I came into this one with very high expectations. Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart do not disappoint.
Stewart had a particularly unenviable task, coming immediately after Frank Quitely's tour de force in Pax Americana. But he proved to be exactly the right artist for the job: the tonal shift between Pax Americana's solemn stylings and Thunderworld's all-ages adventure couldn't be greater, freeing Stewart from the burden of direct comparison, and yet his clean linework and cartoonish figures are just as well suited for the childlike whimsy of the Marvel Family as Quitely's formal experiments were for the clockwork world of Watchmen.
Of course, this comic will invite other comparisons to Alan Moore's work. After all, Moore had already done the supervillain who meets all his pan-dimensional counterparts in Supreme, right down to the psychotic Darius Dax from the grim and gritty '80s continuity--and when he walked out on that series, he worked some of his unused ideas into an issue of Tom Strong that was, coincidentally or not, an homage to the Fawcett Captain Marvel comics. Morrison is definitely covering some well-trod ground here, as Moore will no doubt grouse in his next "last" interview. Even the opening narration sounds like something out of Promethea ("Poised at the dazzling, crystalline pinnacle of imagination's loftiest empyrean peaks")--or at least it does until the old wizard Shazam turns directly to the reader and confesses, "I was just practicing my omniscient narrator voice."
But this doesn't read like another entry in in the Grand Unified Beard Conspiracy Theory of Morrison scholarship. Morrison's quip brings the bombastic narration of the opening page back down to Earth with a winking self-mockery that feels as much a part of the Fawcett books as it does like one of Morrison's characteristic self-reflexive games. This comic is a work of affection, not anxiety, and its primary object is not Moore's interpretation of the same source material, but the source material itself. This is a loving homage to the Captain Marvel comics of C.C. Beck, Bill Parker, and Otto Binder, and it's filled with all the things that made them so charming, including their gentle irony. (Though not without a Morrison edge; the line about Sterling Morris's labor practices cracks me up.) Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior, Georgia Sivana and Thaddeus Jr., Uncle Dudley, Tawky Tawny, the Monster Society of Evil, even the Lieutenant Marvels--this one's got everything you could want from the Marvel Family in forty pages.
In fact, that may be its sole problem. Morrison is adept at writing comics which serve as story bibles for other comics series that never get off the ground. Seven Soldiers was a set of treatments for series that didn't get produced until years later, if at all, when the luster was gone and Morrison had moved on to other projects. Multiversity has much the same feel, with Morrison trying to wring every drop of potential out of these characters before his time is up. This is how you do the Marvel Family, he says, and he's absolutely right--but if history is any guide, no one else is going to do anything with it.
As a self-contained pleasure, though, it's great. And self-contained it is: once again, the story has almost no connection to the Gentry or the larger plot of Multiversity. The final pages, in which Captain Marvel scoffs at the dour endings (or lack of endings) of earlier chapters and throws a copy of Society of Super-Heroes into the dustbin, could almost be read as openly contemptuous of Morrison's own frame-tale. That frame has been getting less prominent with each new installment, and I have to wonder whether Morrison himself got sick of it at some point in this project's protracted development.
If so, more power to him. The heavy-handed allegories and forced irresolution of earlier chapters aren't allowed to intrude on the general atmosphere of knowing good fun, and the Big Red Cheese gets a well-deserved win. So do his writer and artist. It isn't often that I feel tempted to burst into applause after finishing a comic--that would be weird, wouldn't it?--but damned if this one didn't come close.