It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
Doomsday Clock was not a thing.
Rorschach and the Watchmen TV show didn’t exist.
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DC had only made one serious attempt to milk Watchmen and cash-in on it before. And it had bombed, big time. Nobody liked it or cared for it. It was over. They knew it. Everybody did.
And so there was that brief period of time- the quiet calm, the gap between the first big attempt and the next big attempt-wherein it felt like we could perhaps move forward from Watchmen nostalgia. Wherein we could get past it all. And if we were to engage with it, it wouldn’t be literally, by sequelizing it or using characters from it, but rather through the challenges it offered via its formal daring and political critique.
And so let us journey backwards, into that frozen moment, that small gap of time, where the prospect of creators reckoning with Watchmen held a spark of real intrigue.
Welcome to The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1.
A one-shot story utilizing the original Charlton characters upon whom the Watchmen characters were based, constructed for an all new post-Watchmen, post-9/11 world and climate.
Brought to us by the creative team of Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Nathan Fairbairn, and Rob Leigh.
The American President is assassinated.
That’s how it starts.
A familiar image. An infamous image. A bullet to the head of the President in his car.
It is meant to evoke the assassination of John F. Kennedy, whilst the slow playback, with time running backwards, feels like the comics equivalent of the Zapruder Film. Something to be played back over and over, backwards and forwards, to ascertain some sense of meaning. An event of immense importance and endless speculation. A cauldron for conspiracy and madness. A sequence to haunt American consciousness and psyche, like a ghost, playing on endless repeat.
That’s how Pax Americana opens.
And if its title wasn’t a dead giveaway as to what it would be about, the opening certainly is.
This is a book about America. This is a book about ‘American Peace,’ that Pax Americana that succeeded the ‘British Peace’ of Pax Britannica, who felt they were succeeding the ‘Roman Peace’ of Pax Romana. This is a book about a symbol of peace on fire. That is its first image, displayed on the cover itself, in the style of Watchmen. It is about the fundamental nature of ‘Peace’ as understood and administer by Imperiums, whose idea of peace is having the biggest stick in the playground by which to say ‘Obey me, or else.‘
Where Watchmen begins with the assassination of The Comedian by Ozymandias, Pax is the reverse. It begins with Peacemaker, the archetypal inspiration for The Comedian, assassinating President Harley of the United States, who came to power in 2008, following the Bush Administration.
Over the course of the issue we see the life-story of President Harley, following the events that led up to his murder, and we see what follows after his death, moving backwards and forwards all at once. And it’s made clear and evident for us all throughout here that Harley is our Ozymandias-figure of the book (particularly given the rights of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, the Charlton hero who inspired Ozymandias, reverted back to the Creator’s estate in a rare case, thus DC no longer owning him), with the cold capitalist replaced instead by the plotting politician.
This is only one level of reversal and twisting in relation to Watchmen. Pax Americana is a book doing it on numerous levels. From its name alone, derived from the Roman ‘Pax Romana,’ given Watchmen’s title derives from the Roman satires of Juvenal, via the Latin quote Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (translated as ‘Who watches the Watchmen?’)
And where Watchmen uses its iconic 9-panel grid, Pax utilizes a distinct 8-panel grid. If Watchmen had each issue punctuated by quotes on the final panel, with the cover of each issue being the technical ‘first panel,’ then Pax would have its covers be both the first panel and the last panel at once, with the quote on the cover itself:
It’s a book in dialogue with Watchmen, certainly.
It’s a book that feels like it was birthed after the reading of this notable Alan Moore quote:
I got quite distressed that after Watchmen, nobody had taken up the challenge of Watchmen. I’d seen Watchmen, and I thought ‘This is an important comic because of the storytelling devices that we’ve come up with.’ That is the only thing that is important about it. It’s not that it’s a darker view of superheroes. I’d already done Marvelman by that point. That wasn’t the main point. It was just ‘How to tell the story in a way no one’s done it before.’ But the things the rest of the creative community seemed to take from Watchmen, they didn’t take any of the admittedly difficult storytelling techniques.
Indeed, if one were to sit down with the Director’s Cut of the issue, it is pretty much affirmed by the very first page of the script shown there:
But what the script here also reveals to us how it is not just Watchmen. Indeed, the specific mention and invocation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns is revealing, with the book’s 8-panel grid often morphing and breaking into its doubled numerical equivalent of the 16-panel grid, which that book is so iconic for. And beyond that, the notion of the American President and the American Superhero together? That goes right back to TDKR‘s popular usage of Superman and Ronald Reagan together.
But at the same time, Morrison/Quitely’s work here isn’t a piece of 1980’s cold war era fiction, which is what those two were. It is instead a 21st century text of the 2010s, made for a Post-9/11 era, the world of The Authority, The Ultimates, and the MCU. And crucially, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely both had a hand in shaping the landscape, as Morrison is the reason why Mark Millar had a career, was hired on to do The Authority with Frank Quitely, and Morrison is also why Millar ended up doing The Ultimates with Bryan Hitch. And Pax is rooted in that, too:
Here you have a proper ‘cinematic’ sequence by iconic ex-Authority artist Frank Quitely, showcasing a post-9/11 attack on America by Foreign Terrorists who hate the American Empire. And, of course, the all-American superhero out and about to stop it all. It feels so utterly fitting as an encapsulation of The Ultimates, especially given you also have George W. Bush right on-page, just like in The Ultimates.
What does this tell us?
That while Pax wants to take up the challenge of Watchmen, that while it borrows its storytelling tools and techniques and is in direct dialogue with it in doing so, particularly given Moore-Morrison’s long history and relationship, it’s not about Watchmen, per se. And neither is it about TDKR or The Authority or The Ultimates, though it is a comic in that long lineage. It is not so much a comic about comics, as it is a comic utilizing what has come before to be about real things we recognize and deal with.
It’s about America. It’s about the American Empire and their dreams and nightmares. It is about American Peace and Violence, and the nature of that very notion- the Pax Americana.
Because if you actually pay attention to Watchmen or TDKR or The Authority or The Ultimates, that’s also what all of those works are about, too. It is what they are rooted in, with the awareness or reckoning with that being varied. They are all, also, if you squint and take note, British comics works on America. They are the British creators, from the land of the Pax Britannica that was superseded by Pax Americana, reckoning with the nature of The American Empire through the ultimate genre expression of American Power- the American Superhero.
Time has been a career-long obsession for Grant Morrison and their work. In fact, their very first comics story ever, drawn by Morrison, was titled Time Is A Four Letter Word. Their favorite TV show is Doctor Who, and if you let them, they’ll go off about how universes are grown like larvae in time by mercurial hyper-sprites from a higher dimension where time does not exist. It’s how you get much of The Invisibles, and their obsession with time is all over their body of work, from the pages of Batman and Superman to even the very construction of ‘Hypertime.’ Time and Reality are things Morrison is totally taken with.
