She saw places that aren’t even there any more! (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part 12: Pax Americana)
|Figure 885: The eight panel grid and recurrent figure eight motif in Pax Americana. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely and Nathan Fairbairn, from The Multiversity: Pax Americana, 2014)|
Previously in The Last War in Albion: When it came out, Watchmen was generally hailed, along with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as the vanguard for a more “mature” taken on superheroes – one marked by a great degree of cynicism and violence, an approach Moore would later come to repudiate, and that would lead him towards a profound ambivalence about Watchmen as a work.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that Moore did not want Watchmen to succeed, but equally, it’s clear that the terms on which it did succeed were intensely upsetting to him. In a fundamental sense, the book he wrote and the book people read were two very different things. And the gulf between those two versions of Watchmen is a huge and fundamental part of the reaction to the book.
It is also a gulf explored by Grant Morrison in his 2014 comic Pax Americana, part of his larger Multiversity series of semi-connected one-shots exploring alternate Earths in the DC Multiverse he had helped restore in 2007. The comic was explicitly modeled after Watchmen– indeed, Morrison had been hyping it since 2009, describing it as rooted in “that sort of crystalline, self-reflecting storytelling method” and an attempt to capture what would happen “if Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had pitched the Watchmen now, rooted in a contemporary political landscape, but with the actual Charlton characters instead of analogues.” In this regard, what is perhaps most significant about it is that it is not an imitation of Watchmen as such. Where many comics overtly following from Watchmen adopt its nine panel grid, Pax Americana is based around an eight panel grid, albeit significantly more loosely than Watchmen is around its grid. This is in turn reflected within the comic, which uses the figure eight as a recurring visual motif. But Morrison slyly plays on the image, using it not just to represent the number 8, but as an infinity symbol, a figure that tacitly invokes Doctor Manhattan’s line shortly before the end of Watchmen, “nothing ever ends.”
|Figure 886: An assassination in reverse. (Written by Grant Morison, art by Frank Quitely and Nathan Fairbairn, from The Multiversity: Pax Americana, 2014)|
Indeed, the complex notion of time implied by this iconography manifests throughout Pax Americana. Like Watchmen, it engages in considerable non-linear storytelling, but where Watchmen has a clear forward-moving narrative that runs from the beginning of issue #1 to the end of issue #12, albeit one punctuated by a number of clearly designated flashbacks, Pax Americana is simply told non-chronologically, with the reader left to piece together the actual sequence of events within the narrative. Its opening section, depicting the assassination of the President of the United States by the Peacemaker (shot in an open-topped motorcade, a tacit reference to Watchmen’s suggestion, made explicit in the film, that the Comedian was involved in the Kennedy assassination) in reverse over the course of three pages, a clear sign that this is not a comic with a straightforward relationship to time.
|Figure 887: Fractured symmetry. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely and Nathan Fairbairn, from The Multiversity: Pax Americana, 2014)|
Given this, and the fact that Watchmen, with its rejection of the idea of endings and its own looped structure, whereby the final panel echoes the first, is similarly ambivalent about the precise sequence in which causes and effects need occur, it is just as reasonable to treat Pax Americana as an influence on Watchmen as it is the other way around. After all, time is, as Morrison pointed out in commencing the War, just a four letter word. This is, admittedly, a strange approach, especially for Pax Americana, which is not a comic in which Morrison really lays out a worldview he supports. Rather, it is a critique of a particular vision of superheroes; one defined by the hermetically sealed (and indeed Hermetically sealed) closed loop of the figure eight. Throughout it, people espouse about hidden patterns and systems organizing the world, dialogue that is echoed in the intricate and detailed presentation. And yet for all its ornate formalism, it is a comic of broken designs and symmetries; a fact remarked upon by the murdered President Hartley when he tells Captain Atom that his goal is to “restore symmetry to a broken world.” But Captain Atom is, in this telling, mad, as, it seems, is President Hartley, whose utopian vision of superheroes turns out to be a pathology originating from his accidental murder of his superhero father.
It is, in other words, an inherently unfinished world; indeed, one that cannot be finished. It is unstable, right down to its default page layout, two rows of four panels each, which results in oddly tall, narrow panels that feel as though they might topple at any moment. This fits with the larger Multiversity project, a self-consciously over the top exploration of the infinitely variable possibilities of superheroes. This is what Morrison speaks of in Supergods, written around the same time as Pax Americana was being conceived, when he talks about superheroes as stories that speak “loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the be best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to find a way to save the day. At their best, they help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.”
And so Moore did. He remoulded the world of Earth-4, removing the old Charlton characters and replacing them with analogues, as well as one addition of his own. Instead of President Hartley, the traumatized son of a superhero who sought ultimately to remove them from the world, he created exactly what Morrison called for: a superhero who would solve all problems and save the world, resolving even the most apocalyptic of existential crises. He inverted the infinite possibility, so that instead of symmetry endlessly fracturing outwards it is an ornately interior structure, the chaos ensconced as a fractal cut-up of recurring iconography. He replaced the teetering eight-panel grid with a tidier nine panels, stacked three high in a comfortingly monolithic stability, each one a miniature of the whole. And instead of Frank Quitely’s vividly grotesque figures he had Dave Gibbons’s tight, orderly linework, the better to impose a sense of absolute and all-encompassing stillness throughout the work. In other words, he took Morrison’s utopian vision of superheroes to its logical endpoint, extracting from the infinitude of possibilities within the concept a singular solution to be analyzed and interrogated; to be asked what a world saved by superheroes would look like.
