Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Multiversity: Ultra and the Flash

We are still months away from the publication of Ultra Comics, the finale of Grant Morrison's Multiversity mini-series, but we've already seen some five pages' worth of the material, including the cover. That's a preview of some considerable length. It takes the form of homages to other stories, so it’s a lot deeper than a few pages of art, nearly without text, might ordinarily be. What we see in the previews of Ultra Comics, in overview, is:

1) A direct and obvious homage to the cover of Flash #163 (seen at right), a cover that Morrison also referenced in Final Crisis #2.
2) The title character is from JLA #153. However, his appearance has been altered significantly, to make him more directly resemble the Flash, Barry Allen.
3) An event which very closely resembles the attempted murder of Captain Atom in Pax Americana.

The Flash is obviously important to this story, and Morrison has said so in interviews: Barry Allen read about an alternate Earth in comic books, then traveled to it, and he’s being homaged in two ways on the cover of Ultra Comics. When we follow the trail through old Flash comics, we see themes in Multiversity that reference the old Flash stories that created the DC Multiverse. This in particular includes:

4) Showcase #4, the first two panels in the origin of Barry Allen.
5) Flash #123, the meeting of the two Flashes, “discovering” the Multiverse.

Let’s break these down:

Flash #163: In this story, the Flash begins to disappear, gradually, from his own world. He is confronted by a villain who explains that a person’s existence depends upon other people thinking about them. He has arranged to make everyone in Central City forget about the Flash, a process that will end in the Flash ceasing to exist, permanently. Before he is gone, Flash writes a pamphlet about himself and distributes it around the city at super-speed. With people thinking about him, he becomes completely real again.

The cover twists this around: The Flash tells the reader that if they don’t think about him, he will die. But this is actually true: If enough readers stopped caring about (and buying) the magazine, he would cease to exist, just like Jay Garrick did when his title went out of print in 1949 (a fact which is referenced in Flash #123).

To highlight Morrison’s awareness of this cover, it was also referenced in Final Crisis #2, whose first panel said, "Stop! You must be supercool to proceed! Your life depends on it!" This is the exact issue whose last panel brought Barry Allen back from his 22-year death.

JLA #153: Two Multiversity-related things happen in this story. First, five members of the JLA vanish from Earth-One and appear on Earth-Prime. This happens because of a (real) poll that asked readers to name their favorite JLA characters. (Incidentally, Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, was the runaway winner.) The power of readers' thoughts on Earth-Prime pulled the top five vote-getters across dimensions into Earth-One. Later, the Flash takes them back.

Second, the character Ultraa is introduced. His backstory is quite a bit like Superman’s, and he becomes the first superhero on Earth-Prime. Immediately, a super-villain appears who tries to kill him. He defeats the villain with the help of the JLA members, but he decides that his presence does more harm than good, so he decides to remove himself from his Earth. He does this not by committing suicide, but by following the JLA to Earth-One. So, there is a form of symbolic, but not literal, suicide.

Ultra is different from Ultraa. The name is slightly changed, but the appearance (see above) greatly so. His costume considerably resembles Barry Allen’s costume, and is nothing like Ultraa’s original costume. He also ends up with Barry Allen’s blonde hair instead of Ultraa’s long, flowing red hair and, like Barry, blue eyes.

The costume design and the way it is originally presented is very cleverly managed. A frontal view of Ultra's costume only superficially resembles Barry Allen's. But compare the cover of Flash #163 with the first panel of Multiversity #1 that shows Ultra Comics (the two are juxtaposed above). This cropping of Ultra's costume emphasizes the yellow point on a red field, with the point aimed at the hero's outstretched left hand. The cropping of that panel and the costume design are intimately related, to create the visual homage in that panel without giving Ultra Barry Allen's costume exactly. The original Earth-Prime superhero, Ultraa, has been deliberately transformed into an Barry Allen look-alike because of Barry Allen's pivotal role in navigating the Multiverse. We will also see later that Barry Allen, Captain Atom, and Ultra all seem to commit some sort of suicide / self-sacrifice as the target of a single particle in a physics-based apparatus for the good of their respective worlds.
One panel of Ultra Comics (at left) shows Ultra surrounded by tubes of red, yellow, and blue. Is this a transformation giving Ultra Barry Allen's costume, hair, and eyes? Or the primary colors of Superman? This is likely all deliberate. Ultra is changed from his original conception into something else. Something that resembles Superman, and something that resembles the Flash, who speaks to us in the real world before sacrificing himself to save his world. This transformation that Ultra will undergo will be influenced by the comic books in his world. The comic books in his world, Earth-Prime, are the same comic books we know: Superman, the Flash, and the rest of the Justice League.
Something Bad Happens to Ultra
Multiversity: The artwork in Ultra Comics shows an event (at right, click to enlarge) which is very similar to the attempted murder of Captain Atom in Multiversity. Ultra stands in front of a device which is aimed at his forehead. Some high-energy shot hits him, creating a flash of light, then darkness, centered on his head. Then we see an injured Ultra in another location, apparently teleported there by the shot. He now has a white hole in his forehead, and, like the Flash on that famous cover, he looks at the camera, noticing the audience and apparently speaking to them. This ends with a close-up of his eye, an image which has come up repeatedly in Multiversity. Somehow, the shot has teleported him, injured him, and this causes him anguish. The cover of Ultra happens after this. We see him with a tiny bandage over the point of the injury, and his words tell us something similar to the Flash’s message in Flash #163. He may not have realized what that shot would do to him, but he stood and took it voluntarily, so perhaps he was symbolically murdered, perhaps he committed suicide.

In The Just, Megamorpho commits suicide after reading comics, and we eventually see that Ultra Comics is one of those. Her suicide is presumably triggered by reading about Ultra’s maybe-suicide.

