The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1. Grant Morrison- Writer, Dough Mahnke- Penciller, Christian Alamy, Mark Irwin, Keith Champagne, Jaime Mendoza- Inkers, Gabe Eltaeb, David Baron- Colorists.
The detail in this issue is staggering. From page 1 that screams Marvel/Miracle Man to the appearance of Gary Concord, Ultra-Man, (first appearance All-American Comics #1, 1939) Grant Morrison has written a comic like no other. Perhaps, you’ve heard that this comic is “haunted” or “cursed,” but that’s not accurate. It’s really a hallucinogenic. There’s never been a comic that broke the fourth wall in quite this way. Not only does the main character speak to the audience almost exclusively, but there are other characters that are aware as well.
The issue opens with our title character- Ultra, returning from the future to…YOU! The Reader! He engages the reader in the next few pages with warnings. DON’T TURN THE PAGE! The scene switches to a comic book executive from this alternate Earth that produces Ultra Comics. Huh? Yeah, that’s right- he knows you are the reader, so READ! This guy narrates a quick meta-origin of Ultra Comics. Ultra, as it turns out, seems to have a bit of Captain Marvel in him. A history from the Golden Age to the present is quickly churned through in some wonderful panels by Doug Mahnke. As this sequence progresses, it’s clear that we the reader are supposed to understand that with this issue we are being drawn into the story that’s been presented in The Multiversity. Apparently, the readers are the power that enable the Ultragem that powers Ultra.
Ultra is inserted into a post-apocalyptic world that is inhabited by boy-gang groups of the forties and the aforementioned Gary Concord as well as other characters in the DC Multiverse that have borne the Ultra name. The reader gets a final warning to put the book down…. As this sequence continues, the comic executive meets the one-eyed representative of the Gentry we first saw in The Mulitversity #1. As Ultra faces off against the Gentry, he urges the reader to leave, “I’ll find a way,” he announces, and one presumes he does, because he’s returned to the reader on the first page o the issue- as simple as turning back to page one.
I’m not sure what’s not great about this comic. The appearance of Gary Concord in story rates 6 stars alone. It’s all downhill from there. The art of Doug Mahnke is wonderful on every page, whether dealing with the details of the cityscapes or defining our hero- Ultra, his work is solid throughout. His facial expressions really help the reader understand the scenes and the innocence of Ultra. While it would be easy to say that Morrison’s writing is obtuse, I think that is not only an oversimplification, but completely incorrect. This book is a true extension of his Animal Man run from 25 years ago. In that run, he included himself as part of the story. With Ultra Comics, Morrison has managed to include the reader in the story, in a viable way, because if the reader puts the book down when urged to do so, what comes next…doesn’t. Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics, in a very explicit way showed how readers are implicit in the action that occurs in comics. Often, it is the readers that are able to infer what happens, it’s the reader that lands the axe in the skull- or not. With Ultra Comics, Morrison has taken this to a different level. He makes it clear that it is the reader that is responsible for what happens in a comic. The creative team merely makes suggestions, but it is the reader that finalizes the action, because if the reader puts the book down, it didn’t happen.
This may be too much for some readers, but I encourage everyone to give it a chance. It’s a book like no other. Read it multiple times and put it down at different points and you’ll understand what Morrison is getting at. No really, do it. You are in control. If you read it only the first page and then put it down you’ve stopped the threat. Really.
Morrison has managed to combine the notions of Innocence and Experience in the comic. In a very real way, it is a statement on the development of comics in their 80 plus year history. Ultra has an innocent approach to a world that is the very definition of experience as he himself utters when he realizes that evil has won. Is that a pessimistic view? Or is it a meta-texual commentary on comics. Morrison won’t tell you outright, you’ve got to read or not read Ultra Comics to figure it out.