I started to do this for Man Cave Daily, and then the schedule exploded and now it’s well and truly past its opportunity. Anyway ComicsAlliance did it more intelligently than I ever could, and others have done it more thoroughly. And poignantly (though with some errors, e.g. Nora O’Rourke). Anyway, here’s what I managed to get done.
This book hurts so much to read. It’s both cynical and optimistic. It seems like all is lost, but all hope isn’t. President Harley probably isn’t coming back, and even if he does, like the dog he won’t be the same. There’s a pattern, but that pattern loops back in itself. It means everything and nothing. It’s determinism and free will. At the levels we’re looking at, they just keep writing each other. It’s fractals, man.
I really want these people to come out alright, though. Because they’re so close to our world.
Multiversity has taken its readers to some pretty curious corners of the DC Universe, including but not limited to an anthropomorphic animal world, an analog of the Marvel universe, and a celebrity-obsessed Earth where the children of the superheroes have nothing to do.
But when we read the fourth issue on Monday, Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 (title of this issue, the first and presumably only of the series, “In Which We Burn”), we knew this series had set a torch to the state of comics. You could call it a critique of superheroes post-Watchmen, but that would put the commentary ahead of its excellence as a story. Considering Morrison’s sometimes-dismissive views of Watchmen and Moore, though, which he seems to view as technically proficient but emotionally cold, his adoption of Moore’s technique sets a challenge for him to meet his own criticisms.
Frank Quitely’s art is more gorgeous than it’s ever been; let’s just establish that right at the start. There aren’t very many artists who can do what he does with storytelling, and even fewer who can establish in a single panel at tiny proportions from an over-the-shoulder shot, a character’s exact mood while hitting the reader hard with the often-hearbreaking action of the scene.
Rather than review the issue, we thought it would be more fun to annotate everything about it. It’s set in Earth-4, a distinctly Watchmen-like world, featuring all of the Charlton characters that Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons proposed to put through the wringer back in the ’80s. The creators eventually settled on analogous versions of those superheroes, and now Morrison and artist Frank Quitely have completed the loop, using the now-far-less-famous Charlton heroes to comment on their Watchmen progeny and comics in general.
Spoilers abound for both this issue and Watchmen, but you probably figured that. And this is a live document, so if we missed anything, let us know in the comments and we’ll update accordingly.
Like the Watchmen issues, the cover is a tight close-up of the first panel of the book.
The Delmore Schwartz quote is on the cover rather than inscribed with the title as in Watchmen. A phrase from this epigraph will be the basis of the title, as it was for each chapter of Watchmen.
Delmore Schwartz was a poet who, like President Harley, lost his father suddenly at a young age.
Watchmen originally played with a 9-panel grid. Pax Americana prefers an eight-panel grid. Perhaps this adjustment is due to 8’s visual similarity to infinity. Although the New 52 limits DC’s multiverse to 52 universes, it’s based on the company’s original “infinite Earths” model. Also, The Multiversity is presently planned as an eight-issue series, and eight seems to be thematic here (Sorry to ComicsAlliance’s David Uzumeri; we only found out someone else was doing annotations after we got halfway into this writeup).
Panel 1 – The burning peace symbol is no subtle symbolism. It also resembles an infinity sign thanks to the rippling of the flag.
p. 2 – Time feels slowed down already. Time is played with as much as space in this book, and as our view pulls back wider and wider, the camera is fixed at an observation point. The action rolls by, and our feet are planted.
p. 3 – The Rolls Royce hood ornament is the Spirit of Ecstasy, originally inspired by Nike, goddess of victory. Meanwhile, above it, horror is unfolding. The fire is less now; our first clue that time is rolling backwards. The man hiding his child’s eyes also has his obscured by the burning peace flag. Possible coincidence, but in Watchmen, obscured vision was a heavily repeated theme.
p. 4 – A motorcade, an open limo stained with blood. It’s unclear if the Kennedy assassination took place in this world, but given everything else seems to line up historically until the superheroes appear, it’s likely. Also, in Watchmen history matched the real world’s until the first superheroes showed up to change things. Alan Moore strongly suggested that The Comedian was the one who killed Kennedy, and the Watchmen movie stated that outright.
p. 5 – We’ve begun moving back into a close-up. Blood enters a circle from the upper left quadrant, echoing Watchmen‘s famous “obscured vision” smiley-face.
p. 6 – We see an infinity symbol on the dead president’s ring. Is it a secret society? A superhero’s magic ring? Neither has helped him.
p. 7 – Blood trickles up the door. We are definitely moving backwards in time. Note how the blood crosses the S to make another infinity symbol.
p. 8 – Nothing to note here except that time has definitely moved backward.
p. 7 – The bullet pierces the direct center of the peace symbol.