And Captain Atom was reading Ultra Comics right when a black hole was fired into his brain. This may be exactly what happened to Ultra. Captain Atom was aware this would happen. Depending upon the outcome, this may amount to a suicide on his part, although it may also be a failed attempted murder. Ultra's trauma seems to resemble Barry Allen's sacrifice. Later, Megamorpho commits suicide after reading about it, and Captain Atom experiences a murder or suicide or escape also patterned upon it.  The symbolic suicide spreading across stories, from Ultraa to Barry Allen in COIE, to Megamorpho and Captain Atom is one of the key examples of a scene being "carried" from one comic book to another.

I predict that we will see this happen in more detail when finally we read Ultra Comics. We will see exactly how a pattern in one story is read about and repeated by someone who reads it. Barry Allen may make an explicit appearance. We may also see scenes in Ultra Comics that predict why Al Pratt kills a man after reading the issue, Kyle Rayner feels the anguish of tragedy, and Alexis Luthor commits a betrayal, probably because these themes occur in other scenes in Ultra Comics. And the happy or at least hopeful ending that we're promised will also spread from one comic book to another. That's where Multiversity is headed.

Barry Allen and the Multiverse

These references to Barry Allen merit a closer look. The opening scene of Showcase #4 shows Barry reading an old story about the Flash, Jay Garrick. In the very first panel, he refers to Garrick’s “undreamed-of speed.” In the second panel, he says, “The Flash was just a character some writer dreamed up!” These metaphoric references to dreams come back six years later as an assertion about literal dreams. When Barry Allen meets Jay Garrick, he says, apparently referring back to those two panels:

“A writer named Gardner Fox wrote about your adventures, which he claimed came to him in dreams. Obviously when Fox was asleep, his mind was ‘tuned in’ on your vibratory Earth! That explains how he ‘dreamed up’ The Flash!”

In 1968, Cary Bates gave this an extra twist in the story that created Earth-Prime, making the readers and the characters equally real and equally fictional. When Barry Allen first travels to Earth-Prime, Ultraa’s future world, in Flash #179, a splash image asserts in a true/false quiz, “Flash is strictly a fictional character dreamed up for this magazine.” Later, he meets DC editor Julie Schwartz, who, disbelieving Barry’s story, tells him, “You didn’t have to dream up that wild story!”

The repeated use of the word and concept "dream" is curious, something that Gardner Fox and later Cary Bates seemed to recall and emphasize deliberately even with many years separating these stories. Morrison gives this concept a key role in Multiversity.

Incidentally, the first time one DC character was presented as a fictional comic book character in the world of another one was in November 1940, in All-America Comics #20. In that story, an urban housewife named Ma Hunkel was told by her kids about the comic book hero Green Lantern. This inspired her to adopt the identity Red Tornado, which eventually became a part of DC continuity. This began in the feature Scribbly, which was the semi-autobiography of writer/artist/editor Sheldon Mayer. So the interplay of real comic book creators and fictional characters becoming real began back then.


These multiple references to dreams and comic books carrying messages between different Earths in the Multiverse is obviously a crucial device in Multiversity, and Morrison also adds drugs to the mix, with both the Luthor of Earth-23 and Captain Atom being under the influence of some unnamed drugs.

Dreams, however, are invoked by Doc Fate, who says that the idea of the Transmatter Symphonic Array came to him in a dream (it comes to Captain Carrot’s world via comic book). Chris Kent is apparently called upon to realize his potential greatness in a dream: “I fell asleep and it was this whole ultimate dreams of Superman thing. I dreamed of all the things I'd do if – well, if there was anything left to do. It was like ' A Chrismas Carol' -– but with Sandman.” And Kon-El paints a member of the Gentry, the Gray Lady, whom Intellectron calls Dame Merciless: “She am come in – KOFF – dream! Ugly art am good!”

Becoming a Bizarro, Kon-El prefers the ugly art of the Gentry to beautiful art. But is this corruption of his world, to advance their agenda, or is it a warning from someone doing good, someone who is also trying to help Doc Fate and assemble the Justice League of the Multiverse?

Dreaming up Reality

In one of DC Comics’ high concepts, Gardner Fox took the metaphorical sense of dream, imagining something, and turned it back into the literal sense, asserting that writers are like radio receivers picking up signals from other dimensions, taking real events from alternate realities and recording them as stories in their own worlds. Morrison has played with the same idea, including in Action #9, which is essentially the first chapter of Multiversity. The Clark Kent of an unstated world learns of the idea of a tulpa in Tibetan Buddhism: a being or object brought into actual existence through continued and applied mental concentration. This is exactly the dynamic from Flash #163. In that story, a villain tries to make Barry Allen cease to exist by taking him away from others’ minds. In Action #9, Clark, Lois, and Jimmy try to make a superhero start to exist by thinking about him. Creating and uncreating: Two sides of the same coin. Perceiving a being from another dimension and making an unreal thing become real: Two sides of the same coin.

Inasmuch as a black hole could destroy a physical object (an idea Morrison used in his Seven Soldiers story about Mister Miracle), Morrison uses it for its capacity to destroy information. Captain Atom and Ultra may be killed in their own worlds by the removal of their information. But this makes them appear in some other world.

So, without greatly disguising the fact, Morrison has worlds communicate with one another through comic books, and borrowing ideas from decades of Flash comics, so can dreams. Ultra Comics will bend the ideas of creation, reality, and dimensions. It is set on Earth-33, the equivalent of Earth-Prime, because it is our world. Morrison will use the captions of the comic and communication between the reader and the comic book, with Ultra looking right at us and talking right to us, to make Ultra real – sort of.

And how does this tie into the larger idea?

Buyer Beware

The cover of Ultra Comics, and the captions early in Multiversity #1, warn the reader not to read them. They assert exactly what the cover of Flash #163 asserted, but in reverse: They call upon us not to read, and say that “the world” and “your lives” are at stake rather than the life of the hero.

What happens to those who read it? Nix Uotan is turned vindictive and evil. Al Pratt abandons his principles, which makes his world vulnerable to invasion from an evil dimension. Megamorpho commits suicide. Kyle Rayner is traumatized by his past. Alexis Luthor invites a demonic invasion of her world. Bad stuff!

