Heavy Meta: The Timeless, Twisty Appeal of Comics Within Comics

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Heavy Meta: The Timeless, Twisty Appeal of Comics Within Comics

Comics are great. What could be better than comics?

Comics within comics, duh.

The sequential art version of the play within a play is a reliable, versatile trope that does a lot more than let the creators and readers feel clever—it’s a vehicle for the minute and cosmic.

On an intimate scale, a comic book character reading a comic creates instant relatability. On the macro side, comics within comics can allude to a web of multiverses including the reader (and, at times, Captain Carrot). Such comics are also prime vehicles for creators to comment on the comics industry. And like a Russian nesting doll, these meta-marvels are just plain fun. In the list below, we comment on the most notable examples of the paneled Matryoshka.

Mark Peters is the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon. Follow him on Twitter.

Captain America


Writer: Mark Waid
Artists: Dale Eaglesham, Jack Kirby
Publisher: Marvel Comics

During the time when Captain America was dead (sort of) and Bucky held the shield, Ed Brubaker and various writers and artists had a chance to show the impact of Cap on the world through his absence. In "The Persistence of Memorabilia" by Mark Waid and Dale Eaglesham, Cap-related items are auctioned, including two full, black and white pages of Cap art drawn by Steve Rogers himself. Fittingly, the pages were actually illustrated by Cap co-creator and fellow war hero Jack Kirby.

Criminal


Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Publisher: Marvel Icon, Image Comics

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' classic noir series would seem to be the least likely setting for comics within comics, but a meta element was present from the start. While early issues feature comic strip Frank Kafka, recent one-offs go much further. In Deadly Hands of Criminal, young Tracy Lawless is stuck in childhood hell, trapped on a felonious road trip with his sleazy, career-criminal dad with few chances to be a regular kid. One of those escapes is the comic Deadly Hands, which the audience gets to read alongside Tracy. The adventures of Fang the Kung Fu Werewolf could take anyone's mind off their troubles.

Flex Mentallo


Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely
Publisher: Vertigo/DC Comics

This Charles Atlas-type strongman debuted in Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, but the ultimate story of the uber-muscled, ultra-hairy, mega-noble Flex was a four-issue mini-series written by Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely. As the earnest muscleman struggles to understand how characters from comic books are appearing in reality, a maudlin junkie attempts suicide. Morrison eventually reveals a staggering truth: our world is a fiction, and our superhero stories are remnants of the real world we're trying to remember and recreate. That summary in no way does justice to this hopeful, twisty story told via what might be Quitely's best art, which is saying something.

The Flash


Writer: Robert Kanigher
Artist: Carmine Infantino
Publisher: DC Comics

Watchmen's pirate yarn may be the most famous comic within a comic, but this example might be the most consequential. When Barry Allen gets doused with lightning-infused chemicals in 1956 and gains super-speed, he doesn't have to brainstorm long to find a name: he just takes the name of his favorite comic book character, the Golden- Age Flash Jay Garrick. This development set the stage for the two Flashes to eventually meet, seeding the idea of comics as windows into the multiverse.

Invincible


Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artists: Cory Walker, Ryan Ottley
Publisher: Skybound/Image Comics

In possibly the best creator-owned superhero comic ever, which is sadly entering its finally arc soon, Robert Kirkman and artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley have addressed every aspect of superhero mythology, including comics within comics. Titular hero Mark Grayson is a big comics fan, particularly of Science Dog, and Grayson's occasional trips to the comic store allow Kirkman to poke fun at shop culture, fans, other creators and himself. Science Dog came to life in Invincible #25, as the disguise of an insectoid race who needed Mark's help and thought Science Dog would fill Invincible with comfort rather than panic. Oops.

Multiversity


Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Doug Mahnke
Publisher: DC Comics

In this recent universe-hopping series, writer Grant Morrison explored DC's multiverse deeper than any writer before him, dissecting a different parallel cosmos in each issue. The connecting glue? Comic books: each universe exists as a comic book in the other universes. A highlight from the saga was Ultra Comics, in which the cosmic parasitical group, The Gentry, attacks the reader directly, highlighting the infectious nature of all stories.

Supreme


Writer: Alan Moore
Artists: Chris Sprouse, Rick Veitch
Publisher: Awesome Entertainment

Supreme started as a terrible Superman analogue in the 1990s. Then Alan Moore got his mitts on him. During Moore's two-year run, Supreme became a loving tribute to Silver Age Superman, but Moore found time to include some meta hijinks. Clark Kent analogue Ethan Cranen is a comic book artist who draws Omniman, an analogue of Supreme. In issue 53, Supreme gets in a fight with his own analogue Omniman, thanks to the cosmic machinations of Supreme's Mister Mxyzptlk analogue: Szazs, the Sprite Supreme. To discover how to defeat Szazs, Supreme must read the very issue he's trapped in, skipping to the final pages ahead of the readers. Sigh. If only all problems could be solved that way.

Watchmen


Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Publisher: DC Comics

The most critically slurped comic—excuse me, graphic novel—also offers one of the most effective examples of comics within comics, even if you keep skipping those pirate pages every time you reread. Not to sound like your mother, but you shouldn't. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used the pirate adventure Tales of the Black Freighter to create visual and narrative texture—it's not their fault pirates have become a bit of a joke, mateys.