Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Multiversity: Thunderworld

The tide has turned. The sprawling, cross-universal threat has apparently met its match for the first time with the squeaky-clean Marvel family of Earth-5 flying off in victory at the end of Thunderworld, the fourth of five one-shots issues devoted to a single Earth. Between the first three issues ending on a distinctly dark note, and the upcoming finale known to be a happy ending, we see Captain Marvel and his allies turn back the Multiversal threat issued by his old nemesis, Thaddeus Bodog Sivana.

Far less complex than Pax Americana, the previous issue of Multiversity, Thunderworld nevertheless shows off Morrison’s tremendous gift of adopting someone else’s style, and putting his own twists on it. Thunderworld is, most of the time, admirably faithful to the old-style Fawcett Comics tales of Captain Marvel, which were themselves imitated in new stories published by DC in the Seventies.

The history of the Marvel feature is relevant to Morrison’s work here: Captain Marvel was the top-selling character for most of his history from 1940 until 1953, when a lawsuit by DC forced Fawcett to cease publishing the character, deemed by the court to be a violation of the copyrights on Superman. In 1973, DC licensed the characters from Fawcett and began publishing both old and new stories in a series that spitefully put Superman on the cover of the first issue (which happened to be one of the first comic books that I ever bought). To explain the long hiatus of the Marvel family, the first new story explained that Sivana had used an invention, Suspendium, to freeze time for the Marvels so that they were out of action for 20 years, awaking in 1973 to begin their adventures anew. Suspendium is quite similar to the plot device used to explain why Captain America was similarly out of publication for a decade, but rendered in terms of science fiction. Morrison has used Suspendium in 52, and his use of it here is one of only several nods in this issue to 52.

Morrison begins the story with Fourth Wall narration, the wizard Shazam comedically realizing that the reader is listening to him. As Multiversity began and will end with Fourth Wall narration, this is one way of weaving the issue into his larger structure.

An important motif in the old-time Captain Marvel stories that Morrison has used in his other works as well as here is the endless invention of variant characters. Captain Marvel’s universe was always populated with an entire roster of alternative versions of himself: a girl version of him, a younger version of him, fat, tall, and “hillbilly” versions of him, and more than one evil version of him. Morrison keeps the ball rolling by turning the Sivana children into evil Marvels before turning himself into a Sivana version of Black Adam who was himself an alternate version of Captain Marvel. The overall effect is like a department store mirror that allows one to see reflections of reflections iterating off into infinity.

The pivotal alternate-version in this issue is the alternate Rock of Eternity, which was shown in the Map of the Multiverse issues before the series began. Sivana’s plot is as follows: having discovered the Multiverse by tracking the source of Captain Marvel’s lightning, he learns through comic books about how it works. He gathers Suspendium from other universe to give himself an extra day of the week, Sivanaday, one in which he can win. After besieging the Rock of Eternity and imprisoning the wizard Shazam, he uses his alternate Rock of Eternity, one favoring science (it is covered with blinking lights and circuit diagrams) rather than magic, to make him and his family (the latter, as guinea pigs) as powerful as the Marvels, so that he can vanquish Captain Marvel at last.

Sivana will then rule the Multiverse along with all of the alternate Sivanas, who are initially portrayed as a delightful array of amusing variants on the original, one of many great displays by artist Cameron Stewart, whose talents are perfectly matched to the Marvel world. But by the issue’s end, the alternate Sivanas become dark, disturbing even the original Sivana. This is emphasized by two Sivanas who bookend the continuity of darkness: One is merely a scientist with “personal problems” who is aghast that most of the Sivanas are criminals. The other, at the far extreme of evil, is a serial killer, masked like Hannibal Lecter and dripping with blood, who has killed his own universe’s version of Captain Marvel, and wants to torture and kill more Marvels.

This is one of several cracks that appear in the otherwise squeaky-clean facade of the tale. The first is when someone notes that Billy Batson’s job as a reporter apparently violates child labor laws. Another is when Georgia Sivana flaunts her sexy curves in a low-cut top, a la Power Girl, beckoning Captain Marvel Junior to ogle her, to the dismay of Mary Marvel. This has overtones of the corrupting influence we’ve seen in earlier issues of Multiversity – the heroes who kill in Society of Super-Heroes, and the trauma felt by Kyle Rayner in The Just. But Freddy Freeman has read SOS, and it’s all a ruse. He uses the ogling to trick her into saying her name, a la Mr. Mxyzptlk, to take away her powers.

