Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Doctor Hurt RIP

Not with a whimper, but a bang. The dark and convoluted path of Doctor Hurt comes to an end (apparently, for now) in Convergence #3 as the second Batman of the fourth-or-so Earth Two sets off an explosion that kills himself, Hurt, and some of Hurt's lackies in order to save Dick Grayson. In an unacknowledged quirk, this is Thomas Wayne (the father of the New 52's Bruce Wayne) killing Thomas Wayne (an 18th-century ancestor of New Earth's Bruce Wayne). So, it's a fitting time for an obituary for the villain of Batman R.I.P., and one of Grant Morrison's finest creations.

Hurt was visually designed to match the unnamed doctor who appeared in the "Robin Dies at Dawn" story back in 1963. This benign and largely-undefined character was brought back in cameos starting with Batman #673 (though his hands, perhaps, were seen holding binoculars at the end of Batman #665 and his handiwork was on-panel as far back as #655) and was gradually, hint by hint, developed into the major villain of Morrison's two-year run on Batman, and then played a similar role in Morrison's Batman and Robin and concurrent Return of Bruce Wayne. Otherwise, he has hardly appeared at all. Presumably, his long life span would let him remain alive and very unhappy where the Joker buried him on the grounds of Wayne Manor. He appeared in a singularly dark role in Batman, Inc. vol. 2 #5, as an adviser to the President of the United States who convinces the Commander in Chief to destroy Gotham City with nuclear weapons. This was in a possible future which was averted, but it did assert that Hurt remained a piece on the table who could appear again. In Convergence #3, Jeff King writes his apparent finale.

I think the saga of Doctor Hurt proves the power of the unseen, and conversely, the weakness of the obvious, the flaw in storytelling that lays everything bare. In a few tantalizingly brief appearances strung out over a year and a half, Grant Morrison made Doctor Hurt into a villain of tremendous intrigue and potential, someone who could perhaps out-plan Batman, someone who could perhaps have become a major villain on a par with Luthor or the Joker, but who was instead dismantled into a mere raving thug, first by Morrison, and now finally by King. There was an unrealized potential here, and DC Comics are the poorer for it.

At the end of Batman #680, with Doctor Hurt hosting the Black Glove party in Arkham Asylum, with a maddened Batman falling prey to Joker toxin while Jezebel Jet smiled with evil joy, who was Doctor Hurt? We didn't know. The set-up, as we understood it, was that the mystery "Who is the Black Glove?" was the greatest mystery we'd seen in comics for a very long time. It had gradually become apparent that Doctor Hurt was the Black Glove, not the henchman of a higher-up, but who was Doctor Hurt? It was a mystery, and everybody had a guess.

What, at that point, did we know about Doctor Hurt? Very little. We knew that he was evil, ran the Black Glove organization that met annually to bet on life and death, and that evil itself, rather than power or riches, was his apparent motive. We knew that he especially hated Batman, and that he had been planning for a very long time to make this one, decisive bid to destroy the caped crusader. And with a promise that Bruce Wayne would be sidelined from DC Comics, it looked like he was going to win. In a sense, he did.

I believed that Doctor Hurt was the Devil. And this was the correct idea, to a point. To the extent that Batman #681 was going to reveal anything, that's what it was going to reveal, and I thought this had been made clear a few issues earlier. Eventually, a Grant Morrison interview revealed as much: "This is the story of how Batman cheats The Devil." But it was an ambiguous reveal, to fit the tone of Batman, R.I.P. to its logical (non)conclusion.

Morrison's run on Batman was intended to homage and exemplify spooky, ambiguous stories. The original Zur En Arrh story seems to be a dream, but Batman ends it with a gadget called the Bat-Radia in his hand, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. A revamped Bat-Mite (called "Might") appeared with no explanation as to whether he was real or a fantasy. It was only later that I realized the artful ambiguity of the word "Might" itself: It can mean power, or it can be the modal verb "might" meaning "may" or "can be." Bat-Might was ambiguously real. He might be a figment of Batman's imagination, or he might be a magical fifth-dimensional imp. Finally, in a laugh line, he tells a frustrated Batman that imagination is the fifth dimension. Was he imaginary or from another dimension? Yes and no. Neither answer is right, and both are. This ambiguity, playing everything right down the middle, was also behind the nature of a minor character named Honor Jackson. A struggling, drugged, mind-zapped Bruce Wayne spends one day wandering the streets of Gotham with Honor Jackson only to find out that Honor Jackson had already died. Did Batman imagine him, or did a magical Bat-Might resusitate Honor Jackson so he could spend a day redeeming his failed life by helping Batman? Yes and no. The story works hard to avoid giving us a clear answer. And we were being given half the answer right then of "Who is the Black Glove?" Meaning that we weren't going to get an answer, or that we were going to get a spooky answer that begs a follow up. "Doctor Hurt was The Devil… or was he?"

