“In Which We Burn”
- Writer: Grant Morrison
- Pencils & Inks: Frank Quitely
- Colors: Nathan Fairbairn
- Letters: Rob Leigh
Yes, I am a fan of Grant Morrison. Yes, I am a fan of Frank Quitely. I mean, I have EYES, don’t I?
The concept of DC Universe’s “multiverse” was scrapped as a result of the 1985 maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths. But, as with all things in comics, it was not to stay dead. After the events of Infinite Crisis there was another maxi-series entitled 52. It was in the pages of 52 that DC revealed that the multiverse still existed. The Multiversity was a limited series of one-shots set in the DC Multiverse in The New 52. The one-shots in the series are written by Grant Morrison, each with a different artist. The Multiversity began in August 2014. This issue was published November 19, 2014.
This issue takes place on Earth-4 (The Charlton Universe) and opens with the rather gruesome assassination of the President of the United States by Peacemaker (aka Christopher Smith). Chris has been captured and is being questioned by government suits. But the Peacemaker isn’t talking.
As Chris is lead out of the interrogation room, he passes Senator Warren Eden, who is discussing this turn of events with his daughter Eve (Nightshade). Eden tells his daughter that Peacemaker’s actions have essentially killed the idea of a “super hero” and made the term a dirty word. Warren advises his daughter to savor her time as a super hero, as he is putting certain plans into motion. The government had two super heroes on the payroll, but Peacemaker has killed the President and Captain Atom is missing in action. The government needs a convincing exit strategy to distance itself from the heroes.
Elsewhere, Blue Beetle has been tracking the Question with his Bug. The Question is trying to run from the Bug, but Beetle points out that is impossible. The Question tells Beetle he’s barking up the wrong tree by chasing him, that he is trying to find the murderer of Nora O’Rourke and solve the mystery of “algorithm B.” He refers to this as “The Yellowjacket Case” (four unsolved murders of four prominent scientists). Beetle tells him there is no Yellowjacket case and for Question to be reasonable. “His people” are all over the Question.
Blue Beetle says he made peace with the government but the Question contends that Beetle is going about crime-fighting all wrong. The Question pulls a device out of his coat and activates a crane that Beetle has conveniently parked the Bug under. The Questions tells Beetle he should never rely on technology and takes off. He ducks into a subway station where he is then confronted by Nightshade.
The Question quickly overpowers Nightshade and hops onto a passing train. But before he does so, he tosses her one of his calling cards. It bears a question mark that has been augmented to resemble the symbol for infinity.
The Question then goes to the crime scene where Nora O’Rourke was murdered. She was apparently Chris Smith’s girlfriend. He had left early that day when someone crept into his apartment, picked up a heavy statue, and crushed Nora’s head with it. That killer may look familiar to fans of Charlton comics. He appears to be Captain Atom’s old enemy Iron Arms.
This is when Captain Atom enters the story (the same Captain Atom that Warren Eden said was missing in action). He is at some science facility working on a particle accelerator, apparently some time prior to the president’s assassination. The scientists are working in the control room as Cap is reading a comic book. He is commenting on how he can read the story any way he chooses, flipping through it backwards or starting in the middle, and there is nothing that the characters in the story can do about it. He can perceive time any way he wishes but they are limited in their perceptions. The characters are unaware of his scrutiny. It is hard to tell if he is talking about the comic book, the scientists he is with, or even us as the readers. The scientists switch on their device (just as Cap says he can “read” their “thought balloons” and knows what they are planning. Once the device is activated, Cap vanishes, the comic books bursts into flames, and one of the scientists announces that Captain Atom has left the universe.
There is another man in the control room; a man whose face we do not see but can assume is Sarge Steel because he has a metal hand. He pulls a gun on the scientists, who argue they did everything he asked. They opened a black hole inside Allen Adam’s skull. This does not sway Steel, who shoots them all dead.
We then cut to Nightshade visiting her mother. Mom seems a little on the senile side and bitter about her ex-husband. Nightshade tells her mom that Allen Adam is helping her dad to harness the power of a black hole so the empire will no longer rely on oil.
The scene switches to Chris and Nora having a discussion about someone named Harley (the President’s father and comic book writer) as Sarge Steel beats the living hell out of someone. The story is kind of hard to follow as it isn’t presented as a linear path. It is as if we are reading the comic the way Captain Atom sees the world. The scene does reveal that Peacemaker had plans to run away with Nora after he did “what had to be done.”
