Apr 8, 2015

Common Criticisms Reconsidered: The Multiversity

Travis Hedge Coke

We’re one issue until it wraps up, but The Multiversity has proven to be a comic ripe for investigation, begging analysis, urging us in cold text to stop turning pages, to stop picking up comics, and to buy another, read some more, have a good time. I have seen people insulted by every single issue so far, and others who feel it’s purely positive, full of highlights and strengths. Its opening issue, part one of a two-part wraparound enveloping the other seven comics, was almost a parody of both Event comics and author Grant Morrison’s own personal tics and tendencies. Even structuring the story as a wraparound two-parter and seven “standalone” stories set in the same broad multiverse has concerned some comics readers, with people saying they’ll skip The Multiversity Guidebook, aka “Maps and Legends” (because each has a cover title and a story title, a longstanding tradition in American comics stemming from serialization being the norm). What use could a guidebook be, right? Except that, as this is a story in which comics are delivering information about other realities to characters, presumably a comic full of information might be of use to us or them, and indeed, in the comic labeled The Multiversity Guidebook, characters straight up read the comic we hold before us that they’re in. The characters of one Multiversity comic or another may not jump directly over, the settings may be different or even the time period, but there are physical and thematic resonances from story to story, some blunt and explicit, like the grand multi-universe invasion of a gang of Dr. Sivanas, others eloquent or understated, such as the equally arrested and “comic-booky” nature of Pax Americana and Thunderworld Adventures or the different angles of celebrity, ennui, hope, politics, and technology made evident in the different stories.

Pure Genius

“Text is vulnerable to criticism!” - “Ultra Comics Lives!” in Ultra Comics by Grant Morrison, et al

The lightest of the major critical appraisals has been one that, basically, locks off critical appraisal, the same as it’s inverse, It’s All Trash. That the comic is pure genius that cannot be analyzed or questioned helps some readers feel excited and secure, I don’t doubt, but it definitely doesn’t make the comic better for me, nor is it provably true of anything. Everything has flaws. Everything is up for analysis and subject to criticism.

The Multiversity is, itself, filled with characters and stories that turn a critical eye to comics, politics, history, art, even audiences. Some of the characters exist as criticism of trends, some of the events are parodies of prevalent occurrences in other comics or narrative media. Pax Americana, aka “In Which We Burn”, is a consideration of the techniques and effects of Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also about post-9/11 America, but… President Superman is as much about present-day America, and so is The Just, aka “#earthme”. And, so is the post-Nazi-conquest Earth in The Mastermind, aka “splendour falls”. That one take may agree with your personal politics or perspective is inconsequential to its relevance as a critical consideration, nor do they have to agree with each other. Teens America can be looked at as all those things, metaphorically or functionally, and we know that because the comics do look at it that way.

Any criticism can be tested by applying it and seeing if it fits and how. So it is in making comics, so it is in reading comics, and so it is here, in an article about comics and how we read them. The genius or inanity of a comic does not save it from criticism or mean it isn't worth critical examination.

And, let’s be honest, Morrison could have written Mary Marvel slightly more useful in Thunderworld (“Captain Marvel and The Day That Never Was”). Even if it’s an incredibly subtle dig at “let the boys handle it” mentalities and the golden era towards which this comic somewhat looks back, it’s not very good. And, by not very good, I mean it annoyed me, mildly, amidst a comic I otherwise totally dug the most.

It Took Too Long

“Five years of constant war is like a madman screaming in your ear.” - “Conquerors From the Counter-World!” in The Society of Superheroes by Grant Morrison, et al

Most American comics are serials that come out daily, weekly, or monthly. Superheroes come out monthly in the traditional comic book form, strips and one-panel comics tend to be daily or weekly, depending on where they run. Webcomics are updated on regular schedules. Even miniseries are generally released on a month, for little particular reason except that we expect it. And, they should be written and drawn as fast as possible, or you’re just being *)#&ing pretentious.

And, that’s where we’re at with The Multiversity. A good chunk of the core audience seem genuinely disappointed that the comic took several years to come to fruition, that they waited for artists to finish the issues, that Morrison was afforded the opportunity to rewrite several drafts of each story. The last issue has been pushed back a few weeks, oh no!