But this is all comic book plot. What actually happens? Earth-20 is ruined by menaces much bigger and sadder and sicker than it can handle. The comfortable existence of Earth-16 is led to turmoil, decay, betrayal, and suicide. The peace of Earth-4 is turned to tragedy. The Gentry are something outside these fictional worlds that wants to make them into something like itself. Something that ruins fictional worlds. The ultimate trigger of doom for Earth-20 is when someone spills the blood of an immortal. Vandal Savage isn’t used because he’s such an important character: He’s used because comic book characters were originally and inherently all immortal. They never died. The heroes came back issue after issue. Batman should be about a hundred years old by now, but he’s as young and spry in Scott Snyder’s stories as he was in Bill Finger’s. And after a long, long time, around the time that Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, they started to die. One of the first to die was the one so important to this story and its origins: Barry Allen. It should be noted that, just as Captain Atom seemed to in Pax Americana, Barry Allen died in a particle accelerator in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Barry Allen sacrificed himself to save his world, which may turn out to be the same with Captain Atom and Ultra. Watchmen killed off a whole world of superheroes, and in the intent of its author, tried to kill them all off.

Action #9 begins to develop Morrison’s use of the idea of ideas affecting reality:
Clark: The whole Superman thing was way too macho and aggressive anyway ­– we should think up a cartoon character kids can actually play with.
Lois: On the other hand, everyone will know our names after this.
Jimmy: They'll steal the idea if we don't sell it.

And so, Clark, Lois, and Jimmy sell the idea, and it turns into something too macho and aggressive that kills the cartoon characters that kids can actually play with. The same effect appears on Earths 7, 8, 20, 16, and 4.

The Gentry's attack moves between fictional worlds. In The Just, we see that it can move between comics, action movies, and art. Perhaps video games and horror movies, too. It certainly moves from one comic book to another. Clark Kent told us what the problem was. Multiversity is going to show us how the Justice League of the Multiverse can perhaps solve it and save the day.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Multiversity: Pax Americana Mysteries

The central snarl of Pax Americana is that Harley has a plan. We see that he has confided – in some way or another – in Captain Atom, Vice President Eden, and Peacemaker. But are they all in on the same plan? Was Harley deceiving any of them, or all of them? The Gentry is behind this plan. Who is working for the Gentry and knows it? Who is working for the Gentry and doesn’t know it? Who, if anyone, is working against the Gentry?

The Question: What is Harley’s motivation and plan?

Known: Harley accidentally kills his father, a superhero. He covers that up. He develops a plan to become President, be assassinated, and have Captain Atom return him to life. He tells people his motivation, but is he lying?

Known: Chris Smith, the Peacemaker, believes that his assassination of Harley will be undone by Captain Atom.

Known: Peacemaker was let in on a plan by Harley. But what he was told is incomplete. We know this because Nora O’Rourke, when she works out Algorithm 8, tries to reach him by phone, fails to, and is killed. So Peacemaker was given incorrect information. The information he was given was not an accurate account of what Algorithm 8 predicts.

Known: Algorithm 8 predicts that Captain Atom will not return. Captain Atom predicts that he will return. So two predictions regarding the future disagree: One is right and one is wrong. A metaphor for this is the Schrödinger’s Cat analogy involving Captain Atom’s dog.

Known: Because Algorithm 8 predicts that Captain Atom will not return and Harley told Peacemaker that Captain Atom would return, Harley is lying. Harley is not trustworthy.

Known: Harley introduces Captain Atom to comic books and Captain Atom is later seen reading Ultra Comics. Ultra Comics led to the corruption of Al Pratt, Alexis Luthor, and Kyle Rayner. So seemingly, Harley is corrupting Captain Atom, although we don’t have perfect confidence that Harley introduced Captain Atom to Ultra Comics, per se.

Known: Although it happens in only a single panel, we see in the car after Harley’s meeting with Captain Atom that Harley has confided in Eden, “In comic books, we trust.”

Known: The black hole research that tries to kill Captain Atom is led by Vice President Eden. He intends to kill Captain Atom in order to prevent the resurrection of President Harley. This is what Peacemaker and Nora do not know.

Known: Eden expects the assassination to succeed, not be reversed, and lead to the eradication of all superheroes and make him President.

Known: Peacemaker and Eden therefore represent two opposing beliefs. They both expect the first part of the plan, the assassination. They have opposite intentions and expectations regarding what happens after that. So:

The Question: If Harley gets his information from Algorithm 8, then he knows what Nora knew, so why is he willing to die? Does he believe that eliminating superheroes is worth his own death?

The Question: Why is (Vice) President Eden interrogating Peacemaker? Is it a real interrogation, in which he wants answers, or is it a sham because public perception demands that an investigation take place? Is it simply for sadistic reasons that Peacemaker is beaten up behind closed doors?

The Question: Of the two opposing prophecies, which is correct: Will Captain Atom return or not?

The Answer: We don’t know, and it may be resolved in the Multiversity finale, but Captain Atom tells us, and is probably correct, that he will survive their attempt to kill him. On the other hand, he is reading Ultra Comics, which has had some corrupting effect on everyone else who read it (Nix Uotan, Al Pratt, Alexis Luthor, and Kyle Rayner). This doesn’t turn Al Pratt or Kyle Rayner absolutely evil, however, so it doesn’t necessarily make Captain Atom absolutely evil. Also, we have already seen, in Superman Beyond, that he is a being of higher consciousness.

So, the story ends on a cliffhanger, which is symbolized by the Schrödinger’s Cat moment with Captain Atom’s dog. In quantum mechanics, two contradictory predictions can both be true until they are tested.

The Answer: Morrison has said in interviews that the struggling victims in Multiversity eventually figure out how to beat the Gentry. So, probably Captain Atom is right, and will come back, and defeat the plan of the Gentry and their underlings, including (Vice) President Eden.

The Question: What does this mean?

