I should have listened to the cover. After all, the warning was clear: "You must NOT read this comic!"
The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1Publisher: DC
Writer: Grant Morrison
Contributors: Doug Mahnke (artist)
Publication Date: 2015-05
I was expecting a big payoff, expecting something unsettling, though also marvelous and grand. I was expecting Morrison at his very best, expecting to run out of adjectives to describe how wonderful this penultimate installment in Morrison's DC Comics series is.
After all, Morrison has been teasing us with this issue since way back on the second page of The Multiversity #1. That's when we watched a young comicbook critic pick up a copy of this book, The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1, and begin a review in the form of what he called a "live dissection." That was just before the young comicbook critic was revealed to be Nix Uatan, Superjudge – and before he was transformed into a monstrous fiend, the Judge of Worlds, the threat that stands at the door and knocks.
From the very beginning, we were told that this comicbook was haunted. We were told to be afraid. It was implied that this would be something that we have never seen before, something that would matter, something that would get inside our brains.
And when I picked it up this week, I confess that all of that sound and fury had worked on me, all that build-up over the last seven issues. I hesitated before I started to read. Hesitated, then forged ahead.
But maybe I should have listened to the cover. After all, the warning was clear: "You must NOT read this comic!" Indeed, Morrison has been warning us since the very beginning, since the last page of the first book in this heretofore stellar series. "Do as you're told!" that comicbook shouted at us. "Put this book down now!"
I should have listened.
The premise here is novel, I'll give Morrison that. In order to defend our Earth from the invaders that have threatened all the other worlds in the multiverse, a special comicbook was created. A world without real superheroes decides to fight the menace the only way it can, by developing a comicbook that is itself the hero. Ultra Comics is both the name of the book and the name of the hero on the cover and in the pages of the book. He is a comicbook come-to-life in the pages of a comicbook. His job is to protect us from the things that are surely coming, from the unimaginable evil that is on the way.
But right from the beginning it was hard to take any of this seriously. I, for one, was laughing from page three when Ultra Comics reminded me for all the world of Sesame Street's Grover hilariously warning me not to turn the page and to beware of the monster at the end of this book.
Of course, from the very beginning Morrison promised more than he and DC Comics could have ever been prepared to deliver, promised us a real world threat, promised to give us something to be really scared of.
But there's nothing scary here. Nothing at all.
And that's disappointing because there are scary things in this world, scary things and scary ideas that can be perpetuated through the pages of books, comic or otherwise. It's not as if it is impossible to bring something evil into the world through words and pictures. It has been done. But Morrison doesn't do that here.
Instead he relies on the gimmick of the self-aware comicbook and the self-aware hero, a gimmick that doesn't quite work. Ultra Comics is Deadpool or Ambush Bug, though burdened with a seriousness that makes him unbearable, especially when the threat he screams at us about seems to slight.
There are things that I enjoyed. Doug Mahnke's artwork is a real marvel, as are Eltaeb's and Baron's colors.
And Morrison's resuscitation of Ultra heroes from DC's past sent me rushing online to discover who these strange heroes, and villains, are. Likewise, the Neighborhood Guard, a group of Jack Kirby inspired street kids turned heroes, was fun to see. In both of these cases, however, Morrison does very little work of filling in the gaps, tossing these forgotten characters or this obscure tribute into the mix in a way that, I suppose, makes some readers wonder at his knowledge of comic lore. In this case, however, it mostly serves to add to the density of the story in a way that produces only the appearance of depth. It reads like a freshman term paper that tries to fake real understanding by filling the paper with obscure quotes.
There are twists and turns in the story, many of which frankly baffle me. It is Morrison at his densest and at his most pretentious. First, it looks like Ultra Comics has been sent into a trap. Then, it looks like Ultra Comics is itself the trap, the trap for the bat-winged Easter egg that is supposed to scare us. Trap the thing in a comicbook, the reasoning goes, and then it can be defeated.
"You're being rendered down into pure text in the digestive system of a comic book," Ultra Comics tells the unscary thing. "And the thing about text? Text is vulnerable to criticism."
Throughout we can see the critics' words, perhaps the words of that comicbook critic from the opening pages of this series: "The big bad is an egg?! An evil egg! That's it, I'm out." And I think for a bit that the critics' words will have power. I should have known that was too good to be true.
The evil bat-winged egg is not impressed.
"The oblivion machine eats yur precious mortal hours" it tell us. "Grows fat on yur wasted time."
And then it hits me. That's what's supposed to scare me? That's the great evil? Comicbooks? The oblivion machine is comicbooks?
All the time we've wasted reading these comicbooks – that's how the evil gets us, that's how it breaks through? Readers and writers and artists and critics – we're all already trapped in the oblivion machine?
I wonder if Morrison is doing this on purpose. If wonder if his goal all along was to write a comicbook so ponderously self-aware that its very presence will bring the art-form, the industry, to an end. I wonder if he is laughing at us for wasting our time and our energy and our money on something like this.
Of course, there is nothing really radical or new about criticism of comics from within. It's been done before and it's been done better. And, usually, when done better it is also done with a smile. Harvey Kurtzman, Steve Gerber and, yes, Grant Morrison, at other times and in other books, readily come to mind.
But this reads more like philosophy than like satire. And maybe it is meant to be a philosophical trick, like Wittgenstein's, who wrote philosophy in order to dissolve philosophical problems and make philosophy finally go away.
But what makes for good philosophy can make for a bad comicbook.
And, all things considered, this is a bad comicbook.
And, with that, this critic has done his bit to save the world from this awful menace. You can thank me later.