Sean Dillon: Ok, so… The Multiversity
. It’s, uh, it’s a lot. There are many places we could start with this one, so let’s begin with something basic: What was your first Grant Morrison comic?
Ritesh Babu: Amusingly? It’s tied up in this. All-Star Superman
was the first, proper, full Morrison I read. It was a complete story and collection of a years-old book. It was, also, ‘out of continuity’ and an ‘Elseworlds.’ So I was interested in them as a writer and wanted more. And what do I hear about and find but this dashing new comics event called The Multiversity! It was the first Morrison I read as it came out. In that sense, I consider this thing to be my ‘first, proper Morrison.’ It’s not the hermetically sealed, self-contained epic that is All-Star.
SD: Or the sprawling mess of their Batman, which is where I started with them. As a kid, I didn’t have a comic book store nearby to get comics, so I had to go to my local library to see what they had. Among the books was this weird Batman story called RIP, where the cover looked like a cape hovering in the blue unknown. I was entranced by the images in the book. The multi-colored Batman with a bat, the red, white, and black colors of the Joker dreaming of murder, the Batman crawling out of his own grave. My library didn’t have the first volume, but I did keep up with the series through various comics sites and wiki pages (I believe I was getting into the run midway through Morrison’s Batman and Robin). But I was nevertheless hooked by this Morrison person.
In my early Morrison fandom, two texts that had not been released caught my eye. The first was a weird western called Sinatoro about an undead astronaut. The second was this black and white image by All-Star artist Frank Quietly of the Blue Beetle looking down at The Question. It was for this comic called The Multiversity.
RB: This is interesting to me, because I only ever came to it as it was happening. I had no sense of it prior to its arrival. I just saw it, had zero context for it, and thought ‘cool!’ I read that title ‘THE MULTIVERSITY,’ and saw all these weird characters I had never known, and I assumed this was a comic about a Multiversal University (called Multiversity) wherein all these characters went to school.
SD: I also thought it was going to be a university of the multiverse. There weren’t that many details about the background for what the series was as it was being made. Some notes about who was doing which issue, but for the most part, I remember things were kept mum about the nature of the series.
RB: I should note, a part of me is still disappointed it isn’t. But nevertheless, what I got instead was an absolute treat. I had no idea what ‘Final Crisis’ was, I had no clue who ‘Calvin Ellis’ or ‘Captain Carrot’ or ‘Nix Uotan’ or any of that was or meant. But you know what? I vibed with it. I didn’t need to know. The comic was like a rush of possibilities, of ideas, of imaginative power, and I was entranced. It felt like magic, reading that as a teenager.
SD: I was in college when the series was coming out, midway through my junior year. I was familiar with Ellis, though more from his brief appearance in Morrison’s Action Comics than from Final Crisis. I didn’t really get Final Crisis for a while, so I didn’t have strong feelings one way or another towards Nix Uotan. But The Multiversity was a hoot to read. Each issue was a strange, delightful story from beginning to end. I don’t think I fully understood the overall arc of the series as it came out, but I also just vibed with it. Vibing, I think, might just be the best way to approach Morrison. Like listening to a good album.
RB: That really is the best way of putting it, isn’t it? And each of the tracks in here is very different, and it’s trying a LOT of stuff, and doing so much. It’s very much an album that Grant got to do over a massive period of time, refining over and over, and as such, it’s an album of their work that truly feels like it comes closest to what one might call ‘magnum opus.’
SD: Perhaps fittingly for Morrison’s magnum opus, it also works as a piece of criticism. In the beginning of their career, Morrison spent some of their time working as a comics critic. As such, each issue acts as an examination of different modes and views on the superhero. From the pulps of the 30’s to the modern militaristic supersoldiers, Morrison takes aim at various aspects of the genre and sees what parts do and don’t work. At the same time though, there’s a sense of apprehension to a kind of criticism that mistakes vivisection for dissection. Most obviously in the dog scene of “In Which We Burn.”