The next scene is night on a rooftop. The Question is standing over a man who is pinned under a fallen sign. The Question reveals this man is not the high-level mob fixer he pretended to be but an undercover dirty cop on the payroll of the Vice President. He lays a revolver on the floor in front of the prone man and begins to drone on about an eight-stage color coded system of development that all societies must pass through. The cop begs the Question let him go (an exposed wire from the sign is sparking nearby and the cop is in a puddle – he fears he will be electrocuted). The cop tells him that his orders come from the Sarge and that he really doesn’t know anything. All he knows are rumors – about Captain Atom being killed and something about a secret formula. The Question leaves the man to die on the rooftop.
Cut to the past, and Nightshade, Peacemaker, Tiger, Blue Beetle, and the Question are meeting with a government official. They are sporting new “uniforms” and Tiger is unhappy about the changes. Peacemaker welcomes them all to the Justice League of America (which prompts Blue Beetle to ask, “How about the Sentinels?”). President Harley then enters the room and tells them their trademarks and code names belong to the U.S. government now. When the Question complains, the President leans in and asks, “Are you in the box or out of the box, Mr. Sage?” This reveals that the government knows the Question’s alter ego, but the comment about the box implies that Vic Sage is gay, I guess.
Later, when President Harley reveals the team at a press conference, he announces that their leader is Captain Atom.
Captain Atom has trouble focusing on the task at hand because he is being distracted by a conversation he will have in the future (this is some trippy Dr. Manhattan level stuff – which makes perfect sense when you think about it).
The conversation is actually in the past. Cap is in a park interacting with a dog. He’s surrounded by strange statues of people in distress and is talking to the dog. Governor (not-yet-President) Harley is about to meet with him but Cap’s handlers warn him that Cap has been heavily sedated since “the U-235 incident.” The scientist tells Harley that the statues were once people and he should warn them immediately if Cap’s speech becomes disorganized, anxious, or aggressive. Another of Cap’s handlers thought it would do him good to be reunited with his pet dog.
Cap disassembles the dog, thinking the “pieces would explain the whole.” When he realizes he has just killed his pet Butch, Cap begins to cry. He asks for more sedatives and asks when he will go back to normal. He then wonders aloud what it would be like if Butch was both alive and dead and suddenly there is a brand new Butch standing next to the old, dead one. He then says it isn’t the same. Harley introduces himself to Allen Adam. Cap says it must be hard work being the president, to which Harley responds he is not. Harley brushes it off and asks Cap to walk the gardens with him. Harley says they are a world famous masterpiece of design and organization.
So it was Harley that “inspired” Allen Adam to use his powers as Captain Atom.
Cut to some 2005. A terrorist has crashed his plane on the White House lawn and taken President George W. Bush hostage. He plans to kill the president. He stomps and spits on the American flag. Governor Harley is also present, confident, and a little cocky. Peacemaker and his drones show up and take out the terrorist’s men. Harley warns the terrorist that this is just the beginning. Some day there will be more Peacemakers.
On the streets, the Question and Blue Beetle are confronting a heroin dealer and arguing. The Question tells Beetle he could use his money to build homeless shelters and try to cure society’s ills rather than constructing a giant flying Beetle. He force-feeds the dealer a substantial amount of heroin and leaves him tied to a light post. The Question brings up Yellowjacket (America’s first superhero) and his fate. Yellowjacket has vanished and no one knows what became of him.
We then see a young man (clad in a yellow jacket) visiting the grave of Governor Harley’s father. He sits and waits for a considerable amount of time. Captain Atom appears and tells him, “The door has one side and opens both ways. Let me show you.”
The man in the yellow jacket is then forced to confront a memory. He was young, snooping in his father’s studio late one night. He found a scrapbook of newspaper articles about Yellowjacket and a revolver. Then Yellowjacket himself comes through the window and the boy shoots him dead. It was his father, and the little boy was future-president Harley.
This was pretty awesome. It gives us an idea of what Watchmen might have been like if Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had been allowed to use the Charlton characters. While visually beautiful, it doesn’t really compare to Watchmen, though. I love Frank Quitely but I love Dave Gibbons style even more. Also, I always thought the name “Frank Quitely” was a crazy coincidental name (Quite Frankly, Frank Quitely) but never gave it much thought. I did not realize it was a pseudonym used by Vincent Deighan. I give the art an A and the story an A. I am a sucker for Grant Morrison.