I love writing this blog but I also love reading other people being brilliant. Eventually I’d like to see this site expand to include multiple writers (multiple Historians!) but for now I’m glad to introduce our first ever guest post! It come to us via The Qing (/u/The-Qing on Reddit) and you can find their Tumblr here and the original post here.
Less my usual style of ranting about comic history this is a instead really great breakdown and analysis of imagery and themes used by Grant Morrison in his latest maxi-series, The Multiversity, especially focusing on the the connections between Wagner’s epic opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) and the seventh issue The Multiversity: Mastermen #1. He even broke up the analysis into sections named after the four operas that make up Wagner’s ring cycle: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
It goes without saying that you should not read the following without having read The Multiversity: Mastermen #1 first – it will spoil the whole joy of the book. Also, don’t forget you can click any image in this post to see the large version.
So, without further ado, here’s The Qing’s post. Enjoy!
The Ring of the Mastermen
Der Ring des Nibelungen Allusions in
The Multiversity: Mastermen #1
One of Richard Wagner’s greatest operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen is namedropped and featured in the latest chapter of Grant Morrison’s Multiversity maxi-series. The tone of the narration and the promises of a greater story beyond the issue’s final page may put one in the mind that it is the first act of an epic tale. However, on closer inspection of the various characters and story beats of Mastermen #1, one realizes that the tragedy it tells of is a complete one and it is one of the oldest and most classic tragedies of all. Fittingly for such a dark and bizarre universe, these emulations are likewise twisted and darkened into hideous parodies of their progenitors.
Before the United States entered World War 2 in full-force, there was a comic by Superman creators Siegel and Shuster titled “What if Superman Ended the War”. In it, the Man of Steel apprehends then-allies Hitler and Stalin and puts them at the mercy of the League of Nations at Switzerland. Two months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Foreshadowing? Coincidence? It was eerie all the same.
Prophecy plays a large role in the Nibelung saga. The clairvoyant Norns are characters in it after all and melodically lament on the past, present, and future. Morrison mixes this motif with the seemingly oracular Superman story above, shakes well, and throws in the Fuhrer himself for good measure. For reasons that none of his underlings dare to question, Hitler decides to pass the time during one of his infamous bouts of constipation by reading a comic book; the contents of which feature a fictional Superman hitting him across the face. Soon after, he is informed that a rocket from outer space has crash-landed in Nazi territory, carrying with it a powerful, bulletproof passenger. The poetry in this coincidence is not lost on Hitler, whose default aggressive and critical persona momentarily falters.
During his first meeting with Kal-El/Karl Kant/Overman, Hitler proves himself to be the quintessential Odin archetype: An Ambitious Man of Vision with Exceptionally Poor Depth Perception. He knows of Superman, he has read his comics, he is determined to create his very own to one day conquer the country that created the concept, but he has missed the point of the character entirely. If the hero within those pages ever truly came to life, it would undoubtedly turn around and deck him in the mustache like his paper and ink counterpart. Perhaps unjustly, this never comes to pass and Hitler doesn’t live to suffer the subversion of his grand, ill-conceived schemes as Odin did at the end of the Nibelung quartet.
There might be a superhuman named Blitzen/Lightning (who he commands) fighting alongside him, but it’s Overman – with the jagged, red, singular Schutzstaffel insignia cutting across a field of midnight black like a crimson thunderbolt on his crest – who is the Thor of this story. The mightiest of the Norse Gods and Odin’s top thug, Thor is the one who uses his powers to light the way to Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold. Likewise, Overman leads his fellow Nazis to victory and to a utopia built upon “Aryan New Man” ideals. In addition, the swastika symbol, which this version of Overman does not wear, represented the Hammer of Thor in the Germanic Iron Age.
