Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Multiversity: And I thought getting one degree was going to be expensive...

The Multiversity
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Cameron Stewart, Chris Sprouse, Frank Quitely, Ben Oliver, Doug Mahnke, Jim Lee, et al.

I really want to like Grant Morrison. He’s written some of my favorite comics of all time, and most of the time, even his less successful projects are crammed full of interesting ideas. But something seems to have happened to him over the course of the last decade, most of which he has spent slaving away in the halls of DC Comics. There are stories about him filling notebooks with concepts for reimaginations of various characters pulled from the forgotten margins of the publisher’s 70-plus year history, and there are his extended runs on series like Batman, Action Comics, 52, and Final Crisis, much of which has since been paved over by rebooted continuity. It seems like at some point, he became so engulfed by all this silly, spandex-clad nonsense that it seemed to grow in importance, as if it all really meant something and really contained the key to, I don’t know, the meaning of life or some profound shit like that (his memoir, Supergods, seems like a cry for help from within these trenches).

That’s about the only way I can explain this odd mess of an “event” series that probably only mattered to dedicated Morrison fans. He seems to have taken one last big swing at sorting out the mess of DC mulitiversal continuity, as if that’s a goal that anyone should aspire to. So, this series not only posits yet another threat that promises to destroy Earths across the multiverse, but in fighting it, the heroes (none of whom actually come from the “true” DC universe that all of DC’s other comics take place in, as far as I can tell) discover the makeup of DC’s multiversal reality, and all 52 variants in said reality are defined (with a few “unknown” Earths left over, in case somebody gets a really neat idea for an Elseworlds story somewhere down the line).

The story does start off kind of intriguingly, with some freaky monsters called The Gentry that seem pretty unstoppable destroying some universes, some “haunted” comics (which are actually the various comics that make up this series) popping up on various Earths and causing the people who read them to get sucked into the conflict, and one of Morrison’s pet characters, Nix Uotan, first setting off to fight the Gentry and then becoming corrupted by them, giving the first “bookend” issue of the series its cliffhanger ending.

But before getting to the concluding bookend issue, Morrison dives into the real meat of the series, which are a bunch of one-shot stories taking place on various Earths. Some of these tie into the larger story, while others are just variations on standard superheroic tropes or Morrisonian takes on other creators’ styles. Let’s look at each one:

Society of Superheroes, illustrated by Chris Sprouse, is a pretty enjoyable take on superheroes as old-fashioned pulp characters, with Doctor Fate, Immortal Man, the Atom (the original Golden Age strong-guy-in-a-mask, not the guy who shrinks), and a few others fighting an invasion from another alternate Earth, leading to lots of fights with bad guys like Vandal Savage, Lady Shiva, and Felix Faust. It’s decent enough, especially since Sprouse’s art makes most any story look good, but it’s also pretty grim, with the battle between heroes and villains turning into a years-long war that leads to untold death and destruction around the globe. With its easy to follow action (something Morrison can do well when he’s teamed up with the right artist), this ends up being one of the better installments, although it ends with a portentous indication that seems to point to something important happening in the big series finale, but when that finale does roll around, this issue doesn’t really end up mattering to the big picture.

The Just, illustrated by Ben Oliver, seems to be Morrison’s attempt to slot superheroes into another genre, the teen soap opera. On this Earth, Superman, Batman, and the other heroes we’re used to are all dead, and their children are left to sort of fill their shoes. However, there’s also no crime, due to an army of super-robots that Superman left behind. This means that all the superpowered children are left to hang around and exhibit angst and ennui, while legacy versions of heroes, like Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and Green Arrow Connor Hawke, spend their time restaging past battles in the abandoned wreckage of their original locations. The issue ends up being kind of interesting, like a better-thought-through version of Mark Millar’s Jupiter’s Legacy, with character relationships that are fleshed out quite well (Superman Chris Kent and Batman Damian Wayne are at odds, mostly because Batman is dating Lex Luthor’s daughter, while other heroic offspring spend their time worrying about parties and fame) and a mystery that seems to tie into the larger Multiversity plot (but, like many of these one-shots, doesn’t really). Unfortunately, it ends with a cliffhanger that seems like it could go somewhere interesting and exciting, but we’ll never get to see what that is.