The Answer: Morrison’s larger story here is about the future of comics, whether they will be ruined by the violence that corrupts Earth-20, or the irrelevance that afflicts Earth-16, or the deconstruction (i.e., Alan Moore’s efforts) of Earth-4. And if he’s got a happy ending in mind, it involves the Justice League of the Multiverse, who is coming to save the day. And that amounts to an affirmation of the good and noble heroes, as Morrison sees them, as exemplified by the Silver Age Justice League.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Multiversity: Pax Americana


Since Multiversity: Pax Americana is a story about characters seeing the future, I’ll open with a prophecy. For decades to come, any discussion of the literary power of the comic book genre must include Pax Americana. It is already, on the day of its publication, required reading for serious comic book fans. It parallels, subsumes, and exceeds its obvious predecessor, Watchmen, as an exploration of science, science fiction, and literary devices used to allow a story in the genre to discuss the genre itself. It is the most intricate thing Grant Morrison has ever written, and for fans who enjoy his intricate works, it is possibly the best. Frank Quitely’s impeccable art matches the brilliance of the narration. Fans will enjoy it on many levels, but no one will explore its levels deeply without having their mind blown. And someone’s mind being blown is how it begins, and ends. Because its ending is its beginning.

This story operates on so many interrelated levels, it is difficult to write about it in a linear fashion. I’ll begin by making general observations on a few of its different levels, then move deeper into the details.


Narrative structure: While the story seems to be written backwards, with the scenes coming in reverse chronological order from 2015 back to 1974, it is really written as a time loop, like Final Crisis and the Sheeda of Seven Soldiers. Like the Ouroboros symbol in Batman,Inc., the story’s logic turns back on itself. When the plot is followed carefully, one sees that it ends on a cliffhanger, or rather “middles” on a cliffhanger, because there is no chronological beginning or end to the time-looped story, and the details entailing the cliffhanger are revealed over many pages, not in particular at the end.

Relationship to other works:

Pax Americana uses the same Charlton Comics characters that inspired Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Its plot shares many elements of Watchmen’s plot, including a hero who performs a villainous deed in order to achieve – he believes – a greater good. It shares many common themes with Watchmen, including the ironic doubling of words and images to link pairs of scenes, the relationship between American politics and superheroes, a dystopic future, physics as a metaphor, visual imagery as a metaphor for the plot, and has many scenes and images that echo scenes and images in Watchmen.

It is, of course, a chapter in Multiversity, and while its connections to the larger story are sparing, the source of the larger problem here on Earth-4 is an attack from the outside, delivered by comic books, in particular the haunted Ultra Comics, and what will happen after the assassination of President Harley is left pending, and on that hinges whether the ultimate threat succeeds or is defeated. Because of that, it adopts a tone entirely different from that of Watchmen, which is entirely dark (see my review here). Pax Americana gives hope that the villainy will be defeated, perhaps in the Multiversity finale.

Math and Physics:

A Möbius strip is a strip (easily made of paper) with the ends twisted before being rejoined, so that it loops back on itself and has only one side. This visible symbol parallels the time loop in Pax Americana and this loop is also seen in the shape of the symbols “8” and “∞” (infinity), which are repeated multiple times, both as symbols and as visual features which occur coincidentally. They are produced at times by an “S” or question mark (the symbol of The Question) being overlaid, or by sheer coincidence, such as a blood spatter in the air. 8s and infinity symbols are visually similar and confused/converted from the one to the other by simple rotation. Thus, the 8 in “Algorithm 8” and the eight-panel design of Pax Americana’s pages are references to loops, neverending, unto infinity.

Uranium-235 is the isotope of uranium that can be used to create self-sustaining nuclear fission reactions, as in a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb.

Time, which we observe to have a direction in the scale of everyday experience, has no direction on the scale of subatomic particles. Almost every event that takes place on subatomic scales can happen just as easily in reverse as forwards: For example, a photon can hit an atom, disappearing as its energy moves one of the atom’s electron into a higher energy level, or an electron in a high energy level can drop down into a lower level and emit a photon. The processes are exactly opposite of one another. However, in everyday life, there is no reversibility: Spilled coffee does not jump out of a carpet, move upwards, and jump into a cup.

Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and Captain Atom in Pax Americana both possess the superpower of bridging the gap between the everyday, time-directed world, and the subatomic, time-reversible world. Therefore, they see the past and future equally clearly, and become players in a game where past and future affect each other, whereas in the physics of the real world, the future cannot affect the past.

The Roman god Janus had one face looking backwards into time and one face looking forwards into the future, and symbolizes this ability of the physics-based characters and whoever possesses Algorithm 8.

Physics and philosophy have long grappled with the question of whether the future is determined predictably by the past. Newton’s laws of motion inspired the notion of a Clockwork Universe, one in which the state of the present, plus the inviolable rules of physics, make the future uniquely determined as those rules crank away on the state of the world. However, modern physics undermined that worldview, indicating that time is relative to the observer and that some processes are truly random and unpredictable. Watchmen makes much of this revolutionary discovery, and how it affects the worldview of Dr. Manhattan’s watchmaker father, among others. It shatters his world both literally and figuratively.

A profoundly important contrast with Watchmen is this: In Pax Americana, the people who discover Algorithm 8 see that physics discovery reversed. They find out, in contrast to earlier understanding, that the future is predictable, and once they see that, several of the characters begin playing a deeper game, trying to control the future and committing horrible crimes in the belief that they know exactly how this will play out in the long run.

The Plot

The Pax Americana story goes like this:

In 1974, the superhero Yellowjacket, who is a comic book writer in his real identity of Vince Harley, goes out for patrol, and it accidentally shot fatally by his son when he returns.

The antagonists in the story are represented by the Vice President, Nightshade’s father, and Sergeant Lane, who is seen carrying out their dirty work at several points in time. He is undoubtedly under the influence of the Gentry, who also influence Captain Atom through haunted comic books. Captain Atom is given an incorrect belief in a plan that seems to be for the greater good, but will actually perpetuate the Gentry’s evil plan to eliminate superheroes from this world.

