Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Multiversity: Mastermen

Multiversity: Mastermen is set on a world that was created in stages. The Quality Comics characters that appeared as separate features during the Forties were put together on a team for the first time in JLA #107 in 1973. This story re-imagined the Freedom Fighters as the Resistance to a Nazi regime that had won World War Two on Earth X thanks to a mind-control machine. The next stop on the path to Mastermen is a panel in 52 #52 that shows the Freedom Fighters battling Nazi superheroes on Earth-10 (perhaps a conversion from the Roman numeral X). Since then, Grant Morrison has shown us more of Overman in Superman Beyond and Final Crisis, establishing his origin, the loss of his cousin, Overgirl, and that the man has a moral sense despite his use as the wonder weapon that gave Adolf Hitler control over the world.

Mastermen begins, unforgettably, with Adolf Hitler committing a necessary biological function. He is reading a comic book that appears to be akin to "What If Superman Ended the War?” which appeared in Look magazine in early 1940. A fictional version of World War Two entered Superman stories a couple of months later in Action Comics and soon, well before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazi threat became a staple of American comic books, including Captain America (homaged in Mastermen) and in Quality Comics, whose characters are here, as in JLA #107, the resistance to Nazi rule.

In Mastermen, Overman's troubled conscience drives him, at last, to action. He is converted to the rebel side and watches from afar as a tiny flash of light that we see on the Moon indicates that the Freedom Fighters are destroying a lunar base, with Overman's aid and approval.

The Multiversal aspect of the story that begins with Hitler's comic books continues with a Nazi Sivana (who is therefore good? evil?), in league with the resistance, helps Uncle Sam form the Freedom Fighters, whose members are survivors of groups that the Nazis had almost exterminated. From their base, adorned with symbols of things the Nazis hated, from a 48-star American flag, to jazz music, and Rosie the Riveter, they launched the attack that failed, tactically, but converted Overman to their side. The other Multiversal intrusion is Lord Broken, of the Gentry, infesting Overman's dreams. Here, as with Sivana, the inversion of good and evil makes a double negative into a positive, as Lord Broken's malevolence helps awaken Overman's goodness.

This issue is memorable for its gut-punch ending. The typical superhero comic shows a threat, and once it manifests, the heroes battle back to their inevitable victory. The violation of this pattern in Mastermen calls attention to how much we readers expect it. Here, the future of the story is told with exceeding brevity in narration from the Nazi Jimmy Olsen, with selections from a memoir that he wrote after the fact. In the story's main action, we see Overman permit the Freedom Fighters to launch a massive blow, devastating Earth-10's Metropolis. We know from the spare excerpts of Jürgen's memoir that what happens next is the end of the Nazi regime, with Overman's assistance, and that in time, Jürgen helps destroy Overman. But we see only the first part of this drama, with Overman kneeling, overcome with emotion, in the ruins of a devastated Metropolis. The war obviously follows, Overman and the Freedom Fighters end the Nazi rule, and Overman is somehow, eventually, destroyed.

For how little is shown, there is a complex and brilliant blend of influences and themes in those few pages. The flash of light seen on the Moon to indicate rebels overthrowing an evil regime was used by Morrison at the end of his Justice League story Rock of Ages, as Batman then tells Darkseid to look up so as to see the same thing. The one and only act that we see of the rebellion begins and ends with Overman at the opera, where Wagner's Götterdämmerung is being performed. This opera depicts the "Twilight of the Gods," and ends with the hall of the gods on fire. That parallels the way the Nazi Justice League, the New Reichsmen, is destroyed by the Human Bomb's attack, with superheroes standing in for gods, a theme important in Morrison's work. It also hearkens back to Alan Moore's unpublished, "Twilight of the Superheroes," which would have ended the timeline of DC's superheroes while making the same parallel. A possible cinematic inspiration for Uncle Sam's gigantic, looming apparition at the opera is Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which begins the destruction of the Nazi leaders during the screening of a film in a theatre with all top Nazis in attendance. Then, as Overman brings the exploding Justice League satellite to Metropolis, the scene resembles the September 11 attacks, with a vehicle coming by surprise from clear skies to topple towers in America's preeminent city. After this, we don't need to see more.