So, yes, Doctor Hurt was played right down the middle the whole way, as a "man who may or may not have been some manifestation of the Devil" (in Bruce's words) or as something else. But that something else was never defined. The story teased that perhaps Doctor Hurt was Bruce's father, but this possibility was never in keeping with DC's sacrosanct lore, and was eventually refuted. But that something else remained vague. Whatever Doctor Hurt was, where was he five years ago, or twenty, or fifty? Where did his timeline begin? When Doctor Hurt was at his best, we didn't know, and we would never know. Like the long-teased, but never-delivered (well, for a long time, anyway) origins of the Joker or the Phantom Stranger, the ambiguity of Doctor Hurt was what made him interesting. He was evil, a master planner, a perfect foil to Batman, and inspired Damian's remarks in a possible future: "I know The Devil exists, or at least something which might as well be The Devil. I've met him."

When Doctor Hurt returned in the second season of Morrison's Batman work, the mystery was maintained for a while. We saw that Hurt had somehow survived (even Batman didn't know how) and stepped into the role of a Mexican drug lord, and had an army of intriguing cronies who had been broken and made into slaves. This was all in keeping with the ambiguous (and oddly psychological) evil of Doctor Hurt as the focus of evil in the world, "the hole in things." A brilliant scene in Batman and Robin #13 showed us a fantasy that couldn't be real, of Doctor Hurt killing the Waynes then taking over as an evil Thomas Wayne. This ambiguity remained and remains: Did Doctor Hurt order the murder of the Waynes? Would Bruce have died had not Joe Chill lost his nerve because he'd had a boy of his own? Did Bruce's survival of the hit ruin Doctor Hurt's plan to become the dark lord of Wayne Manor? It's a compelling vision and made more powerful by its ambiguity. We don't know. We may never know.

And then it unraveled. A few scenes, beginning in the "Western" chapter of Return of Bruce Wayne, then elegantly reprising "Dark Knight, Dark City" and an old World's Finest tale, unmasked Doctor Hurt as an older member of the Waynes, coincidentally named Thomas, who had sought a deal with The Devil and inadvertently summoned a force sent by Darkseid and was changed by it. It all fit, it all made sense, it tied things together, but Doctor Hurt the master became Doctor Hurt the servant, and there went the mystery.

Still, ambiguity remained. Still, he arguably embodied the central evil in the universe. But the myth was weakened. I think there was a lost opportunity to build Doctor Hurt into a pivotal force in DC Comics. There was no logical way to salvage his debut as a villain with one really big, years-long plan, but maybe he could have been kept lurking in the shadows, part of something big and dark and mythic. But the end of Batman and Robin's first year and a half dismantled that possibility.


And now he ends here. His final line is a disappointingly cliché, "And I say, first we kill this Batman, then we kill the other one, and his boy!" He's simply an opportunist, looking to stick someone with a knife when the occasion arises. It's like seeing Doctor Fate sit down in his boxers, turn on the television, and eat peanut butter out of the jar. The mystery is gone. And so is Doctor Hurt. But it's the mystery we'll miss more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Retro Review: The Long Halloween - Who is Holiday?

The Mystery

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's The Long Halloween is one of the classic Batman stories, telling the story of a year early in the caped crimefighter's career, working the existing origin tale of Two Face into a new mystery of their own creation. The story is, in large part, a whodunit, with a mystery serial killer named Holiday who attacks once a month on major holidays over the course of a year. Despite the abundance of information given to us, the identity of the killer remains somewhat in doubt at story's end because of contradictory confessions, evidence of multiple killers, and other ambiguous clues.

