Hello and welcome back to Multiversity’s annotations of “The Multiversity,” our ongoing look at Morrison’s magnum opus/ode to the DCU. Just as we did last time, we’ll be going into the book pretty deep and seeing what we can find out. However, unlike last time, there will be a lot less theorizing; instead, we’ll be more trying to figure out where this issue fits into the bigger whole, and attempting to point out easter eggs and references. We’ll get back into the heavier stuff probably more towards the end, given the one-off nature of these releases.
So those of you who have their copies of “The Multiversity,” lets dig in. And, of course, spoilers are abundant not just for “The Multiversity” but for previous works of Morrison’s that “The Multiversity” references.
Part 1: The Earths We Knew
Just like we did with the first issue, we’re going to start by looking at all the Earths relevant to this issue. Of course, given that the first issue was a bookend it made a bit more sense to break it down and try and cipher information from it, but never the less we’ll keep it as a staple of this column to keep the Earths fresh in our mind as we begin our looks at the series.
Without further ado, here are is the Earth featured in this issue:
|Earth-4||The world of “Pax Americana,” this world features analogues of Charlton characters like Blue Beetle and The Question, viewed through the lens of “Watchmen.”|
Part 2: The Problem With Annotating “Pax Americana”
After first reading “Pax Americana” I sat down and said, “You know what, I’ll probably skip annotating this one.”
It’s not that there wasn’t anything to be said about the issue. There is so much to say about this issue, probably more than any issue of “The Multiversity” so far. Yet, the structure of the issue and the way that it unfolds over its 40 pages didn’t seem conducive to this column as I have been doing it. I thought I could perhaps write an essay instead about the allegories created, that this issue is basically “Watchmen” taken out of the 80s and put into the 00s, but that’s what everyone already says (including us) because it’s obvious, so that didn’t work either. I either wanted to go the full distance on this thing or I’d just post a bunch of links to other commentary on the issue since I’m rather slow in my annotations of this book by comparison.
Then I picked up “Pax Americana” to read again, and instead of reading it in published order, I read the issue in what I perceive as the chronological order. While you can’t read the issue from back to front as you would front to back, putting the scenes in the correct order allows for something that you can perhaps talk about with more ease. In fact, putting everything in proper order and discussing the story chronologically actually allows for rather easy analysis of the issue, to pick up all the references and throwbacks to moments where the book feeds upon itself, let alone the old Charlton comics allusions that are everywhere.
But just writing like that… I mean, that’s almost cheating, isn’t it?
Doing the annotations for this issue was tough, I won’t lie. In fact, I’ll be honest and say that I had written annotations for almost the entire issue when I realized I had ignored one of my notes from my initial read-through, which literally changed everything; it wrecked a prominent theory that I had, and I had to go back and re-write everything. So in terms of how I wrote the annotations for this issue, I wrote them back to front; I didn’t put everything in chronological order but rather approached it scene by scene from the last page to the first, and that’s how I’m presenting them to you here, to help you make sense of the story and then to make subsequent reads in the print order more rewarding. I can’t imagine that Morrison didn’t at least write the book in the “correct” order with a breakdown of scenes before then cutting it up, so that’s what I’ve done. It’ll either read horribly, or wonderfully — that’s for you to decide later.Continued below
And, I should note, despite earlier sentiments I’ll still reference this book referencing “Watchmen” a thousand times. I’m not going to really go too deep into that; stuff like the grid structure of “Watchmen” vs. the grid structure of “Pax Americana” on certain pages, I’ll leave that for others. But specific allusions, absolutely, we’ll go over that.
One big question I have when reading “Pax Americana,” one that I can’t really get into if I go over each individual page is: why is it in reverse? I’m sure Morrison and Quitely have answered this question in an interview, but respectfully, I’m not going to look it up. I’d rather explore the aspect of why on my own via the text without their commentary on what is right or wrong. (Feel free to correct me in the comments if you want; I’ve already finished writing and can’t be influenced anymore!)
In story, I can find no specific reason for it. There are little nods and hints towards the idea of why; because we start at the end with a murder and are then asked “Why?”, we piece together the mystery bit by bit assumedly as Peacemaker reveals it to his interrogators. And since it’s a big, multi-faceted mystery, we frequently get things out of order and in quite broke fashion, as if we the readers are being beaten and having memories jogged to the surface. That, or Captain Atom being sent back in time in the hadron collider could show us why the story is out of order for an in-story reason.
But even bigger than that, the idea of this issue as an entity seems to beg questions as to why Morrison and Quitely went for this kind of story. My first true guess was that its because this issue is sort of the middle issue of “The Multiversity”; there are 7 one-shots in this series (along with two bookends), so this being the third issue means that it could count as the middle, somewhat. That way, when you put everything all together you get this issue square in the middle going backwards and forwards, with a spot in the middle of the issue where it actually directly mirrors itself (when the big discussion of Janus first comes up).
The other side to that coin would be that, if we’re working off the idea that this is the middle, then the fact that this particular story is a knock on “Watchmen” allows Morrison and Quitely to do what Moore and Gibbons did: a palindrome issue. “Watchmen” #5, entitled ‘Fearful Symmetry,’ was an issue where the panel structure was the exact same front to back. “Watchmen” #5 is also that kind of middle of a series issue, so if Morrison and Quitely are attempting to go the full monty in their “Watchmen” riff then that matches pretty well. (This isn’t likely as a factor into it, though.)
The most potent idea towards the themes of the series, though, is that it represents what Captain Atom says about comics: something you can come into at any point and still find meaning and direction from. “The Multiversity”, as we’ve often said, is a comic book series about comic books — what’s great about them, what’s awful about them, how they’re being perverted and destroyed and how they can be saved. It’s the most obviously meta work Morrison has ever done, so having an issue that’s not just about the death of the superhero ideal but one that tells that story out of order in a way that disorients the reader while allowing them to come in and out of the story at any point in different ways certainly shows off a facet of comics that makes comics special. I don’t think any other medium could do it; Memento is a film that comes close, but even that has a more grounded sense of order.
I’m reminded in part of “Flex Mentallo.” A four-issue mini-series, every issue is essentially about an era of comics: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Modern Age and the Future (more on that from me here, if you’re interested). If we can look at the individual issues of “The Multiversity” the same way, then we can see that every issue of the book is trying to ape both a style and an idea prevalent to comics: the Society of Superheroes is a Golden Age tribute and a play on DC’s crisis/crossovers, whereas the Just is about legacy both in terms of the children of popular heroes and their general vapid nature, and what the heroes of our time leave to the future (that, and drones — can’t forget the drones).Continued below
So this issue is a play on “Watchmen,” sure, but more than that it’s about how the modern world of comics is influenced by cinema as well as about the use of time in comics — something that Morrison and Quitely did to great extent in “WE3,” which is perhaps the most famous example of the passage of three-dimensional time being explored in a two-dimensional space. “Pax Americana” is similar, but it’s less about individual single moments that are being expanded upon and more about the nature of how time flows (or perhaps doesn’t) within a comic; and if “The Multiversity” is contingent on reader interaction (as explained in the first issue, and evolved in this issue more subtly), then that’s a perfect idea for this issue. As Captain Atom will say, comics are “complete yet always beginning and ending. Always different. The story’s linear, but (we) can flip through the pages in any order, any direction. Forward in time to the conclusion. Back to the opening scene. … This is how a 2-Dimensional continuum looks to you.”
And it’s very fitting as a spiritual successor to “We 3.” Having the issue be big and cinematic in the way only Quitely can do while playing with the structure of the issue really allows Morrison and Quitely to explore the use of time within the comic, and I imagine that when “The Multiversity” is done we can hand the collected edition to fans and say, “Ok, here is literally everything you could ever need to know about why comics are great” and let the pages say it all from there. That’s the great thing about this series so far; I’ve seen some people down on it, or how Morrison is playing with themes and ideas he has used in the past, but as a culmination of his work and an epic celebration of comic books I can’t help but be jazzed about things like this. The collected version vs. the individual issues will certainly be interesting to see, to say the least.
Ok. With all of that out of the way, lets talk about the actual pages of the book.
