The Multiversity Annotations, Part 4: Pax Americana – ‘Not The Peace of the Grave or the Security of the Slave’
Teased for years and finally launched in 2014, The Multiversity is a universe-jumping series of DC Comics one-shots tracking the cosmic monitor Nix Uotan and an assemblage of star-crossed heroes as they attempt to save 52 universes and beyond from a trippy cosmic existential threat that, like much of Morrison’s best work, represents something far more mundane and relatable. Tying back into the very first Multiverse story in DC’s history, the heroes of these universes become aware of this threat by reading about it in comic books… comic books that, it turns out, take place in neighboring universes. Indeed, writer Grant Morrison continues his streak of highly metatextual DC cosmic epics with this eight-issue mega-series (plus one Tolkienesque guidebook).
Described by Morrison as “the ultimate statement of what DC is”, The Multiversity naturally offers the reader much beyond the surface level adventure, and that means annotations. Rather than merely filling out checklists of references, my hope with this feature is to slowly unearth and extrapolate a narrative model for Morrison and his collaborators’ work on The Multiversity; an interconnecting web of themes and cause and effect that works both on literal and symbolic levels.
The fourth issue of the series, Pax Americana with art by Frank Quitely, colors by Nathan Fairbairn and letters by Rob Leigh, is probably the most widely anticipated of the series, and certainly the most-hyped. It’s Morrison’s attempt to update and revise the structure of Watchmen, but applied to the original Charlton characters, as that Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons work was originally intended to in its first pitch. While Watchmen followed a strict nine-panel grid structure (some panels would be bisected or extended, but that was the general latticework on which everything hung), Pax Americana goes for eight, resembling not only harmonic octaves of music and colors of the rainbow that make up much of the multiversal structure Morrison is working with but also the “Algorithm 8″ that allows President Harley to perceive the underpinning structure of the universe and use it to his advantage. That algorithm is, of course, the eight-panel grid (and the 8-shape made by one’s eyes while reading the page) that forms the comic book universe he lives in.
The book moves backwards in eight color-coded sections, which I’ll denote, that correspond to the evolutionary stages of humanity/a single person espoused by Don Beck and Chris Cowan’s spiral dynamics, or, more specifically, Ken Wilber’s later integral theory, which incorporated it. I’d never heard of it before this book, and from all research I’ve done there’s a reason for that; it seems to be widely accepted as bunk pseudoscience by any academic institution, which makes it a perfect evolution of the original Question and Rorschach’s stark black-and-white Randian Objectivism, while also tying into not only Pax‘s obsession with the number eight but its role in the Multiversity series as a whole, both due to the nature of music in octaves which makes up the structure of the DC multiverse as well as the colors of the rainbow that form the Source Wall.
This is a long one, so with no further ado…
Page 0 / Cover
While Rian Hughes’s logo and font design is not evocative of Watchmen, the cover concept — using the cover as the first panel of the book — is. While Watchmen‘s quotations were on the interior, the cover immediately quotes the final lines of Delmore Schwartz’s “Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day” — “Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn.” It’s a concept that evokes Morrison’s obsession with time from a five-dimensional perspective as a soil in which concepts and people are grown, as inspired by his (in)famous Katmandu hash trip. Critic, writer and ComicsAlliance contributor Douglas Wolk pointed out that the logo cuts right through the peace symbol, causing the bisected peace symbol heavily evokes the current DC Comics logo on the upper left.
Stage Eight: Turquoise
We begin with, in reverse, the assassination of President Harley. His first name is never mentioned; the character is, effectively, a stand-in for Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, the Charlton character who inspired Watchmen‘s Ozymandias. The car evokes, obviously, the Lincoln limousine US President John F. Kennedy was riding when he assassinated, albeit with a recognizably Cadillac hood ornament — specifically one around the time they introduced the V8 engine.
On the second row, we see the the new Presidential Seal, in which the traditional bald eagle has been replaced by a dove of peace, showing the degree to which Harley rebranded the United States during his tenure. As the blood drips down the seal in reverse, we close in first on Harley’s “8” ring, inspired by his father’s domino mask, and then on the “S” in the seal, where the blood dripping down completes the S into an 8.
Somehow, this comic book was rated “T” for Teen, despite this being gory on, like, an Avatar Comics level. The limousine and Harley’s suit are both a sort of dark turquoise, as we’re in the “holistic self” stage of Spiral Dynamics: questing for peace in an incomprehensible world, a perfect description of Harley’s character evolution. Note the shadow cast on his face from the flag in panels seven and eight, resembling a cowl — the shadow of peace is Harley’s mask.
Peacemaker jumps out of a weather balloon to take the shot. Note how Quitely reinforces the spiral motif by lighting the interior of the gun’s barrel, rather than simply showing it as a black hole, and we also establish that the assassination took place right on Capitol Hill.