There are 13 dates on which Holiday strikes at one or more victims:

Halloween #1: Johnny Vito (dead)
Thanksgiving: The Irish Gang (5 dead)
Christmas: Milos Grappa (dead)
New Year's Eve: Alberto Falcone (faked his death)
Valentine's Day: Sal Maroni's men (4 dead)
St. Patrick's Day: Sal Maroni's men (about 10 dead)
April Fools Day: The Riddler (many shots fired, deliberately missing)
Mother's Day: The gunsmith (dead)
Father's Day: Luigi Maroni (dead)
Independence Day: The coroner (dead)
Roman Holiday: Carla Viti (dead)
Labor Day: Sal Maroni (dead, shot by Alberto Falcone)
Halloween #2: Carmine Falcone and Vernon Fields (dead, shot by Harvey Dent)

We know the killers on the last two dates. We also have two confessions, with Alberto Falcone telling the police that he committed all of the Holiday murders up until his capture, and Gilda Dent, speaking to herself, telling us that she carried out the first three murders and that she believes that her husband Harvey committed the rest. In addition, Harvey Dent says that there were two Holiday Killers; either he’s referring to Gilda and Alberto, or a third killer is implicated.

Years after the story was published, there is no universal consensus: Who was Holiday? Similar arguments have appeared in different corners of the Internet, and new readers keep following similar paths: Three suspects remain. But who really did it? Who is Holiday? Who killed who?

Solutions

Besides the known killings on the last two dates, there are three common solutions proposed for the first eleven Holiday events:

Solution A: Alberto was the only killer, excepting Harvey Dent committing the final two murders. This is what Alberto's confession asserted, and it's also what Batman concluded. This theory is strongest if it is assumed that Alberto's father, Carmine "The Roman" Falcone was coordinating and assisting the shootings. Solution A would mean that Gilda's confession is false, and because she's speaking only to herself, it would mean that she is delusional.

Solution GA: Gilda committed the first three murders, then Alberto committed all the rest. Nobody in the story actually believes this, but it's perhaps the most common reader theory. It accepts Gilda's confession as true insofar as the facts that she could know of, and Alberto's as partly true but partly exaggerated.

Solution GAH: Gilda, Alberto, and Harvey each committed some of the murders. This theory contradicts every person in the story, to some extent, but some readers still favor it.

I believe that a careful examination of the facts strongly discredits Solution GAH, and goes a long way to disprove Solution GA. Solution A is the best explanation of the story, but there's a small chance that Loeb had Solution GA in mind.

There are five lines of reasoning that strengthen Solution A. Most or all of these have been discussed before.

Evidence 1 - Opportunity: It is evident that Gilda would have had a tough time committing the three crimes she claims. This is especially true for the second one, on Thanksgiving. Gilda was hospitalized and on an I.V. at the time, but she claims that she snuck out of the hospital. Here's what that would have entailed:

Although she was so impaired that she needed one more month in the hospital, and even in late December, she was still advised to take it easy. But she claims she snuck out of the hospital and returned undetected. While outside she needed to obtain a "Holiday" gun. Her house was blown up, so either she retrieved one from the wreckage, or bought one and had it prepared, or she had stored one somewhere outside her home (even though she was injured very shortly after the first Holiday murder). Then she needed to find the Irish Gang. This wouldn't be easy, because as of hours earlier, they were in jail and there was no evidence they would be freed. The location where they were found was not where Mickey lived (Batman confronted him there). The door had a DO NOT DISTURB sign, which should probably mean the door was locked, but Holiday opens it somehow. Then the shooter outgunned five men. Then Gilda returned to the hospital, without anyone noticing that she was missing.

Few of these difficulties would apply to Alberto. The Irish Gang was picked up from jail in a limousine, certainly paid for by Carmine. Carmine would have arranged their suite, and could have allowed Alberto a way in. His comings and goings would not have been limited in any way that we know of. Outshooting the whole gang is still hard to explain, no matter who the shooter is, but Alberto, at least, was not suffering a head injury at the time.

Similar, but less compelling, constraints apply to Gilda's opportunity to commit the Halloween and Christmas shootings. Moreover, as the Dents were short of money, even the means to buy and dispose of several guns is somewhat strained, whereas the Falcones were literally overflowing with cash.

