AUGUST 18, 2015
GRANT MORRISON is a divisive figure among comic book fans. Most, I think, would agree that he has written some very fine comics (it’s hard to find someone who didn’t like his and artist Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, for example), but many people often dismiss work like Doom Patrol or The Filth as just weirdness for its own sake. That Morrison likes to talk about his fondness for hallucinogens and his experiences with alien abductions lends some support to the charges of weirdness. It’s not exactly endearing that he spent much of his early professional years trying to style himself into an enfant terrible, Morrissey-esque figure for the comic book industry — describing the complimentary comics DC sent to him every month as “a big box of rubbish,” for example, or attempting to start a feud with Watchmen author Alan Moore by accusing him of lifting his ideas for this and other works from Robert Mayer’s 1977 novel Superfolks. Upon learning that he had been nominated as a “favorite writer” in a poll conducted by The Comics Buyer’s Guide in the late 1980s, Morrison told an interviewer for the magazine Amazing Heroes, “I mean, you’re surrounded by these people who never learned to hold a pen, let alone write. Somebody phoned me up to congratulate me, and I thought this was reason enough to go and slit my wrists.”
Since the 1980s, however, Morrison seems to have mellowed quite a bit. Even as he continued to write mature readers books for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, he became one of the most popular mainstream superhero writers as well, with celebrated runs on JLA and New X-Men as well as shorter stints writing or co-writing The Fantastic Four, Marvel Boy, and The Flash. The sneering punk who once scandalized Great Britain with a strip titled The New Adventures of Hitler has become someone who poses with action figures for photos in fan magazines.
Though Morrison still has his detractors — mostly Alan Moore fans with a penchant for holding a grudge — it seems fairly safe to say that his devotees outnumber them. DC, for example, turned to Morrison when they decided to relaunch their oldest title, Action Comics, a few years ago. And even before that, when DC needed a miniseries event designed to pit the heroes of their universe against their most lethal villain, they turned to Morrison to handle the Final Crisis scripting duties. With the recent series Multiversity, DC has once again enlisted Morrison, this time to design a comprehensive atlas of the many universes that make up their mythos. Of course, because this is a comic book series, an epic struggle between good and evil also occurs within its pages. Because it’s Morrison, there is a lot of weirdness and at times obscure embedded references. And because this is Morrison at the top of his game, the series gives the readers a lot to think about in terms of the stories they read, the popular culture they support with their money, and their complicity in the degradation of their own imaginations. In Multiversity, Morrison explores some of the territory he has covered in his previous superhero work, but he does so with an urgency and intensity that is unmatched in anything else he has written to date.
One can, of course, simply enjoy Multiversity for what it is on the surface: an exciting action-adventure story featuring heroes and villains from 52 different universes fighting each other, as well as an invading group of parasites who call themselves the Gentry and seem to seek the destruction of every universe within the larger multiverse. As a superhero storyline, it works, although I suppose some fans might find the story a little cluttered. With dozens of characters appearing throughout the series’ nine issues, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with any of the heroes who seem like they could support a nine-issue series on their own. Still, the pace is fast, the tension is high, and the action tends to explode off the page. When it comes to superhero spectacle, this book delivers.
It is hard to think of a recent comic book that does a more effective job of world building, too. Or maybe I mean worlds building, since Morrison presents the adventures of multiple heroes from multiple planets in multiple universes. There are the heroes from Earth-0 that DC’s readers are most familiar with — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman — although honestly, we don’t see very much of them. There are alternate-universe versions of these characters: a Nazi Superman; Aquaman’s counterpart Aquawoman from a world where almost all of the superheroes are female; the Superman of Earth-23, where most of the heroes seem to be black. (Whether giving female and black superheroes their own planets is a progressive thing to do, I don’t know, but it does draw attention to the way that, even in 2015, DC doesn’t always do diversity very well.) There are the Watchmen-inspired heroes of Earth-4 — characters that DC acquired from Charlton Comics, whom Moore originally wanted to use for his famous series — and the Captain Marvel family from Earth-5. There are the funny animals of Earth-26, whose leader, Captain Carrot, is a sort of leporine Captain Marvel who stands with the heroes of 51 other worlds to defend the multiverse from the invading Gentry.
Perhaps the only part of the story that superhero fans won’t find all that interesting is the Gentry themselves. They are your garden-variety extraterrestrial threats with badass names like Intellectron, Lord Broken, and (my favorite) Hellmachine. Their leader seems to be an egg with batwings and a single, giant eye. I suppose in terms of design, they’re creepy enough, but they seem to lack both motivation and imagination. I can imagine comic book fans looking at the Gentry and thinking, “Meh. I’ve seen this before.”
I submit, though, that that might be the point, and that the Gentry as depicted on the page are only stand-ins for the real villains of Multiversity.