Nothing to annotate here, on first pass.
p.1 – The hypnotic waves behind Peacemaker could suggest that all distinctions inevitably collapse into the same vanishing point, but we’re probably reading too much into it. They’re not going to break his will where he can’t see them, though.
Peacemaker’s right eye is bludgeoned to the point of blindness, as per the obscured vision motif.
pp. 2-5 – The recordings have indeed been run backward. We begin to see this issue’s themes of reflectivity, reversal, symmetry and inversion. Note that the layout here is also reflective of itself thanks to the lamp.
p.6 – Eden has a passing resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld.
Credits – The typeface here resembles previous Morrison / Quitely collaborations rather than that of Watchmen. The poem from which the title is derived is “Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day.” The speaker in the poem ponders his dead father, and the piece is concerned with simultaneity of time. A great many lines may be interpreted as applicable to the issue beyond the one in the epitaph, but perhaps most of all, “Number provides all the distances.”
p. 7 – Another obscured eye, although this is Eden’s left eye rather than the right typically blinded in Watchmen. And it’s blinded by the light, re: this issue’s theme of reflection. Moreover, this is blindness due to too much light rather than obscuration.
p. 1 – “–Unanswered questions remain.” Eden replies to his own query on previous page: “Why did you kill the president?” “Shadows” and “light” are both mentioned, echoing this issue’s themes of perception, reflection, inversion, etc.
Peacemaker is being taken to the interrogation room.
p. 2 – Sure, Peacemaker just turned public sentiment against Pax Americana, but he also buried President Harley, who was trying to pull off the ultimate superhero feat of resurrection. Also this begins this scene’s interplay of word and image as the conversation, architecture, action, and layout all resemble one another. There may not be deeper resonance, but in Watchmen it had the use of showing the reader what to watch out for in those relationships. Nightshade and her father may not be buried, but they have descended. They’re also completely embedded in the presidential seal (again in that upper left quadrant from Watchmen‘s clock and smiley face). The presidency is swallowing not only the world, but both their lives.
p. 3 – “You’re the president now. You can’t just stop at that?” They don’t remain in the seal.
p. 4 – He leads her up the stairs again, “Try to take the elevated view.” It’s possible to interpret this layout and the tiered stairs as representing two different ways of governing. The presidency lies in the middle, at the public level, but above it is where the work gets done (with the administrator bring a brief to Eden as he arrives). On the left side of the page, the upper level is nearest to the American eagle’s claw holding an olive branch. To the right side of the page, it holds the arrows of war in its sinister talon.
Much of this issue is about the left hand not knowing what the right is doing.
p. 5 – “We’ve turned a corner.” Obviously. Also telling is the short-sightedness of Eden’s statement about a Mormon not needing the Quran: first, that his thoughts are concerned with religion, and second, that he sees them as separate and disinterested in each other. A Qu’ran may not be of use to a Mormon as a religious text, but it could inform his/her faith. Eden seems to think that a member of a group needs only what they’re given and won’t benefit within that faith by growing and exploring beyond it.
p.6 – The abbreviation of the team name is wordplay — Pax and peace have no place in Eden’s tenure being birthed around them. “The world rewards its bastards.”
The clock says it’s either 7:25 or 5:35. In Watchmen the clock as a motif was grinding towards five minutes to midnight. It appears to be daylight outside the museum, though, so it’s most likely summer, whether it’s morning or evening.
p. 7 – “Rest in peace” over the dove, symbol of peace. But Eden (another word associated with peace and respite) is not resting, and he has crossed over to war. Peacemaker’s face has already taken a beating, presumably during his arrest, even though this scene appears to occur before the interrogation (Peacemaker is still wearing his costume).
p. 8 – Peacemaker’s blood makes the dove appear mortally wounded, falling to Earth. Much as he himself did on page 3. The dove could be the fallen peacemaker president, the fallen-from-grace Peacemaker himself, or super-heroes in general. “One door closes” is an obvious inflection on this.
