Year-End Meta 2022: “Escaping Total Nullification”

Doctor Strange ponders the fate of his universe (from What If? #43 [February 1984])

The back-up story in What If? #43 (February 1984) doesn’t really have a title.

Perhaps this is fitting since it is a story about a universe that ceases to exist.

In it, Doctor Strange returns to his “native dimension” after being very suddenly and unwillingly bumped out of it and finding a strange cosmic barrier barring his re-entry. When the bubble finally disperses after a few days of Strange’s fruitless effort to pierce it, Strange—sporting the five o’clock shadow that is superhero comic code for working for days without rest—finds his homeworld gone. Not just Earth, but everything. The entire universe.

If it must have a title, the story (with words and pencils by Mark Gruenwald, inks by Jack Abel, colors by Ben Sean, and letters by Rick Parker) could be called “What if the Marvel Universe Ceased to Exist?”—and that is how I have it marked down as in my detailed comic book collection spreadsheet.

This un-universe is depicted as white space. The panels break up the action on white pages, only Strange himself and later the Silver Surfer and the Phoenix (Jean Grey still in her green and best outfit) provide work for the colorist—save for a few cosmic flourishes. When trying to search the non-place he finds himself in, Strange himself becomes disoriented, unsure if he is even moving or if time exists, such is the strange nature of this non-place like an empty page he has been projected onto.

Despite being a place of non-space and non-time, Strange finds the last remaining survivors mentioned above and together they search for some clue, “a singularity” or “focal point in the oblivion” around them by combining powers. It is in that way that they find what is probably my favorite Marvel Comics artifact, the Ultimate Nullifier—an item that allowed its wielder to instantly destroy all they could conceptualize, including themselves (but not the Nullifier). Thus, someone smart and aware enough could undo the entire universe, and that is exactly what happened in this story.

The details of the backstory aren’t that important. Korvac of the infamous “Korvac Saga” from Avengers vol. #s 167, 168, 170–177 (1978) ended up winning in this reality—much like he did in What If? #32 (January 1982), entitled “What if the Avengers had become Pawns of Korvac?”— and in this version he uses the Ultimate Nullifier when a “Universal Armada,” made up of space navies of countless worlds, comes after him and refuses to stand down when threatened with the Nullifier. For some reason that is not really explained and that comes off as a writerly convenience so that this story can even exist, Korvac shunted Doctor Strange, Silver Surfer, and Phoenix out of that reality before taking it over because “their power was not worth absorbing.” I mean, that makes absolutely no sense given how powerful the three are, but again, it is kind of beside the point.

The final confrontation with Korvac that led to the universe’s destruction.

Let’s put it this way: these three are so powerful they are about to project that power through the Ultimate Nullifier to recreate the universe as it was by “nullifying the nothingness” when the ghost of Eternity appears to them to ask them to let the universe die in peace. Accepting that the Marvel Universe should be allowed to die with dignity (something that was way past possible in 1982 and beyond impossible in 2022—“dignity” is the last word I’d used to describe anything about superhero comics), the Silver Surfer leaves to explore the multiverse, while Phoenix decides to seek out a reality where she, not the universe, died and take her old place (an explanation for her return that strikes me as better than the one written for her in Fantastic Four vol. 1, #286 to set-up her joining the cast of X-Factor in 1986). Stephen Strange, however, chooses to stay behind. Deciding that he would only be “an intruder, a pretender, a usurper” should he travel to another reality, Strange demonstrates a humility and sense of duty that is unlike the arrogant and excuse-making magician I am used to from reading the Defenders comics of the 70s and 80s. He thinks to himself, “When I took on the mantle of sorcerer supreme, I assumed responsibility for this universe. The fact that the cosmos and everything in it have perished does not absolve me of my responsibility…I shall remain at my post…for eternity.” The narration describes him eventually “relaxing his grip on mortality” and becoming “one with the universe about him.”

