Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Multiversity Guidebook

The Multiversity Guidebook plays two distinct, major roles. An inner section provides a map, mini-encyclopedia, and timeline of the Multiverse, and serves as a reference, clip-and-save style, for fans to consult on matters of Multiversal navigation for the indefinite future. Around this section, and referring to it, is a chapter in the continuing story of the Gentry’s effort to crush and conquer the Multiverse. It returns us to the narration from Multiversity #1, and in this sense serves as a sort of Multiversity #1½ that will lead into the series-ending Multiversity #2 a few months from now. The narrative is not linear, however, but nested and branching – not as complex as Pax Americana, but complex enough to merit close attention.

The story opens as a logical continuation from Thunderworld, with the “Serial Killer Sivana” leading his robots and fellow Sivanas in an attack on Earth-42, home of the Little League. This opens with the little Martian Manhunter being killed in a panel that copies the death of the regular Martian Manhunter in Morrison’s Final Crisis #1 down to the similar posture and the death cry “My'ria'h!” The Marvels of Earth-5 are in hot pursuit, but the Sivanas have ample time to kill several little heroes, and fulfill their real goal, access to a better transmatter device that allows them to travel anywhere in the Multiverse. That transmatter machine was built by Sivana-42, another instance of an idea that is key to this story’s plot having been placed in someone’s mind by a dream. I’ve earlier discussed the importance of dreams to the Multiverse, as originally described in Gardner Fox’s stories about the Flash, and affirmed now by Morrison.

As the Legion of Sivanas depart, the Batman of Earth-17 appears and rescues the Batman of Earth-42 from Sivana robots. (Incidentally, these robots resemble the robot that Superman of Earth-23 was fighting in Multiversity #1, but are not identical in size or design. It remains possible that Serial Killer Sivana built that robot.) Although the two Batmen are allied, Batman-17 is willing to use deadly force, in stark contrast to the nice Batman-42, exactly the sort of corruption that appeared to bring Earth-20 down (notice that a Mayan temple is seen on Earth-51 in the Guidebook and at the end of Society of Super-Heroes), which implies that heroes who kill are possible in the metaphysics that Morrison is laying out.

As Batman-42 picks up a copy of the Guidebook itself and reads a history of the Multiverse, which begins by paraphrasing a similar telling of the history in Superman Beyond #1. Then the history goes forward to describe travel between the Universes and the Crises which followed, all of which, as I noted earlier, depends crucially on the Flash, Barry Allen. Then the action switches to Earth-51, where Kamandi, Tuftan, and Ben Boxer arrive in pursuit of their lost colleague, Flower, the original of which appeared in only two issues of Kamandi back in 1973.

What Kamandi and his colleagues find opens up new perspectives on the plot of Multiversity. As the characters on Earth-51 confer, they are being watched by the New Gods on New Genesis. Highfather and the New Gods discuss the situation, giving us some helpful exposition along the way. Darkseid was released from a tomb on Earth-51, allowing him to go forth in the form of multiple instantiations across many worlds. His tomb was opened by Nix Uotan, the son of Dax Novu. Nix Uotan, as we’d already seen, was corrupted by demons, the Gentry.

Here, the story opens the mystery wider. We knew that the Gentry corrupted Nix Uotan, but the New Gods tell us that the Gentry themselves are the agents of a higher, more evil power, The Empty Hand. Morrison has a preference for structuring his stories around a hierarchy of villains, with minor villains reporting to mid-level villains, and finally an ultimate top villain. In this story, the Big Bad is The Empty Hand, a name that calls to mind The Black Glove from Morrison’s Batman run. The identify of this villain is being presented as a mystery, “whose name none dare voice,” Highfather says. Lightray calls the villains, “The sons of midnight.” Who is The Empty Hand?

In an earlier post, I noted that the Justice League of the Multiverse had no Batman. Here, he arrives: Batman of Earth-17 appears in the House of Heroes and is immediately enlisted as the Gentry are attacking. We see a three-eyed, many-tentacled, be-fanged demon with a city as its head trying to eat the House of Heroes. Earlier, we saw another member of the Gentry, “Lord Broken,” appear as a house with an evil red eye inside. The name “the Gentry” and these buildings suggest that the Gentry are people, and as I’ve offered earlier, the villains of the story may be us (or among us), the people of the real world, Earth-33, which, as the Guidebook tells us, “exerts a powerful and unknown influence on the progress and development of the entire Multiverse.”

Who is The Empty Hand? We have a few clues. Most directly, when Kamandi reads the history of the Multiverse, we see an empty hand at the dawn of creation, with the text, “What great hand casts the lightning… and remakes the world?” This hand was famously seen in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but we can pinpoint its origin even earlier, to Green Lantern #40, when Krona and his effort to view the creation of the Universe were introduced. So that’s The Empty Hand, but it was earlier portrayed as a mere force of nature, not a character with the potential to be good or bad. Clearly, there are more reveals to come, attaching that hand, so to speak to some very powerful character we’ve otherwise known, or giving it a new identity. Near the end of the issue, it makes the dead Little Leaguers revive as its servants and says, “Get up. Reset. You have died before, and you will die many times more before I am done with you. See how my hand is empty.” Red-eyed, the zombie heroes respond, “Empty is thy hand.” The red eyes suggest Darkseid. The word “thy” suggests the Early Modern English of the King James Bible. Together, these reinforce that The Empty Hand is something primal, powerful, and evil.

What does The Empty Hand do? Reset. The history of the Multiverse, which we already knew, consists of many cycles of death, followed by regeneration. And the people who are really performing this regeneration are the writers, editors, and readers on Earth-33. Everything in the Guidebook continues to bear out that the threat in Multiversity comes from our world, a meta-story about the threats to superhero comic books that begin in those who shape the medium itself.

Erratum: The description of Earth-7 says that Thunderer is a survivor of Earth-4. This probably meant to say Earth-7.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Multiversity: Thunderworld

The tide has turned. The sprawling, cross-universal threat has apparently met its match for the first time with the squeaky-clean Marvel family of Earth-5 flying off in victory at the end of Thunderworld, the fourth of five one-shots issues devoted to a single Earth. Between the first three issues ending on a distinctly dark note, and the upcoming finale known to be a happy ending, we see Captain Marvel and his allies turn back the Multiversal threat issued by his old nemesis, Thaddeus Bodog Sivana.

Far less complex than Pax Americana, the previous issue of Multiversity, Thunderworld nevertheless shows off Morrison’s tremendous gift of adopting someone else’s style, and putting his own twists on it. Thunderworld is, most of the time, admirably faithful to the old-style Fawcett Comics tales of Captain Marvel, which were themselves imitated in new stories published by DC in the Seventies.

The history of the Marvel feature is relevant to Morrison’s work here: Captain Marvel was the top-selling character for most of his history from 1940 until 1953, when a lawsuit by DC forced Fawcett to cease publishing the character, deemed by the court to be a violation of the copyrights on Superman. In 1973, DC licensed the characters from Fawcett and began publishing both old and new stories in a series that spitefully put Superman on the cover of the first issue (which happened to be one of the first comic books that I ever bought). To explain the long hiatus of the Marvel family, the first new story explained that Sivana had used an invention, Suspendium, to freeze time for the Marvels so that they were out of action for 20 years, awaking in 1973 to begin their adventures anew. Suspendium is quite similar to the plot device used to explain why Captain America was similarly out of publication for a decade, but rendered in terms of science fiction. Morrison has used Suspendium in 52, and his use of it here is one of only several nods in this issue to 52.

Morrison begins the story with Fourth Wall narration, the wizard Shazam comedically realizing that the reader is listening to him. As Multiversity began and will end with Fourth Wall narration, this is one way of weaving the issue into his larger structure.

An important motif in the old-time Captain Marvel stories that Morrison has used in his other works as well as here is the endless invention of variant characters. Captain Marvel’s universe was always populated with an entire roster of alternative versions of himself: a girl version of him, a younger version of him, fat, tall, and “hillbilly” versions of him, and more than one evil version of him. Morrison keeps the ball rolling by turning the Sivana children into evil Marvels before turning himself into a Sivana version of Black Adam who was himself an alternate version of Captain Marvel. The overall effect is like a department store mirror that allows one to see reflections of reflections iterating off into infinity.

The pivotal alternate-version in this issue is the alternate Rock of Eternity, which was shown in the Map of the Multiverse issues before the series began. Sivana’s plot is as follows: having discovered the Multiverse by tracking the source of Captain Marvel’s lightning, he learns through comic books about how it works. He gathers Suspendium from other universe to give himself an extra day of the week, Sivanaday, one in which he can win. After besieging the Rock of Eternity and imprisoning the wizard Shazam, he uses his alternate Rock of Eternity, one favoring science (it is covered with blinking lights and circuit diagrams) rather than magic, to make him and his family (the latter, as guinea pigs) as powerful as the Marvels, so that he can vanquish Captain Marvel at last.

