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:
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 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.
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.
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.