Morrison’s muscle mystery Versus everyday reality… and other parallel worlds!

2: Infinite Earths

I’ve always felt that my best writing is more like channelling the voices and adventures of real characters doing this stuff in a real place – the comic as it exists in the future perhaps. Call me crazy if you like…

— Grant Morrison (Lien-Cooper 2002). 

When Morrison took over the Doom Patrol in the late 1980s, he wrote their odd sensibilities to new extremes. Sure, Cliff Steele (a.k.a. Robotman) was the same two-fisted, old-fashioned everyman, but now his new teammates included: Negative Man, who became a hermaphrodite that called him/herself Rebis; Crazy Jane, who suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder, each having its own superpower; and Dorothy, a facially-disfigured young girl who can make her imaginary friends real. Where did this leave Cliff? Completely lost. He says:

No, I’m not complaining, but sometimes it might be nice to just stop a bank robbery or foil a criminal mastermind. You know, like the regular super-guys. (Doom Patrol #37, 1990).

The new Doom Patrol faced foes that couldn’t be pummelled into submission. They had to be defeated with logic puzzles, nursery rhymes, or postmodern word games. There’s the fictional city of Orquith, growing out of a metatextual book to supplant reality; the Candlemaker, one of Dorothy’s imaginary childhood monsters, claiming it is real, and the Doom Patrol are not; and best of all, the Brotherhood of Evil, who renamed themselves the Brotherhood of Dada, suddenly more interested in odd, situationist art crimes and parodically running for President than taking over the world. Cliff remembers when you could just punch a villain and save the day, but here, they sometimes don’t have a body at all. Mister Nobody, for example, exists in abstract space, and – best of all – Number None is a random collection of mundane objects, such as banana peels or traffic lights. Through all of this, Cliff needs to know: “All I want is the answer to one simple question before I run screaming back to the bughouse: is this real or isn’t it?” (Doom Patrol #21, 1989). 

It’s not that simple anymore. When you’re under attack by imaginary villains, what guarantee is your regular reality anyway? Morrison’s run on the title ends with the very Twilight Zone notion that his entire series might have been a delusion of teammate Crazy Jane. After fighting against these terrifying parallel worlds, she’s finally thrown into hell itself – before appearing in our world. Out here. The everyday that’s right outside your window. Against the bright, surreal landscapes of the superhero, this is hell. She finally returns to her own reality, while the narration reassures us: “There is a better world.” But why is there a better world? “Well…” Morrison writes, “…there must be.” (Doom Patrol #63, 1993).

So let’s presume we’ve skipped past the moment where I’d be rubbing my eyes, pinching myself, and looking around for practical jokers. If there was this superman standing in front of me, I know I’d be staring. Those muscles, after all. How could you not look? He’d be embarrassed, even seething a little under his cape. The nerve of me: writing a superhero into my world, just to have him stand awkwardly so I can examine him and make the occasional self-depreciating remark. I’d be looking closer, trying to spot the pencil marks under his chest, his arms. Perhaps if I can see the drafting that went into his creation, I’ll be able to pick him apart. This urge to deconstruct belongs solely to adults. A child would never do what I’d do. I’d probably point out that he couldn’t possibly be real.

Saving the world is one thing, but maintaining the comic book status quo requires the Herculean effort of dedicated professionals. It mostly happens when an old character is rebooted, made young and given a more fashionable costume. Continuity isn’t bulletproof; it functions more like, say, a mutant healing factor. New details are absorbed into the official storyline, and older, outdated ideas are left to fade until they eventually barely leave a scar. Morrison finds many creative moments playing within this narrative scar tissue. His Animal Man, for example, is noticeably different from the Animal Man who first appeared in the 1970s. When the modern hero faces his predecessor, the now-replaced Animal Man demands to know why he’s no longer being written into new adventures. “It’s not fair. Wasn’t I good enough? You’ve taken my place! I’m not real anymore.” (Animal Man #19, 1990).

Sometimes, however, the weight of outdated continuity becomes too much to deal with behind the scenes, and the quiet self-repair is made overt. Continuity housekeeping became the story itself in the spectacularly and hyperbolically named Crisis On Infinite Earths, the ‘event’ twelve-part series of the 1985-86. Series writer Marv Wolfman explained it in his original introduction:

We had two sets of Supermans, Batmans, Flashes, Wonder Womans, Green Lanterns, etc etc. We also had a dozen different Earths. And so on and so on and so on. […] Well, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS will attempt such a repair job. By series end DC will have a consistent and more easily understandable universe to play with. (Crisis On Infinite Earths #1, 1985).