Except for the opening issue, the beginning of the two-parter, “House of Heroes”, every Multiversity story has been a complete and in and of itself rewarding story. They aren’t affecting other monthly titles or miniseries. They aren’t disrupting the flow of any other comic, anyone else’s stories. There is no risk in “#earthme” coming out so late it, and the rest of the series, prevent characters from being used elsewhere or ruin any surprises. While these worlds are open for many other tales, while the characters potentially have a ton of life in them, these stories are as enclosed as any. You can read them in the context of the DC Universe, or in the context of all-comics-ever, but even if you don’t read them as part of The Multiversity, “splendour falls” or “Ultra Comics Lives!” give you a total story, with fully fleshed-out characters, an intricate and exciting world, an arc of development and a novel structure that climaxes in a form of satisfaction. The level of excitement or development may be arguable, but that they are full-bodied stories is less so.

And, wouldn’t we rather the talent have time to bring us the best possible comics they could? What good would rushing or splitting up the art chores amongst options that weren’t as optimal actually get us? Comics to come out faster? And, then what? What would this comic coming out four years ago actually mean for now? For when we pull this off the shelf or re-download it three years from now?


“Stop reading. Continue to read. Do as we tell you. The choice is yours.” - “House of Heroes” in The Multiversity by Grant Morrison, et al

So, if it does not matter when The Multiversity comes out, does it matter if it was ever published? Some comics fans clearly don’t believe so, as though it is a bestseller right now, one can find people saying that they won’t touch it because it doesn’t have enough of an effect on, say, next month’s Action Comics issue or the next movie based on a DC property, etc. When the guidebook issue, “Maps and Legends” was the new release, the comics message boards were aflutter with followers of the series saying they’d skip it because it was “just a guidebook” or superfluous. And, then there was our own Duy, who I think bought that issue but not the others, because it was a guidebook. (I also bought Thunderworld. - Cranky Editor Man)

How do you judge value? What could make a story superfluous? (And yes, the guidebook issue is a story.) There is no universal criteria for the value of a story. We have our own personal criteria, criteria that our culture or education have ingrained in us, but they are all subjective. There is a difference between something being superfluous and being not of interest to you.

Prejudging a story or set of stories before reading them, or before really considering them in their context, is unfair and, in my estimation, cheap. It cheats the stories of fair appraisal, but it also cheats you of something that potentially has a lot of value. It’s better to confirm circuit is live than presume it’s dead, but you don’t just stick a butterknife in a socket and see what’s what. God invented voltmeter’s for a reason. Reviews, critical essays, preview pages, and discussions are voltmeter's for the arts. You’d still have to engage the live wire to feel a charge, but you can gauge whether there is some juice in the line by seeing what critics think, how an informed audience are responding, or taking a small test from previews offered by the publisher.

It’s Too Confusing

“Some hipster thing. But, that’s not the weird part. Look again.” - “#earthme” in The Just, by Grant Morrison, et al

“I don't understand!” followings a Grant Morrison comic so consistently it’s its own punchline.

And my response is, as always, the same question: “What was so confusing?” Morrison is a commercial writer. Sure, he’s a little off the beaten track sometimes, but like Andrew W.K. singing, “I close your moth. I kiss your teeth,” Morrison makes sure that his unusualness is couched in a good, steady, radio-friendly beat, because he wants everyone along for the ride. And, he is one of the best-selling comics writers working in the English language, so objectively, he’s succeeded at being a commercial writer.

Sure, “Ultra Comics Lives!” (in Ultra Comics) makes more sense when you pause to think on some things, but even skimming the comic, it’s just slightly weirder than the average X-Files episode. There’s a comic that we’re reading, a physical object, whether we read it on paper or digitally, a visual thing with character and narrative, and by reading it, we contribute to it. We can feel what the hero feels, hear his narrated thoughts in our heads, shudder or laugh at the villains. And, Ultra is as weird or abstract as it gets.

“Conquerors” is mostly about an alternate Earth’s bad guys invading Earth, just after World War 2. “In Which We Burn” concerns the assassination of the American President, the whos and whys and the addiction to sounds and light that are modern politics. “…The Day That Never Was” is almost entirely flying and punching. “#earthme” is some kids failing to live up to impossible standards; one of them kills herself, some of them attend a party, and a couple of them make some dumb romantic choices. Where’s the confusion?

