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Grumpy Old Fan | Morrison, Johns and the Multiverse

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Morrison, Johns and the Multiverse

Although Convergence races on, it’s not DC Comics’ only cosmically minded title. This week brought a couple more takes on everyone’s favorite bit of heavenly housekeeping, as Justice League #40 kicks off “Darkseid War” and The Multiversity #2 concludes Grant Morrison’s meta-epic. Each makes clear connections to Crisis on Infinite Earths (and thus, by extension, to DC’s pre-Crisis output), and each reflects its writer’s philosophy.

However, where one extols the virtues of infinite creative diversity, the other focuses on the cyclical nature of it all. Today we’ll see which issue uses its approach more effectively.

SPOILERS for both issues, of course …

* * *

We begin with The Multiversity #2, written by Grant Morrison, penciled by Ivan Reis, inked by Joe Prado, Eber Ferreira and Jaime Mendoza, and colored by Dan Brown, Jason Wright and Blond. Apart from an opening sequence that looks in on a handful of Earths (and dispatches a pair of Sivanas from the Thunderworld chapter), essentially it’s an extended fight among the forces of the Hall of Heroes, the corrupted Nix Uotan and the soul-crushing Gentry. The storyline picks up mostly from The Multiversity #1, only acknowledging the other Earth-specific installments in passing. Thus, it focuses on the characters from that issue: Captain Carrot, Red Racer, Earth-23’s Superman, Earth-11’s Aquawoman and assorted Marvel and Image pastiches. Scattered in the crowds are other alternate versions of familiar DC folk, all managed skillfully by Reis and his fellow artists.

In terms of plot, there’s not much more. The good guys win, but upon returning to the destroyed Earth-7 (the “Ultimate Marvel” analogue) they find it subjugated to a Gentry army, still hard at work on the Oblivion Machine, and powered by the energy from “Multiverse-2.” Nobody’s ready to fight and the issue only has a few more pages, so the heroes return to the Monitor’s satellite. There, Uotan gets his reward (rent money) and a cosmos-spanning super-team is formed out of the mightiest heroes from 50 worlds. It’s all very hopeful, as in “we hope people will want to see more of this, even if it’s not from Grant Morrison himself.”

Put less charitably, The Multiversity #2 seems to be about the triumph of volume. The Gentry’s plan was to use Uotan to open all the multiversal doors so that they could conquer the rest of the Orrery of Worlds. However, Uotan realized that the open doors could also allow the heroes of every world to dogpile on the Gentry. To my untrained eye, that sounds like the forces of conformity being simply outnumbered by the weird permutations a multiverse can facilitate. Throw enough versions of Superman at the wall, and something’s bound to stick.

That said, some of the issue’s best moments involve sideways takes on familiar characters. By focusing on an incantation which slowly reveals itself as a certain infernal transformation, the opening sequence on Earth-13 sets a self-referential tone. (It also recalls the “words of power” moments — the Forever People’s “Taaru,” the Green Lanterns’ oath, Superman’s singing — from the end of Final Crisis. Morrison brings up music here as well, whether it’s Aquawoman wanting to “change [Uotan’s] tune” or Superman talking about a villain’s “sing[ing] from the same hymn sheet.”)  The issue is full of such arrivals, whether they’re an army of Flashes or a trio of Marvels (and not the 616 kind, either). They work fine as rah-rah moments, because Reis and company are able to translate Morrison’s enthusiasm pretty well.

Moreover, The Multiversity seems to suggest that it’s enough merely to show these disparate characters interacting, apart from any deeper juxtapositional meaning. I suppose this implies that each of these alternate takes has a particular self-evident dignity, because in terms of the plot there’s not much to distinguish the alternates from the main-line versions. In this way The Multiversity argues that you can play around with things like gender and ethnicity and still keep the essence of Superman, Aquaman or The Flash intact.

That sounds like a very dismissive take, and I’m a little ashamed for putting it that way, because gender and ethnicity aren’t usually talked about in dismissive terms. However, when The Multiversity presents three different Superman analogues as a) a demon, b) a rabbit and c) a black president of the United States, the comparisons have to change appropriately. Again, this is not to say gender, ethnicity, etc., are unimportant, just that they may become relatively less important than, say, a particular set of superpowers. It’s an ironic way to promote demographic diversity, but that’s not to say it’s bad.

Nevertheless, because The Multiversity is more concerned with cultivating these non-traditional analogues, its open structure produces uneven results. At the end of the issue, when the final boss declares that the next battle will be on his schedule, the reader may feel like The Multiversity has sacrificed narrative coherence — or at least the chance to make a definite thematic statement — for the more nebulous opportunity to revisit these characters. This itself is problematic, because The Multiversity’s villains come across as thinly disguised stand-ins for bad corporate-comics behavior, and the story doesn’t do much to discourage those behaviors beyond an extended “keep plugging!” pep talk. In other words, The Multiversity argues that its diversity-first mantra not only can be done within the corporate structure, but (because it depends on alternate versions of corporate-controlled characters) is beholden to that structure. The bad guys still hold all the cards, and it’s up to the good guys not to give up. That’s the kind of hopeless cause only a superhero could love, amirite?

