Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 “In Which We Burn”
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Frank Quitely
Yes, you read that correctly, I gave this issue a ten. A ten! The highest score I’ve given other than this, is a nine, and that’s only happened twice (ironically, they were both on Catwoman, which also has the record for my two lowest scores…) Before I delve into this book, I want to remind everyone that I’m not the biggest Morrison fan. I enjoy his work, and there are times when I think he delivers outstanding stories, but then there are times where I think his work is a hot mess. We’ve seen examples of both scenarios in Multiversity alone, but this issue… it’s golden. “In Which We Burn” is something I would pick-up and read again and again over time. In fact, I read it twice before sitting down to write this review – partially because I needed to ensure I understood everything that happened, but also because I enjoyed it that much. This is an issue that’s going to stick with me for years, and it’s going to cozy up to the other comics on my shelf that I consider great. Why? Because it is great!
This issue of Multiversity takes us to Earth 4, which is comprised of the Charlton Comics characters such as The Atom, Blue Beetle, The Question, Nightshade, and so on. The moment you open the book, you know you’re in for a deep story, as the first three pages reveal the assassination of the President of the United States… told in reverse order. The whole experience is like watching a modern version of the JFK assassination. It’s gruesome. It’s dark. It’s real. And then when it sinks in how real this issue actually is, it becomes downright terrifying! “This is not an imaginary story or an alternate reality.”
Many people are going to comment on how similar this is to Watchmen. And yes, it is. Morrison didn’t even try to separate the story. BUT before we call this a copy-cat, or a lift, it needs to be understood that Watchmen was, in fact, based off of this issue’s source material from Charlton Comics. Moore intended, and was, writing Watchmen with these characters, before DC pulled them. He then created characters similar to those of Earth 4, and that is how we got the characters of Watchmen.
Although it carries similar themes that have already been touched on in Multiversity, none of the other issues have been this blatant or direct with their commentary on humanity, life, death, and purpose. Morrison tells a story that shows a sick cycle of human nature, referencing specific American events such as our political climate, our constant creation and battle with terrorism, the attack on the World Trade Center, and as previously mentioned, JFK’s assassination. It’s an unnerving realization of who and what we are. It’s a story of innocence and the “American dream,” and how each taints the other. The revival of hope, followed by its inevitable downfall. These messages are drilled into you page after page, with reminders of our own corruption in lines such as, “Values change with age. You’ll see. Enemies become friends. Reflection is the mother of compromise” or “The world rewards its bastards. Heroes are for movies. The super-hero is dead.” Hope exists in youth, but with age, it’s pointless and abandoned, until its needed again. Only time will determine when and how this is.
Which is another major element of this issue… time. Captain Atom is the catalyst for most of the representation of time, but it’s also apparent in one of the repeated themes (I’ll touch on this later). “In Which We Burn” does not follow a standard, linear narrative. We are unexpectedly – and at times unforgivingly – thrown from one point in time to another, with the story bouncing and progressing it’s narrative between present day and the past, intricately weaving its message together. The end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end as “The door has one side, and opens both ways.” I’m not going to lie, on my initial read, I kept getting confused as to where we were in time, and what was going on. It wasn’t until my second read through (which I approached differently – mainly by reading the story’s scenes in reverse order) that I was able to fully connect all of the plots and grasp the full weight that’s represented.
The whole book is brilliant and complex. This may not make sense if you haven’t read Pax Americana yet, but there are multiple ways to read this narrative, and there are new revelations and contexts that can be found in each way that you read it. Every single thing that happens in this book – what’s said, what’s left unsaid, what’s drawn, how it’s drawn… it’s all done with purpose. The entire issue was meticulously planned, and it shows! No space is wasted.
Look at how Morrison and Quitely tell three separate stores in the course of two pages, loaded with a total of 32 panels. Read the pages in order as you would naturally. Now that you’ve done that, go back and read each individual timeline in order.
Another aspect to note, are the repetition of themes. They’re there visually and in the narrative. The loss of innocence or purity is shown multiple times, simply by showing some form of a dove with blood on it. It’s subtle, yet purposefully blunt. There’s also the numerous occurrences of the number “8.” The number is everywhere, and it’s spoken to multiple times. So what is the significance? Well, there’s two:
- Biblically, the number 8 represents rebirth. Ironically, every time the number is referenced, its either spoken of during a gruesome event, or shown in or with blood. It’s a chilling, unspoken message that rebirth has a cost, and is incapable without some form of debt.
- It’s not an 8. It’s infinity. It’s a never ending cycle that begins and ends in a familiar, yet unrecognized pattern. As Atom says, “Complete, yet always beginning and ending. Always different.”
So again, “This is not an imaginary story or alternate reality.”
- You love Morrison when he’s at his best.
- You’re looking for a story that challenges you, and your outlook on life.
- You’re a fan of Watchmen.
The Art: I’m not the biggest fan of Quitely’s art, but I love him here. I usually find his textures and body shapes distracting, but that’s not the case here. Even though Morrison delivered what could be considered a near perfect script, this book would’ve been nothing without Quitely’s approach. He’s subtle when he needs to be, and aggressive when it matters. There are so many different, intricate approaches that he uses here, that you could honestly write a full study over his art in this one issue. It’s that good. You’ve seen some of his work from this issue already, but check out the different techniques used in some other pages as well.
Overall: I like darker, edgier, more thought provoking comics, and that is exactly what you get here. I know it’s not everyone’s preference, but the commentary that this book covers makes it a required reading in my eyes, and is sure to be considered a classic in the years to come.