In contrast to him being THE Norse God in most of the mythos’ iterations in popular media, Thor is something of a bit player in Wagner’s production. Overman as we see him in the present, is much the same way; more of a super menace deterrent and figurehead than a creature of genuine volition and depth. But the guise of the juggernaut, much like the nondescript Clark Kent identity of his Earth-0 doppelgänger, hides a more insidious face; that of the trickster, that of Loki. The Loki of the Nibelung is, strangely enough, one of the more moral of the Norse Gods featured therein, disliking his brutal peers for their vices and resenting them for withholding the Rhine Gold from its true owners. While having opposing ideals and temperaments, Odin nonetheless sees fit to entrust and delegate a great many tasks to this most deceitful of deities during the events of the Ring Cycle. It is heavily implied that Overman is the mole leaking information to the Freedom Fighters so as to create a force that can dole out the punishment he feels he so deserves in a world that largely approves of the atrocities he helped make manifest; living out Loki’s traditional arc, but with a lot more misguided nobility and self-loathing. Linking all three of these reinterpreted icons is a common chain; that for all their might, cunning, and scruples, they are powerless to avert the tremendous fall from grace that lies just before the curtain’s final close.
The eponymous Valkyrie of this opera is named Brunhilde. There is a New Reichsman named Brunhilde who dresses like a Valkyrie and has the heart of a warrior. Like Blitzen before her, this is a thematic red herring. Brunhilde is not Mastermen‘s stand-in for Wagner’s Valkyrie; Overgirl is.
While she perished during Final Crisis and doesn’t appear outside of Overman’s nightmarish vision of the dead Countdown Reichsmen and Lord Broken of the Gentry, Overgirl supplies Mastermen with a bevy of Nibelung allusions in quick succession. Or to be more accurate, it’s her memorial service that does the job. During it, Overgirl proves to have been beloved by her fellow Reichsmen as Brunhilde was to the Norse Pantheon of Nibelung. The Eternal Flame that Overman tries to install for her is a dual reference to her lover’s funeral pyre at the end of the play and the ring of fire that Odin set up around her mountain prison so that only the mightiest of heroes could wake her from her cursed slumber. The lover she mourned and the hero that saved her were the same man: Siegfried.
Pale like the Grim Reaper’s steed, garbed like a nuclear knight, and sporting the purple triangle of a Jehovah’s Witnesses concentration camp prisoner’s badge on his visor, this version of the Human Bomb is the very image of an anti-Nazi specter of vengeance. Helped by the fact that he is one; an ivory fury that will not die. But he’s also one of their most beloved heroes in the atomic flesh. The Mastermen incarnation of Siegfried: the legendary slayer of dragons.
The use of stories, concepts, myths, and ideas as weapons is a recurring theme in Morrison’s stories: Superman in his Action Comics made himself a colorful, grinning distraction for his enemies to punch so his allies could strike at their Achilles’ Heels; his Batman consciously fed the flames of his own myth so that he’d remain a fearsome memetic legend despite everyone knowing that he existed; And Flex Mentallo speaks for itself/himself. Every charismatic leader who had their fingers on the pulse of the common man’s thoughts and emotions has done likewise from Gandhi to JFK, but much more sinister individuals like Hitler and Kim Jong-il have used hype machines of their own to craft cults of personalities for themselves and as ammunition dumps to use against ideologies and persons they despise. In that same vein, Morrison’s villains aren’t necessarily concerned with just murdering their victims as they are with changing their minds.
The Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E, the Outer Church, Mickey Eye, and even a version of Grant himself in Animal Man all want to superimpose their beliefs and prejudices on the broader collective consciousness, deterring imagination and innovation This is what the Gentry desires as well and they accomplish this by importing foreign elements into other universes (The Society of Super-Criminals, the Sivanas, Ultra Comics), reshuffling the narrative (Pax Americana), and haunting the dreams of key players (The Just, Mastermen). In addition to supervillains, the Gentry also employ heroes that have been broken by these spiritually corrosive processes. The Human Bomb is one such agent. As they did with Nix, the Gentry took the core components of the selfless Freedom Fighter, mangled them, stretched them until they tore, and then put them back together in the mocking assemblage they needed to assassinate the soul of the super soldier Aesir.
