The Multiversity: Mastermen is about two things: moral relativism and nature vs. nurture. Oh, and some superhero punching and fighting and Nazis and Jim Lee art. But it’s mostly about those first things.
Superman doesn’t land in Kansas, he lands in Germany, and constipated Hitler wants to turn him into the German Super Soldier. We know what Superman would have turned out like had he landed in America, but under Hitler’s influence he becomes Overman.
So Overman is evil, right? He has to be, if he was raised by Hitler and helped the Nazis take over the world. Nothing could be more clear cut.
But Morrison throws a monkey wrench into the works. Overman was gone for the bulk of WWII, specifically, one would assume, a three year period somewhere within 1941-1945, the rough dates that encompass the Holocaust. We have only a page to base this on, but we see Overman beside himself by what the Nazis have done while he was away. Where was he? We don’t know. He’s the Nazi Superman, but his direct responsibility for the worst thing the Nazis did has been removed. Was the Holocaust enough to make him switch sides? Apparently not. So while this may absolve Overman of direct sin, it’s still hard to describe him as anything but horrible.
Morrison tries, though, through the aforementioned moral relativism.
Notice that everyone around Overman (except Jurgen) are horrible people. They are there specifically to make Overman look better. They are also completely removed from what happened in the past. They have no knowledge of how bad it was; the evil of it has been muted by time. So while it haunts Overman, it means nothing to other. But you can’t escape the fact that they are the product of the Nazi regime.
If the Justice League is made up of these apparently morally bankrupt individuals (although we only true see that in Leatherwing), then who are the good guys in this story? The obvious answer would be the Freedom Fighters. Aside from fighting what we assume are the forces of oppression (we’re given very little to work with in terms of what this society is currently like), this new version is made up of people whose ancestors were specifically targeted by the Nazis. Their cause is just.
But their methods are not.
It’s no mistake that the narrator of this issue is the Jimmy Olsen stand in, a regular guy who lives in Metropolis. When the Freedom Fighters bring bring down the satellite headquarters of this version of the Justice League, they are doing so with full knowledge that it will land on Metropolis, killing thousands if not millions of people. We have no reason to believe that any of the citizens are guilty of anything, yet they’ve all been killed by the supposed good guys of the story.
And it’s Uncle Sam, not Overman, who talks in jingoisms. Is that justified given what he’s up against?
But there’s another layer to this which complicates the issues further. In the context of this world, the Freedom Fighters might very well be the good guys and Overman and his allies the bad. But there’s greater context to consider. Overman’s dreams indicate that he is to stand between the Gentry and his world, and we know the Gentry are the enemy. Not only that, but the Freedom Fighters are being armed by a version of Sivana, who is an agent of the Gentry. If the Freedom Fighters succeed, Overman falls and the Gentry will claim another Earth.
And so while the most obvious question that this book is asking is “what if Superman landed somewhere else?” the bigger issue is the moral relativism I keep yammering on about.
What’s interesting is how it ultimately loops back around to the very beginning of The Multiversity, to the insects that are fighting for life all around us. Repeatedly, we are reminded that massive systems are made up of micro ones, yet can either exist without the other? Overman’s earth is not right. A Nazi conquered planet is about as wrong as it gets from a moral standpoint. But there’s something worse, something bigger. The question is whether or not that something bigger allows us to look past what’s in front of us, and that’s a fairly dangerous question to put forth.
Jim Lee’s art isn’t his best here, but I like the choice of him as the artist. He thrived in a period of comics littered with anti-heroes, when good and bad weren’t really defined. I also think he draws a fairly iconic looking Superman, as idealized as they come, which is perfect for Overman, because it’s strikes a dissonant chord. What we see when we look at Overman is not at all what we get.
Overman is the Nazi Superman and he’s the hero of this story.
And that’s pretty fucked up.
Jason Sacks: Okay, first of all, fuck that Adolf Hitler. Not only is he evil, like really monstrously evil, but he hates comics too. Thank you, Mozzers, for giving me yet another reason to hate Herr Schicklgruber. Overmen starts like a farce.
And it ends a bit like a tragedy.
I love what you say about moral relativism, Kyle, because the morality in this comic is so twisted and fascinating and relative. Overman is a godlike creature, but he’s haunted by his failures, by his hubris, by the mortality of those he loves and by the death of the woman who’s closest to him. He’s a living god with feet of clay, haunted by his vision of the death camps. He knows that his “virtual paradise” has its flaws and its terrible history; he almost seems to be looking for reasons to regret his world during his interview with Jimmy Olsen.
One of our friends asked the question “who is the villain in this comic?” The more I think about that question, the more fascinating it becomes, because I think the villains of the piece might actually be the Freedom Fighters, the “precious few who survived zur Nazi purges of the ’50s and ’60s”, as the doppelganger Sivana reports. I don’t for a second believe the world of the Nazis is anything but pure evil (I have relatives who died in Nazi death camps) but the Freedom Fighters are out to destroy a world of great scientific progress, of peace and unity, in which there seems to be a free press and other freedoms as well.
By all standards, the Nazis are evil. But if the world of the Nazis was all that you knew, if you had no other conception of what the world was outside of this ideology, would you have sense enough to rebel against it? Would you stand in opposition to a regime that had done so much for you, that was your life? Would you embrace a dead language, don an absurd costume, and make a deal with the devil in order to bring that world down? Is it evil to nuke the city of Metropolis in order to bring down its greatest hero?
This comic ends with a perfect moment of moral ambiguity, as it ends in a parallel to the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and, as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, to Dresden as well). Was Truman justified in dropping the atomic bomb? Are the Freedom Fighters justified in blowing up the Human Bomb?
Perhaps the only way to defeat evil is through more evil — but I’m not sure that’s a world I want to live in. On the last page we learn the issue was titled “Splendour Falls”, which implies where Morrison and Lee may be on this moral scale. I’m still wrestling with where I am on the scale.