It’s also notable that this opens with a direct inversion of the inciting murder in Watchmen — here, the Comedian kills Ozymandias, rather than the other way around.
The scenes of Peacemaker’s interrogation — the last event in the book, chronologically — all occur in stark black and white, contrasting with the rainbow of evolutionary stages that represent Harley’s journey through life. It’s a four-on-one interrogation, much like the later scene with the four scientists who send Captain Atom out of Universe-4; newly-minted President Eden and … well, three other dudes. They’re all relatively indistinguishable, although they could represent the four quadrants in Ken Wilber’s integral variation of spiral dynamics (I, It, We and Its) — which attempts to provide an “integrated” version of the sum totality of human knowledge. Eden’s face is bisected, much like the mythological Janus who is mentioned multiple times in the comic (and whose stone bust is used in the assassination of Nora O’Rourke).
Our first really dialogue-heavy page. Peacemaker is being marched to the interrogation room while President Eden talks to his daughter, Eve, who’s also the superhero Nightshade and the inspiration/analogue for Watchmen‘s Silk Spectre. Eden immediately begins describing things in black and white, reducing his ideological spectrum from the two-dimensional color matrix to a one-dimensional gradient between black and white. The page drives home the idea that, as of the assassination of Harley, the concept of the superhero is dead on Earth-4 — is this, perhaps, a defense mechanism against the Gentry? Eden’s monologue, both on this page and the next, physically mirrors the walk he’s taking with his daughter and the art direction: “try to take the elevated view” as we look down on the room, “we’ve turned a corner” as they literally turn a corner. Note the clock in panels five and six that, in tandem with the panel gutter, creates a peace sign. The final panel gives us the first appearance (I’m not sure if it’s a blood splatter or the laser sight of a rifle; it seems to have volume, so presumably the first) of another one of the book’s major symbols, the three dots in a triangle, which have a number of interpretations:
1. In Turkey, it represents the oath to sacrifice oneself for a society, which is what both Harley (with his life) and Peacemaker (with his reputation) have done. It roughly means “I hear nothing, I see nothing and I tell nothing,” which not only represents Smith’s silence (since to explain why he killed the President would defeat the entire point of the operation), but also the dove which is a silent witness to the book’s murders.
2. It’s the logical symbol for “therefore” or, inverted, “because.”
3. The three major head-wound assassinations in the book: Captain Atom’s via black hole, Vince Harley’s through the front and his son’s in the back, a few pages earlier. The other major death in the book is Nora O’Rourke’s, which is blunt trauma rather than a precision shot, but is nevertheless a head wound. Or, perhaps, Captain Atom’s doesn’t count, since he presumably simply leaves the universe rather than actually dying, but the back/middle/front symbolism works too well.
4. Two dots in a row create the negative space inside the symbol 8 — in other words, they represent eyes, since the inspiration for Harley taking the symbol was his father’s domino mask. A third dot, therefore, would represent a third eye of wisdom — so this logo, applied to Smith at this point, represents his awakening and understanding of Algorithm 8, which allows him to see the structure of the world as the comic book we’re reading. He’s content with his role as assassin since he understands it’s a necessity for the narrative. It appears again in other moments of enlightenment, as we’ll see.
This page is noteworthy in making explicit the Z shape formed by the eye’s movement on the eight-panel grid. Indeed, if one is to read the page multiple times, the eye will then move back to the first panel, creating another diagonal line, creating a sort of hourglass shape that roughly corresponds to, of course, a figure 8. It appears that this version of Nightshade doesn’t have any explicit shadow powers; while her mother claims to be from a “shadow dimension” (of course reinforcing the idea of black-and-white thinking versus color), it’s treated as a delusion rather than a real origin.
Much like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, Captain Atom is the only superhero with actual superpowers in this iteration of Earth-4. Much like the last page, the dialogue heavily reflects (heh) the art; Eden talks about decline as he goes around the first flight, reflections and going backwards as we read right-to-left, another twist as the stairs turn, the country hitting rock bottom as they reach the bottom of the staircase, “pressure for change” as he presses the button, “exit strategy” as he exits the stairwell. There are multiple dimensions of reflections on this page — the dialogue and art reflecting each other, the discussion of reflection, Nightshade’s shadow reflection following the characters, the second row of the grid being the staircase going backwards as a reflection…
I think the item in the display case is a printing press.
The dialogue-art reflection continues, as Eden discusses transparency in front of a display case. The first row has the “Cold Soldiers” of 1960-1990, which appear to be classic Charlton supervillains: I recognize Punch’s hat and the Ghost’s costume offhand, and, of course, Iron Arms’s iron arms on the far right, which play an important role later in the story as Sgt. Steel uses the super-strength they convey to pick up the Janus bust and murk Nora O’Rourke. Nightshade’s face, much like her father’s earlier, is also bisected; also, much like her father’s, we can only see one eye due to the reflection of the light, which may represent a form of wisdom in a classic Odin kind of way. (Nightshade, in fact, used to have two shadow ravens she named Huginn and Muninn.)
