Rise of the Irregulars: The Radical Potential of Fantasy from Jerry Cornelius to Downloadable Characters

Mark P. Williams

Between populist fictions and avant-garde experiment there are a series of hinterlands of stylistic and conceptual excess where the two meet and interact.  I argue that these liminal spaces mirror both the linkages and critique of globalisation, and they also give us something more than that.

Michael Moorcock is one of the most prolific British writers of his generation, with an oeuvre spanning more than eighty books of fantasy, adventure, crime caper, science fiction, literary novels, historical novels, and other, more avant-garde forms.  Moorcock developed a multiverse in part for populist reasons, to link together his different short fantasy novels and give his regular readers something more to connect with.  Honing his writing as a pulp novelist gave him a particular perspective on the relation between imagination, politics and economics, and his use of the multiverse reflects that in a number of ways.

Multiverses have a complex theoretical and philosophical history which is not always relevant for fictional multiverses; fictional multiverses come from the demands of economic reproduction of similar stories or from the aesthetic desire to play with form.  It is important to note that a multiverse exceeds narrative constraint by definition even as it uses it; as fiction, multiverses develop from sequels and continuity into extremes of complexity where the same characters can exist in multiple, non-congruent timelines and sometimes different epistemological relationships with their universe (magic-science etc.).   Moorcock’s various fantasy heroes, Elric, Corum, Ulrich von Bek, and the Eternal Champion, are all caught in discrete fantasy universes which are themselves embedded in an overarching struggle between the forces of Law and Chaos to dominate the multiverse.  The multiverse itself is always something Other.  One of Moorcock’s later novels, Fabulous Harbours, describes his multiverse in metaphysical language:

Elric saw worlds in the shapes of trees, galaxies like flowers, star systems which had grown together root and branch, so tangled that they had become one huge, irregular planet; universes which were steely oceans; universes of unstable fire; universes of desolation and cold evil; universes of pulsing colour whose beings passed through flames to take benign and holy shapes; universes of gods and angels and devils; universes of vital tranquillity.

(Moorcock, Fabulous Harbours, p. 68)

Moorcock’s conception of the multiverse here is deliberately distanced, couched in a nested narrative structure; he strategically avoids giving a totalising schema of his multiverse which might impose meta-rules.  Instead, every fiction of Moorcock’s multiverse tends toward rewriting or reinterpreting the rules of the multiverse from a specific perspective.

Possibly the most significant development in Moorcock’s multiverse was the creation of Jerry Cornelius, a character who embodies the contrary demands of the multiverse within a single figure.  The first Cornelius novel, The Final Programme, owes its plot to the first adventures of Elric of Melniboné, specifically the story ‘Stormbringer’: Elric’s invasion and sacking of his home city of Imyryr to liberate his cousin Cymoril from her brother Yyrkoon’s sorcery.  This is replayed in The Final Programme as Jerry Cornelius attempting to liberate his sister Catherine from the family estate where his brother Frank has their sister drugged.  Each subsequent Cornelius novel is both a continuation and a re-writing of The Final Programme; Moorcock’s collected Cornelius Quartet has an appendix which makes this clear:

‘What’s the hour?’ The black-bearded man wrenched off his gilded helmet and flung it from him, careless of where it fell.  ‘We need Elric—we know it, and he knows it.  That’s the truth.’

‘Such confidence, gentlemen, is warming to the heart.’

The Stealer of Souls, 1963


‘Without Jerry Cornelius we’ll never get it.  We need him.  That’s the truth.’

‘I’m pleased to hear it.’  Jerry’s voice was sardonic as he entered the room rather theatrically and closed the door behind him.

The Final Programme, 1968.

(Moorcock, Appendix II from The Cornelius Quartet, p. 854.  )

Each narrative, then, concerns a different Cornelius but also constitutes a different Cornelius according to the new ‘rules’ or definitions of the moment (which can make them very dense and unusual reading experiences). Moorcock links his Cornelius fictions explicitly to the Commedia dell’Arte: Jerry Cornelius is a manifold character ‘combining the endearing and enduring traits of a number of my contemporaries as well as being a latter day Pierrot, Columbine, and Harlequin’ (Lives and Times, vii).

