Published on November 25th, 2014 | by Michael0
A Guide to The Multiversity – Pax Americana
Our jaunt around the Multiverse continues and this month we’re stopping off at Earth-4, also known as ‘Charlton Comics World’ or ‘hey aren’t they the Watchmen?’. Yes, with Pax Americana Morrison has decided against delving into his own personal bag of tricks and has instead gone with some tried and tested characters from years past.
Charlton Comics was founded as TWO Charles Company in 1940 and renamed Charlton Comics in 1944, not after a man called Charlton but by founders John Santangelo and Ed Levy, both of whom had sons called Charles. Charlton was famous for its low budget, often unscrupulous tactics (such as paying creators very low rates) but with the benefit of selling comics cheaply to fans. Their output covered Sci-Fi, Western, funny animals and a range of black and white comics based on TV favourites, such as Space: 1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man. After DC had spearheaded the rival of superhero comics in the mid-1950s, Charlton introduced their own such hero, Captain Atom, co-created by Steve Ditko who would go on to achieve great things at Marvel. When Ditko returned to Charlton he helped launch a line of ‘Action Heroes’ including The Peacemaker, The Question and a new identity for an old Fox Comics character, The Blue Beetle. Charlton had some great success with these characters but were eventually outstripped by other companies and called it a day in the early 1980s.
Characters though outlive their creators and if they’re lucky their can even outlive their publishers. The tales behind some of these characters are particularly convoluted even among comic book characters. In comics, a character can face death, reincarnation and retconning on a monthly basis, while behind the scenes there are mergers, takeovers, acquisitions of intellectual property and lawsuits to be contended with. If you have a week spare with nothing to do, read around Marvel/Miracleman or anyone who has ever held the name ‘Captain Marvel’. In the case of these characters, their lives in some cases extend to before Charlton existed and well beyond its demise.
The first character named Blue Beetle debuted in 1939, a rookie patrolman named Dan Garret who fought crime in both his day job and in his leisure time. These books were not particularly well thought out – Garret who gain or lose a variety of superpowers whenever the writers wanted him to – and their popularity soon waned. In the 1960s Steve Ditko created a much more enduring version of the character, Ted Kord, a student of Garret’s. Kord could not make Garret’s mysterious scarab work for him but compensated for his lack of superpowers with athletic skill and gadget a’plenty. This Blue Beetle bore more than a passing resemblance to Ditko’s most famous creation, Spider-Man, beyond just the name; both were wisecracking teens with scientific skill and impressive acrobatics.
The Question was another of Ditko’s creations. The version in Charlton Comics is a more palatable version of an older Ditko character, Mr A, from Witzend Comics. Ditko was a keen student of right wing nutter Ayn Rand and Mr A was the embodiment of his Objectivist philosophy. A crusading journalist and private eye, Mr A was a ruthless vigilante who left a black and white calling card because he didn’t believe in any moral grey areas. The Question was similarly a journalist, hired by a professor to stop an arms deal, using his wits, his fists and some false skin to hide his face. The Question continued in this career as a detective-cum-vigilante, utilising brutal methods like allowing criminals to die rather than save them.
DC Comics acquired the Charlton characters in 1983 and soon a British writer called Alan Moore had grand plans for them. Moore and his artist Dave Gibbons intended to use the Charlton characters for what would become the seminal Watchmen miniseries. Much has been written about Watchmen but it really does still stand up as one of the greatest examples of a superhero book. The problem though was, as anyone who has read Watchmen will testify, it leaves many, if not all, of the heroes therein unusable for future writers (despite what the creators of the staggeringly ill-conceived Before Watchmen would have you believe). So Moore instead created analogues of the Action heroes; Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, The Peacemaker The Comedian, Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan (and used a diagram of a hydrogen atom as his symbol) and The Question became everyone’s favourite character Rorschach. Alan Moore tells the story that Steve Ditko remarked to him that Rorschach is like Mr A, ‘only insane’.
The internet needs more people banging on about Watchmen like it needs more pictures of cats so I’ll leave it alone for now, merely remarking that Pax Americana’s The Question owes a great deal to Rorschach as well as to his direct predecessor.
