Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Let’s get this out of the way: The first issue of The Multiversity is one of the craziest main-line superhero comics I’ve read in a long time. It’s self-referential. It attempts to engage the reader directly. It leaps around various parallel worlds in great flurries of color, off-kilter captions, and shouty dialogue. It’s apparently also a pretty-direct sequel to Final Crisis, writer Grant Morrison’s 2008-09 big-event miniseries, which — not that it matters much — took place under a different set of cosmological rules.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the interaction between those rules and the need to reference a potentially “invalid” story. Some readers may be frustrated (not unreasonably) by such interactions, and so far The Multiversity isn’t making things easier.
Again, though, consistency across continuity reboots is beside the point. Indeed, with a giant one-eyed bat-thing intoning “WE WANT 2 MAKE YU LIKE US,” consistency itself appears to be one of The Multiversity’s main villains. Change the emphasis slightly and the plot becomes more insidious. “We want to make you like us” — i.e., happy to exist in a state of “anti-death,” an everlasting “moment of ruin.” The imagery isn’t very subtle, and commentators have already compared the Gentry’s members to DC and other big comics publishers. For that matter, Morrison and artist Cameron Stewart made the globular, monocular corporate mascot Mickey Eye the symbol for all that was wrong in the superhero world of Seaguy. (Coincidentally, that hero also had a funny-animal sidekick.)
My review could end up being in the form of a cop-out, but saying that readers get out of Multiversity what they put into it might actually be the point of the series. As a superhero comic, The Multiversity #1 is perfectly decent. Penciler Ivan Reis, inker Joe Prado, colorist Nei Ruffino and letterer Todd Klein present it in an attractive package. (The fact that Reis is the current Justice League penciler probably has its own metatextual significance, given the subject matter.) However, just as the Multiverse is a framework for various parallel realities, so The Multiversity #1 provides a framework for engaging with those realities — and that’s a little harder to quantify.
SPOILERS FOLLOW, assuming plot still matters for this sort of thing.
* * *
In fact, the plot of The Multiversity #1 is reminiscent (at least to this aged reader) of Crisis on Infinite Earths #1. There, the Superman of Earth-Two was among a group of heroes recruited by a cosmos-spanning Monitor to battle an ancient evil capable of decimating entire universes. Here, it’s the Superman of Earth-23 (aka President Calvin Ellis), plus Captain Carrot and various other analogues, recruited by Thor-counterpart Thunderer on behalf of Nix Uotan, a Monitor lost after his encounter with the Gentry. COIE #1 teased the Monitor’s appearance, and ended on his big reveal. The Multiversity #1 ends by revealing Nix’s fate. I’m pretty sure these parallels are deliberate, as The Multiversity #1 also features the return of the original Monitor’s satellite (which blowed up real good in COIE #6) and a cameo by Harbinger, the Monitor’s assistant.
Moreover, it’s suggested pretty strongly that Captain Carrot and Superman have met before. That could well be a reference to Final Crisis, where Carrot and the rest of the Zoo Crew were part of the final battle. However, on my first reading, I thought it meant Carrot’s very first appearance from February 1982’s New Teen Titans #16, wherein (in a special 16-page preview) Earth-C’s mild-mannered cartoonist Rodney Rabbit teamed up with Earth-One’s Superman to fight Starro the Conqueror. The distinction between stories could have serious implications for DC’s Multiverse. An encounter with either Superman might mean the (continued?) existence of either the pre-COIE Earth-One or the pre-New 52 Earth-Designate-Zero — neither of which is supposed to be around anymore.
Ah, but that’s the kind of continuity bugaboo we’re not supposed to worry about so much. Because Captain Carrot himself isn’t necessarily the kind of character with which the New 52 is designed to engage, using him here calls attention to Comics’ Infinite Potential. Indeed, as shown in a clever, endearing moment, Carrot brings with him his own laws of physics. That’s definitely the kind of nonconformity the Gentry are trying to stop.
And yet, when the Gentry are done with a world, it just looks like the aftermath of any other super-fight. You’d think “making you like us” would involve smoothing out all the rough edges and enforcing a strict aesthetic — a house style, one might say — as opposed to wanton destruction. Maybe the wrecked landscape is just the preferred setting for the Gentry’s adventures. More likely, though, is that it’s just visual shorthand for an apocalyptic outcome, and the Gentry’s motives are more thematic than literal.
Still, right now that theme doesn’t appear to be anything beyond a familiar don’t-fence-me-in message. Comics have infinite potential! Superman can be African-American, or a rabbit! Flash and Green Lantern can be a couple! We can abolish strict adherence to arbitrary boundaries, numerically limited parallel dimensions notwithstanding!