Jerry Cornelius is very similar to an anti-novel character: ambivalent and ambiguous, sometimes just barely heroic, occasionally utterly selfish or totally bemused (or delusional), frequently detached and generally dilettante, he acts out contrary positions in every story and novel he appears in.  In this way Jerry appears to be the ironic paradigmatic form of ‘character’ for the multiverse.  Moorcock extended this principle by allowing fellow New Worlds SF writers such as Norman Spinrad, M. John Harrison, Barrington Bayley and Charles Partington to use Jerry Cornelius in their own multiversal variations.  These borrowings have continued: variations of Jerry Cornelius have been employed by John Shirley for ‘In the Cornelius Arms’ (Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories, 1999); by Carter Kaplan in Tally Ho, Cornelius! (2008); and by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 (2011) (he and Catherine Cornelius also appear as children in the metafictional League narrative Black Dossier (2007)); while Hal Duncan’s Book of All Hours also features masques from the Commedia dell’Arte set in the ambivalent landscape of the Hinter and alludes to Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius (and Alan Moore’s John Constantine) in some of the nested narratives of his character Jack Carter.

In other words, Jerry Cornelius became a multiverse crossover character, and in that he has since been followed by a vast array of monsters, demons, superheroes and demigods across film, television, computer games and comic books (and a surprising number of more mundane, Realist characters).  A version of Jerry, Jeremiah ‘Ironface’ Cornelius, even crosses over with the Doctor in Moorcock’s own Doctor Who novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles (2010), which firmly lodges the TARDIS and the last Timelord of Gallifrey within Moorcock’s multiverse, via his Corsairs of the Second Ether narratives (see Blood: A Southern Fantasy, Fabulous Harbours, and The War Amongst the Angels).  Jerry Cornelius is also related, in method and fictioneering, to David Britton’s infamous Lord Horror and Meng & Ecker fictions, which Moorcock continually refers to intertextually both through his own Cornelius fictions, such as Modem Times (2011), and in other multiverse narratives like Fabulous Harbours, in The Coming of the Terraphiles, and even realist novels like Jerusalem Commands.

Jerry Cornelius is what I will term an A-geneous figure; although he possesses opposing characteristics depending on the formal framework of the narrative in which he appears, he is not fully heterogeneous because he is recognisable and distinctive; however, he is never entirely homogeneous because each fiction he appears in will give him different characteristics and contexts.   Multiverses create and leave spaces for A-geneous figures to emerge within Fantasy fictions.  Once a Fantasy world becomes a multiverse it invites extension and expansion; any distinctive character within a multiverse can potentially become an A-geneous figure.  What links Moorcock’s politically critical fictions with commodified fantasy narratives is the drive towards multiverses which turns recognised characters into A-geneous figures.

Multiverses and Crossovers

Multiverses seem to fulfil all the possible demands of commodity: always the same, always different, endless. But multiverses go further; they practically demand crossovers and endless proliferation outside of the profit margin as well as inside it.

Fantasy commodification requires that, in order to sell the fantastic, i.e. to encourage people to take it up, adding it to our collective and individual imaginary, it must be offered as something wild and free (free to play with, free to imagine) while also maintaining certain rigid controls over its use (branding, intellectual property etc.).  Commodified fantasy fictions are simultaneously and contrarily subject to tremendous potential liberation, literally intended to be played with by children and adults, while also being subject to high degrees of control and limitation, sales, marketing, licensing agreements, and so on.  It is inevitable that they wear these contrary roles visibly to some extent; it will always be there to be critically illuminated, but when it is mobilised by the fiction it becomes something quite different.  I argue that increased consciousness of this status within the fictions transforms fantasy into something liminal, something more avant-garde, and that the creation of multiverses creates that potential.  Multiverse fictions draw on the quality which Mark Bould calls ‘the fantasy of fantasy’ which enable them to offer a particularly strong critical consciousness of the commodity form.   What brings this point of crisis to the fore is an aspect of one of the most populist formulations of fiction which I believe actually brings us to the core of all cultural interactions: crossover fictions.

A spatial metaphor is perhaps the clearest way of conceptualising how they initiate the crisis.  Crossovers exist at an interstitial plane of their own making, distinct from the planes of the two or more fictions which they cross to form their fiction.  This third plane is necessarily not reducible to its component planes because it formulates an entirely new set of liminal rules that will allow the otherwise discrete universes (with their own separate rules) to interact.

Jess Nevins is an authority on the history of popular and populist fiction, ranging from penny dreadfuls and Eddisonades to comic books.  He has provided important guides to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s increasingly radical crossover series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and has written a very useful ‘Brief History of the Crossover’ which will help to conceptualise the interstitial quality of the fantastic which it exemplifies.  Nevins’s brief history shows the crossover as a mode which is historically wedded to both the mythic and pastiche.  The contemporary literary crossover is linked to the form Matt Hills terms ‘Counterfictions’, fictions which rewrite original texts to suggest or uncover alternative, critical relationships with latent content—Hills uses the example of Kim Newman’s various revisions of Jekyll and Hyde and his Anno Dracula universe.  Although Newman obviously draws on Philip Jose Farmer’s ‘Wold Newton‘ family, the development of his own fictional universe(s) is distinct in its own right—some of Newman’s recurring characters have fully developed origins in Games Workshop novelizations for the Dark Future and Warhammer universes, such as Geneviève Dieudonné, whose alternate versions he calls ‘trans-continual cousins’ rather than crossovers, but multiverses invite both forms of interaction.

