Well, that was half of a good comic, wasn't it?
I don’t mean the comic was only half good; I mean that despite its expanded page count, it was only half a comic. Two-thirds at best, leading up to one of the explosive but unfinished endings that have been common to earlier chapters of Multiversity, with any hope of resolution offloaded onto a final installment that’s looking increasingly, hopelessly overburdened.
Mastermen is set on Earth-10, the renamed and updated version of the old Earth-X, where the Nazis won World War II and conquered the solar system. Traditionally it’s been the home of the Freedom Fighters, a ragtag band of heroes who’ve been deputized to bring down the Reich so nobody will notice they're all kind of shit characters. Morrison adds a little more depth by remaking them as members of the various groups the Nazis persecuted and targeted for extermination.
He also decides to present them as antagonists.
The actual star of the book is Overman, a parallel-universe Superman whose rocket landed in Nazi-occupied territory back in 1938. It’s a familiar premise, probably best explored in Kim Newman's short story "Ubermensch"—a surprisingly charming tale given its dark subject matter, filled with elaborate, copyright-avoiding nods to Superman’s history. (It also used the villains and monsters of German expressionist cinema as a readymade rogue's gallery in a pop-cultural pastiche that preceded The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by nearly a decade.)
Morrison has inherited Newman's angsty, guilt-ridden Overman and placed him front and center in this story of a world gone wrong. With its brutal heroes, Wagnerian themes, and angry, melodramatic art by superhero standard-bearer Jim Lee, Mastermen reads like a comic actually produced in the universe it depicts: what the whole hep world would be reading on Wednesday afternoon if the Nazis had won the war.
There is something subversive and deeply unsettling about the decision to focus on the team of Nazi superheroes rather than the diverse band of revolutionaries who band together to bring down their regime. If Morrison's "New Reichsmen" reflect all too easily on their baseline inspirations from the DC universe, then his Freedom Fighters are all too easily cast as terrorists. Their righteous cause, patriotic language, and status as persecuted minorities should make them easy objects for heroic identification, the X-Men of Earth-X. But their war culminates in the destruction of a major American city—by a suicide bomber!—and if they’re cast as the villains in this post-9/11 drama, then the vengeful, torture-happy Nazi "heroes" occupy a position uncomfortably close to our own. Morrison leaves us nowhere to turn in a book that inverts America and its enemies while making all parties look morally compromised if not downright repulsive.
In that respect, it's a lot like The Just—and also like The Just, it doesn't come anywhere close to telling a complete story. The issue ends on a turning point, not a resolution, and the sparse narration (by Nazi Jimmy Olsen!) teases an impending betrayal and a fall that we never actually get to see. In the final pages Morrison strongly implies that Overman is the traitor in his own group, that he wanted to see his corrupt society brought down and hadn't quite realized the price he would pay for it. It’s fascinating character work, but it leads nowhere.
The Freedom Fighters receive even shorter shrift, with fully half of them never shown in action. (Morrison’s script is curiously indecisive on whether they’ve been around long enough to acquire a reputation or whether Sivana just created them before our very eyes—but then, it’s curiously indecisive about a lot of little things, like how old Overman is or whether characters can remember their own dialogue from scene to scene.) The lesser focus isn’t inappropriate given their role as the antagonists, but they receive just enough narrative build-up that it’s perplexing when they don’t do anything. And this is the oddest thing about Mastermen: it may only be half a comic, but it tells two different stories, neither one to completion.
The cover actually manages to hold those stories in balance better than the comic does. The previews for this one had been the least enticing in the entire series, but Rian Hughes's interventions have shaped the final product into both a striking image and an honest representation of the contents within. The pompous fascist Gotterdammerung gets a gaudy photorealistic frame that reeks of artistic pretension—I can’t shake the feeling that this book should have been published in DC’s late, lamented Prestige Format—while the underground resistance gets a deliberately simplistic, propagandistic image printed in just two cheap colors, the better to imply its samizdat circulation. But one story enfolds the other; there's no separating them. And as much as that’s an asset for the story’s dour portrait of the post-9/11 world, it can only be a detriment to its narrative closure.
It’s tempting to speculate whether we might have gotten a more complete story if Mastermen hadn’t been given to a superstar artist who has to push his schedule to produce three panels per page (or, occasionally, three panels per two pages). But that’s not a safe assumption, as there’s no guarantee this story was written specifically for Jim Lee: his participation was announced awfully late in the game, and Multiversity has been in development for years. Lee’s roomy renderings stretch a few scenes out past their expiration date (notably the prologue, which swells to fill more than a quarter of the issue), but he's actually quite well suited for the doomed, operatic arias of the Overman story. In his best moments, his work takes on an excessive, overheated air reminiscent of Morrison’s Batman collaborator Andy Kubert, especially that postapocalyptic Damian issue.
So no, there’s no need to pin the blame on Jim Lee. The flaws of this issue were already apparent in the other chapters of Multiversity; they don’t rest on the artist. Let's just say, then, that Mastermen, like The Just, is one half of an original, disturbing, potentially great comic, with no promise that the other half will ever come.