Jonathan Lukens / March 10, 2020
In 1985, the first issue of an unusual new title hit the shelves of North American comic book stores. Part of Marvel Comics’ short-lived creator-owned imprint Epic, Rick Veitch’s The One stood out because its cover was an obvious visual reference to the red, orange, and yellow concentric circles of Tide laundry detergent’s branding. Throughout the pages of the first issue and those that followed, it became clear that those garish circles were meant to evoke the presence of an otherworldly energy emanating from The One—a savior figure and super heroic manifestation of humanity’s collective potential that is unleashed by the massive psychic shock of an imminent nuclear exchange.
The first issue opens with a reproduction of a newspaper clipping from March 14, 1984 that details the opinions of one Dr. Derrick de Kerckhove, then acting director of the Marshal McLuhan program in culture and technology at the University of Toronto. Dr. Kerckhove explains the benefits of nuclear weaponry, referring to the bomb as “something to bring us together.” Thirty-six years later, with a 2018 hardcover reprint of all five issues in front of me, I found myself questioning the veracity of the clipping: was it some conceit Veitch was using to establish the emergent consciousness of his oblique protagonist? A web search confirmed the existence of Dr. Kerckhove, and led me to a 1984 New York Times article that summarized his thesis: nuclear weapons, and the attendant possibility of the annihilation of our species, “binds people together in a way they have not been linked since the Middle Ages, albeit on the brink of collective suicide.”
Like a tripping Herman Kahn, or some Fellowship of Holy Fallout choir via Rand report, the origin of The One (both the character and the title) is drawn from this proto-accelerationist rhetoric. Presented throughout the series as a creation of cooperative and convivial aspects of human nature and manifesting itself (ourselves?) as both a black spandex-suited male figure and an aged man in a purple shirt and green and black windowpane-checked blazer, The One first appears in the moments just prior to the impact of nuclear missiles in a potentially world ending exchange between the Soviet Union and United States. Flying through the sky radiating an aura of weird magnetism, referencing the so-obvious-maybe-no-one-ever-noticed visual similarities between psychedelic art and detergent branding, The One drains the destructive energy of the incoming Soviet missiles. Mutually assured destruction is derailed by the awakening collective consciousness of this super-powered gestalt entity reminiscent of the Eternal Uni-Mind.
Subsequent super heroic action is punctuated by a series of recurring panels in which individual characters face the camera and explain events after the fact. Here, it is revealed that The One isn’t just a first wave example of the postmodern graphic novel that brought us Watchmen (1986-1987) and The Dark Knight Returns (1986). And it isn’t just a book about superheroes with moral ambiguities set in a universe with greater verisimilitude. Rather, The One is a work of eschatology that combines gonzo satire with superhero tropes to detail a dualistic cosmology, an immemorial struggle between The One and The Other, the latter a manifestation of selfishness and avarice. The Other functions as a stand-in for the allegedly basal desires exploited by consumerism. This critique is also evident in subsequent covers that continue in the vein of the first: a U.S. one dollar bill, a pocket calculator screen, a Coca Cola can, J.M. Flagg’s “I Want You” Army recruitment poster, and a McDonald’s Big Mac. (The subversion of corporate logos, products, and slogans by independent and underground artists became an ongoing “ironic commentary” in the decade that followed.)
The Other speaks through the character of Jay-hole, a shirtless and mulleted junky who explains: “Tribes! Armies! Governments! My master bore them all! […] His name is the other and he’s come back to collect the rent. […] He’s in competition with The One for total mastery over the human race.”
During its first manifestation, The One’s constituent members are rendered unconscious. Evoking the Christian rapture, and referencing the 1939 Raymond Chandler novel, they fall into what the characters refer to as “the big sleep.” At first, they are thought dead by those who remain “awake,” but as the series progresses the distinction between The One and the many is blurred. Jay-hole shares an apartment with his lover, Egypt, a pink and white-haired artist with skull earrings; her young son Larry; Jay-hole’s father, Doc Benway; and Benway’s girlfriend Guda. Much of the story involves Egypt’s potential corruption through Jay-hole and redemption via an association between Larry and The One.
This abortive Third World War as origin story was initiated by a character called Itchy Itch. A chain-smoking, bath-robed Bond villain, Itch is a defense contractor who has sold backdoor enabled computer systems to the United States and Soviet Navies. Itch uses this malicious firmware to manipulate the leaders of both countries: a cigar-chomping analog of Ronald Reagan (president McKenzie) and a Soviet premier (Kubalov) resembling Leonid Brezhnev, who speaks through a non-indwelling voice prosthesis. Drawing them into what he believes will be a survivable military confrontation, Itch plans on benefiting from the ensuing chaos. His investments, Itch explains, “have been strategically placed to capitalize upon the reckless errors others will make under pressure.”
However, while Itch’s Lex Luthor-like plans are successful, the emergence of The One is unanticipated. A new arms race begins, as the United States and Soviet Union call upon top secret super soldier programs. It is important to note that all of these “super heroes” are grotesques: on the Soviet side, the vamp and femme fatale Dr. Vera Pavlova borrows the forgotten Nazi endocrinological methods that produced Übermaus—a kaiju like giant rat—to create the caped superhuman Comrade Bog. Bog deploys his heightened strength, stamina, and gluttonous appetite against the Yankees while pontificating about the benefits of socialized medicine and the inadequacies of state-capitalist economies.