It’s entirely possible this whole page exists just to take the piss out of Watchmen, but here’s a technical annotation.
p. 1 – Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston points out this issue is reminiscent of the All-Star Superman prison scene. “Abother opens” as he guides her into an architectural argument.
p. 2 – “But that doesn’t mean it’s all over,” in a world ruled by the infinity/eight and all this talk of balance and symmetry. As Watchmen told us, “Nothing ever ends.”
p. 3 – For what it’s worth, there’s a shadow under the “shadow dimension” talk. The shadow dimension is a two-dimensional plane lying substrate to the one we read about, Flatland-style. Morrison has repeatedly visited concepts of dimensionality in his work, most notably in The Invisibles, JLA, and his recent Action Comics run. Mostly he’s examined the 5th Dimension, and how characters from “our” world are flat when they’re there; but also how time itself is flattened into more of a strobe or a comic book.
p. 4 – “Descent” and “decline,” wordplay, though “chaos” is emboldened here in what’s a very structured, ordered scene. In fact, it even literally showcases a piece of engineering, so unless that’s a “chaos engine” or something similar, we’re moving forward into order. Chaos. vs. order (with an appreciation for chaos despite suggesting they’re a false dichotomy) is another long-running theme of Morrison’s, as is the implicit failure of authoritarianism. The fact that Eden is so open about America as an empire suggests either grim candor or Harley’s Pax Americana was one in politics as well as powers.
p. 5 – We’re moving forward but talking about going in reverse, going back. One wonders what promises Eden made to Harley. Note also that with the characters walking left, we’re reading a comic in reverse of its normal left-to-right-then-down layout.
p. 6 – Change, reversal, reflection all here, but “You’ll see” is especially poignant in a universe based on a story about limited vision. This is the one panel in the staircase sequence that isn’t consistent with the single-view of the stairwell.
p. 7 – The “twist” coincides with the turn of the staircase, as does Eden’s “turn this country around” from ahead of where Nightshade stands.
p. 8 – “rock bottom” as they reach the foundation level. Life vs. death. Irony of a beloved man being killed by his heroic bodyguard.
p. 9 – Change and “pressure” coincide with a push. It’s Eden’s finger on the button now…
p. 10 – …And he chooses how and when they exit now.
Nightshade’s “retreat into the past” leads them to the Pax Museum and a memorial to earlier superheroes. More specifically, they’re going back to the Cold War era, when there was a constant enemy that could never be engaged and thwarted and the military-industrial complex rose to full power. It was also the period that historians in reality describe as the “Pax Americana.”
President Kennedy, who on the surface most resembles Harley as a charismatic, young idealist assassinated in a motorcade, used the term in opposition to it, arguing that the world should not be kept safe by threat of American force, but by mutual desire to improve. Harley, by contrast, carefully crafts an image. The term became an anti-imperialist criticism, but was eventually adopted by proponents, including as recently as the Project for a New American Century’s 2000 “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” report that influenced the push for the Iraq War.
“Clarity” & “transparency” as they pass a translucent case which, additionally, showcases only weapons and the left and right hands, making the image of a “ghost” or “illusion.”
Eden, of course, doesn’t figure on anything of the sort. And he’s not some sneering comic villain. He’s more the type of old power that sets course, consequences be damned, and then equivocates until transparency is meaningless.
p. 2 – “The dreams of children” is a pretty good description of superheroes and “fearful adults” were the base of support for 2003’s war. Morrison is talking about the use of superheroes in Earth-4, but possibly also commenting on the rise of superheroes in pop culture post-9/11. He’s spoken in old interviews about superheroes abandoning comics for films like rats on a sinking ship [anyone with strong Google skills able to drum up a link?]. Throughout this issue the characters treat the existence of superheroes like a movie playing out for them. Eden remarked two pages back that “Heroes are for movies,” and part of the book’s examination of 21st century American militarism is that this country needs to believe it’s the hero in a movie. Pax Americana is basically created to sell the U.S. its own idea of itself.
p. 3 – Dr. Eden actually was a U.S. Senator in the old Charlton books.
p. 5 – Eight minutes.
p. 6 – Obscured eye again. What pain and bruises exactly does Eden mean?
p. 7 – Moving closer on Nightshade — something has piqued her attention– as we pan right…
p. 8 – To a statue of…whom? The belt is wrong to be Yellowjacket.
p. 9 – We see where Nightshade’s attention is: the protestors who in Watchmen hated the superheroes for changing the world protest here instead for failing to do so.