Sivana will then rule the Multiverse along with all of the alternate Sivanas, who are initially portrayed as a delightful array of amusing variants on the original, one of many great displays by artist Cameron Stewart, whose talents are perfectly matched to the Marvel world. But by the issue’s end, the alternate Sivanas become dark, disturbing even the original Sivana. This is emphasized by two Sivanas who bookend the continuity of darkness: One is merely a scientist with “personal problems” who is aghast that most of the Sivanas are criminals. The other, at the far extreme of evil, is a serial killer, masked like Hannibal Lecter and dripping with blood, who has killed his own universe’s version of Captain Marvel, and wants to torture and kill more Marvels.

This is one of several cracks that appear in the otherwise squeaky-clean facade of the tale. The first is when someone notes that Billy Batson’s job as a reporter apparently violates child labor laws. Another is when Georgia Sivana flaunts her sexy curves in a low-cut top, a la Power Girl, beckoning Captain Marvel Junior to ogle her, to the dismay of Mary Marvel. This has overtones of the corrupting influence we’ve seen in earlier issues of Multiversity – the heroes who kill in Society of Super-Heroes, and the trauma felt by Kyle Rayner in The Just. But Freddy Freeman has read SOS, and it’s all a ruse. He uses the ogling to trick her into saying her name, a la Mr. Mxyzptlk, to take away her powers.

Another suggestion of Multiversal corruption bringing darkness to Earth-5 is in the appearance of the Monster Society of Evil, who appear vastly more evil than their original forms. Instead of the adorable, bug-eyed Mr. Mind, we see the legitimately hideous insect that is the central, secret villain of 52. Alongside more-evil-looking versions of Ibac, the robot Mister Atom, and others, we see a huge, Godzilla-like crocodile who appears to be Thunderworld’s version of Herkimer. The original Herkimer was a silly-looking man with a crocodile head, but this one resembles Sobek, the crocodile-man who suddenly revealed his murderous side in 52, setting Black Adam on a path of vengeance and genocide.

What saves the day is a time loop, a device that Morrison has used in Seven Soldiers, Final Crisis, Pax Americana, and now here. Billy Batson raids Sivana’s cache of Suspendium to go back to the beginning of Sivanaday and give himself a warning. Telling himself to watch the Sun (the artwork shows that a whole day-night cycle takes place in what should be only a few minutes) and watch clocks to see that Sivanaday is unusually short, because the alternate Sivanas cheated the original, giving him less time than he thought. As soon as he wins, Sivanaday ends, and Captain Marvel wins when the world goes back to normal time.

And so, this is the first issue of Multiversity with a happy ending. But perhaps that’s just a matter of tone. The issue ends with pending threats from Parallax and Niczhuotan from SOS as well as the serial killer Sivana, who now has his eye on Mary Marvel. These are perhaps no less real than the threats that conclude the series’ earlier issues, but the Marvels are simply unconcerned. They know that they’ll face them, and they know that they’ll win.

If this sets the tone for Multiversity as a whole, then we don’t need to wait for a sudden 180° turn that gives the heroes a victory in the final issue. The dark endings of Multiversity #1, SOS, and The Just gave way to an ambiguous ending for Pax Americana (depending on whether or not Captain Atom will return to resurrect President Harley), and now a light turn here. Instead of a good world turned bad, corrupted by the sex and violence of post-1986 comics, we have a world that witnesses some of those themes but remains intact. The next issue that is devoted to one Earth will be Mastermen, in which a Nazi world is eventually set right. And we can see now that Multiversity has an ornate structure: It is not simply one long arc with initial tragedy turning to a happy ending in the finale, but a hierarchical structure with the changes in fortune turning dark in the first issues, but becoming less so with successive issues. Thunderworld ends with a new dawn. Mastermen will end with the defeat of Fascism. Whatever darkness the Gentry represent, Morrison sees the light beyond them.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Retro Review: Neil Gaiman's Sandman

The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and a few other works of their time showed that the superhero genre and the comic book medium could be raised to a higher level of artistic expression. Neil Gaiman's Sandman realized that potential perhaps further than any work before or since. Although conceived, named, and published like a superhero comic, Sandman was something else, something more. It attracted readers who were never interested in superheroes, and arguably stands still as the high-water mark of the medium.

