Thunderworld Adventures is by far the most difficult issue of Multiversity to write about, because it’s just a purely good comic. All its messages and subtexts are spelled out clearly and distinctly, and the one thing it shares with Pax Americana is an explicit distaste for analysis — just as Captain Atom’s dog is taken apart and he can’t find anything he loves in the pieces, so the wizard Shazam warns Sivana that if he uses up all the world’s magic, there’ll be nothing left worth anything.

But Pax Americana, unlike Thunderworld, invited that precise kind of analysis, and if this were a different kind of series of essays — one where I wasn’t trying to talk equally about all the issues — I’d probably have spent half the length of this series just talking about Pax Americana to the exclusion of many of the other issues.

This, by contrast, is what it is. It’s an extremely good Captain Marvel story, in which the Sivanas of all worlds get together to try to take over the multiverse, but Captain Marvel defeats them by good old-fashioned knowhow and decency. It’s everything a Captain Marvel story should be, but the Earth-5 story is one that doesn’t admit of much analysis.

And in that way, it seems that Thunderworld might be the anti-Pax Americana in more ways than one. Because Watchmen, the comic that Pax Americana seems to be trying to attack but ends up reinforcing, was only one of the dark, gritty, superhero stories Alan Moore did in the mid-1980s. The other major one, which remained out of print until recently but which probably had more to do with the complicated feelings Morrison has about Moore than any other, was Marvelman, a story based on a British knock-off version of Captain Marvel.

The whole point of Marvelman was to take a wholesome, simple, children’s character and to stick him in a world something like the real world of the 1980s, and to deal with real problems like marital worries and a Tory government, and see what would happen. Moore did this marvelously well, but that was the conceit of the story, and the problem is you can only do that story once, and once you do the characters are broken. The only option left for superheroes once you’ve “deconstructed” them in the fashion of the 1980s is for them to go ever darker and grittier until they reach ludicrous levels of self-parody. Moore himself has regretted the effect of the deconstructionist works he wrote in the 1980s, saying in 2003:

The apocalyptic bleakness of comics over the past 15 years sometimes seems odd to me, because it’s like that was a bad mood that I was in 15 years ago. It was the 1980s, we’d got this insane right-wing voter fear running the country, and I was in a bad mood, politically and socially and in most other ways. But it was a genuine bad mood, and it was mine. I’ve seen a lot of things over the past 15 years that have been a bizarre echo of somebody else’s bad mood. It’s not even their bad mood, it’s mine.

And it’s this kind of deconstruction, rather than critical analysis, that Morrison seems worried about in both Pax Americana and Thunderworld Adventures. And what better way to fight against that than to take the original Captain Marvel, the character who inspired Marvelman, and do a completely unsullied, innocent, rip-roaring superhero adventure with the character? In a story about multiplicity, to go back to an original that was copied, and to show that it can still work even after being taken apart and put back together again?

Except of course it’s not quite that simple, because where the original Captain Marvel stories were innocent, whimsical, escapist, fun, if you do a story like that now, in response to Miracleman, what you’re actually doing is shouting “LOOK AT ME, I’M DOING INNOCENT, WHIMSICAL, ESCAPIST, FUN!!!”

There’s a theme of the Fall going through a lot of Morrison’s work, and it does seem that in his worldview, the Fall happened in comics when people started dissecting the characters, and taking them apart to see how they worked. Moore may well be the snake (Glycon?) in the Garden of Eden in Morrison’s comics cosmogony.

But the thing about the fruit of the tree of knowledge is you can’t uneat it. The songs of experience have to come after the songs of innocence, and once you’ve discovered which hand and eye framed the tiger’s fearful symmetry, you can’t then go back to thinking of him as Mr Talky Tawny.

