Mark: Alan Moore’s Watchmen is regularly heralded as the finest work ever produced in the medium of comics, but it wasn’t born in a vacuum. Moore’s original pitch was to use heroes from DC Comics’ then recent acquisition of certain Charlton Comics characters like Peacemaker, Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and The Question. In the end DC had other plans for their new IP, but Moore used those heroes as the frameworks for his invented characters. Now, almost 20 years later, the all-star team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely flip Moore’s original vision on its head in The Multiversity: Pax Americana 1. On Earth-4, Peacemaker is our The Comedian, The Question takes on characteristics of Rorschach, Captain Atom those of Doctor Manhattan, and Blue Beetle reflects Nite Owl. If Watchmen is a snake eating it’s own tail, Pax Americana is the tail biting back just a bit.
The Multiversity: Pax Americana is a dense, almost overwhelming issue. An entire series’ worth of narrative, world building, and character work is packed into just under 40 pages. When Peacemaker assassinates the President of the United States, we’re thrown into the rise, politics, and possible dissolution of America’s peacekeeping force, Pax Americana.
The hat tips to Watchmen are prevalent and numerous from The Question’s murder investigation to the motif of a bloodstained dove taking the place of the bloodstained happy face. Still, Pax Americana is not simply a critique of Watchmen. If Watchmen is a commentary on the contemporary comics and politics of the 1980s, Pax Americana is a comic for a post-Watchmen world.
The attack on the World Trade Center and the fall of the Twin Towers is referenced multiple times throughout the issue. When Watchmen was released, the United States was still recovering from its last major military conflict in the Vietnam War. Since 9/11 the United States has been involved in a seemingly never-ending mire of wars. Even when we think we’ve extricated ourselves from Iraq or Afghanistan, the mistakes of the past continue to haunt us. As the ghost of Vietnam informs Watchmen, America’s post-9/11 wars inform Pax Americana.
The issue is a little disorienting, as the story is told non-linerally. From the very beginning time is in play, as we experience Peacemaker’s assassination of President Harley in reverse. The second page in particular takes us from the bloody aftermath of the bullet’s destruction to the moment just before impact. Quitely’s hyper-realistic rendering of Harley’s viscera and teeth exploding onto his necktie makes a terrifying first impression.
The rest of the issue is comprised of vignettes from these character’s lives. In one of many meta-contextual moments, the reader is viewing time in this comic book as Captain Atom does.
There are a lot of plot threads introduced in this issue, and almost all of them lack resolution. The Question’s investigation into the murder of scientist Nora O’Rourke, Peacemaker’s motivation for assassinating the president, a mysterious algorithm, the fate of Nightshade and the superheroes in general. In the end, the plot and story are unimportant. Morrison pulls an interesting bait-and-switch to bookend the issue. It begins with the assassination of President Harley as the inciting incident, and ends with another: young Harley accidentally shooting the superhero Yellow Jacket, revealed to be his Dad returning home. Emotionally this feels like a satisfying conclusion, but it’s really just another thread in a never-completed narrative.
Fittingly, Quitely’s art is all about symmetry. Most pages are broken into an eight panel layout, continuing the motif of eight/the infinity symbol throughout the issue. The layout is also used to heighten the presence of Janus, the Roman god looking to both the future and the past, featured prominently in the story. A bust of Janus is even used as a murder weapon.
The amount of detail and thought that went into this issue is readily apparent. Colorist Nathan Fairbairn talks a little bit about the coloring process on his Tumblr, and after reading his thoughts I can appreciate why The Multiversity is only eight issues in total.
Ryan, I feel like I’ve barely touched on everything this issue has to say and offer. Were you as overwhelmed as me?
Ryan: Mark! Brilliant job pointing out how Morrison and Quitely successfully used the idea of Janus both thematically and artistically. One particular aspect of the Janus duality that struck me while I was desperately trying to not let this comic beat me into submission is the influence in this issue of East vs. West.
One of these disparities comes in the form of the Governor/President Harley’s “ultimate algorithm”. Harley discusses the “ordering principal underneath the crazy quilt” with an unbalanced and supra-infra-dimensional Captain Atom, which Harley, then aged 23, apparently discovered at the graveside of his father. Pages later when we see this event way back when, however, we notice that Harley had help, seemingly in the form of Captain Atom himself, specifically:
This simple phrase helping Harley to his vision reminds me very directly of the Zen Buddhist kōan. Kōans are stories, dialogues, questions, or statements designed to provide “great doubt” in the name of attaining higher levels of wisdom (prajna). “The door has one side and opens both ways” invokes classic kōans such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Meditating upon one of these, while in a place of mental calmness, ideally leads one to contemplation and enlightenment, and ultimately kenshō (sight) and satori (awakening). Harley experienced an almost Buddhist revelation in the form of the algorithm:
Contrary to the Buddhist way, it seems as if Harley used this enlightenment for, at the worst nefarious, at best self-serving means to “predict events — long-term behavior in the stock market. The rise and fall of styles in fashion. Politics.”
Going back to the theme of Janus, one of the keys to parsing through a kōan is eliminating the idea of non-duality: the one side of the door and the both ways it opens are all in the same. Thus one must learn to un-ask the question; the concept of mu. This concept of mu — and thanks for sticking with me this far because this will pay off, I promise — is also used by…mathematical philosopher Kurt Gödel! Gödel, unlike the unifying algorithm found by Harley, showed that there could be — as far as we know yet — no complete set of axioms for the entirety of mathematics, and used the Buddhist concept of mu to do so. By simply joining the idea of reaching an intellectual epiphany in a manner eerily reminiscent of a zen kōan with that of the mathematical equation, Morrison seamlessly evokes even further the artistic and thematic use of Janus.
I have never read a comic trying to do as many things as Pax Americana. In fact, I felt this comic mocking me as I tried reading it for the purpose of reviewing it. If you find that my thoughts regarding this comic were a bit on the esoteric side, than you are correct; I had no choice but to focus on specificities when there is SO MUCH GOING ON here. Morrison and Quitely split the narrative chronologically, employ incredible visual metaphors and allusions, introduce complex new characters, challenge the purpose of the super hero, question America’s role as “world police”, and play different tropes of traditional East vs. West together. Like after viewing the first episode of Lost, the audience receives a bevy of questions which will hopefully be answered soon, or comic book reviewers around the world may find themselves with no hair left to rip out.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?