Low Weirdness and Pop Culture [Trenchant Edges]
Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, the Dailyish newsletter where we plumb the edges of the world for alchemical gold amongst the shit.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 9 seconds. Contains 1233 words
I’m Stephen Fisher, your host and weirdness snob. Like many people in my generation, I was first introduced to weirdness through pop culture. From the model UFO, I made in 4th grade that, in retrospect, was clearly based on Bob Lazar’s descriptions to all the history channel I shouldn’t have watched.
But the real going in too deep was when I found the Temple of the Screaming Electron, a holdover bbs turned into an internet forum in 2002. Totse had this massive collection of text documents about every subject a disgruntled teenager might be interested in.
Heavily libertarian, but in that early computing flavor jackknifed between total cynicism about people and absolute optimism about the possibility of technology making people better.
And it was there that I started really peeling off into the half-light of conspiracy, UFO, and eventually geopolitics.
Funny thing, wanna know why I think of all this stuff as fringe? Well, I booted up the archive of totse and lookie here.
Anyway, what I got from this was a huge backlog of Low Wiedness trying to climb towards being structured enough to explain anything and mostly failing.
There’s no end to this kind of pulp schlock, so it’s nice to have a good base to judge new schlock off of.
Relevant to our original discussion on critical thinking is the first article on that list. Which was probably my first real introduction to the subject.
You know it’s a gangster essay when the second line condemns both beliefs in an afterlife and the polygraph in the same sentence. Pure gold.
But I digress.
How Ancient Aliens Determined the Plot of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes
You’ve probably heard of the “Ancient Alien Astronaut” hypothesis. The TV show Ancient Aliens has been widely lambasted as dishonest and outright racist and is currently into its *checks notes* holy shit 16th season.
So it’s a faux-nonfiction show that’s both staggeringly wrong and widely popular. Very American.
Yeah, that meme guy is the host of Ancient Aliens.
So, what does this disreputable show have to do with the plot of the MCU and DCEU?
It all goes back to the 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Däniken.
The book lays out most of the evidence for the ancient alien astronaut “hypothesis” and was a hit at the time. One idea in the book is the notion that aliens may have influenced human genetics. Put a pin in that.
One of its readers was comic book legend Jack Kirby. To get an idea how influential “the king” was, he’s the guy co-created Captain America and drew this for the #1 cover:
While this looks like an obvious easy grand slam commercially, CA#1 came out in March 1941, the better part of a year before the US entered the war and Kirby got death threats from nazi sympathizers for it.
After the war, Kirby helped invent the romance genre of comics as Superhero comics waned, which were quite popular until the Comics code Authority ripped away mature themes from comics in 1954.
Kirby spent most of the 1960s collaborating with Stan Lee to create almost every popular marvel comic character except Spiderman and Dr Strange.
By the end of the 1960s, though, Kirby was feeling burnt out playing second fiddle to Lee and their friendship had soured. He wanted to paint on a bigger canvas and ended up moving to DC comics where he took over Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and launched a slate of interrelated comics telling different sides of the same epic story.
Collectively known as The Fourth World, they told a Manichean tale of ancient “New Gods” fighting an endless series of proxy wars between the good gods of New Genesis and the evil gods of Apokolips. Kirby sprinkled in a lot of references to speculative archeology in the series as well as being heavily inspired by Mesoamerican art and calendar.
So, ancient aliens was pretty formative in the development of the Fourth World, but alas, the comics business is cruel and Kirby’s epic was left unfinished as his projects were canceled.
But the character of Darkseid and the world of Apokolips cast a long shadow on DC comics, basically becoming their main Biggest Bad in every subsequent version, including Zach Snyder’s DC movies.
Darkseid even shows up in the “Synder Cut” of Justice League. Which turned out to be sad because he was also extremely boring.
Well, few writers can really keep up with Kirby’s bombast and trying to make an alien space god of ultimate evil more gritty or realistic kinda defeats the point.
So that’s DC. But what about Marvel?
Well, Kirby would come back to Marvel in 1975 after a lot more project cancelations. This is sad because almost everything he did at DC was staggeringly good, including maybe my favorite comic OMAC.
In 1976, Kirby launched the Eternals who were a bunch of superhumans created by giant aliens called Celestials as part of their mysterious project to manipulate and develop new life in the universe. During one of their conflicts, a faction of Eternals landed on Saturn’s moon of Titan where Thanos, big bad of the MCU was eventually born.
Thanos, of course, would go onto be the star villain in the first decade of the MCU, and his homeworld of titan even shows up in Infinity War.
And while movie Thanos wasn’t an Eternal-Deviant Hybrid as in the comics, bits, and pieces of Kirby’s worldbuilding would still mark the MCU all over the place if you know where to look.
What’s the point?
So, why did we go on this tangent?
Well, first, this is a chain of connections I had a lot of fun unpacking for myself. But the real reason I’m sharing it is because it illustrates how low weirdness defines a kind of boundary of imagination that percolates through culture flipping unexpected switches here and there.
The real implication of all this low wierdness is it forms a kind of blase background radiation noise that higher quality weirdnesses need to stand out against. I’ve always found the skepticism at how UFO sightings and abductions are stereotypically only seen by rural hicks and laughed off for simply being country know-nothings rather silly.
Like, why would an alien scientist not find isolated people who wouldn’t be believed? If you’re performing blinded experiments, it’s important to keep the population you’re researching unaware of what you’re doing.
Seems pretty smart in my book.
Likewise, even the most sophisticated skeptics either start thinking on this pulpy low weirdness level or have to purposefully cut through it to look for more grounded explanations. This stuff frontloads expectations and shapes assumptions.
I often wonder if Ancient Aliens would still be on air if it didn’t premiere in a world that had almost 40 years of major pop culture works hinting at the same theory.
Probably so, after all. If that kind of schlock wasn’t popular it probably wouldn't have taken so deep root in DC or Marvel comics afterall.
Anyway, the lesson here is it’s important to stretch your imagination even if it produces bad ideas in the short term. Like perception, imagination is one of the constraints on our problem solving abilities.