Only with a Grant Morrison comic would pop fiction fans be getting this wound up over whether or not we know what the villains “represent.” Where the references might be, the allusions, the symbolism. It’s a scary house full of eyes, an evil egg with bitty evil bat wings, a woman who makes you ennui so hard your heart breaks. Cannibal caveman gangsters, sadistic mad scientists, bitter young girls who just want to be pretty and powerful and to hurt people. Why would “what they represent” be more important than that? Why would being unsure of what, precisely, they represent or whether the name is a callback to something, whether there is an esoteric or geeky reason for a look or a face make the comics too confusing? For all I know, Newman was the name of Jerry Seinfeld’s most hated cousin, who used to rub custard on his neck when they were nine and twelve, respectively. I don’t care. Newman is pure evil. Or, really annoying. And so it is with Dr. Sivana or the Gentry.

Impenetrable to New Readers

“Bring him more comics.” - “In Which We Burn” in Pax Americana, by Grant Morrison, et al

You don’t need a PhD in Batman to enjoy The Multiversity. It may be that too much familiarity with superheroes, or superhero comics is what’s tripping some folks up with the comic. Recognizing a character or a special item or term that’s being reused, like suspendium, Ultraa, or Batman is cool, to be sure, and it can add a frisson or special resonance to the whole ordeal, like the poetry of a Childe Roland-styled far-future Batman teaming up with a child-sized chibi Batman or seeing the actual issues of Multiversity appearing in the comics. If the appearance of Lil Gotham got you to buy an issue, that’s awesome. Grant Morrison got you to buy and read an issue of an excellent super-fun comic. But, it’s not necessary or perhaps even all that revelatory in terms of the plot of Multiversity.

Maybe Morrison picked a comic at random. Maybe, since we’re dealing with the same Lil Batman when we see the issue, Morrison wanted to share a brilliant comic with you. You shouldn’t be reading just for “plot,” anyway. Earth-37 being an Earth of Howard Chaykin stories was exciting not because I think it will feed back into the plot and be an important building block to the finale, but because that’s cool; Chaykinverse. “Maps and Legends” may be the only place we ever see that Childe Roland Batman on his quest for the grail, but it’s aces right there. One of the myriad of alternate reality Sivanas is a snake. That’s awesome. The “today” parts of Pax Americana take place in 2016! No amount of background or familiarity with DC Comics is going to make Saffi Mason committing suicide while on the phone with her best friend Sasha any sadder.

Point of fact, a lot of diehard DC readers seem most unmoved by The Just, claiming the characters are accomplishing nothing (by being doctors, painters, comic book artists, or guys who, shudder, sit in their living room and play video games sometimes) and that nothing of significance happens. On reflection, between suicide, infections, Damian’s doomed love affair with a psychotic genius, her using her old boyfriend to get back at Damian’s best friend, who attends an opening of his prophetic paintings even though he’s potentially dying of a Bizarro-infection, and superheroes working through personal traumas while trying to better the world… what doesn’t happen is just that they don’t get to punch the villains. New-reader failure will never reach the critical ennui of the person buying two thirds of DC’s monthly output, who feels that suicide, sex, fear, death, family and medicine are less significant than socking a mental patient in the jaw and hauling him to a prison with a revolving door.

Morrison Hates _____

“If it seems ridiculous, it’s because it is. But there was something else going on here.” - Grant Morrison on the Red Bee, in Supergods

Some people are truly offended by what they feel to be spite and rage and condemnation from Grant Morrison and the individual issues of Multiversity. With each new issue, someone will go online, as you do, to swear they’ll never buy another Grant Morrison comic because he hates comics, and he hates superheroes, and he hates DC, and he hates fans, and he hates fun and love and fluffy bunnies in superhero capes and… aaaah! it’s just too much.

Which is ridiculous.

If a horrible person, like a cannibal serial murderer or evil demon from Dimension Yikesitsscary says something to make someone feel afraid or sad, it’s probably not true. Bad things always threaten good people in stories. If good people weren’t threatened, we wouldn’t want them to be saved. If good people aren’t faced with adversity, we would have no reason to crave seeing them overcome that adversity.

