This comic is a trap. Earth-Prime faces an attack that uses comic book pulp fiction as a doorway into the minds of its unwitting host. Do not read this comic.
If there was ever was a comic more Morrison-esque than “The Multiversity: Ultra Comics” #1, I don’t know how it could exist without the readership literally being trapped inside its pages. Grant Morrison has always played around with the link between reader and fiction within comics, most notably in his acclaimed “Animal Man” run, but this theme hasn’t been confined to that series. His “Seven Soldiers” event blurred the lines between fiction and reality, but that’s nothing compared to what Morrison, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Mark Irwin, Keith Champagne, Jaime Mendoza, Gabe Eltaeb and David Baron shoot for in “The Multiversity: Ultra Comics” #1.
The book starts by throwing its cards on the table with a three-page sequence of the Ultra Comics character directly addressing the reader and explaining how he’s from 38 pages in the future, and how reading on in this cursed and haunted comic will unleash the oblivion machine. From there, things only get more metafictional, as Morrison shows us the creation of Ultra Comics, the hero who is literally a comic book come to life. At first, Morrison plays it for laughs, as Ultra thinks about how his body is made from cellulose pulp, salt water, carbon and so on. As the issue progresses, the series starts recognizing its nature as a living comic. Ultra notes that his thought balloons make him look dated and shifts over to narrative captions. Then, the opinions from online begin to flood in, complaining about tired themes and just wanting a simple adventure for once. From there, things just get more and more offbeat.
For all of the self-referential mocking that Morrison infuses into the book, “The Multiversity: Ultra Comics” #1 can be read strictly as a simple adventure comic if that’s all you want to take from it. It’s the story of a hero who goes up against a world-destroying evil and uses his wit to manipulate the villains into engineering their own destruction. If viewed simply that way, it’s fun. Morrison doesn’t lose sight of making this comic worth reading in favor of his greater points. That said, though, you’ll miss out on a lot of entertainment if you discard the metafictional aspect of the issue. From the way that the criticism feeds into the conclusion to the nods towards the comics community devouring itself, there’s a lot to unpack here. Even the idea of reading the comic more than once plays into the structure of “The Multiversity: Ultra Comics,” as the very first page warns us; with the end looping back around to the beginning, Ultra himself serves as harbinger of his own destiny.
Mahnke has worked with Morrison on some of his bigger projects in recent years, like “Seven Soldiers” and “Final Crisis,” so it’s no small surprise that this collaboration is as strong as ever. Ultra Comics’ poses in the first few pages set the stage for the heavy lifting performed here; every single image feels natural and lifelike. When Ultra staggers into first page, look at his stance; as his right hand rests against the page edge, you can see in the heft of his shoulders and the tilt of his arm that he’s supporting himself by that boundary. Likewise, as soon as you turn the page, you’re confronted with Ultra pointing directly at you. The “You! Yes, you!” word balloon is almost unnecessary, as his gaze is fixed directly at the reader and his finger is pointed in such a way that you can almost see the motion as he whirls around to address you. Nowhere here does the art feel stiff or posed; this is a comic that’s just bursting with energy.
So much care has been put into every scene to make them work properly. I love the shift to almost-grayscale and back on page 4, as Eltaeb and Baron evoke an earlier era akin to the science documentaries of yesteryear. When we do see Ultra’s creation, the four tubes pump in the hues of the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) printing process that’s used to create physical comic books. Even the two pages that, in four images, run through the shifts of superheroes from the golden age to the present day are each told perfectly through the art. Every single one of them evokes that specific era, with the tropes (for good or for bad) lovingly brought to life as Mahnke draws squeaky-clean optimism one moment and grim melodrama the next.
“The Multiversity: Ultra Comics” #1 is the oddest portion of “The Multiversity” to date, but it’s also quite possibly the best. Is it a trap? Absolutely. When the book is over, loop back to the start and follow Ultra’s path again. Each time through, you’ll notice something different, something telling. Morrison, Mahnke and company should be proud of what they’ve created here; their “living comic book” does, indeed, have a great deal of life in its pages. Highly recommended.