Today, Mark and Michael are discussing The Multiversity: Mastermen 1, originally released February 18th, 2015.
Mark: As far as I know, Grant Morrison has no plans to retire from comics anytime soon, but it’s hard for me to not view The Multiversity as the culmination of Morrison’s work at DC. Maybe comic books in general. It’s an opportunity to play in all of the sandboxes he’s ever wanted to play in. If The Multiversity: Pax Americana 1 was Morrison doing Watchmen, The Multiversity: Mastermen 1 reads like Morrison’s take on Mark Millar’s famous Superman: Red Son. Where that book imagined a universe in which Kal-El’s escape ship crashes in the USSR instead of America’s heartland, Mastermen takes place on Earth-10 where events unfold much like on our Earth until an alien spacecraft lands in Nazi Germany in 1939. Inside that spacecraft is a small child who grows to become Overman, a Superman analog and the key to the Nazi’s world domination.
The bulk of Mastermen takes place in 2016, many generations after the war’s end. On Earth-10, the idea of a seemingly perfect Aryan master race has been made reality. For most, the sins of past generations are considered justified, but are somewhat of a national embarrassment. The perfect order is protected by The New Reichsmen, a Justice League-like organization consisting of Earth-10 perversions of our favorite heroes. Lightning, Overgirl, Brunnhilde, Underwaterman, and Leatherwing are Flash, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Batman respectively.
Only Overman lived through the war, and though he was once confident in the righteousness of his cause, having an eternity to consider his actions has left him with doubts. These doubts are exacerbated and brought to a boil when a small group of Freedom Fighters, led by a man using the visage of Uncle Sam, rises up to fight against the Nazi establishment. Overman is ultimately complicit in the fight against the Nazis when he does not prevent the Freedom Fighters from blowing up The New Reichsmen’s orbiting satellite headquarters, which crashes to Earth and destroys Metropolis.
All of Mastermen 1 is presented as the first issue in a much larger story arc. It’s implied through Jurgen Olsen’s inner monologue that the Freedom Fighters are ultimately unsuccessful and that Overman is ruined, but we don’t see that here. This slice of story is about the redemption of Overman.
Overman is not Superman. The issue opens with Hitler reading a Superman comic book on the toilet so when Nazi scientists recover an alien baby, we know it’s not Kal-El (he’s fictitious, after all). It’s an interesting distinction because I tend to think of the different Earths of the Multiverse as alternate histories of DC heroes. But here Morrison seems to be going out of his way to say that’s not the case. The Overman of Earth-10 is not an alternate version of the Superman we know, merely a very close analog. Leatherwing is not Nazi Bruce Wayne, just someone very similar. Why the distinction? I wonder if it’s because someone at DC got a little squeamish at the idea of their superheroes being associated too closely with the greatest villains of the 20th century.
I mentioned that Mastermen 1 is the story of Overman’s redemption, but I wonder if the issue is really written that way or if that’s how it reads with the benefit of context and history. This is truly meta, but as citizens of Earth we know that the Nazi’s were violently wrong and so we are sympathetic to Overman and the Freedom Fighters. But if we’re reading Mastermen 1 as if it was a comic published on Earth-10, the context is very different. Suddenly the actions of the Freedom Fighters are much more sinister. They earn the label given to them in the issue: “terrorists.”
Overall, Mastermen furthers The Multiversity‘s running theme of comic books as dangerous contraband. Comic books are among the books burned by Nazi stormtroopers, and Uncle Sam is shown defiantly concealing issues of Superman in his overcoat. And throughout the issue, Jim Lee’s art pays homage to iconic tentpoles of American pop culture. As far as I can tell the issue of Superman Hitler is reading in the beginning doesn’t actually exist, but the cover is very reminiscent of Captain America Comics 1, Overman’s recurring nightmare about the death of Overgirl is straight from Crisis on Infinite Earths 7, and even the Dr. Sivana of Earth-10 is the spitting image of sadistic Nazi Arnold Ernst Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Speaking of Dr. Sivana, what to make of him, ostensibly The Multiversity‘s big bad, helping Uncle Sam create the Freedom Fighters, ostensibly Earth-10’s heroes? We know that Sivana’s motives are less than pure, but it’s an interesting extension of Mastermen‘s mirroring of good and evil.
There’s so much going on here, and I feel like I’ve barely touched on anything. Going back to Jim Lee for a second, what to make of the fact that his sole contribution to The Multiversity comes is this issue? Anything at all? Or is there something to be drawn from the history of Superman’s creation by the children of Jewish immigrants? And what about potential parallels with America’s own embarrassing past? Slavery, Japanese internment camps, controversial involvement in the Middle East, etc. Michael, did any of that stand out to you? Or am I reading tea leaves in search of something that isn’t there?
