Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 Review (Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely)


The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 was built for comics criticism (and that’s just what it’ll do!). 

This is the kind of issue where you can really - and I mean REALLY - go page by page and completely drown yourself in praise; it is, on a technical and visual level, arguably the best single issue of the year and the standalone reason why anyone was excited about The Multiversity at all. 

It’s also another feather in the cap for Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, a creative team who can’t seem to make something together that’s bad. All-Star Superman, WE3, Batman & Robin, and now Pax Americana - a special kind of magic happens when these two join forces, and it happens in this issue once more. 

Alright, what am I talking about? It’s Earth-4 and the President has been assassinated by a superhero. Backwards. This entire issue is also using Watchmen pieces to tell a new story about saving the world. 

Watchmen? Yeah. Morrison and Quitely make no bones about where a lot of this issue comes from. And it’s a fun time, playing “spot the Watchmen” reference. The panels of the first page are laid out in the same way as the first page of Watchmen, there’s the zoom in close up of the blood trickling down onto a circular symbol. 

There’s the Comedian facsimile, the Dr Manhattan type who does the thing where he deconstructs something and puts it back together again, and now he’s in the chamber where he gets his powers! There’s Silk Spectre and Sally Jupiter talking to one another, there’s Rorshach, there’s Nite Owl, etc. etc. Obviously they’re not actually those characters but they are riffs on them. 

Morrison is at his most cerebrally playful, structuring his saving the world storyline backwards and forwards, jumping about in time, having three different storylines playing at the same time across two pages, throwing in seeming non-sequiturs and inviting the reader to figure out the mystery of the Yellowjacket case - the pieces are all apparently there, just jumbled up and out of order. Or are they? Is Morrison just asking us to construct our own story, our own conspiracy with the details, or to figure out his? Is it a commentary on conspiracies - are we complicit in a conspiracy of our making? 

And Frank Quitely - well, remember I said “drowning in praise”? I‘ll try not to go too overboard here but I will say that this issue is Quitely’s claim to being his generation’s best comic book artist and possibly the most exciting one working today. I saw a BBC documentary on Quitely fairly recently and it’s apparent how dedicated he is to comics - he isn’t the swiftest draughtsman but that’s because of how much he wants the finished article to be the best it can be. 

He also talked about other job offers he’d had, like becoming a games designer and making scads more cash that way. But he declined to work on comics. That single-minded dedication to his chosen medium is why you get comics like Pax Americana and why this issue is going to be appearing on a lot of “Best of the Year” lists very soon. He’s just incredible and Morrison seems to bring out the best in him, and vice versa. 

But I’m not completely in love with this comic - what’s holding me back? It comes down to emotional impact, in that this comic has none, and, because it basically structures itself around having one. It’s why I said it’s technically and visually accomplished, but only that. 

The story’s goal is too abstract and corny for me to really connect with: saving the world. Eh. And the characters really aren’t there - you’re too busy thinking about their more famous doubles in Watchmen the whole time you’re seeing them. 

There’s also the re-emergence of Morrison’s ideas about time and superheroes, and quite a bit of the comic felt like The Invisibles, like when Peacemaker’s tied to the chair with the trippy backdrop, the idea of violence as a means to peace, and subversive groups going up against The Man. So a lot of the themes felt recycled from past Morrison works. And, like all of the issues in Multiversity so far, you’re left wondering how this all fits together and why Morrison didn’t just opt for a series of standalone issues instead of a loosely related narrative. 

Here’s my biggest problem with this issue: for all its accomplishment, at its core, the comic doesn’t say anything profound or meaningful at all. 

This issue made me realise that if I had to choose between a comic with heart and a comic with brains, I’d choose heart every time. Though I’d prefer to have both, and I did enjoy having my brain tickled with all the little bits and pieces that make up this Rubik’s cube of a comic, my favourite comics - my favourite art - move me, for better or worse, and this one doesn’t. This comic doesn’t have a pulse - it’s cold and calculated like an equation.

Don’t take that as an anti-recommendation, or a dismissal of the comic as a whole - this comic is absolutely worth reading. I stayed away from specific details not just because there isn’t enough space to write about how much awesomeness there is in this issue - I fully expect a mammoth essay and/or short book on this comic alone sometime in the future - but because I couldn’t do them justice describing, or posting an image, of them here and I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience either. 

Read the issue for yourself - it’s totally worth experiencing this strange superhero mystery firsthand. Pax Americana is easily the best part of The Multiversity yet and one of the best put-together comics of the year that’ll have you flipping back and forth re-reading parts to figure out what’s going on, like any good puzzle will; but, like a puzzle, once you’ve completed it, you go to the next, unmoved.

The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1

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