Published on February 23rd, 2015 | by Brad0
A Guide To The Multiversity – Mastermen
It’s fiction’s ultimate ‘what if’ question. What if Superman had landed… sorry I mean what if the Nazis had won World War II? Along with the American Civil War, it’s probably the most speculated upon and written about divergence from our history. It’s not hard to see why this scenario holds such a powerful sway over creative minds. More than perhaps any other war in human history, the Second World War has a very easy to follow good versus evil narrative and the repercussions of a Nazi victory are too horrible for most of us to contemplate. In addition, there is a wealth of information available to us about what Europe may have looked like post German victory, from the carving up of the existing nations and Hitler’s dreams of a 1000 year Reich to the architectural designs of Albert Speer.
Accordingly, there has been a rich variety of fiction on the subject. One of the best examples is Robert Harris’ Fatherland. Set decades after the war and concerning a policeman who gets caught up in a troubling conspiracy, the details of the war are sketchy but it is made clear that there were three key divergences – firstly, the Germans realised that the Bletchley Park crew had cracked the enigma code, so replaced it. Secondly, they were able to cut off the Red Army from their oil supplies. Thirdly, the Germans developed a nuclear bomb at the same time the US did, causing the two countries to agree a stalemate. The novel is noticeably lacking in science fiction. No fantastical element helped the Germans win; they just made the right decisions at key times. The book was so wildly successful that Harris playfully refers to his home as ‘The House Hitler Built’. Phillip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle takes the concept further. In his vision, not only did the Nazis conquer Europe but between them, Germany and Japan successfully invade the United States, carving it up between them. As is Dick’s wont, the book is a more esoteric take of the idea and features at its centre the book ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ in which the author imagines a world in which the Nazis lost. This sort of embedded fiction is similar to what Grant Morrison has attempted with these comics. A pilot of The Man In The High Castle has recently been released on Amazon Prime and if early indications are anything to go by it will likely be made in to a series.
Another version of the same story comes from Norman Spinrad in his classic The Iron Dream. The conceit here, as explained in the framing narrative, is that as a young man Adolf Hitler left Austria for America and pursued his dream of becoming a science fiction writer. His tale, the book within a book ‘Lord Of The Swastika’ tells an idealised version of Hitler’s rise to power in a fantasy setting, with many of the events and characters mirroring those in real life. In the story, a man named Feric Jaggar (a Mary-Sue version of Hitler) takes control of a post nuclear wasteland and rids it of all the undesirable creatures, leaving only the ‘truemen’, those whose DNA was unaffected by the radiation (imagine 2000AD’s Strontium Dog if you were meant to root for the humans). ‘Hitler’s’ story is inherently ridiculous – Jaggar is entirely successful at everything he tries, never has any doubts and is always victorious, the most boring character imaginable. Homer Whipple, the fictional scholar who writes the framing story, has a stab at which fictional race represented is analogous to which real people whom have stoked Hitler’s ire. Fittingly, ‘Hitler’s’ portrayal of the Jews and the fictional Doms is so removed from reality that Whipple simply has no idea who they are meant to be. Irony abounds in this novel. Whipple assures readers that the huge following Jaggar accrues in such a short amount of time simply couldn’t happen in the real world, further flavour is added by having positive quotes from real world authors, such as Phillip Jose Farmer and The American Nazi Society, apparently missing the point, added it to their list of recommended reading. Spinrad’s point, in writing this novel, was to show up how the ‘monomyth’ idea put forward by Joseph Campbell in his seminal The Hero With A Thousand Faces and indeed much of science fiction and fantasy in general can be dangerously close to racist ideology. This idea can be felt very keenly in superhero comics, I feel. After all, what is a character such as Superman if not the very embodiment of the idea of the ubermensch? That’s something that will certainly be addressed in Mastermen.
