Multiversity Guidebook #1, by Grant Morrison, Marcus To, Paulo Siqueira and a cast of thousands

This is where I part ways with most of my fellow Mindless: they felt the old thrill while reading the Multiversity Guidebook, with its comic book creation myth and its parade of endless (if by “endless” you mean fifty two) alternative worlds, whereas I mostly just felt exhausted.

It’s a clever mix of marketing material, series bible and actual story, and obvious as it might have been the “dark secret” at the heart of the universe with the Chibi superheroes still reinforced the series’ running theme of how shit it is to be confronted with your own fundamental nature. You could even read the list of junked pitches, elseworlds, prestige comics and parallel worlds that form the centrepiece as a critique, if you were so inclined.  As Marc Singer noted in his clipped and clear-headed review of the comic, some of these entries are quietly scathing, and someone with the right (as in “correct”? -Ed) biases could certainly read this endless parade of Batmen and Wonder Women as a critique of capitalism’s frantic grasping (“Empty is thy hand”) and ability to reduce complexity to a series of easily recognisable products.

Is that really enough though? Not for me. The “Guidebook” section of this comic reminded me most of all of Gary R. R. Lactus’ Time of Crowns (with its endless list of medieval clans, “with their tits out”) and the end credits of 22 Jump Street, but it’s neither as succinct as the former nor as merciless as the latter – in the end, it’s just business as usual.

Morrison’s ability to turn product into poetry is well established at this point (sorry haterz), and this strikes me as being as much of a failure of philosophy as it is a lapse of technique.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed pouring over Rian Hughes’ carefully composed map of the multiverse as much as anyone this side of Ben DST, but for me Morrison’s writing has always been at its strongest when it has been liminal and disturbing and free, rather than when it tries to sell you an orderly worldview.

As Geoff Klock argued in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why:

Morrison exploits comic books’ contradictory sixty-year buildup of, and reliance upon, a myriad of metaphysical realms, and brings them al to bear upon a single text, a single site, in a process that I am going to call the dialectic of the sublime.  Morrison’s reader, and more importantly his text, is forced into overload by a variety of alpha metaphysics: the vast extremes of outer space, including the realm of Jack Kirby’s New Gods and Wonderworld, heaven and hell, the Still Zone (also called the Ghost Zone and Limbo), the Phantom Zone, Olympus (home of the gods of Greek myth), the fifth dimension, Earth 2 (our antimatter counterpart, which is also separated by a “moral membrane”, i.e. the bad guys always win there), the vanishing point at the end of time (“the atto-second before the last exhausted electron loses its charge to meaningless, unending entropy”, the magic realm of Shazam, the Quintessence, the realm of the Flash’s speed force, the realm of Sandman and the Endless, the land of dreams, and a wide variety of possible and inevitable futures (which, due to time travel, influence the future), ranging from the domination of Darkseid over Earth fifteen years in the future to the 853rd century…

Sandman has as many metaphysical realms as Morrison’s JLA, but they are organized according to a clear hierarchy. Any one of the realms Morrison draws upon could take the top link of the “chain of being”, as it were, but none is allowed primacy.  Morrison’s JLA could never be supplemented with the kind of map one might find in an appendix to Dante, for example.

You might not share my taste for run-on sentences, but hopefully you’ll join me in smiling/frowning at that last sentence, which is no longer as true as I might like.  The ‘Maps and Legends’ of this issue’s title can be fun, but I prefer Morrison’s comics when they don’t let me feel so comfortable in my understanding, from the clash of styles and stories in Seven Soldiers to the pile-up of baffling revelations in Seaguy and The Filth by way of Doom Patrol‘s many absurd fantasies.

On the other hand, the interaction between Hi-Fi’s colouring and Paulo Siqueira’s line-work during the Kamandi sections of Multiversity: Guidebook suggest a Kirby derived but not overtly Kirby influenced style of fantasy adventure that I could definitely stand to read some more of:

Plenty of space for adventure there, which is the point of this whole exercise, I guess – to keep the punters interested!

