Understand — it’s not like me to make grandiose pronouncements like “such-and-such is the movie of the year,” “such-and-such is the comic of the year,” etc. It’s pretty damn hard to pinpoint something as being the best offering in any given medium when one person, obviously, can’t see or read everything that’s out there — and it’s probably doubly stupid to engage in such hyperbole before the year is even over.
And yet — that’s exactly what I’m doing right here, and with full confidence. That’s because the latest issue of Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity has no chance of being topped, barring a miracle of some sort. It’s just. That. Fucking. Good.
For those not familiar with the basic premise of what’s going on with The Multiversity, it’s an eight-issue mini-series from DC written by Morrison and illustrated by a bevy of the industry’s top talents — in this case, his frequent collaborator Frank Quitely, who absolutely outdoes himself here. Yeah, okay, all his stuff’s awesome to behold, but his work on Pax Americana leaves even his much-celebrated turns on Flex Mentallo, Batman And Robin, and All-Star Superman so far behind in the dust it’s not even funny. Just look at that spectacular page reproduced above and you’ll know that not only is Quitely rendering images here with amazing detail and care, he’s also pushing the boundaries of the comics page in terms of how narrative structure flows visually. I haven’t seen an artist on a “Big Two” project tell a story this hermetically sealed, with its own unique and perfectly logical, yet also expressive and evocative, language since Dave Gibbons created the singular look and feel of the Watchmen “universe” nearly 30 years ago.
And hey, it’s no coincidence that we bring up Watchmen here since Pax Americana has been referred to, more than once, as “Morrison’s Watchmen,” and for good reason. Each self-contained issue of The Multiveristy takes place on one of DC’s “parallel Earths,” with a slowly-unfolding, meta-fictional, ” comic within a comic” premise (nothing new for our guy Grant there, he’s been busting the fourth wall ever since his days on Animal Man) binding them all together in ways not fully understood yet given that we’re only halfway through the series, and this time out we’re on Earth-4, the Earth populated by the Charlton comics “Action Heroes” that DC acquired in the early ’80s and that Alan Moore famously first intended to utilize as his principal characters in he and Gibbons’ seminal work. Morrison famously hates Watchmen, and takes every available opportunity to say so, and so the “intrigue factor” here is pretty high in terms of comics fans wanting to see how he’d handle essentially the same characters.
I say “essentially the same” because, of course, Moore and Gibbons weren’t allowed to use the Charlton characters in the end, and so quick stand-ins were devised — The Question became Rorschach, Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, Nightshade became Silk Spectre, Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt became Ozymandias, Peacemaker became The Comedian, and Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan. DC had “other plans” (most of which amounted to a hill of beans) for the “real” characters at the time, but in the “New 52” universe they’ve all been shelved indefinitely and so Morrison is free to use the original versions here — with the exception of Peter Cannon, whose copyright has reverted back to his creator, Pete Morisi.
The Watchmen similarities don’t end with the principal characters the story is based around, though — Pax Americana also employs a tight, dense story structure that plays around freely with timelines and often employs mirror images of the same scene told from multiple perspectives, such as in the astonishing two-page spread above. Rest assured, it all makes perfect sense, but odds are you won’t catch it all on the first reading unless you’re, I dunno, Stephen Hawking or something.
And that’s part of the joy of a book like this, isn’t it? Make no mistake — if you’re not willing to invest a few hours, at least, of your time (not to mention $4.99 of your hard-earned money) into what Morrison and Quitely (along with colorist supreme Nathan Fairbairn, who imbues the world of Earth-4 with a distinctive palette all its own) have created here, you’re short-changing yourself, because this is a story that reveals more and more about itself with each successive re-read. As you continue to peruse its contents you’ll be able to glean which instances are integral to a full understanding of the complex proceedings and which are just clever structural gimmicks employed by the author to impress you, but it wouldn’t be a good mystery story — and Pax Americana is, in fact, a great mystery story, centered around the most consequential murder any society can endure, that of its leader — without a few red herrings being thrown into the mix. Heck, Morrison even takes a fun, albeit admittedly cheap, shot at his arch-enemy, Mark Millar, by deftly deconstructing the most pivotal sequence of Wanted and essentially copying it note-for-note while turning it on its ear at the same time, and has a bit of fun at the expense of the scene with Sally and Laurie Jupiet/Juspeczyk in Watchmen #2, as well. Gratuitous? Sure, but it works.
The other ballsy move Morrison makes here is in asking the same fundamental question with his story that Moore and Gibbons did with Watchmen in terms of when is it right to sacrifice the few for the (supposed) good of the many, who “gets” to make that call, and how do they arrive at their decision? Granted, it’s a weighty theme that can’t be grappled with as comprehensively in one 40-page comic as it can in 12 separate 30-page comics, but I give him credit for essentially finding a way to tell multiple (hmmmm — a multiversity?) of stories here at once, given that there’s more going on in this one issue than most comics with a standard “A to Z” linear narrative manage to pack into a year’s worth of their pages, and by utilizing the same characters (again, essentially) that Watchmen used to deal with the same (again, essentially) themes and concepts, Morrison and Quitely aren’t so much aping Moore and Gibbons as they are answering them.
None of which is to say that Pax Americana is going to make people forget about Watchmen any time soon. Or even that it’s “as good” as Watchmen. Again, it’s much shorter, for one thing — but it’s certainly as intricate, arguably even moreso, certainly as demanding, and in the end, certainly as revelatory, at least for those with the patience to give it the detailed attention it both deserves and rewards (as an added plus, you needn’t even be invested in the other Multiversity comics to get on board with this one, it reads just fine on its own).
The comic of the year? Yeah, I can say that pretty easily — even though there’s a bunch of other stuff I haven’t read, and the year’s not over yet.