“We believe in Ultra Comics. And we demand a happy ending!”
Red Riding Hood
Michael: “The Tinkerbell effect,” born from the stage play of Peter Pan, where Pan encourages the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies to save the dying Tinkerbell. That is, if you believe in something, it exists. Grant Morrison thrives on the philosophy of this idea and the power that we as an audience/society give to it. The Multiversity: Ultra Comics 1 takes this theme and runs with it, transforming the act of reading a comic book into an interactive, cross-reality adventure.
The Multiversity: Ultra Comics 1 opens with our hero — also named Ultra Comics — who has travelled back in time from the end of the issue to warn us of the impending attack on Earth Prime and enlist our help. We then are taken out of the issue to a man in a suit who explains the nature of this particular comic book and takes us to a lab where he (re)introduces us to the “cybernetic comic book” Ultra Comics. As the readers, we link minds with Ultra in order to give him the power to embark on his quest. He enters a time-displaced New York City wasteland as the man in the suit informs us that we all have been lead into a trap. After rescuing a girl from a mutated Justice League, Ultra meets “The Neighborhood Guard” and “The Elders.” After helping them, he is subdued and tortured before he is attacked by a version of the pre-Crisis character Ultraa, who is using them all to return to his home world. The man in the suit reveals himself to be the bat-winged Intellectron of The Gentry. The Gentry used Ultra — who is connected to our collective minds via his “Ultragem” — to get to us; to feed on us. Ultra is near-defeated until he disappears (travelling back to the first page of the issue) and returns for round 2 with Intellectron. After he tries to use The Gentry’s meta-fiction attack against them and fails, Ultra realizes that he is no match for them. As he is broken down and absorbed into The Gentry, he tells us the only way to defeat them is to “close the door” and stop reading the issue.
Woo doggy, this issue is just as dense The Multiversity: Pax Americana 1 (maybe more so); it took me a couple read-throughs before I could grasp what Mr. Morrison was trying to lay down for us. We finally get a chance to see the “haunted comic” that Nix Uotan was vivisecting back in The Multiversity 1, filling in a couple of blanks from that issue in the process. By reading The Multiversity: Ultra Comics 1, we activate the Ultragem and join in a sort of “collective consciousness” with other readers across time and space. These readers include Nix Uotan and the “Cosmic Cosmos Forum” from The Multiversity 1, whose critiquing captions return in this issue. We are reminded by Ultra as well as Intellectron that we can choose to continue reading the story or not. We are essential and active participants in the story, because if we choose not to engage in the story, the story doesn’t happen.
The Gentry have been alluded to in several issues, but this is the first time we actually see one of them since the series’ debut. And while we’ve had hints at their ultimate plan of attack, Intellectron gives us a better understanding during his battle with Ultra.
He says that The Gentry was attracted to “the carrion of your dreams,” and how those dreams have become “charnel houses and brothels,” which apparently is a nice breeding ground for them. Morrison is saying that our society has lost its imagination and its drive to dream. I don’t think he means to be preachy necessarily, but it’s hard to argue with him in regards to the low-grade forms of entertainment we engage in and the various “toys and games” we distract ourselves with. I initially read that dialogue as a critique on America, but maybe it could also be applied to the current state of comics? Shitting on the industry and saying that there are no more good ideas is more of Alan Moore’s shtick, but I could see the merits of this argument as well. Whichever it is, I really dig the idea that we were once a world of idealists but we’ve let ourselves slip and are afraid to dream big.
There are so many pages in this book that I’d like to vivisect myself, but I’ll just choose one more before I pass the torch to Drew. The man in the suit gives us a quasi-informational video on Ultra Comics’ abilities. Barring a few darker shades of blue in the background, the only colors that Steve Wands provides for the scene are those that are being infused to Ultra: red, blue and yellow (the primary colors) as well as black. Shortly after, Ultra inputs his “Superhero Behavioral Codes — Golden Age to Modern inclusive.” We see a vignette of Ultra in the different comic book eras (Crisis dead Supergirl reference!) I think that each color being infused to Ultra is indicative of a particular era, with the Modern Era being black. Also, despite being a true superhero, Ultra reveals himself to be kind of a morally ambivalent figure, perhaps due to the fact that he’s being hit with so many conflicting ideologies from all of comic book history.
Ok, there are so many other things to touch upon. Drew, feel free to comment on Hostile Independent Thoughtforms, the oblivion machine and/or when Ultra was being judged by the likes of Hitler, Nero, Darkseid and Satan. Did you spot that Kryptonian graffiti on that New York billboard??
Drew: Actually, Michael, I want to flip back to your read of the colors infusing Ultra Comics — I was so distracted by Morrison’s literal meaning that I entirely missed the symbolism. To my eye, the significance of those colors — which I might describe as cyan, magenta, yellow, and key — are that they’re the colors of ink used in printing. Morrison actually immediately follows that shot with a reminder that Ultra Comics somehow is the comic book in our hands.
He’s made of paper and staples! That is, until he’s given the Ultragem — the physical embodiment of imagination that actually gives him his powers. With the addition of that element — the element we bring by reading this comic — Ultra Comics becomes something more than a few glossy pages held together by staples: he becomes an idea.
In that way, Ultra Comics represents a kind of relationship between a comic and its audience, one that’s founded on respect. The comic absolutely respects its audience, acknowledging that the act of reading (and imagining) is the most important part of the process; and the audience respects the comic, going along for the ride, even as it takes some unexpected turns. Of course, it’s that very respect that comes under fire in this issue, as the Cosmic Cosmos Forum dismisses the story as “pretentious” and “retreading the same tired themes,” and the Elders use their “apathy ray” to subdue Ultra Comics.
Meanwhile, the Gentry represent a decidedly different relationship between a comic and its audience. Back when we were discussing The Multiversity 1, I posited that the ever-consuming Gentry might represent cynical comic reviewers, but I’ll expand that now to include any readers that don’t respect the comics they’re reading. They don’t see comics as a collaboration between creators and audience, but instead see the comics themselves as acting in service of their entertainment. In that paradigm, comics aren’t an escape, but a prison. Morrison is unequivocal in his prescription for fighting that kind of attitude: don’t feed the trolls.
It’s telling that in the world where comics are consumed rather than collaborated with (I love that the Elders are just straight-up cannibals), the DC Pantheon has “zee-volved” into horrible monsters.
Curiously, Ultra’s solution isn’t to work with these creatures or to change them back, but to destroy them. Maybe Morrison is advocating for a scorched-earth approach to growth, after all.
Oh! Speaking of: I definitely think your reading of what the Gentry is saying is spot-on, Michael, but I’m not as certain that that opinion is necessarily representative of Morrison’s views. If anything, those opinions are presented as horrible and monstrous, and they creep in early enough that I’m not entirely sure how to interpret moments like the one I included above. Like any art that respects its audience’s contributions, this comic supports TONS of interpretations, depending on what we bring to them. For all the meta-textual wankiness, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate the audience.
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?