Earth 2: The Gathering, by Nicola Scott and James Robinson 

I picked up this book in the library while chasing a similar feeling to the one generated by those Kamandi pics.  Like most of the worlds mentioned in the Multiversity Guidebook, it’s populated by alternate version of the DC pantheon, but like the Kamandi section of the Guidebook, it reminded me that I’m not as good as my best tweets when it comes to having The Most Serious Taste In Everything (this is not as surprising as you seem to think - Ed), and that I genuinely do enjoy seeing mostly-recognisable super people struggle to deal with unimaginable pressure:

Nicola Scott’s art isn’t particularly high impact, and it doesn’t provide (or indeed withhold!) enough information to be worth obsessing over, but it does remind me of comics that I have nostalgic associations with, primarily Howard Porter’s busy but still basically comprehensible JLA, with its nervous and untested superheroes and cosmic threats.  If Robinson’s storytelling makes me think of comics I enjoyed in the 90s (JLA for sure, but also Waid’s Flash and Robinson’s own Starman) then Scott’s art is crucial to grounding that in felt, bodily experience.

Is this really what I want to aspire to though?  Something that reminds me of something I liked before and might therefore conceivably enjoy again, if I put the work in?

Apparently I can’t pretend that I’m immune to the appeal of this stuff, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more than either Multiversity: Guidebook or Earth 2 have to offer.

Multiversity: Mastermen #1, by Grant Morrison and Jim Lee

Nazi superheroes aren’t that novel either, but surely the moral difficulties inherent in reconciling the horrors of fascism with his pop-transcendentalism would push Morrison into the same form he’s shown recently in Multiversity: The Just and Pax Americana, and in his more recent creator owned work?

Apparently not:

Of course, as Brother Bobsy pointed out back in the Mindless Ones clubhouse, while Multiversity: Mastermen doesn’t force the reader into a confrontation with their own enjoyment of certain genre tropes by, for example, presenting them with an origin story that involve crescendos of anti-Semitic violence, it still was problematic in other, more subtle ways.  The implication that this particular Nazi Superman wouldn’t have let the holocaust happen misses the legitimate point of writing speculatively about the holocaust: that it’s something anyone could have taken part in. The much braver thing to admit would be that the presence of Overman doesn’t guarantee an escape from the quotidian forms of evil that humans are so good at.

Compared to Kieron Gillen and Canaan White’s alternative history, Multiversity: Mastermen is easier to hold in contempt without letting that sense of disgust spread to the self.  For a story with a Nazi Superman in it, it doesn’t exactly endanger the brand, and there’s something off about that.

I’d use this as a lead-in to an ART PARAGRAPH in which I took a few shots at Jim Lee’s work on this issue, but I’m so late to the game that there’s precious little target left there anymore:

35 Responses to “Feeling blue? What else is new?! Have some Comic Reviews & skip the booze!”

  1. Tony Morris Says:

    Did anyone else think opening a comic about an off-brand Superman with a full-frontal shot of someone on the toilet was done better way back in Marshal Law #4?

    Seeing the Public Spirit shooting up actually felt like a real swipe at “Superman”, whereas this…

  2. Simmered Says:

    “The implication that this particular Nazi Superman wouldn’t have let the holocaust happen misses the legitimate point of writing speculatively about the holocaust: that it’s something anyone could have taken part in. ”

    ….

    Did you read the comic?

  3. Illogical Volume Says:

    Tony – True indeed, but Marshal Law has crushed many a comic over the years so there’s little shock there, haha!

    Simmered – Indeed I have, and if you’ll forgive me for sounding like the Midnighter for a minute, I know why you’re going to say I’ve not read it properly and also why you’re wrong.

    You wanna go through it, or shall we just not bother?

  4. Noxex Says:

    Excepting that in the end Overman *was* responsible for the Holocaust, and even worse it was of his own making and not Hitler’s. I for one was glad that Morrison didn’t try to make some generic sort of commentary on the real holocaust, and I took Overman missing the first one as misdirection, a tease that maybe this superman will be innocent of “evil”.