Eden mentions questions almost as often in this issue as The Question himself does. As is our dialogue’s theme, the “Leap of faith” takes us to…
p. 1 – An actual leap in faith of a safe landing. Harley did one similar and it didn’t go well for him. Although, Blue Beetle’s “Jesus!” suggests someone else who went to his doom in faith that all would be well.
You could also make a convincing fan theory starting here that Harley is the one under The Question mask under this point. If that were the case then “Jesus” would be another text/image juxtaposition referring to Harley’s attempts at a resurrection.
p. 2 – No surprise here that The Bug craft looks a lot more like Archimedes than in mainstream DC continuity. “Algorithm 8” refers to Harley’s theory of everything. Since he only told Captain Atom about it, as far as we see, Question must have done some good homework. The Question, like Rorschach in Watchmen, sees patterns where others just see abstractions.
A pun on “track” and notice also that Hub City has a monorail.
p. 3 – In a reversal of Rorschach, Question moved from a black-and-white outlook to a more complex worldview.
Captain Atom has been gone for a solid year and Harley still went ahead with his assassination plan? We know Atom vacated Earth-4 prior to the assassination because of Chris and Nora’s conversation on pages 12 & 13. Question and Beetle make no mention of Harley, but with Nora O’Rourke dead it must be after his death. It’s possible that Atom left at the same general time as the assassination but Harley and Peacemaker still would have been aware he was gone. Eden’s “missing in action” on previous page suggests that his disappearance was recent to the motorcade plot and probably undiscovered until the president was shot.
p. 4 – Yellowjacket was Charlton’s first superhero. His power was to mentally control yellowjackets, which — hey, is still more useful than Ant-Man, though no less goofy than Red Bee.
p. 5 – With Question an outlaw on the run and Ted’s statements here, it’s likely been a year since both Atom and Harley exited this world in their own way. Ted appears to have linked up with whatever Eden’s “firm hand” solution.
p. 6 – In Watchmen Nite Owl and Silk Spectre came out of retirement to defy the law and do what’s right. On Earth-4 that’s been reversed, as they refuse to retire and instead close ranks with the establishment to enforce Eden’s vision.
One of many face puns, but don’t miss the reiteration of the mirror theme.
p. 1 – Not a mirror but a viewscreen, and one with no face at that.
p. 3 – Watchmen put a lot of work into psychologically profiling its characters’ personalities. Pax Americana does it in one panel as gag banter.
p. 5 – Question knows a lot more about Algorithm 8 than he’s willing to share.
p. 6 – “Never rely on technology” says the man who just set up a technological trap with a lot of contingencies before it could be used. Possible pun on “over your head” with the grapple above the Bug.
p. 2 – “Get a grip!” Starting to think Morrison decided to paste this entire comic in puns and wordplay making fun of Watchmen‘s techniques and decided to let that tide raise the good with the bad.
p. 4 – According to the train we’re in Hub City, Question’s hometown.
p. 5 – “Futurebomb” by Nightshade resembles “Nostalgia” by Veidt in its bottle shape. Both heroes have a fragrance in this world, and the future explosion is an inverse of past recollection.
p. 6 – Vic Sage is still an investigative journalist in this world, or possibly turned pundit, but is he still the Question?
Indulge our fan theory here: If Harley is now the Question, it would explain how he knows he’ll leap to safety, how to maneuver Beetle into position, what Algorithm 8 is, and why he asks Beetle would he would sacrifice. Question hasn’t sacrificed anything that we know of, but Harley certainly has, and he’s worked out a magic formula to make a perfect world. Moreover, it would explain how the statement about technology being made obsolete — the grappling crane wasn’t what beat Beetle: omniscience was.
Plus, the Question was originally a single-mindd
And consider one more thing: the government–or at least Harley–knew that Sage was the Question, yet here is the Question on the run while Sage still has a TV show as recently as–say, a month prior, due to new subway ads going up. Maybe someone has confirmed Sage is no longer adventuring as the Question?
Either way, “Vic Sage is pissed” is a pretty accurate assessment.
