For a celebrated writer who’s built a reputation on crafting ornate, world-spanning epics, Grant Morrison and his latest descent down the rabbit hole—The Multiversity—touch on a sense of scale and complexity unique in comics, let alone any entertainment medium. The saga escorts readers through the various realities of the DC Universe and the ghoulish, nihilistic beings—The Gentry—who threaten to corrupt their foundation. The intoxicating project offers a chain of interlinking debut issues to comic series that don’t exist outside this umbrella title (yet), with a different artist tackling each chapter, save the opening and closing bookends from penciller Ivan Reis. In the course of The Multiversity, we’ve witnessed a world where the Nazis flourish with their own Superman, a 48-page dissection of Watchmen that mirrors the iconic work’s ambition, and an unholy alliance of super villains who create a new day of the week. There’s a lot going on here.
But in The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1, Morrison presents a new type of superhero that’s never been seen before: you.
Illustrated with dramatic bombast by Doug Mahnke, this penultimate chapter takes place in our world, where no superheroes exist save the ones united through the comic previewed here. Also: the book is haunted with a Trojan Horse of a very bad, viral idea. (More on that later). To say the least, The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 is a dense exploration into the nature of fiction that packs a metric ton of allegory, symbolism and meta-manuevers into one issue. With such heady topics at hand, Paste chatted with Morrison to discuss this innovative approach, wrapping up the series and where the post-modern icon can possibly go from a project this massive.
Paste: So in this issue we’ve finally come full circle in the The Multiversity project, with the cursed comic shown in the first chapter, Multiversity #1. This comic is referred to as being infected and haunted. What makes it so?
Grant Morrison: There’s a very bad idea hidden inside the comic book, and the bad idea will be revealed if you continue to read it, so you may not want to know this. The bad idea is ultimately not that you stop reading the story, but the story dies, which by implication means that you one day will also die. The new horror that’s revealed is the Oblivion Machine in Ultra Comics; consuming comics is devouring the hours and the minutes of your lives, and you’re actually being vampirized by your entertainment media. That’s the ghost in Ultra Comics, that you’re being devoured by the story that you’re consuming, because you could be out there meeting the girl of your dreams or flying out a microlight. It’s about the things that we consume, the pictures that we love to watch.
Paste: After reading it a few times, the comic operates on a perpetual loop—the beginning is the end is the beginning. Without being too ambiguous, is it meant to have a resolution or does it function more as a disquieting rhetorical question?
Morrison: I think the questions are kind of answered if you read it multiple times. It’s meant to be like a loop. It’s meant to be like you’re trapped inside with something malevolent. And how you figure out what you’ve been told by the malevolent entity, it’s kind of down to the individual reader. Quite literally, everyone who reads Ultra Comics will be connected across time and space by the fact that they’re reading Ultra Comics. The comic is a gigantic node of a network. Even when I’m dead, people might pick up a back issue of Ultra Comics and be part of the story again. Every mind that becomes part of Ultra Comics becomes part of this superhero network. The idea was how closely could we embed a fictional entity into the real world and connect it to real people, and enter real people into what we were doing.
Unlike all other earths in the multiverse, [Earth-Prime—our earth where this issue takes place] doesn’t have superheroes. What we have are representations. Without movies, without comics, what would a real superhero be like in our world? Maybe it would be a giant network of minds all connected by reading the same experience, ultimately in the same place, in the same room, at the same time, no matter how far apart they are geographically or historically.
Paste: This issue takes place on Earth-Prime, our own earth, and speaks directly to comic books and their pragmatic effect on readers. In your decades as a creator, do you think comic books have assumed a different relationship in how they effect their readers? One of the most interesting twists here is how online commentary plays into a battle with The Gentry.
Morrison: Yeah. Something very interesting has happened since the dawn of the internet in the sense that the audience can respond immediately, and everything becomes almost like a live performance. And no matter how much we say we don’t care about this stuff and we don’t read this stuff, of course we look at it. It’s influencing everything. I think the dialogue between the creators or the authors and the consumers is now so tight and so close, that it has to be acknowledged as a major part of the experience of creating pop culture in the 21st century. And again, I wanted this comic to go there because I think it’s a fertile field. Nobody’s really talked about it and how we all respond. We listen to what they’re saying, we adapt to stances, we change and they change. Everyone playing this strange game has to be acknowledged at least in a work like this one, particularly, which is about that relationship.