  5. Simmered Says:

    IV – Because at the end of the issue he’s responsible for slaughter on at least as grand a scale. I don’t really know how you can miss that.

  6. Illogical Volume Says:

    Simmered – I didn’t miss that, I just read invocations of the holocaust differently from sci-fi disaster scenarios. I don’t think this is unfair, and what happens at the end of the issue doesn’t undermine the point I made about the use of this real life atrocity: “that the presence of Overman doesn’t guarantee an escape from the quotidian forms of evil that humans are so good at.”

    Noxex – Eye-rolling at “generic commentary” on real world horror vs. eye-rolling at having your Nazi Superman be away on holiday and thus absolved from said horror – which is better?

    I get where you’re coming from when you say you think the “I was gone for only three years” sequence was “misdirection”, you’re almost certainly right that this issue’s supposed to flow that way with regards to Overman’s implied complicity in the issue’s final massacre. Regardless, I still think that a richer, more difficult story could have been had if they hadn’t absolved him of involvement in the horror that actually happened. It would have made the comic less easy to justify, but perhaps that’s as it should be.

    Like my man Thrills, “I’ll never be that comfortable with pop culture’s love of invoking the Holocaust for added gravitas in their sci-fi tales”.

  7. bobsy Says:

    Holy shit

  8. Jog Says:

    I’ve been advised by Tim O’Neil that Leatherwing’s astonishing asymmetrical legs may have been Jim Lee’s attempt at drawing jodhpurs… my heart broke.

  9. Illogical Volume Says:

    Ahahahaha – I don’t… I don’t think he’s wrong!

  10. Jake W Says:

    No “may have been” about it, Jim lee confirms it himself:

    https://twitter.com/JimLee/status/568274080438177792

  11. Illogical Volume Says:

    Comics: a collaborative medium.

  12. Tim B. Says:

    I think the art in Mastermen is a perfect demonstration that working as a Co-Publisher for DC doesn’t leave you with much time to keep your drawing eye in.

  13. Tony Morris Says:

    It wasn’t until I started reading the commentary that I realised “I couldn’t stop (space) 9/11″ was meant to be the equal of “I couldn’t stop the Holocaust”. Which Overman’s Nazi supporting cast most likely survived anyway because a): they always do, and b): Jurgen’s narration seems to be written from a future POV where he realises Overman has sold the Third Reich out and betrayed them all.

    It seems Grant shifted the Holocaust to the 50s and 60s too – presumably Overman stuck around until after WWII was won then felt it was time to search for his home planet, at which point Hitler & co felt they better get a move on.

    Which seems kind of convenient (why would Hitler think Overman wouldn’t approve?), unless the rationale is that there was no rush to get the Holocaust started while the Nazi’s were winning, so if they kept on winning they’d just wait until the war was won.

  14. Tony Morris Says:

    (Overman’s supporting cast most likely survived the crash of The Eagles Nest onto Metropolis, I meant to say)

  15. The Saint Godard Says:

    Interesting that the single weakest part of Multiversity to date is Jim Lee, considering I don’t see Multiversity as being terribly far afield of 1963.

    Don’t understand me too quickly: I’m enjoying Multiversity so very much more than 1963 as a story. 1963 was negligible with fun, strong art so it’s probably just as well Jim couldn’t finish his end. After Veitch & Bissette Jim Lee would have been a wet fart.

  16. Deep Space Transmissions Says:

    Overman missing the Holocaust because he was on holiday smacks of editorial edict (or, more likely, pre-emptive self-censorship on Morrison’s part) to me. Having him (deliberately?)cause 9/11 is probably enough potential controversy for one issue.

    I like that Mastermen answers it’s central premise – What If Superman Were On The Wrong Side? – with “He Already Is”, riffing on Miller’s DKR Superman-as-Reagan’s-hatchet-man, and the sort of oblivious American exceptionalism that’s deeply troubled Morrison since the 9/11 attacks.

    I still wish Chris Weston had drawn it though…

  17. Carl Says:

    This thematic commentary is all well and good, but won’t someone explain how Overman is 98 years old???