Another reason I think that the Nazi victory scenario appeals to writers is that it allows the protagonist to be as brutal as they want without being in danger of losing the audience’s sympathy. A good example of that I think is the faux Nazi-Britain of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta. Though not strictly the usual scenario, the Government that has arisen in England (again from the ashes of nuclear war) is ideologically almost identical to the Nazi Party. Indeed for the film version the name of the leader was changed from Adam Susan to Adam Sutler, a portmanteau of his comic name and that of Hitler. In the comic, a figure in a Guy Fawkes mask wages war of the government, committing brutal murders and audacious acts of terrorism. Moore’s original idea was that it would be up to the audience to decide whether V was a freedom fighter of a terrorist. How successful this was I’m not sure because the Government of the time is so brutal and sadistic it’s hard not to cheer on V as he force feeds a Bishop cyanide or destroys Big Ben. Another more recent example is my game of last year, Wolfenstein: The New Order in which usual Wolfenstein hero BJ Blazkowicz wages a one man war on a Nazi regime in the 1960s (this version even managed to conquer the US, thanks to the inventions of the main villain, Deathshead). BJ is violent even for an FPS protagonist in a very brutal game but remains in the sympathies of the player due in part to his internal monologue but mostly down to the fact that the soldiers his is savaging are all Nazis.
Mastermen has its own take on a Nazi victory of course, one that again has its roots in Final Crisis. In this version the element that allowed the Nazis to win is that Kal-El’s rocket landed in the Sudetenland rather than Kansas. The idea of Nazi supermen is not new to fiction of course, again we return to the idea of the ubermensch. Indeed, with the title of this book Morrison is probably giving a shout out to his own 2000AD strip ‘Zenith’ in which British superheroes fought the superhuman Masterman during the war. What is also not new is the idea of Superman landing elsewhere and changing the course of history. If the Nazis winning the war is the most popular form of divergent real world history, is Superman not being found by the Kents the most popular example in fiction? In one such story, ‘JLA: The Nail’, a flat tire causes the Kents not the reach the infant Kal-El and the future Justice League is formed without a Superman. In a story by Kim Howard Johnson, co-written by John Cleese, he lands in Britain and is christened Colin Kent. The most famous example though, and the most analogous to Mastermen is Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son. In this Elseworld story, Kal-El lands of Earth just a few hours earlier than the mainstream version and therefore on USSR soil rather than in the States. Adopted by Stalin, he leads the USSR to victory over most of the world, bringing mostly prosperity as he does so. He is opposed in the US by Luthor, who first takes the job out of duty but is soon consumed by it. What is interesting in this book is that some characters (Luthor, Lois Lane, Perry White) are the same as the mainstream DC universe but without Superman whereas others, such as Batman and Pete Ross are reimagined as Russian analogues. Grant Morrison claims to have helped his friend Millar with this story with an idea about Superman being sent back in time. That is interestingly how Hitler spins Kal-El’s arrival in Mastermen.
Our comic opens with a splash page of Hitler defecating. Obviously. He’s reading what appears to be Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s “What if Superman Ended the War?” from the early 1940s. As was common in propaganda comics and cartoons of the period, Hitler is displayed here as an angry, shouting buffoon, albeit even they wouldn’t have had the gall to display the Fuhrer manfully struggling with what’s clearly a very difficult poo. The source of his anger here is a soldier sent by a Colonel von Hammer to interrupt his ablutions and inform him of the arrival of a weapon from beyond the stars that will win the war for Germany.
The weapon in question is Kal-El’s rocket, discovered by a farmer in the Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia). In a demonstration of its passenger’s power, the Colonel has his men open fire upon the infant Last Son of Krypton with machine guns from point-blank range. The bullets bounce off him, and he begins tearing apart his steel seat with his bare hands. In the child, Hitler sees the Übermensch, or Overman, the idealised human of the future from Nietzschean philosophy. Inspired by this thought, along with comics such as the aforementioned Superman and Major Comics’ The American Crusader (guess who!?), he prepares to forge this Man of Iron into his unstoppable weapon.
