The thing about text is, it’s susceptible to criticism.

And I have, perhaps, been too critical in the purely negative sense in these comments. But the thing to understand is that despite all this, I have a genuine love for Multiversity, and Ultra Comics in particular. This may be the single most omphalosceptic comic ever conceived — a comic whose subject is itself, and whose hero is the comic itself, and whose narration is about the act of reading the narration — and I love it.

There’s a term in criticism called “Menippean satire”, and I think it applies to most of Morrison’s work, but to Multiversity most of all. There are various definitions, but the criteria used by M. M. Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevski’s Poetics (OK, you caught me, criteria from that book quoted on a web page I found) are the ones I’m thinking of:

It is usually more comic than Socratic dialogue.

It is unusually free (from history, realism, and legend) and hence fantastic.

Its fantasies create extraordinary situations for the purpose of testing philosophical truth, especially through the manipulation of perspective.

It mixes the fantastic, symbolic, and even quasi-religious with a “crude slum naturalism.”

It is “a genre of ‘ultimate questions,’” combining bold invention with broad philosophical reflection.

It uses the spheres of heaven, earth, and hell to look at these ultimate questions.

It uses “experimental fantasticality,” that is, “observation from some unusual point of view” .

It often represents unusual states of insanity, split personality, dreams, excessive passion, creating a “dialogic relationship to one’s own self.”

Scandal, eccentricities, inappropriate speech, violations of politeness and social expectations are very characteristic.

It is full of contradictory behavior and characters.

It combines elements of social utopia with other satiric elements.

It inserts a variety of other genres, often to parody them.

Hence it is “multi-styled” and “multi-toned.”

It is concerned with current topics. “The satires of Lucian, taken as a group, are an entire encyclopedia of his times”

Looking at this list, one can see that Morrison’s work in general, Multiversity in particular, and Ultra Comics especially within Multiversity fall into this category, and indeed that goes some way towards explaining the tonal problems of Mastermen.

But a simple taxonomic identification only goes so far (although it was astonishing to me when I first discovered the definition of Menippean satire last year, that someone had precisely identified and named The Stuff That I Like), and we have to look at why Morrison’s chosen this form.

The obvious thing to point out is that Menippean satire is, as the name suggests, a form of satire. Despite what many people brought up in the Internet age might think, satire does not mean “a website that looks like a newspaper site but has lies on it”. Nor, though one might get a different impression from Radio 4, does it mean saying sentences that appear to refer to one thing in the news, but then, in a pull-back and reveal, refer to a different thing in the news altogether, subverting our expectations.

Rather satire, in its purest form, is a moral form. The purpose is to hold a distorting mirror up to the follies of society, and to use that distorting mirror to shame institutions into changing.

holds superhero comics and superhero comic fandom up to just that mirror — or indeed walks them through a whole hall of mirrors, showing every fault they (we) are guilty of, from oversentimentalising childhood favourites to naked power worship, from rehashing old ideas to throwing out thousands of half-baked new ideas without taking the time to develop any of them. And it does all of this with a few unifying themes — new orders replacing the old, sons symbolically killing fathers, the word made flesh, ideas becoming reality.

And I have, I must admit, been part of the problem in these essays. I’ve dismissed the contributions made by the artists in a sentence or two, but Ultra Comics couldn’t be other than a Doug Mahnke comic, Mastermen could only have been drawn by Jim Lee, Pax Americana is something that no-one other than Frank Quitely could even be imagined as drawing. It’s the single biggest comic critic trap of all, to judge the comic by its writer rather than by its artists.

Of course, there’s the reasonable argument I could make that other than the figure of Superman, Grant Morrison is the only unifying element in the story. To which the reasonable reply would likewise be “unifying? Isn’t it called Multiversity?”

Yes it is, and I’ve fallen into the trap of single vision and Newton’s sleep. But for all that I’ve criticised it, for all that I’ve pulled it apart and thus found little left to love, Multiversity is an astonishing work. It’s very nature makes it flawed, of course, as it acknowledges itself. One can’t have a corporate product (with one issue illustrated by the company’s co-publisher, even) without bending to corporate demands. Superman can’t be really bad, even if he’s Nazi Superman. So this could never be a pure, unsullied, work of artistic imagination with no compromise made with commercialism, because the characters and ideas with which Morrison is working are owned by someone else. But that is the point, or at least one of the points, of Multiversity. Swift shows us the Yahoos, and how disgusting and smelly and awful they are, and doesn’t exempt himself from the criticism. Nor does Morrison. In fact, he invites it; he just insists that the critic take a look in the mirror as well.

[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.]

3 Responses to “Multiversity: Ultra Comics Lives!”

  1. Zakaria Says:

    I’ve been reading a bunch of Blake lately and now..

    The Tyger.
    Newton’s Sleep.

    There’s a bit of William Blake in all of these essays. I’m sure Morrison would approve. Wasn’t an “Invisibles” storyline named “Newton’s Sleep” as well?

    There’s synchronicity and then there’s just a lack of varied experiences and visions. Guy we have to stop reading the same shit lest we have ourselves a Newton’s slumberparty.

    However.. I do need someone to braid my hair in the style of Nix Uotan, don’t judge me. Superjudge me!

  2. Matthew Craig Says:

    I found Ultra Comics genuinely unsettling, in a way I’ve never quite experienced before. I expect I talked myself into it, to some extent. That was probably part of the creators’ plan. But the rising tension, spiking with every page turn and peaking about two-thirds in, was amazing. I don’t seek out horror material, so I don’t have much of a taste or feeling for it, but man, this has to be a good example of it. The seamy, superreal figures, the shark-eyed smiles. *shudder*

    Reading it at honk o’clock in the morning, I felt like maybe the thing to do was fight it, somehow. Either by literally tippexing the bad out, in art or text, or by comicsing my own way out of the abyss. AS IF THAT WERE EVEN POSSIBLE.

    Then I thought I could set the paraperipatetic fictional psycopath from Planetary on it, seeing as Ellis practically invites people to use the idea as and when they like in the final issue, but then I thought I’d hate myself for doing that, so I didn’t. My solution was to disarm the darkness at the heart of the issue by belittling it, literally and figuratively. Thanks, M S Paint! *thumzup*

    I’m getting a little sick of extra- and external threats, even those we create ourselves (hello, All of Marvel) being used as metaphor for the darkenss we carry within. This…was pretty great, though.


  3. David Whittaker Says:

    I wouldn’t say you’ve been too harsh or negative in your analysis, I’m finding it to be a highly informative wake up call on how the series can be read. I’m loving it.

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