Published on March 30th, 2015 | by Michael0
A Guide to the Multiversity – Ultra Comics
It’s finally upon us. Ultra Comics has made several appearances throughout the Multiversity series so far, infecting all who read it with the Gentry, and now it’s our turn. This month the Multiversity takes us to Earth-33, where the adventures of the heroes of the other 51 Earths are stored as fiction in our comics. Our comics. Earth-33 is the real world, where you, me, and everyone we know all live. The Gentry are coming, and none of us are safe.
Brilliant and creative as this is, Ultra Comics is of course by no means the first comic to play with the fourth wall, and blur the boundaries between what’s happening on the page and how the reader responds to it. It’s a theme Morrison has gone back to time and again in his career, never more notably than when Animal Man star Buddy Baker, high on mescaline, looks behind him and yells “I can see you!” Who’s behind him? Why, we are, of course. Buddy looks through the comic page and sees us looking back at him.
Like so many things in Multiversity, a lot of the inspiration goes back to The Flash. The cover is a pure homage to The Flash #163, on which Barry Allen implores the reader “Don’t pass up this issue! My life depends on it!” The story inside concerns a scientist who erases Central City’s population’s memories of The Flash, causing him to fade out of existence, until he encounters a girl whose belief in The Flash is powerful enough to restore him to save the day (you can see similar stories in the excellent DreamWorks film Rise of the Guardians, and in the late great Terry Pratchett’s magnificent Small Gods). This mirrors the fate of Ultra Comics, the eponymous hero of Ultra Comics, whose life only lasts for as long as we’re reading his comic.
As Buddy Baker’s reality continues to break down in Animal Man, he eventually gets to meet Grant Morrison himself. As they speak, Grant apologises to Buddy for killing off his family earlier in the arc, discussing the role of the writer in the life of the comic book superhero. At the conclusion of all this navel-gazing oddness, Grant returns Buddy to his life and his family, as if nothing had ever happened. He rebels against the Frank Miller-inspired trend for grim-dark super-gritty superheroes, and delivers a happy ending for the hero we’ve spent so much time with. It’s been a feature of his superhero work ever since.
Ultra Comics is the only hero on Earth-33, but he’s not the first. Hell, he’s not even the first to have the word Ultra in his name. That honour goes to Ultraa. Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths, Ultraa was created for an issue of Gerry Conway’s run on Justice League of America, which also introduced Earth-33 (then known as Earth Prime). Like Superman, Ultraa arrived on Earth as an infant, sent to escape the destruction of his home world. Unlike Superman, he was the only superhuman on that Earth. After a confrontation with the visiting Justice League, Ultraa decides that his very presence has exposed Earth Prime to evil (something you’re going to see called back to later), and he follows the Justice League back to their Earth. Post-Crisis, Ultraa was retconned to be an alien from our universe, husband and consort of recurring Superman antagonist Queen Maxima. And they’re not the only Ultra-heroes in this comic, either, with the second Ultra-Man, Gary Condor Jr, the son of All American Comics’ Superman rip-off from the 1940s, and Ultra the Multi-Alien, a classic slice of 60s science fiction from the old Mystery in Space anthologies (recently introduced into the New 52 in Jeff Lemire’s Justice League United) amongst the heroes Ultra Comics meets.
This isn’t the first time Morrison’s taken a hero and made them a fictional construct within the comic, either. We’ve brought up Final Crisis a few times in these reviews, and of particular relevance here is the Superman Beyond 3D tie-in. In it, Superman is sent to a world of pure thought. Here, things exist purely in the abstract until exposed to living eyes, when they become crystallised in narrative. In this world, Superman walks through comic panels, with one red eye and one green eye to match the red/green 3D glasses needed to fully see the effect. As Superman’s thought-armour body dies, he marks his own gravestone “To Be Continued”. This is the blessing and the curse of the fictional character. They’re immortal, and yet they cease to exist as soon as we close the comic, put the book down or switch the film off. And yet, that death is only temporary; soon, someone else will pick them up and give them life again. Ultra Comics is that concept writ large.