Eden’s discussion of the superheroes coming forward in post-9/11 America reflects the original post-9/11 superteam, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates, the government superheroes that form the archetype for the Pax Americana. That may also play into the one-eye symbolism, as their leader was the famously one-eyed Nick Fury. Nightshade’s pissed off that the end of the Pax Americana will lead to the end of her super-celebrity status. President Eden, with eight minutes to speak, asks America to take a “leap of faith”, as we turn to…
The Question taking a leap of faith, running from Blue Beetle. The book is filled with cute Alan Moore-style scene transitions like this. The last time Morrison used this trick this prominently was in his first four issues of Animal Man, his first American comics work and also the last time he really tried to work in Moore’s style. The Question, much like his Watchmen analogue Rorschach, is investigating the murder of Nora O’Rourke (which we’ll see soon) and the disappearance of Captain Atom. Question is wearing a turquoise trenchcoat, showing we’re still in that phase of the book. This Blue Beetle is Ted Kord, whose Watchmen analogue was Nite Owl. This is the first mention, as well, of Algorithm 8, which is the story’s term for the formula by which this actual comic was constructed. The Question also mentions the “Yellowjacket case,” showing that he’s investigating the murder of Harley’s father (which, as we will find out, was caused by Harley himself).
I’d comment on all the “face” puns made around the Question, but they’re pretty on-the-nose and you’re smart people.
The OSI mentioned by Blue Beetle is, believe it or not, a nod to Charlton’s adaptation of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. We get more 8 figures in both Question’s remote control and the Bug’s mask-mimicking windows. Question mentions that Algorithm 8 can “end crime”; by providing understanding of the universe as a 40-page comic book, one would be able to extrapolate every event that occurs. The mistake, of course, is thinking that this would give someone the power to prevent it. The narrative is what it is. The Question’s commentary on Beetle’s aging and erectile dysfunction is a clear reference to Nite Owl’s character arc in Watchmen, as well as Ted’s own in ’90s DC comics; Beetle’s accusation that Question is in the closet is a riff on a classic reading of Rorschach in Watchmen, who is himself notably homophobic.
Both the Question’s remote control and Beetle’s ship have two big circles, forming 8 symbols in the negative space.
Question leaves Blue Beetle literally hanging and barely misses the monorail. Regarding the subway posters, the Vic Sage ones are, Janus-style, cut off by the gutters right in the middle, presenting the illusion of bisection. Interestingly, in the final panel, the two different Vic Sage posters appear to have different facial expressions — likely it’s the same poster, except that if you cut off the right he looks accusatory and if you cut off the left, he’s smiling. “Nightshade’s Futurebomb” is, of course, a nod to/reflection/inversion of Ozymandias’s “Nostalgia” perfume in Watchmen. The third poster, which we see on the next page, is for a hydro-powered car, again mirroring Dr. Manhattan’s work in creating clean-burning cars in that seminal work.
Lots of turquoise. The Question’s calling card has a question mark turned into an 8; “The Soldier and the Hunchback” is a skeptic work by Aleister Crowley in which the question mark is described as the hunchback and the exclamation point is described as the soldier. The book itself has its own hunchback, the Question, and a number of soldiers, although it’s likely here that it’s the book’s own “answer,” the murderer — the Peacemaker. Here we see not only a reflection of the first Silk Spectre fight in Watchmen but also the Question reflecting Rorschach’s casual misogyny by referring to Nightshade’s perfume as “Hooker’s Handbag.” Note, of course, that Nightshade is once again preceded by her own shadow, as well. It’s arguable that the fight itself in the second row in some way resembles a figure 8, but that may be a bit of a stretch.
The Question’s parting question refers not to a grand in-story conspiracy, but rather to the extra-narrative conspiracy of the “board” — in this case, the panel grid — being controlled by the story’s creators. In the end, the real murderers here aren’t Peacemaker, Sgt. Steel or a young Harley, the murderers are Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Nathan Fairbairn and Rob Leigh.
Speaking of game boards. Whoo-boy.
There are three different time periods being reflected here. identifiable by shade. You have Nora O’Rourke (Peacemaker’s assistant/girl friday/scientist supermind) and Peacemaker having a conversation about Harley’s plan during the day; you have O’Rourke’s assassination by someone (likely Sgt. Steel, due to the obfuscation of his face as per every other appearance he makes in this comic) equipped with Iron Arms’s, well, arms; and you’ve got the Question’s investigation. This structurally mirrors Rorschach’s investigation of the Comedian’s apartment being intercut with Ozymandias murdering him in the very first scene of Watchmen. (Note, also, that rather than Roschach’s smooth, professional entry into Comedian’s apartment, the Question is struggling up the side of the building, gasping.) Quick note: the three-dot symbol is on the upper-left here, and we’ll see it again in all future scenes set in Peacemaker’s crib.
The day section provides one of our few stated insights into Harley’s plan, as well as the part of it where he expects Captain Allen Adam to come back from likely excursion to the House of Heroes. The thing is, if he knows Adam is gone — and Adam’s departure is part of his plan — then that means that Sgt. Steel is his agent, and he’s also responsible for the murder of O’Rourke, as well as for Steel’s role in Peacemaker’s interrogation. This is all highly likely since every panel of this comic is a result of Algorithm 8 — but if Harley truly understood Algorithm 8, then he’d know that even his understanding was itself a result of the algorithm, and the entire comic was predestined.
The evening section features (let’s just go with it being him) Steel assassinating O’Rourke using the Janus bust, which is looking both to the left (the comic’s “past”, the pages previous) and the right (its “future”). Note, of course, that it’s gone in the panel on the right side — does this mean that Nora could only see the pages previous in this comic using Algorithm 8, and not the ones to follow, which include the book’s central event (Harley killing his own father)? It’s also important to note that if you trace Nora and Steel’s movements, they both wind around the Janus bust and the Pax statue, creating — of course — a figure 8.
The scenes of the Question basically involve him explaining everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph, with the added reinforcement of the hunchback/soldier dichotomy.
And here, Captain Atom, while reading Ultra Comics (the only explicit tie to the rest of the Multiversity series in this issue), basically states what I just said in a single sentence. The machine he’s inside is almost definitely Earth-4’s Transmatter Symphonic Array, here built by Harley and Adam and known as the Porti Belli — “Beautiful Gate” — and part of Harley’s plan to bring Adam out of the universe and then have him return and bring him back from the dead after his assassination. Additionally, Adam references the knocking on the door, as once again death arrives and, on the next page at least, Sgt. Steel comes to demand his rent. It’s another four-on-one situation, much like Peacemaker’s interrogation earlier, except this time the doctors are all notably colored beige, green, blue and red — purple and orange seem to be missing from the first stages of Spiral Dynamics. Unless, of course, the blue lighting is throwing me off, and the colors are instead cyan, magenta, yellow and key, the printing colors of comic books. The rest of the page is basically Captain Atom repeating Morrison’s Grand Theory of Comics, which you’re probably familiar with if you’re reading these annotations, although it’s not usually stated quite as on-the-nose as it is here.
Much as this page is the only reference to the rest of Multiversity, it’s also a literal gateway, as it’s highly likely Adam travels to the House of Heroes through the black hole in his brain, although he wasn’t glimpsed in the first issue.
And here, Captain Adam realizes he’s about to be betrayed (again, reflecting Dr. Manhattan’s betrayal by Veidt in Watchmen, although here he sees it coming). They assassinate him by creating a black hole in his skull — the second of three assassinations by headshot in the book, this time in the middle of the head rather than from the back (as per President Harley) or the front (Harley shooting his father). Note, as well, the way the grid around Adam breaks down into smaller and smaller panels after his assassination, reflecting the metafictional nature of his departure from Universe-4 as well as the continued fractal breakdown of the panel grid that we see again when Adam shows Harley Algorithm 8. He also, of course, dies after reading Ultra Comics — perhaps the specific curse it bestows is an understanding of each universe’s fictional nature and the confines from which it operates, leading to an existential crisis? He was very aware of the nature of the universe back in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, but not of the full comic-book grid nature that Superman gained a sort of understanding of in the Monitor Sphere.
The time at which it took place — January 31st, 2015 at 7:20 PM — places Harley’s assassination almost a year later, per Question’s dialogue when talking to Beetle, which means it takes place about a year after the book’s publication — a direct inversion of Watchmen, which took place roughly a year before the publication of its first issue. 7:20 PM, when viewed on an analog clock, roughly creates the left and right sides of the triangle on a peace symbol (although I suspect he might have meant 7:25 or 8:20, which is more exact). We can see the minute clock at the 20-minute spot in panel two.
Then Sgt. Steel comes in and murks everyone to keep them quiet, much like Veidt had the scientists and artists who created the fake alien space monster in Watchmen murdered to ensure their silence. It’s also the transformation of the book from turquoise to yellow as we go from the relatively peaceful section of the book to a more violent one.
Steel plays a weird role in this book — he’s Vice President Eden’s enforcer, sure, but he also acts here and in other places to protect Harley’s agenda. The implication certainly exists that, in this book, Steel is the Gentry’s agent, since he appears after they open the doorway to the multiverse, like an infection, after knocking at the door. Is he part of Harley’s plan, or actively working to counter it? Is he from outside Algorithm 8 and not bound by the strict symbolic rules of Earth-4, therefore unable to be seen by Harley (hence why his face is hidden for the entire issue)? His main actions in the book are shooting these scientists, killing Nora and participating in Peacemaker’s interrogation, his face hidden all of these times. We know he existed prior to this shooting, though, since Question’s later interrogation of the faux mob fixer has him getting his orders from “the Sarge,” who’s almost definitely Steel. Considering the liquid nature of time in this story, it’s possible that may just not matter.