Part 3: Page by Page Analysis
In these pages we meet a young President Harley, the man shot in the real opening pages of the book. As far as I understand it, his first name is never revealed; I’ve gone through the pages of this comic front to back and back to front, and either my eyes are just tired or they really never reveal it. His lack of a name is interesting as it clouds his identity somewhat, but it does seem apropos to the inclusion of Janus as a figure later in the story.
What’s also important about Young Harley here is that he is the son of Vince Harley, aka Yellowjacket. Yellowjacket is the first superhero ever to be published by the company that became Charlton (with this actually being his first ever DC debut — fun fact!), and given that this issue is a big riff on “Watchmen” which utilized re-imagined Charlton characters, his inclusion sort of kicks us off as a watershed moment for the transition into using Charlton charcter as well as perhaps the end of the Golden Age coinciding with his demise. Yellowjacket is mentioned as Mr. 1970s, which sets our time period here in terms of comics, and there’s also as a mention of Richard Nixon (who was in office from 1969-1974) which helps solidify that.
Vince Harley is an artist, which seems rather important given that this is a comic book series about comics and because comic books are where Young Harley will find all of his future inspiration. Making his father an artist essentially changes both how we identify and how we identify with him, in terms of understanding his motivations; Morrison has often spoken to the idealism of comics, that superheroes are the best idea we ever came up with, and Vince Harley being a comic artist plays towards that idealism in all of the actions we’ll see his son work through in this issue — with the moment that this scene culminates with ultimately having a large effect on that. You might say Harley is a dreamer, but you’re not the only one.Continued below
There’s also a mention of Dan Garrett, who is another Charlton character and the original Blue Beetle. Both Dan and his successor Ted Kord appear in this issue. I do not believe there is any Walter Wylie anywhere in DC Comics, but if we want to draw stray connections, there is Philip Wylie, author of the 1930 novel “Gladiator” where the character Hugo Danner was introduced — and Hugo Danner is the father of Arn Munro, aka Iron Munro, who is mentioned earlier in “The Multiversity.” So, hey, whatever you want to work, works!
(As an interesting side note: Charlton Comics actually became defunct in 1985, which is when “Watchmen” takes place while the book itself debuted in 1986. Also, in “Watchmen” Richard Nixon was the president thanks to new laws that came into play with the advent of superheroes, so mentioning Nixon here is clearly on purpose, as well as the “hypocrisy” in the government from the top down.)
The last thing to really focus on in terms of set-up for this scene is the placement of the gun. This is the most curious to me as I can pull a lot of ideas out of it. The first is that old story of a parent leaving a gun laying around and a child getting to it and misusing it. The next thing I think of is how this allows for a transition into the darker era that this issue pastiches; we open with the discussion of Pax Americana (the idea of an era of American peace brought on by our power and weaponry, which was prevalent in America from 1946 — the end of WWII — and 1992, and which comes from the JFK quote used in this issue), so the gun being fired could be seen as a metaphor of the direct transition from a transitional state of towards a more violent nation.
The reason I’m hung up on the gun is, why does Yellowjacket have a gun in the first place? Is it for protection? Because it doesn’t seem to be part of his superheroing. Yellowjacket as a character, to my understanding, was a good ol’ fashioned brute and brawl type character, letting his fists do the talking. So is the gun therefore matching the radio’s dialogue, in that there is a “new breed.. on its way, and they’re mad as hell”? Or is it the other way around? Is this to show that Yellowjacket not being an OSI-Agent character but rather just a guy in the street, is doomed to failure because guns beat fists? Obviously everything in these four panels of Young Harley looking at the gun is meant to parallel the speech being given by JFK; the imagery of a gun that will be the major transition between two eras with the words of JFK warning of a peacetime enforced by weapons. That, and Young Harley pulling the gun out of the drawer to the words “what kind of peace do we seek?”
(The reference to OSI, by the way, is quite fun if we go way out of bounds with it. OSI is the Office of Strategic Intelligence, a branch of the CIA, and its inclusion is otherwise innocuous since it’s an otherwise real branch of the CIA (the real one is Strategic Services instead of Intelligence). However, the OSI is responsible for the Six Million Dollar Man (and the Bionic Woman), who was at one time a character in magazines published by Charlton — once bringing everything back around again! Fun!).
So we know that the kid is Vince Harley’s. The question then is, does he know his father is Yellowjacket? His father in costume climbs through the window rather nonchalantly and says hi to his kid; he certainly doesn’t seem to think anything is odd about that. His son also finds a scrapbook containing all the newspaper appearances of Yellowjacket in his father’s office, so certainly there’s a clue. Yet he shoots his father none the less; is it just surprise at someone, anyone, coming in through the window, or is it fear of a masked man? I would imagine the former (I would maintain Young Harley doesn’t know Yellowjacket is his father because he’ll remove the domino mask and seem surprised in a moment), but the latter is certainly rife with possible interpretation as well in terms of how we come to grips with his actions.Continued below
Either way, Young Harley shoots his father square between the eyes while doves in a cage are rattled. The visual metaphor is pretty obvious, with doves being the universal symbol of peace being waken and stirred, shaken and frightened by the firing of a gun. A single feather with a droplet of blood on it is our way to know that the 70s are over, and so are the days of heroes like Yellowjacket. Young Harley removes the domino mask to see that Yellowjacket is his father (a nice play on the idea that this kind of mask could in any way protect someones identity in a rational universe), and the domino mask held sideways looks like an 8, or a sideways infinity symbol ∞. Infinity seems important to the series, and this issue in particular, particularly in terms of the never-ending drama of superheros in general. The more potent relevance to this, though, is the visual representation of the way this issue twists in and out of itself like a mobius, with no real start or beginning — all of it feeding unto itself. In fact, to quote Captain Atom, I could say that we catch the “sight of a massless time-symmetrical boson. A mobius loop curving through eight dimensions.” This symbol remains heavily important as well throughout the entire issue, and it’s one of the last things we see on President Harley as he dies.
Also, that there is a bullet straight through the center of this seems representative of a few ideas. We’ll talk more about 8s and algorithms as we progress, but that this visual becomes the cornerstone for Harley’s ideas for future peace and that there’s a bullet straight through the center of it seems relevant to the death of idealism, as well as a nod to the way we can travel through these dimensions in any direction we want (based on the in-print first pages of the story, one could argue that a bullet was sent back in time — which is something Morrison has used in the past, like in “Final Crisis”.)
Honestly, at this point I feel like I could write entire essays about visual symbolism on each individual scene in this comic, but I’ll do my best to pair it down. However, I can’t help but note that this being both the “start” of the story and technically the very, very last image that we see is extremely powerful and symbolically important to the rest of the story.
Last but not least, if we want to talk about symmetry in the issue, it seems worthwhile to note that the issue begins and ends with a gun fired as both a symbol and watershed moment towards the times — and both incidents are related to the death of one of the two Harleys, father and son. That, and the death of President Harley is meant to be like a modern version of what the assassination of JFK could’ve been like, making the Young Harley’s use of the gun while listening to the words of JFK rather symmetrical as well.
For those interested, here’s the full JFK quote that is utilized:
I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.
Here we see Harley’s son, a little older now, sitting in front of his father’s grave. We see 1974 as the date of death and that Harley is described as a Visionary, which says to me that when Young Harley shot his father in 1974 that was the actual death of visionary figures. I doubt there was anyone left for Walter Wylie to praise on the radio after him; the next generation wasn’t nearly as idealistic.Continued below
The four panels on the bottom of Page 36 to me seem the most important to really thinking about the issue. For starters, each panel shows a different season as Young Harley’s facial hair grows, which illustrates the passing of time and once again bringing that aspect of this issue to the forefront. The seasons also start with spring and end with winter, which itself represents a cycle of growth and decay — which is very important and we’ll talk more about that in a second. Not only that, though, but if we look at the clock in the background (which reads 7, 12, 4 and 6), the hands of the clock themselves make a peace symbol when overlapped. Seeing that is one of those moments in comics that shoots chills up my arms, let me tell you.