I’ve asked you to indulge me in this long synopsis of a forgotten back-up story in a comic book best known for its main story featuring a battle between Conan the Barbarian and Captain America in the American Museum of Natural History (for real) because however overly-dramatic a comparison it may be, the story is what comes to mind when I think about closing The Middle Spaces and moving on.

For nearly 10 years I poured a lot of work into this place, particularly in writing and researching my own posts, but more and more in working with and editing the work of guest writers who honored me with their willingness to contribute to the site. While I have decided to close shop, I do not want this place to look like a ghost town or worse still, a non-place, like a white page marked by the absence of anything recent. And to be honest, when I’d look at the plummeting site traffic throughout the past year, it sometimes felt that way already. It is for that reason that my number one priority in a post-The Middle Spaces era is to make sure the site survives as an (ad-free) archive of all the work shared here. I want to continue as its custodian, looking after it for as long as humanly possible.

I cannot say that I will never re-open its doors or feel inspired to do the work of developing and writing an essay for it at some future point. Or that I might end up with the opportunity to share someone else’s work here when there is no other place for it. But for now, this is it. My work here is finished but my responsibility remains. I don’t want broken links that lead to nothing or for someone to arrive to find posts littered with spam comments. I want folks to be able to cite the work on here for the foreseeable future, to be inspired by it, to argue against it, for its claims and suggestions to re-emerge when relevant (as when there was a surge in traffic for my essay, “Slut-Shaming She-Hulk” when the MCU version of one of my favorite Marvel characters found herself on Disney+ battling the toxic manosphere). I want for its takes to be debunked or challenged as new ways of looking at comics and culture emerge. I want folks to revisit the home page every now and again and find different posts from the archive filling the top five spots to promote work not only by me, but by all the other contributors.

The Middle Spaces may not be able to remain up-to-date, but it can remain vital.

Reed Richards threatens Galactus with the Ultimate Nullifier way back in its first appearance in Fantastic Four vol 1, #50 (by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee)

If you are interested in helping me to maintain The Middle Spaces as an ad-free archive, there are two things you can do.

  1. The Middle Spaces patreon will not be closing down (and if you are already a patron there should be a post about the future of the Patreon over there by the time you are reading this). Instead, I will be narrowing the patron tiers to just two: one-dollar donors and two-dollar donors. For years, our generous patrons have helped pay for the WordPress account that houses the site and to have a fund to pay guest writers a small honorarium (as have several guest writers who declined the payment in order to pay-it-forward to graduate students and contingent faculty for whom 25 or 50 bucks made a bigger difference). If we can maintain around the same number of patrons only paying a buck or two a month, we can easily cover the cost of keeping the site available and ad-free. But to be clear, I plan to make up any difference out of my own pocket for as long as I am economically capable of doing so.
  2. Continue to share the work archived here on The Middle Spaces. Share it on social media when it is relevant or when you’re feeling nostalgic about it. Cite it in your academic work. Link to it in your own blog posts. Recommend it to friends.

The Exception that Defines the Rule

If you have followed the tradition of the Year-End Meta post here on The Middle Spaces, then you know that I have chafed against the idea of year end reflections and lists. In fact, the tradition began as a kind of anti-list, looking for other ways to consider the work on the site (or in one case the work that did not make it to the site). That being said, since this is the last time around, I thought it might be interesting to look back on some stats about the site from between 2013 and now.

In that time, The Middle Spaces has published 285 posts (including multi-part essays as individual posts). The first handful were things I ported over from a tumblr I was running that was meant to be brief examinations of comics panels or pop songs, but as those posts got longer and longer, it only made sense to build something more conducive to longer form essays (long form for the internet, anyway)

Of those 285 posts, 47 were guest posts (including the multi-part roundtables and any other multi-part posts) by 58 different writers (including the multiple contributors to the roundtables and their co-editors). Of these, 99 are about Marvel comics or the MCU films/tv, 29 are about DC or DCCU films/tv, only four are about Image comics, while 30 are about indies or other small comic companies, while only one—”Autonecrohomoeroticism: Revisiting Richie Rich & Casper #31”—is about a Harvey Comic. In non-comic topics, 30 are about music—including nine “Songs in Conversation”—four are about television, and five are about films.