Pax Americana, illustrated by Frank Quitely, is probably the most ambitious of these one-shots, since it provides Morrison with a chance to take on one of his perpetual adversaries: Alan Moore. Yes, this is Morrison’s take on Watchmen, using the Charlton characters (Blue Beetle, the Question, Captain Atom, etc.) that Moore used as inspiration for his magnum opus, inadvertently setting Morrison on the course of jealousy and antagonism ever since. With Quitely providing the art, Morrison is free to go crazy with formal ideas, a non-chronological plot, and pages that stick to a rigid format (he uses variations on a 4x2 grid here, rather than Moore’s 3x3 structure), but while it certainly looks good, it doesn’t rise to the level he’s shooting for. Instead, it’s kind of a bunch of nonsense and riffs on the characterization of the versions of the various figures from Watchmen. The take on Captain Atom/Dr. Manhattan is interesting, with the fractured chronology pushing scenes that take place in the past toward the end of the issue, revealing the character struggling with his loss of humanity and being given purpose by the man who will later become president and engineer his own death, for reasons that don’t necessarily make sense. In the end, it’s kind of sad, a naked attempt by Morrison to reckon with his primary influence’s most influential (if not necessarily his best) work, and he comes up short, creating something mysterious and empty, without the fully realized characters and bold ideas of the original.

Thunderworld Adventures, illustrated by Cameron Stewart, is probably the most enjoyable part of the entire series, and interestingly, it’s also one of the stories that has the most impact on the overall plot. It’s a take on the classic Captain Marvel stories of C.C. Beck, and it’s a hoot, with Captain Marvel and his various sidekicks facing off against Dr. Sivana, who, with the help of a bunch of his alternate selves from across the DC multiverse, has engineered his own version of the Rock of Eternity, created Sivana-imitating evil versions of Captain Marvel and his sidekicks, and also managed to add a new day, Sivanaday, to the calendar, during which he always wins. The resulting battles are fun and exciting, and Morrison comes up with inventive ways to use the crazy combinations of magic and technology that this milieu provides. And we see that what happens here even actually matters to the overall story, with the various alternate Sivanas causing more trouble in later chapters of the series and the issue ending with the Marvel family charging off to help fight the big bad guys. If the rest of the series had been more like this, maybe I wouldn’t be complaining about it.

The Multiversity Guidebook is an odd combination of comics and informational text, awkwardly slotted into the middle of the series. It features some scenes that pertain to the overall plot, with alternate versions of Dr. Sivana causing trouble for people on other Earths, including one where all the characters are cutesy kid versions of themselves and one where Batman is a freedom fighter in a techno-dystopian landscape. There’s also an interesting bit following Kamandi and some friends (including Ben Boxer, who is able to turn himself into BiOMAC, the Bio-factored One-Man Army Corps) as they investigate Darkseid’s tomb and find out about the origin of the DC multiverse, which is actually pretty interesting, and much better than the silly version of the Judeo-Christian creation myth that Geoff Johns came up with in Blackest Night. But then the book pauses in order to provide a map of the multiverse and illustrated descriptions of every Earth therein, and frankly, this collection of alternate versions of DC superheroes is pretty underwhelming. Look, there’s a steampunk Earth! Hey, it’s a vampire Earth! I guess this one is a sort of sciencey Earth? And maybe in this one everybody just has different names and costumes? After the umpteenth version of “Superman, only this time he’s dressed like a pirate/robot/woman”, you begin to wonder what happened to Morrison’s boundless imagination. And then the story kicks back in, and while it’s kind of cool that the characters are holding the very book you are currently reading and using it to discover the secrets underpinning their reality, one begins to wonder if maybe the creativity well is running dry, and this is all less of an exercise in possibility than one in inevitability.

And sure enough, we proceed on to Mastermen, illustrated by Jim Lee, in which Superman is a Nazi. Yawn. Morrison tries to wrest some interest out of the concept by having Nazi Superman try to reckon with the crimes that his nation has committed (but which he didn’t participate in; we see a flashback in which he returns to Earth after he apparently decided to spend three years in space right in the middle of World War II, and he is horrified to discover that the Holocaust occurred in his absence). There are some gestures at a plot involving Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters rising up to proclaim the spirit of the United States and fight back against their Nazi oppressors, but it’s all rather uninteresting, and like most of these one-shots, it doesn’t end up making a lick of difference to what happens in the series’ main plot.

