Marvel comics are filled with strange words and phrases: negative zone, infinity gem, cosmic cube, Shi’ar, Kree, K’un L’un, Genosha, vibranium, Immortus — but a few words I never expected to see in a Marvel comic were Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius.
They’ve been cropping up a lot lately in Ales Kot’s Secret Avengers, appearing for the first time in issue #6. Afficionados of Latin American literature might recognize these three nonsense words as the title of a 1941 short story by Argentine master (and my personal favorite author) Jorge Luis Borges. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like many of Borges’ greatest stories, combines literary criticism and fantasy fiction in a format that is as rigorous as it is imaginative. The story is narrated by Borges himself and features other real-life 20th century literary figures such as Bioy Casares¹. It concerns the discovery of an encyclopedia which is otherwise sound but includes an entry about Uqbar, a province in Asia Minor with a rich and detailed history that also happens not to exist.
“The literature of Uqbar,” we are told “was a literature of fantasy…its epics and legends never referred to reality but rather to the two imaginary realms of Mlejnas and Tlön.” Thus Borges glimpses the edges of a centuries long conspiracy which culminated in a massive effort by a group of linguists, scientists, writers, cartographers, and eccentrics to imagine, in its vast breadth and minute detail, the fictional world of Tlön:
“I now hold in my hands a vast and systematic fragment of the entire history of an unknown planet, with its architectures and playing cards, the horror of its mythologies and the murmur of its tongues, its emperors and its seas, its minerals and its birds and fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical controversies — all joined, articulated, coherent, and with no visible doctrinal purpose or hint of parody.”
“Who, singular or plural, invented Tlön? The plural is, I suppose, inevitable, since the hypothesis of a single inventor — some infinite Leibniz working in obscurity and self-effacement — has been unanimously discarded. It is conjectured that this ‘brave new world’ is the work of a secret society…”
How does this all tie back to comics? When this story first appeared in 1941, the idea of a team of slightly mad individuals devoting their lives to rendering every detail of a fictional universe probably seemed far-fetched. By the time the first English translation appeared 20 years later, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were about to embark on just such a task with Fantastic Four #1, the first entry in what would become one of the most elaborate and fully-realized fictions of all-time: the Marvel Universe.
Comics fans often hear that the decades of complex continuity inherent in properties such as Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman are intimidating to new readers and keep the superhero comics genre from growing. But it is the long term commitment to world building that actually defines the genre. Marvel and DC comics are not the best comics on the shelves, with rare exceptions (like Kot’s SA, natch) they are not artful examples of the potential of sequential art. But a Marvel comic offers something that a Chris Ware or Joe Matt comic cannot: 50+ years of history, collectively constructed by hundreds of writers and artists and millions of fans. Continuity is not what hinders corporate comics — it is actually the one thing that makes them unique and wonderful.
Realizing this, the most successful writers of such comics over the last decade have been those who have engaged with continuity as the defining feature of superhero comics. Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns stand out as the two writers who have made the biggest recent impact on corporate superhero comics by actively engaging with the long history of DC comics, untangling and retangling the insane histories of Superman, the Flash and the Justice Society, retroactively altering history just like the magical hronir in Borges’ story.
Many of Borges’ stories end on a dark, or at least foreboding note, and “Tlön” is no exception. In the postscript to the story (which is dated 1947, even though it was published along with the original story in ’41), JLB discusses how the discovery of the complete cyclopaedia of Tlön has rapidly remade the world. Fictitious history has replaced the real — a scenario which does not seem so far-fetched. It is not unlike Baudrillard’s state of hyper-reality, a world in which in reference to pop culture has become the dominant, and perhaps only, relevant form of communication. Behind all of that slash fic, those reaction gifs, those cosplays, is it possible that we are all actually losing touch with reality, replacing it with a new one sewn wholecloth from imagination? Or, to put it another way, “Shaka, when the walls fell?”
¹ Borges and Casares engage in “A vast debate over the way one might go about composing a first-person novel whose narrator would omit or distort things and engage in all sorts of contradictions, so that a few of the book’s readers — a very few — might divine the horrifying and banal truth.” This is just the strategy later employed by late-postmodernist authors such as Paul Auster and Gene Wolfe, writers reared on the continental literary theory which was largely inspired by Borges himself. Of course, this excerpt is not only a suggestion to future generations of writers, but to future generations of readers, who may begin to question everything they are told by “Jorge Luis Borges,” the narrator of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”