When a young future President Harley is mourning for his father, he is visited by Captain Atom, who has been infected in the future by Ultra Comics. Captain Atom tells him of a way to control the future using a Möbius Strip (the door has one side and opens both ways). Thus, the future President Harley is the dupe of Captain Atom, who via Ultra Comics is the dupe of the Gentry. From this point on, the young Harley carries out a plan to make himself the President of a profoundly secure and powerful America, with unparalled popular support. His plan runs decades into the future and includes his rise to the Presidency, his eventual assassination, to win absolute public support, and his resurrection from the dead via the physics-based powers of Captain Atom.

His plan involves the use of superheroes as government agents, but they are set up as patsies to take a fall. President Harley has asked the Peacemaker to assassinate him in order to allow his own resurrection and unprecedented popularity. This mirrors Ozymandius’ plan in Watchmen to use a tragic, public event to control public opinion for the greater good. When the Peacemaker’s lover/confidante Nora O’Rourke, who has a super mind, discovers Algorithm 8 and can see into the future, Sergeant Lane murders her to prevent her from interfering with the Gentry’s plan. He knew all along that he would have to do this, and that he would do it right after her discovery. The Question and Blue Beetle are also investigating these events. Blue Beetle is unable to see the big picture. The Question is starting to solve the mystery, but may be one step behind.

The plot also involves the destruction of Captain Atom by injecting a black hole into him, so that his ability to see the future will not derail the plan. However, Captain Atom has already seen into the future and knows that the plan to kill him will fail. He knows that he can reconstitute himself. The conspirators, however, kill the scientists who carried out Captain Atom’s murder, to prevent them from revealing the plan.

The Peacemaker believes that killing President Harley is the right thing to do because it will galvanize the public into accepting a better future. President Harley is confident that he will be able to survive the assassination, despite its graphically depicted completion, because Captain Atom is able to reassemble a dead dog.

However, these events were set into place by the Gentry, who intend it to bring down the world of Earth-4 and its superheroes. Morrison’s larger point is that darker comics have that effect, ruining the worlds they portray, which was precisely Alan Moore’s intention in Watchmen. But Morrison holds out hope that events after Harley’s assassination will reconstitute a world of heroes worth reading about.

The Details

November 2015:

Like The Watchmen, the cover is actually the first panel of the story. The peace flag is set on fire by the shot that kills the President. This is the first of several times that symbols of peace (the dove being another) are destroyed violently. The fact that the Peacemaker shoots the peace symbol is ironic. However, he intends for this event to create a greater peace.

Like The Watchmen, a blood trail runs over a circular symbol. There, the smiley face; here, the Presidential Seal. In both, it symbolizes the way violence destroys the more benevolent world that came before.

The President being shot in the head while riding in an open car obviously refers to the actual assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The anticipated public support that this will generate parallels the record-setting margin of victory of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, in the 1964 election.

Reversal and reflection are mentioned several times, in words and in images, beginning with the investigators saying that they watched the film of the assassination backwards and forward. This itself mirrors the way the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination was scrutinized, including frontward and backward viewing in the film JFK.

The title of the story, “In Which We Burn,” refers to a patriotic British film, “In Which We Serve,” about World War Two. Peacemaker believes that he’s serving a greater good, but he is being duped. The Gentry’s plan is to destroy superheroes by duping Peacemaker into committing this act.

One of the dead superheroes from the past is Merryman, whom Morrison showed in Limbo in Superman Beyond. Captain Atom is still missing due to his attempted murder, which will fail. Captain Atom will return soon, but we don’t see this happen.

Nightshade is the daughter of the Vice President, who has become President. Eight and reflection are both mentioned. The Vice President says that there is a need to return to the values of the past.

“A leap of faith” is mentioned and we see The Question leap instead of riding in Blue Beetle’s vehicle. He is trying to sideline Blue Beetle and carry out his investigation alone because he doesn’t think Blue Beetle will cooperate with him. This is reminiscent of Owlman and Rorschach in Watchmen. “Get a grip” is said right before the Question’s machine grips Blue Beetle’s flying craft.

The Question has nearly figured out the entire plan, from the murdered scientists and the death of the Yellowjacket onwards, and is telling us most of the plot before we see it happen.

The Question asks who controls the board, the soldier or the hunchback? This is an apparent reference to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which two different characters are framed for carrying out the crimes of others. In this case, the Peacemaker seems to have killed the President, but the Question has already worked out that someone else was behind it. This echoes conspiracy theories concerning the Kennedy assassination, although here we see that the conspiracy is real.

The two-page spread intertwines three scenes together. The Peacemaker and Nora O’Rourke discuss Algorithm 8. He knows that when she works it out, she would know his plan and want to stop him, so he knows all along that he’ll have to kill her. She is murdered with the bust of Janus, the two-faced man, who symbolizes the past/future theme. We see the conversations that precede her discovery, his murder of her, and the Question’s investigations. Thus, this scene looks forwards and backwards in time, just as Janus symbolizes. The conspirator has super strength thanks to an exoskeleton. This mirrors Rorschach’s realization that whoever killed the Comedian had to have had unnatural levels of strength.

January 2015:

Captain Atom is assassinated by the use of a black hole when he is participating in a physics experiment. A massless time-symmetrical boson must be a photon or graviton, but in any case indicates the physics-based ability to see forwards in time. He has already seen “the door” that entails vision of the future and past at once, and he will go back in time to the Seventies to tell a young Harley to put this plan into place. But Captain Atom, reading Ultra Comics, is tainted by the Gentry, and is unwittingly carrying out evil.

As in Watchmen, the scientists who help carry out the villain’s plan are themselves killed, so they can’t reveal the plan. Their killer is Sergeant Lane, recognizable by his suit and metal left hand, who represents the greater evil of the Gentry, and even proclaims himself to have crawled out of the gates of Hell. The reversible nature of time is referred to by him in denunciations of both science and religion, as he alludes to the beginning of time in the theological conception with “Let there be light,” the looped – as opposed to linear – time of the story with “can’t get it straight,” and the beginning of the Universe and ends of their lives in a gunshot as “the Big Bang.”


