Two thirds of the way through Grant Morrison’s and Frank Quitely’s The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1, Captain Atom who is Captain Atom in name only, who is really just Dr. Manhattan by another name, does something unexpected. Using his near-godlike telekinetic powers he lifts a little dog, his faithful little dog Butch, into the air. Then, he takes him apart, vivisects him right there in the air. Skin from bones, eyes from sockets, blood and viscera everywhere.
“I had to take a closer look,” Captain Atom/Dr. Manhattan says. “I thought the pieces would explain the whole.” Then, almost in tears, “But – it’s hard to love the pieces . . . “
In the pages of Pax Americana,Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have produced a story that is, first and foremost I suppose, a loving tribute to Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen series. Like that now classic series, Pax Americana sets its superheroes in a decidedly post-heroic age, in this case in what can perhaps be best described as a post-post-911 America, an America that we, of course, are all too familiar with, an America that has traded the naïve heroism of the early days following that great tragedy for the somber realism that all heroes are broken, that there is no clear line between good and evil, no clear line between black and white.
The main characters of Watchmen were based on an earlier cast of heroes originally published by Charlton Comics in the ’60’s. Morrison and Quitely resurrect those original heroes for their story but give them all the worldly sophistication and angst of the Moore and Gibbons cast. The names and the costumes may be different from the anti-heroes of Watchmen but these characters are cast in the same mold. They are pitch-perfect for a story set in a Watchmen world.
As one might expect from a story that is, in many ways, a love letter to Alan Moore, Pax Americana is filled with occult references. Everyone is obsessed with “Algorithm 8” and the Question spouts ideas about Spiral Dynamics and Aliester Crowley’s “The Soldier and the Hunchback.” This is less a classic superhero story than sci-fi fantasy steeped in mysticism.
The story that Morrison and Quitely tell is a challenging one. A first reading left me totally in the dark. Time does not unfold as expected, but moves backwards before it moves forwards again. The last pages of the book belong at the beginning. The beginning pages belong toward the back. I have read it a dozen times from front to back, and at least twice from back to front. I find something new every time.
Readers are dropped right into the middle of the bloody world-altering events that this story tells. There is no time to get one’s bearings; the back story has to be teased out from the words and pictures on the page. Allusions to obscure occult ideas are teamed with allusions to comicbooks past and to things I’m not sure that I have yet identified. The effect is intentionally disorienting; the reader feels, is meant to feel, like good ‘ol Mister Jones. Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.
I was once given good advice by a professor while deep into the writing of my dissertation. “Don’t do anything for your reader that they can do for themselves,” I was told. Morrison and Quitely have followed that advice to the extreme. It is sink or swim.
I suppose that if there is any assistance given to the reader then it is found in Quitely’s beautifully rendered pages. Indeed, one wonders if Morrison could have even imagined telling a story like this without the help of a collaborator like Quitely, someone with whom he had worked so successfully before and who has the ability to illustrate the complexity of Morrision’s storytelling moves with order and precision. Quitely’s page layouts are reminiscent in their structure to both Dave Gibbons’ work on Watchmen and Steve Ditko’s later work on the original Charlton heroes. The order and balance of the panels point the way to the order and balance of the story itself, they help readers to find their place and give them reason to believe that the seemingly haphazard jumps across time and space are actually part of a carefully orchestrated plot. They give reassurance that there is a point to this, that there is a firm hand in control, that this is all going somewhere.
Morrision and Quitely have worked hard on this, and it shows. There is plenty depth here for multiple rereads, plenty for scholarly papers and con debates for years to come. It is a complex and, perhaps, technically perfect comicbook.
So why is it, I wonder, that I am unmoved?
Part of it is rooted in my dislike of the original source material. Alan Moore is one of my favorite writers of all time, in any genre. Yet Watchmen remains one of my least favorite comicbooks. (Yes, I know that I’m in the minority on this. And yes, I will give it another try.)
But if you don’t like Watchmen then you probably aren’t going to like Pax Americana.
But there is more to it than that, because the sense of dissatisfaction I get from this comic feels different than the sense of dissatisfaction that I get when I read Watchmen.
But, before I try to explain what I don’t like about it, I want to make sure that I am clear about what a marvelous comicbook this is. Every single page is beautifully illustrated and marvelously written; the page layouts are dynamic when they need to be and rigid when they need to do the hard work of providing the narrative structure that Morrison’s script demands; Morrison is spot-on in his treatment of the Charlton/Watchmen characters and spot-on in his mimicry of a certain Moore-style of storytelling; and, against all odds, his complex achronal storytelling works – as it turns out Morrison can tell a story forwards and backwards if he needs to, if he wants to.
All of the parts come together perfectly, all the pieces do just what they are supposed to do.
But, and Morrison’s Captain Atom/Dr. Manhattan knows this, it is hard to love the pieces. As marvelous as they are, no one loves the heart, the kidneys, the skin and bones, not in the way that the dog is loved. If you take it apart into its constituent elements then you lose the thing that you love.
And that is an important point for a comicbook that requires not so much a reading as a live dissection.
Taking it apart into its elements is what this story demands, what this story requires. The back world that Morrison has created, the depth of characterizations that he gives to the players, the allusions and metaphors, symbols and signs, with which he fills nearly every word balloon and panel are constantly drawing attention to themselves, breaking into the story, stopping the reading cold. The temporal leaps, backwards and forwards and then further back, from one panel to the next without guidance or direction from any narrator, make for constant disorientation.
It is brilliant and in that brilliance, it is maddening, it is frustrating, it is broken and fractured to pieces, it is unlovable.
Maybe I’m just not smart enough for this. Maybe I just haven’t read enough comicbooks and enough occult literature, even though I have read, on both counts, a hell of a lot. Maybe the fault is mine. I will accept that. But the truth is that I cannot find the story here, or better yet, the story I find is not nearly as interesting as the parts, as the bits and pieces of storytelling that make up all the little pieces of this book. Perhaps the story is there, perhaps it is bigger and better than I can know, but those pieces, those damned little pieces, keep getting in my way. Perhaps the pieces do explain the whole, but once you have seen the pieces it is hard to see the whole.
So. I admire this comicbook. I respect this comicbook. But I cannot love this comicbook.
It’s hard to love the pieces.