Posted by Don MacPherson on March 7th, 2015
The Multiversity: Mastermen #1
Writer: Grant Morrison
Pencils: Jim Lee
Inks: Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Mark Irwin & Jonathan Glapion
Colors: Alex Sinclair & Jeromy Cox
Letters: Rob Leigh
Cover artists: Lee (regular edition)/Aaron Kuder, Howard Porter and Grant Morrison (variants)
Editor: Rickey Purdin
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $4.99 US
This is the first of Grant Morrison’s Multiversity comics that disappointed me, and that makes it unique in a line of rather unique and unusual comics. Like Morrison’s other works, Mastermen is full of great and mad ideas, and there’s a powerful commentary to be found in its pages. Unfortunately, it’s marred by a couple of major flaws, the most obvious of which is Jim Lee’s art. It just isn’t up to the task of conveying something beyond traditional super-hero fare, and I think we can all agree Morrison’s approach to the genre is far from traditional. The other issue is an occasionally casual, even silly approach in the portrayal of the horrors of Nazism. The depth and dire nature of the history with which the writer tinkers here seems ill-served somehow by some of the choices Morrison makes in his script.
When the Nazis discover a powerful and invulnerable baby in an alien rocketship, it turns the tide of the Second World War and paves the way for the Third Reich’s domination of the entire world. Led by the unstoppable powerful of the Overman, Hitler’s despicable and brutal vision for the planet is realized. Decades later, Overman remains as powerful a force as ever, aided in his rule by other costumed and superhuman colleagues. But Overman is haunted – by nightmares, by doubts about what the Reich has wrought over the years and by a resistance movement epitomized by Uncle Sam and his Freedom Fighters.
The limits of Jim Lee’s style and its rigid adherence to typical super-hero genre character designs definitely works against the more intelligent and mature notions the writer is trying to explore here. Lee’s depiction of Hitler in the opening sequence is particularly off-putting (not that one would want a flattering representation of the man). Hitler is rendered as though he’s a super-hero himself, with a thick, powerful neck and lantern-like jaw. It’s completely inconsistent with his actual presence. Similarly, Lee tries to depict Uncle Sam as a stereotypically buff super-hero type, and I’ve always felt the character worked better as a lean figure, showing some age but also strength of spirit through posture rather than sinew. Even a charred corpse later in the issue is shown to have a thick, muscular thigh. I also didn’t care for the Joker-esque depiction of the patriotic figure on the regular-edition cover by Lee. The designs for the various Nazi super-heroes are, for the most part, eye-catching, and Lee does a decent job of conveying Overman’s internal conflict through his facial expressions. But overall, the visuals distract from the story Morrison is trying to tell rather than contribute to it.
One aspect of Morrison’s script that didn’t quite click for me was language choices. In the opening scene, I found the “Hail Hitler!” exclamation to be unusual and a little bit jarring. We’re always used to seeing “heil,” not “hail” preceding that notorious name, so it took me out of the story momentarily to consider it. As I made my way further into this one-shot, I realized the reason: the dialogue is meant to represent German throughout the book, as becomes clear (though not as abundantly as it could have been). It makes sense that translated text wouldn’t include actual German phrases, but a couple of clearer cues earlier on. But also confusing is the fact we’re told Sam and the Freedom Fighters speak English, but the only cue to that is in a fleeting bit of dialogue from the Reichsmen’s version of Wonder Woman. The supposedly all-German dialogue isn’t differentiated in any way from the smatterings of English. It just struck me as odd, I guess. I would like to applaud Morrison on the story’s title — “Splendour Falls” — for employing some British spelling, a welcome sight for this Canuck.
I was uncomfortable and little confused by Morrison’s depiction of Hitler in the opening scene. We open with him on the toilet, clearly intended to depict him as a feeble man who can’t even muster the power to handle his own bodily functions appropriately while he peruses a comic book that reflects America’s might and dedication to justice. It’s meant to show him as laughable, as a small man. But, as I noted earlier, he’s quickly portrayed visually as a man of strength, and furthermore, Hitler had power and represented a real, murderous threat. It’s hardly the first time we’ve seen the historical figure played for laughs or mockery in pop culture, but it felt as though Morrison is trying to suggest he was almost toothless and only would pose a real menace to the world if a super-powered alien landed in his lap. How Hitler is meant to be seen here seems to require the reader to ignore the horrors he wrought in the real world.
Despite those problems, there are some powerful concepts and commentaries to be found in this issue. I was rather intrigued by the notion of Overman being haunted by the atrocities committed by those with whom he’s allied. The Holocaust isn’t overtly referenced, but there’s a key flashback in which it’s clearly explored. In part, I see it as this universe’s version of Superman trying to right himself, that his inherently heroic and good nature is trying to emerge, and that seems to be the central conflict in this one-shot. Furthermore, the exploration of some humanity in a Nazi character that could easily be dismissed as a villain acknowledges even in the most extreme of circumstances, matters are rarely simply black and white in nature.
And that brings me to what I found to be the most daring and important aspect of Morrison’s story: the notion of terrorism. In the post 9/11 age and the recent rise of the Islamic State, terrorism has never been more prevalent in the minds of people the planet over than it is today. From the recent destruction of art and historical artifacts to the brutal murders of Westerners, these militants are easily branded as terrorists and despised for their extremism. But in Mastermen, the extremists who commit crimes against the innocent to further their cause are Americans and their allies. Those in power (Overman the New Reichsmen) see them as terrorists, and justifiably so. But Uncle Sam and his friends call themselves Freedom Fighters, and in this context, it’s easy to see their point and why they feel their violent actions are justified. I can’t imagine Morrison’s choices here aren’t directly connected to the realities of terrorism in the real world. Now, I’m not suggesting IS has a valid cause, and I wouldn’t imagine Morrison is making that argument either. But what the writer points out is the vital role of perspective and how it shapes a conflict — not to mention how history will judge those conflicts. 6/10
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