RB: That one, that issue, the legendary Pax Americana, is perhaps the entire book in a nutshell. It particularly sticks with me, because I read it before I even read Watchmen, or had any idea or concept of what ‘Watchmen’ was, or that it was important at all. In essence, I read the critique of the landscape before I had even really, truly, explored the landscape. And I cannot help but wonder if that has forever shaped my experience and journey within it.
SD: I was very much in a “Fuck Watchmen, Fuck Alan Moore” phase when Pax came out. I blame reading Watchmen in middle school. But I also saw it as about the landscape. I think the big moment for me that highlighted to what degree it wasn’t just about Watchmen was the appearance of George W. Bush. I hadn’t read it at the time, but that was blatantly a nod to the work of former protégé Mark Millar, whose work was among the earliest I gravitated towards in my early comics fandom. He, uh, he isn’t that good.
RB: That’s the thing folks miss a lot with this one, isn’t it? In the Watchmen of it all. It’s not just Watchmen. It’s Frank Miller. It’s Pat Mills. It’s Warren Ellis. It’s Mark bloody Millar. It’s the MCU. It’s the modern superhero comic traced all the way back to its influential antecedents in the ‘80s. It’s about the nature of the superhero as a weapon of America. It is about The American Military Industrial Complex, The American Empire, and its ‘glorious’ champions, who constantly do the questionable.
SD: On my recent read of The Multiversity, I noticed that happens a lot in the various stories. Doc Fate tortures Felix Faust, Leatherwing beats the Human Bomb for information, Ultra Comics even talks about the sliding scale of morality and how he doesn’t really believe in good or evil as absolute ideas. And every one of these “by any means necessary” heroes ends up facing some truly horrific consequences for their actions. Morrison is quite explicit about the superhero and the soldier not mixing.
RB: Right, right, no matter the genre, no matter the permutation, ultimately the end result of the ‘American Hero’ is this monstrous figure. And it’s stuff the work asks you to think about, to ponder and consider. Pax specifically, to me, codified Multiversity, in that it was clearly very deliberate work. It was work of magnificent structure, with purpose. It wasn’t a strictly linear thing, it wasn’t told in the simplest way. It implicitly asked you, nay, begged you, to read it over and over. It was asking you to interpret, then reinterpret, and then question that interpretation altogether. It was a book embodying the idea that the way the story is told is fundamental to the story, and is in some ways, the story itself. And the story it kept coming back to and was pondering over and over? It was The Ultimate American Story.
SD: And, as with many American Stories, it was built on horror. The Gentry, The Multiversity’s main antagonists, highlight this. They, quite literally, wish to gentrify the cosmos and replace it with something to their own liking. We can see some idea of what that is in the form of their calculated and developed anti-hero, Ultra Comics, but the real creation of horror comes from the chibi world of Earth-42. The cute and cuddly recreation of the superhero into something inoffensive and marketable. Easily consumable for the masses. Completely apolitical characters who harken back to the good old days. In short, the most insidious method of gentrification is not the brute who will beat the enemy, but the smiling horror that asks to be called a friend.
RB: That we have the kids in Ultra Comics, who initially seem like a Jack Kirby gang of passionate utopian children who wish for a happy ending, later revealed to be monstrous cannibals feels rather…telling in this regard. It’s the idea of imagery, of iconography, of visual language and expectations as tools used to manipulate. It’s the most innocent, innocuous, the most lovely, most optimistic, most utopian and hopeful and beautiful thing that truly can hide the most dangerous and most monstrous ideas.
At its core, Multiversity is about questioning what you see, what you assume, what you consume, and what you hold certain. It is asking ‘Why is this here? Why is this used as such? What is it saying?’, it is a work repeatedly reinforcing to its reader ‘Do not trust so easily. Be wary. Be careful.’ It is a work about how humanity safeguards its wealth in banks, its systems behind firewalls, but has no safeguards for the mind. It is about how we’ll let just about anything and everything into our heads, so long as it’s packaged and presented a certain way.
