This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on November 19, 2014.
There were very high expectations for The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have crafted some of the very best comics of the past twenty-five years. Series like All-Star Superman and We3 have aged impeccably and are now taught in high school and college classrooms. Their reunion and the inclusion of colorist Nathan Fairbairn set a very high bar. I don’t think anyone expected them to exceed those expectations in such a grand manner though. Pax Americana #1 is not merely a great comic, it is a transcendent work concerning the nature of time and space, our modern political climate, and the comics medium itself.
The issue will draw comparisons to Watchmen. It does not even attempt to hide its connections to the source material. The cover reveals a burning peace flag that leads into the opening panels of the story in the exact same manner of the blood flecked smiley face inWatchmen #1. Instead it revels in the inspiration that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal series provides them, celebrating the original work and constructing something new with the ideas and structures created in 1986. There is a significant distinction between a work that is simply homage and one that is inspired to create something new while standing on the shoulders of giants. Pax Americana is a clear example of the second case.
Quitely constructs his pages using variations of a 16 panel, 4×4 grid. There is a consistent rhythm that lies beneath each and every page that gives meaning to what comes before and after every moment. Panels are used to parcel out time. Each one marking a specific amount of time within the context of the page. When Nightshade and The Question exchange blows in a subway station, it is shown in the smallest unit of the 16-part page. The moments leading up to this fight are twice as long, combining two panels each. They are literally longer panels that take longer to occur. The subway encounter is a relatively simple example of the complex ways in which Quitely demonstrates how comics reconstruct time through the use of space.
Captain Atom spends a portion of this issue directly examining a comic book and how the medium functions. The sequence begins with him addressing the previous two pages, describing them as Mobius Loop. Pax Americana #1 challenges its readers to construct a story that is spread throughout different moments in time and Atom is the character that instructs readers on how to do so. He says, “I can flip through the pages in any order, any direction. Forward in time to the conclusion. Back to the opening scene.” His examination of the form shatters the fourth wall and speaks to both the idea of how comics function and the underlying premise of The Multiversity. Addressing the reader, he draws connections between the reality in which we exist and those we construct in art.
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. Pax Americana #1 begins at the end of the story and ends at the beginning. In order to reconstruct events in temporal order, readers must start at the end. Simply finishing the issue puts readers in the position of returning to where they began and starting over to better comprehend what has occurred. Examples like this occur on individual pages as well. 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. The entire page is composed so that each panel functions as a unique unit, commenting upon itself, while simultaneously engaging with a greater whole that is capable of repeating itself ad infinitum.
Pages 12 and 13, mentioned by Captain Atom, are another example of Quitely’s incredible draftsmanship and Morrison’s meticulous scripting. They combine to construct a 32 panel page, one that breaks a large room of equal proportions into a grid and tells three stories occurring at three different moments in time simultaneously. The movements of three separate sets of characters can be read across the page. It presents a beginning, middle and end for each, taking advantage of both the panels used to tell the story and the negative space assumed by others in order to convey a complete narrative. Fairbairn’s colors on this page are absolutely essential. He composes three distinctive types of lighting in order to distinguish the different timelines. His work allows each story to be seen as its own unique pattern on the page, functioning again as individual units and pieces of a greater whole.
Every page of Pax Americana is capable of being dissected and reconstructed in immense detail. There are no accidents in this comic book. The choices made by Morrison, Quitely, and Fairbairn are exacting and purposeful. They have created a comic that is not only intricate in its construction, but layered with meaning.
As an object, the comic is interested in examining itself. These pages speak to a love of the medium and a desire to remove the layers of flesh and muscle from each page in order to understand how it affects readers. Just like Atom’s deconstruction of his own dog, the act of dissection removes something integral to the experience though. Each part is designed to contribute to the larger whole, which is what we as readers are responding to. Despite all of the technical marvels found in Pax Americana, it is not designed to be a collection of distinct elements; it is a cohesive emotional and intellectual experience.
Visual motifs are laced throughout the issue: blood on a white dove, the endless loop of infinity, bars of imprisonment. They and the story they are woven into construct themes concerning time and space, post 9/11 America, the rippling effects of violence, and the potency of the comics medium. Pax Americana is a comic that while technically marvelous, weighs upon my heart. It evokes images of the towers falling from my parent’s television set. It brings me back to my first encounter with gun violence. It reminds me of the joy I felt discovering Watchmen and comics at the age of 13. For all of its technical accomplishments, at its core it is a human story that must be experienced.
The most important thing to consider when reading Pax Americana #1 is that nothing is accidental. Every line of dialogue, every panel, and every image serves a distinct purpose. It is a love letter to formalism in comics, taking advantage of each element on the page in order to construct order and meaning. The reading experience will challenge readers, but in that challenge lies immense rewards. The individual components of composition, color, art, and text alone are remarkable, but when combined they create a comic that is truly transcendent. As a single issue, a complete experience, these elements become a comic capable of forming emotions and ideas in its readers. Pax Americana does what The Multiversity has claimed comics are capable of: affecting reality and creating something real.