Also of note is that the Young Harley himself seems to still be idolizing his father in terms of the clothes that he wears. In case that’s not clear enough for you, I’ll note that he is literally wearing a yellow jacket, one in which the image on the upper left corner sort of looks like an 8 when crumpled (we’ll see on the next page that it’s actually a badge, presumably a law enforcement one of some kind which would be a nod from son to father towards trying to be a hero).
So, OK. Lets get real deep here. As Harley sits there, staring at his father’s grave, he is visited by Captain Atom, who has traveled back in time to see him here. He mentions “the door has one side and open both ways,” but these speech bubbles aren’t directly connected which is interesting to me; it means either he’s so omnipotent at this point (as he is what Dr. Manhattan was in “Watchmen,” and the only actual super-powered being in the whole story) that he doesn’t have to say these things out loud, or he’s not saying them — either one is interesting to ponder on.
But his mention of the door is important because doors have been important to this whole story as a herald of the role of the Gentry in the issue, as was pointed out to me in the comment section of the last issue. So far there has been a big moment in every issue where someone mentions passing through doors; the first issue ended with Nix Uotan at the door, Blockbuster literally passed through a doorway in “SOS”, and Bloodwynd mentioned “She says, “Who’s that knocking at the door?”” before Menta comes through the door, suggesting that she is the agent of the Gentry in the issue based on her mind abilities. So Captain Atom’s mention of the door here keeps the door motif as part of the story, and works well to the idea of the comic being something you can read forwards are backwards since this door “opens both ways” (something that also ties into Janus, which is brought up later).
But Captain Atom has to show Young Harley how this works, and he does this with the panels of the comic since by now Atom understands how he can move about in this two-dimensional environment. Since we know Morrison and Quitely have explored the passage of time in panels before, we can easily see what this sequence represents: decay and growth over time. Like I said, the movement from growth to decay to growth to decay, etc, permeates throughout the entire issue; here, it’s very obviously visual: a distraught Harley, disheveled and alone, sits in a cemetery as the panels around him breakdown. As the panels grow smaller and smaller, always slanted and never even, we see the imagery in them as both related to him (a moment between father and son, a smile, the bench he sits on) to those of violence (gritted teeth, barbed wire, people punching each other, etc). However, this then transitions to very evenly arranged panels that symbolize growth; greenery, sky, flowers blooming, the advancement of technology, the Berlin Wall coming down, etc, all leading back to Harley dominating the bottom of the page in a widescreen panel with awe on his face and tear in his eyes.Continued below
He has been shown that, through him, decay and growth can be achieved, and it’s this moment that changes everything for him and perhaps puts clarity into his own actions of killing his father. It allows him to see that through destruction can come something wonderful — which was the whole fucking point of Ozymandias’ gambit in “Watchmen.” Harley’s plot throughout the rest of the story is a little bit different than Ozymandias’, granted, and certainly done with more good faith and self sacrifice, but you can see here where the two come together. Harley has literally seen the future and perhaps understands his part in it, which is why we follow him throughout the rest of the issue and see how his actions set up all the major events of the story from here.
One thing that does puzzle me about the scene, though: when Captain Atom approaches Harley in the cemetary, it’s night. Then, all of a sudden, it’s day time and it’s snowing. Why the major shift between these two moments? I don’t know. Is it even snow? Is it nuclear ash? It’s possible, I’d say; I certainly wouldn’t rule anything out at this point. I do not have a good idea of why the switch happens, though.
Meet Vic Sage, the Question (who, fun fact, debuted in “Blue Beetle” #1 in June 1967) and Dan Garrett, the original Blue Beetle (who did not debut in “Blue Beetle” but rather “Mystery Men Comics” in 1939). Both of them are Charlton characters, and both of them are working the streets in order to stop crime. What’s worth noting is that these are Charlton characters from the Golden Age of comics and both of their original appearances are a bit more optimistic than the characters appear to be here. Originally Dan Garrett was a government agent who became a neighborhood cop, whereas the Question was an investigative journalist who had his own TV show and hunted criminals by night as the Question, but they were heroes.
What’s interesting to see here, though, is that they’re presented as street vigilantes and crooked ones at that. I would imagine that this came from the death of idealism based on the death of Yellowjacket, which they talk about as they work — his disappearance is the “ultimate mystery,” but it’s clearly informed everyone as people take up the mantle of superhero and don’t do half as good as what he did. Heck, Vic flat out overdoses the junkie they’re arresting on purpose, but he does it to match his “superhero persona”, something that he makes a point of by leaving a calling card. This is something we see him develop throughout the issue (with more importance to it coming up later) but it’s clear Vic is working on his brand.
The other interesting bit about this scene is that Vic, the guy who is clearly the worse of the two here, is grilling Beetle on not being more philanthropical. It’s kind of funny, actually; here’s Vic killing a guy with a forced OD, and yet he’s trying to make Beetle out to be the bad guy by reminding him that he uses his wealth to buy himself fancy gadgets instead of investing it back into the community. I like this bit of dialogue quite a bit, especially since Morrison is a former Batman writer (perhaps the former Batman writer of our era), and Batman is a character notorious for using his wealth to buy gadgets to fight crime. I’d feel bad for Beetle, but clearly he’s just as egotistical as Question, otherwise he wouldn’t make a note of his name coming first alphabetically.
The way they speak to each other is interesting too, as it’s mostly modern colloquialisms that they probably shouldn’t be using based on their perceived era. There’s some optimism and bounce to the dialect that alludes to this being an “earlier age,” so that checks out. I can ignore that these are 60s characters, but we know we’re at least in the 80s at this point and I’m not sure things like “dude” and “bro” were that common in dialect. I’m not sure that’s important, though, as we know that just like “Watchmen,” this is taking classic Charlton characters and updating them — and if Charlton characters were updated to today, they’d probably say “bro” and “dude,” sure.Continued below
Either way, these two characters together essentially show us what superheroes are, or what they’ve become, post- the disappearance of Yellowjacket. Yellowjacket’s influence on the world around him was apparently pretty important, proving one man can make a difference while also kind of emphasizing the idea that this issue represents as a “Watchmen” riff: you can try and imitate the original, but the further down the line and the more derivative it gets, the worse the end product is. Yellowjacket was the best; his imitators kill junkies and waste money. This is decay.
We also can mention that the book is set in Hub City, by the way. There’s a panel reference to Hub City during Harley’s breakdown, but that we have Vic Sage working the streets pretty much confirms where we are — which makes sense, because in “The Just,” Batman found a comic referencing Hub City in another universe, aka this Earth.
(Also, maybe it’s just me, but in the second to last panel, if you zoom in on the foam coming out of the junkie’s mouth, it looks like Quitely wrote the word “cum” in the white goop, which is kinda funny, and not the first time this kind of visual prank has appeared in a Grant Morrison comic. Don’t forget to zoom into panels in the future, DC Censors!)
We’re in the present now, at the end of the scene that began on Page 4 and the only part of this issue that works chronologically when reading the print order of the book.
Peacemaker is being interrogated for the murder of President Harley, and it’s this page that we get the first “in correct order” (i.e. my re-arranging) appearance of a mystery man with a metal hand. This vexed me for a little while, but when I asked Multiversity’s other “The Multiversity” scholar Zach Wilkerson about it, he pointed out that it is most likely Sarge Steel, which fits perfectly. A former Charlton character, he has worked for numerous government organizations, including Checkmate (which the black and white color scheme of the interrogation room could allude do; that, or Morrison’s own creation of Spyral). But Sarge Steel was put in charge of the CBI, and was put in charge of the agencies dealing with superhuman activities, so him being in the room to interrogate Peacemaker makes a lot of sense to me.
So Peacemaker has effectively killed the dream by killing Harley, and when he’s asked why he did it, his best answer is that he’s saving the world — which certainly is in sync with what we can perceive Harley’s Ozymandias-esque actions to be.
Peacemaker’s formation of a gun hand and the “BANG!” also seem to be directed at us, the reader. If we can go back to the central idea of “The Multiversity” that we as readers are part of the story, then Peacemaker saying “I’m saving the world” and being asked “from whom,” his answer is you and me as we read the story. Just like in the opening of this series when we doomed Nix Uotan by reading the last page, everything here is our fault for reading it — and Peacemaker knows it. Captain Atom probably knows it too.
We also get a shot of the 2013 Peacemaker, talking to Nora O’Rourke (who, as far as I can tell, is not a re-imagined character and whose death is central to the Question’s storyline). It’s here that Peacemaker basically gives us the answer to everything: that the Young Harley felt guilty for killing his father, for changing the world as he did, and that’s why he had to be the inevitable sacrifice. It’s a sad rationalization, but when you put things in chronological order, it’s certainly something you can be sympathetic towards, I suppose.
Also, it’s at this point that we can see that things aren’t entirely in order anywhere in the issue. In fact, it’s probably at this point where I realized that you can’t read the issue front to back and back to front; you actually have to cut things up quite a bit due to the heavy nature of flashbacks and what I perceive to be flash forwards. We can perhaps believe that this issue takes place in the past, present and future — the past is Harley’s rise to power and the formation of the superhero team, the present is the Peacemaker rationalizing killing Harley and then doing it, and the future is where we follow the Question as he runs around in a world that hates superheroes, trying to figure out what happened to O’Rourke and how it connects with everything else.Continued below
However, the way that the issue feeds in and out of itself in a weird loop just plays back into the Mobius loop idea of the issue, which is present everywhere from the sideways domino mask to the ring on President Harley’s finger. It all ties together.
(I’ve seen different interpretations of the timeline at time of print, by the way. I suppose your mileage may vary there, though I tend to see that the periods taking place during night times as “later” than the scenes taking place during daylight; that’s my main inference, really.)
I’m going to start by saying: I love this sequence. These four pages are the best, in my opinion.
The whole scene is meant to be cinematic, and it’s very much on purpose: “this is not a comic book, not a movie.” Except it is, and it isn’t but it is. It’s a big production, one that Harley is essentially manipulating in order to give justification to his actions. It plays on the fear of terrorism prevalent in America post-9/11, the thing that Bush’s entire presidency rested upon, and Bush’s inclusion in the comic echoes the use of Nixon in “Watchmen”, with us coming in during his second term
But Harley is very much saying that everything happening here is by design, his design, to be a big show and to be cinematic. Just a Governor at the time and still working his way up to the office of Presidency (that he’s visually lurking behind Bush at all times makes his intentions clear), he has created Peacemaker as the world’s newest pinnacle of superhero and a new brand of government-regulated superheroics. Harley’s vision of peace is still pretty clearly warped from his childhood, matching violence with peace just as he matched the gun to the speech about Pax Americana while warping the legacy of his father’s actions as a superhero, so the hypocrisy of this rings pretty clear. But it’s 2005 now, and that’s the way things are going to be, as evidenced by Peacemaker punching his way through all of the enemy opposition with the hopes of no casualties (though, even when there are casualties he doesn’t seem bothered by it; “must try harder next time,” he says).
OH! And he uses drones, bringing that ol’ nugget back from “The Just” and the Superman/Predator Drones that circulated the world.
(If I can give other superfluous importance to the year, 2005 is also when Batman Begins came out, which was a landmark production in terms of its effect on DC. Marvel had already been putting out their big movies in 2000 and 2002 with X-Men and Spider-Man, but it doesn’t get bigger than Batman for DC Comics — and the importance and influence of the Nolan films began in 2005.)
In terms of who the Peacemaker is, though, he’s obviously another Charlton character. Named Christopher Smith, this excerpt from his Wikipedia page pretty much sums up everything you need to know about his role in this comic, describing him as “a pacifist diplomat so committed to peace that he was willing to use force as a superhero to advance the cause. He uses an array of special non-lethal weapons, and also founds the Pax Institute. Most of the villains he goes up against are dictators and warlords.” So, all things considered, his role is pretty perfectly suited in the book.
What’s interesting to know about Peacemaker is that his peace-through-violence mentality is the result of mental illness brought on by trauma, so that sort of points out more of the flaws in Harley’s vision here. Yet it’s also indicative of everything to come; if Peacemaker is the new model of superhero — the idealism of Yellowjacket, the violence of today, appropriate government sanctions — then we can see how Peacemaker informs the rest of the government-based superheroes to follow.
“Your world has come to an end today,” Governor Harley says, and he’s not just talking to the terrorists.
Here we meet Captain Atom. With the Pax Institute now founded and Harley out looking for people to bring to his superhero team, Captain Atom is Harley’s big win — the only actual superhero with powers, and not just a guy in a suit with money. We’re given Allen Adam, another former Charlton character and someone Morrison used in “Final Crisis: Superman Beyond” as one of the many Supermen called into action; Captain Atom is also the inspiration for Doctor Manhattan in “Watchmen”, which influences the way that he is shown here. It’s never really discussed here (they allude to it with “flight-suit’s dilustel, a radiation absorbing meta-material” and “the U-235 incident”), but the way that Atom gets his powers is via his role in working on an experimental rocket that he becomes trapped inside of. He is then atomized, but somewhere in the mix gained superpowers that allowed him to reform his body. Basically, just remember Doctor Manhattan’s superhero origins and you’re good to go. Either way, he’s hella powerful.Continued below
Captain Atom is also a bit time displaced, which is why Harley wants him. Atom is essentially conscious of the higher dimension throughout the entire issue, something that he remarks on (“Imagine how your 3-D world appears to me”). But his comment of “It’s now— The future is somewhere else” is once again showing the way the book plays with time, which is kinda funny since I’ve referred to this as the past. Atom refers to Harley as being President multiple times, and Harley just shrugs it off and says he’s not president yet, which certainly implies that Harley knows the road he travels on. Atom also references that he was president when they last spoke, playing towards the backwards nature of the comic and how out of sync Atom is.
Also, you should note that Atom’s lines can be read in order. When he says “—No, I got that wrong, it’s now— The future is somewhere else.”, this line is a continuation of the scene where Atom builds the three towers for the new World Trade Center, looks back and says “What? Sorry, I’m in the future—“ Not only that, but in every issue of “The Multiversity” so far, there has been a Captain Atom in an important, oft-referenced role. I’m kind of curious as to why that is, but I imagine we’ll see more down the line.
What Captain Atom does to the dog Butch also strikes me, particularly because Morrison is an animal activist. It was a bit disorienting to see him write a comic where a dog’s insides are pulled out. I mean, I guess it plays to the idea of Atom trying to understand how things work and it definitely plays into exactly what I’m doing (taking a comic apart in an annotation column to see if “the pieces would explain the whole”). The line “it’s hard to love the pieces” is also pretty moving, seeing as its the complete product of anything that we love and not just the individual items that make it up. But, yeah, either way I can’t believe I read that in a Morrison comic — especially when it plays into a trope of showing us a character detached from humanity expressing that via violence towards an animal.
And, OK, Captain Atom makes another dog, which shows off his power and is important to why Harley needs him. The question of if Butch is alive as well as dead certainly ties into the nature of this comic and how things only happen because we read it (like Schrodinger’s cat comic); Atom has the same power of creation and imagination that we do.
Also, I do not know if Doctor Rogers or Butch are references to anything specific. I imagine Doctor Rogers kind of has to be, but I’m not sure whom. Moving on.
Governor Harley speaks with Captain Atom, and his plan begins to unfurl. We learn about his life that we didn’t see in all the panels, that he traveled the world before discovering what he describes as “the ultimate algorithm,” something that will help justify the meaning of existence and war and peace (two polar opposites, a late/early nod to Janus depending which way you’re reading the issue). He refers to it as a pattern that explains everything and that Captain Atom has seen it too, which we know is true as we saw that Captain Atom visited him at his father’s graveside, which help keeps the loop of the story in play since Atom can walk between past and future (though we can probably still debate what influence Atom had on the young Harley, and if it was Atom that showed Young Harley the pattern in the first place).
