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.
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.