Another suggestion of Multiversal corruption bringing darkness to Earth-5 is in the appearance of the Monster Society of Evil, who appear vastly more evil than their original forms. Instead of the adorable, bug-eyed Mr. Mind, we see the legitimately hideous insect that is the central, secret villain of 52. Alongside more-evil-looking versions of Ibac, the robot Mister Atom, and others, we see a huge, Godzilla-like crocodile who appears to be Thunderworld’s version of Herkimer. The original Herkimer was a silly-looking man with a crocodile head, but this one resembles Sobek, the crocodile-man who suddenly revealed his murderous side in 52, setting Black Adam on a path of vengeance and genocide.

What saves the day is a time loop, a device that Morrison has used in Seven Soldiers, Final Crisis, Pax Americana, and now here. Billy Batson raids Sivana’s cache of Suspendium to go back to the beginning of Sivanaday and give himself a warning. Telling himself to watch the Sun (the artwork shows that a whole day-night cycle takes place in what should be only a few minutes) and watch clocks to see that Sivanaday is unusually short, because the alternate Sivanas cheated the original, giving him less time than he thought. As soon as he wins, Sivanaday ends, and Captain Marvel wins when the world goes back to normal time.

And so, this is the first issue of Multiversity with a happy ending. But perhaps that’s just a matter of tone. The issue ends with pending threats from Parallax and Niczhuotan from SOS as well as the serial killer Sivana, who now has his eye on Mary Marvel. These are perhaps no less real than the threats that conclude the series’ earlier issues, but the Marvels are simply unconcerned. They know that they’ll face them, and they know that they’ll win.

If this sets the tone for Multiversity as a whole, then we don’t need to wait for a sudden 180° turn that gives the heroes a victory in the final issue. The dark endings of Multiversity #1, SOS, and The Just gave way to an ambiguous ending for Pax Americana (depending on whether or not Captain Atom will return to resurrect President Harley), and now a light turn here. Instead of a good world turned bad, corrupted by the sex and violence of post-1986 comics, we have a world that witnesses some of those themes but remains intact. The next issue that is devoted to one Earth will be Mastermen, in which a Nazi world is eventually set right. And we can see now that Multiversity has an ornate structure: It is not simply one long arc with initial tragedy turning to a happy ending in the finale, but a hierarchical structure with the changes in fortune turning dark in the first issues, but becoming less so with successive issues. Thunderworld ends with a new dawn. Mastermen will end with the defeat of Fascism. Whatever darkness the Gentry represent, Morrison sees the light beyond them.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Retro Review: Neil Gaiman's Sandman

The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and a few other works of their time showed that the superhero genre and the comic book medium could be raised to a higher level of artistic expression. Neil Gaiman's Sandman realized that potential perhaps further than any work before or since. Although conceived, named, and published like a superhero comic, Sandman was something else, something more. It attracted readers who were never interested in superheroes, and arguably stands still as the high-water mark of the medium.

The central character is referred to as Sandman only rarely, is sometimes called Dream – in Gaiman’s formulation of seven siblings known as the Endless – and in a nod to Classical mythology, is most often called Morpheus. In this threefold naming alone, Gaiman shows his power to blend DC superhero continuity, established cultural and literary tradition, and his own inventions. As the series goes on, Gaiman also weaves literature, history, current events, pop culture, science, and science fiction into his story, and it is his ability to draw on such a vast number of subjects that makes Neil Gaiman himself perhaps the most fascinating character of the series. Gaiman has an expansive world in his mind and his ability to draw upon such a vast array of sources makes Sandman a richer work than all but the rarest literature. The reader is invited to research what his sources and inspirations were, and in the process could inevitably learn a great deal about such wildly different topics as the French Revolution, the history of Baghdad, and demonology and the occult. One of the series’ most remarkable issues is devoted to an exploration of mortuary science, with Gaiman inventing an entire society devoted to funerary preparation. There is simply more effort evident in most issues of Sandman than almost any issue of almost any other series; time and time again, Gaiman pulls off the challenge masterfully, delivering one fascinating story after another.