You may notice that these statistics about our archive of posts do not add up to 285. That is because some posts don’t fit any of these categories and others fit in more than one. This feels important since ultimately what I wanted from this site—through its attention to comics and other popular media—is for it to be an exploration of and reminder that nothing is ever only one thing and some things, like lingering questions, are best only described for others to assess rather than to try to characterize them with any finality.

I am surprised at the ratio of posts I wrote myself to guest posts and thought there were slightly more of the latter. Then again, I had hoped that last year when I announced that I was closing shop that I’d get a decent number of pitches from the people always telling me they wanted to write for the site but never followed through (for a million understandable reasons, to be fair) before they lost their chance, but that did not happen. I do have to admit while I am burned out on the research and writing, I will miss the editorial work of helping to develop these pieces.

Acknowledgements

There are a lot of people I want to thank and acknowledge for their help and support over the years of working on The Middle Spaces.

Dr. Strange decides to stay behind and guard over his now non-existent charge.

First and foremost, I want to thank Eric Gershik, who served as the site’s copy editor for most of its existence. He not only proofread every post and guest post (at one point going back and re-reading all the posts from before his time in that position), he was a sounding board for topics and helped me develop a tone and voice for the posts. Long before The Middle Spaces had a patreon bringing in enough money for me to kick him some bucks for his work, he did it on a volunteer basis, sometimes with very little turn-around time, and the site would not have been nearly as good without him. If you need someone to do some light editorial work for your own site, you should reach out to him. He has very reasonable rates.

Dr. Jennifer Stoever (who served as my dissertation committee chair) and the rest of the crew over at Sounding Out! where I cut my teeth writing for the internet and had a crash course in developmental editing by being a regular writer for them. The Middle Spaces started as a kind of distraction from dissertation writing—a place to follow-up on and develop ideas that didn’t have a place in that project—and Jenny didn’t hesitate to tell me when she thought it was too much of a distraction. It was that kind of support and discipline that helped me develop my scholarly voice and ability to crank out so much writing for the site while still covering my other responsibilities.

Noah Berlatsky, who really helped me to grow the audience for The Middle Spaces by inviting me to write for The Hooded Utilitarian and later, graciously letting me cross-post some of my work in both places. One of my all-time favorite pieces of my own writing, which I revised for re-publication here, started off as an essay for HU: “The Queer Silence of the Killing Joke.”

Dr. Qiana Whitted, for noticing my work here and on the Hooded Utilitarian and reaching out to me to submit work to the International Comics Art Forum conference and later to join its executive committee. It was through this connection that I met a wonderful community of comic scholars, many of whom would end up sitting down with me for interviews for my The (re)Collection Agency series and/or writing guest posts for the site. It was this network that she opened up for me that also led to being well-known enough to win the Comics Studies Society Gilbert Seldes Award for Public Comics Scholarship in 2018 and thus, eventually for guest posts like Dr. Anna Peppard’s “(Behold!) The Vision’s Penis: The Presence of Absence in Mutant Romance Tales” to win Honorable Mention for the same award in 2021. Qiana also came up with the idea of the first The Middle Spaces roundtable on Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet and served as co-editor for it, which established a standard for the two other roundtables.

