Another 9/11 has come and gone. This year, as on every 9/11 for over a decade now, I went through the ritual that Americans all over the world go through. Everybody asks the question. Everybody has an answer. “Where were you when the towers fell?”
Like almost everyone else, I saw it on the television news, stood slack-jawed in my pajamas, hugged my wife, kept my child out of the room. Then, for the rest of the day, I was overwhelmed with emotion, with fear and grief and bewilderment. When my head had cleared just a bit, I drove to the record store to purchase Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, which was released on that very day. I remember that I called ahead to make sure that the store was open, wondering if anything could possibly be open after something like that. I played the album over and over and over again. On every 9/11 since, I have done the same. To this day I still wonder how Dylan could have gotten it so right, how he could have anticipated the anguish, how he could have known ahead of time that he should sing about death and tragedy and pride and war, about a “sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down.”
I had something of the same feeling this week as I read the second installment of Grant Morrison’s Multiversity. Like Dylan’s record, this story hits me hard. After the decade of war that followed the September 11 attacks, after twice electing a president who pledged to get us out and keep us out of war, after getting so much so wrong, the U.S. seems poised to do it all over again. U.S. bombs are falling in Iraq. Horrors have returned to the television news: terror, disease, war. The country is on edge. And, as if he saw it all falling apart, as if he, like Dylan, could see the future, Morrison tells this tale.
This issue details the struggles of the newly formed Society of Super-Heroes as they do battle on a 1940’s style alternative Earth against invading forces from another dimension. The Society is led by a version of Doctor Fate, “Doc Fate” he wants to be called, who is an amalgam of DC’s helmeted sorcerer, the pulp-fiction hero Doc Savage and the Rocketeer, and who is arguably the most interesting version of the character to ever see print. It is a good story. Sprouse’s character designs and settings, from airplane battles to jungle warfare, are near-perfect. Morrison seems to relish the opportunity to tell stories about alternative versions of established characters, twisting the familiar to make us look at it as if we had never seen it before. His Immortal Man is an undying force for good; his Black Hawks are a strong squadron of women; his Green Lantern, Abin Sur, is a horned demon; his Mighty Atom is a also a bit Doctor Manhattan. (And a bit Superman?)
These heroes are tired; they are tired from years of war. They are already weary when the guns of war begin to sound anew, when reality itself is threatened by an enemy at once both foreign and familiar. They watch America fall; they resort to torture; they compromise their morals; they see their fears realized, see their fears play out right before their eyes. Their actions come back to haunt them; their efforts to end the war and to right the world unleash something even worse.
And then, to drive the point home, Morrison gives the warning, makes the threat seem even more real, lets the reader know that the events on that Earth are not that different from the events on this Earth. A desperate Immortal Man puts out the call, the SOS. “Tell your people, your super-people, that it won’t stop here. It’s coming your way, too. And if you have no super-people, may the lord have mercy.”
Well, we have no super-people. Not on this Earth. Not a one. No Immortal Man, no Black Hawk Squadron, no Mighty Atom, no Green Lantern, no Doc Fate.
May the lord have mercy, indeed.
This is how I feel as the world falls back into turmoil, as if it ever found its way out. This is how I feel with all that death on my television screen, as I stand slack-jawed in my pajamas, hug my wife, try to explain it all to my children, play Love and Theft one more time.
“I sometimes wonder,” says the Immortal Man, “how we all might have turned out if we’d never had to fight a war.”