Frank Quitely is one of our great modern masters of art and sequential storytelling. He is among the best artists still working, and he’s only gotten better and better with time, which feels absurd. He’s an artist of impeccable technical skill and range, who also has big, bold formal ambitions and the vital capacity to fulfill said lofty ambitions. He’s just the best there is at what he does. And what he does is magnificent.
Morrison and Quitely came on up together, over three decades, and they are one of our great iconic duos in comics. Their collaborations ever more ambitious and interesting, with the two wanting to never do anything less than their best.
Time is a recurring interest for both of them, as they are both obsessive formalists. They’re taken with what the medium can do, and pushing it. And time in comics is a curious thing, because it is a form where Time and Space are one and the same. So the manipulation of space is, in effect, manipulation of time. That’s what leads us to one of their chief works in this regard:
Here’s Morrison/Quitely redefining how the presentation of time on page can work in We3. It’s a simple action sequence in which a cat is mowing through a bunch of soldiers, and you’d normally see it laid flat on page, as one single, flowing and continuous image. You’d expect to see one long cinematic shot of action, which depicts time in a traditional way we are used to seeing. But they do not! Instead, they’re forcing us to view and experience the sequence 8 different times via 8 different panels here which ‘divide’ the space and thus ‘divide’ time here. Time is a physical dimension on the page, malleable via manipulation of space. Quitely and Morrison understand this.
Rather than opt for a typical cinematic ‘observer’ perspective like in film, which would be a ‘frontal’ perspective, Quitely/Morrison tilt the panels and emphasize the dimension of Time, with the natural reality as it exists for us in ‘boxes’ and us getting to see the characters move through the space between that reality, from the side, like some being from a higher dimension. The space and dimension of time beyond that which we experience as regular people and thus cannot see. It’s a fascinating perspective and condensation of time from two remarkable creators clearly taken with the subject of time.
Pax is part of this tradition and is their latest effort to date, and perhaps their finest in a formal sense.
But to get into that, let’s take a look at the classical, influential grids that inform the work. Particularly, the 16-panel grid from which the book draws upon while using its 8-panel grid:
The 9 panel grid of Watchmen is a classical grid. It’s a 3×3. It’s three panels in a row, in three tiers. Each breaks down neatly into three beats. Set-Up/Build-Up/Pay-Off. There’s a nice basic quality to the 3×3 of the 9 panel grid. Three panels are the most simple way to tell a story and it’s why so many classic newspaper comic strips are built on it. Now do 3 rows of such panels to create a singular unit- and you have the grid. It’s an easy, controlled way to tell a story that can be read easily by anyone, even those who’ve never a comic before. The 4×4 of the 16 panel grid is somewhat similar but a totally different beast. It adds an extra 4th panel onto every row, and you have an extra 4th tier added at the bottom. That changes things. It gives you structure and a clean way to read it, but in a much different way. It’s a grid and structure that operates off a very different rhythm, which makes a very different sound, than the 9 panel grid.
The 9 panel grid feels minimalist in comparison to the 16 panel grid, rooted in a simplicity and ease, while the 16 panel grid is actively maximalist. It’s an extra panel, an extra row, it’s the traditional grid that pushes things right to the edge, because 5 panels in a single row? You can’t exactly ask an artist to draw a 5×5 grid and structure every page to do a 25 panel grid. That’s ridiculous and absurd, and any artist would yell at you for doing so. It’s a nigh-impossible headache and one that shrinks the panel size down even impossibly more to accommodate the extra panels. It also seriously limits compositional possibilities and strains the artist and the 1-2-3-4-5 rhythm of it just isn’t as natural. 5×5? That just that feels like too much. 4×4 feels like the edge, the limit, the max.
It’s the grid structure that gives you a fully even, internally consistent steady rhythm that at once maximizes the amount of time you have.
When you have 7 extra panels or ‘windows of time’ in every single page compared to the 9 panel grid? You simply just have more time. That’s almost a whole other page’s worth of time without having to need an extra page. It’s a great, efficient usage of page-real estate. It’s the ultimate bang-for-your-buck device to buy you more time. You can do more, and you can put in even more, and let the reader ruminate and linger in it.
It allows you to both ‘speed up’ time by varying the visuals shown in the smaller panels now you have, as opposed to the 3×3 grid, or ‘slow down’ time by repetition of imagery and emphasis. It’s a tool with a lot of power that allows you to ‘break down’ moments and make them last longer. And it’s how Miller is using it here, not to speed up time, which the 4×4 grid allows, but to slow it down. His emphasis and use of deliberate repetition is the reason we have this effect. A moment passing takes longer within this usage of the grid structure and system. Notice the above scene from TDKR wherein Bruce is flashing back, and how well the 16 panel grid works for this slow-motion flashback. It takes a single beat of the parents being shot and makes it last for an eternity, rather like a film reel you can go over endlessly. It really lets you live in a moment and ‘freeze’ time usefully.
But of course, that’s not the only thing TDKR is known for. If anything, the more famous aspects of the book are visuals such as these:
It was an operatic epic, full of glorious splash pages such as these. It was an action comic of great maximalist power, packed to the brim. And against the enormity of these supreme all-powerful American figures, everyone else looks minuscule, tiny, packed into little boxes of four. Arguing petulantly about them, unable to ever truly grasp them or their enormity as puny human figures. It was pure Frank Miller, showcasing primal figures of power, akin to chiseled Greek statues.
But it is also this approach, alongside Watchmen, that helps inspire much of the way the modern militarized superhero of the American Empire exists and has been molded. And even beyond that, there’s a direct lineage from Frank Miller’s work to the 1990’s Image Revolution of Todd McFarlane (Spawn), Jim Lee (Wild.C.A.T.S.), and Rob Liefeld (Youngblood), as they all created all-new militarized superhumans rooted in the Millerian mold as writer/artists. Miller’s work, especially on TDKR, is all over those early Image books. And it’s there, after all, at Image in Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Studios, that the future would be forged by the likes of Bryan Hitch and Frank Quitely. There’s a strong link from TDKR to the modern militarized superhero figure.
Morrison and Quitely understand this. They get that without this:
We don’t get this:
They draw the straight line from the Frank Miller operatic splashes and TDKR approach to the Bryan Hitch Cinematic Comics of the modern era. Particularly when working with Mark Millar (pronounced Miller, like Frank Miller), the sort of more structured, formal gridded thinking goes out the window for the pure primal expression of cinematic spectacle. And Quitely helped that early 2000s Cinematic school of comics along when he did The Authority with Millar as well, which felt like the test run for their much more successful and superior run of The Ultimates with Hitch. That’s how you get those full War-On-Terror era post-9/11 America Reacts comics full of George Bushes, Cap screaming about how the A on his head doesn’t stand for France and more. It’s a straight line from Miller to Millar and Hitch.