And so all the strange, multiple worlds and antimatter twins of the DC Universe were, by issue #12, rebooted into one singular Earth – an Earth with only one Batman, one Superman, and all the rest. Their origin stories modernized and retold, too, with an eye towards something more… realistic? Believable? Maybe. I’d always had a special place in my childhood heart for superheroes’ animal sidekicks. Superman had a whole menagerie! Krypto the Super-Dog, Beppo the Super-Monkey, Streaky the Super-Cat… but these, and many other ridiculous characters were gone in an instant, after the Crisis. Now they never existed at all, paving the way for the pessimistic, so-called ‘grim and gritty’ comics of the 80s and 90s (6). It’s easy for the rebooted heroes. They don’t remember. It’s their faithful readership, out here, outside continuity, who remember both the old and the new stories. They must wilfully ignore the older adventures like they never happened – even if they have the tattered issues right there in their hands! This collector’s double-vision is shown in the climatic final storyline of Morrison’s Animal Man. He uses a villain named the Psycho-Pirate, notable not really for his superpowers of emotional hypnotism or his preposterous jesterish costume, but because he is the one DC character who actually remembers the continuity reboot, and all the history that came before it. Like Morrison himself, the Psycho-Pirate can’t forget these obsolete characters, and these memories spew painfully from his body – first as old pre-Crisis comic books, and then as the forgotten heroes themselves. They’re determined to become real again, even if their presence threatens all reality. They’re not meant to exist at all, you see. 

Like the threats that faced Morrison’s Doom Patrol, the Crisis wasn’t something heroes could smash or bend or wrestle to the ground. The ‘anti-matter waves’ of the Crisis are just whiteness that dissolves everything in their path. How can you fight the absence of ink? This is the true terror of the superhero. Years later, when the ‘Next Issue’ box of Animal Man #11 (1989) promised readers “…a fate never before seen in comics, and that’s a promise!”, it turned out to be a villain being erased from the comic entirely: reduced to a pencil outline, then a rough sketch, until his final speech balloon popped into nothing (Animal Man #12).

Now, Animal Man may have met Superman once, and was suitably awestruck; but both his title and the Doom Patrol remained arthouse comics, as far as superheroes go. Surely the pages of the Justice League of America would hold some good old-fashioned fisticuffs? When Grant Morrison left his lovable freaks and took over DC’s flagship superhero title, the destabilising confusion of parallel worlds continued. In his JLA: Earth-2 graphic novel (2000), the team face their evil twins from the antimatter dimension, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika. The twist? From the Crime Syndicate’s point of view, it’s our heroes’ world that is Earth-2. The front cover might feature Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman as we know them, but the back blurb is written from their enemies’ point of view:

They are the world’s gravest super-villains: ULTRAMAN, OWLMAN, SUPERWOMAN, POWER RING and JOHNNY QUICK – the legendary CRIME SYNDICATE OF AMERIKA! Nothing has ever seriously threatened the global corruption they proudly enforce. But now a twisted mirror image of the CSA has arrived from the flip side of reality. Can anything stop this so-called “JUSTICE LEAGUE,” or will the stable, perfect evil of the earth fall victim to the tyranny of law, righteousness and freedom? (JLA: Earth-2, 2000.)

The teams travel into each other’s worlds, but it proves pointless. Decades of comic-book morality have taught us that the good guys always win… in our world. In the Crime Syndicate’s world, evil is always victorious. Eventually, all the teams can think to do is just go home, and leave the status quo intact. For all their amazing powers, superheroes can rarely actually make a real difference in their fictional worlds. As it is with so many serialized stories, the audience is not given change, but rather the illusion of change. The superhero status quo is – with apologies to the Hulk – the strongest one there is. Despite the occasional pretender, it will always be Bruce Wayne under the Bat-mask, and after half a century, Clark Kent hasn’t aged a day (7).

That’s why so-called ‘imaginary stories’ have enormous appeal for comic book writers. After too many cosmic crossovers that promised to CHANGE EVERYTHING! or that NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME!, the superhero audience developed a skeptical immunity to supposedly earth-shattering events. It leads to desperate editorial pleading: this story is not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! This places the reader in much the same position as the Doom Patrol’s Cliff Steele, constantly demanding to know if these events ‘really happened’ in all-important continuity.

But in an imaginary story? Everything is open to transformation. Batman can fight Jack the Ripper (Gotham By Gaslight, 1989), or star in a homage to Citizen Kane (‘Citizen Wayne’ in Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #4, 1994) (8). These stories have always been a staple of comics, and are most often seen under the DC ‘Elseworlds’ imprint, clearly labelled to keep them nicely separate from the rest of the universe. Godfather of superhero deconstruction Alan Moore famously pointed out the flaw in this logic when writing his story of Superman’s possible future, What Ever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? (1986). It reads: “This is an imaginary story… but aren’t they all?”