Today, Mark and Ryan are discussing The Multiversity: Pax Americana 1, originally released November 19th, 2014.
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.
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Okay, that’s it, I’m spending the rest of the day thinking about this issue. You guys come up with some incredible insights — the one-two punch of Janus’ duality and non-duality blew my mind — but I think the most remarkable thing is how varied the discussion already is. You were both drawn to very different elements of the issue, which were both very different from the elements that stood out the most to me. I think that speaks to just how dense this thing really is.
If anyone is interested, I really do intend to dig into analyzing the issue further here in the comments. I’m particularly interested in seing how much the form follows that of Watchmen (I was struck by the symmetry of that double page spread Mark included, and how that may or may not line up with Watchmen‘s famously symmetrical fifth chapter), and how the paneling of each page might reflect that. My initial reaction is that this issue feels very much like a reader’s guide to Watchmen, asserting some very compelling readings on each of the characters. I personally love that kind of postmodernism (especially when this well-done), but I think the issue stands on its own pretty well, too.
I don’t know that I see structural similarities between Pax Americana and Watchmen – there’s symmetry, sure, but like, who doesn’t like symmetry?
I wonder what we’re to do with the additional information about these characters. We’re not actually learning more about “Comedian” or “Rorschach” and the original characters don’t make as much sense without going through Moore’s versions first. I like Mark’s analogy about the Oroborus’ tail biting back, as this whole issue is predicated on the idea that it’s okay for a comic book (or a set of comic book characters) to disappear up its own ass.
After going through and doing a page by page (or chapter, as it may be) comparison, I didn’t find an exact 1:1 correlation, but there are a ton of structural parallels. Both rely on flashbacks to really dig into what makes their characters tick, but there are a ton more specific ones. It opens in the aftermath of the death that insights the whole issue, which is effectively an investigation into what caused that death. That death involves The Muscle, and is still a result of The Genius’ master plan.
Ultimately, it may just be that the scenes in Pax Americana fall in roughly the same order as the ones it parallels in Watchmen. Doctor Manhattan suddenly leaves Earth at the end of chapter 3, we get that symmetrical layout of Ozy defeating his own assassin in the middle of chapter 5, and the flashback to Rorschach grimly allowing a bad guy to slowly die while he looks on happens in chapter 6. Those events are all paralleled in the same order here, which probably means something, right?
I have yet to finish this book. I think I might give it another go this weekend. I was very excited about meta aspect of putting the Watchmen spin on the Charleston characters but what I found myself getting into was a road map of all the ways in which Alan Moore is/was a more interesting comics writer than Grant Morrison. Here Grant is piggybacking on a boatload of Moore ideas (which is very strange considering Moore’s open ridiculing of Morrison) and delivering a book that, in its expanded page count, seems quite boring to me when compared to any given issue of Moore’s book.
The one thing that struck me very clearly was the line “when the towers fell, we sold the dreams of children to fearful adults.” In a sense, that’s what comics have been doing progressively through the decades — getting darker to match the perceived darkening of the times. Moore is particularly guilty of this, taking the more-or-less bubble gum characters from Charleston and putting them under big microscope that has the word VIETNAM stenciled on the side. I like Mark’s observation that Morrison takes another set of hopeless American wars and applies the same principle. It’s not totally clear to me that Morrison makes a value judgement about that darkness (and he stops shy of making reference to any particularly 9/11-centered comics — there’s no Holy Terror, Batman! in the page of Pax Americana, for example).
Also, I think we should all be openly critical of Moore and Morrison. They’re both dudes with ideas that don’t always fit on the page, and aren’t the most digestible. I like reading them both, but sometimes because I know they’re going to be a little bit full of shit.
Well, they both believe in magic, so they’re both extremely full of shit by default. I give Moore a lot more mileage as a genius of comics because he’s the guy that introduced reconciling comics and reality in the first place, he’s one of the only comics writers I know who was great at writing any character he touched (with a master grasp on both Batman and Superman), and there’s an outright readability to every DC story he produced. Morrison exists in a wild teeter between awful/confounding and wonderous. I feel like he has a ton of hangups about Alan Moore and the career-long comparisons between them. In the Moore doc and in various publications there has been just a ton of degradation thrown at Morrison by Moore, ultimately painting him as a creepy obsessor and borderline plageurist; There’s a ton of brilliant work by Morrison out there, so I typically think Moore’s comments aren’t fair, but Morrison’s practically going out of his way to lend credence to that. Moore publicly goes on record stating that he can’t stand the guy, and is also on record as being against DC’s use of Watchmen as a property, and Morrison basically goes out of his way to revive Moore’s Charleston plans and package them as his own. I could abide all that except that the finished book is just a far cry from Watchmen’s iconic charms. This one is just Morrison drowning in excess… “Watchmen is famously dense so let’s have a pissing contest with denseness.” The thing that people always seem to forget about Watchmen is that it’s gripping, and when it’s not entirely occupied with being a terrifying statement about mankind, it also found plenty of time to be funny, introduce a few central characters that we actually enjoy our time with, give us a handful of fun action sequences, and generally just be a great superhero comic. This meta-comic dropped all of the good aspects.
Give it some credit — it also dropped the pirate comic.
Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t Algorithm 8’s true identity revealed by the issue’s end? Harley murdering his father was the first known sin that this world is ready to admit to, and it ignites every action to follow. Harley climbs the political ranks searching for purpose then discovering Atom’s power of reconfiguration/rebirth… or perhaps as he is afloat through all time itself… rewind. It’s the extraordinary déjà vu his abilities forge that let us as the audience know there is a new part of him inside each thing he rebuilds. The dog. Harley. No difference, other than once pieces back together Harley’s idea is forged–Algorithm 8 is to give life back to the idea (and maybe the actual person) of his gunned down father. To me that was Morrison’s big Comedian-esk joke to the entirety of his Earth-4. Everyone is infected by the concept of a greater player in this Algorithm hullabaloo, all spiralling into the issue wonderfully dissected above. But, isn’t that it? There is no grand plan, no magic solution to fix the world, each of us just grasps at moments of our history and wants to desparately change the bad. The heroic mask of our parent drapes useless in front of us, and there is no going back to who they were before. Harley wears that on him forever, just look at the ring. I think that 8 is his totem promise to his father which ends up amounting to nothing.
I felt Morrison tied at least one arc shut here with presenting a misguided enlightenment turned trigger warning in how all the fighting, panic, and war was built upon a foundation of nothing. No deeper meaning than fear. Pax Americana made a hellofa 9/11 commentary because of that.