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“When critics are really good writers, it’s nice whether they like your work or not.”

— Gail Simone

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July 24, 2017

Morrison & Quitely’s Pax Americana: Watching the Watchmen by Critiquing the Critiques

Grant Morrison has for many years been writing comic books which exhibit a certain intellectual flair. Pax Americana (a serialized comic released November 2014 by DC Comics) does not depart from this, and indeed invokes many themes Morrison has visited in other works, notably Animal-man and The Invisibles. Some of the themes are common to Morrison’s British peers. One can easily imagine Morrison and English writer Warren Ellis sitting in a pub in the late 1990s, discussing how reality would look to a person existing in a comic book (the “stacked two dimensional planes existing in three dimensional space” of Ellis’ Planetary #4, published by Wildstorm Comics in June 1999, compared to Captain Atom’s address to the reader in Pax Americana: “The characters remain unaware of my scrutiny, but their thoughts are transparent, weightless in little clouds. This is how a 2-dimensional continuum looks to you. Imagine how your 3-D word appears to me” ). Morrison has thrown in the conundrum of the story rolling out in a non-linear way, rendering the comic both compellingly enigmatic and vastly inaccessible. And the shadow of that other great Brit of comic books, Alan Moore, is entirely evident in Pax Americana in its ongoing homage to Moore’s seminal 1987 work, Watchmen.

When James Joyce wrote what is regarded as the best novel in the English language, the impenetrable Ulysses, as a serialized publication from 1919 to 1922, readers struggled to understand its purpose. They were offended by themes such as masturbation and nose-picking, and the work sparked obscenity trials. Only upon publication of two schemata, maps which essentially decoded the novel (the protagonist, Leopold Bloom followed in the footsteps of the Greek mythological hero Odysseus and so many of the elements were taken from the story and adapted to the novel – for example, a one-eyed and furious mob charging down the streets of London represents the Cyclops), was Joyce applauded. Joyce himself reveled in the controversy of the interpretation of the book, and was quoted as saying, “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”

One wonders if Morrison is also enjoying the confusion Pax Americana has caused. The story has no explanatory schemata in the nature of Ulysses, and so various industry critics (the “watchmen” of this essay) have taken it upon themselves to decode as much of the story as has yet been published. Some are laudatory. Some fawn. Some are openly baffled.

Tony Guerrero at the Comicvine.com is pretty guileless, to his credit:

“This comic might not be for everyone. The fact that we’re just getting one-shot glimpses into these other worlds may cause some confusion as to what the bigger story is. The story is a little bleak and heavy but that’s how it’s supposed to be. You’ll likely want to read it again just to take it all in, especially with the way the story unfolds.”

Doug Zawisza at ComicBookResources.com describes the story as “trippy, deep, [and] mind-numbing”. On the non-linear story progression, Zawisza says, ” The writer sets the story up to go in reverse, revealing the events that lead to the opening scene, but in doing so, Morrison gives readers the freedom to structure the story’s timeline in the own context, as he omits any caption boxes that would date or timestamp the story. The important dates of the story are IN the story.” The story in fact only broadly and haphazardly unfolds in reverse: it jumps backwards and forwards and is occasionally entirely jumbled. On one double page contains three narratives interposed with each other, barely identifiable only from the characters and the shading (two narratives, a murder and the midnight investigation of the murder, are at twilight or at night, signalling their separation from the sunnier “daytime” narrative).

Otherwise, “Morrison’s dialog clues readers in to the story structure and its own seeming metaphysical awareness, but quickly snaps taut and makes that awareness appear to blossom from the characters on the page.” What that observation means, precisely, is not clear no matter how many times you read it. Zawisza confesses at the end of his review that he has only read the issue once and looks forward to doing it again.

Oliver Sava at AVClub.com notes that the comic “explores the legacy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen on the modern superhero landscape with a meticulously structured, deconstructionist story about the United States’ role as global peacemaker.” This is the start of Sava’s commentary on America’s role in the world which aside from the title itself is, at best, obliquely referred to in the comic.