A scene in a nursing home mirrors one early in Watchmen, with the younger female superhero visiting her mother. Their conversation drops some plot details. The daughter is teleported away, at her request, by Captain Atom. An accidental coffee spill turns an S into an infinity symbol, and the reversibility of time is alluded to with, “The view is the same in both directions.” A black circle is a visual metaphor for the black hole discussed in this scene which is used, later, to try to kill Captain Atom.

We find out that Peacemaker is carrying out a plan that President Harley has let him in on, but his lover, Nora O’Rourke, is independently working on the discovery of Algorithm 8, which will make her a threat and require her later murder.

Their home is symbolic of the future replacing the past, a Bauhaus building in the ruins of a castle. Their conversation includes a flash-forward to Sergeant Lane beating up Peacemaker after his assassination of the President. An “8” appears as a blood splatter in the sky as a dove, a symbol of peace, is killed.

The Question is investigating the case, killing a dirty cop and finding out about Sergeant Lane and the Vice President’s roles. As Rorschach allowed a criminal to amputate his own hand in Watchmen, the Question gives this man the means to commit suicide with a gun. The Question outlines a color-coded theory of society with eight stages. He calls the dirty cop yellow, a play on the color theory and on cowardice.


Sergeant Lane has the trust of superheroes who are brought on as government agents under President Harley. Peacemaker suggests that their group be called the Justice League of America, indicating that those characters exist in comic books in Earth-4.

President Harley unveils the superheroes publicly as the guarantors of an American peace, Pax Americana, as Captain Atom telekinetically builds three towers where the World Trade Center fell.


Captain Atom is visited by then-Governor Harley. Captain Atom is recovering from something called the U-235 Incident, which is a sly reference to the explosive isotope of uranium as well as the actual Cold War U2 incident.

His attention, diluted by drugs, moves into the past and future, so he accidentally calls the Governor President, already knowing that he will one day hold that office. Lacking sympathy on a human level, he kills his own dog out of curiosity. He resurrects the dog, leaving one dead version and one live one, a reference to the thought experiment in quantum mechanics known as Schrödinger’s Cat. Governor Harley uses comic books to tell Captain Atom about Algorithm 8, in a time loop, because Captain Atom will carry this information back into the past to give it to a 23-year-old Harley. Captain Atom tells Harley that they’ll try to kill him and fail, so the Gentry will not actually neutralize him as they plan to. President Harley appears to have a plan that will actually counter the Gentry’s plan, and it’s hinted throughout the issue that he and Captain Atom will prevail over them. The conversation has many references to reflection, moving forward, and backwards, and the bridge is reflected in water, making a half circle into a full circle, symbolic of the past-future duality of Algorithm 8.


An assassination attempt on President Bush is thwarted by Peacemaker. The drink Manhattan is mentioned as a reference to Dr. Manhattan. The use of an actual real-world President symbolizes the interplay between real and fictional worlds and how superheroes replace the real world in their own fictional worlds. This transition from one world to another is encapsulated by the scene’s final line, “Your world has come to an end today.”


A scene back in 2015 what would be the opposite end of that process, with Sergeant Lane celebrating the end of superheroes as he interrogates Peacemaker. But Peacemaker believes that he will prevail and save the world from him, suggesting that Captain Atom will reconstitute himself, retroactively save the President, and reaffirm superheroes in the eyes of the world. A quick flashback shows Peacemaker telling Nora about the President’s plan.


The Question and Blue Beetle are investigating crimes. The Question is already working on the big mystery and Blue Beetle does not follow the Question’s reasoning nor approve of his draconian punishment of evildoers. This foreshadows the Question eventually sidelining Blue Beetle and working on the case alone.

The Question’s black-and-white morality is seen via his two lines about black and white that he considers writing on his calling card.


We see future-President Harley receiving from Captain Atom the message that Governor Harley gave him decades later.


We see Harley accidentally kill his father, the Yellowjacket. Blood spatters onto the feather of their pet doves, bloodying the symbol of peace. A news broadcast mentions the corruption of the Nixon era and a speech by President Kennedy, outlining the good/evil at stake in this story. In the final panel, Harley holds up his father’s domino mask, which twists into an “8”, which is the name of the algorithm at the center of the plot.


This issue is a masterpiece. For better and worse, it does not easily yield to a single quick reading. A few hours’ scrutiny is rewarded amply, and future effort is sure to produce even deeper insights. Is Harley a good man in a battle between good and evil, or is he corrupt? Will Captain Atom arrive to team up with the Question and save the day? Does Morrison successfully override the cynicism of Watchmen and write a new classic in the genre? We’ll find out in the finale of Multiversity and as readers and other writers react to these issues in the months and years to come.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Multiversity: The Message

What's the Message?

Multiversity, according to his plans as announced, will be Grant Morrison's last work that could reorder the foundations of DC superhero comics. The ultimate chance to have his say regarding what superhero comics should be. This offer comes once only, in all eternity. So what kind of story is he writing? What is he trying to say?

Morrison, to say the least, has a predilection for the big concept, the big statement. He offers up that Multiversity is the best thing he's ever done, and the threat is the most terrifying thing that anyone's ever created in a comic. More terrifying than the commonplace threats we've seen that big stories where the destruction of all life and reality is what's at stake? How is that possible?

The answer may be contained in the first three issues of Multiversity. Look at the various Earths and characters from across the Multiverse that Morrison is using in the story, and how he is using them, and a pattern falls out.

The Pattern

Earths in the Multiverse mainly fall into two broad categories: (1) When an existing body of work is separate from mainstream continuity, DC dubs that side continuity an "Earth" to separate it from their other titles. This includes their own past work (eg, Earth-2 in the original 1960s conception of Golden Age continuity; the Anthro and Kamandi worlds, etc.) as well as the comics worlds of other publishing companies (notably those of Charlton, Fawcett, Quality, and even Marvel). The other category, (2) consists of side realities which are created to drive a single story and are DC Earths from the original conception. For example, the Crime Syndicate's Earth-3, and the various Earths that play host to the worlds of Kingdom Come, Red Son, Red Rain, and other Elseworlds.

