Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Multiversity: Ultra Comics

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.


  1. Hi Rikdad. I've enjoyed your analysis since Batman RIP. I posted this question in the Multiversity Guidebook entry long after the issue came out but I think it's still relevant since it deals with an inconsistency regarding Earth-33.

    In the history of the Multiverse, Morrison writes "Only the monitors kept a record of it all, written into the fictions of Earth-33." But in the bio of that earth he says "Monitor conjecture suggests that ideas created by ordinary human minds on Earth Prime become realities on other worlds of the Multiversal Orrery structure." How is that the Monitors recorded the events of the multiverse in Earth-33 fiction yet think that other worlds spring from Earth-33? Would they not know that they planted the stories of the mulitverse in earth-33? Or that they sprung from earth-33 to begin with? Did they plant the stories there and now Earth-Prime is affecting the other earths? Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to be a contradiction.

  2. Excellent essay, Rikdad. Thank you.

    Since we've been told to anticipate, even fear Ultra Comics since at least when The Mighty Atom picked it up in Doc Fate's library, it was gratifying to sit down and read it finally.

    Will it corrupt us like it did Batman's girlfriend in The Just? Will it lead us to winking out of existence as happened to Captain Atom? Or is reading and understanding it somehow the answer to comics' salvation -- and ours?

    All I know right now is that I will bring Ultra Comics back to life at least another half-dozen times this spring. It is indeed in my head, and someone's knocking at the door.

  3. An observation: there is two Ultraa in Ultra comics. The pre-crisis, native of earth-prime and the post-crisis, the almeracian one. In Ultra comics the original Ultraa appears with white hair and the post Crisis character is the one with a braid.
    What is a mystery for me is who is the black guy who said "I know this guy". He is almost like a pun of Morrison because we have no idea who he is. But he is among the Ultra characters (Gary Concord, the multi-Alien, both Ultraas) so I can't believe he is just a throw away character. Morrison loves to give obscure references about his book and I don't believe this is an exception.

  4. Karma, if I understand your question correctly, you're trying to pin down which direction the arrow of cause-and-effect goes: Do comic book writers on Earth Prime control events on the other Earths, or do they write down stories that narrate events that were happening on those other Earths anyways?

    Ambiguity (or contradiction) on this point precedes Morrison. Showcase #4 has Barry Allen guess that Gardner Fox received the events from Earth-Two in dreams. (Note: That would be Earth-One's Gardner Fox, not Earth-Prime's Gardner Fox!) Later stories, though, including some of the Cary Bates stories involving Earth-Prime, with himself as a character, indicate that creators on Earth-Prime cause events on Earth-One (etc.) to happen.

    Even so, we might expect Morrison or any other subsequent writer to resolve any contradictions by taking a stand one way or the other. But I don't think he does.

    As a possibly (abstractly) related point, it was quite curious in Final Crisis how Darkseid's plan and Mandraak's involvement were related. Did Darkseid's plan bring about Mandraak's attack at the end, or did Mandraak's plan bring about Darkseid's plan? I think Morrison left this unresolved, another cases of tangled cause-and-effect. I've long considered that if I got a chance to interview Morrison, I'd develop a question along these lines: Was the causality in that case one way, the other, or a bizarrely intertangled affair where each equally caused the other? I suppose the same question arises here. I don't know if Morrison wants the causality to be intertangled, or if he just likes telling it one way at one time and another way at another time.

    1. I really hope you get to interview Grant Morrison one day!!! That would be so amazing to read.

  5. ManWithTenEyes,

    I was pleased with the depth and pathos of the issue, but I suspect that we'll all come away from it uninfected. If there is any art which leads to a degradation in morals, I think art which warns about a degradation in morals probably isn't it.

    I'm reminded of the difference between, say, Rambo and Apocalypse Now. Rambo makes war look fun for the winner. Apocalypse Now doesn't make anything look fun. Ultra Comics was sort of the Apocalypse Now of comic books.

    1. You mean the Rambo sequels. The first movie was also about war is not a funny thing.

  6. Alvaro, that's a good catch that the two Ultraas are distinct. I'd thought that the one turned into the other, which is what happened in the comics, I suppose.

    The guy who says, "I know you," is, I suspect, one of the Australian aboriginals who was part of Ultraa's backstory on Earth-Prime. Those were his equivalent of the Kents, who found and raised him. (They are shown, nameless, in a couple of panels of JLA #153.) Gary Concord is surrounded by the beings in his backstory, so it makes sense that Ultraa would be, too. Being from Earth-Prime, the Australian could well have read Ultra Comics the same way we did.

    I was surprised, by the way, that Ultra Boy from the Legion of Super-Heroes didn't show up, as long as Morrison was doing an "Ultra" roll call.

  7. On the nature of the book's reality-

    It had to be dark. It had to seem hopeless. It had to be delivered perfectly, as is, because intellectron would only enter the trap if he thought, if he was sure, he was going to win. It's why the ending is dark, yet a bit ambiguous.

    The last word balloon is not empty- it's blank. It's meant to be written in. You decide the ending.

    My suggestion? Read straight through. Do not skip pages. But when you get to the end, I recommend getting a pen, and writing this in the blank word balloon: 3X2(9YZ)4A.

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  9. One thing I've been thinking about is how the book's origin differs from the setting.

    Meaning that the story about Earth 5, for instance, is actually being published by creators on Earth 8, or something.

    Ultra Comics doesn't seem to be published by creators on Earth-33. It seems more likely that it is the creation of writers on Earth-0 who are telling a story of how Earth-33 has involved itself in the Multiversity Conflict.

    Earth-33 has no super heroes, only comic books that represent them. On our earth, they are not a reality, but are simply entertainment. Earth-0 is telling the story of how we use that as a weapon, or at least attempt to. Like Plato's absolute concepts, we're just throwing notes into the cave and seeing what casts shadow.

  10. It's great post! Thanks for sharing!