Crossovers can of course, potentially happen between any fictions whatsoever, but not without risking the charismatic authority of the text to present its umwelt persuasively to the audience; each crossover puts at stake the perceived ‘reality’ of the text, or at least the grounds of its acceptance, and is a gamble with the good faith of the audience.  More (ostensibly) ‘Realist’ fictions must find ‘plausible’ reasons for crossovers which satisfy the expectations their audience—however, I argue that even in so doing they reveal the structural underpinnings of fiction-as-fantasy which can serve either market forces or imaginary communities equally well.  The justifications for Superman encountering the Giger-Scott-Cameron Alien xenomorphs (or Superman and Batman versus Aliens and Predator) reveal the same nexus as crossovers between Millennium and X-Files: the contest of audience desire and market desire.

The reasons for crossovers may be multiple and they may make little sense within their respective fictional planes, which may require formal compromise, but because they involve the meeting of fictions created by different people and owned by different estates and companies, they sometimes necessitate the creation of a legal universe of their own which can also, in its own way, be thought of as distinct: a joint license for publishing different properties.  In the process of creating these legal and fictive planes, they also open up another set of planes which contain the germ of the essence of the fantastic as liberation: the possibility of creating an imaginative medium where any conceivable character can meet absolutely any other without limitation.  In this way, crossovers are, simultaneously, closest to being pure expressions of commodification, and yet also indicative of the value of the irreducible core of the fantastic in all our cultural relationships.  They are synecdoche of the capacity of fantasy (as both a function of the imagination and as a narrative form) to link any one thing with any other thing in defiance of any and all rules or epistemological determinations.  The epistemological groundings of charismatic authority and the legal groundings of contrary properties come together at their most overdetermined; crossovers are thus a contest of a highly regulated version of the imaginary as a shared plane with the desire for a highly fluid, unregulated imaginary space—Fantasy as commodity form and fantasy as unfettered expression of speculative imagination, also crossover.

Geoff Klock has explored the narrative consequences of crossovers in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.  He analyses the Wild C.A.T.s-Aliens crossover by Warren Ellis (Klock, 123).  In this crossover, several of the major characters die and Klock argues that Ellis has used the crossover to create a site of unrepresentable trauma by playing on the relationship of crossovers to intellectual property law: when the characters return to their own series, copyright law prevents those narratives from naming, alluding to or showing the circumstances of the characters’ deaths (Klock: 147).  Also, as Klock points out, the reader who avoids cross-over narratives because of their typically non-canonical nature (their parallel plane of existence, separate from the main continuity) would find that they had missed out on a unique, unrepeatable event which would have consequences for the continuity of the series.  Although the series found a solution, the presence of the problem in the first place indicated how Fantasy could serve and problematize the interests of commodity within the same narrative.

Potentially, all non-linear multiversal narratives play out this same problem for their writers and author functions: multiple versions of the same narrative serve sales on the one hand but also cause problems for controlling narrative expectation in a form which has already opened itself up to potential proliferation beyond limitation.

One of Ellis’s major series, Planetary is an explicit speculation of the consequences of multiverses akin to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary GentlemenPlanetary is distinctive in its construction of a world where superheroes and other fantastic creatures from other popular modes interact; the team in Planetary perform cultural archaeology on the remnants left over from these interactions, ranging from excavating the bones of daikaiju to confronting Count Dracula.  Planetary also crosses over with Ellis’s two other series, Stormwatch and its spin-off The Authority, and with other superhero fictions.  In a great synthesis of the essential details of the Batman narrative the Planetary team encounter someone who can twist through alternate universes and chase him into an alley in Gotham City.  The result is a series of (re)encounters with every major permutation of Batman, ranging between the 1940s version where Batman briefly wielded a gun, to the camp 1960s TV version played by Adam West, and the brutish-looking 1980s version written by Frank Miller, and beyond, revealing the contrariness of multiverse narratives regarding characterisation and values—reminding the Batman reader in the process that Batman’s values have varied significantly since 1940 and that multiverses implicitly undo certainties of characterisation by leaving possibilities perpetually open.  Parody and pastiche are common to alternate variation narratives but other perspectives on existing characters have been offered through distinctive alternate variations such as Mark Millar’s Red Son.  Having a multiverse framework means that parody and pastiche variants can always be brought into contact with their ostensible ‘originals’.