Hitler in comics is typically characterised as the classic Tyrant With Great Vision But Narrow Perception, and that’s no different here. He looks at the American Superman and American Crusader comics and decides to forge his own superhero in their image, fundamentally misunderstanding that, if Superman were lifted from the comic page to meet Hitler, he’d have slapped the moustache right off his face. This also parallels his perversion of Nietzsche’s Übermensch concept; according to Nietzsche, the Übermensch is the idealised form of humanity, a goal to which we should all aspire. In Hitler’s hands, he crafted the notion of the Untermensch, a lesser class of humans who must be enslaved and purged. This notion of perversion and subversion of classic images permeates Mastermen.
With technology reverse-engineered from Kal-El’s rocket, the Nazis are able to win the war, culminating in their arrival in Washington DC on Hitler’s 67th birthday, the 20th of April, 1956, tanks, aircraft and infantry led by the flying Overman, symbol of Nazi superiority. As he poses for propaganda photos and books and comics are burnt in the street, a soldier uses a rocket launcher to destroy the Lincoln Memorial. Watching all of this is a defeated, broken-looking Uncle Sam.
Sixty years later, Overman wakes with a start and a scream from a recurring nightmare. He stands on a field strewn with the bodies of his allies the Reichsmen, holding the corpse of Overgirl in an image reminiscent of Superman and Supergirl in Crisis on Infinite Earths. In the background stands a rotten old house, filled with giant eyeballs peering at him from the windows. As you’ll remember from Multiversity #1, this is Lord Broken of the Gentry. Like his cohort Dame Merciless visiting the dreams of various heroes in The Just, Lord Broken haunts the dreams of Overman, weakening his resolve, and setting the stage for what’s to come.
In the waking world, Overman – or Karl Kent, if you prefer – talks to Lena Lang about his dream. Every night, putting him in mind of “a broken house, impossible to repair. A great vacant building, its timbers cracking, the moulding rotten. The floorboards crumbling underfoot yet still alive with some malevolent emptiness.” It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to analyse what’s troubling him; the seeming paradise he now rules over was built on the bodies of a lot of innocent people during the “ethnic and ideological purges of the Hitler era.” He carries these troubles alone, so far as he’s aware the only man left alive from that generation. His contemporaries in the New Reichsmen consider the atrocities of their forebears as necessary, and the paradise they live in now as the end to justify those means.
At a memorial service for Overgirl, a more present threat makes itself known; Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. Where classically the image of a team of American heroes fighting against the Nazis seems heroic, here they occupy a much more morally grey space. They’re a couple of generations removed from the Nazi invasion, so the people whose crimes they want restitution for are long gone, as are the unavenged victims. So who benefits from Sam tearing the regime down now? Is his strike against the Nazis right and just regardless of the passage of time, or is his committing genocide against a generation to satisfy a lust for revenge for a war long-since lost? And can Sam tell the difference anymore?
The memorial is interrupted by the appearance of Sam, vast and accusing, as he drops the Human Bomb into their midst. On Bomb’s uniform is an inverted purple triangle which denotes him as a Jehovah’s Witness, one of the many groups sent to the concentration camps. Although Blitzen (The Flash) is able to save the bulk of the bystanders, the memorial hall is devastated. Bomb survives, as his powers allow him to absorb and take any damage and convert it into explosive energy – the suicide bomber who survives the blast.
As the Reichsmen interrogate Human Bomb and make plans to prevent future attacks, Uncle Sam returns to his base, covered in American paraphernalia; a 48-starred American flag, a photo of Jackie Robinson and a poster for Gone With the Wind amongst other things. Here he meets his new Freedom Fighters; Doll Man & Doll Woman (also wearing purple triangles on their costumes), The Ray (wearing a pink triangle which denoted homosexuals), Black Condor (a red triangle which denoted political enemies of the Reich) and Phantom Lady (a yellow triangle which denoted an Aryan woman in a relationship with a non-Aryan man. Presumably in this case Black Condor). Their powers have been given to them by this world’s Doctor Sivana, a former Nazi scientist. And if the idea of a Nazi scientist experimenting on the descendants of various denizens of concentration camps makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Sivana’s presence of course stands as an extension of the Gentry, who seem to be using the League of Sivanas to weaken the worlds for their arrival.
