Warning: geek threat awareness level set to “Milhouse”!
“Postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or re-present the past in fiction and history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological …. The question of whose history survives is one that obsesses postmodern novels”—Linda Hutcheon
So, with Infinite Crisis over, DC has (supposedly) finally consolidated all its multiverses and hypertimelines into one earth, New Earth, a stable and coherent place where everyone’s origin makes sense in terms of everyone else’s origin, where history flows in a clean, straight, single line. Smooth surfaces, sharp angles, and hospital corners—that’s the new DC. For now.
52 is the series devoted to exploring that new universe and clarifying the new status quo, and, for all my distaste for IC itself, I’m enjoying 52 quite a bit so far. But I overheard a conversation at the comics shop last week that raised a good question: with Keith Giffen doing breakdowns and being generally plugged in to the new DCU, and with characters new and obscure bound to elbow their way into a work as mammoth as 52, will Ambush Bug make an appearance?
This is an important question, I think, and by important I mean utterly pointless, but interesting to tremendous geeks. It’s interesting because Ambush Bug is the very antithesis of the one-world ethos that guides DC’s line these days. It’s not just that he’s a metafictional character who knows that he’s in a comic book, it’s that he remembers comic books that aren’t supposed to have happened anymore. He’s a walking, talking, teleporting, trickster reminder of the foolhardiness of attempting to maintain a stable, consistent shared universe in a medium as persistently ramifying as superhero comics. There are thousands of events happening every month, often with the same character having simultaneous adventures written by different creators in different contexts, and no attempt to force all of these divergent stories into one large narrative can ever be entirely successful. There is always excess, something left out or left unattended, some contradiction that doesn’t make sense, and Ambush Bug is the symbol of that excess, as well as a kind of lay historian of the characters, stories, and even storytelling styles that are constantly being eliminated from the official history of the DCU in favor of an alleged coherence. Ambush Bug points out the bumps and cracks and fissures in a historical narrative that strives to present itself as smooth as glass.
I was all prepared to offer the caveat that Ambush Bug didn’t always serve this function, and that he began his career in the early 80s as a generic crackpot villain—but then I glanced back at those early appearances. His first adventures were with the New Doom Patrol (DC Comics Presents #52) and the Legion of Substitute Heroes (DCCP #59), teams compoased of also-rans and nobodies, teams that represent the dark side—or the silly side, or at least the obverse side—of DC’s mainstream heroes. Indeed, Superman highlights this aspect of the New Doom Patrol’s nature (in the sort of condescending lecture that is on display at Superdickery) when he first meets them: says Supes, “If memory serves me—and believe me, it usually does—the Doom Patrol is dead—and even if they weren’t, I’ve met them and you’re not it!” Since the NDP doesn’t occupy a spot in the official memory of DC’s most iconic character, they can’t be real.
And during Ambush Bug’s romp with Infectious Lass, Chlorophyll Kid, Porcupine Pete, and the other Legion Subs, scribes Giffen and Paul Levitz include an editorial caption that reads “Don’t ask when this fits into Legion continuity.” Of course, editorial captions usually work to strengthen continuity, to show how the events of a particular story are happening before or between or after the events in another contemporaneous book that might otherwise seem to render them impossible; here, the authors simply throw up their hands and admit that there’s really no way to reconcile this tale with the goings-on in the official Legion title. And dare I push this already tenuous close reading further and point out how the lack of the expected jovial exclamation point at the end of that caption makes it actually seem a bit threatening? Don’t ask when this fits into Legion continuity, or ELSE, because it doesn’t and questions are to continuity like a high wind is to a house of cards.
Anyway, the idea of Ambush Bug as a metafictional avatar of the apocryphal, of the weirdness being squeezed out of the DCU in preparation for and in the aftermath of multiverse-smooshing Crisis on Infinite Earths became more and more a part of his character in various Superman-bedeviling appearances in Action Comics. He goads a letterer into altering Superman’s sound effects:
…and reminds Supes of various stories he’d much prefer to forget:
Anyways, all this culminates in issue three of his self-titled 1985 limited series, in a story called “The Ambush Bug History of the DC Universe.” Here, the Bug laments that the DCU has “just gotten too… organized!” The story is a tour through the forgotten history of the DCU, a compendium of all the characters deemed too strange or embarrassing or dated for DC’s new streamlined universe. What’s interesting is that the Bug doesn’t focus on the camp value of these characters—he truly believes they’re “absolute[ly] superlative.” His alternative canon of DC heroes and villains also represents an alternative aesthetic approach to comics storytelling and universe-building. Among his absolute superlatives: Beppo the Super-Monkey and Comet the Wonder-Horse:
Please note that Supergirl and Comet once had a romantic relationship.
And the Bug also resists renouncing some of the less savory aspects of DC history. Perhaps DC was right on when they retired Wonder Woman villain Egg Fu, but there’s value in remembering him:
And then there’s Mopee, who is, as he explains, maybe the best embodiment of the sort of complications and contradictions that inevitably crop up in a shared and serial universe:
“The Ambush Bug History of the DC Universe” is also a detective story of sorts, since the Bug’s quest is to figure out who is erasing these characters from continuity and why. He finds his answer on the final page, in the form of Jonni DC, Continuity Cop—a literal embodiment of the DC logo with arms and legs and a head, who goes about erasing stories that interfere with her “pure and consistent” continuity, with “each minute detail fitting in like a puzzle.”Of course, Jonni gets hers in the follow-up mini-series, Son of Ambush Bug, in which the DCU faces the menace of the Interferer, a “cosmic buttinski” who goes around rewriting continuity at will. Not even the peerless power of continuity cop Jonni DC can stand against him:
In fact, the only person who can resist the Interferer is Ambush Bug, because he alone knows he’s in a comic book and can thus use comic conventions to escape the Interferer’s wrath. Oh, and in this series, Ambush Bug faces off against Argh!yle, a sentient alien sock who wears an iron mask because he was maimed by a cat when he came to Earth. As befits an Ambush Bug villain, Argh!yle is another avatar of the apocryphal—note here his lament that DC has excluded him from their official roster of characters, Who’s Who:
And for no real reason other than I love it, here’s Amby’s attempt to join the Morrison-era Doom Patrol, from the Ambush Bug Nothing Special:
Okay, before this devolves any further into me just posting Ambush Bug scans that make me laugh, let me see if I can recall my point. Oh yes: that Ambush Bug is inevitable. No matter how iron an editorial grip the higher-ups at DC maintain over their line, they are going to produce inconsistencies, multiplicities, alternatives, divergences. My hope is that they’re aware of this, and that they understand the treasures that are being eliminated from “official” continuity; an Ambush Bug appearance in 52 would be just acknowledgment of apocryphal inevitability that I’d like to see.