As for what the algorithm is, I would imagine that it somehow adds/subtracts/multiplies/divides war and peace together in order to form some kind of unity, as represented by the 8 or the ∞. Morrison has used odd mathematics in his comics before, particularly whenever he writes Darkseid and the Anti-Life Equation in “Seven Soldiers” and “Final Crisis, and we know that the Anti-Death Equation is involved with “The Multiversity” somehow because it cropped up in the first issue. Perhaps this somehow ties into that.Continued below
Their conversation is also held in a very structured and organized place, which Harley comments on. “Life… seems a puzzle—a maze of contradictions,” vs. the garden’s “masterpiece of design and organization.” This one’s so obviously meta that I’m not really going to dig too deep into it.
When they get to the bridge, here we can see that everything Harley says is somewhat distorted or askew, thanks to the visual reflection of the water here (which, again, shows us a loop). Harley has seen the future and he believes that the only way to secure peace is for him to die, and part of this will be so Atom can resurrect him (a bit like Jesus, I suppose). His intentions are noble and optimistic because he wants to bring peace (and bring peace through violence), but then again weren’t Ozymandias’ plans somewhat noble? The intent of bringing everyone against a common foe, making constant war the norm but otherwise securing world peace while Earth looks for other foes? That’s Pax Americana.
Chalk all that up with the the dove in the final panel being reflected in the water as a darker and more distorted creature. Either Harley’s plan isn’t as great as he thinks it is, or there’s something lurking in the shadows coming after that. The latter is the more likely option, as we’ll come to find out by the end of this scene.
The blocking of the scene on the bridge is also wonderful if you really think look at it: they travel together for the first two panels, but Atom stops in the second as Harley continues across the bridge. In the fifth panel we see that Atom has started walking back the other way but Harley says they have to move forward, both literally and as a metaphor. It’s then that the two cross the bridge together, and Harley lets Atom know how much he needs him for his plan to work.
Now, here’s where it gets extra fun. Harley busts out one of his father’s comics, “Major Max meets Janus the Everyway Man.” It was a comic published by Major Comics (which we know is the fake Marvel Comics of “The Multiversity”), and as far as I know these characters are fairly made-up (though “Janus the Everyway Man” kind of reminds me of “Shade the Changing Man” in terms of names). But Janus is the part we need to focus on, because Janus is so very important to everything. Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings, and when he’s shown in some fashion to us it’s via a figure with two faces on each side of his head facing in both directions — he sees the past and the future, though never quite the present (get it?). Janus also, by nature, presides over war and peace, because he sees the beginning and ending of conflict, so he represents the middle between the two.
(As a fun extra bit of trivia, Janus was also the name used of a drug in the show Utopia, in which several characters come across a comic book that appears to predict the future — though that’s somewhat simplifying everything. It’s a great show, though. Highly recommended, even though it was canceled at the hallway point of its overall story.)
And it’s through this that we see how broken Harley’s plan is. Not only does Harley himself refer to the “symmetry of a broken world,” but he believes that Captain Atom is the one that save everyone because when Harley dies, Atom can bring him back to life. Atom is Janus, seeing the beginning and end of things, so he knows the impact of his power and what he could be doing. Harley is hoping that he can bring back the idealism to superheroes by having someone in his group that is so powerful he can break the pattern, create a new loop that’s more prosperous than the one we’re in. But is Harley’s plan perhaps a bit flawed, or leaning too much on the resurrection angle? We’ve seen Atom can do it; he literally did it with the dog in front of Harley. Yet, Harley has seen the past and the future and he knows the importance of growth and decay, of decay and growth. It’s probable that Harley feels the need to sacrifice himself not just to atone for his own sins but also because he believes he can set the future on the right path with his death — trading a bullet for a bullet, establishing peace through violence.Continued below
Also, once again we get to be involved in the story, as the idea of bringing the president back to life essentially comes to us and when and how we turn the pages. “In comic books we trust,” Harley remarks, which helps to echo the role that we play and the whole meta-nature of this series.
As the scene ends we’re given a few direct meta nods. “Your ring. The number eight.” “You know it’s not a number.” Of course it’s not; it’s an infinity symbol, and it’s the mobius loop behind everything in this story. That, and “Bring him more comics.” “Different each time?” “Every good story is.”, which is a nod to how the more we read this damn comic book the more we see.
Finally, of important note: this is where Doctor Eden is first seen chronologically, in which he watches Harley explain to Atom his entire plan. Doctor Eden is the man that becomes Harley’s Vice President, and this, in many ways, is the domino that sets off everything else. When Eden questions whether we can trust Atom for the future, it’s really the first seed sewn for everything that’s to come down the line.
Harley is now President and we’re in 2008, meaning he replaces Barack Obama as Bush’s successor. He has finally formed his superhero team that is comprised of Tiger, Blue Beetle, Nightshade (all of whom are OSI government operatives), as well as Peacemaker and the Question. Captain Atom isn’t here, as he has to be brought out in style. The comics being used to help emphasize why a superhero team should be formed are “Earth-2” and “All-Star Superman,” two Morrison/Quitely joints, and they’re being held up by Sergeant Lane, which I believe is supposed to reference Lois Lane’s father, who is a General last I remember.
But this shows us how OSI is being transferred into super heroics, which Tiger and Night Shade don’t seem to be too found of. Blue Beetle on the other hand seems to welcome the change, once again playing into his vanity that we saw when the Question called him out for not using his money better (and which the Question does again, asking “What would you spend billions on?”). The “billionaire playboy status” also seems to be another coy reference to Batman.
Peacemaker chimes in and calls the team the Justice League of America, which shows that he’s possibly aware of Harley’s plan at this point. The influence of the comics Lane holds up shows DC’s JLA (“Earth-2” was a part of Morrison’s “JLA” run, in fact), so Peacemaker seems pretty wise to what is going on here.
Blue Beetle suggests being called the Sentinels, which was a trio of superheroes (Helio, Mentalia and The Brute), and were backup features of Charlton’s “Thunderbolt” comics. “We are the law” seems to reference Judge Dredd’s “I am the law,” which is perhaps being done as a nod towards the idea that these superheroes are supposed to be ideals and yet are now being used as authoritative oppressors and figureheads meant to keep others in line. Lane’s comment about this being “homeland security meets showbiz” also echoes that a little bit, though it brings back Harley’s comments from when he was a Governor and Peacemaker first debuted.
Harley arrives and comments on the ideal of the superhero as well, though we know his view is askew. He’s certainly an idealist, I’ll give him that. As for “are you in the box or out of the box”, I’m honestly not too sure on any deeper meaning. It’s Harley prodding Vic Sage and how Sage is basically a loner and kind of a bad guy; perhaps this is his way of telling the Question that he knows his secret identity (since the Question is the only one here who was not previously a government operative in any way), so he needs to play ball. The smaller lettering denotes that this is a whisper, so I’d imagine it’s a bit of a threat — which, again, echoes Harley’s idealism as broken in and of itself as he goes about securing his dream future in less than ideal ways.Continued below
As he rolls out the team in his big 2008 speech he calls back to Pax Romana, the latin term of the time of Roman peace from which all “Pax ____”s come from which was first mentioned in JFK’s speech that he heard as a child. Harley is running on a platform of supreme idealism, and the big way that he shows off his new team is by having Captain Atom re-construct the World Trade Center, now with a third part. The importance of two towers falling and three towers rising is pretty potent of its own accord. Harley also introduces the team as the Pax Americana, “warriors of peace,” once again playing on the interlocked Janus notions of war/peace going together.
Atom is shown here in a costume that seems aligned with his original design, not the Doctor Manhattan one we’ve seen, and it’s here that we see him go back to the sequence where he first met Harley. Atom also knocks a would-be assassin directly into jail which is another display of his power, and the line of him being a “hollywood special effect” helps to emphasize the relationship between what Harley is doing for the government and the glitz and glam of mass entertainment. We also learn that Atom is not allowed to unlock his full abilities, “kept sedated,” which is a nod to Atom asking for more medicine at the end of the scene where he first meets Harley, though that he can still do all this is pretty impressive.
I didn’t comment on it earlier, but the circle with three holes in it present in the Pax Institute is also the same design of the new WTC that Atom constructs. Not sure if those three circles have any deeper meaning (perhaps a weird version of a peace sign, or two slanted 8s that interlock?), but I imagine they probably do. The three monoliths are bigger than anything else in the skyline, all of them constructed out of different materials and looking slightly disparate — I’d imagine that’s rather symbolic, but I’m honestly not entirely sure as to what.