    Also, how did Jurgen “betray” Overman, and why did he want “revenge”?

    People are just trying to understand the plot here.

  18. PapaPopGuru Says:

    @Carl (Hope this helps…)
    Supes has often been said to have a severely reduced capacity to age, he might get a few white locks here in there in TDKR or KC, but he’s consistently still in his physical prime decades after his contemporaries have retired in most of his future incarnations.

    The story as best as I can tell, is that Supes arrives early, is instantly weaponised by the Nazi’s, Closer to the present day, Supes/Overman feels pangs of guilt from his cousin/clones death in Final Crisis (This indicates it’s probably not the present day) and teams up with Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters to dissolve the Reich. The present Day Jimmy/Jurgen is writing a memoir following Supes betrayal of the Reich and his inevitable destruction.

    Jurges/Jimmy is Supes’s personal Media Attaché or something similar, and since everyone literally hates everyone in this universe, he’s the closest thing to a friend that Supes has (apparent, since he invites him to New Bayreuth instead of dying in Metropolis). Supes/Overman betrayed the Reich, Jimmy/Jurgen doesn’t say anything that indicated he betrayed anyone.

    Lord Broken is playing off some very fundamental fears of Legacy and Family that Overman is feeling (“A house that can never be mended”), causing him to rethink his own place in the Reich.
    Which brings an interesting question… How much does Overman know about his Kryptonian heritage? If he doesn’t have the House of El to fall back on, then he’s stuck as a perpetual “Overboy” in the House of Hitler, only finding true companionship in his clone/cousin (squick), unable to foster a proper Legacy.

  19. Deep Space Transmissions Says:

    Fair point on the 98 years old thing, I was wondering about that myself – if he landed in 1939 and was actually 17 when he invaded the USA in 1956 (as the caption says – “17 years later”), then Mastermen is, for some unknown reason, set in 2037.

    That doesn’t seem right as Leatherwing specifically references his grandpa Von Hammer, who was presumably an adult during WWII. Lets say for arguments sake he was 30 in 1939 and Leatherwing is 30 in the story – that’s as good as 100 years between their respective dates of birth. Not impossible but pretty unlikely.

    On the other hand Jurgen/Jimmy looks pretty old and Lena explicitly hasn’t aged in the last 25 years, so maybe it is set in the future. Can’t really see why though…

    Also, I don’t think Overman is the traitor at all. I reckon it’s Leatherwing.

  20. Tony Morris Says:

    Yes, Weston’s art would really have put this over the top. If only because his detail-heavy style would have made this Nazi-run solar system seem like, well, an actual place rather than a lot of set-dressing. Lee (or whoever inked that page) couldn’t even make that Nazi jet look interesting, and everyone knows creepy Nazi tech is what the punters pay to see.

    Is it suspected then that Grant had a bit of a hand in Millar’s Naziworld issue of Swamp Thing then?

  21. Illogical Volume Says:

    PPG – Thanks for providing the plot detail and saving me the bother!

    Ben DST – You’re on the money about the thematics of this issue, and I think that the holocaust holiday bit makes it easier for that theme to come through even if it also calls into question the use of “those bloody Nazis” to achieve this effect in the first place.

    I thoroughly recommend that EVERYONE trawls through the Deep Space Transmissions twitter account to see the potential evidence for the theory that Leatherwing, rather than Overman, is the traitor. It’s good stuff to run against Olsen’s narration, which includes a lot of “You might not have been able to see it, but I could” supposition iirc: https://twitter.com/dstransmissions

  22. Illogical Volume Says:

    Oh, and the idea of Chris Weston drawing this issue is magic, thanks again for that – he would really have made the ugly bathos of this issue sing, good shout!

  23. Marc Says:

    I hate to be a downer, IV, but let me float an alternative theory: Leatherwing flat-out contradicts what Overman said in the torture chamber for the same reason that the Reichsmens’ knowing references to the Freedom Fighters’ costumes and weapons and activities flat-out contradict the fact that half of them aren’t even created until the next scene. And the same reason that Overman’s 98-year-old age flat-out contradicts his apparent birth in 1939.