Things seem to be looking up with Ultra Comics, illustrated by Doug Mahnke. This one seems to be Morrison’s bizarre take on Superboy Prime, who was the only superhero on Earth-Prime, the “real” world that we, the readers and creators of DC comics, live in. This is certainly the most inventive story in the series, breaking the fourth wall on nearly every page, with the main character and other, more sinister figures addressing the readers directly. The character himself is actually called Ultra Comics, and he’s the living embodiment of the actual comic that you’re reading, which is one hell of a goofy concept, and he gives Morrison a chance to let his freak flag fly and go nuts with all sorts of crazy ideas, like the fact that the comic is being read by thousands of people across a long period of time gives the character untold powers of imagination, as well as a chance to influence the reader directly and maybe even cause them to be endangered by the big villains of the series. He also comes up against some really bizarre villains, jumps around within the chronology of the comic itself in order to gain the power to fight the Gentry, and utilizes the demoralizing power of internet commenters as a weapon. I don’t know if it all really makes sense, but it’s one of the few places in the series where the old Morrison seems to resurface, and I kind of love it.

Unfortunately, things dive back into yawnsville with the concluding chapter of the series, which resembles nothing so much as Morrison’s own Final Crisis, which also featured versions of DC heroes from across the multiverse fighting against a barely-comprehensible threat. This one is mostly one long fight scene of the type that’s hard to follow because it’s on a large enough scale that it doesn’t really make sense. There are a few interesting bits, like when the various Dr. Sivanas trick each other into fleeing into alternate Earths that happen to be inhabited by heroes that can easily defeat them (for instance, vampire Sivana ends up going to a world where a team of monster-hunters led by Superdemon Etrigan take him out pretty much instantly), or a bit during the big battle when Captain Carrot, the rabbit superhero who follows cartoon logic, gets decapitated and has to reunite his head with his body before his superpowers stop working. 

The main conflict in most of this final issue takes place between a bunch of heroes and the corrupted Nix Uotan, who, it turns out, has managed to undo the Gentry’s plan from within, since by opening doors to every Earth, which they wanted him to do so they could invade and conquer, he allows all the heroes to come together and defeat them. Or something like that. We also apparently learn that the Gentry are called that because their ultimate goal is gentrification, which I guess is Morrison’s way of saying that DC continuity shouldn’t be cleaned up and made “proper”, but should remain crazy and hard to understand and full of all sorts of weird versions of stuff. But doesn’t this entire series (not to mention the whole “New 52” reboot) kind of go against that premise? It’s a weird, self-contradictory stance to take, if that’s even what Morrison is doing.

He takes an even weirder tack with the revelation of the Big Bad, a shadowy figure controlling the Gentry from behind the scenes and who, as far as I can tell, is meant to be a stand-in for the readers themselves. After this revelation, the story ends kind of anticlimactically, with this villain simply disappearing, maybe to return in a sequel that will probably never happen. But we do get a final statement of purpose from another Morrison pet character, the alternate version of Superman who is an African-American President of the United States, in which he threatens the readers of the comic and says he and his new team of multi-dimensional heroes are coming to get them.

That’s certainly an odd note to end on, with a threat to readers, apparently condemning them for not liking DC comics enough, but it’s kind of evocative of the strange nature of this series. On one hand, it’s Morrison’s chance to demonstrate the untapped possibilities of DC superheroes, spinning them off into different sub-genres and coming up with either new ideas or interesting ways to approach genre standbys. But on the other hand, it certainly seems to shows the limitations of superhero comics in a way that’s kind of dispiriting for fans of the both the genre and Morrison. If the best that the most imaginative man in comics can come up with when given a limitless field in which to play is a fourth-wall-breaking experiment (something Morrison already did 25 years ago in Animal Man) and a couple examples of the kind of action that should be filling comics shops every Wednesday, does that mean the genre as a whole is just withering on the vine? I don’t really think that’s the case, since there are plenty of solidly enjoyable superhero comics coming from a number of talented creators. Unfortunately, despite some glimmers of excitement, this series as a whole isn’t one of them.

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