What Moore’s analogues did do, however, was allow the Charlton characters to cross directly into the DC universe, with mixed success. Captain Atom keeps being retconned and had the ignominy of starring in Countdown To Final Crisis but The Question and Blue Beetle fared much better. A version of The Question was one of the highlights of the otherwise messy The Dark Knight Strikes Back and in the main DC continuity played a starring role in 52 (the yin to Countdown To Final Crisis’s yang), over the course of the book handing over the reins to former GCPD officer Renee Montoya. As an aside, while serving as The Question Montoya undertook a trip across the multiverse gathering superhumans to help Superman at the conclusion of Final Crisis which is where President Superman, star of Multiversity#1, was first encountered.
The other big success from Charlton was Blue Beetle. Ted Kord went on to have a memorable stint in the JLI where he formed perhaps comicdom’s best double act with Booster Gold. Kord also has the distinction of having one of *the* great comic book deaths in the lead up to Infinite Crisis. Forsaken by all his friends (and I do mean all) he finally proves himself the equal of Batman as he uncovers the central conspiracy, which he is then invited to join. His rebuttal is the ‘my name is ASAC Schrader and you can go fuck yourself’ of comic book final words and his death eventually helps his former friends win the day. Kord was even namechecked in Arrow, is he due a TV appearance in the near future? What we wouldn’t give for television’s very own Blue and Gold.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I am going to talk about Watchmen. Mainly from an artistic standpoint, because the visual structure of Watchmen is so crucial to what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were trying to achieve at the time, and to what Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely are aiming for with Pax Americana.
Throughout Watchmen, Dave Gibbons uses what’s called a nine-panel grid structure. Fairly self-explanatory, each page is laid out as a three-by-three grid of nine panels. Now, not every page in Watchmen has nine panels, but those which have fewer, larger ones, the larger panels are combinations of two or more within the grid, keeping the page in that rigid grid structure. This allows for a consistency of feeling throughout the comic, whilst its rigidity and order also lend themselves to the clockwork motif throughout.
In Pax Americana, Morrison and Quitely use an eight-panel grid. This takes the form of two rowers of taller, thinner panels. Again, they overlap and they form different shapes depending on the requirements of the page, but the grid structure remains. This is partly in reference and deference to a classic (even if it is by one of Morrison’s two arch-nemeses!), and also as a reinforcement of the number 8, a recurring motif throughout the comic.
We open with the assassination of President Harley. Played in reverse, slow-motion, graphic detail. This is not unlike the obsession over the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, something this is very much meant to evoke. In Watchmen, it’s implied that the Comedian carried out the Kennedy assassination; in Pax Americana, his analogue, Peacemaker, carries out the assassination of the President. The burning peace flag in panel one, ironically set ablaze by a bullet from Peacemaker, forms the cover image for the comic – yet another visual shout out to Dave Gibbons.
Peacemaker is interrogated by new President Charles Eden, his right hand man Sgt Lane and two others. They say that they’ve run the tape backwards and forwards and can’t make sense of it. The idea of time moving backwards and forwards in a non-linear fashion, with the events of the past reflected in the future and the events of the future equally reflected in the past, and how impossible that is for our linear, three-dimensional forms to comprehend, is at the heart of this remarkable structural experiment from Morrison and Quitely. The significance of the number eight is the infinite, reflected loop it forms. It looks the same as the symbol for infinity, or a möbius strip, a three-dimensional construct with one side, no beginning and no end.
Eight also represents the eight colours of spiral dynamics. This is a newer, more advanced worldview for the Question, having moved on from his origins in objectivism. No longer restricted by black and white, he takes a holistic view on the world which brings him very close to solving the central mystery. Incidentally, for those who wanted to see more of what Question was explaining when he was telling the corrupt police officer about spiral dynamics, marvel, as I suck at explaining the eight memes of spiral dynamics;
- Infancy. This is us at our most basic, unconscious of complex concepts, satisfying new urges as they occur to us and learning the patterns.
- Kinship. This is about us learning to rely on others as we grow into the patterns and routines.
- Ego. The inflated sense of self created by the assertion from your kin from the purple stage that you above all else are special.
- Truth and purpose. We learn that we aren’t necessarily the centre of the universe, and act in a more socially acceptable fashion, albeit with the promise of reward.
- Drive and desire. Where we begin to plan actions with an end-reward in sight, typically something which we believe will make our lives better.