This sequence is a telling one. It finds the Question once again brutalizing someone that he’s done some swift vigilante justice on, someone who is apparently a high-level mob fixer formerly an undercover dirty cop in the pay of a corrupt vice president — i.e., Eden. We know that the Question doesn’t seem to want to play ball with Harley’s Pax Americana team (in fact, we learn here that he was kicked out), and part of me feels like this sequence could be taking place after Harley is dead, with the Question investigating that murder now in a darker world and getting his first clue to look into the vice president.
But I don’t think we can be positive of that, because while I would infer this takes place in the future there’s also not enough evidence to fully support that. All we really know is that Pax Americana has failed and that someone is trying to kill Captain Atom (which he was aware of in the garden), with the orders having come from Sarge Steel, a character who we never fully see in the issue outside of his hands. But we learn that someone was hip to Harley’s plan, basically, so this being the first sign that Eden has started to manipulate things so Harley’s future can’t come true seems right. Or perhaps its already happened, which is why the guy being tortured refers to these truths as rumors.
The Question pulling out a gun and giving it to the guy is perhaps a callback to when the Young Harley picked a gun out of his father’s drawer. “The gun gives a choice. I’m giving you choices. A whole spectrum of choices.” The book begins and ends with a gun, and here we are somewhere near the middle with the gun — a symbol of war during a time of supposed peace — once again giving an option to someone. It’s like Chekov’s gun amplified to eleven since it never fires.
We also get a reference to “an eight-stage color-coded system “ (though as Harley tells Captain Atom in the garden, we know it’s not an eight). Atom’s comment about it being a mobius loop curving through eight dimensions is much more apropos. That this dialogue is largely blocked out is interesting, though — it seems that it’s both not important enough for us to read it, and important enough that we need to figure out what he’s saying. I did some Google searches without much luck in that regard. More to the point, though, the Question seems to be bragging about how he sees things more fully than everyone else, a reference to how everyone else appears to be a government stooge whereas he’s the lone wolf running his own operation.Continued below
The Question’s line about “I don’t save bad guys” is also a reference to his dialogue with Blue Beetle earlier on, when The Question forces a guy to have a heroin overdose.
Also, the guy making a remark about his mother dying seems to echo one of the scientists that is killed by Sarge Steel in the scene where Captain Atom is in the hadron collider.
This is a fun sequence, as the top and bottom of the pages represent the past (Peacemaker going over why he has to kill the President at the Pax Institute) and the future (Peacemaker being interrogated by Sarge Steel and others after the deed is done). The middle part is easy to talk about: this is Janus at it’s most obvious, Peacemaker’s battered face representing the deity, and the middle point of the story where we see both the past and the future at the same time. The left page echoes the right page almost identically (certainly in panel structure if not in character actions given the bottom of the page). It couldn’t be more blunt unless they just wrote the letters JANUS over the page — which, to be fair, they almost do by having Peacemaker reference Harley’s father’s last comic story about “Janus the Everyway Man” and Nora talking about the deity, as well as the art peace.
The past storyline is interesting, though. Nora and Chris are trying to figure out the ultimate algorithm (Algorithm 8 — but it’s not an 8), which itself is based on what Harley saw that allowed him to decide everyone’s fate. They’re trying to crack it, which means that Chris is somewhat complacent to go along with whatever Harley tells him to do, yet he still wants to know why — and if the other interrogation scene where Chris remarks that he wants to “save the world” is any indication, it’s not clear that he ever learns. Then again, we learn that Nora died because she solved the ultimate algorithm, and we know she never got to share it with Chris, so it’s likely he doesn’t.
We also learn that no one knows that Harley’s father was Yellowjacket. If it wasn’t clear by Yellowjacket’s death being one of the ultimate mysteries, Chris’ comment about Harley’s father dying of a break-in/being an open and shut case kinda emphasizes it.
We also learn that Chris and Nora both plan to run away after the president is killed in 2015 (which makes this scene take place in 2013), but obviously that never happens. However, the mention of the 2015 election is curious; I’m actually confused about it, truthfully. If Harley is president in 2008, that means by 2015 he wouldn’t be able to run for re-election — he would still be president. Either Morrison didn’t think too much about how time in office works so this is a goof (Bush was president until 2009, when Obama took over and will be in charge until 2017), or Bush’s presidency was different in the book somehow. I’m honestly perplexed by this, and it’s tough not to get too hung up on it (though I try).
The releasing of the doves is also interesting. This calls back to the sequence when Young Harley kills his fathers and the dove cage is rattled, but here they’re letting the doves out. Doves being released from cages are usually done specifically as a symbol, particularly at funerals, and the two doves flying off into the distance here are ostensibly dove-avatars for Nora and Chris going towards freedom. Yet, then the dove’s die — or at least I assume they die, as we see a sideways 8 blood splatter and two falling feathers as the final two panels. Perhaps this is foreshadowing for Nora’s death, but then who shot the doves? (There’s perhaps an obvious guess, as there’s one character who is very much lurking in the background, but I’m not too sure).
Flash-forward to 2014. We meet Eve Eden (ha ha — Eve, Captain Adam, Eden, ha ha ha), the new Nightshade, who has taken on the role from her mother. If we’re to assume that everything here is like “Watchmen,” then it’s fair to say Nightshade I is Silk Spectre, which makes the legacy role here make sense, but it gets weird when you later learn that Nightshade’s father referenced here is Doctor Eden, the vice president. Eden’s wife also seems bitter towards Eden, remarking “my brain’s defunct and that bastard’s responsible,” which is where things start to get tricky.Continued below
See, we learn that Eden is using Atom to “harness black hole energy” so they can stop using oil. This is an interesting bit of foreshadowing; if we can connect this to “Watchmen,” you’ll perhaps remember that in the film Ozymandias used Doctor Manhattan in order to create the bomb that went off in New York. It’s different in the comic of course, but we can probably allow the movie’s plot to reflect a little bit here if we’re going to talk about alternate realities and all that jazz. So Eden is using Atom here, but earlier we heard from the Question’s interrogation that Eden is trying to kill Atom, so since we know that Eden knows of Harley’s plan we can assume he is trying to stop it. Eden of course being the Biblical land of paradise that knowledge ruined feels rather well-named, in this regard.
But this also means that he’s done some other bad things, like experimented on his wife in some way since her brain is all messed up. And since she’s a former super heroine, it sort of calls into question why Pax Americana broke up beyond Vic Sage just being kind of a jerk.
This page is also fun to look at as it is somewhat the same front to back, and is punctuated with a big black dot on either end. The page is punctuated by the line “The view is the same in both directions,” though it’s not exact. The black dots seem to represent black holes that we get lost in, which works well because this goes towards the Captain Atom scene that follows this.
That line also refers to Harley’s wife’s broken mind (I believe she is supposed to have Alzheimer’s here?), and the line “she just goes round and around” seems to imply you can read her dialogue in different order for different meanings. I tried, and didn’t come up with too much insight. Also, the “i” in i-Science magazine does somewhat seem like the Image Comics “i”.
The spilled coffee on the i-Science magazine changes the S in Science into an 8, by the way. But again, we know it’s not an 8. (At this point, looking for 8s is like looking for the killer in early scenes of “Too Many Cooks.”)
The sequences features Atom sitting in a hadron collider, positioned very much in the reverse of that famous image of Doctor Manhattan used in “Watchmen” promotional material, though also one that is typically seen as a rather meditate stance. This is one of the biggest scenes of the book, though, so I’ll try and break it down evenly.
For starters, there’s the first panel that shows Atom reading the cursed comic, “The Multiversity: Ultra Comics”, which has appeared in every issue of “The Multiversity” so far and usually foreshadows something bad. Not only that, but once again we get reference to “something knocking on the door to get in,” which — as I said earlier — has popped up in some form or fashion in every issue of the series, just like Captain Atom has. The door knocking is indicative of the Gentry, trying to work their way into the stories to pervert them, so perhaps we can see some correlation here between what is left when Atom leaves.