Of the cover art, depicting a burning peace symbol, Sava says, “That is essentially DC’s current logo resting inside a burning peace sign, tying the cover in to the idea that the work of superhero publishers like DC and Marvel is a direct product of the American mindset of violence and aggression.” To anyone else looking at the cover, however it simply looks like a burning peace sign. Sava has seen so much symbology within the text that he has started jumping at shadows.

Sava goes further: “Circles are a recurring visual motif throughout the issue, reflecting Morrison’s idea that America has found itself in a never-ending cycle of violence by serving as a global peacekeeper. This militaristic aggression has become a major part of real-world American culture, as evidenced by the dramatic rise of Marvel’s superhero characters on the big screen, characters with deep roots in the military-industrial complex. The United States claims to want peace but has a culture rooted in violence, and superheroes are a part of that.” Sava sees what he wants to see. Its a Chomsky-seque theory which is well-explored elsewhere, including in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. But aside from a reference to one of the characters engaging in heroics in Syria and the construction of triplet towers by the omnipotent Captain Atom on the site of the Twin Towers, it isn’t evident. For a text already laden with meaning, Sava has decided to add his own. Sava says, “Thankfully, Pax Americana does not try to be Watchmen.” This is partly correct: Pax Americana is actually rich with Watchmen references, but it lacks Moore’s political anger against a self-indulgent superpower. Sava would have it otherwise.

Mike Logsdon at ign.com uses the words “overwhelming” or “overwhelmed” four times in his review of Pax Americana. He uses the word “heavy” three times, and “rewarding”, “deep” and “disappointing” or “disappointed” twice. Logsdon is openly confused. He does not delve into pretension and is happy to study the labyrinthine work from a respectful distance: “Many will read and re-read his tales only to catch on to bits and pieces during each new reading, and throughout the years he’s shown readers that his maze-like stories always lead to something rewarding such as redefining a particular character, paying homage to what’s come before, or saying something fascinating about the nature of stories themselves. Here, Morrison attempts to accomplish a little bit of all of that. The results are definitely successful overall, but this issue may be something that the only most adoring Morrison fan will love.” Its an honest expression of opinion about a baffling subject matter.

The next watchman is Gregory L Reece at Popmatters.com, who decides to run with a melancholy theme in his unhappy review of Pax Americana. The critic entitles his review, “It’s hard to love the pieces”. Reece draws an analogy between a scene in Pax American involving a major character, Captain Atom and his telekinetic and gruesome vivisection of a faithful dog, bits of carcass floating in mid-air, with the pieces of Pax Americana’s non-linear narrative. Captain Atom cries as he regards the dead dog. “It’s hard to love the pieces.” Reece clearly wants to like Pax Americana, and bemoans that he is “unmoved” even by the high level of craftsmanship. “All of the parts come together perfectly, all the pieces do just what they are supposed to do…. It is brilliant and in that brilliance, it is maddening, it is frustrating, it is broken and fractured to pieces, it is unlovable.” Reece belabours the point at the conclusion of his critique, which otherwise is not so much a clinical assessment as a sad diary entry after a bad day.

Reece also notes that the text is “a love letter to Alan Moore… Pax Americana is filled with occult references. Everyone is obsessed with “Algorithm 8” and the Question spouts ideas about Spiral Dynamics and Aliester Crowley’s “The Soldier and the Hunchback.” Moore is an occultist well-known to be fascinated by the controversial ersatz magician Crowley, and Reece quite properly notes that these references by Morrison draw the text ever closer to Moore’s body of work and sophism.

Chase Magnett, a reviewer at Comicbook.com, is rapturous. He describes the comic as the best work of 2014, and says, “I don’t think anyone expected them to exceed those expectations in such a grand manner though.” Magnett goes further and asserts that the Ulysses-esque schemata is contained within the work. “The instructions provided by Captain Atom are key to fully experiencing the comic. His notions of forward and backward movement in time and the creation of endless loops can be experienced in both minor and major examples.” Magnett twice notes that nothing in the comic is accidental.

While Reece was unmoved, Magnett is at the other end of the emotional spectrum, describing the work as an “emotional… experience”, “a complete experience… capable of forming human emotions”, and a “human story”. It is “meticulous”, “incredible”, “great”, “transcendent”, “marvellous”. Only the fact that his observations are rational and crisp stop the review from turning into an online love-in. “On page six, Nightshade and her father descend a flight of stairs together. It is possible to read the page in forward or reverse order. Their entrance and exit of the stairwell create a loop that can be read in either direction. The dialogue in every panel comments on the action within the panel itself. When Nightshade says “You twist everything”, her father is taking a turn in the stairs and twisting his body to stare at her.”

