A word of warning: the following review gets pretty SPOILERY, in the interest of analyzing the story. So if you haven’t read the book in question yet… Tread carefully.
Multiversity: Mastermen, by Grant Morrison and Jim Lee
When I was flipping through this comic in the shop, I curled my lip a bit and thought, “Ugh! Who’s responsible for this ugly art?” So I checked the credits, and laughed. It’s Jim Lee! Nice to know I hate that guy’s work on its own merits, without being pre-conditioned to hate it because I know it’s him.
Luckily, however, he didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of the comic itself, because this is one of my favorite issues of Multiversity to date. This one’s set on a world where the Nazis won World War II, and Superman – excuse me, Overman – now rules over a fascist paradise built on a foundation of bones. Opposing him and his colleagues in the New Reichsmen (the Nazi Justice League) are Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, American rebels who are vilified as terrorists in the press.
Of course, they do earn that label, endangering civilian lives in attacks that are more symbolic than they are effective. The Human Bomb, for instance, operates as a sort of reusable suicide bomber, hitting an annual performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It serves no strategic purpose, but it sends a message. And threatens the lives of dozens of innocents. This idea of the American patriot as terrorist is, of course, a provocative one. Uncle Sam doesn’t quite come off like a home-spun Osama Bin Laden here, but the parallels to jihadists are impossible to ignore.
And that’s really the juicy part of this issue: the morality of it is hardly black and white. When Freedom Fighter attacks threaten the lives of innocent civilians, the New Reichsmen save them with heroic efficiency. And yet, they’re still representatives of a society that is demonstrably wrong. Prejudice is a defining social norm for these people, and the concept of democracy seems pretty much dead. Leatherwing (Nazi Batman) is a staunch defender of the fascist ideal…
…and doesn’t hesitate to torture prisoners when he deems it necessary. Which makes him a bit of a jack-booted thug, yes, but with all that patriot-as-terrorist stuff swirling around, it also brings to mind the specter of American “enhanced interrogation.” In particular, I was put in mind of Jack Bauer, perhaps the most prominent heroic torturer in 21st Century pulp fiction.
But again, I must stress that this is not a story of bad people fighting worse people. Both sides have heroic qualities as well as ugly ones. Uncle Sam is perhaps more heroic, motivated as he is by a love of freedom. But do the ends justify the means? And the New Reichsmen, while unquestionably in the wrong, genuinely care about the well-being of society. They’ve rejected the worst of Hitler’s excesses, and have made the world into a utopia… at least for those deemed worthy. So this is a nuanced conflict colored in numerous shades of gray.
Lines of morality are further blurred when the source of the Freedom Fighters’ super powers is revealed:
A Sivana, working as an agent of the Gentry, bringing other-dimensional technology to bear in Uncle Sam’s otherwise hopeless battle. Such a nice twist. Thus far, the Gentry have been shown working primarily with the bad guys. But that, it seems, is only because they’re easier to tempt. In this world, Uncle Sam’s desperation makes him the ideal target. And that brings the Gentry’s real goals into sharper focus. They don’t care about good or evil or any of the stuff that drives super hero fiction. They’re attacking the underpinnings of reality itself, the fictional rules that govern the operation of the Multiverse.
Because that’s what Multiversity is ultimately about: fictional realities, and the rules they work under. The world of the Mastermen is a fascist world, one in which totalitarianism is the norm and freedom doesn’t stand a chance. The Gentry interfere with that natural order, drive a wedge into the cracks and try to break it apart. Of course, it’s not enough to simply help the underdogs win. They need to infect these fictional worlds with ideas, tempt their heroes to act outside the normal bounds of the story. In Society of Super Heroes, they got the Atom to kill. In Pax Americana, they perverted the President’s attempt to create an expansive heroic narrative by driving one of that narrative’s architects to acts of desperate practicality. In Mastermen, they convince Overman to commit the sin of hope.
The how and why of that is something I won’t discuss here. I’ve been spoilery enough, without going that far. But before I go, I did want to mention a few small bits that made me love this issue, beyond the uneasy morality of it all. First, there’s this:
HEH. That might be the best thing Jim Lee’s ever drawn.
It opens the issue with a bang, for damn sure, and is a great punch-in-the-face reminder that this series is funny as much as anything else. Literally, in fact, since Hitler’s bathroom reading is a funnybook on the cover of which he himself is getting punched out by Superman. Double funny!
Another great gag is the name of the Nazi Aquaman: Underwaterman. I chuckled the first time somebody said it, but by the third or fourth mention, I was reading it in a bad German accent. And that made it hysterical. I also got a laugh out of the reason the Nazis didn’t wipe out the Atlantean race with their reverse-engineered Kryptonian technology:
Okay, so it’s a dark laugh for sure. But, still… Hitler. What a maroon!
And, since I always catch a little crap when I complain about Jim Lee artwork, I guess I should take a minute to explain why. Basically, he just sucks.
Thank you, and good night.
No, seriously… I think Lee’s an okay funnybook artist, but no more than that. His base style is pretty standard super hero fare, and on a good day he doesn’t get in the way of the story too much. He’s having a good day here, in fact, displaying few of the problems that drive me the most insane about his work. He doesn’t bust out ill-planned splash pages in this book, for instance, and I only tripped up on his panel-to-panel storytelling once or twice. He even, shockingly, designed some pretty good costumes for the Reichsmen:
So what made me instantly hate the art at a glance? It’s bland. The poses are stiff. The anatomy’s bad. The action is poorly-conveyed. And there’s freaking LINES all over everything. I think they’re supposed to be texture, but if so, it’s not being applied very effectively. It’s part of Lee’s style, sure, and all the most memorable comics artists have idiosyncrasies that define their work. But the really good ones know how to use those idiosyncrasies to best advantage, and when to reign them in. That’s not a type of control Lee typically shows, and it makes him a weaker artist than he could be. So that’s why I don’t like Jim Lee’s stuff.
It didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book, though. Mastermen is smart, sharply written spandex comics. Well-worth your attention. Even if it is ugly.