I didn’t give much thought to The Multiversity #1 when it first came out. It seemed too much of a piece with Morrison’s other superhero comics of late, more concerned with charting DC’s increasingly baroque cosmology than doing anything interesting with it. Even the variety of its cast, which Morrison and his fans went out of their way to trumpet, amounted to little more than a collection of derivative copies of 75-year-old DC characters; when Morrison really wanted to change it up he wrote them as analogues of 50-year-old Marvel characters instead. There was a little diversity among the principals, or at least a certain amount of lip service to it, but creativity was in short supply.
I didn’t get interested in the larger crossover until The Just indicated that Morrison was interested in using the event to tell other stories that were not limited by the increasingly limited horizons of superhero comics in the 21st century—that Morrison was once again approaching superheroes as a vehicle for finding meaning and not as a meaning in and of themselves. Those middle chapters showed Morrison stretching himself again, exploring new themes and trying out new techniques. Even Mastermen, probably the most maligned of the one-shots, had a refreshingly harsh take on DC’s prevailing aesthetic, suggesting it could be adapted to fascist propaganda with little to no alteration. These comics didn’t always work as comics, and most of them didn’t even pretend to tell complete stories, but they showed Morrison trying to break out of his comfortable rut and say something dangerous again.
Unfortunately, with The Multiversity #2 the series has reverted to form as a comic dedicated to exploring endless and functionally meaningless variations on the same depleted stock of character types. The good work of the middle chapters drops away, plunging us back into the continuity obsessions of the frame tale. That continuity obviously fascinates Morrison, but he never translates that fascination onto the page. The stakes are wholly artificial, with antagonists who are little more than unfinished character designs and heroes who stand around explaining what they’re doing in excruciating detail even though they never actually seem to do anything. It’s all weightless, a series of made-up solutions to made-up problems, and it ends with the revelation of an even bigger villain with an even bigger plan that depends on (oh god) an even bigger cluster of multiple multiverses, because apparently this one hasn’t exhausted that concept enough. Perhaps this neverending chain of crises really is the “ultimate statement on the DC multiverse,” as Morrison promised when this series began. But if so, is the statement even worth making?
The comic does have its moments: a fun character design here, a line of dialogue there. I love the Dreddified Batman more than I probably ought to, and I appreciated the note of linguistic determinism in Jason Blood’s rhyme, a reminder of a time when books like The Invisibles had greater aspirations than continuity maintenance. The opening scenes are easily the best ones, as Morrison breaks from the ongoing story to show us developments in another parallel universe where DC’s various supernatural heroes band together to fight off an invasion by backstabbing Sivanas from across the multiverse. That story looks like it would have been a lot more fun than the main plot; I can only wonder at the possibility of a crossover that took its cues from Thunderworld rather than The Multiversity Guidebook.
This is an old trick from Morrison, of course. It’s a replay of the final issue of Final Crisis, which also opened with the introduction of a new world and gave us the President Superman character who could be said to be one of the main characters of The Multiversity, if The Multiversity had characters and not continuity cyphers. (Maddeningly, Morrison’s few President Superman stories never actually show him as president, essentially writing him as a standard Superman character who happens to have a different day job—another example of the series’ paper-thin commitment to diversity and its avoidance of anything that might deviate from the over-familiar DC crossover template.)
There are other nice touches, but even those tend to be lifted wholesale from earlier Morrison comics. The Red Racer, Morrison’s fanboy Flash from another world, defeats the corrupted Nix Uotan with a trick lifted straight from a 1997 issue of Morrison’s JLA—and then says as much on the next page. In other circumstances the self-aggrandizement might rankle, yet the sheer brazenness of it got a laugh out of me. I guess it is true what they say: good artists borrow, great artists steal, even from themselves.
Another such moment comes at the end of the issue when President Superman, realizing the invaders have come from Earth-33 (that would be us), turns to stare directly out of the panel and says the superheroes are coming to hit us back. I kind of like the audacity of that, if only because I can’t imagine how Morrison would actually write that story any differently from the one he’s just told, but I would love to see him try—provided it is different.
The Grant Morrison of Supergods would probably say that the counter-attack has already begun, that superheroes have invaded and conquered every part of our pop culture here on Earth-33. The problem with that argument is that they tend to be the kind of superheroes The Multiversity doesn’t like very much—dour, alienated, depressed, violent, the very qualities it attempts to purge from its corrupted Supermonitor. DC and its owners at Warner Brothers are the industry leaders in purveying these qualities, and Morrison doesn’t really provide any indication of how he would challenge his employers in this regard.
But he does recognize that they are part of the problem. The middle chapters of the crossover, especially the last couple of installments, have been filled with backbiting critiques of editorial directives, corporate owners, and most of all the readers, who drive all these policies through their (our) purchases—and who Morrison suggests have been wasting their (our) time. Shame and disgust and more than a little self-loathing course through these issues, and that’s okay—these feelings can fuel great stories. But where the middle chapters either pursued these thoughts to their ultimate, grim conclusions or else denied them with ebullient retro stylings (Thunderworld looks better and better as this series drags on to its end), the final issue of The Multiversity doesn’t really have an answer. Rejecting one mode of DC corporate storytelling, the “realistic” cynicism and violence, Morrison falls back on another, the continuity porn. Framed as a victory, the issue feels like a surrender.
Curiously, though, someone is left out of its all-encompassing spite. Some crucial link between the owners and editors and the readers, some hand that shapes the characters (though it certainly does not create them) and delivers them to us, ready for the consumption it both enables and despises. This figure is omnipresent in The Multiversity and yet he receives almost no attention until the last couple of pages, when he claims his well-earned reward:
Rarely are the defenders of work-for-hire comics so honest about their motives: he did it for the money.
Hey, even supergods have to pay the rent.