The key influence on Ultra Comics, though, may be a source you never expected; Grover. Yes, loveable furry old Grover of Sesame Street. In particular, the 1971 classic of children’s literature, The Monster at the End of This Book. Don’t believe me? Just watch;
Ultra Comics has been hyped up since the series was announced (for simplicity’s sake, the book will be referred to as Ultra Comics and the eponymous hero as Ultra Comics). Never at home to self-doubt, Morrison called the comic ‘the most exciting thing I’ve ever done […] the most frightening thing people will ever read’. He went on to say that the comic was ‘literally haunted’. So it’s fair to expect a lot of this book. The cover have the hero Ultra Comics, looking a lot like Marvelman (or Miracleman if you prefer), pointing at the reader. His left eye is red and he appears to be on fire. His speech bubble, formed of the flames that surround him, reads ‘only YOU can SAVE THE WORLD! If you value your lives, you MUST NOT read this COMIC!’ with the word ‘NOT’ written in a different font and colour, as if added to the original text as a warning. The effect is like one of those ‘Choose your own adventure’ novels that were de rigueur when I was a kid.
Inside on the first page proper… well let’s hang on a minute. I’m aware of course that comics need more than just sales to keep themselves afloat. Adverts, for better are for worse a big part of the industry. But it really takes you out of it, in a comic built around its own structure, to see adverts for iZombie or the Mars Attacks! table top game every couple of pages. So, page three then. Ultra Comics has seemingly just arrived somewhere (his left foot still looks incorporeal). ‘We made it, we’re back’ he says, presumably referring to himself and the readers. Over the page, he addresses us directly. ‘You, yes you! Don’t go. Don’t leave me alone’. He tells us that he’s from ’24 hours and 38 pages in your future’. This idea that time can be measured in comic book pages is something Morrison has previously explored in his history of comics Supergods. He argues that a single panel represents a moment in time and being able to skip forwards and backwards through the pages is akin to time travel. Ultra Comics goes on to tell us that ‘if you heard this comic is cursed or haunted or somehow infected you heard right’, like a rapper acknowledging his own hype on his newest album. As sinister shapes gather around him, Ultra looks at us in terror – ‘You! It was your eye all along! THE OBLIVION MACHINE! […] IT’S A TRAP! DON’T TURN THE PAGE!’.
Well, Brad and Mike haven’t come all this way to wimp out now! Those of us brave/foolish enough to continue on regardless are welcomed by a normal looking man in a suit, sat behind a desk, apparently reading the comic (through red sunglasses) so he knew when to come in. ‘Guess that’s one way to get your attention, right?’ he asks us in reference to Ultra Comics dire warnings. He goes on to say that while he is just a pen and ink manifestation, he is indeed real, after all aren’t we hearing his voice in our heads as we read? Observant readers might remember that this idea was also espoused in Multiversity #1. Over the page again, the man and a scientist explain that they’ve created a real superhero, ‘you’, one with thousands of identities and faces, known as Ultra Comics. The page is largely is black and white, but yellow captions assure us of the veracity of what we’re being told. ‘Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story! Not an Elseworld’s tale!’
On the next page we are reintroduce to Ultra Comics who is in a tank, covered in psychedelic swirls of colour, with tubes running in an out of him. The four colours being used to “birth” him are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black – the four colours of the CMYB printing process which creates every comics you read. Below him is the legend ‘Ultra Comics Lives’ and the credits for this month’s book, listed as ‘Memetically engineered by…’. The artist for this month’s book is Doug Mahnke, who first came to prominence as an artist for The Mask (upon which the hugely successful Jim Carrey film was based). His colourful, vivid style makes him an ideal partner for Morrison, with whom he has teamed up on Seven Solider: Frankenstein and Final Crisis previously.
Freed from his tank, we see Ultra Comic’s thoughts in bubbles. He lists the components that make him up, which are also those which make up comic – ‘cellulose pulp, salt water and carbon […] Iron blue, azo pigments. The staples of my spine!’. He directly addresses the reader, informing us that he is the ultimate Warrior (though not actually Ultimate Warrior), precision engineered to help us win a war for our souls. He tells us that we should ‘Install Ultra Comics Psychic Shield technology simply by choosing to read this issue cover to cover’ which seems in direct contrast to all the advice we’ve read so far, but hey. While we’re at it, surely ‘cover to cover’ includes those damned adverts?