Pierce Lydon at Newsrama.com has a barely seaworthy review. Lydon dumbs the issue right down. “Multiversity: Pax Americana is a dense book. Every page is packed with panels. Every panel is packed with symbolism and it’s all serving Morrison’s bigger ideas for this series. Readers might be turned off by Morrison’s somewhat haphazard approach to time in this issue, but it’s almost as if he’s letting the characters control their own fates.” An interesting premise but not one which is explored. Lydon goes on: “Atom loses some awareness of where and when he is the same way that the reader might. Time flips between forward and backward on a whim and without warning. Morrison and Quitely challenge the idea that anything you read is ever all that straightforward, and that’s a scary thought.” Why that is so is not obvious. Lydon concludes, “If you could prevent something from happening just by turning back a comic book, would you?” This superfluous rhetorical question, which has nothing to do with the plot of the comic and everything to do with the writer wanting a catchy ending to his comments, cause the review to list and sink.

Our next watchman is Rob Patey (writing as “Optimous Douche”) at Aintitcoolnews.com. He could be Ric Mayall’s character in The Young Ones, and he uses his platform to critique the comic by savaging corporate editorial agendas in the comic book industry generally. “After reading PAX AMERICANA, my conspiracy theory on how Warner Brothers shitcanned artistic integrity to make DC more crossmedia friendly makes me quake with anger. No, not because they sought money, I’m firmly a believer in leading the unobservant lambs to the slaughter….I know you all want me to get to the plot of PAX AMERICANA, but the industry of comics, the entropy of imagination in society, and our inability to see a brighter future over next horizons because we can’t quite yet determine how to make a scalable ROI for our travels are all the indictments of MULTIVERSITY. You get a meta review, because let us not forget the meta nature of this series, a point I have railed against and will continue to lament despite adoring every story… an entire industry passing a bad egg.”

Patey makes some interesting observations amidst the faux furious self-loathing. But these comments do not really explain what the review has to do Pax Americana, other than this unembellished hint that the deconstructionist text requires a deconstructionist response. Much of the review is about Patey as a reader, and a big chunk more of it makes no sense, but when the wild eyes finally gain focus on the work itself, it is illuminating: “…its surface level WATCHMEN pastiche is a joy…. The true stroke that initiates America’s end days is actually meticulously planned, steeped in high concepts of future formulas that predict events all the way to infinity, a twist I have desperately wanted to see in comics since I read the concept in book form in Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION novels.”

Finally, David Uzumeri at ComicsAlliance.com gets his hands bloody with the workmanlike determination of a butcher, and indeed in conclusion remarks “this one was like pulling teeth”. The level of page-by-page analysis is spectacular and visceral. Some of it is really off kilter (a split panel of one of the characters is described as a possible allusion to the one-eyed Norse god Odin). But otherwise the level of thought and attention to detail is impressive. Uzumeri sounds exhausted by the exercise: “The Multiversity: Pax Americana is the hardest job I’ve had trying to pick one of these things apart. Not just is there so much there, but there are so many differing equally possible readings that assembling the evidence into a coherent thematic theory is almost impossible.” Which is almost certainly the most accurate assessment of the work by all of the reviews considered in this essay.

Morrison and his collaborator Quitely worked for many years on this comic. (HollywoodReporter.com previewed some pencilled panels for the issue, almost two years before it was actually published.) Morrison is clever enough to have laden it with enough symbolism, subtext, allegory and social commentary to keep pundits guessing for years, exactly like Joyce on Ulysses. At one point in the work, a character, the Peacemaker, is restrained and beaten up by secret service men. The character pulls his hand lose. “Bang!” he says as he points his index finger at the reader. On one level the character answers the question posed by his torturers (the threats to existence are the creative team existing in three dimensional space). On another level, Morrison is mocking the reader. Peacemaker has fired a metaphysical bullet into the reader’s brain, right between the eyes. Make of it what you will.



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