The title, "Splendour Falls," describes the revolution that follows, but it also acknowledges that the aftermath of Nazi victory is splendour, a painful moral conundrum that Overman faces: When the victims have long since been killed, what form can justice take? However much Overman publicly regrets the Holocaust, what is to be done after it is utterly complete? Jürgen notes that the postwar Earth-10 is a virtual paradise. Even if the "Hitler era" was full of sin, is there anything just for the Aryan survivors to do but enjoy the results? The Freedom Fighters think so, and Overman, unhappy with his marriage to Earth-10's Lana Lang, unhappy with his victory, and at heart, deep down, always a good man, begins to atone for his sins. In some way that we don't see, this destroys him, and in our judgment, it profits the man that he loses the world but gains his soul.

This is the last of five "middle" issues of Multiversity that is dedicated to showing one alternate world full of superheroes facing the Gentry's attack. The Guidebook was something more intricate, and the upcoming Ultra Comics promises to be something different, leading into the finale. Multiversity has been a showcase of Morrison's wonderful ability to synthesize original concepts into wonderful new variants, from Earth-40's brain-transplanted version of Blockbuster to the intricate translation of Watchmen into a new story to all the many alternate Sivanas and superhero names translated into German-language equivalents like Underwaterman. Multiversity has been a wonderful success in terms of style. Even with two issues remaining, it begins to appear that when Multiversity ends, many readers will be left wishing it could continue.


  1. I've been enjoying your takes on Multiversity so far, but I don't entirely agree with your characterization of this one. Morrison said in a recent interview that every world we see in Multiversity, including the seemingly-benign Thunderworld, is warped and corrupted underneath the surface, some of them in ways that will only become apparent once we see the final issue. This world, Earth-10, is the one most overtly corrupted down to it's foundations, in keeping with escalation common to any story like this.

    Unlike most Morrison superhero stories, there's a lot of moral ambiguity among the characters that would normally serve as "heroes". The status quo is a paradise built on death and fascism, with a Batman who justifies his family's part in the Nazi regime and who legitimately seems to enjoy torture, but the "Freedom Fighters" are legitimately terrorists, using ambiguously safe technology created by a Nazi Scientist who is part of a coalition of alternate versions of himself trying to gain primacy over the multiverse. And Overman's "redemption" involves ruining his beloved cousin's funeral and killing what was almost certainly hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. The dream of Lord Broken was a big clue, Earth 10 is spiritually corrupt, and neither the Freedom Fighters nor the Nazi Justice League are the "good" guys, because the world as a whole has been so perverted by the Gentry.

  2. Twibbler, you've convinced me there is a deeper look to be had. How do the good/bad of Earth-10 break down, and how do the Gentry fit into it?

    On Earth-20, good/bad had a lot to do with what was new to comics back then. We saw primarily newer villains (besides Vandal Savage) against older heroes. There was a sense of corruption, and on Earth-4, that was definitely true, with sexuality and murderous violence something the old Captain Marvel stories certainly never had.

    But on Earth-10, the evil starts with Hitler, and Hitler was in comics from the beginning, as we see from the comics in his hands. But he was a buffoon in those comics. Morrison makes him an even bigger buffoon in this one, but there is a distinction: Morrison shows him in a moment that the old comics never would have dared, and I think that's significant, not just for a laugh.

    JLA #107 showed us that the Nazis had won on Earth X, but Morrison's showing us the Holocaust, with the smoke of human bodies coming out of chimneys.

    And, you're right, destroying a city run by victorious Nazis is a hollow moral victory, and seemingly needless. Overman's conscience is laudable, but his actions after that point start off badly.

    Hitler was evil from the beginning, but the comics made him a simpleton. The Gentry make him and his whole world worse than comics ever did, from machine-gunning a baby (yes, he survives, but it's the thought that counts) to Earth-10's September 11.

    Maybe the redemption of Earth-10 is coming later: Multiversity #2 has Earth-10's Flash on the cover.

    1. That seems possible, the only obstacle I see is that there's so much to wrap up that, as good as Morrison is, not everything will necessarily be tied up in a bow. As for redemption, I think none of these worlds have been entirely redeemed and won't be until the Gentry is taken care of.

  3. Great article, Rikdad, as always. If it helps, here are a few more allusions to the Nibelungen operas that I found while I was reading Mastermen:

    1. I like this a lot too, I am unfamiliar with opera in general but this is interesting and I agree with your take for the most part.

  4. globegander, that's an outstanding analysis! I was vaguely aware of a couple of the points you raise, but that's a thorough breakdown! I may have more detailed reply when I have time to read it over more carefully.

    Morrison used an opera for allegory in his Batman story, "Gothic," and I'm glad to see someone catching more of the details underneath than I was able to.