As for his remark about pages 12 and 13, that would be the huge 32 panel sequence in which three stories are told at once, and the sequence that comes before this one in the print order and after this one chronologically.
Also, if you’re asking, “Why is Atom in a hadron collider?”, then guess what: the answer is super simple. In fact, Atom even alludes to it. The hadron collider at CERN that exists in our universe was created in order to allow for testing different theories on particle and high-energy physics in order to prove the existence of the Higgs boson (which Atom refers to, “a massless time-symmetrical boson”). The Higgs boson is an elementary particle, sometimes referred to as the God particle, and it’s a particle that may or may not exist yet is somehow present everywhere. It essentially defies most of the rules of how we understand physics and electromagnetic fields, because the Higgs boson (and field) have a non-zero constant value, and the existence of the Higgs boson would explain why “some fundamental particles have mass while the symmetries controlling their interactions should require them to be massless” — and this again ties into the weird symmetry of this whole freaking issue.Continued below
Looking at “Ultra Comics” seems to give Atom some extra-sensory perceptions. He remarks that the “story’s linear, but I can flip through the pages in any order, any direction,” which is the second hint to readers to read the issue in unorthodox ways and once again drive home the point of how important time is to the issue. And we can see that his perception of everything has radically changed; in the sixth panel, the background to Atom starts to become like a comic book, thus adjusting the plane of perspective that he rests upon via how they’re broken up. Atom is very much picking up on the strange nature of comic books and how time and characters are perceived in them, and his understanding of it once again brings the reader in as a character complicit in the actions of the story.
I don’t think “port belli” means anything in particular, by the way. Google translate tells me it means “certain port” in Turkish, which I don’t really get anything out of, and I almost feel like it’s a weird iteration of “porto bello,” which means “beautiful harbor” in Italian. But, full disclosure, I’ve been working on these annotations over the course of two days, so I’m going to let this one slip through the cracks.
But saying it sets of the sequence that activates the hadron collider, sending Manhattan backwards in time on 7:20 PM, January 31st, 2015. Why is that noteworthy? Well, for starters, January 21st is Inauguration Day, which means that the President could already be dead, meaning whatever they’re doing to Manhattan here goes towards reviving Harley, supposedly. That, and blink and you’ll miss it, but if you look at the clock and where the hands are at for 7:20, the placement of the clock in the second and third panels of the first page of this sequence make a peace symbol; it was the same as the clock in the cemetery. And just like at the cemetery when Young Harley sees time broken down through decay and growth, here the hadron collider is given a break down of growth, sustain, and decay — it’s very even, and very different from what Harley experiences in the cemetery.
One thing that we can ask about this scene, by the way, is if this is what Captain Atom mentioned when he said he thought people were going to try and kill him, or what the goon was talking about to the Question. Perhaps his placement in the hadron collider was all part of Harley’s plan, but more likely it’s related to Eden and how they’re trying to harness black holes (they make mention of opening a black hole directly in Atom’s mind). But Harley has to ensure certain things happen so that he can see the future, after all; he knows Atom has to go back in time to help awaken him (at least, I assume), and perhaps he realizes there’s a chance that doing this could kill him
However, it’s at this point that Sarge Steel shows up to kill the scientists. At this point we have to ask: who does Sarge Steel work for, Harley or Eden? If it’s Harley, then it shows us Harley is ruthless because he has a plan and has to stick to it by very constrictive measures, and that he is aware that everything he does has to be kept a secret, meaning the scientists can’t live. If it’s Eden, though, then it’s Eden trying to ruin Harley’s plan, which gives us a whole different set of instructions to Steel’s actions. Since we know Eden is trying to take out Atom, this seems more likely.
That said, it is interesting that we never see Sarge Steel’s face in person despite how often he shows up to hit or kill people in this comic. I’m not entirely sure why that is, though it does get played-up when Steel murders Nora with a Janus statue referencing the two-faced man — which, in turn, could either be Harley or Eden. If Steel is an agent of Harley, then it emphasizes the duality of Harley; there’s what Harley does in public as the president, and then there’s everything else he does in secret that’s much darker, much more violent, and things that he doesn’t implicitly want connected to him. If it’s Eden then this makes sense too, for much the same reasons, but it allows what Harley does to stay optimistic.Continued below
Either way, it echoes Ozymandias in the fashion that we have a bad guy behind everything, but his public face is that of someone we trust.
Also, the scientist also makes reference to his mother, which the goon that the Question kills also does.
“The big bang’s what comes at the end” is also a very meta line that refers to both guns being fired at the front and back of the issue, whichever way you look at it.
Good lord! This sequence! Is there any better in comics? I don’t know. If I could take out these two pages and just make this best comic of the year, I would.
So there are three stories here, all taking place in one room and playing again to my theory that the book takes place in the past, present and future, with the Question’s story happening in the future.
The Past: Nora and Chris talk about Chris going off to kill the president in November of 2015 (we know this isn’t the 2013 sequence due to the different clothes). Atom has already gone back in time at this point, disappearing into a black hole opened in his mind, and Nora is unsure if he’ll come back in time to bring back Harley. Nora is skeptical of the whole ordeal now that Atom is missing, but Chris has faith that killing the president is still the right thing to do.
The Present: Nora has solved Algorithim 8. She understands now what Harley is doing, how he’s set everything up, and we can probably assume that she’s waiting for Chris to come back so they can run away. However, in the background lurks Sarge Steel, who kills her just as he killed the scientists that had Captain Atom in the collider. Sarge Steel is the clean-up man, and since both Harley and Eden are aware of what Nora was up to at the Pax Institute, we get a covert assassination. He also kills her with the Janus statue, which ties back with everything already discussed about Janus; the two-faced man is very symbolic indeed, whether towards Harley or Eden. That, and the empty cage in the first panel.
The Future: The Question investigates Nora’s death, just as Rorschach investigated the death of the Comedian. He does it November 17th, which would make some sense because election day in 2015 would be November 3rd, and Nora’s chalk outline is still there and the blood hasn’t been fully cleaned up yet. This is the strongest evidence I have towards the Question’s scenes taking place in the future, though I can’t emphasize enough that the timeline of this book doesn’t totally add up. I’m chalking this up to a misunderstanding of how time works in the real world, let alone comics.
The Question’s mention of the Hunchback vs the Soldier is also interesting. I think it’s fairly literal honestly, as Sarge Steel is obviously a soldier but would be hunched while carrying the Janus statue, which represents two-faced-ness. That, and the president’s stance when dies transforms from an exclamation mark (holding the peace symbol over his head) to the hunchback slumped over like a question mark.
Though, if you want to get really wild with theories, I would perhaps posit a theory about Sarge Steel that I myself don’t fully believe relating to the Exclamation-to-Question-Mark thing Question says. Bare with me on this, but it’s possible that Sarge Steel is Harley. It’s a longshot, I know, but based on the timeline, if we assume Harley is a villain, then it stands worth noting that we never learn Harley’s first name so his identity is a question, and the reference we have of the involvement of OSI allows us to be reminded of the Six Million Dollar Man allusion I made earlier, which would inherently allow us to believe that Harley could be brought back to life as a bionic man; it’s not Atom bringing him back to life, but Harley mentions that the ultimate superhero redeems the ultimate crime, that only a superhero can bring the president back to life, and this would explain why we never see Sarge Steel’s face and why he goes out of his way to find everyone who solves the algorithm or plays a part in Harley’s plan. I don’t think it totally works, but it was a thought I had that I felt the need to share. (My column, my rules!)Continued below
The move from the hunchback to the soldier also kind of implies a bit of a Keyser Soze, how the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Harley convinces us he’s a hero, but secretly he’s a villain — and since he saw the past and the present and the future, since he saw the breakdown of everything, the decay and the growth, he would perhaps know if it was his destiny to put so many events into motion to allow him to become Sarge Steel. Why Sarge Steel? I don’t know. But he would’ve certainly gone from the hunchback — the public figure that people can only see one way — into the soldier.