On the United States’ side, the super powered Charlie and Amelia have been brainwashed, somewhat like Marvelman’s Michael Moran, to believe they are earnest Midwestern siblings—an attempt to keep them from reproducing. Clad in the uniform of the 1984 US Olympic gymnastics team, and later revealed to be scientifically enhanced super-clones of Randian heros Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart, they struggle with desires for each other that they believe to be incestuous. Charles attacks Moscow, though he is seduced by Dr. Pavlova in a cringe-worthy scene in which unclear consent seems to be played for laughs. Meanwhile, Bog and Amelia proceed to battle in New York City, while The One and The Other compete for the souls of humanity.
This new superhuman arms race, and the “superior war,” allow Veitch to satire the “fallacy of the last move” explained in H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (1988) as
the addictive, ever-unfulfilled expectation that each new exotic weapon created for our ‘defense’ would confer upon the United States permanent military superiority and invulnerable ‘security.’ Underlying this is another fallacy, also nourished in some science fiction, that science and technology are products of lone wizards such as Thomas Edison, or brilliant research teams, or national genius. This fallacy binds policymakers to the fact that since the United States and Soviet Union are at roughly equivalent stages of science and technology, and new weapons produced by one can soon be matched by the other, thus bringing about not supremacy for either but increased danger for both.
The series ends with The Other constructing a human pyramid—though an ambulatory one that responds to its commands—out of those who remain chained to their fears and desires, while “the ones” who comprise The One are revealed to occupy a sort of idyllic virtual space encapsulated within the material form of The One. Reminiscent of the soul world pocket dimension folded into the gem in Adam Warlock’s head, the One’s members frolic naked in a pastoral landscape complete with a reunited Beagles (yes, that’s spelled correctly) playing “mellow submarine.” The One, as a single material body, leaves earth to enter the “vastness of interstellar space,” with “a billion hearts and souls fueling his magnetic field.”
Perhaps put more succinctly by Doc Benway in one of the last issue’s final panels: “The nightmare of a nuclear confrontation had started a catharsis, and the superior war had finished it. Thus mankind unconsciously short-circuited evolution itself–and somehow lived to tell the tale… Some of us did anyway. And not only were we flying about in space as The One but we were still alive, somewhere, just like we used to be. Only happier. Much happier!”
This is a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution—as if the process is a historical movement toward some sort of pre-determined state of optimality instead of the ad-hoc accretion of adaptations that were proven advantageous after the fact of their instantiation. However, this misunderstanding underlines the modernist assumptions in what we may consider to be one of the first of the so-called postmodern comics: that time involves “progress” toward something specific, that history has a point. Perhaps it is easier to imagine a Beatles-referencing magnetic-field rapture in the ashes of civilizations destroyed by superheroes than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
The One presents a benevolent mass mind triumphing through a sort of collectivized actualization. I’m reminded of the techno-positivist utopian rhetoric surrounding the early internet, as if all of those humans who had “short-circuited evolution itself” were traversing interstellar space in a giant humanoid craft, all plugged in to a VR Beatles concert to pass the time. The problem is that that collectivized actualization, that end of history, just seems boring and anticlimactic. Would I have enjoyed more catharsis if all of humanity had perished?
Rick Veitch would go on to work with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, eventually taking over writing duties as well. After DC refused to publish a finished story of his in which Swamp Thing met Jesus Christ, Veitch turned to independent and self-published work. There, he continued to work with some of the concepts first sketched in The One. Titles like Maximortal and Brat Pack extended his deconstruction of the superhero, while his dream log, Rare Bit Fiends, addressed the anima mundi we see in The One’s gestalt form. In his afterward to the 2018 edition, Veitch writes, “It is not difficult to imagine that as capitalism takes its victory lap, the true ‘end of history’ is imminent. If there is any slim hope I cling to it is the same one that inspired this book back in 1985: that the current existential stresses placed on us by the situation we’ve put ourselves in will fundamentally transform the human race.”
Though the idea of a bucolic nudist countryside of mass-mind at the end of history leaves me even colder now than it did when The One was first published, we can’t fault Veitch for offering us something expected. In fact, my motivation to seek out a copy of something I vaguely remembered buying back in 1985 wasn’t because of the story or characters. It was because The One was jarring enough to my eleven-year-old self that it stuck with me. Though at times it seemed to As You Know and jump-cut, The One stood out because of its ambition and the weirdness it offered: in the era of Top Gun and Rambo, of American Anthem and Rush’n Attack, things like a giant Nazi rat eating Washington, and human faces peeling off to reveal orange and yellow pop-art radiation, offered something that freaked me out in a different way than the mechanical appendages and mutagenic ooze that were my usual fare. Dr. Strangelove met Dr. Strange. The One offered up a satirical end of both history and the superhero, and tried to offer some transcendent hope in a world that seemed to be on the precipice of annihilation.
Jonathan Lukens is a cultural worker from Atlanta. His work has been shown at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, played through omnifarious speakers, and published in The Atlantic, Design Issues, and The International Journal of Design in Society.