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.