Michael: Mark, this issue is definitely Morrison’s Red Son in the way that “Pax Americana” was Watchmen. Where Pax Americana was overloaded with story and in a way rivaled Watchmen, The Multiversity: The Mastermen 1 reads more like a prologue. The last caption of the issue even reads “That day was only the beginning.” Not that any of the issues so far have given us a complete story from beginning to end, but it was a little disappointing that Mastermen ended just when it felt like it was picking up steam.
The characters of this book are all American characters; even if they are drawn in Nazi colors, they all stem from our American DC Comics. With that in mind it’s certainly intentional that Morrison paints a picture of a Nazi-dominated future that has hints of America’s more shameful past. The world is a “virtual paradise,” but Overman can’t outrun the past no matter how hard he tries. History is written by the victors, but dealing with ethnic cleansing and ideological purges are blemishes that can tarnish even the most spotless of careers. It’s 2015 and America is still living in a world that is deeply affected by racial inequality. America would probably love to push the clock forward hundreds of years into the future so we could be that much further away from the horrors of slavery and forcing the Native Americans off of their own land. The totalitarian state of the Nazi-controlled world is also nightmare version of America, if our “world-policing” goes unchecked. The Freedom Fighters are symbolic of the people in the Middle-East who don’t necessarily want America’s “help.”
To your point about Overman’s identity: I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Overman is this universe’s Kal-El, necessarily. Sure, Hitler is reading a Superman comic book, but I don’t think this is intentionally placed in Mastermen to assure us (or DC) that this is not the Superman we all know and love. Instead, I think that Morrison had Hitler reading that Superman issue to once again emphasize the power of an idea, and the bastardization of one, too. In the context of Mastermen, Overman’s costume is designed from what Hitler read in the comic, with a little Nazi flair thrown in as well. It is interesting that Hitler’s ultimate weapon stemmed from the imagination of two Jewish immigrants, which in a way parallels the claims that many have made that Hitler’s ancestors were Jewish. Whether or not that is true, Hitler has the power to hide all proof of Superman’s existence by burning all comic books. Though Overman falls in line with Nietzsche’s idea of “the superman,” he is not Hitler’s Aryan dream; he’s not even from this planet. It’s not directly addressed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitler brushed Overman’s alien origins under the rug. Overman is a nice symbol of the hypocrisy that Hitler and power-hungry men like Hitler engage in: making sweeping statements and agendas but allowing themselves allowances when it suits them. I’m kind of surprised Hitler didn’t dye Overman’s hair blonde. Also, let’s not forget that this is The Multiversity, and comic books are the way that different universes communicate with each other. If you want to see the “danger” of comic books, look no further to Adolf Hitler reading Superman on the crapper.
Alternate versions of the heroes we know are always fun for comic book fans to witness; especially if the writer changes the character while successfully maintaining the basic structure that makes them tick. I think that Overman is a great Superman analogue because though he has been fed Nazi doctrine, he still wants the best for people — albeit in a messed up way. Earth-10 sees Overman not with Lois Lane but with Lena (Luthor.) I think that’s a wonderful statement that Morrison is making about heroes and villains: they need each other. Who would Lex Luthor be without Superman (and vice versa)? Batman and The Joker love each other (differently, mind you), and would not be the characters they are without each other’s influence. Though Lena calls Overman “Karl,” I wonder if Overman has a secret identity like Superman does with Clark Kent. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitler just completely abandoned that — what does the face of Nazi power need a secret identity for? Given that possibility (and the fact that he wasn’t raised by any sort of Kents) I think it’s safe to say that there is an essential missing component from Overman. Many writers have made the argument that Superman needs Clark Kent — Morrison included.
Great ideas and potential are presented in The Multiversity: Mastermen 1, but I think it falls flat compared to previous outings. I mentioned earlier that the story felt like it was just getting started — I would’ve gladly paid the same cover price as The Multiversity Guidebook for additional story (I’d pay $8.99 for every issue of The Multiversity if that was the case.) Pax Americana was so damn dense that it took me multiple reads to wrap my brain around it. Mastermen is a little more simplistic in its execution, maybe in part to Jim Lee’s flashier style. Lee might’ve done more harm than good in this issue to be honest.
I love me some Jim Lee, but he’s slipping a bit; not to mention the fact that he had four separate inkers working on this book. There’s a level of consistency that is lost in Mastermen: the quieter character moments are sacrificed for the epic, bombastic scenes. One thing that had me scratching my head was the choice of the Freedom Fighters to crash “The Eagle’s Nest” on Metropolis. What?? Like, I get it, Metropolis is the home of Superman etc, but what is the significance on Earth-10? Why would that be a devastating blow to Overman? Am I missing something that is Prime-punching me in the face?
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