28 June 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part LXV: The Multiversity

Comic trade paperback, 480 pages
Published 2016 (contents: 2015)
Acquired and read April 2017
The Multiversity

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Walden Wong, Ben Oliver, Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, Marcus To, Paulo Siqueira, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Mark Irwin, Jonathan Glapion, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Keith Champagne, Jaime Mendoza, Eber Ferreira  
Colors by Nei Ruffino, Dave McCaig, Ben Oliver, Dan Brown, Nathan Fairbairn, Alex Sinclair, Jeromy Cox, Gabe Eltaeb, David Baron, Jason Wright
Letters by Todd Klein, Carlos M. Mangual, Clem Robins, Rob Leigh, Steve Wands

When I started my readthrough of DC Comics Crises, Flashpoint was the last one, but the endpoint of this journey is ever-receding: now Flashpoint has been followed by The Multiversity and Convergence, and I suspect I'll be adding Rebirth to my list too. The Multiversity isn't a "Crisis" per se (so far DC has kept to its promise and Final Crisis is indeed the final Crisis), but it does follow on from their narratives pretty explicitly: this volume explores some of the worlds of the multiverse introduced in 52 and develops themes and concepts Grant Morrison introduced in Final Crisis.

It's a weird book, maybe even by Grant Morrison standards. Like with Final Crisis, I feel like what it needs is a good reread, and since I bought it, maybe I'll actually do that someday-- maybe after reading Morrison's Action Comics run. This book concerns the attack of the mysterious Gentry, the servants of the Empty Hand, on the DC multiverse, and seems to serve two artistic purposes: it's an exploration of the possibilities of the DC multiverse, as well as a statement on some of the creative possibilities and limitations of superhero comics as a genre/medium. So I'll try to untangle some of each of those in turn.

Possibilities like Sad Nazi Superman.
from The Multiversity: Mastermen #1 (art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Mark Irwin, & Jonathan Glapion)

Back before Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC had an infinite multiverse, then it had nothing. 52 brought back the multiverse, yet DC seemed to do little with it. (Partially this is because of Flashpoint, I think, which ruined some aspects of the multiverse. For example, the Wildstorm characters presented an intriguing alternate take on superheroes when they were officially on Earth-50, as we saw in stories like Captain Atom: Armageddon, while they became quickly cancelled also-rans when incorporated into the "main" DC universe on Earth-0. Like, The Authority can't even have a point if they exist in a world where the Justice League also exists.) It might seem like going from infinite Earths to 52 Earths is limiting, but I actually think it's just the right number. In an infinite multiverse, anything goes, but in a realm of 52 alternatives, there's just enough structure to intrigue and delight; I spent a lot of time poring over the map of the multiverse included here, noting correlations and connections as Morrison tries to squeeze everything from Neil Gaiman's The Endless to Jack Kirby's Fourth World into a coherent mythology:
This is only half of the spread, of course, but I delighted in reading every little bit of minutiae Morrison crammed in there.
from The Multiversity Guidebook #1 (art by Rian Hughes)

So what we end up getting is a series of linked but largely standalone stories that play with the possibilities of a multiversal setting. The almost universally acclaimed one is "Captain Marvel and the Day That Never Was!", which takes place on an Earth dominated by Captain Marvel. (By which I mean that though Captain Marvel exists on Earth-0, on Earth-5 he's the superhero.) A multiversal army of Doctor Sivanas attacks Earth-5, introducing an extra day of the week where they can exert their malevolent control and influence. It's fun, it's bright, it introduces concepts up the wazoo; there's seriously a delight to be found on almost every page here:
Can't get better than superhero smack talk referencing Thomas Kuhn.
from The Multiversity: Thunderworld Adventures #1 (art by Cameron Stewart)

And I like what it says about the DC multiverse too: Captain Marvel will never shine on Earth-0 the way he does on his own Earth. So rather than try to cram him into a world that also contains a million other superheroes, here he gets to breathe and it is awesome. I would buy a series like this, so of course DC will never publish one.

