Shortly after Grant Morrison wrapped up his last attempt at a continuity-defining crossover that would reach to the farthest corners of the DC universe, I described the Final Crisis Sketchbook, a supplemental collection of notes and character designs, as my favorite part of that enervated, overextended event: "Final Crisis in its purest form."
I hope that final judgment proves not to be true of Multiversity and its supplement. At the very least, I'm pretty sure the first one won't.
The Multiversity Guidebook is a huge step backwards into the analogues and pastiches that populated the early chapters of Multiversity--the ones I couldn't be bothered to write about at the time. For all the wildly overhyped diversity of its first issue--a diversity that would all but disappear in subsequent installments--Multiversity #1 offered little more than reflections of existing heroes from established narrative continuities or else paper-thin parodies of the same, an endless hall of mirrors.
We probably shouldn't expect anything more from The Multiversity Guidebook; if anything, the survey of familiar types and territories would be more at home in an almanac than a story proper. But where the Final Crisis Sketchbook at least gave us treatments for characters who never made it into that crossover (and were often more delightful than those who did), The Multiversity Guidebook attempts to catalogue the mostly depressing contents of the DC multiverse in its current form.
That catalogue boils down to the same five or six properties, endlessly recycled; the somewhat more charming (because less exhausted) contents of a couple of other comics companies, acquired by DC decades ago; and pastiche copies of other characters not owned by DC, many of whom started as pastiche copies of characters who are owned by DC. The ink has begun to blur and smear; the copies are no longer legible, and the originals have long since vanished.
Morrison has done this sort of thing before with great success in Zenith Phase Three, which pulled every British superhero into a DC-style multiverse (and a DC-style Crisis) whether his publishers at IPC owned them or not. It felt novel back then, in part because the analogue trick hadn't been repeated so often in 1989 and in part because, in an age when DC was furiously attempting to disavow its own past, the resurrection of forgotten continuities carried a jolt of transgression.
It doesn't anymore. Now the resurrection of forgotten continuities is almost the only trick the superhero publishers have left and they return to it without end. This year it's the premise behind the major crossover events at both DC and Marvel. In this climate, Multiversity is neither a critique nor a celebration of comics; it's repetition. Individual issues may rise or fall on the strength of Morrison's ambitions and his collaborators' talents, but the guidebook gives little sign of any greater ambitions for the project as a whole.
If you don't buy into the premise that its proliferation of copies is endlessly fascinating--and despite a lifetime of reading superhero comics, mostly DC comics, I find myself increasingly pulled into this camp--then almost the only thing to latch onto in The Multiversity Guidebook is the acid humor Morrison reserves for certain of the worlds he has tasked himself with charting. There's the alliterative bombast and fake-hip patter of Earth-6, which contains the characters from Stan Lee's dead-end "Just Imagine" reinventions of the DC properties, so dismal that even straight description constitutes a kind of parody ("...the glistening GREEN LANTERN channels the peerless power of the wondrous World Tree Yggdrasil against the villainous REVEREND DARRK!") There's the uninspired Batman-as-Green Lantern from a mid-90s Elseworlds who now has a whole world of similar mash-ups to inhabit, most of them so insipid (Wonderhawk? Aquaflash!) that they subject the very principle behind the "original" to richly deserved ridicule.
And there is something vaguely funny about watching the derivative creations of Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld receive their own even more derivative copies... at least until the vague laughter passes and you realize that's the only joke in this book, and it's on perpetual replay. Because in the end, nearly all of these worlds amount to mash-ups, generally the kind that leach rather than add meaning to their component parts.
What's the point of combining, say, DC's rich gallery of Western characters with the Steampunk Justice League cosplayers of an old Chuck Dixon Elseworlds? What do we gain by having the asshole superheroes of Howard Chaykin's Thrillkiller books grow into the asshole space explorers of his Twilight? Why fold DC's more optimistic and forward-looking science fiction characters into the post-apocalyptic milieu of the Atomic Knights, and then fold the Justice League into that? In fact, almost all of these cookie-cutter universes devolve into analogues of the Justice League, even when their source material doesn't start that way. In that sense, The Multiversity Guidebook is an encyclopedic demonstration of DC's collapsing publishing aims. The New 52, for all its sins, started out with a game attempt at reviving the company's horror and war comics. Now it's all Batman and Green Lantern. Say what you will about Aquaflash, at least he's honest.
...Wait, did you ask about a story? Oh yes, there's a story here, too. Something about a couple of different versions of Batman meeting and reading the comic whose contents we are holding, which contains the exact same cosmology Morrison gave us in Final Crisis and its tie-ins, updated to include the last couple of crises after the final crisis. There's an ominous threat and the hint of an even ominouser threat and a big purple monster with three eyes and tentacles and a goofy, self-amused expression that would look more at home on the puppet mascot of a television show made for children with extremely low standards. I'm sure by the time this is all over we'll be told exactly which aspect of the comics industry he symbolizes but I can't say I'm in any hurry to get there.
There's no point judging this comic for its story, anyway; the plot as such is just a loosely narrative frame for the catalogue of worlds and the big D&D alignment chart that maps them. Morrison could probably write entertaining stories about most of those worlds, but if the overall plot of Multiversity has shown little interest in doing so, then why should we demand any more from its supplement? As a giant fistful of comic that you can buy for eight bucks and read for an hour or so, The Multiversity Guidebook does what it set out to do. It's an authoritative survey of fifty-two variations on the same handful of bankrupt ideas: an atlas to a country that is no longer much worth exploring.