Batman finds metal filed off of a gun in the Dents' basement, but this does not implicate Gilda. We know that Harvey had a Holiday gun at the end: He could have made it in their basement. Moreover, if Gilda had filed metal off a gun for the first two killings, it probably wouldn't have remained in their vise after their home was blown up. (Although perhaps the vise would have been salvaged in a clean state from the wreckage.)

Evidence 2 - Coincidental Coordination: Solutions GA and GAH posit that multiple killers who were not coordinated somehow managed to strike once and only once on several consecutive holidays without missing a month or striking twice on the same night. It is particularly implausible that the three switched on and off many times while maintaining the pristine pattern. It is somewhat less unlikely if there was only one "switch," with Gilda committing the first three, then Alberto the rest. The New Year event actually took place in the final moments of December (there was no Holiday event in January), and only 6 days after the Christmas one. This might have given "Holiday #2" the best chance to pre-empt "Holiday #1" without an overlap, but it still requires that Holiday #1 stopped after Holiday #2 struck for the first time.

There is also an implausible coincidence if we imagine that two different killers both chose the same disguise. We know that Alberto wore a hat when he shot Sal Maroni. We saw that Holiday wore a hat from May through September, but didn't see Holiday's head for any of the other shootings. Gilda claimed to have worn a hat (Harvey's) as well. How could they choose the same disguise? Gilda could have read about Alberto wearing a hat in the newspaper after he was arrested (we know that she had such a newspaper). It's much less likely that Gilda would have chosen such a disguise first, and then Alberto accidentally copied it.

Further, Alberto finally provides an explanation for why holidays were chosen for the crimes: He was born on a holiday and chose the dates to assert his significance. It is utterly implausible for Gilda to have chosen the first three dates on the basis of Alberto being born on a holiday. This only makes sense if Gilda chose the holiday motif and it's purely a coincidence that Alberto was born on one. However, if Alberto was being guided by Carmine, it requires that Alberto chose the holiday motif while Carmine set the overall direction.

Evidence 3 - Handedness: Some readers have noticed that the gun hand changes from one Holiday shooting to another. Harvey is seen to shoot Carmine using his left hand, while Albero and Gilda appear to be right-handed. This would support Solution GAH. (It is also indicated by blood on Harvey's right hand and sleeve that he shot Vernon Fields with his right hand, making him an ambidextrous shooter.)

However, this unravels upon a closer look. One, the gun hand in the Christmas scene switches from left to right, which suggests that gun hand is simply a detail that artist Tim Sale wasn't concerned with. Two, it is possible that the shooter had a gun in each hand, which would require that both hands be used. Three, in the sequel, Dark Victory, we see Alberto shoot with his left hand, even though he used his right hand in Long Halloween, making Alberto himself ambidextrous, or the detail simply unimportant.

Moreover, when we see a Holiday gun being made in September, there is one panel showing the hands on a vise in such a way that we should see the gun-maker's body behind the hands, but instead we see a wall of tools. This minor error reinforces the idea that the art is subject to mistakes, and therefore, the handedness does not constitute significant support for Solution GAH.

Evidence 4 - Gilda's Logic: Gilda's confession has multiple logical problems suggesting that she is delusional. Most salient is this: Her stated motive is that by killing gangsters she would be reducing Harvey's workload. This is dubious in the best of circumstances, but we have seen earlier that she herself doesn't believe it: On New Years Eve, she tells Barbara Gordon that the Holiday situation is increasing Harvey's workload. And that shouldn't have been an unexpected outcome: Of course, a serial killer on the loose could only add to Harvey's worries, whereas killing a few marginal gangsters would do nothing to eliminate his larger problem concerning the Roman. Gilda shouldn't, and doesn't, believe her own motive.

Gilda claims that she got the idea for Holiday by reading Harvey's files. But when she confronted him about a gun in their basement, and he said that he brought evidence home, she seemed surprised by that. If she read Harvey's files, they were presumably at home, unless she read his files in his office. Moreover, she was upset by having found the gun, not supportive of it. The 180° turn in tone between the basement scene and her confession indicate that she is idolizing Harvey and whitewashing the crimes that she thinks he committed by adding a role of her own.

