I had this little comics freakout a bit ago. I was rereading Pax Americana, the latest entry in Grant Morrison’s epoch spanning super hero opus The Multiversity and I was hit by a blast of sudden clarity. The message in my brain was that I just really didn’t connect with this thing. At all.
I understood why the comics internet was losing their shit over it, because it was the culmination of decades of Watchmen idol worship, like The Clash covering The White Album instead of making Sandinista! or Steven Soderbergh pulling a Gus van Sant and remaking Citizen Kane frame by frame. My generation grew up viewing Watchmen as this unimpeachable holy artifact that no one (other than Joe Casey) would be ballsy enough to reimagine and here’s Alan Moore’s own weird arch-nemesis teaming up with fellow UK legend Frank Quitely to do it leaner and meaner and somehow grim and technicolored. I could get all that and still just not care, and even be cool with whatever frowning condescension stating such an opinion in the comics public would get me, except for one thing: I suspected I was also no longer connecting with Grant Morrison.
When Morrison announced he would be making an Image comic with Darick Robertson called Happy, I was about as happy as anyone. Morrison’s name alone ensured my participation but Robertson is an artist I’ve always enjoyed despite the fact that he mostly does art for comics secret biggest homophobe Garth Ennis (that is an essay for a different time, but to get down to it quickly: name one Garth Ennis comic where male on male rape isn’t treated as a comical threat, the ultimate in demasculation and humiliation). But it didn’t take long to realize it was kind of garbage and was in fact a sort of cover of its own, with Morrison aping Ennis’ series Hitman with Robertson subbing in for McRea. It was easier to dismiss it because it seemed like a clearing of Morrison’s system, a way for him to cleanse his palate before fully committing to independent comics.
It didn’t hurt that Morrison’s other vaguely indie work, Joe the Barbarian, had actually grabbed me. I’ll confess to a weakness for anything that reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s underappreciated adult children’s story Time Bandits, and Sean Murphy’s art on the book is arguably him at his peak, but now I’ve got a different theory thanks to Nameless, Morrison’s latest collaboration with his Batman Inc partner Chris Burnham.
The theory is that latter day Morrison works are falling into two categories. The first is the Multiversity category, which has Morrison stretching all of his DC superhero work to tie together as one schizophrenic whole. Morrison has been building this up for quite some time and his Multiversity one shots are like a live album where your favorite band revisits your favorite songs and sometimes changes them up so much they’re practically new. All these series feature prior Morrison collaborators and concepts and they’re most directly connected to his mega-crossover Final Crisis and its own descendent Batman Inc., which naturally featured Burnham. This category is the one I am unapologetically exhausted with, because it is a break from Morrison as an innovator and a continuation of the Morrison of Supergods, a dangerously self-absorbed shaman type who combats his distaste for Moore’s grandiosity by one upping it. For Morrison, superheroes are the new monomyth, and his life’s work on this front is to turn that theory into a cottage industry where he connects the dots as convolutedly as the Romans did when they forced other religions and mythology into their own superculture. This isn’t to say he isn’t skilled at it—it’s still genius work, of a sort—but it’s just not something that can excite as much as the frenzy of flawed but ambitious and surreal work that catapulted Morrison to fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Category two, by contrast, is Morrison exploring delusion.
Like Joe the Barbarian, Doom Patrol, The Invisibles and The Filth before it, Nameless sets itself up in its first issue to be a heady lucid dreaming narrative where nothing makes much sense initially and every piece of the narrative framework is questionable. The titular nameless is a Constantine type, a magical con man who has been tasked with infiltrating a Cthulhu like cult in order to procure a key that that cult has prophesized he will attempt to steal from them anyway. There are Inception levels of dream battle, and the spinning top is actually an Armageddon style baddie, by which I mean it’s a huge fucking asteroid. Well, an asteroid that bears a Lovecraftian symbol and kind of looks like a dead city.
It’s early going, obviously, but Nameless is already a far better delusion work than Happy, where we followed a hitman who gets fucked up and gains a flying blue donkey as a new conscience, because here Morrison is working out what seem to be crossover demons instead of…well, I don’t know what Happy was working out. Nameless’s protagonist maintains a running dialogue not unlike the one Captain Atom has in Pax Americana, except here it isn’t quite as meta, not yet; Morrison instead uses it as a kind of guiding mantra, a way of grounding both the reader and the lead as shit gets weird. Burnham is also a collaborator who is more suited to Morrison’s flights of whimsy than Robertson, and he is given a lot more to work with in terms of setting and character. There are angler fish-headed henchman and a lady with a really bad “consciousness parasite” problem and some crazy scientist gadgets and bases. Nameless has everything, and features a room that is the universe through which Burnham is able to provide glimpses at things we don’t understand yet but assume we will.
That meta element makes it a pretty unique bridge between Morrison’s current two approaches, but really it seems closer to Joe the Barbarian than anything else in Morrison’s canon. There is the recurring water symbolism, and the imminent doomsday, but also bizarre, childlike guide figures and enemies and a lead who isn’t entirely sure what’s going on around him and is just rolling with it. Read one way, it’s Morrison admitting he’s letting dreams/subconscious guide his big crossover material, with the “key” that needs to be stolen a totemic representation of Morrison’s Holy Grail quest to fix DC mythology once and for all by stealing back a pitch he once made under the same name more than a decade ago. There is even mention of Nameless botching a job or having some mishap 13 years prior.
But none of that subtext really matters because Nameless is pretty fucking fun when you get down to it. In this regard, it’s like The Filth, action packed and insane and gloriously illustrated and colored despite all the grotesquery within. Nathan Fairbairn gives it this sick Gaspar Noe coloring, as though the opening of Enter the Void was his color palette template but Burnham’s art is scratchier and more shaded than normal, which paradoxically gives it the pulpy feel of a Creepy short. It’s still all recognizably Burnham, but it’s grosser and everyone’s faces look painful and near popping and I love it for it. None of the Multiversity one shots are a slog, but Morrison and Burnham maintain such a ludicrous momentum in Nameless’ opening issue that you can never catch your breath. One minute the Nameless is doing a Tomb Raider thing, crawling through water logged ruins, the next he’s arguing with an irate bus driver while those fishheaded henchman are encroaching and then later he is about to head out to goddamn space.
Do you see why maybe I am preferring this version of Morrison more? It’s manic and alive and full of ideas that don’t need heaps of footnotes or contextualizing, but that’s all there if you want that too. It’s also one of a dumb number of Lovecraft horror shorts that have popped up lately, infinitely better than that garbage Justin Jordan Lovecraft comic Dark Gods and far more entertaining than the frequent heavyhandedness of Fatale’s own start. And for those keeping track of the Morrison/Moore feud, yes, it does have plenty of parallels with Neonomicon. I don’t know why we’ve got a Lovecraft love fic plague these days, but if it has inadvertently led to me reconnecting with a creator I basically grew up on, then fuck it, I’m cool with it.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover