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.
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?
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.