Additionally, she believes that Alberto was actually shot, which we know didn't take place. She might have incomplete knowledge of the details, but the fact that Alberto turned up alive should have caused her to question if he was shot at all.

Finally, Gilda's confession is the only reason whatsoever to believe that she committed any of the crimes. But it directly contradicts Alberto's confession. If we have to assume that one confession is false, hers is the more likely false, as it creates so many other contradictions. The only reason to suspect Alberto's as false is because of Gilda's, but Alberto unquestionably committed at least one murder, and almost certainly more, whereas we have no proof of Gilda having committed any of them.

Evidence 5 - The Carmine Falcone connection: Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Carmine Falcone was directing the entire sequence of Holiday crimes.

Superficially, the first four Holiday shootings struck at Carmine's interests, while most of them after that targeted his rivals. However, none of the first four actually killed anyone that wasn't in some way suspect from Carmine's perspective. Johnny Viti had earlier been targeted by Carmine. The Irish Gang were outsiders, and Harvey Dent imagined that Carmine might kill them if their allegiance was suspect. Milos had failed to protect Carmine from repeated invasions of his homes. And Alberto seemed to be a killing that was intolerable to Carmine, but it was faked and didn't actually take place. The logic of someone deliberately performing a hit that worked against them to remove suspicion from themselves is offered elsewhere in the story.

The timing of the Holiday crimes, of witnesses and victims coming and going, suggests that Carmine was choreographing the events around many of the Holiday shootings. This is especially true of the later events, but true of the very first ones as well.

Known coordination:

Thanksgiving: The Irish Gang was picked up in a limousine and taken to a fancy hotel. This presumably put them in a time and place that Carmine Falcone arranged.

New Years: Carmine told Carla to go find Alberto, and because of his command, she "discovered" the evidence of the (fake) killing.

St. Patrick's Day: Sofia, under Carmine's orders, arrives shortly after the killing took place, making it appear to be a Holiday killing instead of a hit ordered by Carmine Falcone.

April Fools: Riddler is confronted by Holiday in a time and place exactly where Carmine had just sent him. Sofia avoids being a witness or interfering because Carmine told her to "come right back."

Mother's Day: The gunsmith is killed very shortly before Sofia arrives.

Plausible coordination:

Halloween: Carmine could have known that Johnny Viti was home, or ordered it to be the case. Gilda could not have made this happen.

Christmas: Carmine could have known that Milos was about to go outside. Gilda could not have predicted this.

Roman Holiday: Carla was pursuing the Holiday case with Sofia. The lead that sent her to the coroner's office could have been sent to her by Carmine.

Protecting Alberto:

Presumably, killing the gunsmith and the coroner were two events that only served to protect Alberto's identity. The gun metal found in the Dent's basement probably came from Harvey making the gun he used for the final killings. The gunsmith made the other guns for Alberto, and he was killed to keep him silent. Consider the timing: He was killed immediately after his identity was discovered by Sofia; this, plausibly, could have been arranged by Carmine. The Dents couldn't have possibly have timed this correctly. The coroner also knew of Alberto's fake death, and was killed to assure his silence.

The first gun:

If we take the sequence in the art literally, the first Holiday gun was made many weeks before the first murder, on the same night that Johnny Viti killed Richard Daniel, and before the Dents (or Gordons) learned about that murder. This timing would have been wildly coincidental if Gilda or Harvey were preparing the gun, but is plausible if Johnny Viti's return from Italy set into motion a plan by the Falcones to kill several people, starting with him.

Carmine and Alberto:

On the surface, Carmine seems to disrespect Alberto. He makes comments that are dismissive of Alberto in June and August, but only when other people are listening. On Thanksgiving, Carmine seems affectionate with him when they're alone, and on New Years Eve, Carmine thinks (one of the few thought balloons in the entire story), "If it weren't for Alberto, there'd be nobody I could trust." This supports the idea that his disrespect for Alberto is a sham to facilitate using Alberto to commit the killings unsuspected.

Both the Riddler and Batman see this solution from different sides, with the Riddler guessing that Carmine is Holiday, while Batman ends the story convinced that Alberto committed the killings and Carmine knew about them.

Evidence 6 - Two Face's Comment:

Harvey "Two Face" Dent makes a surprising comment when he remarks to Jim Gordon and Batman, "You both know, don't you? There were two Holiday killers." This would seemingly contradict Solution A and indicate that either Harvey or Gilda performed some of the rest.

