrect ideas. While discussing the death of Bruce Wayne and the possibility of his being the mysterious Phantom Stranger, a user reminds everyone that "Phantom Stranger is an angel who refused to take sides during Satan's rebellion" (post 13029333, Hypercrisis 2). But in reply to the limitations of a character in DC's canon, a user states, "Like I said I don't like this theory but in one of Aesop's fables one animal didn't fight in the battle of Beasts and Birds. That animal was The Bat" (post 13029407, Hypercrisis 2). Nor does the group neglect possibly fruitless ideas. Rather, members search for better justifications for their theories. Although this theory was ultimately disregarded by /co/, it did help the community by developing analysis, strengthening the group's bond, and furthering the community's efforts.

[2.17] In addition to discussing the theory and origins of plot points, the /co/mrades also focus on deconstructing the complex nature of power and identity in the DC Comics universe. The users analyze the nature of good and evil DC's fictional universe over more than 75 years' worth of published texts, discuss how it has developed through events created by Grant Morrison, and speculate on what it means to the future development of DC's comics. This has less to do with analyzing texts and more to do critically thinking about intertextual and universal realities and the belief systems of various characters. The user-created ideas are growing collectively more abstract, yet the group manages to explain these concepts to each other succinctly and continues to connect them to the texts in discussion; the community encourages interaction. Users help explain and elaborate on concepts and point to particular texts and characters to help construct a particular idea. If somebody doesn't get it, it is up to the community to justify the idea or express it more clearly.

[2.18] Fandom gives individuals permission and power to identify with texts, and it grants creative expression for their passions. The establishment of authority and cultural power within fan groups isolates the less involved fan from the subculture. Those who do not follow the fandom's rules may be deemed inauthentic fans, which may cause disillusionment through cultural fragmentation. However, because 4chan is an anonymous community, the authority of identity is removed, thus permitting more individuals to feel included in their participation. The Hypercrisis allows comic book fans to break away from the potential limitations of cultural spaces, where they may not feel welcome as a result of their lack of culturally constructed associations. The fan event does not permit subcultural elitism because it provides a welcoming space for textual engagement and fan expression. The visibility of traditional fandom in itself discourages participation from those who are not dedicated in the same ways as die-hard fans. 4chan users can be more open about their passions, and thus meaningful participation and community development can occur congruently, without fear of risking individual fan identity.

3. Note

1. 4chan deletes threads regularly, often within minutes of posting. However, there is an online archive of several Hypercrisis discussion threads. When I quote, I cite the archive post number (http://www.mediafire.com/?9mugfs0jg8uumih).

4. Works cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1993. Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1979) 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brady, Matt. 2009. "Grant Morrison: Final Crisis Exit Interview, Part 1." Newsarama.com, January 28. http://www.newsarama.com/comics/010928-Grant-Final-Crisis.html.

Brown, Jeffrey A. 2001. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Fiske, John. 1992. "The Cultural Economy of Fandom." In The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, edited by Lisa A. Lewis, 30–49. London: Routledge.

Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods. 2010. Directed by Patrick Meaney. DVD. Los Angeles: Halo-8.

Hypercrisis 1. 2009. 4chan, November 28. http://www.mediafire.com/?9mugfs0jg8uumih.

Hypercrisis 2. 2009. 4chan, November 29. http://www.mediafire.com/?9mugfs0jg8uumih.

Hypercrisis 3. 2009. 4chan, December 1. http://www.mediafire.com/?9mugfs0jg8uumih.

Hypercrisis—Oberon Sexton 3. 2010. 4chan, March 13. http://4chan.org.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jewell, Stephen. 2010. "The Storyteller." Comic Heroes (Autumn): 36–43.

Morrison, Grant. 2006. "Pop Magic!" In The Book of Lies, edited by Brad Meltzer, 16–25. New York: Disinformation Company.





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