However, if Sarge works for Eden — which is probably the easier, less complicated explanation — then it’s just a different story. If you remember the movie 12 Monkeys (a movie revolving around time travel), you’ll perhaps remember the character of Dr. Peters, who turned out to be the real villain of the story that no one could stop because no one could realize what he had done until it was far too late. Peters was in the background of everything, just as Eden is; an ever-present figure who can help manipulate certain events but never seemingly has a direct impact on them. But we know that’s not true, and we know Eden knew of Harley’s plot and was ostensibly trying to destroy it, so Eden would be the two-faced man, with Steel his agent.
Eden could even be seen as this issue’s agent of the Gentry, here to ruin Harley’s plan, but I’m not sure. Still, as Atom and Harley say, “Different each time?” “Every good story is.”
The Question is now on the run from Blue Beetle II, aka Ted Kord. Just as Silk Spectre I inspired Silk Spectre II (here, Nightshade and Nightshade II), Blue Beetle I inspired Blue Beetle II — and the Question’s remarks about “anxiety attacks, an ulcer, erectile dysfunction” seem like direct nods to “Watchmen” and the second Nite Owl’s problems with the same things. Sorry, Ted Kord; you’re out of DC Comics for so long, and then you have to come back as a riff on Dan Dreiberg of all people.
The Question has solved the riddle of who killed Nora and what Algorithm 8 is (you know it’s not an 8) and Atom is still gone, unable to resurrect the president. Everything now ties together with the Yellowjacket murder that set everything on its path — everything done by Harley. The Question asks, “If I told you we could end crime. End it all with a single magic formula. What would you sacrifice?” is in line with Harley’s plot to sacrifice himself for the future of the world — but, as I’ve written about throughout this whole piece, Harley’s whole plan seems weird and twisted (which is perfect to the mobius strip), so who knows. And, as I went over in the previous section about the timeline of when Harley was elected, inaugurated and shot, this line seems to throw another wrench in that line of reasoning, not that that doesn’t really shoot itself in the foot anyway.
The Question has changed here as well. He’s gone from the crooked cop who forced an overdose into the only hero that we have left, and this whole scene echoes the radio broadcast that plays in the scene where we meet Young Harley — in which we learn that the world is fed up with government heroes like Blue Beetle and wants to believe in something new. The Question is the new Yellowjacket, because he’s the only one that has seen it was right to go his own path.
The Question also walks by a posted that reads “Vic Sage is Pissed,” with his show “Black And White World” — both tying into the Question’s origins as an investigative TV journalist living a dual life as a vigilante and going all the way back to the beginning where the Question forced an OD on the guy and couldn’t decide if his badass and ironic card should read “white powder, black market” or “white trash, black outlook.”Continued below
We see that Nightshade II is after him as well, meaning that all of the remnants of PAX that have turned into OSI and have been sent to take down the Question for solving Nora’s murder, presumably on orders of the new President. The Question here makes a few remarks that are very telling of his character, but the biggest is that his Question Card reads “the soldier or the hunchback,” which aligns that he’s now more confident of the things he writes on his cards being cool or not. Also, his remark about the military-entertainment complex are in line with Harley’s inspiration in changing the world by way of movies and comic books, and his comment about “who controls the board” seems well placed as the next two pages in print order are very much set up like a board. Last but not least, the Question has altered his card to show the 8 — but, again, as we’ve been saying, we know it’s not an 8.
As a note, the image behind Nightshade II is that of a car called the Hydro, which is “your getaway car”, which is great placement. That, and the black and white spiral seems tied to the spiral that is behind Peacemaker as he’s beaten.
Nightshade, having lost her battle with the Question, goes to see her father President Eden to figure out what the hell the Question was talking about (as he himself refers to “unanswered questions” and “ambiguous shadows”). We see that in the wake of Harley’s death, since no one could resurrect the superhero, superheroes have in turn been shut down, bringing back the era that was shown when “Watchmen” began. In the background, Peacemaker is being taken into custody, and we see small stains of blood present on the dove on his uniform, once again bringing back that allusion. Eden and Eve go through a door (which brings back that recurring aspect of the narrative), and Eden also makes a comment about the world rewarding the bastards, which is how his wife referred to him; that seems appropriate. Also, the clock that they pass makes a peace symbol split in half, which is probably indicative of what has become of peace (unlike earlier, when we knew that time played part into it — though that was probably foreshadowing as well).
In the stairwell all of the dialogue becomes heavily meta. They talk about steps needing to be taken while President Eden goes down steps, they talk about things going in reverse as they move backwards across the page, and the line “reflection is the mother of compromise” seems to call back heavily towards the earlier sequence of Atom and Harley on the bridge both over a reflection and talking about Harley reflecting. Meanwhile, Eve remarks that Eden is twisting everything, which he has done over the course of this page let alone elsewhere, and Eve also criticizes her father for his regression politics when his predecessor was all about moving forward. If we are to believe Eden is of the Gentry, then this makes sense; instead of allowing us to move forward, we’re being forced back into the past with no chance to evolve.
On the last page we see the Pax Museum, full of relics of a bygone era. I would imagine all of the cases are direct references to Charlton characters, but I’m not sure of whom. The Jester hat could imply Merryman, a character Morrison used during his “Animal Man” and “Final Crisis: Superman Beyond” run as one of the characters in Limbo, a dimension where forgotten characters are forced to live, which would be in line with Eden’s remarks about old ghosts and no need for them. Eden seems to very much want to revert the country back to what it was like before Harley became president though, referring to “when the towers fell,” which is something we know that Harley “fixed.” Eden’s remarks about wanting people to take a leap of faith with him come off as somewhat twisted given we know that he’s responsible for it all, and it would appear now we need superheroes more than ever.Continued below
The first page to take place in chronological order, we have Peacemaker being interrogated by the new President and his enforcers, one of which is Sarge Steel. This scene and the two that follow it are the only pages that go in order when reading the print order of the book, making them some of the most powerful by default.
Chris sits in a chair with a light shining directly on him, with a design of lines all swerving into him that heralds the regressive nature of the book and cues that everything ties to him. Obviously a guy called “Peacemaker” killing the president is pretty symbolic, and that’s not lost on anyone here. The men in the room remark that they’ve watched the tapes “backward” and “forward,” hinting at your need to read this issue backward and forward until it makes sense.
The best image of this page, though, the one that is the most powerful, is the last two panels of Eden’s face split on either side of the page. One is in darkness, one is in light; this is Janus, the two-faced man, telling truth and lies at the same time. He knows why Chris killed the president, and he did everything in his power to stop the future they wanted to happen from coming to fruition. Peacemaker has become a symbol of violence, of war, and this is Pax Americana.
Perhaps one of the most gorgeous sequences of the book, this is Peacemaker killing the president. We see it in reverse to lead up to Page 4, almost as if a tape is being rewound and a camera slowly zoomed out to give us the scope of what has happened. Peacemaker falling from a satellite and shooting the bullet out of a sniper rifle also seems to call back to “Watchmen” one last time, in which Ozymandias created a fictional alien menace for the Earth to unite against; here, Peacemaker is an unidentified foreign object hurling a bullet down from the heavens. He’s also a dove covered in red falling from the sky.
President Harley’s last stand resembles that of the Question’s comment about the soldier and the hunchback, the exclamation mark to a question. He’s gone from upright and strong, a symbol of peace to come, to something hunched over himself, dead. What’s worse is that he has set up his own demise, only to be undermined by his VP who took his major player off the board.
And one of Harley’s last acts is for his blood to drip down the side of the car, a single streak of blood going over the S in President to form an 8. But it’s not an 8. And neither is the ring on his finger.
The use of the cover as a first panel of the book also mirrors what Gibbons and Moore did with the Watchmen covers.
The peace symbol on the flag that Harley held over his head lights on the fire from the trail created by the bullet flying down; the ultimate visual metaphor of peace being influenced and overtaken by violence. The flag is let loose from his lifeless body, floating away from his grasp. Harley’s dream will not be accomplished. Violence has cut through peace, and Harley’s legacy is dismantled by a man named Eden.
Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
-“Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day” by Delmore Schwartz.
This is Pax Americana.
That’s all for this month’s annotations. If there’s anything important that I missed, please do sound off in the comments below. Together, we can save the universe!