Pax Americana continues an encouraging trend, two months and running, of a new sense of engagement and urgency and just plain effort in the comics of Grant Morrison. He and frequent collaborator Frank Quitely (who always seems to bring out the best in him) raid the Watchmen toolbox to tell a new story featuring the Charlton characters who inspired Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and the resulting comic plays out like a morally responsible, artistically daring version of Before Watchmen. Which is to say, nothing like Before Watchmen.
It's also a return of sorts for Morrison, who scripted his earliest American comics (particularly the first four issues of Animal Man) with ironic text/image combinations and loaded scene transitions in imitation of Moore's 1980s work. This time around the homages are just as calculated yet far more affectionate, a nod to a past masterwork rather than an attempt to grapple with influence or simply jump on the gravy train.
The most overt allusions to Watchmen feel like the least necessary ones. Nightshade seems to get saddled with all the references whose only purpose is referentiality (the bottle of perfume, the aging stage mom), but things perk up whenever Morrison adds his own personal touch. The Question is a real treat, ranting about spiral dynamics--a past dalliance of Morrison's, and well in keeping with the tradition of writing the Question as a New Age conspiracy nut--at such length that he blots out his own word balloons. He's also running around dropping cryptic cards that fall somewhere between Steve Ditko's Mr. A and Morrison and Quitely's old friend the Fact. ("He is!!!") The overall effect is a synthesis of styles and antecedents rather than mere repetition.
That synthesis enjoys the full support (and then some) of Quitely's artwork. Pax Americana doesn't rely on the restrained, classicist layouts of All Star Superman or the frankly dull work of Jupiter's Legacy (to be fair, I'm sure Quitely could only do so much with those scripts). This is a return to the experimental bravado of earlier Quitely-Morrison collaborations like We3, albeit in a form that's unique to this project.
Quitely steals some of Watchmen's most celebrated tricks and applies them to completely different purposes. Most of the comic is structured around an eight-panel grid in homage to Gibbons's nine-panel layouts, but where Gibbons opened up his pages onto horizontal or vertical vistas, Quitely goes smaller, subdividing his panels ever further until they can only be read with the aid of some sort of advanced electron microscope. In one bravura passage, he and Morrison plot a scene across the same space viewed at three different moments in time, through a continuous 16-panel grid. The presentation of time and space are reminiscent of nothing so much as Richard McGuire's Here, suggesting ambitions that aim somewhat higher than the usual parade of the same worn-out genre references. In its best moments Pax Americana becomes a meditation on existing in time, viewing the relentless chronology of our lives and our history through a story that runs more or less backwards. (Though I love the conceit that Captain Adam, unstuck in time in the Dr. Manhattan manner, experiences the story as we do, moving through it forwards/backwards alongside us as an unlikely guide.)
On the other hand, the comic spends enough pages dwelling at the 16-panel level that it begins to resemble that other grim and gritty masterwork of the eighties, particularly on the pages where an exterior view of the White House segues into a close-up of an American flag--yep, it's The Dark Knight Returns, deployed at the exact moment when another president calls on another superhero to fix the mess he finds himself in. It's a fleeting nod, but it's enough to let us know that Pax Americana isn't just interested in homaging Watchmen, it's looking at the legacy of all the eighties revisionist superhero comics.
And like its predecessor The Just, it's about more than just superhero comics. Morrison is once again using superheroes as a vehicle to explore larger concerns, in this case turning to perhaps their most "serious" interpretation (and the one most characteristic of those eighties revisionist superhero comics) as stand-ins for American geopolitical power. As he tells Joshua Rivera,
I suppose it’s about America and specifically about America’s self-image as the world’s policeman. It tries to make a mind-devouring narrative Mobius strip out of the complicated, contradictory idea of using violence to enforce “peace.”
I suppose it does--or at least it gestures towards this idea at a few moments. The thing is, we don't actually see a whole lot of superheroes enforcing peace, nor does Morrison have that much to say about this complicated, contradictory idea other than to note the contradiction. The issue's presentation is so terse, so gnomic that it barely articulates the idea at all. And this is largely to its credit, sparing Pax Americana from much of the pomposity of the eighties revisionist superhero comics. But the fact is: Morrison pulls back from this critique before he's even laid it out.
Pax Americana feints at the deconstruction of the superhero before offering a glimpse of redemption, suggesting that at least some of its violent and venal superheroes actually are working for a greater good. More significantly, it does the same with its politicians. The president who initially seems to be exploiting our post-9/11 hero worship for political gain turns out to be the architect of the superheroes' fall from grace; and conversely, the vice president who criticizes that hero worship most explicitly turns out to be the beneficiary of our secret network of spies and assassins. (As in Seven Soldiers, Morrison cannot leave any criticism of the superhero genre unanswered, or any critic untainted.)
The issue unfolds as a weird parable of the Bush and Obama years, of Bush and Obama conflated: the president who campaigns on change and renewal turns out to be a ruthless manager of the military-industrial complex and the superhero state, while the vice president turns out to be the kind of craven schemer that pretty much every pop-culture vice president turns out to be post-Dick Cheney. But as with his superheroes, Morrison offers that ray of hope: maybe it's all going according to plan. Maybe you can trust the president after all, just as you can always trust the superheroes and billionaire CEOs and other authority figures who have starred in his comics over the past decade.
So this is of a piece with Morrison's recent work, even if it's executed with a vigor and a formal daring that none of that work can match. I do find it funny that this installment of Multiversity ends with the validation of the superhero, whereas previous chapters culminated in their unmaking. To be clear: the lack of any connection to the rather thin plot of Multiversity is one of this comic's signal virtues, freeing it to pursue loftier ambitions. But given its source material, you would think Pax Americana would have been most suited to the goal of taking the heroes apart (if only as preparation for their inevitable remaking in the grand finale) and it gives hope that maybe, with any luck, that isn't the goal of Multiversity after all.
This could bode well for Thunderworld, which stars a Marvel family that would seem spectacularly unsuited to the cynical iconoclasm of earlier installments, half-hearted though it was. (Incidentally, this may fall under "setting unrealistic expectations," but having seen Cameron Stewart's unlettered pages for Thunderworld I'm going to predict that his art will be at least as well suited for the magical wonderland of Captain Marvel as Quitely's is for a latter-day Watchmen.) Maybe, if we're really lucky, this and future installments of Multiversity won't have any goal other than making some great comic books.