All of which leads us to the apotheosis of Pax Americana visually, wherein it does an incredible two-pager like this:
Take a look at that. Really take that in, and consider the above pages and what they’re doing.
They are fascinating.
Quitely has drawn a single cinematic visual, a grand double page-spread of a room, in the vein of Hitch and Quitely classics. It’s one big gigantic spread. But that larger image has then been segmented into a Miller 16-panel grid here, but through the principles of Watchmen’s 9 panel grid. And it’s all to serve one purpose- Time.
Comics is a medium wherein Time and Space are one and the same. They are indivisible and blend together, and it is through the manipulation and ‘division’ of space that we denote and express time. It is, as critic Harry Kassen termed it, a concept that can simply be expressed as Timespace.
Here, we’re seeing one big cinematic setting and place – a room drawn in exquisite detail, but we’re seeing it across three whole different points in time, all at once. In the brightly sunlit panels of the morning, you have Peacemaker and his partner Nora O’Rourke together before he heads off to kill Harley. In the milder glow of night time lighting, we see Nora alone, as she’s reckoning with an intruder who’s broken in, who eventually bludgeons her to death. In the shady panels lit by only by a flashlight, we then see The Question investigating the crime scene some nights later.
And we’re getting all of this at once.
It takes the idea of how a figure like Manhattan with a ‘higher dimensional perspective’ might experience time and translates that visually for the actual reader. And it does this all the while synthesizing many different texts and artists into a singular whole. It’s Moore/Gibbons (Watchmen), it’s Miller (TDKR), it’s Millar/Hitch (Ultimates), it’s Millar/Quitely (Authority), all at once, all blended together into a potently idiosyncratic unified voice of a modern, evolved Morrison/Quitely. It’s a natural evolution of their work and approach on We3, and it’s a fascinating perspective of time, as we’re experiencing it from a ‘higher’ perspective wherein we’re ‘outside’ time, wherein the past, present, and the future are all occurring and happening all at once, and we can go backwards or forwards, however we like.
Notice the many ways and orders by which that spread can be read and experienced to get vastly different experiences of time and perspective, with every panel being the exact same size, none being ‘bigger’ or more important than another. All moments exist at once, like square boxes.
What have you here is almost akin to a beautifully ambitious polyptych, making wonderful use of the way time operates and can be expressed in a visual form like comics.
There’s an entire story being told across these pages and it’s one we could just sit in the loop of forever.
It’s a crystallization of Symmetrical Time, as Morrison terms it, on page.
It’s a different beast from Watchmen. Consider a similar sequence that opens Watchmen following a crime scene investigation:
Here, we’re moving back and forth between two perspectives and times. The first being the present with the investigators at the scene, as we see things alongside them like a companion to their investigation. The second being the flashes of the past in red, taking us back to the actual crime itself, with us seeing things from the perspective of the murderer. They’re very much done as clean contrasts, and there’s very little ‘shared space’ here. We see the sofa and TV from one low angle, and then in the next we cut to a wholly different angle where they’ve fallen over. These are all ‘quick cuts’ as it were, and it’s rooted in minimalism.
But with Pax here? We’re ‘above’ it all, getting to view and experience the entire event, what precedes it, what follows it, at once like the perspective of a god. And while contrast exists via color to denote time, it’s one big grand, shared tapestry of an image. The ‘camera’ isn’t moving on the whole, it’s staying still, unlike in the case of Watchmen. Only the people are moving. And so rather than a ‘quick cut’ method wherein we switch to numerous angles, it’s an intense focused meditation that does not change. It’s like god’s eye, ever watching, ever observing, all-seeing. It forces us to focus and take it all in, to process it slowly and repeatedly, over and over, again and again. We’re made to feel the flow of time, and the pristine ‘minimalism’ of Watchmen is instead replaced by a heightened existential maximalism.
It reflects the works perfectly, especially given Watchmen is a work that is essentially ticking away like a clock, where while Doctor Manhattan can view time all at once, it’s all building like a ticking time bomb to an explosive conclusion that cannot be seen or prevented. That is the nature of it and it’s what the grid serves in its 9-Panel Grid. A very steady, rhythm, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 pattern that is largely minimalist. It starts small on a murder and ends large on an explosive incident.
Pax is not that at all. Pax is not ‘ticking away’ to anything. In fact, the big ‘explosive’ incident isn’t saved for the end, but happens on the very first page, and instead the inciting murder is the small ‘ending’ of the issue, until it’s essentially looping back to that cover image of the peace symbol on fire with the quote. Pax is a firm reversal that disavows any of that steady minimalist ‘build’ or rhythm for a constant overload of experience with time, as the 8/16 Panel Grid slows us down and eternally drags us through a 1-2-3-4 rhythm on each tier, while the book traps us in a loop, with us knowing the ending from the beginning. The grid here serves both the grand scale storytelling and canvas of the ‘cinematic’ comics school and is perfect for action storytelling while also being wonderfully useful for the sharper, slower work playing with work. The maximalism has purpose here.
And while the 3×3 grid of Watchmen has a singular ‘central’ middle image across each tier, notice how the 4×4 grid does not. Watchmen is focused, and it’s affixing you in a moment of time, there’s always a consistent ‘central image’ at each point to focus on, which draws in your eye. But the 4×4 grid? No. It decenters you and the reading experience, depriving you of such a ‘central’ or focused middle panel or image. Everything is much more neatly in order, and you’re ‘pulled out’ from such focusing on any moment in time, which is to say- you’re pulled out of time. You’re pulled into the pattern and rhythm and structure of it all rather than any given, singular moment in each one. You’re caught in this loop, this rhythm, unable to let go.
It’s a comic that wants us to feel what it would be like to actually experience everything everywhere all at once. It’s overwhelming.
It’s why that Quitely spread is so crucial, and so powerful.
The entirety of Pax Americana, the comic, is sort of a larger expression of that very spread and ideas it captures.
Because what happens when you’re in a loop and the footage runs out?
It all loops around. We hit replay.
The tale of Pax Americana is the tale of President Harley, our American leader, our Ozymandias.
It is the tale of his plan to save the world and maintain world peace.
But what is that, really? And is it a viable thing at all? And what compels him to pursue said plan?
That’s what we’re meant to discover and piece together across the story, as the entire issue is a loop centered around his life, from his demise to his origins, with the book beginning on his murder and ending on the incident that led to him pursuing the path that he did.