::::: Planetary meet Batman ::::: Batman meets Judge Dredd ::::: Judge Dredd meets Predator ::::: Predator meets Aliens ::::: Aliens meet Wild C.A.Ts ::::: The Authority meet Planetary :::::

There are obviously many fan sites which have noted the development of crossovers, from the more unlikely juxtapositions, to the connections between specific characters, which might vary from Spawn and Batman, to Pinhead and Marshal Law, fights between famous monsters such as Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees or larger intercompany crossovers between major comic book publishers. Such crossovers sometimes result in distinctive narrative fusions of their own, as in the Marvel/DC crossover which resulted in the Amalgam Age, and have also been employed for specific narrative purposes.  Doctor Who has crossed over into the Star Trek universe to help Jean Luc Picard fend off an alliance of Cybermen and the Borg, while the Avengers and Transformers have also crossed over.  DC Comics characters like Batman have also had interaction with fighting game Fantasy fictions like the Mortal Kombat universe, and Marvel heroes such as the X-Men and Avengers have fought characters from Capcom games like Street Fighter in Marvel vs Capcom series. The Street Fighter characters have, in turn also crossed over with characters from Namco’s Tekken—as a consequence, key characters, Ryu and Akuma crossover with Asura’s Wrath as wandering warriors entering Asura’s epic narrative in a downloadable bonus scenario.  IGN’s brief review of DC Universe versus Mortal Kombat gives a flavour of the audience tensions involved in the reception of such crossovers, acknowledging both the essential gimmick (commodity-supportive) aspect of the game and also the fan desire to see these fantasy figures meet and interact (fantasy as desire), as well as mentioning some of the obvious narrative shortcomings caused by attempting to fuse two completely un-like Fantasy narratives.

The phenomenon of Downloadable Characters (DLCs) means that the closed narrative worlds of Beat-em-up games are now published with an opening for future additional inserts from completely external fantasy worlds, as many as software and the company’s legal teams can comfortably accommodate.  This is particularly striking where characters from independently popular fantasy franchises appear in seemingly incompatible Fantasy universes, as in Mortal Kombat 9 where Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films and Kratos from the God Of War games both appear as DLCs; their strange powers and idiosyncratic narratives are reformulated as close-, medium- and long-range Special Moves and signature Fatalities.  In Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, the fusion of Darkseid and Shao Kahn into Dark Kahn which creates the meeting of their discrete universes is something very similar to the characters created by the Amalgam Age of Comics; it is similarly outside ‘Continuity’ but implicitly present in the idea that these fictions, by their form, necessarily occupy non-linear multiverse narratives.  Mortal Kombat 9 uses the device of Raiden’s attempts to prevent a tragic alternate future to drive its primary plot, a concept which rationalises the multiversal appearance of DLCs such as Freddy Krueger and Kratos.






Similarly, the advent of Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) where thousands of people share a common online fantasy world, inventing characters of their own based on templates and structures have further opened out the narrative range of fantasy gaming.  There are many studies about the specific social character of such gaming environments; my primary interest is to consider the relationship between fantasy narratives, Fantasy fictions, and fantasy as a faculty which these developments highlight.  I argue that they are some of the clearest and most direct evidence of the agonistic core of Fantasy.  These supremely commodified, and corporately controlled and determined games, designed purely for entertainment, seemingly the pinnacle of ‘escapism’, also serve to highlight the irreducibly undecidable core of the fantastic: Fantasy means anything can interact with anything.  DLCs and MMOs depend upon the same characteristics as Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: fantasy, whatever else it is doing, is always simultaneously concerned with creating a plane where anyone can interact with anyone else.

::::: Hellraiser’s “Pinhead” Cenobite meets the Nightbreed ::::: Pinhead meets Marshal Law ::::: the Mask meets Marshal Law ::::: The Joker meets the Mask ::::: Mortal Kombat meets DC Universe ::::: Freddy Kruger meets Mortal Kombat ::::: Jason Vorhees meets Freddy Kruger ::::: Jason and Freddy meet Ash Williams and the Army of Darkness ::::: Army of Darkness meets Marvel Zombies :::::

The commercial spread of multiverse fictions tends to make established characters into A-geneous figures, making them all—from Scorpion and Sub Zero to Batman and Freddy—just that little bit more like Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius: ironic and ambivalent. It opens up space for doubt and uncertainty about character function which must then be policed, restricted and, if possible, returned to (monoversal) normal.