Structurally, the series' 75 issues tell one long story, with many coherent tales of several issues each woven together with many one-issue tales. The larger arc is that of Morpheus' downfall, beginning with a decades-long imprisonment at the hand of some English occultists, and a complex story, after he regains his freedom, in which he provokes several of his old enemies and gains a few new ones. Many characters on Earth and other realms are sent reeling into tragedies and triumphs of their own as byproducts of Morpheus' own struggles. The plot is ornate and interconnected, with minor cameos early sometimes spinning off into maxi-arcs of eight issues.

Sandman diverges from the superhero genre so early and often that listing the ways in which it breaks from tradition is dizzying, but elucidates both Sandman and the works that came before it. Morpheus is not a hero. He feels a duty to the unique office that he holds, but he is motivated to maintain order, not to utilize his considerable power to eliminate suffering. And there is much suffering in Sandman. There is an astonishing number of murders, rapes, and other acts of cruelty in Sandman, many of which go unavenged. But one of the best characteristics of Sandman is that Gaiman is driven neither to uphold nor mindlessly reject tradition: He does protect the innocent and avenge injustice when the situation and his well-developed character demand that he behave that way. Morpheus is mindful of justice, and at times delivers it, but follows his own motives in each situation, whether this means that he behaves as a hero or watches a crime with total indifference.

While not a cruel being, Morpheus is selfish, and his own shortcomings accumulate throughout the story until they help bring about his undoing. This larger pattern of Greek tragedy is one of Sandman’s finest homages to literary tradition. Misstep by misstep, Morpheus allows his enemies to move against him, and the series’ largest act of justice is that the title character himself ultimately pays for his many sins with his own destruction. And yet, the reader feels compassion for him, even as some of the smallest and most trivial acts of carelessness on his part become the most fatal. After eons in which Morpheus selfishly allowed others to be destroyed, he is ultimately doomed by at least three acts of kindness and obligation, and blamed for at least one crime that he did not commit. A reader cannot read this and not feel; those feelings are frequently beautiful, and frequently painful.

In one of many ways it broke from established tradition, it ran for a finite length and despite commercial and critical success, ended when the writer reached, from a creative standpoint, an ending. Possessing a definite ending is one of several characteristics that Sandman holds in common with other groundbreaking works of its decade. However, while works such as Waid and Ross’ Kingdom Come, Watchman, and other works by Alan Moore show a dark hollowness to superheroes, Sandman neither affirms nor rejects the genre. He follows a course that draws upon worlds of science fiction, myth, literature, history, folklore, dark magic, and – at times – superheroes. He is steadfast neither in embracing the superhero genre nor rejecting it.

Gaiman uses the Garrett Sanford and Hector Hall Sandmen as symbols of the superhero genre gone wrong, too trite to stand up to the grim realities of his larger story. But he also uses the Bizarro concept from Superman comics as a genuinely meaningful inspiration for a transsexual character, and it says much that an observer as gifted in his breadth as Gaiman find a superhero story to be worthy of such a mention. Late in the series, Superman, Batman, the Martian Manhunter, and Wesley Dodds return in minor appearances, affirming that Gaiman never forgot where the creative inspiration for Sandman began. Another comic book inspiration is from House of Mystery / House of Secrets: Gaiman gives more than their due to the storytelling characters Cain and Abel and their associates, brilliantly capturing the dark comedy of the original series, which was itself a world under the DC title that, like Gaiman's work, sometimes crossed over with that of the superheroes, but never matched it in tone.

For me, Sandman is a story of the fall, both a fall in the sense of the ruin of its central character, and the autumn, when night comes early. For its expansive scope, its take on familiar characters, and its tone appropriate to the autumn season, I feel its call every year, and will surely return to read it in its entirety many, many times.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Superhero Annotations

Neil Gaiman's Sandman begins in the DC Universe of its time, the post-Crisis DC Universe with a huge roster of characters and history going back decades. Although the tone of Gaiman's work is very distinct from mainstream superhero comics, he makes many references to DC continuity, from the Golden Age, up through the mystery-themed comics of the Seventies, and up to his present, including the idiosyncratic Justice League of that time.

Because Sandman attracted many readers who did not otherwise read comic books, an annotation explaining references to DC superheroes is probably useful for many of Gaiman's fans. Here, I give an issue-by-issue breakdown of references to DC continuity throughout the Sandman series and hope that they are useful to Gaiman fans who might otherwise be disoriented by the obscure references to DC lore.

One sees that after many references to DC superheroes in the first third or so of the series, there are far fewer after that, until a few superhero cameos in the last few issues.