And yet, The Multiversity is still fun, at least to a guy like me who can spot all the references. The first page isn’t just an homage to the big bang that opens Crisis on Infinite Earths, it’s reminiscent of any number of 1970s-style pseudo-psychedelic layouts from the likes of Neal Adams or Jim Starlin. The “Flash Fact” caption box has a helpful pointing hand, the Captain America pastiche gets to shout his version of “Avengers Assemble,” and one of the Flashes in the crowd looks a lot like Wally West. Even the villain’s “empty hand” deliberately recalls the “hand of God” from the Multiverse’s origin (in 1965’s Green Lantern #40 and 1985’s COIE #7), but this time it’s coming from the reader’s perspective. Thanks to Ultra Comics, we are charged with taking a side, because we can stand either with the heroes or with the Gentry. The Multiversity aims to pack its conclusion with all the good vibrations such references can produce, in hopes of energizing its readership into positive action. It’s a comic designed to make you feel good about superhero comics, in the hopes that you’ll support other such comics in the future. However, I’m not sure how many minds it will change or how many like-minded comics it will facilitate. Accordingly, it’s hard to say at this point whether The Multiversity is the start of something bigger or just an entertaining notch on Grant Morrison’s utility belt.

* * *

As it happens, Justice League #40 (written by Geoff Johns) also opens with a Crisis homage before going straight into a somewhat Morrisonian vignette about a lovable super-powered schlub. Drawn by Kevin Maguire, who became famous for drawing lovable super-powered schlubs, it incorporates that anonymous superhero’s short career into the larger cosmological circle of life, and uses Metron to connect it to the saga of the New Gods. It’s an effective sequence because Maguire makes it work. I mean, let’s face it: Maguire penciling nine pages of a Justice League issue is special by itself; but here Maguire has to go from world-shattering spectacle to downbeat drama and then into Kirby territory. That’s a lot to ask of any artist, but he pulls it off.

The middle part of the issue (pages 10-15) is a series of double-page spreads. First is Phil Jimenez doing a Crisis on Infinite Earths splash, followed by Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway and Scott Kolins each taking part of a big-event triptych (Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, Flashpoint), and then Jason Fabok drawing the original New 52 League fighting Parademons. The issue’s final seven pages feature Jim Lee and Scott Williams on a conversation between Metron and the Anti-Monitor amongst the ruins of Earth-3.

Threaded through these scenes is the need to break destructive cycles. Metron’s talking primarily about universal death and rebirth, but in this issue’s version of “The Pact” he seeks to stop the New Gods’ cycle of violence by helping engineer the trade between Highfather and Darkseid. When he confronts the Anti-Monitor — whose real name is apparently Mobius — it’s because Anti-M is getting ready to destroy all of creation again, and creation can’t take it anymore. However, Ant– excuse me, Mobius sees another way out of his own destructive spiral; namely, to kill Darkseid. “The age of the New Gods is about to end,” he rumbles, “and the age of the Anti-God will begin.”

Now, this all sounds very promising, and I enjoyed this issue quite a bit. The hero of the first few pages, Wilson Morgan, got his electrical powers from the Amazo Virus, and for some reason he’s kept them even after everyone else was cured. He didn’t get any invulnerability, so when he’s shot during a rescue attempt, it’s curtains for Wilson. However, his brush with super-dom lets him see the otherwise hidden Metron, who I take it is always observing. So Wilson’s got that going for him, which is nice. The “Pact” sequence can’t hope to improve on Kirby, but it serves the story well enough. The big-event tableaux reinforce the notion of diminishing cosmic returns, and the Mobius/Metron conversation reintroduces the Anti-Monitor with a new (and helpful) perspective.

Naturally, Justice League #40 also addresses directly the fannish notion that DC needs to get serious about maintaining the macro-level elements of its shared universe. The Anti-Monitor even dismisses Convergence outright, noting that Brainiac will gain nothing more than “knowledge” from his multiversal studies. A narrative caption says the New 52-verse has “yet to solidify,” and it’s presented generally as just another spin of the cosmic wheel. Such metacommentary is old hat for Johns, whether it’s Superboy-Prime standing in for whiny fans or the general public making fun of Aquaman.