See, you might read all that as me being sarcastic about such things, but rest assured, I wouldn’t have a problem with any of them. However, I am cynical about The Multiversity’s effects on the rest of DC’s main-line superhero books. First, it’ll compete for readers’ attention with Futures End and World’s End, big-event miniseries intended to have a more direct effect on the New 52 books. By contrast, I’m not entirely convinced The Multiversity #1 ever even visits the New 52’s main Earth. Therefore, any cosmological rules it establishes — and I know I’m not supposed to think that way, but still — will probably end up more as guidelines. Put another way, The Multiversity seems as if it’s preaching to a choir of readers already sympathetic to Morrison’s anything-goes views on superheroes. I’m not sure it’ll convert anyone else.
* * *
The Multiversity #1 also plays out against the backdrop of an ever-expanding comics marketplace. Its conflict is couched in terms of liberating DC’s main line of superheroes, but that’s hardly an exclusive venue. As the hoary fanboy retort reminds us, no one is destroying readers’ old comics or their memories of the same. Similarly, these days it’s pretty easy to find old issues of, say, Captain Carrot, even if you don’t want to wait for the Showcase Presents collection. Of course, if you don’t enjoy DC’s current superhero fare, you don’t have to read it at all.
To be sure, I always thought that last admonition was a bit superior, almost on the level of the snooty “Well, I don’t own a TV.” It’s never easy to abandon anything as ingrained as a superhero-comics habit. It’s obviously more appealing to want to make those comics better. Accordingly, although the choice isn’t really between bad superhero comics and no superhero comics — because there are plenty of good superhero comics to read, old or new — I think that’s where Morrison is coming from with The Multiversity.
Specifically, I think Morrison is encouraging readers to focus on what’s been called “headcanon”: namely, the implicit storytelling elements particular to each reader. For example, my headcanon says Captain Carrot was talking about that 1982 story, but someone else may think it was a Final Crisis reference. While headcanon doesn’t necessarily undermine the restrictions of established continuity, it does reinforce reader independence. I do cringe at the thought that “reader independence” might be a concept which needs reinforcing, but apparently we superhero readers need a story about otherdimensional horror-creatures wiping out all diversity across various parallel planes.
Anyway, Nix Uotan is clearly a reader stand-in, mainly because he’s actually reading the same (or a very similar) issue of The Multiversity. More to the point, though, as the last surviving Monitor he’s supposed to police all the planes of reality. As conceived by COIE writer Marv Wolfman, the original Monitor was a cosmic librarian, bopping through the infinite Multiverse and cataloging all the super-folks’ powers and abilities. When the time came to stop the destructive plans of his evil opposite, all that info would help with the big fantasy draft. Here, although Nix takes the codename “Superjudge,” I get the impression he’s more of a cosmic gardener, helping the creatures of the Multiverse blossom and flourish. His sacrifice probably signifies readers’ jaded acceptance of current trends in superhero comics — buying the blah new stuff so that it can subsidize reprinting the good old stuff — or something similar. No doubt The Multiversity will end with Nix restored, and able once again to facilitate sustainable super-comics.
The big question then becomes, what is the reader supposed to gain from all of this? Since every new issue treats the one before it as “just comics” — albeit comics which tell true stories of parallel universes — The Multiversity isn’t exactly telling a straight-line narrative. Instead, the reader will ostensibly become an active participant in the story, both encountering and helping to define a different reality every month. If the short answer involves readers having their minds blown and their consciousnesses expanded, I look forward to that. If The Multiversity ends up saying something novel about the superhero genre and/or these particular characters, that’ll be good as well. Still, at this early stage I have to say — if you’re reading a Grant Morrison superhero comic to have your mind blown, I’m not sure I’d have waited for this one.
And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 17:
NOTES: By virtue of this being the last installment of the first collection, it was pretty plot-heavy. Once again, I was wrong on all counts about the Masked Superman. He wasn’t Wildfire or Val-Zod. Still, that meant I was pleasantly surprised by the revelation of his actual identity. It’s even something of a callback to one of Superman’s more nuanced, but less-developed pre-New 52 relationships. Together with the focus on John Constantine, it reminded me of Alan Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes pitch, but not in the usual squicky way.
Also welcome was the new perspective on Cadmus Island. We saw last week that Brainiac and/or Brother Eye is manipulating Mister Terrific, and here it’s pretty strongly suggested that either or both is behind the mysterious Stealth OMACs. Now the evil AI is controlling the escaped Earth-2 prisoners just when Team Arrow is on the way to bust them out.
Finally, the encounter at the end of the issue makes perfect sense, both for the character who shows up and the thing he’s tracking. By the way, I was wrong about the location last week — obviously it was the Horn of Africa, not the Far East.
This was a pretty entertaining issue. Patrick Zircher’s work and Hi-Fi’s colors were both nice and moody, and the efficient script kept things moving. If FE can tighten up its storytelling as it proceeds through the middle phase, it will be in good shape for the homestretch.
NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Act II! Power Girl! Armored Barda! OMACs! And … Mr. Plow?