Sandman Superhero Annotations

Background: In 1939, Sandman, one of the first comic book superheroes, debuted. Like Batman, he was a rich man who dressed up in a costume to fight crime, primarily at night. This Sandman, real name Wesley Dodds, was never as popular as Batman, and the character went out of publication after a few years, although he was revived many years later.

A new Sandman, Garrett Sanford, appeared for just a few issues in the 1970s, with the look of a superhero, but living and acting in a dimension of dreams rather than the physical world. Hector Hall, the son of the original Hawkman superhero, took Sanford's place in 1983.

Gaiman's Sandman, also known as Morpheus or simply Dream, borrows the name and the approximate appearance of the Wesley Dodds version of the superhero, but is an immortal supernatural being who predates human existence and is the ruler of the Dreaming, the realm of dreams. Loosely inspired by the earlier Sandmen, Morpheus is, in Gaiman's telling, the real Sandman, and the others are explained as temporary human spinoffs inspired by him. They all appear in Gaiman's epic, to varying degrees.

These notes are organized by issue (labeled with a "#") and, where applicable, page number.

 7 Dream's appearance is like that of the superhero Sandman.
18 The superhero Sandman is shown on the same month as his actual debut.

 Cain, Abel, the House of Mystery, and the three witches are all DC characters who narrated mystery stories, alternately grim and comic in tone, which only rarely intersected with the DC superheroes.
 8 Arkham Asylum is where Batman's mentally ill villains are held.
 8 Doctor Destiny is a Justice League villain who specialized in the ability to control dreams.
 9 The Justice League took away Doctor Destiny's ability to dream in order to neutralize the threat he presented to them. This drove him insane and gave him a ghastly appearance.
 21 John Constantine has magical powers.
 21 We see two Justice League members, Green Lantern and Batman.

  7 Superman
  9 The big, green bloke is Swamp Thing, a plant-man hybrid of great power.

Etrigan is a demon who is bound to the body of a man, Jason Blood.
19 Anti-life is the goal of the evil god-like character, Darkseid of Apokolips.

  3 Doctor Jonathan Crane is Batman's villain the Scarecrow.
  5 Granny Goodness is one of the evil gods under Darkseid.
  7 Scott Free is Mister Miracle of the New Gods, the good counterparts to Darkseid. He was at this time a member of the Justice League.
 13 Doctor Destiny altered gravity and posed as Green Lantern.
 14 J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars, is a Justice League member.

 23 Mister Dent is the Batman villain Two Face.

 Matthew Cable was a character in Swamp Thing who died. Here, he has been resurrected as a raven.

 Hector Hall is the son of the Golden Age Hawkman, later a new Sandman
 Lyta Trevor is the daughter of the Golden Age Wonder Woman
 Sanford was yet another, short-lived, DC Sandman.

 Johanna Constantine, appearing here for the first time, is the ancestor of John Constantine.

 23 Destiny has appeared as an immortal force of nature in DC comics since 1972. Gaiman uses this existing character as one of the seven Endless, the other six being original Gaiman inventions.

Urania Blackwell, Element Girl, is the female counterpart of Metamorpho. Like him, she can transform her body into any element at will.

 12 Steve Trevor is the traditional boyfriend of Wonder Woman.

 19 Eve, like Cain and Abel, narrated DC mystery titles.

 15 The Wesley Dodds Sandman is seen fighting in an eternal battle between his team, the Justice Society, and Norse gods. This was the premise of a story that wrote the Justice Society out of DC continuity for several years.

 17 Hyperman, Lila Lake, and Weirdzo are named here for the first time as variants on Superman, Lois Lane,  and Bizarro, implying that DC superheroes are no longer part of the Sandman reality.
 18 Now Bizarro is mentioned. An error?

 12 This is the Bizarro Lois Lane, again.

  4 Variants on Superman (DC) and Spider-Man (Marvel).

 Prez was a DC series in the Seventies.
 13 Wildcat (Ted Grant) is a boxer who became a superhero, debuting in 1942.

 19 The Golden Age Sandman is in the procession.

 19 A retcon made the Fury, not Wonder Woman, Lyta's mother.

 22 Superman, Batman, and the Martian Manhunter speak about different
  versions of themselves as dreams. Superman and Batman have been the
  subject of TV shows. The Martian Manhunter has not.

 11 Wesley Dodds is the Golden Age Sandman.