Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Doug Mahnke
Release Date: March 25, 2015
I’m not going to sit here and tell writer Grant Morrison his business—clearly, he’s made far better overall life decisions than almost all of us—but I feel like when he describes a project he’s working on as “the most frightening thing anyone will ever read,” maybe he’s setting people up for a bit of a let down. Although, maybe in light of events since that 2011 interview, it’s unfair to call The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 disappointing. Were we ever directly promised anything specific from this book? He just told us it was haunted.
Did he mean “haunted” like the VHS tape in The Ring was “haunted” and we’d be mauled to death by techno wraiths if we read the thing? (No, he didn’t).
Or “haunted” in the way every piece of media we absorb is a compilation of events and memories and ideas that began an incorporeal existence the moment it was digested by anyone apart from its creators? Because if so, Star Wars is haunted. So is every analogue photograph album. So is the “Top 10 Full House Moments” listicle I read 15 minutes ago. So is Full House itself. So is every tweet. So is this very Paste Magazine review of Ultra Comics #1. We spend most of our time staring at ghosts. Maybe that’s a waste of our lives, but it’s the best we can think of to do, and for the most part, we’re okay with that. So what?
“Same old, same old pretentious symbolism” reads a dialogue box of unexplained origin on page 17, curiously marked alongside the same text icon and in the same font that appeared for the first time in The Multiversity #1 back in August. The magic voice continues, “Yet another comic-about-comics treatise retreading the SAME tired themes.” “How about a simple adventure story for once?”
Morrison might as well be responding to his (basically) self-created nemesis, “Well, sure, but is there any reason I can’t do both? ‘Cause I’m doing both here.”
The questionable meta-commentaries of Ultra Comics #1 might elicit a “Thank you, Professor Bong Hit” reaction on their own, but they’re couched in a way that actually serves not just the tentatively one-shot story of Ultra, but fits the grander scheme of Multiversity which, for the most part, has tactfully eschewed winking self-awareness.
Whereas The Multiversity: Mastermen asks, “What if Hitler raised Superman instead of Ma and Pa Kent?” Ultra Comics asks, “What if comic book characters could see their own thought balloons?” The question isn’t packaged as a high-concept philosophical breakthrough, it’s just how the rules happen to work differently on this particular Earth-Prime, just like how, according to the rules of Earth-42, the Justice League are all toddlers (spoiler: also secret evil robots). If he were inclined to do so, Morrison could travel back to the fourth paragraph of this text, and quip, “Stuff gets pretty weird in alternate realities sometimes. So what?”
And I feel like I’m burying the lead by taking so long to mention the artwork, but the only apt comparison I could think of for Doug Mahnke’s presentation of an utterly wholesome hero in disturbing circumstances is Alex Ross’s Superman rendering in Kingdom Come—meaning he and the entire art team walked the almost impossible tightrope between camp and gloom.
As far as the plot goes, the hero named Ultra Comics may or may not have been created by The Intellectron—a gargantuan winged eyeball—as part of a scheme to wipe out the entire Multiverse, but Ultra does his best to ensure a happy ending.