SD: And yet, it seems to be doing the opposite. Like the Wizard of Oz telling you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, there are moments where characters talk about how looking too deeply into things is wrong. We’ve already mentioned the dog sequence, wherein Captain Atom laments how you can’t really love the pieces after you’ve vivisected the whole. But the real case of this comes from “Captain Marvel and The Day That Never Was!”
Here, we have the Wizard trapped by the mad scientist Dr. Sivana (alongside a bureaucracy of Sivanas) scheming to take the magic for himself. Whilst supplanting the mystical Rock of Eternity with his own designs, the Wizard laments “When nothing remains but cogs and wheels–pipes and bright lights–the universe will lose its secret heart. You’ll have it all but none of it–none of it will be worth anything.”
On the surface, this seems like a condemnation of criticism. A denouncement of looking deeper into something as something inherently destructive. But it’s worth considering the motivation for the critiques. Sivana is “hollowing out” the magic and supplanting it with a drab office building. He, much like the Gentry, is gentrifying all the weirdness of the world in the name of capitalistic excess. The problem isn’t so much that there is criticism being done, but rather the motivation for criticism. The best criticisms are done “not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”
RB: At its core, Multiversity is a work of criticism on the very act of criticism itself. How it’s needed, necessary, what good, useful criticism is, and what the opposite is. But also, above all, how even the greatest of discernment, criticism itself, no matter how wise, can sometimes fail you. That we live in such a world, with so many ideas, all of which can be so carefully disguised, with so many narratives, and even critiques, that can be masked, that their true intentions can be obscured. And it’s the idea that those matter. That the nature of narratives, the ideas, the critiques, what they are in service of, what they are in pursuit of, counts. That even if these ideas began as good, well-intended, lovely things, they can be taken and co-opted and warped as they are widely dispersed. And that one must consider it all, the prismatic problems of a thing rather than just one facet. The Multitude rather than the singular. For the simple act of criticism in and of itself isn’t enough. The kind of criticism it is, what it is in service of, what it is actually doing, all of that matters.
Be wary of that which you let into your head and surround yourself with, be careful about that which you trust, because you can never know. And that applies in reverse, too, to the creators of the text. The Multiversity stems not just this grand idea, but the pure personal terror of uncertainty, the absolute dread that what you think you may be communicating or expressing as an artist, as a creator, as a critic, may not actually be that. That there’s something you missed, something you didn’t consider, or don’t know, something you got wrong, or expressed in such a way, that the end result isn’t whatever pure intention you held in your head. It’s something different, it’s something warped. It’s the gentrification of your very thought as it enters material reality, to become something else, as it becomes a part of the mechanism it inhabits, and is integrated into that messy machine. It’s that all of this stuff is, as much as we labor over it, out of our hands. That our ideality isn’t our reality, and what our reality is…we have to desperately reckon with.
SD: And there are a lot of things to be reckoned with in The Multiversity. Things about the superhero genre. The most obvious of these is the whole “superheroes are kinda fascist” that Morrison explores with Jim Lee in “Splendour Falls.” There are a lot of telling moments about the nature of this critique from Overman failing to stop the bomb to the direct connection between Superman comics and Overman obliquely belling the history of the Nazis taking their ideas from American practices. But the one I want to talk about is the approach to the Freedom Fighters the New Reichsmen take.
In most stories about the Nazis taking over the world, we are presented with things largely from the perspective of the rebel alliances fighting against the fascist uprising. Even in texts set more recently than the 50’s and 60’s, the rebellion (often led by white men, be they American or British) is prioritized. Here though, we see things largely from the fascists point of view. The Freedom Fighters are the invasive idea. The shameful past that the fascist society refuses to reckon with. The people they slaughtered have come back to tear down the capitalist paradise built through monstrosity. A genocide the scale of which is too horrifying to contemplate.
