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.
We'll be focusing here on the second issue of the maxiseries, the unwieldily titled The Multiversity: The Society of Super-Heroes: Conquerors of the Counter-World, written by Grant Morrison with pencils by Tom Strong's Chris Sprouse, inks by Karl Story and Walden Wong, and gorgeous colors by Dave McCaig.
I'll admit here from the beginning that while I can talk about this series' relationship to the DC Universe and Morrison's oeuvre, I'm close to clueless about the vagaries of early 20th century pulp fiction and would be incredibly interested in hearing from more learned readers whatever I've missed from that angle. That said, there's still a great deal of meat to dig into in this issue, which serves as a sort of conceptual counterpoint to Final Crisis's opening scene, showing us the end of Anthro and Vandal Savage's 40,000-year feud.
So, with no further ado...
THE MULTIVERSITY: THE SOCIETY OF SUPER-HEROES: CONQUERORS OF THE COUNTER-WORLD
Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Chris Sprouse
Inkers: Karl Story and Walden Wong
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual
Editor: Rickey Purdin
It's definitely an alternate New York, since no Google Street View of the intersection of 53rd and 5th matches this vista. Judging by the compass directions on the walkway, though, we're facing north.
The gigantic obelisk of a skyscraper in the distance is clearly Earth-20's version of the infamously windowless Tower of Fate; unlike the Tower of Fate, however, it has doors.
The page is structured as a single image focusing on a tower with a page of text, mirroring the issue's similarly composed final page, although the two are -- perhaps literally -- day and night. Our narrator here is the Immortal Man, combining bits of Anthro and Tarzan (as he was found by the otherwise-unmentioned and un-Wikiable "Professor Rival" in 1912), although the former's importance to the beginning of Final Crisis -- and his antagonist in that tale -- will soon bear some pretty important fruit in this issue.
The concept of the SOS isn't only important in that it's an acronym for the issue's protagonists, considering the fact that the grand multiversal SOS was sent out from the House of Heroes last issue.
Despite having just been introduced as being around since the Neolithic era, the Immortal Man is relatively svelte, cultured, fashionable and roguish -- a perfect pulp hero, essentially. It's worth mentioning that Morrison used a particular analogue for the Immortal Man, Resurrection Man, back in the DC One Million event, sharing the same eternal-rivalry relationship with Vandal Savage, although in that title it all took place on one Earth rather than two. Immortal Man himself was glimpsed as a member of the Forgotten Heroes with whom Animal Man went voyaging during the original Crisis On Infinite Earths, and Morrison used the character later in that capacity in his Animal Man run. Anyway, his deal is that he's a caveman who doesn't die, a counterpoint to Savage -- and counterpoints, as we'll see, are an incredibly important part of this issue (as well as the concept of manifesting thought into reality, which was also a core concept of Final Crisis -- as we'll see, this issue is itself almost a counterpoint to that story.)
We're introduced to the Earth-20 Blackhawks, and since this is a Grant Morrison comic, of course any group of five women is going to be patterned after the Spice Girls (see also: the Stepford Cuckoos from New X-Men). "Al Wadi," as far as I can tell, basically means "the valley"; while there are a number of Guilstans and Golestans in Iran (see here), the specific spelling seems to imply that this is an area or country ruled by the family of Batman villain and ecoterrorist extraordinaire Ra's al Ghul. "Giaour" is, apparently, a Turkish slur for non-Muslims/foreigners/non-nationals, although given Morrison's considerable love for the Romantic poets, it seems like the more immediate inspiration was likely Lord Byron's 1813 poem, which was steeped in the kind of othering of the near and far East that permeated a great deal of the pulp works from which this issue draws inspiration. I presume it's called the "Eye of the Giaour" as a reference to the "Eye of the Tiger," the first use of which as far as I can tell was a 1977 movie about Sinbad (the legendary Middle Eastern explorer, not the American comedian). Well, that or the Survivor song I had to listen to at every Auburn High School pep rally for four years.
So we meet Al Pratt, who's a fascinating version of the original Golden Age Atom for a number of reasons. First of all, they went out of their way to maintain his original diminutive stature, a fact for which I'm literally incredibly grateful; basically the only other short dudes in superhero comics are Wolverine and Puck, and the latter's height is literally the result of a curse. So, to see a character like this portrayed in a positive way with no cheap jokes: straight up, Grant Morrison and Chris Sprouse, thank you.