Stage Seven: Yellow
A conversation between Nightshade (blonde here and out of costume, reflecting this section’s ‘yellow’ theme) and and her mother, reflecting the scenes of the two Silk Spectres in, of course, Watchmen. It opens and closes on the same black spot, zooming out and then in again from the dot in the i in the ‘i-Scene’ magazine — which, of course, in the second-to-last panel, becomes an exclamation mark, with the coffee dripping across the S next to it forming an 8.
Eve’s mother’s dialogue is about nostalgia for the past, both in literal and figurative terms; she references the “World Behind Shadows” (which, in this iteration of Earth-4, likely doesn’t actually exist) and describes her skill with the piano, the famously purely black-and-white instrument. Nightshade references Captain Atom and her father, President Eden, working together to solve the energy crisis, which is obviously the pretense under which Eden removed Adam from the game board — an action part of both Eden’s treachery and Harley’s plan. I presume Harley knew Eden would betray him and that was a core part of his plan, due to the narrative knowledge bestowed upon him by Algorithm 8. The dialogue about circularity, applied to Eve’s apparently Alzheimer’s-suffering mother, of course reflects the circular nature of this page that’s bookended by the same panel. “Slobovia,” usually “Slobbovia,” is a derogatory term for any third-world country the speaker deems backwards.
It’s close to the center of the book, but not quite, which is surprising since it seems like a natural symmetrical breaking point (a la Veidt hitting the assassin in the middle of the “Fearful Symmetry” issue of Watchmen), especially since it’s broken across the middle by both the Janus bust and Peacemaker’s face. We discover that O’Rourke created the Janus bust that murdered her — reinforcing the theme of someone being killed by their own art/creation. That theme is partially inspired by the fact that Watchmen escaped Alan Moore’s hands and had the opposite effect as intended, and is reflected elsewhere with Harley’s father was murdered by his own son, who in his own way was a work of art in how he was inspired and formed by the ideals of his father’s work both as a vigilante and as a comic book creator, and President Harley’s assassination by his own creation, the Peacemaker.
Peacemaker and Nora’s past/future conversation occurs right on the appropriate sides of the Janus bust, and Peacemaker’s “open and shut case” comment (which, of course, coincides with his opening a doorway into the rest of the comic) refers to the fact that his father was killed by an “intruder.” Is the intruder his son, is it us, or is it the spirit of the Gentry? The far left panel of the “past” contains both the dove cage and the three-dot sign, while the “future” on the far right is a door and a a pure blue picture, representing the “blue sky thinking” Nora refers to. A cage and silence in the past, to a doorway and a blank slate in the future.
The second row, of course, reinforces the past/future theme with Eden’s dialogue, while Smith gets the hell beaten out of him by Steel’s steel hand.
As for the final panel, the implication — I think — is that Peacemaker and Nora shot down the doves they let fly, with the birds’ blood forming, of course, a figure-eight suspended in air in the sky. They talk about there being two years to verify Algorithm 8 until the “2015 election,” which a) sets this in 2013 and b) doesn’t make any damn sense. Later, we see Harley first campaigned in (or for) 2008, which would mean he had a seven-year first term — unless it’s a 2015 election for a 2016 inauguration, which would mean he had an eight-year first term, which, well, makes no sense from an American politics perspective but a lot of sense from the symbolic perspective of this book.
(Or they just made a mistake and it’s supposed to be his third term, which might make the most sense of anything.)
There’s a lot of yellow references in this scene, both with the fire and the Question’s discussion of cowardice. As we can see, Question was investigating Eden’s corruption even before Adam’s disappearance. Note that the guy he’s interrogating is under two collapsed Ses, which, if one were to be pushed over onto the other, would make a figure 8. Here we’ve got probably the most Ditko-ian Question sequence in the book, where he’s practically playing with his prey. It also makes explicit the Question’s evolution in mindset from the black-and-white philosophy of his earlier years to his embracing of the eight-color spectrum of spiral dynamics, which ties not only into the color theme of the book and the eight-panel grid and musical structure of the multiverse, but also the eight-color rainbow of the Source Wall that separates the Monitor Sphere at the edges of the multiverse from the Overvoid of the blank page of possibilities.