And yet, it’s a genocide that’s all too familiar. Look at the language Leatherwing uses when denying culpability. Not the “I was only following orders” rhetoric typically seen by Nazis in denial, but rather something more akin to arguments against paying for reparations to the descendents of former slaves. Why should I be made to feel guilty for something I wasn’t even alive for? Why does it matter that we slaughtered the lot of them? Don’t moralize about this stuff. Don’t make it political! We have to keep things right for the glory of the Nazi empire.
As with all of these arguments, it’s extremely sickening. It’s a sickening argument for the status quo, as all arguments for the way things are must be.
RB: A lot of The Multiversity is about The Problems And Perils Of The Superhero. It is about looking at that stuff clearly. It is about the problematized nature of it. And so we have the grand American superhero mythos, which is a result of great Jewish imagination, which then got taken and co-opted and is now owned by mega-corporations of The American Empire. They were taken from their roots, from their makers, stripped of a lot of their subtext, and are now tools for these monstrous corporations that run everything. This is the fundamental tension that even something like Eric Kripke’s The Boys wrestles with (Kripke is Jewish), as it’s about how these ideas and narratives and icons, the visual language and imagery and iconography we associate them with them can be used in horrifying ways for fascist ends.
And it’s what Mastermen also dabbles with (though Morrison is not Jewish, which is important to note), as it is basically Morrison taking the icons of American superhero fiction and, to unveil the problems they present in the most blunt possible way, doing them in Nazi America. It’s draping them in the most loudly ‘This is fucked up’ framing to make a point. It is why it’s all still set in America, not Germany. It is about America. It is about its mythologized champions who are militaristic monsters, who are imperialist horrors, all of whom are empty tools for this dreadful system.
I don’t know that this story, about what begins in the minds of Jewish imagination and is co-opted by Nazis, is one Morrison should be telling, given they are not Jewish. And it’s something I’d love to see a lot more Jewish critics discuss and examine. On the whole though, it is a deeply bleak, horribly fucked up illustration of The American Empire and American Heroes. It is about how these empires are built on mountains of bodies, on blood and tears, on evil rhetoric that emphasizes a norm, and encourages White Supremacy. And ultimately, it’s about the need for a fall. This world needs to fall. Pax Americana needs to fall. These visions and illustrations of the superhero are about the ways in which they are not useful, and their realities, which are dreadful and bleak and painful.
SD: And yet, Morrison, at their heart, is a utopian thinker. Even at their bleakest, they believe in a better world. Look at the ending of the comic. We are, without a hint of irony, given a whole team of superheroes largely consisting of characters from backgrounds not traditionally prioritized in superhero teams. You have aboriginal gods, queer speedsters, black presidents. The portmanteau of The Multiversity is, ultimately, Multiversal Diversity.
But what that means is for the old ways of thinking to go away. Sure, we can have superheroes of color, a black president, or what have you. But if they’re still going to go on with business as usual and torture arabs, then they’re of no use to us. A utopia that remains perfectly frozen in amber, one that’s unwilling to listen to the voices of those who are hurt most by it, needs to be burnt down. For the superheroes to function within a modern landscape, they have to be willing to confront the issues of the modern world.
To illustrate this, let’s consider what I think is the weakest issue of the whole series: “#earthme.” Here, we’re given a world of beautiful people drawn by the exquisite Ben Oliver. A world where the superheroes have won, and all the threats have been dealt with. The children of the superheroes and supervillains are now friends. And everything is boring. There’s apparently nothing for the superheroes to do, save regurgitate past glories and hedonistically celebrate their status as superheroes.
However, it’s a world where capitalism and wealth inequality still exists. This is a vision of the superhero as celebrity that is time and time again made manifest in the superhero sphere since I think the 80’s. It’s telling that a lot of the old crowd is from the Image generation of superheroes (Kyle Rayner, Conner Hawke, Bloodwynd) where that frame of superheroism was at its peak. You had Youngblood talking about getting a movie deal, Savage Dragon and his comic book series.
And, in “#earthme,” Morrison frames them as vapid assholes who only barely care about the lives of their fellow heroes before moving on to the next high.
