Monday, November 30, 2015
In Final Crisis, Grant Morrison implicated the reader in the unwitting near-destruction of the multiverse due to our need for tightly-defined comics continuities. In The Multiversity, Morrison takes it a step farther, positing the reader as the ultimate villain responsible for every indignity any hero has ever faced. When Doomsday beats Superman to death or Bane breaks Batman over his knee, the superheroes have you to blame. And now they know it.
[Review contains spoilers]
Multiversity finds Final Crisis's final multiversal Monitor, Nix Uotan, responding to a distress call from Earth-7 (an analog for the Ultimate Marvel universe), where he's turned evil by the villainous Gentry and set against the universes of heroes he's meant to protect. Uotan emerges "having fought and ... suffered for eternity upon eternity. And for what? ... For you ingrates?" As is often his wont, Morrison (in the first chapter, with artist Ivan Reis) turns the camera so Uotan's dialogue is spoken not entirely to the gathered heroes, but also to the audience, and it's clear from the outset we've done something wrong.
And what we've done is threaten the multiverse's greatest heroes with serious harm, if not outright oblivion, no less than four Wednesdays a month, twelve months a year, for seventy years or more. There are the Gentry, ultimately the series's minor villains sent from "our" world to attack the others. There are the "endless event[s]," doomsdays, and crises (moreover, infinite "Crises") that are constantly unleashed on the worlds, "a conclusion that never comes but continues to arrive." And then there is the threat of the Oblivion Machine by way of the evil Empty Hand, "the final chapter of your never-ending story." It is the time in which superhero comics might cease altogether, a possibility that seems sometimes remote and sometimes all too near, and which would require the complacency of every one of us to come to pass. Morrison personifies all of this in Multiversity; the heroes meet their existential threat, and their existential threat is us.
The conceit in Morrison's Multiversity is that each of the seven Multiversity specials published between Multiversity #1 and #2 are both stories in their own right and also comic books that exist in the other titles, even including the Guidebook companion. It all forms a kind of cosmic meta-fictional chain letter across the book, predicated on the idea of Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick's adventures being a comic book on the world of Silver Age Flash Barry Allen in the classic Flash #123, "Flash of Two Worlds!" The heroes come together in Multiversity's first issue in a scene intentionally reminiscent of the same in Crisis on Infinite Earths; that continuity, never fully recovered, is likely the Multiverse-2 that the Empty Hand suggests was previously destroyed, the appending of "2" on an earlier continuity echoing the labeling of the Golden Age Earth "Earth 2."
The Multiversity specials include Ultra Comics, said to be from "our" world, Earth-33, and also variably cursed or haunted. The book is the site of Multiversity's defining idea, that these books are indeed "real" and that all our fiction are indeed missives from other universes, which taken to their extreme can actually be weaponized. It's a nice fantasy that begs to be immediately dismissed, but I can't deny it's stuck in my head a little bit since I finished reading.
When one considers that yes, you hear characters' voices in your head as you read; that yes, you can find yourself humming a song you heard on the radio hours earlier; that yes, letters put together into words and words put together into sentences in black and white on a page can make you laugh or cry, incite anger or promote understanding, then it's not such a stretch to see intent in it all. The artist wants you to feel this way, and you do. That is not mind control from beyond (or is it?), but not for the first time Morrison wraps a lovely treatise on the power of art and fiction into a rock 'em, sock 'em superhero tale.
It's a fine thing to read Multiversity all in one volume, and in this way Morrison's Multiversity improves on his Seven Soldiers of Victory, the modular story it so closely resembles structurally. Seven Soldiers was itself a triumph but threatened sometimes to bow under its own weight (especially for a reader trying to negotiate the original four trade paperbacks). In using specials, Multiversity offers plenty of variety but not too much heft, and neither does it feel too short. By dint of the storytelling, many of the specials read surprisingly long, especially Society of Super-Heroes, The Just, Pax Americana (most of all), and Thunderworld Adventures.
Of them, the pulp-y Society of Super-Heroes is wonderfully stylized with its text pages, scrappy Doctor Fate and the Atom, and Spock-esque Abin Sur. Forget The Just's story; Morrison's panel-by-panel cameo of every Young Justice-type sidekick or replacement hero (plus Bloodwynd!) makes it a comic I'd happily read regularly. Pax Americana, with artist Frank Quitely, is the whole book's best, with Quitely's grid paneling, Morrison nailing Watchmen's coldness, and a subtle mystery hiding on the page. Equally I liked Thunderworld, more to an extent a classic Captain Marvel story than a Multiversity one, but that's fine with me especially since the characters continue immediately in to the Guidebook.
I found less effective Mastermen, which does follow most directly from Final Crisis, but focuses more on the German "New Reichsmen" than on the Freedom Fighters, whom I found more interesting; it's also hard to pity the Superman analog Overman who's renounced his Nazi upbringing but still rules with an iron fist. And despite Ultra Comics's unique set-up, I admit to confusion more than anything else in reading it, with the cannibal children et al. Though, in some kind of post-meta-metafiction, Morrison is well ahead of both fans and critics, teasing "Don't worry, Ultra fans! It's not going all weirdness for weirdness' sake" (and later, in Multiversity #2, that the audience is "missing stuff by reading too fast," though I tried, dear author, I tried).
In total, however, Grant Morrison's Multiversity is glorious, a fine sequel to Final Crisis and surely something special in its own right (the deluxe edition is highly recommended on the Collected Editions 2015 Comics Gift Guide). The recently-announced Multiversity Too series of graphic novels seems to me the perfect way for Morrison to continue to expand the concept, not miniseries or series of specials that require a lot of commitment, but just good one-offs in the style of the best of Multiversity. So long as Morrison keeps writing those and I keep buying them, maybe we can stave off the Oblivion Machine for some time longer.
[Includes original and (numerous) variant covers, copious character designs and sketches]