To fully appreciate what Morrison has accomplished with Multiversity, it’s worthwhile to consider some of the other works in his oeuvre — in particular, his first American series, Animal Man, and his most celebrated regular series, The Invisibles.
Morrison’s run on Animal Man — which began in 1988 and lasted for 26 issues — tells the story of Buddy Baker, a man with the power to mimic the abilities of any animal found in nature. Buddy is something of an ambivalent adventurer: though he wants to make a difference in the world, he seems unsure of how punching someone in a cape helps to improve society. What’s more, he gradually becomes aware of certain inconsistencies in his own life that cause him to question the nature of reality. As most of us do when we have metaphysical concerns, he winds up taking hallucinogens and seeing the face of God — or something quite like it. While under the influence of peyote, in a full-page panel focused entirely on his face, he exclaims to the reader, “I can see you!” By the time Morrison’s run on the series ended, this forbidden knowledge of his own fictional nature has cost Buddy the lives of his wife and children, leading him to travel across worlds and to Glasgow in order to plead with his writer, Morrison, to bring his family back.
(It should be noted that this type of encounter between creation and creator was fairly common in Silver Age and some Bronze Age comics of the 1960s and 1970s. The Flash or Superman would travel across the multiverse to Earth Prime — that is to say, our earth, where they only existed as comic book characters — to visit with writers and editors like Gardner Fox or Elliot S! Maggin in the hope of solving whatever dilemma had them stumped that month. But these encounters lacked the philosophical and tragic dimensions with which Morrison would endow them.)
Loss and personal tragedy make up Animal Man’s core. Morrison argues with Buddy that he couldn’t possibly bring his family back to life — that resurrecting the dead wouldn’t be “realistic” in a superhero comic book. He says/writes:
All the suffering and the death and the pain in your world is entertainment for us. Why does blood and torture and anguish still excite us? We thought that by making your world more violent, we would be making it more “realistic,” more “adult.” God help us if that’s what it means.
And then he adds — sadly, I have always thought — “Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind.”
In the end, Morrison does choose kindness over comic book “realism,” and returns Buddy’s family to him. Even at the beginning of his career, it seems Morrison was arguing that the violence and cynicism that seemed to dominate a comic book marketplace built around characters like The Punisher and Wolverine wasn’t necessarily more mature or realistic than hope and heroism. In fact, Morrison seemed to say, bloodshed and despair could be considerably less imaginative.
The Invisibles was a more adult-themed book than Animal Man, focused not on superhero action but on anarchist terrorists trying to resist an authoritarian conspiracy that involved the American military, the British aristocracy, time travel, and a Lovecraftian monster’s ascent to the British throne. It’s violent, philosophical, funny, sexy, paranoid, trippy, and above all entertaining. Though the series features an ensemble cast, the two most important characters are Jack, a teenage punk and car thief inducted into the terrorist cell at the beginning of the series, and King Mob, a leather-clad assassin with a shaved head, dry sense of humor, and perfect body. King Mob is one of those smooth killers so common in action movies. A bald, leftwing radical version of James Bond. He’s also something of a wish-fulfilling avatar for Morrison himself, with a look and backstory that seem at least somewhat inspired by Morrison’s own.
The last issue of the series takes place in the then future — 2012, to be exact — and concerns the imminent end of the world. The older Jack, now the leader of his own Invisibles cell, breaks into the corporate headquarters of the authoritarian villain he is hoping to destroy, only to find that his adversary is King Mob himself. King Mob explains that he infiltrated the corporate world to disseminate radical messages via popular culture, embracing what he calls “ontological terrorism” and abandoning violent resistance. Quoting The Sex Pistols, King Mob tells Jack “I use the En-Eh-Me” to promote radical consciousness-raising.
Both Grant Morrison’s plea for kindness in Animal Man and King Mob’s use of the “En-Eh-Me” are important to keep in mind in attempting to understand Multiversity’s most important accomplishments.
Multiversity opens with one of its major characters — Nix Uotan, who appears to be a young slacker but who is actually one of the most powerful beings in the multiverse — either ignoring or not hearing his landlady as she pounds on his door demanding the rent. We are told he hadn’t paid the month before either. Although this may simply be a way of establishing Uotan’s ironically humble living conditions, I tend to think that opening a series featuring parasitic villains called the Gentry with a demand from a landlord has a special significance. The word Gentry, of course, suggests wealth, and the word is also often used in conjunction with “landed” to suggest a class of people whose wealth comes not through creation or innovation or hard work, but simply through ownership. It also suggests gentrification, and the one panel devoted to establishing Uotan’s neighborhood suggests that he lives in an older brick building accentuated by new-looking awnings and green, leafy trees that look freshly-planted — avatars of superficial niceness that actually rob the neighborhood of its character and sense of history. The traditional gentry, and contemporary gentrifiers, enrich themselves and enjoy power over others not because they have produced something, but because they were able to grab something that others want.