    Pax Americana, this ain’t.

    (Seriously–who doesn’t put the rocket’s arrival in 1938?)

  24. Illogical Volume Says:

    Ahahaha! Well, I certainly can’t argue with you about the overall competence levels of this issue, but I can link to your review of it:

    http://notthebeastmaster.typepad.com/weblog/2015/02/mastermen.html

    You’re right that we can’t blame Jim Lee for this issue’s narrative failings – I found it less dense and satisfying than The Just, but you’re spot on in your assessment of their lack of completeness – even if I do still think Weston would have done it better.

    I agree that the cover as presented is a lot stronger than the one that was solicited too. Nice save there, DC! Nice save.

  25. Deep Space Transmissions Says:

    I’d certainly agree that Mastermen is not Pax Americana, but it’s nakedly political underpinnings (a rarity for Morrison these days) are, I think, much more pointed than Pax’s inward spiraling tale of a corrupt executive.

    I read a review earlier (http://comicsbulletin.com/sunday-slufgest-the-multiversity-mastermen/) that concludes the Freedom Fighters are actually the villains of the piece, working to destroy “a world of great scientific progress, of peace and unity, in which there seems to be a free press and other freedoms as well” which is just… astonishingly myopic (they also don’t mention the 9/11 parallel, which seems to have been lost on a large portion of the audience).

    Maybe I’m reaching, but when taken in concert with the Society of Superheroes’ war against Earth 40′s swarthy Yellow Peril (and Supermanque the Immortal Man’s subsequent Man of Steel-esque total failure to resolve the situation without resorting to murder), maybe Multiversity could be read as a meditation on whether ‘The American Way’ is, in 2015, really an ideal that a figure like Superman should still be upholding.

  26. Marc Says:

    DST, my point isn’t that Mastermen is not political (because it so clearly is) but that its shaky, almost slapdash script won’t support readings which extrapolate secret subtexts from basic editing lapses. Ockham’s razor and all that.

    Rian Hughes is the unsung hero of this issue, isn’t he? Turning that godawful preview image into a perfect encapsulation of the contents within. To be fair to Lee, maybe his illustration was always supposed to get the Weisinger-style teaser captions, which go a long way towards suggesting the musclebound exaggeration is intentional and parodic, but it’s the addition of the gilt frame that really sells it.

    Actually, the whole thing is uncannily reminiscent of that Alan Moore line about Arkham Asylum, isn’t it? “I said to Dave that it was like putting an exquisite golden frame – and I said your art is an exquisite golden frame, it is, it’s exquisite – it’s like putting that exquisite golden frame around a dog turd.”

    And Hughes goes and does it, and damned if it doesn’t look good!

  27. Deep Space Transmissions Says:

    Ha yeah, sorry Marc. The leaps in logic that led me from your post to mine all happened in my head. It was a thrilling exchange but a little one-sided…

    Hughes killed it with that cover – the original was an abomination. Jim Lee had a process thing up somewhere (twitter maybe? idk) where he said the frame was always intended to be there, he just ‘read’ Grant’s sketch wrong. Morrison’s squiggly lines representing an ornate frame reproduced as… a load of squiggly lines.

  28. Marc Says:

    Oh dear. I guess that conclusively dashes my hopes that Lee was in on the joke (though it’s interesting to see that Morrison planned it from the start).

  29. Illogical Volume Says:

    Comics: a collaborative medium (part 2).

    Jumping back a bit, I think there’s a question of whether people aren’t mentioning the 9/11 parallels because they’re missing them or because that currency has been so heavily devalued in contemporary sci-fi/comic book fiction, which is one of two reasons that I didn’t mention it myself.