Looks like Question is about to dissolve his mask and blend in with reality, but quits when Nightshade appears.
p. 1 – Question seems to have inherited Rorschach’s misogyny stemming from personal issues about sex.
p. 2 – There’s Nightshade’s shadow again. Do the Edens represent the shadow to Harley’s light?
p. 3 – She almost seems surprised to run into him, doesn’t she?
p. 4 – Nightshade doesn’t appear to have powers in this world beyond peak human prowess.
pp. 5-8 – When we saw storytelling broken down into slow-motion like this, it was always Ozymandias moving so fast against foes they had yet to even react. Here it’s the Question.
Go ahead and tell us you don’t believe it’s at least possible that Harley, this world’s Ozymandias, is now wearing the Question mask. (We don’t believe it either, but it’s fun trying to convince ourselves.)
pp. 9-12 – It would also explain how Question knows so much about who’s controlling what behind the scenes. Maybe Harley adjusted his plan and wants to rouse the heroes into action. America has to choose to fight for a better world rather than hear its own story as an audience instead of a participant.
Who’s the soldier and who’s the hunchback? This is a reference to a description of the exclamation point and the question mark, but it’s probably even more directly a reference to an Aleister Crowley essay on skepticism, given Morrison’s background working with chaos magic. In that essay, Crowley argues that questions and answers are different sides of the same coin. Answers implicitly beget questions, enough questions frame the answer. This will tie into all of the book, but most directly into Janus, god of both beginnings and endings, and the transitions between (also, most poignantly, the beginnings and endings of conflicts).
He’s so deep into it he’s marred all his calling cards’ question marks to look like 8s. A true believer.
This is a double-page spread that breaks down Nora O’Rourke’s murder with two temporal views of the same shot of the Pax Institute. Therefore we’re going to treat it as one page and count panels fully from left to right (e.g. panel 9 is “It shouldn’t have come to this, Chris.”)
More than just showing what happens in one place at three different times, this spread is important because so much of what happens in between them. Each timeline acts as the “gutter” between panels that informs connection. If you look at just one timeline: day, night, or Question’s investigation, you get a perfect understanding. But what happens in the gaps is both changed and fulfilled by the presence of the other sequences.
Nora’s murder, for example, happens off-screen, but just as graphically looking at the aftermath while Question decodes it. After all these examples of word vs. image to no great elaboration beyond iterating the theme, here in the spread is a powerful example of them. By combining the power of offscreen action with a textual description and a visual aftermath, there’s something here that’s a mix of the montage effect, the animator’s technique of illustrating beyond the action, and the classic horror prose technique of under-describing the action, Morrison and Quitely give us an intoxicating sequence.
p. 1 – A hawk’s cage. We’ll see a dove’s cage at the end of the series.
p. 2 – Any idea what this symbol is? Its three dots could callback to the three drops of blood on Peacemaker’s chest.
Question entering through the window echoes the first issue of Watchmen with Rorschach investigating the Comedian’s murder. Has he been unwelcome in the Pax Institute for a while? Is it closed off due to being a murder scene? It seems unlikely that he would be that rapidly made into an outlaw.
p. 3 – It’s November 17th, 2015, meaning Nora was probably killed on the 15th or 16th. This is presumably prior to his subway battle with Beetle and Nightshade by at least a few days, even if Eden immediately declared super-heroes kaput.
p. 4 – Well that celebration was short-lived.
p. 8 –
We haven’t seen Multiversity’s villainous elder gods The Gentry take a direct hand in this book, even though one of them could easily fill in for a giant squid invading from another dimension. They have a track record so far of corrupting heroes and the series, as Chase Magnet points out, makes it clear that the real corruption is violence committed by heroes and innocents, not the willfully malevolent.
DC doesn’t own the rights to Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, but Harley appears to be the closest thing to this world’s Ozymandias with his plan to save the world through destruction and rebirth, his wayward youth, his quasi-mystic ascension to mental perfection and precognition.
Brendan McGinley is editor round these parts when not writing comics or Cracked columns. You can say a neighborly hello to him on Twitter @BrendanMcGinley. You’d probably enjoy his supervillain comic Heist, if you’re a fan of tarnished souls and brutal retribution.
Brendan has tackled this kind of thing before when he wrote about Montage in Watchmen.