- Community. Becoming part of a larger whole, reaching decisions through consensus, and a sharing of resources.
Stage six is where we currently are as a society, roughly speaking. The attainment of each stage isn’t an achievement as such, nor should the previous stages be left behind; rather, it’s a progression, and we should maintain a healthy balance of all these aspects to create a more rounded whole, spiralling out from the initial point of “there is only me”. Stages seven and eight are observable in individuals, but society at large is not there yet.
- Flexibility. The ability to compromise selfish interests for yourself and your community for the betterment of society as a whole.
- Holisticism. As I understand it, this stage is effectively the giving over of yourself as part of a whole; acting as humanity rather than as human. If you’ve seen Interstellar, this is the stage that Doctor Mann and Professor Brand were espousing in their plan.
It’s this whole approach which has somehow led The Question to be close to reconciling the murders of four prominent scientists, the recent disappearance of Captain Atom, the murder of Peacemaker’s girlfriend and the near-forty year-old disappearance of their world’s original superhero, Yellowjacket. Ultimately though, as a linear being within the narrative, Question is never going to be able to figure it out. To crack the mystery, you need to take on the perspective of Captain Atom.
Ultra Comics makes its latest appearance in a Multiversity comic, as Captain Atom sits reading it in a particle accelerator. As the scientists prepare to switch the machine on, Atom uses the comic to explain how he views time; time is an open door, through which he can pass in either direction. Our concepts of progression and thought are nothing more to him than ink on a page is to us. And it’s from Captain Atom’s higher-dimensional perspective that we can see, jump around and put together the pieces.
- In 1974, comic artist Vince Harley, also the superhero Yellowjacket, is accidentally shot to death by his eight-year-old son upon returning from patrol.
- In 1989, the son is visited by Captain Atom at his father’s graveside and shown how to perceive time via a mathematical equation called Algorithm-8.
- In 2005, the son has now grown to be Governor Harley, and along with Peacemaker thwarts an attempt on President George W Bush’s life.
- In 2007, an accident referred to as the U-235 incident (a combination of the U2 incident in the Cold War and Uranium-235, the isotope of Uranium which can be used to create self-sustaining nuclear fission reactions) has turned Allen Adam into the man we now call Captain Atom. He meets Governor Harley, who enlists him in the plan given to the Governor by Captain Atom in 1989.
- In 2008, Harley is elected president. He shows off his superhero team, Pax Americana, featuring The Question, Tiger, Peacemaker, Blue Beetle and Nightshade, led by Captain Atom. Atom raises three skyscrapers on the site where the World Trade Centre once stood.
- In 2015, Peacemaker and his girlfriend Nora discuss the future. As he embarks on his final mission, Nora solves Algorithm-8, and is murdered by Sgt Lane. Captain Atom is brought to a particle accelerator on the pretext of observing the experiment from within the accelerator, but reveals that he knows the plan is really to kill him using the accelerator to generate a black hole in his head. He also reveals that they will fail. After he disappears, Sgt Lane arrives to kill the scientists. Peacemaker assassinates President Harley, allowing Lane’s boss and Nightshade’s father, Charles Eden, to ascend to the Presidency. The Question is on the case, and discovers Lane’s involvement.
Cliffhanger! Although, due to the time-shifting nature of the comic, that cliffhanger ending to the linear narrative is on page 21/40. It’s a tough one to follow at times, but I think Pax Americana may be Multiversity’s crowning achievement so far. And the star of the show is Frank Quitely. There isn’t a page here that makes you think “hmm, I wonder why it took him so long to draw this comic?” Each panel, whether he’s working at full size, quadruple size or 1/1024th scale (yes, really), each is packed with detail and utterly beautiful. Pax Americana is a dense comic which requires multiple rereads, but there are very few more worthy.
Moving forward, I would guess we’ll maybe see Captain Atom again. The particle accelerator sequence, particularly the shift from red light to green when the guy pressed the button, put me in mind of the transmatter devices collecting Supermen for the battle against the Gentry. At a guess, I would place their agents in this world as being Vice-President Eden and Sgt Lane. On the whole, though, this felt a little disconnected from the event. I’ve probably missed something! If you spotted it, do let us know in the comments.