Broadly speaking, Earths of type (1) have been around for quite a while and have been the basis of hundreds or even several thousand stories. They also were created independently of DC's main line, and as such, lack character-by-character equivalents to DC's star lineup of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, etc. On the other hand, Earths of type (2) essentially always take one or more DC stars and perform some twist: Making them evil, switching their gender, assigning them new backgrounds, etc. They are usually around for a story or two, as opposed to the serials lasting years or decades as in type (1).

Now let's look at the plot of Multiversity: A hideously sinister threat, called the Gentry, are attacking Earths one by one, and have already destroyed one of them. A team to stop them has been formed and has set out to save the Multiverse.

In Multiversity, we have seen or will see the following worlds being subjected to attack:

Earths-7 and 8, based on the Marvel and Ultimate Marvel universes.
Earth-20, whose existing characters are based on older DC comics: three mashups of Justice Society characters, alternate Blackhawks, and an obscure character from Strange Adventures.
Earth-16, based on DC characters from the Nineties and later who were successors to the Silver Age characters. In their own world, they are also the successors to Silver Age dopplegangers, but none of the Silver Age dopplegangers, save Ray Palmer, are themselves on-panel.
Earths 4, 5, and 10 corresponding to the comics universes of Charlton, Fawcett, and Quality comics companies, respectively.
Finally, Earth-33, which is based on Earth Prime, which is based on our actual world.

Here is the pattern that sticks out: The victim Earths, besides perhaps Earth-33, are all of type (1). The heroes coming to save them are all from Earths of type (2). This is no coincidence, nor is it abstract as it may seem. It is core to Morrison's intentions.

The victims are, fundamentally, sets of characters who do not include DC's key stars or extradimensional dopplegangers of them. Earth-16 may seem to be an exception, but note that these characters are not dopplegangers of DC's stars but are, rather, their children and successors. Damian Wayne even points out that he's not the world's greatest detective, but rather his son. Note also that Earth-20 has equivalents of three members of the Justice Society, but not of the star lineup of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or the Flash; nor is there a Hal Jordan or Alan Scott.

Meanwhile, the rescue squad that Harbinger gathers is, in Morrison's own words, a Justice League of the Multiverse. There are analogues of Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman. In addition, there are a few others such as Hawkman, Gypsy and Steel. Batman is notably absent, and Dino-Cop is a wildcard, but this is, in essence, a Justice League. The Justice League saves everybody else: That is the action underlying Morrison's big message in Multiversity.

What The Pattern Means

So, Morrison is a huge fan of the DC Silver Age, so they're the real heroes and other comics can't compare – is that the whole message? It's deeper and more specific than that, and Morrison's overarching message is why Earths based on the Marvel universes had to be the first ones to fall.

Morrison has increasingly used his comics to outline a real world threat to the genre. The Superdoom threat in Morrison's Action #9, a comic book shown in Multiversity, is described by one world's Lois Lane: "We sold out! They had 500 experts lined up, thinking in harmony to streamline the Superman brand for maximum cross-spectrum, wide platform appeal. They built a violent, troubled, faceless anti-hero, concealing a tragic secret life, a global marketing icon." In Action #17, Superdoom describes itself to Superman as, "An unstoppable killer franchise from a parallel reality. A thought that gets bigger the more you think of it. The thought of a Superman better than you! The thought of a bigger Superman. A stronger, more ruthless Superman. … powered by a simple corporate directive: Annihilate the competition! … Your replacement." The idea is also articulated by Mandraak in Superman Beyond and Final Crisis but not as clearly as in Action. And in Superman Beyond, it is explained that this threat can be beaten by a better idea, the story of a child rocketed to Earth from a doomed planet.

These Action issues are a direct prequel to Multiversity. We see Calvin Ellis, the Superman of Earth-23 in both Action and Multiversity, and we see four different Earths (including two or three Luthors and Earth 20's Doc Fate) build the Transmatter Symphonic Array, a multicolored device that acts as an interdimensional portal through which this threat attacks. In three cases, we're told that the Transmatter Symphonic Array is built by someone using instructions that came to them in a dream. Another one suddenly appears in front of Chris Kent in Alexis Luthor's apartment and was perhaps built by her. That is the science fiction explanation of the interdimensional threat, but Morrison's metatextual message is laid out in the nature of Superdoom: Replacing the pure, noble heroes with violent, troubled anti-heroes, stronger and more ruthless, designed to appeal to a broader audience.

Apocalypse as a Metaphor

"Violent, troubled, anti-hero" describes almost perfectly the qualities that brought on the downfall of Earth-20, Earth-16, and Earths 7 and 8, in that order.

Violent: The Society of Super-Heroes represents the pre-Silver Age, pre-Justice League DC, with two Justice Society heroes and the Blackhawks. The issue begins with very specific articulation of vows not to kill by the Atom and the Immortal Man. Soon, their universe is beset by threats which throw the far future of comics at it: The Green Lantern storyline accelerates into the future with the Alan Scott role and uniform (1940) on Abin Sur (1959) fighting Sinestro (1960s) and Parallax (2000s). Vandal Savage from Earth-40 arrives and knows that to attack this world, he must make them kill. This is a fate that already befell Earth-40 itself, as the meteorite that gave Vandal Savage his immortality was used as a murder weapon, whereas on Earth-20 this did not occur and the rock became a holy relic. As threats from later eras of fiction arrive (Lady Shiva, zombies), the pulp heroes from the past abandon their principles. First the Atom kills Blockbuster with the Deadly Atom Punch, which fells his enemy but makes him stagger at how he abandoned his principles. The Blackhawks kill Lady Shiva, and then the Immortal Man kills Vandal Savage. This directly attracts the threat of the infected Nix Uotan, the sign that their universe has become tainted by the things that Superdoom proclaimed itself to be. The Society of Super-Heroes (and by extension, the Golden Age Justice Society that it was based upon) has no place in a world where heroes are killers. And which Golden Age / Justice Society characters are absent from this Earth? There is no Superman, no Batman, no Wonder Woman, and no Flash. Those are the characters that might have saved them, but are absent until the Multiversal Justice League arrives.