President Harley is, in effect, a ‘What If?’ playing on the idea of The Good American President, in the vein of JFK, but not for the 1960’s America, but rather the modern, contemporary post-9/11 America of the 21st century. It is why he is elected right after George W. Bush, in the place of Barack Obama. It’s an idea Morrison has historically been taken with, going as far as to create Calvin Ellis, an alternate universe iteration of Superman whose premise was ‘What If Obama was also secretly Superman?’. The American Superhero and The American President as one, the fantasy of both’s decency and goodness and aspirational morality bound together.
What if there were the supposed ‘good’ President to save the world and make it better? It is a clear Liberal fantasy, the kind that believes Joe Biden could really come through for us all and save us, when the reality is he cannot. He will not. But that is the notion that Harley is meant to represent and play into, as crystalized by the very opening evoking the fall of JFK. The book then is about that fantasy, the symbol of The Good American President as codified by a tragic figure like JFK and how it would really play out in our modern world now.
That’s what births President Harley.
But who he is really? And what drives him to his post and purpose?
Harley is the son of a Vietnam veteran-turned comic book artist, who drew a title called Janus The Everyman but died mysteriously. Unknown to all but his son, Harley was secretly the world’s first real superhero- Yellowjacket, operating in the 1970’s until vanishing upon his death. Yellowjacket was ‘special’ in that he was a ‘true’ superhero, unlike all the other ‘super’ figures who worked with the state or were productions of military programs. He was just a guy in his outfit, like the superheroes he wrote about, who went out and night and did his thing. President Harley grew up with his superheroic father, loving him and admiring him. And he’s a dreamer, just like his father before him. But here’s the thing:
President Harley killed his father.
Playing around as a child, taking on his father’s all-too-big gun, he shoots his own father dead out of fear, as an instinctive response. And so falls his own father. So dies America’s first real superhero.
Harley is haunted by his murder of his own beloved father, his own beloved superhero, the man who brought him into this world, gave him life and nourished him. Patricide is an act that plagues his soul endlessly into adulthood, as he can never get over it, for how could you?
He sits at this father’s grave and wonders and wonders- Why? How? Wrecked by guilt and pain, unable to discern a path forward he searches for some semblance of understanding or meaning, trying to make sense of the madness.
And that’s when he has this moment of profound realization, visualized to us like so. It is a grand epiphany about the nature of existence, the universe, and the way of things. It displays the first and only real meaningful deviation and ‘shattering’ of the 8/16 panel grid design throughout the book. While the book has moments wherein panels or rows and tiers of panels are combined to make bigger panels or play with composition, the book mostly follows its design principles and rules of it all being within this 8 system (and its multiple 16). But here, that is deliberately shattered, as panels tilt and twist and rub against each other and the clean design and order is replaced with disastrous chaos. The ‘simplicity’ of ‘ordered life’ and ‘reality’ replaced with a flood of complexity and a multitude of images too much too process in far too much chaos, rather like life itself.
It is this moment that animates Harley, wherein he comes to an understanding, and pursues his plan to save the world.
He has seen ‘the design’ of things, ‘the way of things’, the ‘structure’ of reality that bends it towards the very path it is on. He terms it Algorithm 8.
He means, of course, the 8-panel grid (including its multiple, the 16 panel grid) which governs reality.
One of the lessons of Watchmen is that form should be indivisible from the contents of the work. They must be inseparable, with the form being a visual expression of the work’s identity and whole. And so much like the 9 Panel Grid becomes the avatar of Watchmen’s own vision and perspective of the world, so too does the 8-panel grid become the avatar of Pax Americana’s own vision and perspective of the world.
The 8 isn’t a mere ‘8’ here. Instead it doubles as a symbol for ‘Infinity’, an endless forever loop. Like an ouroboros writ large on a grander, cosmic scale. And with that layer of meaning, they present something very specific:
This isn’t some cheap, lazy parlor trick of ‘being Meta teehee’ or ‘breaking the fourth wall’ or whatever. It is adopting a hyper-realistic approach of using the 8-panel grid as a visualization and crystalization of a real idea.
That is to say, the 8-panel grid in Pax Americana represents the infinite hold and structuring pattern of Western Power and Imperialism. It is The Way Of The Western World that bends all else in relation to it. But most specifically, it is a symbol of Pax Americana as a concept itself on-page. That’s what the 8 panel grid is a visual metaphor and symbol of- American Peace, American Power, and American Empire.
The 8 Panel Grid is the symbol of The Forever War, as waged by the West, by America, as Empires do to maintain their power.
The 8 Panel Grid is the endless infinite loop of imperiums in this book, which is why the book begins and ends with murder. It’s why the first panel of the book is on the cover, but so is the last panel of the book, with the quote firmly placed upon it.
Time is a loop, and so is Empire.
This is where we come to finally realize and truly understand Harley’s plan, you see.
President Harley’s got a plan to save the world, just like Ozymandias did in Watchmen. He has a vision and a way to unite the world and save it in this post-9/11 age, the way Adrian Veidt did for a world of the Cold War period.
And the plan? The murder of The American President at the hands of the Peacemaker, once again returning to that initial reversal of the Comedian/Ozymandias murder. Here, the Ozymandias figure’s murder happens via the super-soldier and the murder is, like in Watchmen, part of a larger conspiracy and plot. And that greater plot? The plot which involves Harley having himself assassinated?
The resurrection of The American President by The American Superhero, a true American Superhero, unlike all the rest.
The murder of The American President by The Ultimate All-American Supersoldier, Peacemaker, will trigger an anti-superhero response, shutting down and shuttering the American Superhero as they exist in their current state, which is agents and champions of the American Military Industrial Complex. And then Captain Atom, that divine true superman, will return and resurrect the fallen American President for all of the world to watch, purging the sin from the superhero, and representing a new heroic ideal. Healing rather than hurting. Resurrection over Death. He will make The Dream Of The Superhero real, and thus will come world peace.
That’s the idea at least. That’s the plan.
It is the ideological opposite of Ozymandias’ plot in Watchmen, wherein Adrian believed that the terror and fear of The Other, the conjured Squid, the alien horror, would unite all of humanity in fear and ensure world peace, thus ‘saving’ it. Harley doesn’t believe in the power of fear, having seen and lived in a Post-9/11 world, wherein fear doesn’t unite, it only divides. It makes monsters of people, ensures hierarchies and leaves us worse than ever. The machinery of fear only makes the world worse. No, the world doesn’t need more fear and paranoia. Instead Harley’s betting on Inspiration over Fear. He’s counting on Wonder over Horror. He wants the American President to be resurrected like Jesus Christ risen from the grave, to boldly usher in a new era and age of golden peace. It is the dream of a world saved by wonder and inspiration.
