The following essay appears on the exhibition blog for What’s In a Meme?, currently on exhibit at the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland until April 26. See the blog post here.
What does a meme look like? We usually think of memes as a visual medium – videos, animated gifs, photographs and illustrations – with the occasional inflection of audible or temporal qualities. They’re tied closely to the idea of consumption. The meme is largely an inanimate thing, waiting to be identified and consumed by its audience.
What would happen if a meme were a corporeal thing? What would an embodied meme look like?
Comic book writer Dwayne McDuffie and penciller Gordon Purcell tried to figure that out in 2000. The two collaborated on a ten-page story, “Communications Error,” that appeared in JLA Showcase 80-Page Giant, the type of shameless money-grab that typified the era immediately after the comic collecting bubble crashed in the late 1990s. The anthology collected seven short stories featuring various combinations of members of the Justice League of America, which at that point included DC Comics luminaries such as Batman and Superman as well as forgettable C-list hacks like Aztek and Zauriel.
McDuffie and Purcell’s contribution, “Communications Error,” features taciturn Atlantean king (and constant punchline) Aquaman and D.C. native, inventor, and representative person-of-color Steel, spending time together in the Watchtower, the JLA’s headquarters on the moon. It’s an odd-couple story: Steel likes technology and surfing the internet, Aquaman is a boring killjoy. Things get exciting when Steel connects the Watchtower to the “interstellar internet” (really) to “gain access to databases from extraterrestrial cultures” (really) except he forgets to enable antivirus protection and accidentally downloads a computer virus (really). That virus? Oblivion Meme, a sentient piece of computer code that wants to bestow the gift of the end of existence.
The choice to identify the malicious code as a meme is an interesting one. It’s not necessary for the story that the villain has to specifically be a meme, and it’s clear that McDuffie and Purcell aren’t clear exactly what a meme is. McDuffie knows Dawkins’s definition of memes, though: in the middle of battle, Steel remembers his college linguistics class in which he learned a meme is a self-replicating “unit of culture,” which apparently looks and operates just like a computer virus. Rather than limit Oblivion Meme to computer screens, Purcell envisions the code as a tentacled mass of futuristic, techno-organic machinery (which looks eerily similar to the futuristic, techno-organic appearance of Marvel’s Warlock, created decades prior).
It’s worth noting that JLA Showcase 80-Page Giant’s cover date is February 2000, which means that it probably hit newsstands in late December 1999. Is the Oblivion Meme a transparent stand-in for the Y2K bug? Probably. Definitely.
Steel and Aquaman battle Oblivion Meme throughout their moon base to no avail, until Aquaman comes up with the ingenious solution of unplugging the interstellar uplink to halt its constant regeneration (really). They finish off the bad guy, clean up the Watchtower, and become friends. Also, Aquaman discovers that he likes pork rinds (really).
“Communications Error” is the awkward product of a generational shift in memes. By the time McDuffie and Purcell collaborated on the story, internet-based phenomena such as Bert is Evil, Hampster Dance, and Dancing Baby had begun to go viral, but there was still a sense of naiveté, as though these were popular media phenomena that just happened to be natively digital, rather than the precursors of a new genre of expression. Nonetheless, in its physical form Oblivion Meme certainly predicts the overwhelming hegemonic nature of internet meme culture. Leeroy Jenkins and Grumpy Cat may not seek to bring us the sweet embrace of eternal death, but they are representative of a pop culture hive mind that has transformed the way modern societies consume, transmit, and generate meaning.
Perhaps Oblivion Meme is a pretty accurate representation of the concept of memes after all.