None of the other worlds and stories are quite as good as this one, but they also show possibility: we have a pulp-based 1930s Earth, a ruled-by-Nazis Earth (with a surprisingly touching take on a fascist Superman), a Watchmen-esque realpolitik Earth, an Earth dominated by the descendants of the "original" heroes, a chibi Earth, multiple postapocalyptic Earths, a Jack Kirby Earth, and so on.

Morrison also builds on what was (like so much of DC's cosmology) an accident of publishing history. When introducing the new version of the Flash in 1956's Showcase #4, writer Robert Kanigher established that Barry Allen was inspired by reading about the original 1930s Jay Garrick Flash when he was a kid. But then when Gardner Fox wanted the two Flashes to meet in The Flash #123, he had to explain how Jay Garrick could both be from an alternate universe and be a fictional character. Easy! According to Fox, the Flash comics of Earth-1 were inspired by dreams... of what happened on Earth-2! Later writers went nuts with this idea, to the extent of having writers from our Earth (Earth-Prime) be transported to Earth-1.

This was all pared back with Crisis on Infinite Earths's destruction of all the other Earths, but now that the multiverse is back, Grant Morrison plays with this idea to its utmost: almost every issue in this book has the characters reading some comic book representing the happenings on another Earth. This perhaps reaches its greatest extreme when the chibi Batman of Earth-42 learns about the multiverse by reading a copy of the very comic book he is currently featuring in, a guidebook with a frame story about him reading the guidebook:
How this doesn't cause an existential breakdown, I have no idea.
from The Multiversity Guidebook #1 (art by Marcus To)

Comic books thus become methods of sending messages across the multiverse, and Morrison doesn't commit to whether writers on Earth-33 (the new "Earth-Prime") merely record what happens on other Earths, or cause it to happen by the stories they choose to write.

Morrison also uses The Multiversity to present his take on superhero comics themselves. Nowhere does this come through more clearly than in the Ultra Comics one-shot. Ostensibly our Earth is the one without superheroes, but Ultra Comics shows how this isn't true, obviously doing a riff on Scott McCloud's concept of the cartoon from Understanding Comics:
It's not just any comic book, but it is all comic books...
from The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 (art by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy, Mark Irwin, Keith Champagne, & Jaime Mendoza)

We can hear the characters and we feel like we are the characters, and thus if we're real, they're real. For McCloud, this is the whole reason for the success of the comics medium, our willingness to insert ourselves into the vacuum of these characters. Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke are just the conduits for the expression of the reality of these characters.

...and Ultra Comics is a real superhero here on Earth-33 because all superheroes are real here on Earth-33.
from The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 (art by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy, Mark Irwin, Keith Champagne, & Jaime Mendoza)

It does get all a bit There's a Monster at the End of This Book except that you're the monster at the end of this book-- not only are you the hero, but your reading of the book is what causes him to suffer. If you didn't read the book, nothing bad would ever happen!

This feeds into the last story, where a massive threat from beyond the multiverse attacks, kind of like Final Crisis over again but bigger. I didn't really get it, to be honest, but I suppose someday I'll give it another go and maybe it'll make more sense. But just as Ultra Comics shows some of the possibilities of the comics medium, so does this, but very negatively. Because on the last page we learn that kind of the whole reason the multiverse was attacked was so that Nix Uotan, last of the Monitors, could earn enough money to pay his rent. Which is obviously a commentary on superhero comics in general and this comic in particular.

No more byzantine, implausible comic books, too, thanks.
from The Multiversity #2 (art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado, Eber Ferreira, & Jaime Mendoza)

We're the villains of superhero comics, because our continuous need for more story means that their suffering will never end. This is something the President Superman of Earth-23 actually comes to realize himself-- and so his next target will be us!

I'm still waiting for your counterattack, President Superman.
from The Multiversity #2 (art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado, Eber Ferreira, & Jaime Mendoza)

Next Week: Beyond the multiverse, old continuities linger on: the classic Legion of Super-Heroes, Supergirl, Hawkman, the Outsiders, and the Green Lantern Corps battle for their lives in Convergence: Crisis, Book 1!

No comments:

Post a Comment