I. The door has one side and opens both ways. Let me show you.
The Multiversity: Pax Americana, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, starts and ends with death.
We begin with the assassination of President Harley, slain by a bullet through the back of his head and out his mouth while giving a speech. The president’s killer is none other than Peacemaker, who is part of an elite superhero team called the Pax Americana that Harley assembles to boost his presidential campaign.
We end with a scene of Harley as a boy killing his father by shooting him right between the eyes. Harley Senior has his own superhero connections, too: when he isn’t writing and drawing comics, he operates under the secret identity of Yellowjacket, America’s first superhero. In other words, the man who killed – and who, as his son, was created by – the first superhero is in turn killed by a superhero of his own making.
This, then, is the story of a death loop: the deaths of superheroes, of course, but of much more than that. Pax Americana is a disturbing condemnation of the narrative stagnation of contemporary mainstream American comics, of forgotten creative legacies, of the blood from so many nations on America’s hands, and of how all these deaths feed endlessly into each other in a post-9/11 world.
II. “I thought the pieces would explain the whole. But – it’s hard to love the pieces like…like…”
At one point in Pax Americana, the superhuman Captain Atom uses his powers to “take a closer look” at the inner workings of his beloved dog by exposing its brain, skeleton, eyes and organs as separate parts, which, naturally, proves fatal.
Atom is not driven by any animosity or desire to cause harm; in fact, he weeps with remorse immediately after realizing what he has done, and creates a living copy of the dog in an attempt to undo the consequences of his actions, although he notes that “It’s not the same” as his original dog. In other words, while his intentions are only to gain greater understanding of something he loves, his desire to view it as a collection of reproducible “pieces” is what leads to its destruction, and trying to resurrect it by replicating them creates a product that fails to capture a key quality of the original that cannot be achieved by simply copying its “pieces”.
Atom’s actions here gain an extra layer of significance when you consider that Pax Americana is Morrison and Quitely’s answer to Watchmen: an audacious undertaking made even more so by taking on, in a single issue, the intricate strata of meta-textual narrative and political critique that Watchmen laid out over the course of twelve issues. Thus the superheroes in Pax Americana are the original Charlton characters who provided the inspiration for Watchmen’s dramatis personae, and Pax’s layout is based around an eight-panel grid system, one panel fewer than the famous nine-panel grid system of Watchmen.
Given Watchmen’s status as cultural artifact, though, responding to it means not only reflecting, deconstructing, and refiguring the characters and events of the comic itself, but reckoning with the fraught industrial and narrative legacies that have accreted around it over multiple decades as well, particularly in a contemporary, post-9/11 context. Thus, as well as directly responding to Watchmen’s contents, Morrison and Quitely are also interested in how Watchmen has reverberated through American mainstream comics and how those reverberations have been distorted into echoes of echoes, increasingly distant from their original source and feeding off each other in an endless, self-defeating loop.
To many fans and critics, Watchmen is seen as marking the point when mainstream American comics (i.e. superheroes) “grew up,” shifting comics towards a more mature readership so that the medium was – to quote a late-1980s DC Comics tagline – Not Just For Kids Anymore. The success of Watchmen revealed an appetite among readers for revisionist superhero comics that deconstructed the conventions of the genre and the comics medium, which was bolstered by the similar success of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, an unflinchingly violent, politicized portrayal of an aged Batman in a dystopian version of Reagan’s America.
In response, DC’s Karen Berger brought over emerging authors from the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s to write more of these comics, reviving forgotten characters like the Sandman, Animal Man, and the Doom Patrol in experimental, revisionist re-imaginings. This recruitment drive proved so successful that in 1993, Berger launched Vertigo Comics, a new imprint under the DC umbrella dedicated to mature readers, where creators could apply the same sensibilities they had used to rework pre-existing characters to developing their own original, creator-owned comics.
These comics mostly eschewed superhero narratives for a range of other genres including horror, science fiction, crime and Westerns: genres that once abounded in American comics but had been pushed out by the strictures of the Comics Code Authority until only superheroes were left. Taking full advantage of its “For Mature Readers” label, Vertigo’s output was often liberally peppered with explicit sex, violence, and profanity, but also openly depicted and explored non-cishet sexual and gender identities, critiqued contemporary politics, experimented with the narrative conventions of the comics medium, and discussed other topics that would at the time have been off-limits for conventional superhero titles.