Paste: On that note on community, I’ve seen a lot the style you cemented for Vertigo in the ‘80s trickle down to this generation. When I saw the Neighborhood Guard, the first thing I thought was Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies.
Morrison: I haven’t seen that one either because I live out in the country, and I never see any bloody comics except the ones that DC sends me. But I’ve read about it. I was thinking of it more like the Jack Kirby kid gangs. It’s almost 1940s or 1930s stuff to be honest. Because Ultra is about pop culture and kind of where we are now, with these representations of dystopia and apocalypse and the end of civilization. So I wanted the Neighborhood Guard to represent that. They’re still hopeful, they’re still plucky young teenagers of the actual new world to be confronted with constant, miserable news every day of their lives.
Multiversity is just so big and massive in scope, panning out to dissect how the realities between comic fiction and the world intersect. It’s also a theme playing out in Annihilator, albeit as a reflection on the film industry. This project feels so definitive and absolute; are there more meta comic events that you could write past this? Am I being unimaginative by asking where do you go from here?
Morrison: I realize it’s my master theme. A lot of times I’ll be working on a thing, and I’ll be thinking here’s another story where a person wakes up to the true nature of reality and I’ll think, ‘Grant, come on—why do you keep doing this?’ But it is the thing I’m most interested in and is most useful to the way we live now, in this hyper-accelerated, digital media sphere. The difference between who we are and what we try to be is so ridiculous. So I’m embracing it, in the way that Philip K. Dick always wrote stories about people taken into the world that exists underneath reality, I think that’s just my master theme and my master goal. Annihilator’s got a little bit of that; it’s not everyone living in the same simulation, but all of my characters are living in a world that isn’t quite the real world. And the stories are all about them discovering what the real world is. There are a couple more to come, and maybe I’ll break the cycle.
Paste: What might those stories be?
Morrison: I’ve got a few creator-owned projects coming out, like Sinatoro and the conclusion of Nameless, which go to similar places in a different way. But beyond that as I tell everyone, the big influence is the Wonder Woman: Earth One book I’ve been doing for the last couple of years with Yanick Paquette, and we’re almost finished. That changed the entire playing field for me. I wrote a book that wasn’t reliant on the structure of boys adventure fiction. It opened up a whole new way of looking at things. Beyond Wonder Woman, I think there may be some very different ways of thinking about things.
The Multiversity #2 comes out next month, concluding the story. I think The Gentry has been my favorite aspect of the book—I know each member is an extreme of various villain archetypes, but they also seem to represent something so much more primal. Are we going to discover more about these characters and what separates them from a character like Darkseid?
Morrison: Oh yeah, you definitely find out a lot more about them, but at the same time I think why they work is because everyone can read them in their own way, and make them represent what they want them to represent. I want to keep that little bit of mystery. The finale pretty much explains who they are, and even in Ultra it’s explained that these are really bad ideas. They’re demon ideas and we incubate them and they form. We can feel them, but we don’t quite know how to display them and what they’re doing. It’s been portrayed that our imaginative space has become degraded. Where once we had Star Trek now we have The Walking Dead. We see our civilization as something that’s basically, ultimately doomed. And maybe a generation ago we saw our civilization as something that would naturally be carried into the stars, and have this fantastic utopian future. So Multiverse is all about that, and Ultra is specifically about the idea that we have impoverished a neighborhood, and once you’ve impoverished a neighborhood then you come in to gentrify it. You’ve made it very comfortable for the monsters to cultivate.
Paste: Is there anything else you’d like to add at all?
Morrison: One more thing is that Ultra Comics was inspired by the 1970s head comics. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Jim Starlin’s Warlock or Captain Marvel. I grew up on that. Back in the day, people like Starlin would come back from Vietnam and did these fantastic allegorical kind of Pilgrim’s Progress-style superhero comics. So I think Ultra Comics was my and Doug Mahnke’s attempt to almost create one of those cosmic comics of the ‘70s. Everything is allegorical. Everything is a metaphor. Everything is some psychological state. I will mention that, because those guys were a big inspiration for this particular issue.
The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 comes out this Wednesday.
Cover by Doug Mahnke
Variant Cover by Doug Mahnke
Variant Cover by Duncan Rouleau
Variant Cover by Yanick Paquette
Variant Cover by Grant Morrison