A Job for Superman: On Multiversity, Convergence and These Precious Mortal Hours

Think back a few weeks, to the hopefulness that came with Convergence #0 around Free Comic Book Day, and the shudder that came from reading The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 just before, and this will all make sense.

“In every timeline, it always ends with you.” That’s what Brainiac/Telos tells Superman in the pages of Convergence #0, the kick-off to DC’s 2015 summer crossover event.

This is only partly true. It always ends with Superman, but it always begins with him, as well.

When he first appeared he was in motion, a man of action. He was pushing off with one foot, the other foot in mid-stride. Over his head he held a car, he was hurling it into an embankment. People scattered; one fled while holding his head in his hands. Everything else–dark knights and fantastic fours, avengers and justice leagues–they all started here.

It always begins with Superman.

That’s how it began for me. George Reeves on the television screen; Christopher Reeve on the silver screen. Curt Swan’s Superman in the pages of DC Comics was clean cut, straight as an arrow, irreproachable. He battled Lex Luthor; he raced the Flash to a tie; he saved the world; and he did it all while posing as Clark Kent and reading the nightly news on WGBS-TV.

And then in 1985, just as I was graduating from high school, Marv Wolfman and George Perez gave us Crisis on Infinite Earths and changed it all. The DC Universe that I had grown up with was transformed, and Superman along with it.

When Alan Moore teamed with Curt Swan to bid goodbye to the Silver Age Superman (and to the Action Comics and Superman magazines in which he had appeared for so long), it was truly the end of an era. Their “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is one of the best Superman stories ever produced. It’s a difficult story, with challenges tougher and darker than any this Superman had faced before. But it ended happily, with a wink and a smile. As far as I am concerned that was the last real Superman story. It marked the end of an era. Looking back now, I realize that it also marked the end of my childhood.

But, of course, that’s what Brainiac was trying to tell Superman. “In every timeline, it always ends with you.”

From Convergence #0

So, with my youth long gone and 30-years of Superman comicbooks under our collective belts since that sad goodbye way back when, I now find myself immersed in Grant Morrison’s mostly fabulous series The Multiversity. I say “mostly fabulous” because I’ve been having such a hard time with the eighth and penultimate chapter: Ultra Comics.

Ultra Comics begins with a return to the beginning. The hero–the self-aware comicbook who is itself represented in the pages of that comicbook as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed character dressed in blue and red and gold–has fled from the end of the book back to the beginning to greet the readers on the splash page. He greets us with a warning and with an explanation.

First, the warning: “I’m from 24 hours and 38 pages in your future, and the ultimate enemy is on my tail so I can’t stay here long. Listen to me!”

Then, the explanation for his sudden appearance and the part that really gets my attention: “My youth has been restored by returning to the beginning, as I’d hoped.”

The gimmick here is pretty complicated, even for Grant Morrison. Ultra Comics is the character in the pages of the comicbook, the superhero in red and blue and gold. Ultra Comics is also, of course, the comicbook itself, a comicbook that was created to be alive and to battle the threat of the invading gentry that have already brought devastation to world after world. But there is more, for, in the act of reading Ultra Comics, the many thousands of minds, in different times and places, are united into one living organism. We all become Ultra Comics.

“Our superhero is real,” a man in a business suit tells us. “How do we know he’s real? Because he’s you…”

And everybody is acting like this is some new thing, a novel breakthrough on the part of Morrison, the first truly interactive comicbook, the first time that the act of reading brings the hero to life. But this isn’t new.

In good comicbooks, this happens all the time.

Captain America helped to lead a nation in the war against the Nazi menace; Captain Marvel, Jr. taught us that it is possible to find strength even in the midst of adversity; Green Lantern and Green Arrow journeyed across the United States to show us how to stand on the side of justice in the real world of prejudice and fear; Spider-Man showed us how to face our grief with dignity and treat our gifts responsibly; Wonder Woman taught us the ways of peace in a world always at war; and Superman, Superman taught us to be brave, to be true, to be kind, to be strong.

From Convergence #0

We read these tales, we follow these heroes, we fold back the pulp pages of these comicbooks, and we take something of them with us. We become better people. We learn to stand up for what is right. We find courage to face injustice.

We become heroes, too.

So the conceit of Ultra Comics/Ultra Comics is not new. And, indeed, this story fails at its self-described mission where so many others have succeeded because this character, finally, is no hero. He is no hero because he has no history. He springs whole cloth from the minds of the memesmith who designed him.

In this he is like so many other characters that have peopled Morrision’s Multiversity, characters that are sampled and blended from the history of DC Comics (and from Marvel Comics, too) but given no deep story, no origins, no lessons learned, no battles fought. They wear cleverly designed costumes, spout cleverly written dialogue, sport cleverly conceived superpowers, answer to cleverly coined names. But they have no history. They are just memes from the mind of the mememsith.