Spiral dynamics is, much like the objectivism that informed Ditko’s creation, a bunk philosophy that’s gained no real traction within academia but a bunch of credit with pseudo-intellectuals, which would make it the perfect belief system for a modern-day Ditko creatoon, and a great prismatic updating of the Question’s original black-or-white philosophy. The first four panels are a hilarious burn on Ditko’s Randian philosophy and his later wall-of-text Mr. A comics, where the title character (a barely-disguised creator-owned iteration of the Question) would go on Objectivist rants after sentencing criminals to death. Morrison pretty much makes his opinion of that known here by placing the Question above the wall of text of bullsh*t sociology, which is doubly amusing since that wall of text is actually the explanation of much of the issue’s structure.
Note that Question refers to the guy he’s killing being “yellow” as in cowardly, reinforcing the color structure of this point in the book. The guy mentions his orders come from “the Sarge,” which is definitely Sgt. Steel as Eden’s enforcer, and the method of death here — electrocution via water — is reminiscent of the jailhouse execution Rorschach commits in Watchmen.
Anyway, then he snaps a cellphone photo of the dude and watches him die, which is pretty cold. He pleads for his mother, just like the last scientist shot by Steel back on page 16.
This seems to be a sort of interstitial scene between colors, with the founding of Pax Americana itself shortly after Harley’s inauguration. Sergeant Lane here — presumably the Earth-4 version of Lois Lane’s father? — could be a Sgt. Steel before losing his hand, although I think it far more likely they’re simply different characters. The books held by Lane are two other major Morrison/Quitely collaborations that involve alternate universes, All Star Superman #10 and the JLA: Earth 2 graphic novel. Here we’ve got Tiger (the student of Judomaster, who isn’t in this comic but was likely involved in the history of Earth-4, judging by the “Cold Soldiers” section of the museum earlier), Nightshade in her original outfit, a Blue Beetle (likely Ted Kord) wearing Dan Garrett’s original costume, a cerulean-wearing Question and Peacemaker, who apparently decided to keep wearing his ridiculous helmet forever, even to a presidential assassination.
Peacemaker’s mention of the Justice League of America is a reference to the DC comics that are as fictional in his world as they are in ours, and the Sentinels referenced by Blue Beetle refer to the Sentinels of Justice, a name this group of characters took as a team back in the Charlton days. Harley shows up and, when the Question mentions that he’d rather not have his identity become a government trademark, psyches him out by stating his real name — which he likely discerned with his understanding of Algorithm 8.
Here we get Harley introducing Pax Americana to the world in 2008, using comic book terms because Harley is, at heart, a superhero fanboy — in a way, an inversion of Wally Sage from Morrison and Quitely’s first collaboration, Flex Mentallo, a superhero fanboy who lost faith in the medium and grew up to become a rock star strung out on drink and drugs and lack of hope, held back by his own adolescence. Here, Harley uses the idealism of superhero comics to become President and debut his own Ultimates-esque superteam to enforce peace through violence, demonstrating American superiority by replacing the Twin Towers with a Captain Atom-built three-tower structure that clearly resembles the three-dot silence/third-eye motif.
Not only does this scene resemble Dr. Manhattan building the crystalline palace structure on Mars during his exile, but also replaces the two-eyed Twin Towers with a three-eyed, ‘enlightened’, Algorithm 8-representing structure.
The tower’s done; a random nutjob tries to attack Harley, and is immediately thrown into jail, teleported by Atom. Much like the issue of Watchmen where the crystal structure was built and Manhattan reflected on his past due to his disassociation from time, we get the same thing here in the time switch as Atom mentally moves from this moment to the next scene, where he’s recruited by Harley.
Stage Six: Green
Stage six, green, the “sensitive self” seeking inner peace — as Captain Atom reflects on his clearly newly-found power set. This is likely the point in time where he travels to the past to give Harley Algorithm 8 (as seen later), and around when he takes part in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, since here he has underpants and it’s mid-2008 (before the election), which is when that comic came out. I swear to God I feel like the head doctor here is supposed to resemble somebody, but I can’t place who; it could just be that the character design is so distinct. This is presumably very soon after Captain Atom got his powers; they’re going with the original Charlton version for sure, with a Dilustel coating over a body made of “pure U-235.” He’s just now discovering his powers, and, at this point, unable to contain himself to a single point in time; clearly, he himself is Janus the Everyway Man, who Harley’s dad wrote about. Atom is reunited with the dog he had before becoming an omnipotent god and immediately breaks it down into its constituent parts…
…just to discover that — in what I can only interpret as a criticism of the act I’m performing myself right now, and of the act that Nix Uotan was performing in the first bookend — dissection of beautiful things doesn’t increase appreciation. Indeed, Captain Atom just killed his dog in an attempt to locate the source of his love, but these aren’t things that can be cataloged or understood by scientific analysis.
Side note: It’s a fascinating experience, analyzing a work that’s actively pushing back on your analysis as you read it. I’ve read Morrison comics before where it felt like digging into fertile soil, uncovering things left buried meant to be found, but this is different, like Southern red clay or a rock quarry under a beach. Pax Americana is difficult to analyze because on first sight, it seems to invite the analysis, but the more you dig, the more it defies you. It’s not submitting to a scalpel here; make no mistake: this is a wrestling match. I’m not sure I’m winning.
