Ultra Comics is real. (I’m using italics very consciously to distinguish the character and the comic book.) Of all the superheroes, you've ever read about, this one, set on Earth-33, which is our world, is actually real. I was part of him, and when you read Ultra Comics, so are you. Everything that happens to him is real, and when you put the comic book down, he dies. When you pick it up again, he lives. Ultra Comics is in a time loop, like the ones Grant Morrison used in Final Crisis and elsewhere, but unlike those, this one is real, and when you read Ultra Comics again, Ultra Comics, the superhero, comes back to life. His death is so tragic every time the issue ends, how do you have the heart not to read it again?
Ultra Comics is in a trap, and it's real. It's an allegory for the comic book industry as a whole, but as far as it – he – is concerned, it's real. Made of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (just like all your favorite comic books), Ultra Comics begins majestic and pristine a few pages into the story, then quickly goes through the history of superhero comics, with four consecutive panels representing, roughly, the Forties, Sixties, Eighties, and 2000's. In this sequence, he goes from fighting crooks to fighting monsters plaguing a sexualized young woman, mourning a death, and then bloodily causing one.
Then, when Ultra Comics is sent on his first adventure, into what looks like the ruins of New York, his corporate creator tells us that Ultra Comics and all of us have been led into a trap, and readers who aren't going too quickly will notice that the man in a suit has the dark bat wings of the Gentry's Intellectron behind him.
As Ultra Comics examines the unpopulated ruins of New York, he finds a faded billboard showing the 1939 comic book character Ultra-Man, a character like John Carter of Mars who debuted, then appeared in All-Star Comics #1 before being cut from the series when the Justice Society took it over two issues later. There is a caption, incidentally, in the "Kryptonese" font, but this appears to be nonsense, deciphering as "ABC EDH G G K N." Soon, he battles an amalgamation of an evil Justice League and Ultra-Man’s original cast of villains set in the world of 2240 (three hundred years after they were written). It is because Ultra-Man was set in the future that he was, in essence, the first DC superhero who couldn’t join the Justice Society.
Ultra Comics soon finds, and saves, a version of the Newsboy Legion, but they're all twisted and sinister, and his namesakes Ultra-Man and Ultraa. It turns out that Ultraa, who debuted in JLA #153, is the dark leader of this band of cannibals. Ultra Comics is condemned by a jury of history’s (and comicdom’s) villains in a court led by the Devil in a scene out of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” They subject Ultra Comics to an apathy ray, and Ultraa takes a bite out of Ultra Comics' head, eating the crystal that gives him his greatest powers. All the while, captions representing fan opinions (and seeming very true to the spirit of them) complain about the quality of what we're reading.
This is true to the original Ultraa. When the Justice League visited Earth Prime, they happened to encounter Ultraa immediately after his public debut. Almost immediately, Ultraa, Earth Prime’s first superhero, was pursued by a supervillain. At the end of the story, he felt responsible for the existence of the supervillain, that his presence “infected” Earth Prime with superpeople, good and bad alike, and left Earth Prime for Earth One to save his home dimension from further trouble. In a later pre-Crisis appearance, he decides to rid Earth One of superheroes, and uses an apathy gun in an attack on the Justice League. This apathy weapons is used on Ultra Comics in Ultra Comics. Post-Crisis, Ultraa (whose home dimension, Earth Prime, no longer exists) is retconned as a resident of Maxima’s homeworld of Almerac, something he refers to as his origin in this story, too.
Ultra Comics apologizes to the reader just as Ultraa did to the people of Earth Prime back in 1978, for exposing us to evil. After he cleverly disposes of Ultraa, he faces the now-unmasked Intellectron, who also admits that he exposed us to evil, but isn’t apologetic about the fact. It is because corrupting influences have been disguised as something benevolent that Little Red Riding Hood is the central figure of the children: The comic book is her grandmother, but beneath its clothing is the wolf, images of destruction and bloody murder, sex and violence, and all of the corrupting influence that Ultra Comics was seen to have on characters in Multiversity. And in case we forgot that this story is real, Intellectron downplays the harm that he revels in, saying, “This is only silly comm-ix. Makes no sense. Only pretend! Go on – read on! What harm can come to yu?” And lest we forget who “yu” is, he goes on, “Earth-Prime. There yu are,” with his malevolent eye looking at us. This moment hits home powerfully when he looks at us again and says, “Kneel before yur new master. Turn the page. Do it. Slave.” And I did. You did, too, didn’t you?
Ultra Comics counterattacks in three ways: Readers ask for a happy ending and get a happy ending (or happy middle, in this case.) Noting that “Text is vulnerable to criticism,” Ultra Comics observes as realistic fan responses criticize the worthiness of Intellectron as a character. And, finally, Ultra Comics, though dying on the last page, knows that he’ll be reborn whenever another reader opens Ultra Comics, allowing him to be reborn, though bloodied, on the first page. And lest we feel too badly for Ultra Comics in his ever-recycling purgatory of existing and dying every time a reader opens this issue, remember that he’s going to outlive us. One day, I’ll die. So will you. But Ultra Comics will live on, and sometime after my death, and yours, some reader will open this comic again, and Ultra Comics will live, temporarily, after we’re gone.
This is dark stuff, and it’s powerful. It, like Flex Mentallo, discusses superheroes as fictional constructs, and like Superman Beyond, discusses the superhero’s power of having a positive, likeable idea at the core and being able to rejuvenate by coming back to be read about again, responding to death with, “To Be Continued.” Morrison has the voices in this issue articulate some very serious criticism of the darkness in comic books, and he’s not dismissing that perspective. He sees some real harm at stake here, and that’s what the Gentry has always represented, the infection of darker subject matter that we allow into our heads when we wanted a good time. And we may wonder if it’s coincidence that Grant Morrison is delivering this message now, as he effectively ends his run on monthly DC superhero comics, just as Alan Moore denounced the medium just as he wrote his final works in the genre. There is redemption for the genre, yes, as Morrison has said in interviews, and as he says in this issue, but the criticism sticks. The characters in preceding issues of Multiversity have been disturbed by what they read in Ultra Comics, and not without good reason. Maybe good and productive members of society have better things to do with the limited time we have on the planet than to read about zombies sucking the eyeballs out of people’s heads. The favorable response that readers had to Multiversity:Thunderworld is an implicit answer to that what’s worth celebrating in these stories doesn’t require all the blood and gore and rape that has become increasing common as the decades go by.