However, Batman provides the logical way out: Harvey killed people with a Holiday gun on Halloween. He was the second Holiday killer, but not responsible for any of the other events. His strange phrasing that seems to indicate a reveal is explained by his obsession with the number two. This is highlighted by his previous utterance, "One second" ("second" has two meanings; the time unit and the second in a sequence).

Conclusion

By any realistic reasoning, Gilda could not have committed the Thanksgiving shooting, and the massive web of circumstantial evidence indicates that there was only one Holiday shooter, who was Alberto Falcone, working for his father, Carmine.

The only argument for Gilda's guilt would be this: It is a comic book story, inhabited by fantastic people such as Batman, the Joker, and Solomon Grundy, and the problems with her carrying out the shooting and the enormous number of coincidences indicating that Carmine Falcone is ordering the hits have to be forgiven as things that happen in comic books.

But this would make the mystery a weak mystery. Yes, in the DC Universe, where little blue aliens command a race of green space cops, and psychics and the undead team up with magicians and robots, we can imagine anything to be possible. But who is really capable of sneaking out in the middle of a two-month hospital stay and carrying out an intricate assassination? Batman is, to be sure, but, as the Joker tells Harvey Dent, "You're no Batman," neither is Gilda Dent in the Batman class of capabilities.


I can imagine a writer shrugging off such pragmatic concerns and feeling that a last-minute confession is a great ending that trumps realism. But the sheer number of clues that implicate the Falcones weren't likely placed there by coincidence. I think Jeph Loeb intended Alberto Falcone to be recognized as the only Holiday. Ultimately, solving the mystery depends not on the story, which leaves a slim chance of Gilda's guilt, but on reading the author's intentions. And I can't be sure that Loeb meant for a reader to find all of the pieces of evidence that make Gilda's confession seem implausible, but I suspect that he did.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Multiversity: Ultra Comics


Ultra Comics is real. (I’m using italics very consciously to distinguish the character and the comic book.) Of all the superheroes, you've ever read about, this one, set on Earth-33, which is our world, is actually real. I was part of him, and when you read Ultra Comics, so are you. Everything that happens to him is real, and when you put the comic book down, he dies. When you pick it up again, he lives. Ultra Comics is in a time loop, like the ones Grant Morrison used in Final Crisis and elsewhere, but unlike those, this one is real, and when you read Ultra Comics again, Ultra Comics, the superhero, comes back to life. His death is so tragic every time the issue ends, how do you have the heart not to read it again?

Ultra Comics is in a trap, and it's real. It's an allegory for the comic book industry as a whole, but as far as it – he – is concerned, it's real. Made of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (just like all your favorite comic books), Ultra Comics begins majestic and pristine a few pages into the story, then quickly goes through the history of superhero comics, with four consecutive panels representing, roughly, the Forties, Sixties, Eighties, and 2000's. In this sequence, he goes from fighting crooks to fighting monsters plaguing a sexualized young woman, mourning a death, and then bloodily causing one.

Then, when Ultra Comics is sent on his first adventure, into what looks like the ruins of New York, his corporate creator tells us that Ultra Comics and all of us have been led into a trap, and readers who aren't going too quickly will notice that the man in a suit has the dark bat wings of the Gentry's Intellectron behind him.

As Ultra Comics examines the unpopulated ruins of New York, he finds a faded billboard showing the 1939 comic book character Ultra-Man, a character like John Carter of Mars who debuted, then appeared in All-Star Comics #1 before being cut from the series when the Justice Society took it over two issues later. There is a caption, incidentally, in the "Kryptonese" font, but this appears to be nonsense, deciphering as "ABC EDH G G K N." Soon, he battles an amalgamation of an evil Justice League and Ultra-Man’s original cast of villains set in the world of 2240 (three hundred years after they were written). It is because Ultra-Man was set in the future that he was, in essence, the first DC superhero who couldn’t join the Justice Society.

