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Published on September 22nd, 2014 | by Michael

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A Guide To The Multiversity – Society of Super-Heroes

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After the existence-spanning epic of last month’s Multiversity, Issue One takes into the world of pulp heroes. Grant Morrison promises a ‘kind of 1940s retro thing’ with Doc Fate leading a team of heroes known as the SOS as they battle conquerors from other worlds.

To best understand this book, it’s useful to have a little knowledge of the works that inspired it. In a sense, early pulp works were the precursors to superheroes. Printed on cheap paper (hence the name) the books were often hastily written and derivative, looked down upon and rarely considered real literature. But some of them became very popular and spawned hugely successful characters, some of which made the medium switch to comics and even persist to this day. Out of the pages of pulp novels and magazines sprang such characters as The Shadow, John Carter of Mars and the legendary ‘Man of Bronze’, Doc Savage. Savage in particular was very like a superhero – he used his superior intellect, brawn and financial clout to battle both fantastical super villains and, later, break up crime rings and catch murderers. Thus Savage’s adventures went from the outlandish to the more realistic, a trend which is usually reversed for more modern heroes. As well as predating superheroes, Doc Savage stories were very forward looking in other ways. As is so often the case with science fiction, many of the gadgets featured in the books later came to pass; answering machines, televisions and night goggles all made appearances.

Doc Savage serves as a partial inspiration for this story

Within the pages of comic books, the pulp style continues to be very popular – witness Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ string of acclaimed pulp/crime fiction inspired titles, such as Fatale, Criminal and in particular Incognito. Outwith comics though, the genre has had considerably less recent success. This website has previously discussed the commercial failures of three pulp films in the 1990s, and more recent efforts like the staggeringly expensive John Carter have fared little better. With so many superhero properties to adapt and with the absurdly quick nature of the modern day reboot (cf. Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four) it seems unlikely that another studio will finance another expensive adaptation of an older property. Despite this, the characters found within pulp novels have proven to be enduringly popular (everyone in the western world still knows the name Tarzan, for instance).

In Multiversity: Society of Super-Heroes Morrison is hoping to tap into that vein of nostalgia as he delivers his own take on the pulp heroes of yesteryear. With the series spanning so many different worlds and hero archetypes, it would have been remiss of Morrison to neglect pulp fiction, really. But pulp is not the only past to which Morrison looks. The word ‘Society’ harks back the Justice Society of America, forerunners of the prestigious JLA. Though the original DC Justice team, the Society soon found a home on Earth 2, which was essentially a ‘Golden Age’ world where all the old favourites still hung out and fought crime. Though this story is not set in Earth-2 (rather, Earth-20) it is clear Morrison is evoking this comic golden age as well as the older pulp stories. Indeed, leader of the SOS is Doc Fate, his name seemingly a portmanteau of Doc Savage and JSA stalwart Doctor Fate, and who carries the look of classic pulp hero tribute The Rocketeer. Conversely, the villain of the piece, the immortal Vandal Savage of course also shares his name with the pulp era icon. Another character, Abin Sur, is dressed in the manner of the JSA’s Green Lantern, Alan Scott (as opposed to the Lantern Corps uniform associated with Hal Jordan et al), again recalling the earlier comic heroes.

Like Doc Savage, the character of Doctor Fate has a rich and varied history. The first story, which appeared in More Fun Comics #55 was published in 1940 just two years after the debut of Superman. A hugely powerful sorcerer, Doctor Fate is a legacy superhero of sorts; many characters down the years have claimed the mantle, though they often appear outside the main DC continuity. Currently, the ‘main’ version of the character resides in Earth 2, DC’s ongoing comic set in a world parallel to Earth Prime. Doctor Fate has never really managed breakout popularity in the same way as early contemporaries Superman and Batman, due perhaps in part to his magical nature and an ill-defined power set which is the bane of many such characters throughout comics. In his satirical take on Superheroes The Boys Garth Ennis refers to ‘the neat and tidy minds of geeks’ and magic based characters just don’t fit the bill. We know Superman can fly, the Flash can run and Wonder Woman can compel a man to speak the truth but honestly we readers don’t know what Doctor Fate, The Spectre or Doctor Strange can do until they’ve done it. Morrison however has never been a writer overly concerned with the easily quantified.

Doctor Fate, in all his New Earth glory

As I suspect will be the case for many of the characters and worlds featured within Multiversity, Morrison’s spin on the character, Doc Fate, made his debut in a one panel cameo during Final Crisis, in the companion piece Superman Beyond. In his non-fiction book on the history of Superheroes in comics, Supergods, Morrison writes of his own work Final Crisis

‘I tried to show the DC universe breaking down into signature gestures, last gasp strategies that were tried and tested but would this time fail, until finally even the characterisations would fade and the plot become rambling, meaningless, disconnected. Although I lost my nerve a little, I confess, and it never became disconnected enough.’

Perhaps haunted by his own perceived loss of nerve with Final Crisis, Morrison seems determined to use it as a sort of proving ground of ideas. Indeed, large sections of the crossover, especially Superman Beyond read like a directory of character and story ideas, the comic book equivalent of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. The seeds of this month’s offering were sown years ago in a single panel, how have they grown?