That’s the idea at least. That’s the plan.
It’s why upon becoming President, Harley organizes the Pax (the peace), a team of American super-soldiers serving its imperial Military Industrial Complex who all dress in colorful outfits and bear classical American Superhero names, in the vein of Harley’s father and the characters he drew.
He wants to make the superhero real, and the superhero must be American. For only the American Superhero and the American President together can save the world. Only together can they redeem the lost potential and possibility of his father and the future he represented, at least in Harley’s eyes.
That’s what animates it all, you see? Guilt. The blood on his hands.
Which is why, of course, Harley opts to become the President Of United States Of America, to get further blood on his hands, empowering its imperialist military industrial complex and giving it a new colorful coat of comic book paint. Giving them the ironic title of the Pax, the peace, though they are crusaders of imperialist violence and murder. And it is, in the end, of course, this very strain of monstrous imperialist American Supersoldier that Harley entrusts his dreams and secrets, asking him to slay him.
Harley believes The Death of The American President will be punishment enough, that it will be absolution enough, that it will be the symbolic act to help exorcise and heal the world and push it onward, with the resurrection and rebirth of the American President and American Superhero to follow bringing about final salvation.
That’s the idea at least. That’s the plan.
It is all, of course, completely ludicrous and utterly insane and stupid.
It is nonsensical and naive and childish. It is the dream of a deluded child who never got over his father, who never got over the American power fantasy of the superhero, and who truly believes that the American President and the American Superhero can save the world.
Grant Morrison in their book Supergods once noted, in analyzing Watchmen:
Ultimately, in order for Watchmen’s plot to ring true, we were required to entertain the belief that the world’s smartest man would do the world’s stupidest thing after thinking about it all his life. It’s there where Watchmen’s rigorous logic runs out, where its irony is drawn so tight that the bowstring gives. Its road ends.
And that same criticism Morrison levies at Watchmen, frankly, holds just as true, if not more true, in the case of Pax Americana.
Harley’s not the world’s smartest man, but his entire plan is deeply stupid. Arguably far stupider than Ozymandias’ own machinations.
It is a deeply Grant Morrisonian idea, and Harley is very much a Morrisonian figure. He loves superheroes, he idolizes his working class larger-than-life father, and while keenly aware of the superhero’s destructive power, he believes in their transcendent power and possibility all the same. He wants the American superheroes to save us. He believes the American superheroes exist to save us. And his masterplan?
It is to make the entire world go through this:
He wants the entire world to experience a traumatic death, like he did, and then reflect upon that, and then watch in awe at a miracle of transcendence occurs. He wants the entire world to have an awakening the way he did, their minds opened to something greater, something larger and more significant. He wants the ‘shattering’ of Algorithm 8 as he experienced it to happen to the entirety of the world, thus freeing it from the chains of the pattern.
President Harley wants to free the world from the 8 panel grid, which symbolizes this infinite loop of American Power, of American Imperialism. He wants to shatter the loop of the Forever War of his empire. He wants to shatter the realities of Pax Americana to push the world to a utopian future of true peace, a true Pax, beyond the ones of American Empire and its imperial strength.
He sees himself as a martyr, a sacrificial savior with a larger purpose. A villain, the ultimate villain, the father-killer, the perpetrator of patricide, the king of the American War Crime Mountain, the lord of the American Empire, who must die and be reborn and be cleansed by a ritual of exorcism by The Man Of Tomorrow, that superhero, that superman.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s delusional. It’s the dream of a madman who has not grown past the adolescent he once was. He’s a fool who pursues fantasies over any kind of material action for betterment.
Harley is a man naive enough to believe that American Power can be innocent.
After all, it’s how and why he believes the American President, after helping enforce the ruthless Pax and being culpable and complicit in plenty of horrors, can still be redeemed. That The American President can still be good, like when we all just kids and liked to believe so and think so, and everything felt slightly more possible. It’s a man trying desperately to force reality to adhere to his fantasies, which is why he has Captain Atom conjure up three towers in the very same place as the fallen two towers of 9/11:
Reality isn’t good enough. So fantasy and illusion must take its place. Delusions (or dreams if one were being kinder) must win out. And so in the place of those fallen towers, in place of that wound to American strength, American confidence and power, there’s erected 2 new towers and monuments, along with an extra third. It’s overcompensating big time, but that’s what empires do with their marks of weakness and how they lick their wounds, no? Project even greater strength in place of pain, make more empty symbolic gestures and spectacles that do not address any root causes or real issues that plague their times and the people who suffer underneath them.
It is this American Savior fantasy, the fantasy of the imperialist’s redemption, the ‘here’s how the American Empire can still win,’ that finally firmly lays bare the foolishness. It is the idea that the master’s tools could tear down and somehow salvage the master’s house. It is the idea that the only way to resolve the situation of monstrous imperialism and oppression, of American Power as made manifest and material in the flesh and blood in the form of The American Superhero? It’s to further reinvest even harder into said symbol and figure of imperialist horror–the superhero.
It is looking at your super-cops and their horrific cruelties, realizing they aren’t making things better, and somehow deciding they need even more faith and funding and support. It is belief in Supreme Leaders and Super-Champions and the powers and wisdoms of Great Men over any kind of collectivism or shared vision that invites everybody and gives them a seat at the table for a better world. Instead, it is a vision of faux-progressiveness feigning at being forward thinking. It is the delusion of the naive Harley who is privileged enough to live amidst his fantasies, without ever having to reckon with much else. It’s all about him, his guilt, his need and obsession, rather than the people at large.
It is the self-centered ideology of the emperor, much like Ozymandias.
It is the ideology of empires that sit atop the world, seeing themselves as benign emperors.
But that’s just it.
There’s no such thing as a benign emperor.
Much like there is no benign superman of any empire.
They all have blood on their hands, and it’s never going away.
The dream/delusion of Harley is drawn, of course, from something very tangible and real that pervades the entirety of Pax Americana- JFK. After all, alongside the visual of Robert Redford, John F. Kennedy was the real world basis for Ozymandias in Watchmen:
Thus Pax’s decision to orient itself entirely around a figure also evoking Kennedy makes sense. Even contextually, the title fits into a memorable speech Kennedy gave at the American University’s 1963 Commencement Address, which the issue quotes directly:
What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children–not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.