Here, though, Johns is taking on one of the biggest implements in the corporate-comics toolkit. In effect, he’s telling readers that the real fate of the DC Universe as they know it will be in this series, not Convergence or The Multiversity. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because if anyone can reconcile such disparate takes on DC’s cosmology, it’s Geoff Johns. Even so, though, his run on Justice League has consistently felt disconnected from the rest of the DCU. (The only other place I’ve seen the current “Luthor League” has been in recent issues of Batman and Robin, and I chalk that up to the continuity-conscious Peter Tomasi.) Forever Evil took place within a fairly small bubble, so it’s a little peculiar to think that “Darkseid War” — big as it seems — could resonate throughout the rest of the superhero line. Never mind that there’ll be yet another Justice League title debuting in June.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Johns always starts well, and JL #40 is another example of that. It’s a solid issue which establishes some key players (including a final-page reveal I haven’t mentioned) and sets the stakes appropriately high. I’m looking forward to seeing where it leads.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

And here is this week’s installment of Converbiage.

WHAT I BOUGHT: For the second straight week, everything: Convergence #4, plus first issues of Action Comics, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Crime Syndicate, Detective Comics, Justice Society, Infinity Inc., Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters, Shazam! and World’s Finest.

BEST OF THE WEEK: Blue Beetle, Detective Comics, Shazam!

NOTES: Convergence #4 advances the plot nicely, as the Justice Society — actually called that, by old JSA foe Per Degaton — and its Skartarian allies try to free the captive Time Masters from Deimos’ prison. Naturally, Travis “Warlord” Morgan is involved as well, if only indirectly at the moment. (In fact, it reminds me how much I’d like Stephen Amell to star in a Warlord movie.  I mean, clearly he looks just like the guy.) This all makes me happy, because in the best Gardner Fox tradition it brings various standalone elements of the shared superhero universe into a fairly coherent adventure. The end of the issue even pays off a plot point from Futures End, which is something I didn’t expect a DC book to do outside of Batman Beyond. Having the Justice Society from Earth 2 meet the characters from The Warlord is just the kind of thing I expect out of these events, so well done all. Otherwise, the issue features some back-and-forth between Telos and Dick Grayson about the morality of metropolitan cage matches, but that doesn’t distract from the high-concept superhero action.

As for the tie-in books, I’m sorry to say that most of them feature a good bit of reminiscing about how awful life has become under a dome without superpowers. Additionally, many of those taking place on Earth-Two have have main characters feeling the effects of old age. It gives this group a depressing sameness which overshadows their individual merits. The elderly Shining Knight of World’s Finest overlaps with the elderly cast of Justice Society and the almost-ancient Uncle Sam of Freedom Fighters. Heavy amounts of narration in World’s Finest (written by Paul Levitz) only emphasizes this subplot.

Other books have their own problems. Action Comics writer Justin Gray does a good job balancing the Red Son setting with the Earth-Two Superman family, but he’s a little heavy on the exposition; and artist Claude St.-Aubin draws Earth-Two Lois about fifty years younger than she should look. Booster Gold suffers from being a direct sequel to the Booster Gold: Futures End one-shot, which itself was fairly confusing. (Somehow the pre-Flashpoint Booster is wearing an ARGUS-branded suit, but ARGUS is more of a New 52 plot device.) It’ll probably make sense somewhere around the second year of Batman Beyond. The Crime Syndicate issue can’t quite make the titular villains as bad as they should be, and its take on Justice Legion Alpha isn’t as optimistic as it should be. Freedom Fighters’ Nazi-fied setting is too depressing, but I guess I should have expected that. Infinity Inc. could have stood to restore its heroes’ powers a little sooner than it did.

I like Detective Comics (written by Len Wein, penclled by Denys Cowan, inked by Bill Sienkiewicz, colored by Chris Sotomayor) because two of its main characters don’t need to rely on superpowers and the third (Red Son Superman) has problems his powers won’t necessarily solve. One character does something fairly dumb toward the end, but it can be excused under the circumstances and it sets up the next issue, so it’s OK.

Blue Beetle (written by Scott Lobdell, drawn by Yishan Li, colored by Dave McCaig) also focuses on a couple of non-powered main characters and a third (Earth-Four Captain Atom) whose lack of powers are not as much of a concern. Lobdell’s motivations for Beetle, Atom, and the Question are each distinct enough that they could drive the plot, and Telos’ actions thereby become a complication, not a superseding cause.

Finally, Shazam! (written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Evan “Doc” Shaner, colored by Jordi Bellaire) is Exhibit B — behind Thunderworld — for why DC should have an ongoing Earth-5 Marvel Family series. Here, the dome fits into Marvel history alongside the characters’ imprisonment in Suspendium (helpfully explained in-story, for those who came in late). I was a bit confused about Ibac’s transformation, but that’s a minor nitpick. Shaner’s art suits the Marvels perfectly, and he and Bellaire create some first-rate magic-lightning scenes. (The “mighty Marvel manner,” indeed….) It’s exactly the kind of retro-fueled product Convergence has been trying to sell, and it’s just tremendously entertaining to boot.

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