RB: The Superheroes Have Won™, but it’s a hollow victory, for it isn’t a victory at all. The victory of The Corporate Hero is no victory. It is meaningless cycles, almost ritualistic ones, framed through Tabloid-esque aesthetics. It is all the shallow celebrity garbage. These superheroes might as well be the Kardashians and every other celebrity who’ll put out an NFT without hesitation. This isn’t a useful vision of the superhero. This is about what we pass on to the next generation, and the superheroes as they largely are, your Batmans and Supermans, this is the world they leave behind and pass on. And boy is it a shitty world.
This is partly where The Multiversal Diversity point is relevant. In the end, the way forward to all of this is, or the closest thing to it, is change. We’re where we are because a lot of the same ol’ dudes, especially straight white folks, have been writing this stuff. That needs to change a great deal.
I vividly remember this bit from Multiversity’s press, once it wrapped (edited for pronouns):
In regards to not working on main and ongoing titles anymore, Morrison said they wanted to move away from the main books because they didn’t want to become the old creator who demanded things and character be and act a certain way. They pointed out that comics are growing and changing and new people are coming in – there’s more diversity – and they wanted to allow those creators to create. Morrison then put on a hilarious affection of an older person and did a fake rant about characters and comics. “Black Canary with a broken nose? You can’t have that. She’s supposed to be a hot girl!”
As the panel came to a close, Morrison ended by saying, “We can’t keep having the same boring people saying the same boring things. We need you to write Batman.”
Now, it should be noted and stated that Morrison would, indeed return to main/ongoing work with The Green Lantern after this, breaking their word, but I do think the sentiment is very true (though it is interesting to me that between both Hal in The Green Lantern and the upcoming Superman and The Authority, both are explicitly about The Olds, and kind of putting them to rest, rather than, doing, I dunno, Jon Kent).
Obviously, there’s a limit to what can be achieved from just marginalized people wrestling with corporate icons they will never own. The superhero’s nature as a corporate entity isn’t changed or erased. But getting the marginalized to speak their truths and tackle superhero fiction is a step in a longer march. The grand marathon, as it were.
SD: There’s actually another Morrison quote that I always think about whenever I read The Multiversity. They said it a few years after the comic wrapped up:
Thanks to the internet, minorities and outsiders, non-conformists, trans people, everyone’s getting a chance to talk and agitate, and the world is learning to listen. I think new viewpoints and useful new ideas will naturally come from the queer margins into the center of culture. But I think, as I said, the Utopian counterculture project might also be a longer process than any of us wanted to believe…
In many regards, this is the message at the heart of the comic. They still believe in the potential utopian future, still believe in the best of us. But there’s a long way to go from their initial view of the system being capable of being changed from within.
RB: Yeah. And the most open, loud acknowledgement of this, of Morrison’s current read on this stuff is, comes in the form of the very framing of the entire book. Our key character Nix Uotan is a Comics Critic and Creator. It’s why the book revolves so much around criticism. But also, the entire comic happens and exists, solely because…Uotan needs to make rent. He needs to be able to pay rent. And he can’t! He ain’t got no money. He’s broke as hell. That’s the opening. And then the whole story occurs, and by the end? He’s got the dough. He’s got his money for the rent.
The entire sprawling, cosmic epic that is The Multiversity is…framed around the act of a broke dude needing to be able to pay his rent. The blatantly commercial, financially motivated nature of this entire enterprise is laid bare. To put it bluntly, the DCU and DCU work is just a paycheck to make rent, at the end of the day. That is the capitalistic structures we all inhabit, it is the capitalist reality and nightmare we all live in, it’s what Nix Uotan lives in, and it’s what The Corporate Superhero is. It’s why the work is so unflinchingly open in its look at these characters.
SD: I think something that’s equally telling about the role of Uotan is that he’s also, in some respects, one of The Multiversity’s main antagonists. He spends the majority of his time as a figure of corrupted villainy. He’s the dark god summoned by Vandal Savage to destroy the world. He’s the one to unleash the idea of Darkseid upon the multiverse. And he’s the big reveal baddie at the end of “House of Heroes” and the opening threat of “Superjudge.”