    Plok wrote about this in his post on Star Trek Into Darkness:

    “My generation of SF filmmakers has a lot of good qualities, but they also have a lot of bad ones, and one of the worst is their breezy nonchalance when it comes to politics. “The Dark Knight Rises” toys with the French Revolution as though it were just another pop-culture touchstone, hey remember the French Revolution, everyone? That’s the one where Spock had a beard? The new TV show Agents Of SHIELD plays the same distasteful game with — and I can hardly believe this wasn’t just a dream I had — NINE-FUCKING-ELEVEN, as though referencing 9/11 was simply something a competing show had done to great effect, whose popularity they wished to emulate. So the politics gets stuffed into the hat, but the magician can’t pull it out again because apparently he doesn’t know it wasn’t just another rabbit…”

    He’s not entirely wrong, there are certainly 9/11 references that do little more than reference it for a sense of hubris and topical rawness.

    The other, less high minded reason I didn’t get into this in the post is that because I didn’t have much to say about that angle and so I decided to go to bed after I said what I *did* have to say rather than force it.

    Sleep was good. I thoroughly recommend it!

    Anyway, like I said in the Guidebook part of this post, there’s a recurring theme of characters being confronted with a destructive vision of their own fundamental nature (as comics readers, killers, vain children at the mercy of their own technology, ineffective actors in a pattern beyond their control, frozen exemplars of childish naivete, etc) in this series, and your reading of Mastermen/the whole series could build on that.

    I need to reread the whole series with a view to working out how much I think it actually has to say about anything, mind! Having spent a bit of time with Pax Americana, I agree that it doesn’t have too much to actually say about contemporary geopolitics, but its interactive structure (not to mention comparably smooth editing!) make it much easier to lose/invest yourself in, so… maybe I should put together an overbearingly pretentious post about it? Oh yeah, I already did!

    For real though, that thing about the squiggly lines on the Mastermen cover is funny as fuck!

  30. Thrills Says:

    “The other, less high minded reason I didn’t get into this in the post is that because I didn’t have much to say about that angle and so I decided to go to bed after I said what I *did* have to say rather than force it.”

    That’s my take on a lot of the Multiversity stuff, really. I’d like to have the enthusiasm to really tear into the juicy meat below the skin, but, as fun (and occassionaly actively fucking excellent) as Multiversity is, it doesn’t feel like it really warrants the sort of super-analysis I used to enjoy with The Invisibles or something.

    I’m 97% sure that’s just to do with me getting old and jaded and joyless, though.

    On a different note, those James Robinson Earth 2 comics are a fun read. As mentioned, they recapture the enjoyment of a decent 90s superhero comic, and sometimes that’s enough, especially if you didn’t buy the fucker. Thanks, library!

    Incidentally, a turd in an exquisite golden frame would be preferable to Arkham Asylum, would look better, and have more to say. McKean’s more like a turd inside an exquisite old clock, though. A clock you’ve got bored of because there’s so many of them around and they’re just not as pleasing as one of those Felix the Cat ones with the eyes that go back and forward. At least there’s no room for a turd inside a modern clock.

    COMICS CRITICISM.

  31. The Beast Must Die Says:

    “McKean’s more like a turd inside an exquisite old clock, though.”

    Ladies & Gentlemen you canals stop trying, Thrills has won the year

  32. bobsy Says:

    Man, I bet that old clock was exquisite before this goth guy tore it apart as collage material for his a-level graphics project.

  33. PapaPopGuru Says:

    Well, maybe the enjoyability of Multiversity comes from if they’re supposed to be enjoyed as one-shots, as a synthesis of their respective universes, or legitimate world building exercises? How many of these stories do you need to actually be continued when it really comes down to it?

    Pax Americana has such a dense, satisfying text that it encapsulates it’s cast and a singular story so well that it’s difficult to say if you really want to see anything different from another writer and artist.

    Mastermen is the quite the opposite, the actual story is quite dry (and face it, overdone nowadays), but hell if I don’t want to see a bunch of Paranoid Nazi-League/Freedom Fighter intrigue from an author (and an artist) who has a little more space and passion to play around with it.

    It’s weird, because I think the one issue that meets a splendid middle ground, is The Just. It has so many characters and storytelling dimensions that it just HAS to be continued by somewhere down the line, and yet it’s inhabited by a bunch of little shits who I wouldn’t want to save their world and put things to right. It would ruin the issue if they did.

    Oh, also, more 5th World please.

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