In Metropolis, or New Bayreuth, Overman and Lena attend the annual performance of Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. This has its roots in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, where the cycle has been performed annually since 1876 at the Festspielhaus, a building of Wagner’s own design. The Ring cycle, which takes the form of four separate operas, performed over four nights, totalling about fifteen hours depending on the speed of the conductor, takes its roots in Nordic mythology, particularly Ragnarok, or the Twilight of the Gods, as well as the German folk tale of Siegfried and Brunhilde. The events of Mastermen have some rough parallels with the Ring cycle, casting Overman as Wotan, the once-proud king of the gods who eventually comes to see the injustices he has inflicted on the mortal world and sets into motion a series of events which brings about the downfall of the gods and the redemption of humanity.
If Overman is Wotan, then the Eagle’s Nest, this world’s version of the JLA Watchtower, is the cursed ring which brings about the destruction of all the protagonists. During the third night of the performance, dealing with the story of Siegfried, Leatherwing (Batman) and Underwaterman (guess!) are on the nest, discussing the possibility that Overman might know more about the Human Bomb than he’s letting on, and speculating on the notion that one of the New Reichsmen is a traitor, helping the Freedom Fighters. Before Leatherwing can take that train of thought to its logical conclusion, he and Underwaterman are struck down by an explosion. The Human Bomb is free, and he uses his powers to blow the nest out of orbit and send it plummeting to Earth. In the theatre, Uncle Sam appears, declaring to the great and good of the Nazi command that they are about to be destroyed. The image is evocative of the Revenge of the Giant Face from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Continuing the Ring cycle parallels, Overman’s supervision allows him to see a burst of flame from his castle in the sky, the sight which signals the beginning of the destruction of Valhalla and the death of the gods (and an image Morrison has used before in his JLA storyline Rock of Ages to signify Darkseid’s defeat).
Overman flies up to stop the nest from dropping on New Bayreuth, with all the consequences you can imagine weighing on his shoulders. His strength, and more importantly his resolve, fails him. The Eagle’s Nest crashes into the former Metropolis. The image evokes memories of the World Trade Centre attacks, as Uncle Sam’s star-spangled Jihadists strike at the very heart of Nazi supremacy. And left in the wreckage is Overman. Alive, alone, crushed. He wasn’t able to save Metropolis because he didn’t fully want to. He felt he should have been punished for the crimes of the past, and he engineered the situation to allow the Freedom Fighters to take him down. His machinations caused the deaths of millions, with him left sat in the ashes. I’ve felt for a while that the Gentry’s way to conquer worlds is first to break their Superman, and through a combination of Herr Doktor Sivana’s perversion of the Freedom Fighters and Lord Broken’s torturing of Overman’s dreams, they appear to have achieved just that.
It goes without saying, then, that Mastermen is the darkest chapter of Multiversity so far. The oppressive nature of the Nazi imagery is of course horrifying, but it’s what Grant does with so silly a character as Uncle Sam which is particularly astonishing. Created by Will Eisner for Quality Comics back in 1940, Sam is the spirit of American patriotism made flesh. When National Comics (now DC) purchased Quality in the 1950s, they assembled a group of Quality’s heroes to become the Freedom Fighters, led by Sam. Here, Sam’s a guerrilla terrorist, slaughtering innocents on a misguided quest for revenge for the actions of their grandparents. It’s very difficult to root for him and his cause; no mean feat when his enemies are the Nazis!
Jim Lee takes art duties this month. A co-publisher at DC comics, Lee is something of a legendary figure in the industry. His X-Men #1 from 1991 with Chris Claremont remains the best-selling comic of all time, according to the Guinness Book of Records. He’s a co-founder of Image Comics, as well as creating his own Wildstorm line. His style is very 90s, all hyper-stylised figures covered in lines and hatch marks. This suits the larger moments and splash-pages very well, but it does feel a bit much in the smaller, more intimate sequences. It’s a very striking look, though, and the apocalyptic imagery in the final sequences is stunning.
Next time, the Multiversity takes us to a world which is very familiar; our own. Until then, feel free to correct any mistakes we may have made about Nietzsche and Wagner in the comments!