Orange captions tell us that Ultra Comics has received superhero behavioural codes from the golden age to the modern day inclusive. This gives Morrison and Doug Mahnke an excuse to parody various ages and trends in comics down the years in four panels across a double page spread. The first (in faded colours as if viewed through a filter) sees Ultra Comics beating up a mugger with a ‘Take that, Buster!’, an innocent looking comic, like an early Action Comic. In the next panel things go a little more cosmic – ‘I’ll save you’, cries Ultra Comics to a young lady beset by a horde of men and women apparently controlled by an alien parasite. The third is pure bronze age, in particular the infamous Jason Todd story line, as a grief stricken Ultra Comics stands above the dead body of his young sidekick (it might be worth noting that Doug Manke was the artist on the controversial ‘Red Hood’ storyline featuring a resurrected Jason Todd). The final panel brings us to the modern day. A vicious looking Ultra Comics snarls at the reader with a ‘What are you looking at?’ as he holds the lifeless body of his victim against a blood splattered wall. This is clearly Morrison’s response to the OTT violence of some of his contemporaries (although he has been guilty of it himself) such as, I suspect, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar. It puts me in mind strongly of Ennis’ The Boys, in particular, as did sections of previous Multiversity books.
Ultra Comics observes that thought bubbles make him seem dated, so switches to first person narrative captions, which serves to both neatly parody current comic conventions and demonstrate how Ultra Comics perceives and effects his own comic. Using these captions, he tells us that he was created by the memesmiths of Earth-Prime, a place where ‘unyielding laws of physics and current technological progress make Superhumans an impossibility’. He is implanted with an ‘Ultragem’, a gem placed in his forehead that is ‘Imagination in solid crystal form’. The orange captions tell us that Ultra Comics and we, the reader, have merged. ‘We are Ultra Comics’, our hero declares.
The orange captions tell us and Ultra that Earth-Prime is under threat, presumably from The Gentry, using comic books as a way in to the minds of unwitting readers. Ultra Comics is to stop them as he is ‘an idea so powerful it believes it’s alive!’. Ultra Comics contends he is alive using Descartes reasoning – he can hear himself think, therefore he is. The orange captions then address us again – ‘Get ready to turn that page! Activate Ultra Comics debut adventure!’. Morrison then pokes fun at his own writing style, as well as the conventions of comic introductions of yore with the final caption: ‘A nakedly allegorical tale we just hadda call…’
‘…Outta His Box’. The chummy tone may be pure Stan Lee but the story most definitely is not. Ultra Comics arrives in a run down version of New York – ‘It’s like a dream! Some Parallel world!’ he realises. With some cynicism, he goes on to say that it looks like a ‘generic post-apocalyptic urban wasteland’, indicating that he perhaps believes it to be fictional. ‘An ersatz world where the forces of evil somehow won the eternal battle against good’ (see also: Final Crisis. No really, go see Final Crisis. I can’t stress that enough). Ultra Comics goes on to articulate his belief that there is no such thing as good and evil (blasphemy for mainstream superhero comics, I’d have said), rather a sliding scale. The man in the suit reappears to warn us that Ultra Comics, and the reader, have been led into a trap. Ultra Man hears the word ‘trap’, perhaps because he is bonded with the people reading the man in the suit’s words. Ultra Comics is still confident though – he tells us that he feels the bonded between him and us is getting stronger. The orange captions offer more helpful advice – ‘you have become part of a living cross-time cybernetic network in the form of a comic book. Be careful and maintain concentration!’.
Ultra Comics goes on to comment on his nature as a gestalt entity- one made up of all his readers. He comments that his accent is a mix of American, Canadian and British with inflections from all over the world. He also interacts directly with online criticism of the comic which appear as text boxes in the manner of the tweets from ‘The Just’. ‘Same old pretentious symbolism’ reads one quote, ‘yet another comic about comics treatise’ reads another. One wants ‘a simple adventure story for once’. ‘Ha, you and me both!’ replies Ultra Comics.