What is true of Europe’s land-owning aristocrats and contemporary real-estate speculators is also true of the invaders in Multiversity. And isn’t it, really, true of mainstream comic book publishers as well? These people in suits who license Batman’s image for beach towels and who suspend publication of books like Fantastic Four in an effort to avoid publicizing an upcoming movie that the publisher wants to see fail — they’re not creators. They didn’t build that. They are just men and women with MBAs who knew how to draft a profitable contract. With notable exceptions like Stan Lee and Bob Kane, the writers and artists who created these characters didn’t get rich from them, and they don’t control how those characters are exploited by their owners, multinational corporations like Time Warner and Disney.
The Gentry didn’t create anything — this is why one of the dominant, ominous images in the series is an empty hand as opposed to a hand holding a pencil or a brush. Multiversity’s central villains, that is to say, raise questions of appropriation (the hand may be grasping as well) rather than production, ownership rather than invention. Their plans for the universes they invade are directly referred to as “gentrification,” which suggests that the worlds they conquer will wind up duller and less unique as a result of their presence.
This becomes especially apparent in the penultimate chapter of the series, wherein the kindly Walt Disney figure who has explained the idea behind this new book and character “Ultra Comics” — a character whose consciousness is said to be created by the audience’s own, in what I think is the first example of reader response literary theory as superhero origin story — is revealed to be Intellectron himself. The unmasked villain explains to the reader, in oddly spelled dialogue that almost reads like a text message, that the Gentry was drawn to our degraded imaginations. “Where once were palaces and spaceships only charnel houses and brothels remained,” he tells us. “Impoverished. An ideal environment for our kind to flourish. Do yu understand now? We’re moving into yur minds. And nothing can stop us.”
The true threat in Multiversity isn’t weird cyclopean vampire bat eggs, that is, but the attack on our imaginations represented by the cynical, violent fantasies that have replaced the more hopeful and inspirational stories that entertained us in the past. We are losing our ability to envision the better worlds that our four-colored fantasies used to represent. For our own sake, we should “try to be kind,” Morrison seems to be saying. And he’s using the En-Eh-Me — DC/Time Warner, the corporate megaphone, capitalism itself — to say it.
What’s more, there is every indication, at the end of the series, that the heroes of the 52 universes now know that they are being manipulated by the corporately produced comics (and their readers) on one particular Earth — Earth-33 — that doesn’t have superheroes of its own. All of the anguish and bloodshed they have endured has been consumed as “entertainment” by a decadent culture grown lazy and nihilistic. They know that it’s possible to travel to different universes now, and they know that, somewhere, we’re out there — the ultimate villains. Our beloved superheroes know that we exist, and they are really, really mad at us for what we have done to them.
How subversive you find Multiversity might very well depend on what you think of Morrison himself. I’m a fan, and I find the book sly and clever. On the other hand, you could point out that the same soulless corporation that Morrison accuses of assaulting our imaginations also paid for Grant Morrison’s house, that Morrison himself profits handsomely from his association with the Gentry. He may use the En-Eh-Me, but they use him too, and they all benefit from the arrangement, despite any anti-corporate posturing that seems present in this series. Fair enough. I disagree, and think that any attempt to assess how creatively stifled and dangerously dull these forms of escapist fiction have become is worthwhile. But I can acknowledge the merits of dissenting opinions.
Perhaps it’s best not to think too hard about these things. Or, maybe, to think about them, debate these points with our friends at the local comic shop or on social media, but then also remember that there are other things to enjoy about this comic book series as well. Morrison has a lot of fun with dialogue like “We need you at full strength, Captain Carrot,” which suggest life and death stakes while still being completely absurd. (The line calls to my mind some of Jack Handey’s famous one-liners, like, “The crows seem to be calling my name, thought Caw” or “I came here in piece, seeking gold and slaves.”) Doc Fate’s tower on Earth-20 seems to be located at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City, the corporate headquarters of DC Comics through the 1980s. The clean-cut, wholesome versions of Captain Marvel, the wizard Shazam, and the entire Marvel Family — including the tiger, Mr. Tawky Tawny — have a planet of their own, colloquially referred to as “Thunderworld,” that would make an ideal setting for future adventures aimed at a younger readership. Morrison’s artistic collaborators all turn in stunning work, too — especially Frank Quitely, Doug Mahnke, and Ben Oliver. Yes, there is an awful lot to like about Multiversity — and it just happens to be the smartest book DC Comics has published in years, if you ask this (somewhat nervous) citizen of Earth-33.