It is safe to say that Moore found the answer, in the end, horrifying. In Moore’s eyes there is a rot intrinsic to superheroes; something about it which inevitably gives way to a terrifying cruelty. To use the tagline for another Supergods, “praying to a man who can fly will get you killed.” In Watchmen, the people look up and whisper “save us” and Ozymandias nukes them with a fake alien. The only alternative to this salvation is Rorschach’s psychopathic obsession and the chance actions of an incompetent errand boy for a right-wing tabloid. Superheroes are not the answer, but rather the problem. Moreover, however, they’re a very specific problem. The major divergence from established US history, aside from the perpetual reelection of Richard Nixon, is that Doctor Manhattan’s destabilizing effect on the Cold War, especially once he departs the Earth, ends up making it substantially less cold. In other words, the ultimate expression of the nuclear bomb is the living weapon. The implicit metaphor is made even more clear in Moore’s original description of the first panel, which was to accompany the iconic blood-flecked smiley with a package of “Meltdowns” candy, introducing the crucial theme of the atom bomb.
This theme is just as present for Morrison, however, albeit in a very different symbolic configuration. He opens Supergods by declaring that “four miles across a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of the UK’s Trident-missile-armed nuclear submarine force,” going on to talk about how his father was “arrested during the antinuclear protest marches of the sixties.” And this something that comes up a lot for Morrison. In the Talking With Gods documentary he discusses his upbringing, transitioning almost immediately from talking about the part of Glasgow he grew up in to talking about how his father was a World War II veteran turned pacifist, talking movingly about the intensiveness of his father’s activism, and about his formative experiences, as he puts it, being “used as a decoy” whereby he and his father would deliberately kick a ball over the fence of a military facility, then climb the fence to retrieve it, and, while they were at it, snap some photos. “I saw some really strange stuff when I was a kid,” he explains, “Prisoner-style things,” going on to talk about how some his father’s friends were vanished by the government for their political views.
|Figure 889: The anti-nuclear war zines that terrified a young Grant Morrison. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely and Tom McCraw, from Flex Mentallo #3, 1996)|
Unsurprisingly, the effect of this was that the atom bomb acquired a sort of totemic power for him. In the quasi-autobiographical Flex Mentallo, Morrison has a character relate an anecdote clearly drawn from his own childhood: “Was I telling you about those political bookshops my dad used to take me to? What was I saying? Those terrible ban-the-bombzines; when you’re a kid they just look like comics at first but they’re not. It’s all screaming Hiroshima faces, burning cities. I used to imagine God was a skeleton and the thunder was the sound of his big, black iron train. War, apocalypse… they were like comics from hell. It really fucked me up.” He relates a similar story in Supergods, talking about “the radical antiwar samizdat zines my dad brought home from political bookstores” whose “enthusiastically rendered carrion landscapes never overlooked any opportunity to depict shattered, obliterated skeletons contorted against blazing horizons of nuked and blackened urban devastation. If the artist could find space in his composition for a macabre, eight-hundred-foot-tall Grim Reaper astride a flayed horror horse, sowing missiles like grain across the snaggle-toothed, half-melted skyline, all the better.” And so, in the face of this existential dread, Morrison turned to superheroes, reasoning that “Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea. It’s not that I needed Superman to be ‘real,’ I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams.” For him in other words, superheroes are a means of liberation from the Bomb, not an inherent metaphor for it.
|Figure 890: Alan Moore scooping up his children, Leah and Amber, in the closing moments of the 1987 ”Monsters, Maniacs, and Moore” episode of England Their England|
Moore was no less obsessed with the Bomb, of course; Watchmen is proof enough of that. But his relationship with it is fundamentally different. The Bomb was not a childhood monster for Moore; the great existential dread of his youth was the class divide, and it was the grim monocolor of the Boroughs that superheroes provided an alternative to, not the hyper-gothic spectacle of nuclear annihilation. For Moore, the focus on atomic weapons as a major anxiety came in the 80s, and coincided with the birth of his two daughters. The 1987 installment of England Their England focusing on Moore is revealing in this regard – Moore speaks of his desire to write about the dangers of the world specifically in terms of his children, discussing them with a charmingly bored-looking Leah and Amber sitting in his arms and explicitly noting that “I’m a parent myself.” As he puts it, “the world that we’ve been careless enough to leave laying around for our children to inherit is a place which is sometimes hostile,” and that “the only way I can help my children, the only real sort of chance that I can give them of securing their emotional and physical and psychological survival is to actually tell them about the stuff that’s going on in the world,” explicitly citing nuclear pollution as the sort of thing children should be told about. Later, at the documentary’s end, he muses in voiceover on the way in which the looming threat of nuclear annihilation changes society, suggesting that it makes a choice between armageddon and utopia stark and immediate, while the camera shows him walking through a park, joined by Leah and Amber, who he scoops up in his arms as the voiceover offers the documentary’s final words, “if somehow our children ever see the day in which it is announced that we do not have these weapons anymore, that we can no longer destroy ourselves and that we’ve got to come up with something else to do with our time, then they will have the right to throw up their arms and let down the streamers and let forth a resounding cheer.”
In many ways, this is the heart of the disagreement between Pax Americana and Watchmen. Morrison sees superheroes as creatures of immense possibility whose value is as aspirational figures. For him it is the interminability of superhero narratives that is most interesting – the fact that characters get reinvented over and over again, with new ideas and new takes, and that the stories never have to come to an end. [continued]