The “underlying structure, hidden in plain sight” that Harley is referring to here is, of course, the eight-panel grid itself. This page, maybe more than any other in the book, is the crux of Morrison’s criticism of Watchmen: while that title is, indeed, world-famous, a “masterpiece of design and organization,” life — which Morrison is more interested in writing about — is a maze of contradictions. As much as Pax submits to replicating and homaging Watchmen‘s self-reflective structure, it’s also a indictment of same as having no relationship to reality.
Note in panel one, Harley’s holding his hand out to Adam while the dude who got turned to stone is, instead, raising it out to the sky, to God — I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a contrast (a hand of friendship vs. a hand of despair) or a parallel, since God’s both in the sky and on that park bench.
This bridge is the third eye in the middle of the figure-8 that forms the garden itself; note on the previous page there was a circular path leading to the bridge, and on the next one is another. The hole formed by the bridge and its reflection is the hole at the center of this story, the bullet holes in Harley and his father and the black hole in Adam’s head, the third eye of awareness that represents Algorithm 8 — on the one page where Harley himself explains what Algorithm 8 is. Note the amazing detail of the dove eating the bug on the second row, a reflection of Harley murdering his father.
“Major Max,” from “Major Comics” — not to mention its publication in the 1970s — seems a clear analogue to Jim Starlin’s seminal, trippy-as-hell Captain Marvel run. This is the clearest (and yet still very oblique) description of Harley’s plan in the book: for Captain Atom to bring Harley back to life and “redeem the ultimate villain” to “restore symmetry.” So… what the Hell does that mean?
Keep in mind that Harley and Atom are both talking from two different perspectives — not just the perspective of characters on Earth-4, but also from characters who know they’re in an eight-panel-grid riff on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen — or, at the very least, believe that. The ultimate villain here is, I think, Harley himself, who commits the book’s most egregious and inciting sin, the act of patricide that sets off everything else to come.
The big question mark, though, is this: is the structure of the world really built with Algorithm 8, and Harley saw it, or is that a structure he placed on his own perception of the world to process his guilt?
Stage Five: Orange
Stage five, “capitalistic democracies,” featuring President Bush and a huge action set-piece introducing Peacemaker which basically reads like an issue of the Millar/Hitch Ultimates — over-the-top Hollywood villainy to half-glorify, half-satirize the status quo, in widescreen double-page spreads. Note how the fence in the first row enforces the grid structure on a single widescreen panel.
This one is pretty much a Quitely showcase, and an insanely effective one. The most notable detail here is probably Harley’s “dad loved Manhattans,” which seems like an in-joke about his dad creating Janus the Everyway Man, a clear Dr. Manhattan archetype.
Another Alan Moore-esque page transition as we go from Harley’s declaration of the pre-superhuman world coming to an end to Eden proclaiming the end of the superhuman. There’s an obvious point in Smith pointing his finger-gun at us when asked who he’s saving the world from; this is one of the few pages in the book that seems to tie into the overall metafictional reader/creator relationship themes of the Multiversity series. The interrogation itself, including Peacemaker breaking free, seems reminiscent of both Hawkeye’s interrogation in the second half of Ultimates 2 and King Mob’s interrogation with Key 23, the drug that makes words into objects, in The Invisibles. The last panel, though, is a flashback that confirms not only that Nora knew about the full extent of Smith and Harley’s plan (which is probably why she was killed — but Eden’s confusion about why Peacemaker would assassinate the president seems pretty sincere?) but that the real reason Harley committed suicide by supercop was guilt over killing his dad, so he went for the symmetry of being murdered by his own creation.
Stage Four: Blue
Short stage here, basically just this page, but we’ve got Question being a grade-A Objectivist dick, especially since he has absolutely no idea what led to this dude spending his life hawking horse. Which makes sense, since the blue stage is described as “authoritarian”, with the quest being that of a perfectly dichotomous good versus evil. The irony, of course, is his simultaneously admonishing Ted for using his money to fight criminals instead of help the very poor people he’s now shoving heroin down the throat of. Or, he’s doing this to prove a point to Beetle, at which point martyring this poor guy on the cross of winning an argument with a dude in a beetle outfit on a basketball court is not exactly peak morality. In any case, this page shows just how early Question was working on Yellowjacket’s murder, a coincidence that can really only be explained due to the narrative constraints imposed on Earth-4 by Algorithm 8. The Question has to be working on this murder early since it’s the only thing he can do.
The Question/Beetle partnership here, obviously, is highly evocative of the original Nite Owl/Rorschach team-ups in Watchmen. It also confirms for sure that Ted Kord was wearing Dan Garrett’s costume for a while before switching to his own suit in the modern-day, which doesn’t match up with either the original Charlton comics or the narrative of Watchmen. (Dan Garrett gets mentioned later, too, so he existed on this universe for sure.)