Nevertheless, Vertigo’s influence soon permeated its mainstream counterparts, which sought to approximate the maturity of the former in their monthly superhero franchises. Without the scope afforded to the “mature readers” audience, however, mainstream comics were heavily restricted in their ability to explore more complex issues of sexuality, politics, morality, etc., leaving them to take a cargo-cult approach to emulating Vertigo (and other “mature” comics like The Dark Knight Returns) by inserting the most obvious markers of “adult” fare – profanity, sex, and graphic violence, – into otherwise unchallenged narrative convention as shortcuts to maturity.
A prime example is Identity Crisis (2004), which DC Comics marketing touts as “an inventive look at the world of superheroes,” but which among comics fans has become infamous for portraying third-tier villain Doctor Light as an unrepentant rapist rather than for any “inventive” uses of superhero tropes or the comics medium. These developments exemplified a move back towards the stark delineations of morality that characterized earlier American mainstream comics and that the incorporations of such supposed “maturity” were meant to eclipse. This trend is encapsulated in Morrison’s own words from their 2011 book Supergods: “the comics industry tried to deal with Watchmen by stoically refusing to recognize what made it great”.
We can see this hinted at in Pax Americana’s eight-panel grid system, which Morrison has said derives from the concept of the octave as a musical metaphor for the DC multiverse, as well as from the infinity symbol (turn it sideways and it’s the number 8). However, the eight-panel system also recalls Watchmen’s nine-panel grid system, albeit with one less panel than its catalyzing text. The absence of that ninth panel suggests that trying to reconstruct what seeks to deconstruct is a subtractive act. Something essential will be lost in the process, perhaps irretrievably so.
By taking the pieces of Watchmen and attempting to cobble them back together, but without the animating spirit of critical reinvention that set it apart, the American comics industry has in essence done to it what Captain Atom did to his cherished pet.
III. “Homeland Security meets showbiz”
That’s how one of Harley’s staff members pitches the Pax Americana to its members as they wait to accompany the new president on stage at his first inauguration in 2008. As this wording succinctly indicates, Pax Americana is as much a response to the post-9/11 political climate and its effect on comics as it is to Watchmen. In a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Morrison summed up its driving ideology thus:
“I suppose it’s about America and specifically about America’s self-image as the world’s policeman. It tries to make a mind-devouring narrative Mobius strip out of the complicated, contradictory idea of using violence to enforce ‘peace’. On a narrower wavelength, it might also cast a jaded eye on how lessons learned from the leftist, deconstructionist ‘realistic’ superhero stories of the 1980s were assimilated and re-tooled to create post-9/11 Marvel Studios-style ‘realistic’ super-soldiers and champions of the Military/Industrial complex.”
This stance manifests in the comic from the outset, starting with the title “Pax Americana,” which comes laden with millennia of bloodstained historical baggage. The term itself derives from the Pax Romana, the long period of relative peace and prosperity that marked the height of the Roman Empire, and from the Pax Britannica, a similar international peace that existed under British imperial rule during the early 19th to early 20th centuries. In its current usage, the concept of “Pax Americana,” literally meaning “American peace” in Latin, gained popularity in the mid-20th century, and refers to the perceived global peace that at the time was attributed to America’s dominance on the world stage, particularly after World War II.
However, such so-called peace was defined by the absence of outright war rather than by actively building mutually beneficial international relations. This in turn required a lack of opposition to imperialist subjugation, with conquered and colonized nations accepting the imposition of another nation’s politics, culture and infrastructure upon their own. After all, a nation cannot fight if it has been fully subsumed into another and thus effectively ceases to exist.
Fast forward slightly to 2014. By this time, America’s mission of peace had by this time been enforced for several years by continuous bloody combat and drone warfare – murder by remote control that enabled the US to pretend its hands were at least slightly clean. Pax Americana channels these events into Peacemaker, whom Harley bills as “A new kind of man… A man who loves peace so much he’s vowed to fight for it”. This paraphrase of the character’s original 1960s tagline carries extra resonance in a post-9/11 context where America often justifies its foreign policies on that very basis.
Three years before his election, Harley (then a state governor) deploys Peacemaker against a group of terrorists while their leader, who appears to be coded as Middle Eastern, threatens then-president George W Bush with assassination. Peacemaker swiftly beats the terrorists into a state of what is likely severe injury or death and intimidates their leader into backing down. Although his crimefighting drones accidentally attack US military personnel and helicopters, which Peacemaker brushes off with a cavalier “Must try harder next time”, this collateral damage does not prevent Harley from counting Peacemaker’s super-heroic debut as anything but an unequivocal victory.