Now, that said, there's a lot of very interesting stuff about this incarnation of Pratt. First off, the "Iron Munro bodypower course" is a clear reference not only to Charles Atlas but to Morrison's earlier work on his own Atlas analogue, Flex Mentallo, the star of a four-issue miniseries with Frank Quitely that's regularly considered an absolute highlight of Morrison's career. Iron Munro, additionally, is an old pulp character who got folded into the DC Universe after Crisis on Infinite Earths as the new Earth's replacement for the Earth-2 Superman during World War II.
Additionally, it's very difficult to ignore a particular important change made to Pratt's mask from his standard incarnation: the hydrogen atom logo he shares with Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan (whose variant form, Captain Nathaniel Adam, is a Zillo Valla-minted Superman of the Multiverse and will be appearing in Pax Americana, the Earth-4 issue of this series, drawn by Frank Quitely). So, basically, that's a whole lot of weird connections to Superman. It's also important to point out that the logo could also represent a one-planet solar system, or, in this case, a one-universe multiversal orbit; considering Earth-20's later-explained binary relationship with Earth-40, there might be intentional symbolic resonance that becomes clearer as the series continues.
Lady Blackhawk mentions a Great War with Herr Hex, likely an amalgamation of Jonah Hex and a pulp character or archetype I'm not familiar with. (I'm open to ideas in the comments.)
This page not only introduces us to Doc Fate, the Dr. Fate/Doc Savage hybrid, but also features another appearance of Ultra Comics, the cursed seventh issue of this very series. Comic books on Earth-20 are, apparently, a storytelling medium on popularity par with film, likely a trend that will continue through this series to justify the utility of superhero comics as a warning mechanism from Earth to Earth.
Here we're introduced to Earth-20's Green Lantern, an Abin Sur who's an amalgamation of Silver Age Hal Jordan's backstory and Golden Age hero Alan Scott's aesthetics, mixed with a side of Satanic imagery. Note that despite his ring being a Guardian-invented willpower-manifestation engine, it shares that uncontrolled fiery glow with Alan Scott's legitimately magical ring.
Here we get the first mention of a major theme of the issue: transforming thought into reality. This all ties back to the Miracle Machine at the end of Final Crisis, the ultimate form of the will-to-reality paradigm introduced to Anthro by Metron at the very beginning of that series. As such, the fact that the Immortal Man here is Earth-20's Anthro is an incredibly important detail, as we'll deal with at the end.
And so we continue the S.O.S. motif that runs through most of Morrison's superhero work, but especially this series.
And here, our villains from Earth-40, riding a pretty boss looking bomber fortress through the Bleed to Earth-20. Here we're introduced to Vandal Savage, the Immortal Man's longtime pre-Crisis enemy, murderous neanderthal, actual Biblical Cain and inveterate dick, and Felix Faust, counterpoint to Doc Fate, dark sorcerer and classic Justice League villain.
Most importantly, though, this page introduces the linked binary relationship between Earth-20 and Earth-40, which lay directly opposite of each other on Morrison's Map of the Multiverse. The question is, are these the only two Earths with this kind of relationship? I'd find that highly unlikely, especially considering the narrative possibilities of having these kinds of relationships on every Earth -- notable Earth opposites on the map include Earth-2 and Earth-3 (the Justice Society and Crime Syndicate), Earth-0 and Earth-33 (the main DC Universe and, well, literally the universe we're in right now), Earth-6 and Earth-51 (the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby universes), and Earth-5 and Earth-10 (the Shazam and Nazi Justice League Earths). The idea of regular multiversal interaction as part of the Orrery of Worlds's celestial clockwork seems too fertile to be ignored.
Side note: I also wonder why our world is Earth-33, since the only real significance I can think of with the 33 is that it's the age when Jesus died. Morrison could go for something really subversive implying a relationship between Judeo-Christian-Islamic scripture and the relationship with Earth-0, but it's a very vague conjecture and would be pretty ballsy for a DC superhero comic. Then again, they gave the actual Biblical Judas his own ongoing series for 24 issues, so who knows.
Chris Sprouse, Karl Story or Walden Wong (depending on who handled this particular spread) and Dave McCaig draw pretty, y'all.
The five-year timeline, assuming this issue takes place at the same time as the rest of the DC Universe, means that Vandal Savage invaded Earth-20 at the same time that Darkseid invaded Earth-0 and Earth-2, which may play into the story but, given as it's a specific New 52 thing, may very well not. The location here is the temple of Niczhuotan -- obviously Nix Uotan -- which Doc Fate will explain later, and the "fear-thing" is Parallax, the embodiment of fear wielded by Sinestro, pretty much the #1 big Green Lantern villain (and Abin Sur's counterpart).
Al Pratt's face is presumably all screwed up because of Parallax spitting in it, although I'm legitimately unsure as to how the Ultra Comics curse ties into this -- it's possible that it's just a general bad luck curse, or that its purported powers to transform someone into a superhero just lead to a generally crappy life. As we'll later see, Abin Sur didn't actually die; it's likely that Sur's death is simply what Pratt saw when he looked at Parallax.
Doc Fate refers to Parallax as the Makara, a Hindu fish-animal used as a vehicle by ocean/river gods and goddesses. I'll admit, I'm more than a little bit unsure what that has to do with the living embodiment of fear from an alternate universe; I'm sure that the Wikipedia-ing I'm doing isn't getting me close enough to the source of the relationship, and I'd be really interested to hear any thoughts from people more educated on these matters than I. It appears, at this point, that Doc Fate has been building a trans-matter cube much like the ones that appeared in the previous issue; Abin Sur later hitches a ride in it, presumably to the House of Heroes where he joins up with the crew of the first issue so he can chill next to Captain Carrot and Earth-23 Superman on the cover.
This is also the page where not only is it revealed that Doc Fate is a black dude, it's also kind of implied that's why he hides his face. Indeed, here's Morrison himself from a Kotaku interview about this very issue with Evan Narcisse:
"There's a scene where I wanted to get across a sense that Doc Fate might be hiding his identity because of tensions in that world that we're not made privy to, unless you look into the meanings of that scene."
So, well, the clear implication here is that Earth-20 is hella racist. Anyway, Doc Fate starts telling the story of Nix Uotan and Final Crisis and the first issue of Multiversity to Pratt here, which continues on the next page.
This pretty much backs up my theory last issue that Nix Uotan was, much like his father Dax Novu, imprisoned for millennia at the beginning of the issue and released from his egg-prison right at the end. It gives us more info on the Gentry -- they apparently came from the Source to fill the space left by the death of the Monitors, which basically makes them bad DC Comics editors replacing good DC Comics editors in the metafictional metaphor that drives the entire Monitor concept. Once again, Grant Morrison gets paid real, actual money to insult and criticize his bosses and get published by the company he's criticizing, which is pretty hilarious.
I've seen speculation that the sentence Doc Fate gets cut off was going to end with "man" rather than "hero" due to all of the weird Superman connections with this Al Pratt, but I dunno if that's the case. Either way, now we meet Blockbuster, Earth-40's counterpart to the Atom (and somewhat middling Batman villain back on Earth-0). At the same time, though -- although this could easily just be the artists -- I can't help but feel like Doc Fate unmasked looks a lot like Calvin Ellis, down to the subtle widow's peak that's more obvious on the next page. Given his later reference to his "adopted parents", it seems possible that Doc Fate is a Kal-El, although I'm loath to say definitively his appearance is a smoking gun. But another clue pointed out to me by ComicsAlliance editor Andy Khouri is the conspicuous presence of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman creators' credits in this issue, in which Superman does not appear. Or does he?
I have a feeling that the "brute with the billion-dollar brain" is yet another classic pulp reference I don't recognize. It's interesting that Pratt can't fight without his mask; the mask is what transforms him from a regular person into a superhero, which is a very different raison d'etre than Doc Fate's for rocking a full-face mask.
The spells Doc Fate's casting seem like an amalgamation of Egyptian and Vedic deities, although I'm open to correction there. We also see Earth-20's transmatter cube beyond the Gate of Fate here for the first time.
Here, Lady Shiva introduced as the Earth-40 counterpart of the Blackhawks, whose names (Killah, Pixie, Red, Monkey and Princess) may as well be Scary, Baby, Ginger, Sporty and Baby, respectively, really.
We also see Savage explaining his plan for the first time: it's later established that he's an agent of the Gentry, so it's likely that they gave him his marching orders, and that plan is to kill the Immortal Man with his magical immortal murder rock and summon the "God from Hell" who is, of course, the corrupted Nix Uotan.
Check out that Dave McCaig fingerpaint/watercolor effect on the sky in the upper right, man. Beautiful.
"Zombies! I expected something more original." I'm somewhat happy to see that I'm not the only person a little bit tired of this craze. This page also establishes that the Earth-40 invaders are doing the bidding of the Gentry; James Hayes-Barber speculated that Faust's zombie army is related to Demogorgunn, but I don't know if I'm entirely convinced. (Zombies are a pretty common trope, after all.)
I don't really have much to comment on here other than how well Sprouse sold Doc Fate kicking Faust in the balls, especially with it being the only panel on the page where the borders aren't perpendicular or parallel to everything else. Here's also where Al Pratt kills Blockbuster, and the killing, to a certain degree, lowers him from a superhero to a pulp hero. He wanted to have the ideals of a Superman, but that just wasn't possible in a world ruled by the genre conventions of early 20th century pulp.
Again, this is much darker than a standard superhero world; I don't think we've ever seen any incarnation of Superman indulge in electroshock torture.
I'm not clear on the ethnicity of Lady Blackhawk here; however, she did temporary blind Lady Shiva with the "Eye of the Gaiour." Then again, neither Lady Blackhawk nor Lady Shiva are Muslim, so I'm not sure there's any real symbolism there.
It's worth mentioning that Lady Shiva swims with alligators here; the mythical Makara, who is apparently Parallax, is also commonly portrayed as one.
Another speculation I've caught -- which makes a lot of sense to me -- is the idea that the meteors that led to the Immortal Man and Vandal Savage are, in fact, fragments of the Rock of Eternity, which Morrison's map shows lies at the very center of the Orrery of Worlds, alongside the Monitor's satellite. Preview info for the Thunderworld issue has Sivana trying to create a mechanical Rock of Eternity, so it's fully possible that it exploded or otherwise somehow rained debris into the rest of the multiverse 40,000 years ago for one reason or another.
This is sort of the beginning of the opening salvo where the heroes win the day with superior technology. Raiders of the Lost Ark style, a bunch of ladies with guns are gonna win over one lady with a sword.
Doc Fate's mention here of his adopted father and mother is really the clincher in what makes me suspect that he's Earth-20's Kal-El. I recognize that he doesn't have any of the traditional Kryptonian superpowers, but he's still Earth's greatest hero; and besides, who says Kryptonians in every universe need to have heat vision and flight?
Here, much like we've already seen this gritty world bring the Atom down, now we're seeing Doc Fate's fear that this world of war and prejudice has forced him to compromise his own principles, as well as his humanity. The Atom faces his worst fear -- being alone and disfigured -- as he looks into the maw of Parallax.
However, again, superior technology wins the day: Abin Sur shows up with his willpower-manifestation ring and blows a mythological creature straight to Hell.
Indeed, now not only has Abin Sur beaten Parallax, but is in fact now repurposing its corpse to power the trans-matter device. Abin Sur volunteers to go through the portal to the House of Heroes, which explains why he's with them on the cover of the last issue.
And now, in case you didn't get the theme of technological innovation and cleverness winning the day here for the pulp heroes, Morrison pretty much hits you over the head with it: here's the Immortal Man talking about using tools to make dreams into reality while constructing a weapon to kill Vandal Savage with. This is, unquestionably, a callback to the beginning of Final Crisis, where Metron comes to Anthro and shows him how to use fire, representing mankind's technological progress which he uses to drive Vandal Savage away from his village. Immortal Man discusses how his first creations had to be weapons due to the world of war in which he found himself; indeed, that seems to be a major theme of this issue, the idea of your surroundings and context influencing your imagination, and what you use it to make.
Anyway, it turns out spears have longer reaches than angry neanderthal dudes' arms, so there's that. Except that Immortal Man didn't know Savage's plan; rather than conquest, all he wanted to do was spill immortal blood. At the end of the day, simply by fighting and making weapons, the heroes doomed the world, bringing about...
The rise of the temple of Niczhuotan/Nix Uotan, with the page being a compositional callback to Doc Fate's tower on the very first page, complete with a sizeable caption box. We end, much like the last issue, on a cliffhanger, with our heroes reaching out through the Bleed to other parallel worlds through the form of a comic book, asking them for help -- comic books as the ultimate weapon, the ultimate technology.