Ultra Comics soon finds, and saves, a version of the Newsboy Legion, but they're all twisted and sinister, and his namesakes Ultra-Man and Ultraa. It turns out that Ultraa, who debuted in JLA #153, is the dark leader of this band of cannibals. Ultra Comics is condemned by a jury of history’s (and comicdom’s) villains in a court led by the Devil in a scene out of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” They subject Ultra Comics to an apathy ray, and Ultraa takes a bite out of Ultra Comics' head, eating the crystal that gives him his greatest powers. All the while, captions representing fan opinions (and seeming very true to the spirit of them) complain about the quality of what we're reading.

This is true to the original Ultraa. When the Justice League visited Earth Prime, they happened to encounter Ultraa immediately after his public debut. Almost immediately, Ultraa, Earth Prime’s first superhero, was pursued by a supervillain. At the end of the story, he felt responsible for the existence of the supervillain, that his presence “infected” Earth Prime with superpeople, good and bad alike, and left Earth Prime for Earth One to save his home dimension from further trouble. In a later pre-Crisis appearance, he decides to rid Earth One of superheroes, and uses an apathy gun in an attack on the Justice League. This apathy weapons is used on Ultra Comics in Ultra Comics. Post-Crisis, Ultraa (whose home dimension, Earth Prime, no longer exists) is retconned as a resident of Maxima’s homeworld of Almerac, something he refers to as his origin in this story, too.

Ultra Comics apologizes to the reader just as Ultraa did to the people of Earth Prime back in 1978, for exposing us to evil. After he cleverly disposes of Ultraa, he faces the now-unmasked Intellectron, who also admits that he exposed us to evil, but isn’t apologetic about the fact. It is because corrupting influences have been disguised as something benevolent that Little Red Riding Hood is the central figure of the children: The comic book is her grandmother, but beneath its clothing is the wolf, images of destruction and bloody murder, sex and violence, and all of the corrupting influence that Ultra Comics was seen to have on characters in Multiversity. And in case we forgot that this story is real, Intellectron downplays the harm that he revels in, saying, “This is only silly comm-ix. Makes no sense. Only pretend! Go on – read on! What harm can come to yu?” And lest we forget who “yu” is, he goes on, “Earth-Prime. There yu are,” with his malevolent eye looking at us. This moment hits home powerfully when he looks at us again and says, “Kneel before yur new master. Turn the page. Do it. Slave.” And I did. You did, too, didn’t you?

Ultra Comics counterattacks in three ways: Readers ask for a happy ending and get a happy ending (or happy middle, in this case.) Noting that “Text is vulnerable to criticism,” Ultra Comics observes as realistic fan responses criticize the worthiness of Intellectron as a character. And, finally, Ultra Comics, though dying on the last page, knows that he’ll be reborn whenever another reader opens Ultra Comics, allowing him to be reborn, though bloodied, on the first page. And lest we feel too badly for Ultra Comics in his ever-recycling purgatory of existing and dying every time a reader opens this issue, remember that he’s going to outlive us. One day, I’ll die. So will you. But Ultra Comics will live on, and sometime after my death, and yours, some reader will open this comic again, and Ultra Comics will live, temporarily, after we’re gone.

This is dark stuff, and it’s powerful. It, like Flex Mentallo, discusses superheroes as fictional constructs, and like Superman Beyond, discusses the superhero’s power of having a positive, likeable idea at the core and being able to rejuvenate by coming back to be read about again, responding to death with, “To Be Continued.” Morrison has the voices in this issue articulate some very serious criticism of the darkness in comic books, and he’s not dismissing that perspective. He sees some real harm at stake here, and that’s what the Gentry has always represented, the infection of darker subject matter that we allow into our heads when we wanted a good time. And we may wonder if it’s coincidence that Grant Morrison is delivering this message now, as he effectively ends his run on monthly DC superhero comics, just as Alan Moore denounced the medium just as he wrote his final works in the genre. There is redemption for the genre, yes, as Morrison has said in interviews, and as he says in this issue, but the criticism sticks. The characters in preceding issues of Multiversity have been disturbed by what they read in Ultra Comics, and not without good reason. Maybe good and productive members of society have better things to do with the limited time we have on the planet than to read about zombies sucking the eyeballs out of people’s heads. The favorable response that readers had to Multiversity:Thunderworld is an implicit answer to that what’s worth celebrating in these stories doesn’t require all the blood and gore and rape that has become increasing common as the decades go by.