The central character is referred to as Sandman only rarely, is sometimes called Dream – in Gaiman’s formulation of seven siblings known as the Endless – and in a nod to Classical mythology, is most often called Morpheus. In this threefold naming alone, Gaiman shows his power to blend DC superhero continuity, established cultural and literary tradition, and his own inventions. As the series goes on, Gaiman also weaves literature, history, current events, pop culture, science, and science fiction into his story, and it is his ability to draw on such a vast number of subjects that makes Neil Gaiman himself perhaps the most fascinating character of the series. Gaiman has an expansive world in his mind and his ability to draw upon such a vast array of sources makes Sandman a richer work than all but the rarest literature. The reader is invited to research what his sources and inspirations were, and in the process could inevitably learn a great deal about such wildly different topics as the French Revolution, the history of Baghdad, and demonology and the occult. One of the series’ most remarkable issues is devoted to an exploration of mortuary science, with Gaiman inventing an entire society devoted to funerary preparation. There is simply more effort evident in most issues of Sandman than almost any issue of almost any other series; time and time again, Gaiman pulls off the challenge masterfully, delivering one fascinating story after another.

Structurally, the series' 75 issues tell one long story, with many coherent tales of several issues each woven together with many one-issue tales. The larger arc is that of Morpheus' downfall, beginning with a decades-long imprisonment at the hand of some English occultists, and a complex story, after he regains his freedom, in which he provokes several of his old enemies and gains a few new ones. Many characters on Earth and other realms are sent reeling into tragedies and triumphs of their own as byproducts of Morpheus' own struggles. The plot is ornate and interconnected, with minor cameos early sometimes spinning off into maxi-arcs of eight issues.

Sandman diverges from the superhero genre so early and often that listing the ways in which it breaks from tradition is dizzying, but elucidates both Sandman and the works that came before it. Morpheus is not a hero. He feels a duty to the unique office that he holds, but he is motivated to maintain order, not to utilize his considerable power to eliminate suffering. And there is much suffering in Sandman. There is an astonishing number of murders, rapes, and other acts of cruelty in Sandman, many of which go unavenged. But one of the best characteristics of Sandman is that Gaiman is driven neither to uphold nor mindlessly reject tradition: He does protect the innocent and avenge injustice when the situation and his well-developed character demand that he behave that way. Morpheus is mindful of justice, and at times delivers it, but follows his own motives in each situation, whether this means that he behaves as a hero or watches a crime with total indifference.

While not a cruel being, Morpheus is selfish, and his own shortcomings accumulate throughout the story until they help bring about his undoing. This larger pattern of Greek tragedy is one of Sandman’s finest homages to literary tradition. Misstep by misstep, Morpheus allows his enemies to move against him, and the series’ largest act of justice is that the title character himself ultimately pays for his many sins with his own destruction. And yet, the reader feels compassion for him, even as some of the smallest and most trivial acts of carelessness on his part become the most fatal. After eons in which Morpheus selfishly allowed others to be destroyed, he is ultimately doomed by at least three acts of kindness and obligation, and blamed for at least one crime that he did not commit. A reader cannot read this and not feel; those feelings are frequently beautiful, and frequently painful.

In one of many ways it broke from established tradition, it ran for a finite length and despite commercial and critical success, ended when the writer reached, from a creative standpoint, an ending. Possessing a definite ending is one of several characteristics that Sandman holds in common with other groundbreaking works of its decade. However, while works such as Waid and Ross’ Kingdom Come, Watchman, and other works by Alan Moore show a dark hollowness to superheroes, Sandman neither affirms nor rejects the genre. He follows a course that draws upon worlds of science fiction, myth, literature, history, folklore, dark magic, and – at times – superheroes. He is steadfast neither in embracing the superhero genre nor rejecting it.

Gaiman uses the Garrett Sanford and Hector Hall Sandmen as symbols of the superhero genre gone wrong, too trite to stand up to the grim realities of his larger story. But he also uses the Bizarro concept from Superman comics as a genuinely meaningful inspiration for a transsexual character, and it says much that an observer as gifted in his breadth as Gaiman find a superhero story to be worthy of such a mention. Late in the series, Superman, Batman, the Martian Manhunter, and Wesley Dodds return in minor appearances, affirming that Gaiman never forgot where the creative inspiration for Sandman began. Another comic book inspiration is from House of Mystery / House of Secrets: Gaiman gives more than their due to the storytelling characters Cain and Abel and their associates, brilliantly capturing the dark comedy of the original series, which was itself a world under the DC title that, like Gaiman's work, sometimes crossed over with that of the superheroes, but never matched it in tone.

For me, Sandman is a story of the fall, both a fall in the sense of the ruin of its central character, and the autumn, when night comes early. For its expansive scope, its take on familiar characters, and its tone appropriate to the autumn season, I feel its call every year, and will surely return to read it in its entirety many, many times.