Morrison knows this, and knows that his readers know it. So Thunderworld Adventures is actually, in many ways, a comic that could only work in the Multiversity context, despite it being superficially the most straightforward comic — it can only work if it’s a comic that has drifted into our reality from another universe, one in which the whole “comics aren’t just for kids any more!” fad of the 80s never happened, in which comics are still four-colour children’s stories sold on newsstands, in which these fragile little characters never have to bear the weight of metaphors and associations they were never designed to carry, and in which those stories matter for themselves, to children for whom they are every bit as real as the world around them, rather than as a jumping-off point for cynical middle-aged men to try to recapture a little of the enthusiasm of their youth by using them as a mirror for their own insecurities.
[Over a ten-day period I will be posting my long piece on Multiversity. Those who want it in one piece can buy the whole thing as an epub from Smashwords right now for $1, on Kindle (US) and (UK), and my Patreons get it for free.]

6 Responses to “Multiversity: The Day That Never Was”

  1. Prankster Says:

    What always drives me crazy about Marvelman’s impact is that there’s a very clear progression in the story–it drops the bomb of contrasting childlike whimsy of classic superheroes with the cynicism and realism of modern life right at the beginning, and doesn’t particularly milk it. But then, crucially, he moves *past it* and gets back into comic book territory pretty fast–Gargunza is, after all, still a mad scientist, we also get government conspiracies and aliens and team-ups before too many issues have passed.

    The point of the story Moore’s telling isn’t to lay superheroes in their graves, it’s to kill them so they can be reborn in a new form–also the point of his work with DC. By the end of his run on Marvelman, there’s a new status quo that’s as fantastical and wonder-filled as anything in the Silver Age, but it’s being viewed through a far more sophisticated and (genuinely) adult lens. Indeed, the whole point of the larger story is to show dreams and fantasies overcoming mundane, cynical reality.

    But this element has been completely lost in the flood of imitators, who can’t get past the initial emotional charge of “What if Mickey Moran grew up?” And certainly it’s a powerful charge, but you can only go to that well so many times, and if you don’t have anywhere to go after that you’re left with mundanity. The Moore imitators kill superheroes and then basically cradle the corpse forever in an eternal pieta, rather than letting them rise from the dead. The result is that the wonder and imagination that’s supposed to be part of comic books gets strangled instead of transmuted, as was Moore’s intention.

  2. Zakaria Says:

    You’ve written a lot of good stuff in these Multiversity essays. But my favourite sentence thus far has to be the following.

    “The songs of experience have to come after the songs of innocence, and once you’ve discovered which hand and eye framed the tiger’s fearful symmetry, you can’t then go back to thinking of him as Mr Talky Tawny.”

    The only thing I can add is the following.

    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
    (Quite the riddle eh? Surrender?)

    The answer is of course.. Ultra-Sphinx)

    All this talk of Thunder World Adventures has me in the mood for All-Star Superman.

  3. jonesy Says:

    “This fairy tale just GOT REAL” strikes me as going back to Tolkien (and probably beyond). There’s a parallel in fantasy-fiction after that where all the imitators imitate the bloody real cost of fantasy war allegory and none of the charming bits or moral decency.

    The deconstruction came, saw, and left, and in its wake the thought became “yeah, this fantastical setting looks good … but what if we tripled the bloodsoaked melodrama and added some tits and ass.”

  4. o0o Says:

    Cameron Stewart’s art in this issue was phenomenal, pure joy to look at.

  5. Lincoln Says:

    I’m really diggin’ these Multiversity essays.

    I always found that quote from Moore to be quite insightful. He’s such an intense, unyielding personality that it’s unusual to find him expressing any kind of regret or change of opinion. He really seems weary about his 80s superhero comics.

    Also – it’s interesting how he slyly positions himself as the sole originator of 15-years worth of trends and themes in superhero comics.

  6. reynard Says:

    @Zakaria – What does captain marvel have to do with ass? If anything billy Batson is perpetually overjoyed by his powers, Clark in ass is constantly pretending to be something he’s not. I’ve always read this as him desperately needing a connection to us. Without it the Clark from ass is Marvelman.

Leave a Reply