The orange captions return to kick the story back in to gear. ‘Increase emotional engagement’ it reads, as Ultra Comics investigates a comic lying on the floor. As he does so, ominous first person captions gloat that that despite all our defences (walls, antiviral software, soldier patrolling borders) we gladly read comics and allow evil straight into our heads. Across the page, lizard/insect hybrids resembling the Justice League surround a young girl dressed in red. ‘Crawlies say the same things over and over!’ she cries, as if that causes her more distress than the apparent imminent danger. As any good hero should, Ultra Comics quickly piles in and cleans house (although at this stage he only has appearances to go on – how does he know who he should be helping here?). For her part, the girl in red seems almost as scared of him as she was of the crawlies. She tells him not to come any closer, then downplays his achievement – ‘Those wunt even the big scary ones. You just got lucky’. Nevertheless, she takes Ultra Comics to meet her allies, scary looking kids known as the Neigbourhood Guard, patterned after the kid gangs from DC comics of the 1940s. Ultra Comics is told that it’s the year ‘Whatever-and-5’ and that ‘Red Riding Hood and Boy Blue’ run this patch (both names from fairy tales of course, another well Morrison runs to often). The kids reveal that dronedroids belonging to Reborizzon are patrolling, probably looking for a box (which resembles a turquoise 5x5x5 Rubik’s Cube) that the kids have covered up under tarpaulin. Ultra Comics senses that the box has immense but dormant power. The kids are suspicious of Ultra Comics but he wins them over by offering to help deliver the box to the Elders, as he is the only one who can lift it.
A terrifying looking child with a rictus grin tells Ultra Comics that the Elders are willing to speak to him. The leader, Gary Concord Jr, introduces himself as a former Ultra-Man. Indeed, all the Elders are Ultras of one sort or another, which is passed off as mere coincidence. Gary tells Ultra-Comics that the creatures he fought were deformoids, who once protected the Earth until they were ‘zee-volved’. He goes on to explain that Reborizzon took advantage of the chaos following a war between the tyrant Tor and the Lord of Time (or Timelord, if you will) Epoch. When Tor’s stronghold fell time collapsed with it – the world is always part today, part tomorrow. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a tyrant’s fall breaking a world is exactly what happens in Final Crisis. These characters were all enemies of Ultra-Man, who was originally a hero for All-American Comics in the 1940s. As is often the case, DC acquired the rights to the characters following a merge.
One of the others present, a dreadlocked man in dungarees, says that hope may be found in the comics, which are said to contain messages from other worlds. The dreadlocked man then works out where he knows Ultra Comics from – the front page of a comic (you’ve guessed it, the comic we’re reading now). ‘That’s how my body might look from the outside, Ultra Comics agrees, to the bafflement of the dreadlocked man.
Before this engaging debate on metaphysics can get going though, Ultra Comics notices a pile of skulls underneath the various comics. ‘Now I understand. You’re super-cannibals!’ he exclaims as the elders and kids alike close in around him. Ultra Comics is bear-hugged from behind by Ultra The Multi-Alien, a former hero with a bafflingly contrived backstory who now resembles four different alien races. Ultra Comics is restrained and put in to a machine so he can be fed to the ‘Ultra-King’. Whilst in the machine, Ultra Comics appears to start hallucinating. In a court room scene straight out of The Devil and Daniel Webster he is pronounced guilty by the Devil and jurors (who include the likes of Adolf Hitler and Darkseid among them). He claims that he can here another voice inside his skull, apparently that of a narrator. Said narrator goes on they assure us that ‘It’s not going all weirdness for weirdness sake’, which seems to me like Morrison addressing some of the criticism levelled at his work. Instead we are promised the ‘super-slugfest of this or any other century’.
Enter Ultraa, consort of the villain Maxima. Created in 1978 for DC Comics, Ultraa was said to be the first superhuman of Earth Prime. Except our world doesn’t have any superheroes, does it? I always think this is the difficulty in setting part of your story in the ‘real’ world. As soon as you introduce any fictional element, it ceases to be our world. Earth-Prime is an invention of DC Comics just as much as Earth-2 or Thanagar are. Real or not, Ultraa starts making quite the impression on Ultra Comics, biting out and swallowing the gem from his forehead. As this happens, Ultra Comics narrates that ‘A wholly destructive thought has entered me head […] over and over it says the same thing…”You’re losing”’. Ultraa tells Ultra Comics that he will leave the rest of him to be devoured by the children and will depart using the Ultrabox to return to Maxima. Ultra Comics though has sensed the great evil that will be unleashed in Ultraa tries to use the cube. Thinking on his feet, Ultra Comics devises a way to take Ultraa down (incidentally, as Ultraa is attempting to activate the cube, he is spinning it around in the manner of a Rubik’s Cube, a favourite of Morrison’s). Ultra Comics tells Ultraa that the gem can be anything he wants it to be, and right now he wants it to be the most explosive and corrosive solvent in the universe, destroying Ultraa from the inside.