When it dawns on Ultra Comics that he is not really alive but only ink on paper, when Ultra begins to ponder the existential dilemma at the core of his being, the also-not-really-alive men in labcoats are gleeful. “Maximum rapport achieved!” they proclaim. “Emotional bond secure!”

As if it was that easy to turn ink and paper into a hero, as if one panel of questioning, one close-up of blue eyes and furrowed brow, is enough to make Ultra Comics into Superman. You can’t do that in one panel. And 24 hours and 38 pages isn’t nearly long enough, either.

For that you need years–decades; you need reams–volumes.

As he stands, Ultra is a figure without a myth, an archetype without a story, without a narrative, without a journey to the heart of the world on a mission of salvation. A meme, maybe, but not a hero; an archetype, but not a God.

From The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1

The stories of The Multiversity are, in this sense, like the heroes. We are thrown right into the middle of them. Characters and contexts are, like Ultra Comics, born fully formed. Morrison is so talented a writer that I want to read the back issues, dig through a long box to discover what I have missed, turn back the pages of the holy book to uncover the mystery at the heart of these stories. But, of course, there is nothing missing. The long box is empty. This is all there is. A story in fragments.

And lately, that is how much of the DC Comics story has felt to me. Like a story in fragments. A meme that wants to be a myth. At least the post-Crisis universe was born through a story, struggled into the light in a narrative big and bold. I might still long for the return of the real Superman, but I know that his passing was for a purpose, the narrative universe it brought to life was, in many ways, richer and more vibrant than the one that was put to rest. And even though the characters may not have remembered who they had been before, may not have remembered all that they had lost along the way, we readers remembered, we readers knew.

The New 52 always seemed like new for the sake of the new, like too little was asked of us and too little given. But maybe this perception is my own subjective response. I was younger then, after all, when Flash and Supergirl gave their lives. I was younger and the world was younger. We had never seen anything like that before, anything so brave and bold. Now, of course, we see it every summer. No crisis is ever final.

And so, part of me understands the words of the bat-winged thing in the pages of The Multiversity, the bat that signals darkness and fear instead of hope and courage. Since the Crisis and the Dark Knights return, this dark bat has ruled over everything, casting a shadow even upon Superman, a shadow that changed his own colors of blue and red and gold, first into the equally bright but finally cartoonish colors of the American flag and then into ever darker shades of gray.

From The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1

And that’s what brought them here, Morrison’s Gentry tell us. “We Gentry were drawn to the carrion reek of your dreams. Where once were palaces and spaceships only charnel houses and brothels remained. Impoverished.”

Impoverished, indeed.

And the bat-thing, dark and serious, mature and gritty, tells the truth: “The oblivion machine eats yur precious mortal hours. Grows fat on your wasted time. Absorbed in its picture show. Yu grow old.”

And though Ultra’s power, the power of the eternal return, sends him, and us, back to the beginning, as it turns out, back to the beginning is not far enough.

Ultra Comics can’t save the world from the threat of the gentry, and Ultra Comics can’t save us from the oblivion machine. Ultra Comics has no history other than programmed “superhero behavioral codes — golden age to modern inclusive” and endless references, every one more obscure and less important than the last.

Ultra Comics #1 can’t save us. For that we need Action Comics #1, for that we need Superman.

But not the Superman of Convergence #0. He’s all gritty and real, unsure of himself and his place in the world, too ready to strike out with his fist when what he needs to do is talk, when what he needs to do is think this thing through.

In Convergence all of the DC past is on display: pre-Crisis 30th Century Metropolis, Bizarro World, the Bottle City of Kandor, Fawcett City of the original Captain Marvel, pre-Crisis Gotham City, pre-Crisis Metropolis. Brainiac has bottled them all, trapped them under domes and orchestrated a grand and senseless battle. A real spectacle is coming our way.

And this metaphor is just too rich to ignore.

All that history locked away; all those stories under lock and key; all those characters off-limits for storytelling, for world-saving, for fun and adventure. Except when approved from above; except when carefully vetted and planned; except when a summer cross-over event is required to push books and fill the coffers.

But I am hoping for the best with Convergence and Divergence, too. Blue Beetle, the Freedom Fighters, Captain Marvel, the Legion of Superheroes: that all sounds just about right to me. But though I am hoping for the best, I’m afraid that it will all be just a little too much like Ultra Comics for my tastes. References, not characters. Allusions, not adventures. Memes, not mythology. Heroics without the heroes.

All I know is that the DC multiverse is in crisis again, and I don’t have that many more of these precious mortal hours to waste.

If you ask me, this looks like a job for Superman.