It is why the issue opens on an evocation of JFK’s assassination and is rooted in the sensibility of a Zapruder Film. It is why it centers upon the notion of The Good American President who hopes to redeem America, rooted in that idea of JFK as ‘The Last Good President’ who is looked upon as a beacon of progressive possibility. JFK haunts the book so strongly that Harley’s plot literally involves a post-9/11 recreation of the JFK assassination, an incident that is traumatic to American memory and bound so tightly to its modern world of conspiracies. It’s the incident Harley doesn’t believe they’ve ever healed from and in recreating it once more and reversing the tragedy and trauma, Harley hopes to mend the wound and replace the pain and horror with joy and wonder of the American people. It’s why that must be the act to bring about true world peace. The whole affair is an echo rooted in that idea that JFK describes in his speech here, the idea of true utopian peace, beyond Pax Americana. A peace achievable by America if it tries hard enough.
And sure enough, it sounds nice, it sounds sweet.
But that’s all it is. It’s a bunch of sweet words.
It’s beautiful words that are easy enough to utter for those sitting atop empires, but feel impossible for so many underneath their boot-heel. It is words given from atop a platform, from a place of power, a place of strength, atop an empire built upon a mountain of countless bodies, for whom true justice and reparations have never been given. It is said in an empire that glorifies its many monsters, and readily equates the necessary violence of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor.
So peace for who, exactly? It’s nice to say ‘peace for everyone,’ it’s a sweet thing to say, but in context of the American Empire and its numerous horrors, which all of its presidents, including JFK, were complicit in? There’s a bitterness in hearing it for whose who’ve seen the true nature of this empire. These are the platitudes and slogans and pretty speeches of the powerful, who have not suffered the ignominies of the systems they sit upon. They might know them in abstract, from reading about them or hearing about them from others, but they do not truly understand. And thus they have limits, they have blinders, and theirs is a perspective from atop the palace, gazing downward, a far cry from the perspective of those on the streets looking up.
The rhetoric applied now, in a post-9/11 modern American political landscape of an even more broken system wherein the options are Super Right Wing and Somewhat Less Right Wing? It exposes the horror even more clearly. We live in a landscape wherein such pretty speeches are made about trying to attain peace for everyone, justice for all, equality for everyone, with ending racism and bigotry across all lines, even as all the monstrous systems and machinations that enable these horrors are well-maintained and provided ever-increasing funding. All the while the actual valuable, good, and necessary systems are drained dry, understaffed and unsupported, with things barely clinging on.
This is the nature of Empire, and until one is prepared to truly reckon with the nature of empire, the horror of empire, putting aside the narratives of a ‘good’ nation, of nationalistic obsession, to really collectively take stock of the wrongs done? Nothing can happen. An empire and its emperor cannot speak of peace atop a platform and place of strength. They must get down, stand down as equals and must be prepared to apologize, admit wrongdoing, and be ready to compensate and be accountable for it in action, to give back to the people from whom it has taken.
The idea of peace is appealing. But peace on whose terms? That is crucial, isn’t it? Because for all that America and its masters may speak of such pretty, noble higher ideas, they are ever reluctant to let go of the absolute privileges that genocide, murder, theft, and colonial monstrosity has afforded them. It’s why they rewrite the story, alter histories and teach things beyond truth to convey American Exceptionalism and a more noble, heroic story. They say they wish to be beyond Pax Americana, but do they really? They like the power they hold, the might they have inherited, the sway they hold, and they do not want to be any less. They do not want to get down or lower themselves. They want to forever stand on top of the world. They do not want to lose much, but want to attain a whole lot, with others meeting them on their terms.
They want to be heroes of the world, the heroes of history, doing the right thing, with no idea of what that even means. They’ve never had to. It’s easy when you believe in the fantastical image of your own self-righteousness and decency, all because you hold greater power than all others. It is easy to see oneself as the protagonist of all reality and history- America, the savior, the redeemer, the hero of humanity.
It is, of course, why they even make art about how sad they feel about having to do what they have done. About the tragic terrible burden they bear as American Heroes and Soldiers, with books, films, TV shows, games, and yes, even comics, centering them and their pain, their sorrow, their trauma, their guilt, their endless infinite humanity, over those they have forever ruined. Even the very real oppression, pain, horror and remnants of the people they destroy become background wallpaper and an exotic setting like in a video game, full of NPCs, for them to prove the depths of their humanity, their struggle, their hardships. All those people become supporting characters and sidekicks or antagonists in their grand tale, helping along or hurting their own personal progression and arcs. It’s all about them. Their imperialist eyes by which to view the entire world.
And the imperium encourages this. It fuels it, fosters it, fawns over it, with boundless compassion for the burdens of the imperialist, for his sacred American soul, for his sacrificial story, as those he helped oppress fade into the background of his great mythic tale. Imperial culture obsesses over the complexities, the ‘ambiguities’, the vulnerabilities and nuances of this great champion of their imperialist machinery. It valorizes and admires such stories, viewing them with a nigh religious awe- never even thinking to offer a morsel of such dignity or consideration to the countless people such ‘champions’ hurt or helped harm forever. Because all those people out there, all those Brown people? They’re not as real or as humane or as essential like our guy here. They’re not us. They’re not an imperial citizen: an American. They are The Other, The Foreigner, a number and a statistic. Or perhaps not even that.
In the end, America loves a hero- no matter the evils and horrific systems they are actively complicit in. It needs its hero story, no matter the price of it. America first. They matter most, their pain and trauma over all else, all others, the people they’ve stepped upon, who they’ll never center or give a real voice to. All else is subsumed under the vision and protagonism of America and The Great American Hero, who gives his life to serve and protect the world, and thus Pax Americana itself.
This is how they see the world.
For America is the world.
This is what President Harley’s delusion is rooted in.
For why should the world at large see The American President, an imperialist monster, be murdered and then return to life, and commit themselves to world-peace in a general broad-strokes sense? Why must the world over find such transcendent meaning in The American President and The American Superhero? What makes them so special, beyond the American Exceptionalist idea that they just are?
Hell, forget the world over. Take America alone. We live in a world of absurd conspiracies, where people can’t even believe in a goddamn vaccine and its necessity and ability to help us against a deadly Virus. We live in a world of QAnon and Fox News and Alex Jones. Would folks not think the whole thing was some elaborate hoax or doctored footage or conspiracy, with the President having never died in the first place, it all being a fake acted-out set-up? Would not a million conspiracies taking the piss out of the whole thing and dismissing it all just some other nonsensical thing keep going? And even of those who believed, would they be any more than President-worshipping naive children?