Robert Jones, Jr., for writing what was only the second guest post for the site—“Humanity Not Included: DC’s Cyborg and the Mechanization of the Black Body”—which remains the site’s most popular essay, not only of all time, but drawing the most traffic and comments nearly every year. Not only did his agreeing to write for the site open it up to the immense audience of his crucial social justice work online as “Son of Baldwin,” but his trust in me boosted my confidence in reaching out to others to write for the site. He’d go on to write a couple of other posts for the site, but most of all I am thankful for his friendship and proud of his writerly accomplishments, such as all the accolades for his New York Times bestselling novel, The Prophets (2021). I am eager for his next novel, and you should be too.

All the other contributing writers for the site also deserve thanks—especially those who deigned to write more than once for us, like Dr. Nicholas E. Miller (who was our first regular contributor), Dr. Vincent Haddad, Adrienne Resha, Monica Gerrafo, and Tiffany Babb—as do the three folks who served as co-editors for our three roundtables, the aforementioned Dr. Qiana Whitted (Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table), Dr. Joshua Abraham Kopin (Seeing Sounds / Hearing Pictures), and Dr. Leah Misemer (Reading Comics on the Threshold). Those round tables were a lot of work to organize and edit, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be in those trenches with anyone else. And I want to thank all the guest contributors who tolerated my editorial style and my penchant to make marginal comments like “So what?” and constantly asking for links and citations for various claims.

Jay Edidin and Miles Stokes of Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men and Nathaniel Hubbard and Corey Whitney of Titan Up the Defense, whose fan work on their respective podcasts was so entertaining, insightful, and comprehensive that I was frequently inspired by it to take a deeper look at works mentioned on their shows. Without their inspiration I never would have written my three-part examination of Storm from the X-Men or even known who Mal Duncan of the Teen Titans even was to write one of my all-time favorites, “Digging Up Ghosts: Teen Titans’ Mal Duncan & His Token Power.” The truth is, I bought a lot of comics both podcasts covered or referenced in hopes of writing about them myself, even though I never got around to it for most of them. Oh and thanks again to Hub for having me as a guest on TUtD TWICE to cover the misguided wrap-up of Omega the Unknown in the pages of Defenders after I’d written a series of 11 essays examining both the original series by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Jim Mooney, and the Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple’s 2007 reimagining.

All the comics scholars who sat down with me for interviews about their work and collecting habits: Christopher Pizzino, Qiana Whitted, Leah Misemer, Brian Cremins, Andréa Gilroy, Aaron Kashtan, Brannon Costello, Francesca Lyn, Michael Sharp (aka Rex Parker), Margaret Galvan, Marc Singer, Rebecca Wanzo, and Anna Peppard.

The comic writers and artists who responded to my engagement with their work fair-mindedly and enthusiastically (even if I sometimes had criticisms) and in the process signal-boosted my work and that of guest writers, including Kelly Sue DeConnick, Kurt Busiek, Hazel Newlevant, Jaime Hernandez, and Matt Huynh. And for those who did not respond with the respect I tried to show the creators of work of which I (or a guest writer) was critical, I recommend searching for your own name on Twitter less often.

Lastly, I want to thank all our Patreon supporters who helped keep the site ad-free and made it possible to pay writers an honorarium, and of course all the readers who shared the work they found on here and/or responded to it, the scholars who cited it, and teachers who made use of it in their classrooms.

If there is anyone deserving of thanks that I have forgotten, please accept my sincere apologies. It has been a long time and I’ve interacted with a lot of people. Plus, my brain is addled from dealing with a newborn child these last couple of months.

And so this is the last word from me, what follows are testimonials and reflections from readers and contributors over the years. I sent out a call asking for anyone who wanted to submit one, but it was not until I started to get them that I realized it might come off as me fishing for compliments because they were all so heartwarming and generous, I literally blushed while going through them.


The Middle Spaces is such a terrific name for a website, especially one which covers comics. For me, it represents the website’s position between the two ferns of comics scholarship and comics criticism. Alone, either can be completely annoying to read: comics scholarship can be dry, dense, of interest only to the writer; while comics criticism can be the reverse: disjointed, rambling, taking thousands of words to say nothing. But The Middle Spaces takes the strongest elements of both fields and merges them into something approachable; energetic; enlightened and challenging.