Troubled: The Just, the supeheroes of Earth-16, represent the post-Justice League DC characters, as they arose from about 1983 onward. The goodness of these superheroes dies not with a bang but a whimper. There are analogues of the Silver Age Justice League, but they are all replacements who are incapable of action. Their Superman, Chris Kent, is an ineffectual successor to Superman, not his equivalent like Calvin Ellis, the Superman of Earth-23. The best of them, Damian Wayne, is trying to rise to the occasion, but he admits that he's not the world's greatest detective, but the son of the world's greatest detective. Their Justice League only play-acts battles. Like the Lois Lane who spawned Superdoom, they sold out. They come under a form of psychic attack via comic books and movies. Their Megamorpho commits suicide. Kyle Rayner is suddenly paralyzed by memories of the murder of his girlfriend. They lack a real Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or Flash to save them. Like Earth-20, they have a version of Green Lantern, but not the real thing, whether that be Alan Scott or Hal Jordan.

Anti-heroes: We don't see this on-panel in Multiversity, but Marvel has regularly blurred the lines between heroes and villains, and Morrison uses this device with excruciating repetition in the few pages where we see Earth-8 under siege. In the first panel we see of Earth-8, Lord Havok (Doctor Doom) holds Wundajin's lightning axe (Thor's hammer Mjolnir) and other artifacts that may have direct Marvel equivalents: A villain holding a hero's weapon. Then we immediately see a hero (from Earth-7) start a fight with another hero (from Earth-8). After the Justice League of the Multiverse tries to stop the hostilities, we are reminded that Doctor Doom began as Mister Fantastic's friend and creation. Finally, the hero based on Hawkeye fires an arrow through Lord Havok's head. The blurring of heroes and villains in this scene is repeatedly asserted in just a few pages to characterize Marvel storytelling.

Who are The Gentry?

So we see that the Gentry are tied to the very same things that Superdoom represented in Action. When we translate this into Morrison's message about the superhero genre, we see why Marvel had to be the first universe that the Gentry toppled. Morrison is decrying the success of certain themes and tarnished ideals in the genre. As movies and video games supplant comic books as the dominant media conveying the superhero genre, they take the superhero genre into places that Morrison is warning us about. He is voicing in this story the reservations he has made explicitly in interviews.

Of the movie Man of Steel, Morrison said:
I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill… unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our superheroes to do that?

Of his experience in designing video games, Morrison said:
There wasn’t a big interest in novelty. They seemed more interested in working on formulas that had worked in the past.

This is what he is saying in Multiversity, with The Gentry representing the opposite of his position. When The Gentry speak to Nix Uotan, it is the metaphorical voice of video games, movies, and perhaps (given the spelling rich in contraction) social media speaking to DC comic books, telling them that they will bring ruin upon them like this:

"We want yu. We want yu 2 give up yr dreams. We want yu 2 abandon all hope. We want to make yu like us." And what is it they do to comic books? They have apparently done it to Marvel as they tell Nix Uotan, representing DC, "We crushed his courage and his heart. His dignity will die and his flesh follow. Unless yu take his place. Exchange yr life for his."

Once Nix Uotan is infected, he has become, in essence, video games, telling the superheroes he confronts, "Play a new game."

The process of ruination, Morrison is saying, starts with Marvel, then spreads to DC's pre-Silver Age and post-Silver Age. In successive one-shots, Morrison will likely show how the much smaller universes of Charlton (already pretty well wrecked by Alan Moore's Watchmen), Fawcett (recall the ruined and depraved Mary Marvel from Final Crisis and Tawky Tawny in Final Crisis suddenly and savagely killing Kalibak), and Quality (the Freedom Fighters as crushed by a Nazi Superman) had no hope of surviving in the face of such an onslaught.

Morrison's overall message seems to be: Comics are on a downward slide. Superheroes have gained great new popularity in other media (when five members of the JLA visited Earth Prime to meet Ultraa in JLA #153, almost nobody recognized them; in 2014, those JLA characters are all the subjects of current or recent TV shows and movies; everybody would recognize them). And this larger world of new readers, players, and viewers is The Gentry (note that its signature character is essentially a big eyeball). They will spend big money on movies and video games and this money will bring the whole genre down. Echoing the Gentry's comment that Nix Uotan can give himself up instead of Thunderer, Marvel will be destroyed by pandering to these forces unless DC wins the competition by pandering to it more.

Is Morrison saying that this has already happened? No, he "kinda liked" Man of Steel. He's saying that the process has begun, and that it could lead to that ruination if it continues.

What can save all of these fictional worlds is what his Justice League of the Multiverse represents: The pure, Silver Age Justice League style of heroes. Or perhaps not "style of"… perhaps only those characters exactly. As Morrison said in an interview, "With DC, the big archetypal characters are kind of like this human pantheon -- it's what we dream of when we go to bed at night." In the penultimate issue of Multiversity, the tide will turn as a once-evil Superman will be redeemed.

Making it Real

The remaining world in Multiversity that isn't really a type (1) or type (2) world according to my formulation is Earth-33, which is based on Earth Prime as seen in Silver Age stories. Morrison has stated that the events in the Earth-33 story, starring Ultraa (who debuted in the aforementioned JLA #153) will be the most terrifying thing anyone has ever created in a comic. Is this because the threat is actually real, about the real world and not about works of fiction? Maybe Morrison is talking about the possibility of the real world losing the comic books that its readers have come to enjoy. Maybe, he means, as Captain Carrot said in #1, that via the Multiple Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the things that happen in comics are actually happening to someone in a real universe and so the Joker, Reverse Flash, etc. are actually killing real people out there somewhere. Given the glimmerings we've seen so far, it may only be possible to guess at where Multiversity is leading, but it's clear where it has so far led: Morrison is writing a story that's about the whole genre, and the potential future he sees is not good.