November 2014

Matt Terl

fiction

The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 by Grant Morrison, drawn by Frank Quitely

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For a forty-eight page, largely self-contained story, The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 (written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Frank Quitely, with colors by Nathan Fairbain) certainly does manage to do a lot of things, and to involve itself in a lot of long-simmering conversations about comics as a medium and superhero comics as a genre.

There's the conversation about how 1986 overshadows all superhero comics. That was the year of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Pax Americana is a direct, pointed response to -- and almost a de facto reboot of -- Watchmen, but to some extent most modern superhero work -- and all "mature" superhero work -- is either following or responding to one (or both) of those twenty-eight-year-old stories.

Thematically, the "grown-up" look at superheroes, with their sexual fetishes and crippling insecurities and gritty quasi-political motivations, has moved from semi-alternative subtext to commonly accepted text, but there are more mechanical echoes as well. Watchmen is a formalist masterpiece built on a crystalline nine-panel grid, eliminating sound effects and working from a dispassionate, near-cinematic eye. Dark Knight Returns is a looser, punkier book, indelibly tied to Miller's occasionally cartoonish, occasionally angry line, but it's also consistently structured, relying on a framework of pages built on a sixteen-panel grid.

Pax Americana, for its part, is a ludicrous, virtuoso bit of formalism. It replies to Watchmen's nine-grid with a series of eight-panel grids, then nods at Dark Knight with one thirty-two-panel double-page spread (the Dark Knight sixteen-grid doubled across two pages) and another double-page spread that offers a direct visual quote from Dark Knight and is also built on that thirty-two-panel format, with panels combined and stretched so that the total number is sixteen.

All of this counting of panels could come of as ludicrous trainspotting, but Morrison, Quitely, and Fairbairn make it clear both in the issue and in their interviews in support of it that everything in here is deliberate. ("Pax Americana is more to do with music, and vibration," Quitely told Spanish-language geek-culture site Zona Negativa when he started work on the book back in 2012. "Musical vibrations, the octave, the eight as a repeated [motif], and creating patterns leading the eye around the page in a specific way.")

The primary visual motif of the book is actually a Möbius loop, which in itself operates on multiple levels. The story is structured as a Möbius loop, time constantly twisting back on itself before the ending twists and spawns the beginning of the story. But the symbology is also simpler than that -- as Quitely notes, a Möbius loop, burnished down to iconic simplicity, is an eight on its side. Like the eight- and sixteen- and thirty-two-panel grids that create the comic, or Quitely's octaves.

There's the conversation about considering comics the products of gestalt creative teams. This is often overlooked, boiling a series down to either its writer (Watchmen again, generally credited to Moore as if Gibbons just showed up to lay bricks according to Moore's schematic) or its artist (Todd McFarlane's successful run on Amazing Spider-Man, which was written by David Michelinie, for example, or all of Rob Liefeld's terrible-but-influential 1990s work, which was all written by other people). At its best, a successful creative team develops an alchemy that can't be matched by either component on its own -- Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Tom Orzechowski defining the look and feel of X-Men for decades to come; or Walt Simonson and John Workman rebooting Norse mythology for their work on Thor.

Comic writer Kieron Gillen articulated this theory well back in a 2010 blog post. "The Writer/Artist team is basically a faux-cartoonist," Gillen notes, "two people trying to work in harmony to do the job which abstractly could be done by one. We push and pull one another, and the work which comes out the other end is some strange alloy of our skills, desires and ability to give a toss on any given day."

This is perhaps never clearer than with Morrison and Quitely. The two have worked together a number of times now, with work ranging from cult classic (Flex Mentallo) to exceptionally well-executed mainstream (New X-Men, JLA: Earth 2) to innovative (We3) to iconic (All-Star Superman). They have each produced a wide body of work separately, but Morrison's manic ideas and holographic comics never seem as complete when someone else draws them, and Quitely's textured, filigreed linework can seem almost wasted in service of the more basic, action-punch-reaction scripts of a Mark Millar or Chuck Dixon.

This is Morrison and Quitely (Fairbairn is a new addition to the gestalt) operating at the peak of their powers, and it is a testament to the value of the push and pull Gillen discussed.

There's the conversation about what comics do best. For a long time, the idea seemed to be that comics were at their best depicting large-scale spectacle -- that pen and ink could create things that no movie studio on earth could achieve. As CGI-driven blockbusters (often comic-book-influenced) become more ubiquitous, that's become less true.

But what comics still do better than any other medium is play with visual symbolism. The Mobius loop motif in this book shows up in dozens of ways: a twisted, burning peace sign; Blue Beetle's goggles; a closed-off question mark; a letter S with spilled coffee running across it; a spray of blood in the air; a domino mask twisting in the air; and so on and so on into... well, into infinity, I guess. One character even describes the thirty-two-panel spread as "a Mobius loop curving through eight dimensions" (because it wouldn't be a Grant Morrison comic without one character who knows it's a comic).

The point is, these are things that can only be executed clumsily in prose and with meticulous attention to detail on film; in comics they are fundamental. Similarly, scene transitions do what match cuts in screenplays can only dream of, and characters can age and de-age as needed without eight pounds of makeup.

Morrison and Quitely know what comics do best, and they unleash the whole bag of tricks in this book.

There's the conversation about how comics are too insular for a mainstream audience. And this is where things fall apart a bit.

This comic is part four of Morrison's The Multiversity limited series, which is a sequence of single-issues jumping across various Earths of the DC Comics universe. The universes unknowingly communicate with each other via comic books (of course), and this series is tracking (maybe?) the invasion of a group of thinly-veiled editor stand-ins and (or) a murderous comic that drives people insane(?). You don't need to have read the previous three parts to appreciate the mastery on display in Pax Americana, but it certainly deepens the experience.

The comic is also, as noted, a very overt, direct response to Watchmen, although the relationship between the two is also a kind of Mobius loop. Summarizing quickly: in the mid-1980s, DC Comics purchased the characters and setting previously published by Charlton Comics and incorporated them into their universe of characters. Alan Moore's original pitch for what would become Watchmen utilized the Charlton characters themselves, but (as the story goes) didn't fit DC's vision of how to best use their new IP. So Moore redrafted Watchmen using direct analogues of the Charlton characters. In the years since, the DC comics mainstream has become more and more similar in tone to Moore's prescient work. So here Morrison uses the original Charlton characters as stand-ins for Moore's Watchmen characters, who themselves were stand-ins for the Charlton characters. Knowing this isn't necessary to enjoying Pax Americana, but knowing all of that will tell you much more about the characters than what Morrison provides on the page.

Morrison's writing can be somewhat elliptical in general. His scripts tend to be cut to the bone, all extraneous dialogue and much transitional information excised. More than many other writers, he expects you to take in all the visual information on offer in each panel, and to consider the issue as a whole, and to read and reread with attentiveness. You can appreciate Pax Americana with a more cursory, surface read-through, but it's likely that some plot points will come out of nowhere, and that the experience as a whole will be less enjoyable.

So Pax Americana is virtuosic, it's complex, it's straightforward, it's pretty, it's complicated, it's pro-super-hero but anti-violence; it is excellent and also frustrating. It is, essentially, a perfect distillation of everything worth considering in mainstream superhero comics today -- and many things that are frustrating about them -- in all their twisty, labyrinthine, gorgeously-colored glory.

The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 by Grant Morrison, drawn by Frank Quitely, with colors by Nathan Fairbain
DC Comics
ISBN: 761941324852
48 pages