– Steve Morris, Publisher of Shelfdust.

 

It was a privilege to copy edit The Middle Spaces for the last eight years. While I helped out at the start of the blog’s existence, I got more involved around the time Osvaldo and I co-wrote a 2-part examination about X-Men’s original “Days of Future Past” story in conversation form. I loved The Fortress of Solitude, which Osvaldo’s dissertation discusses at length (and from whence the blog got its name), describing the ways in which we build our identities. This, I think, solidified my enthusiasm for what The Middle Spaces was doing.

The many lenses The Middle Spaces used to examine our cultural artifacts, emphasizing the overlooked or erased perspectives was thrilling for me. I learned a lot and have had my mind opened to examining my assumptions in a much more fruitful way than I could do previously. I will miss exposure to new ideas, learning about the history of comics, and having my assumptions challenged. Verba volant scripta manent.

– Eric Gershik, The Middle Spaces copy editor.

 

The Middle Spaces has been a space of cutting-edge comics research that brought together emerging and established scholars. I always looked forward to new content, especially the roundtables on focused topics. The roundtable on Bitch Planet was particularly deft, and I use it in teaching as it was one of the first places that published on BP and the pieces are great and accessible. My own experience contributing to the roundtable on letters columns and paratexts was great, and the editing helped take my scholarship to a new level. I’m, of course, sad that The Middle Spaces will be ending, but I know that this rich archive will remain a resource in the years to come.

– Dr. Margaret Galvan, Assistant Professor of visual rhetoric in the Department of English at the University of Florida

 

We all know The Middle Spaces has been a vital source for reading and teaching about comics. I met so many of my comics colleagues through their writing on The Middle Spaces, but for years it has also been my go-to resource for teaching my students how to think and write. Hell, the site helped teach me how to write. So did Osvaldo’s editorial feedback. I reverse-outlined several pieces on The Middle Spaces to use as examples for teaching students a variety of effective strategies in structuring an argument. It didn’t matter if they read the comic or not, because the writer could always be relied on to explain the story and provide an engaging, provocative analysis. The impact of the site goes beyond comics. I will miss seeing new stuff, but I will cherish going back, re-reading, and finding new gems.

– Dr. Vincent Haddad, Assistant Professor of English,  Central State University

 

The Middle Spaces made me a better reader and Osvaldo Oyola made me a better writer. His writing on the site showed me what public facing scholarship in comics studies—at its very best—could look like, and his edits and feedback on my contributions guided me towards some of my best work. I have been privileged to not only read and contribute to the site but also teach Osvaldo’s work, and my students were privileged to have him guest lecture and answer questions about it. I am grateful that The Middle Spaces will continue as an archive from which to read and teach, and I will always be grateful for having entered the field at a time when Osvaldo was working in it.

– Adrienne Resha, Doctoral Student in the American Studies program at the College of William & Mary.

 

When I first began writing about comics about a decade ago, I was looking for online spaces in comics criticism that I could identify with. At the time, I found the tone of most outlets to be either slavishly fanboy or condescendingly elitist, especially when it came to discussing superhero comics. Then I found Osvaldo’s writing on The Middle Spaces: a thoughtful, critical voice, who clearly loved comics, even as he analyzed their biases and undercurrents. Osvaldo’s insight into identity, into the racial, sexual, and gender politics of superhero comics made me feel like there were people out there in the comics discourse worth engaging with. To have gotten to publish a piece on The Middle Spaces and work with him as an editor was a genuine highlight of my time in comics studies, and I feel lucky and thankful for the opportunity.

– Dr. Keith Friedlander, Communications Instructor, Werklund School of Agriculture Technology, Olds College


And with that, the door closes and the key is slipped under the mat. Here’s wishing everyone reading a happy and productive 2023 and beyond!

 

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