The Pax thus enact the same imperialist and militarist violence as American governmental bodies in the country’s post-9/11 climate. Peace comes through inflicting bodily violence on others, while the injury and likely death of several allies is an almost negligible error in the pursuit of that cause. Homeland Security, as Harley’s staffer says. But being Homeland Security entails more than protecting America from terrorism, real or otherwise, of foreign provenance. It also entails ceaselessly raising and augmenting the spectacle, and specter, of September 11 so that the nation never entirely feels the need to heal from the trauma associated with that day, thereby justifying Homeland Security’s continued existence.
We see this function fulfilled when Captain Atom, appearing at Harley’s 2008 inauguration, builds three massive towers – many orders of magnitude taller than Washington DC’s tallest buildings – out of thin air, which as the president makes clear are a symbolic replacement for the destroyed World Trade Center by exclaiming, “Look! Up in the sky! Where two towers fell!” It is notable, too, that Harley calls attention to the absence of the Twin Towers rather than to the presence of the towers that Atom raises, implicitly exhorting the American public to focus on the disruption occasioned by September 11 instead of looking toward the potential progress that the three new towers symbolize.
Additionally, the configuration of Atom’s towers recalls the classic “impossible trident” optical illusion, which depicts a three-pronged structure that only has points of connection for the outside prongs, with the center prong seemingly hovering between them in thin air.
By invoking an image that is best known as an illusion, Atom’s triple towers highlight the artificiality of the progress they supposedly represent, conveying the implication that what might appear to be a move forward from 9/11 is in fact an insubstantial fake that is impossible to fully realize.
Or are they something more concrete – solid structures built on a ground-level space? If so, they may be destroying extant buildings, many of which bear great historical and political importance, and annihilating a good proportion of the Washington DC citizenry, sacrificing life, history and infrastructure to invoke September 11th. This reading casts Atom’s towers as instruments of violent American imperialism, crushing existing structures and people in order to demonstrate the extent of the country’s power.
As Morrison states in the Entertainment Weekly interview mentioned above, in addition to critiquing American politics, Pax Americana is a reaction to the trajectory of the American comics industry from “the leftist, deconstructionist ‘realistic’ superhero stories of the 1980s” to the “‘realistic’ super-soldiers and champions of the Military/Industrial complex” after 9/11. Take, for instance, the infamous panel of Dr. Doom weeping over the destruction of the Twin Towers, heavy-hearted with the weight of American suffering, in Amazing Spider-Man #36, which hit the shelves just a few months after September 11th. Then we have comics like Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates, which ran from 2002-2004 and portrayed the Avengers as caricatures of militaristic masculinity.
Such portrayals were supposedly subversive, undercutting the morality of characters who for decades had been put forward as representing American heroism. However, this claim was weakened by Millar and Hitch falling back on an old jingoistic trope – the sneaky infiltrator hidden in plain sight – for the comic’s antagonists, an alien race called the Chitauri who used their ability to mimic the physical forms of anyone they devoured in a bid to infiltrate and take over the Earth.
This rhetorical device dating back to at least the Cold War was revived with an Islamophobic twist for the post-9/11 era and on unmitigated display in Ultimates. Subsequent comics – such as 2008-2009’s Secret Invasion, by Brian Michael Bendis and Leinil Yu, which revolved entirely around this same trope except with a different alien species – picked up on this paranoia, leading to a proliferation of conservative-leaning, jingoistic narratives throughout the post-9/11 American comics industry. (It’s also worth noting that although Secret Invasion is ostensibly about protecting the world, most of the action takes place in New York. Here, America is the world, and vice versa.)
Going from Watchmen’s incisive, deconstructive critique to unironically regurgitating neoconservative talking points of the moral majority hardly feels like progress. Those responsible would argue that they were aiming for irony but that readers didn’t pick up on it: an argument that feels disingenuous at best, given how uncritically the portrayal of the Chitauri hews to the classic foreign infiltrator trope.
In these comics, good versus evil became Americanness versus non-Americanness, championing the former as the pinnacle of heroism. It could be said, then, that as the industry moved forward temporally, there was a trend in certain superhero comics of ideological, critical, and narrative regression: away from the thoughtful sociopolitical critiques that characterized Watchmen and its immediate offspring, and towards the unquestioning nationalism of post-9/11 America. The lessons once learned from the supposed maturation of comics were instead picked apart and reworked into upholding the very principles they originally sought to challenge, creating a “devouring Mobius strip” for the American mainstream comics industry.
The cover of Pax Americana underscores this sense of doom with blunt force. It depicts a close-up of a flag with a peace symbol on it engulfed in flames, but the image is cropped in such a way that the part of the peace symbol shown on the cover visually echoes the DC Comics logo, as seen in the cover’s upper left-hand corner. A quote from poet Delmore Schwartz appears near the bottom: “Time is the school in which we learn, time is the furnace in which we burn.” Comics have learned, yes, but what good does that do if said learning is reduced to embers by violence, by the real-life Pax Americana raising its unreal structures wherever it can?