Unfortunately Ultraa was only the warm-up act. In fact, he was the only thing standing between the cannibals and The Gentry. The spooky captions from The Multiversity #1 reappear, heralding their return. ‘This is only silly comm-ix makes no sense’, Intellectron gloats. ‘Get out while you can’ Ultra Comics implores us. If we turn the page, we can see Intellectron is all his glory, the man in the suit lying flat on his desk, as if he was a suit worn by Intellectron and then discarded. Ultra Comics tells the kids to flee, saying that Ultra Comics was just a way to draw out ‘the hit entity’. Intellectron hits him with a beam which ages him by decades. ‘Turn the page. Do it. Slave’ commands Intellectron to the reader. I will, but only because I want to. As Intellectron launches into his self-satisfied victory speech, Ultra Comics begs his new colleagues for some time. Red Riding Hood obliges, launching her staff into Intellectron’s giant eye (why did nobody else think of that?). Ultra Comics wants to ‘restart’ and get back to the beginning, which of course we know he does. ‘He just disappeared!’ cry the kids. ‘We’re screwed.’ Red Riding Hood is having none of it though ‘No, he’ll come back. We believe in Ultra Comics. AND WE DEMAND A HAPPY ENDING!’.
As if by magic, Ultra Comics returns. ‘We’re rilly sorry we tried to kill and eat you’ Red Riding Hood tells him, redundantly. Ultra Comics rounds on Intellectron and tells him that he’s been absorbed by Ultra Comics and will now have the secret weapon unleashed upon him – criticism! ‘The Big Bad is an Egg?!’ says the first internet comment. ‘That’s it, I’m out’ goes another. One comment, ‘This guy’s raped my wallet way too many times’, is another example of Morrison meeting criticism head on. I wonder whether it was a deliberate choice of Morrison to have his (imaginary) critic resort to glib and offensive rape references, as if to devalue it. Or perhaps it’s a verbatim quote he has lifted and inserted into his own work, a la stand-up comedian Stewart Lee. Ultra Comics senses that the plan isn’t working, however. As if there weren’t enough already, yet another style of text box appears, this time purple writing on a black background. ‘Think Ultra Comics—think’ it implores. ‘There was only ever one way to close the trap on the hit’. Ultra Comics realises what it is – we the reader must close the comic and abandon him to his fate. ‘I’ll be alright- I’ll find a…’ he manages, before disappearing in a flash of blue light. The black boxes appear, delivering fragmented sentences about various crises and the stars going out, before defiantly signing off ‘This ends now!’ in the manner of a poor action movie.
The last word though goes to those helpful orange captions. Like Morrison’s The Filth, this comic likens itself to a hit or infection. ‘Report to a Quarantine Zone immediately!’ we are instructed. ‘Put the comic down now!’
So there we have it, Ultra Comics in the world’s largest nutshell. Next week the whole magnificent saga will be brought to a close. So what did we make of this month’s offering. For my money it was more unhinged brilliance from Morrison, more tied directly the main story and less standalone than previous issues, I feel. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the Earth-Prime setting to be honest- nothing about the world seemed any closer to reality that the other Earths explored in previous books. The attempts to make the reader part of the ongoing story – by giving them the illusion of agency when in reality they were just reading- were interesting but whether they lived up to Morrison’s incessant hyping is down to individual taste I suspect. All in all, another superb entry into this weird, wonderful and staggeringly ambitious series.
Next month, join your intrepid explorers Brad and Mike as we traverse the multiverse one last time and attempt to avoid being dragged into the final showdown between The Gentry and whichever assorted heroes turn up. Until then, don’t let the voices in your head scream too loudly!