The circularity and non-linearity of superhero comic books, the increasing multi-linearity of role playing games with the advent of MMO scenarios, the selective interaction of novelisations with film and television creating sub-continuities with the primary narrative, and avant-garde subversions of narrative and character, all act together in this regard to push the audience (gamer-viewer-reader—often all three together) to become increasingly aware of the tensions between imagination and commodity in the creation of Fantasy fictions.  Now this is, for the most part, not presented from a radical perspective, but by the nature of a multiverse always leaves open the possibility regardless of how stringently its boundaries are subsequently policed and regulated.  The corporate side of the equation survives on the same impulses as the discourses which would antagonise it.

The gateway to the multiverse, the interstitial zone of uncertainty and unpredictability within Fantasy, is right there at the heart of commodified fantasy fictions, just as much as it is in the most radical, avant-gardist and experimental.  Multiverse narratives form a postmodern rewrite of the story of Pandora: multiverses allow exploitations of the faculty of the imagination in seemingly endless iteration, but they also stay insistently, boundary-perforatingly open, and in so doing, they release hope for a radical future.


Bould, Mark, ‘The Dreadful Credibility of Absurd Things: A Tendency in Fantasy Theory’ (pp. 51 – 88) in China Miéville (ed.) Historical Materialism (2002) 10:4.

—, ‘What Kind of Monster Are You?, Situating the Boom’ (pp. 394 – 413) Science Fiction Studies #91, vol. 30, pt. 3 (Nov, 2003).

Coogan, Peter, Superheroes: The Secret Origins of a Genre (Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain Books, 2006).

Harrison, M. John, ‘The Ash Circus’ (pp. 42—58) and ‘The Nash Circuit’ (pp. 110—35)[1969] from The New Nature of the Catastropheed. by Langdon Jones and Michael Moorcock (London: Millennium, 1997).

Kaveney, Roz, Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Film (London: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2007).

Klock, Geoff, How to Read Superheroes and Why (London: Continuum, 2002).

Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2008).

—, and James, Edward, A Short History of Fantasy (London: Middlesex University, 2009).

Miéville, China, ‘Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory’ (pp. 231 – 48) from Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction eds Mark Bould and China Miéville (London: Pluto Press, 2009).

Moorcock, Michael, Earl Aubec and other stories (London: Orion Books, 1993).

—, Stormbringer (London: Mayflower Books, 1968).

—, Elric at the End of Time (London: Panther, 1985).

—, Elric of Melniboné [Elric Omnibus] (London: Orion Books, 1993).

—, Fabulous Harbours (London: Orion, 1995).

—, Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse illus. Walter Simonson, ed. Julie Rottenberg and Stuart Moore (New York: DC Comics, 1999).

—, ‘New Worlds—Jerry Cornelius’ in Elric at the End of Time (London: Panther, 1985).

—, The Cornelius Quartet (New York and London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001).

—,The Dreamthief’s Daughter (London: Simon & Schuster, 2001).

—, The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius (London and New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003).

—, The New Nature of the Catastrophe ed. by Langdon Jones and Michael Moorcock (London: Orion, 1997).

—, War Amongst the Angels (London: Millennium/Orion Books, 1997).

Spinrad, Norman ‘The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde’ [1969] from The New Nature of the Catastrophe ed. by Langdon Jones and Michael Moorcock (London: Millennium, 1997).

Williams, Mark P.,  “Alternative Fictioneers,” Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 June 2012.

—,  “Insurgent Subcultures: Fictions of Resistance,” Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 7 (2012): n. pag. Web. 9 December 2012

—, ‘The Superheated, Superdense Prose of David Conway: Gender and Subjectivity Beyond The Starry Wisdom‘ (133-48) Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010 eds Sara Wasson and Emily Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011)

Photo_WilliamsMark P. Williams is an academic specializing in contemporary literature and politics. His primary research analyses science fiction and fantasy’s intersection with avant-garde writing following the “New Wave”, including the genesis and development of the “New Weird”. He gained his PhD from the University of East Anglia (UK) in 2011 with a thesis entitled ‘Radical Fantasy: A Study of Left Radical Politics in the Fantasy Writing of Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and China Miéville’.

Forthcoming publications include contributions to Bloomsbury’s Decades Series collections on contemporary fiction, and chapters in China Miéville: Critical Essays, and The Joker Book: Critical Essays on the Clown Prince of Crime.

Profile: http://independent.academia.edu/MarkPWilliams