Stages Three and Two: Red and Purple
These stages are almost an afterthought. The red stage, presumably, occurs while Harley is travelling the world after his father’s death, being impulsive, which occurs before the purple stage in the book’s narrative (as shown here on this page) — the magical thinking of meeting Captain Atom and discovering Algorithm 8 — and after the purple stage in his own life. Vince Harley died in 1974, so if his son is 23 here, assuming the li’l President was about 9 or 10 when he shot him, that’d set this sequence during the mid-to-late ’80s — around when Watchmen came out. Note that the clock faces in the first three panels of the second row combine to form a peace sign. Captain Atom, disembodied from time, travels to the past — presumably from his conversation with the older Harley in the garden — and delivers to him the secret of Algorithm 8.
A masterful piece of work from Morrison, Quitely and Fairbairn that shows the imperfect jumble of images that formed Harley’s worldview transforming into the orderly panel grids that make up the rest of the book. It’s snowing here, so this realization seems to come some time after Atom’s appearance. A fractured worldview transforms into an organized one, informed by the cosmic structure Algorithm 8 applies to Earth-4. It’s the big reveal of what Algorithm 8 really is, but I’ve been discussing it in those terms these entire annotations, so let’s go straight to…
Stage One: Beige
The beige stage is characterized by survival and self-defense — the exact kind of primal urges for safety that lead a kid to shoot a home intruder in the face only to find out it’s actually his dad. It’s all over this sequence — the dove cage, the guitar, the drawing chair and end table, the handle of the gun. Even Yellowjacket’s costume is colored in a very dull, beige-like yellow. It’s probably best to treat all this sequence as an atomic unit, since it’s the inciting incident of the entire book and the origin point of much of its symbology. Also, I’ve referred to it at basically every previous stage, so linking it with the rest of the book’s already been done. With JFK (whose assassination is homaged in Harley’s own)’s “Pax Americana” speech from his commencement address at American University overlaid, little Harley finds his father’s gun, shoots him amazingly right between the eyes, and takes off his mask, the first time the “8” pattern appears in the book chronologically (and in Harley’s life) with the bullet hole in the middle forming the aforementioned third eye.
So, What The Hell Did I Just Read?
The Multiversity: Pax Americana is the hardest job I’ve had trying to pick one of these things apart. Not just is there so much there, but there are so many differing equally possible readings that assembling the evidence into a coherent thematic theory is almost impossible. Hell, even figuring out the precise nature of Harley’s plan is incredibly difficult: who was working with him, and who was working against him?
Eden’s machinations work into his plan too well to not be a part — from Peacemaker’s comments when talking to Nora on the murder investigation page, Adam’s disappearance was part of the plan from the beginning. If Eden and Steel’s plans were foreseen by Harley, that means that Steel did not operate outside of Algorithm 8, although his comments when shooting the scientists certainly implied so, as well as the constant obfuscation of his face. It’s fully possible, though, that that’s meant to mirror the way we never see Vic Sage’s face outside of the poster in the monorail station. As for Adam coming back and saving Harley, it’s worth mentioning that as much as this issue seems to want to be considered as an atomic unit outside the whole of The Multiversity, it’s fully possible that — like the other two issues — the mysteries left at its conclusion will be dealt with in the final issue of the series, with Captain Atom returning to Earth-4, resurrecting President Harley and, somehow, this plan leading to a lasting world peace — one built not by the threat of war or subservience, as JFK says, but by all beings living in harmony. War and peace are a cycle, though, like the two sides of a figure-eight.
Then there’s what is, I think, the biggest reading into the book: the idea that these characters are trapped by the narrative. One of the main reasons Watchmen is considered such a perfect comic is its meticulous structure and lack of any extraneous details: every single part of the story is an important part of the book’s narrative clockwork. This is never how Morrison’s written, though; his characters are free to change and evolve over the story, while the structural tightness of Moore’s style — its biggest strength — leads to the lack of ability to improvise, which, I think, Morrison is positing as its biggest weakness. These are characters unable to live and breathe, slaves to the narrative structure and original pitch outline, and this is slavish attention to staying on-point is exactly the mechanism Harley uses to achieve the ultimate position of power. On its most basic level, this book is about the existential torture of being a character in such a constrained narrative, one designed from the inside out — much like Allen Adam and his dog, it’s hard to love the individual pieces as much as the working whole. For all of its technical prowess, Morrison is calling Watchmen cold and inhuman, a work that coasts off of cleverness rather than emotional resonance, easy to admire but hard to love.
See you next month for Thunderworld with Cameron Stewart and Fairbairn again, bringing us the all-ages adventures of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family. I’m pulling for it being incredibly obvious and easy to read for my own sanity, because this one was like pulling teeth.