And forget saving the world and achieving world peace. What of domestic peace? You’re dealing with a country that denies its own people healthcare, destroys any real chance of financial safety and security, and pushes people into poverty, and then utilizes their poverty to recruit them into its Military Industrial Complex of violence. It’s one that preaches peace, but peace for whom, exactly? The billionaires making money off the wars? The bastards at the top thriving off the sales of guns, even as poor children have to endure the gun violence in schools? It cannot grant peace to its own children, whom it claims to love so much and care for so dearly, even as it does everything in its power to make life hell for them. It’s a monstrous empire dead set on destroying both those within its boundaries and those beyond it. It’s one that spends more money on murder and imperialism than actually feeding children, educating them in schools, or ensuring their health and livelihoods. Who is it saving and bringing peace to here, really? It is a fascist machine dedicated to destabilizing any sense of modicum of ‘peace’ to keep its bloody cycle of violent horror going. Peace? It has no concept of it.
And yet the empire and its masters view themselves as akin to divine emissaries and prophets, chosen by god, to bring about salvation to the universe, like noble philosopher kings performing heroic sacrifices.
It is a touching idea and notion to want to shatter this endless pattern, this symbol of Western Power, of American Empire, of Pax Americana. It is a worthy notion to want to shatter the pattern of imperiums, to destroy the loop of Forever War. But is this it? Is this the best way to do such a thing? Is this idea at all useful?
No. It is an idea that only reinforces the empire’s power, if anything, in a different way. The American Superhero and The American President cannot change the world. Only the people who granted them both the power via their collective belief can. And Pax is a comic that on some level understands this, but Harley’s vision of the public being inspired to rise up and stand for world peace is what it presents. It cannot imagine the people’s ascendance beyond such figures of almighty powers without those very powers inspiring them in some shape or form, for that is the perspective of Harley, its lead. In a way, it’s a fittingly paternalistic and empire-centric mindset befitting Harley. An attempt at breaking through a loop that only exists to seemingly reaffirm it. He is a true Liberal, with deep limitations. A far cry from a real Leftist progressive with any kind of active imagination.
As such, Pax Americana is a tragedy. It operates as a tragedy where nobody wins, where everyone loses, for powerful people and their designs doom everyone. It is Watchmen‘s kin in this regard, though it is also at once thoroughly Morrison/Quitely.
And its deployment of the 8 Panel Grid which divides into Frank Miller’s 16 panel grid as a symbol of The Forever War? It’s endlessly compelling.
“What if Frank Miller’s 16 panel grid, which divides down into an 8 panel grid, was the symbolic device and visual expression of America’s eternal obsession with violence in the name of peace?”
That’s a legitimately striking and loaded idea, particularly given Frank Miller’s deeply troubling politics and evolution Post-9/11, going onto pitch a comic that he himself described as “a piece of propaganda,” [in which] Batman kicks Al-Qaeda’s ass.” DC would reject the project, but it would see print under Legendary Comics.
Thus would emerge Frank Miller’s Holy Terror (2011).
It would be a work wherein Miller would himself follow the lineage of his 16-Panel Grid approach to the American superhero in the 1980’s to its natural contemporary conclusion- the Hitch Cinematic school.
It would be the absolute zenith of the expression of the idea of The American Superhero as a genre symbol and representation of American Power, with Miller doing a deeply, deeply right-wing comic starring Not-Batman taking on the evil Islamic terrorists who dare to disturb the Pax Americana of his beloved empire. Vengeance must be sought, blood for blood, eye for an eye, against those inhumane, exotic, and monstrous brown terrorists threatening the peace of America.
It’s a work of jingoism and vile Islamophobia that is a crystallization of the American response to 9/11 in a certain kind of naked, unfiltered fashion that is telling. There is no veneer of pretense to its racism and hate or bigotry – it’s loud, clear, on-its-sleeve and indulged proudly. It is the empire’s vision shown with the honesty of a man who’s deeply bought into its horrible propaganda, and is thus able to churn out his own propaganda to prop it all up.
It is monstrous, evil work that should’ve never seen print, but it did, and in doing so, it lays bare ugly truths.
It takes the idea of The American Superhero’s ‘neverending battle’, whether against Crime, Criminality, Villainy, just this idea of conflict against an abstract opposition, of enemies and a threat, and reframes it in relation to the Forever War. The American Superhero and their never-ending story and struggle become the endless War On Terror. Miller bridged the American superhero with post-9/11 rhetoric and American imperialism more strongly and more sincerely than anyone else.
It’s revealing work.
And on a formal level, it’s also work wherein Miller himself shows the reader the direct impact of shifting the beat rhythm from 1-2-3 to 1-2-3-4, as he even goes further and adds an extra tier to both the 9 panel grid and a 16 panel grid, to create a 12 panel grid page and a 20 panel grid page. He keeps on adding a panel on a tier and an extra tier each time, displaying the effect of it- it overwhelms the reader. It becomes too much.
Holy Terror uses this effect with the panels as effective ‘photos’ of fallen American citizenry of the empire, to convey a sense of incalculable lives lost, all to justify its vile propaganda. For American lives, the lives of the imperial citizens, matter more than any others. The American lives are more real, more human, than any others.
But that maximalist effect displayed via the initial switch from 1-2-3 to -1-2-3-4? It’s useful. And that maximalist 1-2-3-4 rhythm can be wielded differently. It can be used better, stronger, and smarter, which is what Frank Quitely does with it. In his hands, the tool transforms, as it does in the hands of any brilliant artist.
And so that 8/16 grid as a symbol of Forever War, of the loops of imperiums and the patterns they’re caught in? It makes sense. It works.
As Morrison themselves puts it:
It’s about America and specifically about America’s self-image as the world’s policeman. It tries to make a mind-devouring narrative Mobius strip out of the complicated, contradictory idea of using violence to enforce “peace.”
It’s an inspired usage of the form to make a point, because why not? If the 9 Panel Grid can be used to visually symbolize the colonialist cage under which the oppressed struggle, then why not use the 8/16 grid to symbolize the loop of forever war that plagues the imperial mindset?
And the emphasis and focus on a neoliberal figure like President Harley is appropriate, especially given how much of a Morrisonian figure he is. Afterall, here is a figure who loves superheroes deeply and believes in their transformative power, as written by the writer of Flex Mentallo, which is rooted in the divine, transformative power of our superheroes. Here is a person who associates the America with both bloody death and superheroic salvation, which reflects Morrison’s own reality as the child of Glaswegian Anti-Nuclear Activists who spent their youth terrified and fascinated by America. America had The Bomb, but America also had Superheroes. America was the realm of Destroyers and also the realm of Creators. The nervous tension and relationship Morrison has with America is filtered through to Harley here. Harley is someone who believes the idea of the American superhero and a superman can triumph over the idea of the American bomb and thus save America.
But perhaps more tellingly his imperial mindset and limitedness is best reflected via the nature of Morrison themselves. Afterall, Morrison is a Scot and a second-generation Irish writer with intense distaste and critical views of Empire, Imperiums, from America to the British Empire. They’ve written plenty of work with well intention-ed progressive values being critical of such imperiums.