Grant Morrison hates superheroes. The guy who’s kept on writing them having big hero moments and shining brightly for decades now? Who is, with Multiversity, investing energy and time into demonstrating why superheroes rock?

Grant Morrison hates comics. Then, why does he crow on about how fantastic they are all the time? Why is he making comics if he hated them? Why write a prose book about his love of comics?

Morrison hates modern entertainment. Serious? Batman and Superman in The Just cop a much more modern style than any young superhero in another DC comic released in the last twelve months. Pax Americana is a comic you couldn’t have got out from DC during the Comics Code era without giant warnings all over it. Thunderworld Adventures has some old-time flavor to it, but its execution is pure, modern, post-Bone comics.

Morrison hates comics fans. “Gracious” Grant, like Stan “The Man” before him, makes us all part of a superhero in Multiversity. We’re deputized superheroes. You don’t do that for people you hate.


“The editor’s entire psychology was stretched naked on the dissecting table via some of the most outlandish and unashamed deployments of pure symbolic content that comics had ever seen.” - Grant Morrison on Mort Weisinger’s Superman, in Supergods

Despite what some may say, Deconstruction is not some nihilistic destruction of pretty fictions and happy stories. And, despite what some online critics and message board commenters have insisted, Multiversity is neither destroying all the good, old brightness and simpleness of classic comics in the style of Deconstruction they fear, nor is it a strong Reconstructivist call to arms for the nostalgia huffing in the audience. At its simplest, Deconstruction might be said to be simply serious reading; to look at what a story puts forward and what it holds back, the explicit text, the implied functions, and stuff that the authors just didn’t feel a need to address. And, Reconstruction is, I suppose the TV Tropes edition of Deconstruction without any critical aspect, except for hating new things, which is perfectly okeh.

Is there Deconstruction going on in Multiversity? Sure. The writer, the artists, the colorists, the readers, and the readers and writers of articles such as this one are seriously investing consideration in the comics, reading closely and analyzing the bits and pieces and their relation to each other and the rest of the world. That is to say, the talent planned out what they’re releasing to us and we’re reading it. That’s all Deconstruction is. Serious reading. Fair and critical reading. Any other angle on the term is a political agenda, probably - in terms of comics - stemming from the fact Alan Moore was in a bad mood for several years.

This is not an Alan Moore comic. Alan Moore’s bad mood does not trump Jacques Derrida’s ideas about the term which he approached in the 1960s to describe a phenomena potentially as old as the human species.

Reconstruction? A reactionary term for comics that presumably defy the nihilism and vitriol that, as we covered above, aren’t actually a part of Deconstruction. So, a reaction to a pseudo-intellectualist bogeyman.

I guess, arguably, the Gentry are pseudo-intellectualist bogeymen. Haunting monster fears and irrational ennui. Burnout and rage and phantom fears racing around in our minds, polluting our hearts. And Multiversity does fight them. The gee wiz rush of Thunderworld Adventures is as artificial, constructed and restrained as the paranoia and bitterness and practicality of Pax Americana. One feels good to me, except where it cheats Mary Marvel from throwing, y’know, one punch, but the other hurts all the time, when I read it. I wince at every page of Pax, not because it is bad or poorly put together, but because it’s a painful story. Pax, like Mastermen, is a tragedy where the world succeeds. But, by what I understand the rules of Reconstruction to be, that’s just as much a Reconstruction, then, of Watchmen’s ethos and glory, as Thunderworld or The Just are celebrations of old Captain Marvel or Super-Sons comics. Unless Watchmen is now a Reconstructive comic, this is all probably barking up the wrong tree.


Anonymous said...

I've read many reviews and analyses of Multiversity, and this is absolutely the best. You make a number of salient points, not only about the comic, but also about the often poorly reasoned criticism that it has received. Really, really, really good stuff. I look forward to reading what you think of the conclusion!

AverageDrafter said...

I've seen the criticism that Mary Marvel doesn't do anything in this book before. I dont get it, how do you miss her punching Georgia THROUGH HER CLEAVAGE?! Its a massive panel and not too subtle.

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