This is what happens when you align yourself with the forces of capitalism (be it by choice or simply by being part of the system): your soul becomes calcified and made marketable. One of the more striking decisions on the colorist’s part is to have the traditionally dark skinned Nix, when under the servitude of The Gentry, have lighter skin. He is made more ‘palatable’ to the capitalistic system.
RB: It’s also why Ultra Comics, the ‘ultimate’ superhero, has to be, by design, a straight cis blue-eyed, blond-haired White man. The man most marketable and palatable for a wide superhero readership and audience. And his fate is…telling.
SD: Especially the bit where he decides to stop using thought balloons because they make him feel dated. And yeah, the fact that he and all the children who clapped their hands because they believed in superheroes is extremely telling. Especially when contextualized with his ultimate weapon: Fandom!
RB: Something that was always bound to blow up in his face, something that was never going to work out, for we live in a timeline with ComicsGate. A thing that would be born not long after The Multiversity’s publication, but which has its toxic roots going back decades. Fandom’s never been all that great, whether it be Geoff Johns, King Of The Fans, and where his fate ended up, or HEAT from the 90’s, or Johns’ old bestie EVS and the rest of the rightwing grifter gang. That is the reality we’re stuck with. So, yeah, Ultra as Haunted Comic Book? I buy it. What destroys better and more potently than the power of fandom? Few things are quite as toxic, trying, and terrible.
SD: It’s worth noting that The Multiversity itself started five days after the #gamergate fiasco began.
RB: Oh god.
SD: Fandom is a hellscape that will not save us. Worshiping the idols of superheroes as inherently good will ultimately lead to cruelty and horror.
RB: That is really the lesson of this entire book, yeah? There’s that iconic Morrison quote: “Before the Bomb was a bomb, it was an Idea. Superman, however, was a faster, stronger, better idea.” People often miss the meat of that, the full implications of that, I think. The Bomb needs to be a physical thing. It is an object of physical destruction. Superman? He doesn’t need to be. He is an Idea, an abstract thing that can have great impact, without physical destruction. Both are tools for the powers-that-be, but Superman is a far more effective tool than The Bomb.
If there’s one thing Multiversity tells us, and warns us of, it’s that Superheroes, and Superman too, are not inherently anything in a modern world. They are vehicles, tools, which can be used and deployed for any purpose. It’s why Homelander and Omni-Man can exist, as can Conservative Superman who yells about protestors, and in contrast to that, Socialist Crusader Superman. The multitude of that, we have to deal with that.
The superhero means whatever we want them to, whatever we need them to. That’s why we love them, and it’s also why we fear them.
SD: The more important quote from Supergods (the book that quote comes from), and perhaps a good means of closing out this conversation of ours, is this (emphasis mine):
If our shallow, self-critical culture sometimes seems to lack a sense of the numinous or spiritual it’s only in the same way a fish lacks a sense of the ocean. Because the numinous is everywhere, we need to be reminded of it. We live among wonders. Superhuman cyborgs, we plug into cell phones connecting us to one another and to a constantly updated planetary database, an exo-memory that allows us to fit our complete cultural archive into a jacket pocket. We have camera eyes that speed up, slow down, and reverse the flow of time, allowing us to see what no one prior to the twentieth century has ever seen–the thermodynamic miracle of broken shards and a puddle gathering themselves up from the floor to assemble half-full wineglass. We are the hands and eyes and ears, the sensitive probing feelers through which the emergent, intelligent universe comes to know its own form and purpose. We bring the thunderbolt of meaning and significance to unconscious matter, blank paper, the night sky. We are already divine magicians, already supergods. Why shouldn’t we use all our brilliance to leap in as many single bounds as it takes to a world beyond ours, threatened by overpopulation, mass species extinction, environmental degradation, hunger, and exploitation? Superman and his pals would figure a way out of any stupid cul-de-sac we could find ourselves in–and we made Superman after all.