But they also went ahead and accepted an MBE, making them a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. They could have rejected it and taken a real meaningful stance and stood by their beliefs in real life beyond just the page, but they went ahead and went to the palace of those royals, and accepted the ‘honor’ from Prince Charles. It’s the kind of thing you couldn’t imagine Alan Moore even entertaining, but Morrison went ahead and did it. Morrison is a writer smart enough and aware enough to know all the reasons to not take it and refuse it, but in the end they took the Queen and the Empire’s special honor. They accepted the honors and medals of Pax Britannica, which gave way to our current Pax Americana.
Morrison is capable of being critical of imperiums while also accepting imperial honors that bring about intense distaste, which many more principled individuals have rejected. That’s a truth. They’re trying to have their cake and eat it, too. And so Morrison writing President Harley as a figure very aware of the problems of imperium but so thoroughly bound to that very same imperium?
In a work so thoroughly about limits, limitations, and confines, Morrison’s own are laid bare in a way that gels with the material.
But do those limits then take away from the work and its own point and purpose? That’s a fair question, and it’s one where the answer will vary depending on the person. Personally, to this reader, the work as a gestalt of Morrison, Quitely, Fairbairn, and Leigh transcends beyond their makers, like any great work of art. The work stands on its own, and can be evaluated and engaged with as such, it’s what it is there for. And as a work so rooted in exploring the mind and faith of a neoliberal? It’s effective, it’s sharp, both intentionally and unintentionally, at once. There’s an honesty here that feels revealing and thus useful. If the work were about endless possibility rather than binding limitations, one might feel differently and the work might likely fail. But it is rooted in the inescapable chains that bind. It’s a tragedy and a loop about a modern ‘progressive’ who is aware and critical of Pax and yet is complicit in and benefits from it all at once. So it works.
The flaws of the creator help underline and enlighten the flaws of character, who is forged from the intimate fears and faiths of their psyche.
At the same time, however, Pax is also rooted in Morrison’s penchant for something else. Morrison loves doing single issues that chart entire lifetimes to tell a story, whether it be the classic ‘Best Man Fall‘ in The Invisibles #12 or ‘The Life and Times Of Joe Christmas‘ in Klaus. And with Frank Quitely, one of the best to ever do it, taking years to craft this life-story? The end result is impressive. It’s a fascinating artistic synthesis of a book, by all counts. But perhaps most interesting in its capture of a whole life lived is the usage of the quote on the cover, which operates at once as the first and last image of the story.
This quote by the American Poet Delmore Schwartz is an enticing and revealing choice. A child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Delmore burst onto the scene in the 1930’s like a blazing star, full of possibility. He was hailed as brilliant and his poetry, at its best, was full of an aching beauty. The above quote, which Morrison uses for Pax, is taken from his poem Calmly we walk through this April’s day, which takes place in 1937 and is a reflection by Schwartz on the nature of time and memory and life. ‘Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn’ echoes and repeats throughout the poem, punctuating the beats of his various reflections, like the eternal constant of time itself. It is a tribute to many things, like much of Schwartz’s work, from the names of friends and family he knew or held dear to the city life he experienced, but above all it is a tribute to time. It is an ode to time as the eternal, endless flame that subsumes and consumes us all, wherein we are at once people and memory, as the infinite loop.
It’s a fitting choice in the context and contents of the issue, which is so much about loops and time, but at the same time, there’s another layer here. Schwartz’s story is, ultimately, a tragic. Bursting onto scene as a ball of fire, he was a genius who would go onto have a turbulent life that would be snuffed out at the age of 52, a far cry from the figure he was once seen as possibly being. Schwartz’s life was a bundle of possibility that didn’t see true fruition. His is a tale of tragedy, of a bright young man who it feels like could have and should have ended up anywhere except where he did. His life is the great ‘What could have been!’.
If there was ever a quote to sum up Schwartz, the above would be as good as any. But it works in the context of Harley, too.
Here is a boy that was once a bundle of possibility, that had a fire in him, and he could have been anything. Here was a young blazing star of possibility.
And yet he ended up becoming what he did. An American President. The Lord Of The Imperialists. The Imperialist Who Believes In Imperialist Redemption. The Deluded Fool Desperate To Redeem Empire.
A far cry from his working class artistic father. But perhaps that rose-tinted view of his own father doesn’t hold, given the elder Harley was in Vietnam and served there. He too was part of the imperialist machinery, one way or another. We only see him and know him and understand him through Harley’s own idealization of him, Harley’s rose-tinted memory of him. We don’t know the man himself. But the facts we know paint a depressing picture. There is complicity and blood on everyone’s hands here.
Tellingly, the elder Harley dies in 1974, which is the same year President Richard Nixon resigned after his disastrous Watergate mess and got pardoned for by his successor Gerald Ford. It was the symbolic death of American Justice, and the firm public cementing of a lot of pretenses falling away, as bastards like Nixon could do anything and get away with it, no matter what. It exposed the terrible horror of the whole system.
And the date of Nixon’s resignation is pertinent to Pax here, as critic Harry Kassen has frequently noted. Because the date, my friends? It’s August 8th.
The 8th day of the 8th month of the year.
Infinite Loops. Forever War. Forever are we trapped in imperial cycles.
It’s sad, really. And that’s what Pax Americana as a comic wants us to take in. How sad this whole business and enterprise really is. How depressing and tiresome this whole damn loop, this goddamn 8 loop of infinity is. That no matter how good a man you put up to sit on that imperialist throne, who believes he’ll ‘break’ the cycle, he inevitably ends up being subsumed by it and becomes part of it.
It’s a book demonstrating a childish fantasy with a deadly consequence. And it is rather fitting, isn’t it?
After all, is this not the perfect encapsulation of America? A little white boy playing pretend with a gun, shooting recklessly with fear, and killing the very things that gave life to him and his world? A sad little boy with blood on his hands who gestures to higher, nobler aspirations, while climbing atop ever growing mountains of bloody bodies. All in the name of his dream. His peace. The cleansing of his soul, his satisfaction, his redemption, and his hero’s journey wherein he returns from the abyss to bring about salvation for mankind.
So what is the Pax Americana? It is a reflection of the world it stems from, much like Watchmen before it. It is the rare exception that understands that Watchmen is a challenge asking you to push forward rather than simply mimic or evoke in order to illuminate truth in bold ways. And so it does.
It lays bare an evident truth about the nature of imperial powers, and the champions it fosters.
It captures the ideology of such places and the people who populate it.
It crystalizes visually the eternal loop they are forever caught in.
God bless America.
God bless American Peace.
And God save those who dare disturb it.
thank you for the article