We’ve got another cover that appears to be the product of two different narrative registers interacting with each other, as some concerned citizen has helpfully scrawled a “not” across the John Broome-like injunction to read this comic. Like the gaudy frame of Mastermen, which both contradicted and redeemed the crude illustration inside it, this clash of registers is a perfect representation of the comic within—a comic that cannot quite decide what it wants.
I loved the first thirteen pages, as we watch the comic construct itself and narrate its own creation before our very eyes. Self-aware comics are a familiar routine from Morrison, to be sure, but he manages to put a new spin on it that we haven’t seen before : this time he eschews the airy abstractions in favor of an unusual attention to the materiality of the comic, from its production to its reception. Like a band performing a fresh arrangement of a beloved standard, the old number takes on new life.
This rendition is delightfully unsettling thanks to Doug Mahnke’s too-slick art, which seems calculated to provide an uncanny-valley simulation of life, and by Morrison’s refusal to settle on a stable narrative frame. That refusal is anything but arbitrary, and these scenes are neatly constructed: there’s a wonderful fair-play clue on pages three and four, for example, as the alarmed Ultra who stares into the eye of his enemy yields to the sedate executive who reads the comic along with us. That same gimmick seemed hollow and unmotivated when Morrison used it to very different effect in The Multiversity Guidebook, but here he invests it with a malign purpose that’s only clear on the second reading.
These sorts of metafictional games can be delightful over the course of a short story, but they’re difficult to sustain over the long run. Ultra Comics shifts drastically when it moves from the creepy 1950s industrial film to the “nakedly allegorical tale” that consumes its final two-thirds. That tale sends Ultra to a “generic post-apocalyptic urban wasteland” that looks like it came straight out of any number of recent superhero crossovers (including DC’s Future’s End, which has been running for the past year and seems to be the main butt of the ridicule).
It’s tempting to play the allegory game and ask which forces or factions all these new names and characters stand for, which parts of the comics industry they symbolize, which stages in its history they condemn, for at this point in Multiversity it is painfully obvious that they could not stand for anything else. And to be fair, Morrison is not shy about implicating himself in this tissue-thin allegory of cannibalistic children who dine on the corpses of their elders. At one point the narration gets co-opted by (or does it co-opt?) the most common criticisms of Morrison’s work, criticisms he appears both to mock and to validate. Of all the recycled and redundant characters who inhabit this derivative dystopia, it’s tempting to ask which ones are meant to represent the author of Ultra Comics.
But this is the wrong game. A game the issue courts, to be sure, but also one that accepts the premise that there’s nothing left to do in this post-production era but shuffle around the genre formulas and play spot the reference. More interesting to me by far is the palpable loathing with which Morrison accepts that premise, and the naked self-criticism that drives so much of the issue.
The early pages, when Ultra still dwells comfortably in his official narrative as a fully trademarked savior, present him as a kind of protective idea designed to interact with and inspire us in the battle for our souls. It’s the Supergods approach to superheroes, in other words—and by the issue’s end it has failed utterly. The last-minute reversal of fortunes, the tough kid with a heart of gold who’s inspired by the hero, all the usual formulas that pull out a victory in these kind of situations, they all fall short. The hero saves no one, least of all his readers. The comic ends with multiple voices begging or commanding us to put the comic down, to end the “Oblivion Machine” that has wasted all our time.
Does this represent the end of the Supergods approach to superheroes as liberatory ideas? Has Morrison finally acknowledged how the corporate practices he defended in that book also produced the genre shifts he laments in this one? Surely it’s no accident that the threat that defeats Ultra arises from within the highest echelons of the team that created him.
But this is the wrong game, too. This is just the next level of the all-consuming allegory. The veiled criticism of his corporate employers might be a late addition, but Morrison has been criticizing the superhero genre from within for decades. The genre has little to show for it, except this:
When Morrison wanted to recapitulate the history of superhero comics in Flex Mentallo he did it in four issues, organized loosely around the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the grim and gritty deconstructions of the 80s, and the “ultra-post-futurist” age that Flex was supposed to initiate.
He recapitulates the history of superhero comics once again in Ultra Comics, this time in just four panels. Once again, the first three are the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and the grim and gritty deconstructions of the 80s, but the fourth age, the modern age, is really just an extension of the third, an even more violent and angry hero. The only remaining trace of ultra-post-futurism is the sullen glare as he turns out of the panel to snarl at us: “What are you looking at?”
But this is the wrong game, too. The whole exercise of recapitulating the genre inside itself is ultra-post-futurist, and it’s been done before. (Though these exercises are not always limited to superhero comics nor so sanguine about their past.) The only result of this twenty-year-plus postmodern turn is the further cementing of the very trends it was supposed to subvert. The promised revolution never arrived. It is always promised; it will never arrive. It’s always midnight in Dark City, but Morrison is always there to tell us the morning will come. It’s always just around the corner, always ultra-something-or-other.
Until this time. Until we reach the cold dead terminus of postmodern self-reflection and it fails on the page as well as off and Morrison tells us in so many voices, including our own, to close the book on it. Stop expecting anything different. Stop wasting our time.
This ends now.
Put the comic down.