IV. “Reflection is the mother of compromise.”
What does it mean to grow up, anyway?
When a child grows up, they stop being a child and become an adult. When a caterpillar grows up, it stops being a caterpillar and becomes a liquid in a chrysalis, which takes on a new solid form to become a butterfly. In other words, you could say that growing up means you stop being exactly what you were and start inhabiting a new mode of being.
If Watchmen marks the point at which superhero comics “grew up,” what were they supposed to become afterwards? Alan Moore has said that he envisioned Watchmen as a kind of final sendoff for superhero comics forever:
“…somewhere in my head I got this vainglorious notion that Watchmen would be the absolute deconstructionist last word on the superhero, and that somehow, mystically, after it had been published, all the superhero book publishers would, I don’t know, turn to westerns or something like that, but it would be impossible to do superhero comics afterward – which was completely stupid and a completely misplaced hope…”
Overambitious as it might have been, Watchmen was supposed to be the end of an old something which would herald the start of something different. Instead, it inadvertently perpetuated the very genre it set out to lay to rest. Pax Americana responds to this by setting forth a world governed by loops, reflections, and recursions where narrative runs backwards as well as forwards, thus eliminating the possibility of genuine closure or newness, and of anyone – or anything – truly “growing up”.
In fact, the overall temporal structure of Pax Americana is a move backwards through time, starting with the President’s death and ending with his childhood; going forwards in the narrative thus entails a kind of regression to an immature state (the opposite of being a “mature reader,” if you like). Although the final panel also conveys the sudden loss of innocence, with young Harley discovering that he’s killed his father, its placement in the comic enhances the sense of renewal being impossible. While the catalyst for Harley’s maturation is the ending of something now lost, it is not conversely the beginning of something wholly new. Instead, it functions as the start of a story already told, closing the narrative loop.
Emphasizing this cyclicality are the infinity symbols, figure 8s, circles, and reflective symmetry, visual reminders of the “Mobius strip,” that recur throughout the comic and indeed bookend its tangled events. In the first panel, a burning flag twists in the wind such that the peace sign printed on it folds into a figure 8 or sideways infinity symbol; in the last panel, young Harley holds up his father’s domino mask, which twists slightly in the middle to hang in the shape of a figure 8.
On one of the pages depicting Harley’s talk with Atom, the top panels depict contiguous segments of a bridge across a river or stream, while the bottom panels contain the bridge’s reflection in the water below:
When Peacemaker is being interrogated after killing Harley, a panel at the bottom left of one page depicts the left side (the reader’s left) of a man’s face, and a panel at the bottom top right of the same page depicts the right side (the reader’s right) of his face:
In Pax Americana’s world, all is mirrored, such that it can become difficult to say which image is the reflection. (Which side of the Mobius strip is the inside or the outside? A trick question, of course; all sides are one, with only the illusion of difference. So it is for Harley, for Atom, for everyone else caught in this endless loop.)
When Vice-President Eden assumes the presidency following Harley’s death, his first official action is to disband the Pax. He justifies this to his daughter Eve, who is part of the Pax in her alter-ego capacity as the superhero Nightshade, by telling her, “Values change with age, you’ll see. Enemies become friends. Reflection is the mother of compromise”. Although “reflection” can refer to deep thought, it can also refer to an insubstantial replica that repeats the original’s external markers but lacks its essential traits. And while “compromise” indicates a mutually beneficial agreement, it can also encompass weakening and erasure. For instance, warnings like “Your security has been compromised” mean that your security essentially no longer exists. In other words, ongoing “reflection” – as with the continuous stream of quasi-“mature” superhero comics that followed Watchmen – generates absence and emptiness.
Watchmen was meant to be a sendoff for a certain kind of comic. Perhaps Pax Americana is too, albeit in a much more pessimistic sense. Where the former hoped to close the book on a genre that its author saw as problematically hackneyed, the latter implies that contemporary comics no longer have the space to entertain such grand hopes. While its astonishing formal experimentation and sheer ambition might suggest otherwise, the fact remains that such a comic functions as a response to, and reflection of, Watchmen rather than as a stand-alone work. That is, pushing against the conventions of the genre and form are only possible within the endless loop that American superhero comics have locked themselves into. Maybe this is the real tragedy driving Pax Americana: that even as it audaciously critiques the structures that hinder progress and innovation within the mainstream American comics industry, it knows itself to be trapped by those same structures – devoured by the same Mobius strip, where everything begins and ends with erasure, with annihilation.