Our comic proper begins not with Doc Fate, but with Immortal Man. Created in 1965, he has his roots in DC’s Strange Adventures series, a pulp-style sci-fi anthology comic. His opening narration puts one in mind of William Holden at the opening of Sunset Blvd. He arrives at the monolithic Tower of Fate to answer a summons from the Doc, and meets the Blackhawks, a team of soldiers and aviatrices, whose leader Lady Blackhawk is an old acquaintance, and Al Pratt, the Mighty Atom. Pratt was the Golden Age Atom, and a member of the Justice Society of America; like Alan Scott and Jay Garrick, he was replaced at the dawn of the Silver Age by a newer, more science-fiction influenced take on the identity. Traditionally, Pratt is something of an anomaly in superhero comics, lacking the awesome powers of his contemporaries and standing at a diminutive 5’4”, relying instead on his self-trained strength and fighting skills, and his sense of right and wrong. A version of Al can also be seen in the Earth-2 comic, his costume and power set resembling the pre-Flashpoint version’s son Damage and godson Atom Smasher.

Multiversity SOS 4

The aforementioned Doc Fate and Green Lantern arrive to make introductions, and Atom takes a look at a seemingly innocuous artefact. Immediately, Doc commands him to put it down, as “In this room of very dangerous things, that comic is the most dangerous thing of all.” The comic is Multiversity: Ultraa Comics #1, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Doug Mahnke. This self-same comic was the reading material of the ill-fated Nix Uotan last month, and will be unleashed upon us innocent readers in February 2015. The Doc warns that the comic is said to be cursed, or even haunted; on the evidence of what happened to Nix, it’s easy to understand his caution.

Doc Fate and Abin Sur have assembled the Society with a purpose – preparation for a possible incursion from a parallel Earth. Every 100,000 years, the worlds of the multiverse intersect with their opposite. Two worlds become one, and passage between the two becomes simple. For a conqueror like Vandal Savage, this is an open invitation to war. Spurred on by Felix Faust, a villainous sorcerer who’s also reading Ultraa Comics #1, Savage, the greatest villain of Earth-40, leads his assault on Earth-20, leading to five years of war against “unknown weapons, mad-eyed suicide troops, impossible killer robots and dead men walking”

Earth-20 and Earth-40 are an opposite pair, positioned across from each other on the map posted last month. From this, we can judge the positions of the twins to other worlds we know about. Interestingly, Earth-3, home of the Crime Syndicate is not the twin to the Prime DC Earth, but rather Earth-2, home of the new version of the Justice Society. From what Harbinger told us last month, we know that we’re going to be visiting Earths 4, 5, 10, 16 and 33 over the coming months. Earths 5 and 10, home to the classic Fawcett version of Captain Marvel and the guilt-ridden Overman who was raised by Hitler in a world where the Nazis won World War 2 respectively, are a twin pair. I would hazard a guess that the duality of those two realities is going to be examined at some point. Earths 4 and 16, I don’t recognise the partner worlds for. Most interesting is the position of Earth-33, where the seemingly crucial Ultraa Comics is going to be set. It’s twinned with Earth-0, the Prime DC Earth. And since we know Earth-0’s opposite isn’t the home of the Crime Syndicate, there’s only one other place that could be; here. Ultraa comics is going to be set right here in the real world.

Continuing the themes of duality, Vandal Savage’s army descend on Doctor Fate’s fortress. Lady Blackhawk is engaged in aerial combat by Lady Shiva, Atom must fight Blockbuster, Abin Sur is thought to have been killed by the fear beast Parallax, pet of Count Sinestro, Savage and Immortal Man are preparing weapons from the meteorites which gave them their immortality to kill each other, and Felix Faust brings his magic to bear against the Doc’s. In a beautifully perfect moment for the character, Faust reveals he’s working on behalf of the Gentry, and playing a much larger game than any of them can comprehend, before being swiftly, hilariously defeated when it comes to actually confronting a hero. Abin Sur returns in a moment of unparalleled badassery, and the Doc reveals a transmatter machine, the design for which came to him in a dream. This obviously parallels the Transmatter devices which brought the other heroes to the Multiversity last month, and it falls on Abin Sur to make the journey. Outside meanwhile, the blood of an immortal is spilt, bringing life to the idol of Niczhuotan, the destroyer of worlds.

Multiversity SOS 2

So what implications does this have going forward? I think it’s pretty safe to say that each issue will feature a Transmatter device, and one of that Earth’s heroes heading through to join President Superman’s team to save Nix Uotan. The Gentry will have an agent on each Earth. The idea of parallel Earths intersecting and the duality between their heroes will likely be a factor. And, at some point, we’re going to see the degradation and corruption of Nix Uotan, echoing throughout the multiverse. Patterns and through-lines are emerging, and doubtless there’s a lot we haven’t spotted yet. Put us right, or offer your own theories, in the comments below.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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