Siegfried was a beleaguered champion, motivated by love and courageous to a fault, who was exploited by the cunning and the vile into destroying himself. The Human Bomb follows the broad strokes of the beloved warrior’s path. His playing possum is kin to Siegfried using the tarnhelm to disguise himself and take the coveted Rhinegold Ring which is represented in Mastermen by the Eagle’s Nest orbital watchtower. The fires of his burning body also bring great disaster to the “gods” of Earth-10 by annihilating their Metropolis, their Valhalla. But the Gentrified Human Bomb is no martyr; his regenerating body lets him take as much injury as he likes before unleashing it on his tormentors. He is a liar and a terrorist; as decadent and sadistic as the original Siegfried was true and sympathetic. Contrasting his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses, Doll Man and Doll Girl, the perverted Human Bomb relishes the idea of blowing the space station out of the sky, murdering Leatherwing and Underwatermen, and committing mass genocide in the process. Whether he is unaware of the hypocrisy in the Freedom Fighters’ actions like Uncle Sam or simply doesn’t care so long as it’s his jackboot on a neck is irrelevant. Both scenarios are equally horrific.
But where, you might ask, is Alberich? The wretched little dwarf that set the entirety of the Nibelung saga in motion with his greed and spite? Befitting one of his stature, he’s been in the story the whole time, just out of sight. He is a Doctor Sivana, one of many who are all as loveless and proud as the Rhinegold Ring’s creator, and his experiments and inventions bring about Ragnarok as Alberich’s did in the form of his Freedom Fighters. Even without knowing that this Operation Paperclip-esque alliance is a front for a massive multiversal conspiracy to take over all that exists, Uncle Sam really should know better than to trust someone as transparently shady and dishonest as Doktor Sivana. But this is not a Justice League or Freedom Fighters story. This is Der Ring des Nibelungen, where dwarves like the Doktor and Alberich are given just enough slack to strangle their enemies and themselves.
And here the shape of the story is retroactively revealed and bleeds into everything that came before. This is opera, one of the greatest and starkest of its sort. Leatherwing and Jurgen recognize the viper in their midst too late. The Freedom Fighters lay siege to the theater and set about killing its occupants as Brunhilde did to the Gods in their beloved dining hall. Uncle Sam calls upon and mocks the name of Siegfried, proving the Human Bomb’s true narrative identity. Propaganda, disinformation, and mudslinging are used by him to frame this insurgency as a war of ideas, of right vs. wrong. But the people he fights for have dwindled to a size that can’t possibly replace the civilization he wants to destroy, it has been 60 years since the war he fought was lost, and his star-spangled jihad will result in the demise of millions of innocents that had nothing to do with the formation of Germanica instead of the “gods” – for do superheroes ever truly die? – that did. His grudge has blinded him to the fact that the Doktor didn’t make the Freedom Fighters from select minorities out of a sense of poetic justice, but to turn them into homicidal harlequins. The sacred opera has been systematically debauched into a minstrel show of the highest order. And only the Gentry are laughing.
Siegfried has hijacked the Ring, causing it to change owners and ultimately destroy Valhalla. The Mighty Thor, despite his formidable weapon and powers, was unable to break down the doors and walls that trapped him and the rest of his gods in the inferno that Brunhilde started. Overman fails to stop the Eagle’s Nest from crashing into Metropolis, not for lack of ability, but because he doesn’t fully want to. Fully, it is important to stress that. For all his shame and contempt for the paradise built upon the bodies of murdered millions, Overman still tried to stop Uncle Sam from destroying Metropolis, but his self-loathing and desire for punishment curtails the resolve he needed to save the day. Then comes the final, sadistic subversion to the Ring Cycle. The “hero” survives when all he desired was to be struck down for the crimes of the past. Der Ring des Nibelungen is full of characters that wish to escape the consequences of their actions, those who wish to cheat fate and death. What better insult than to have the one remorseful god who consigns himself to execution live so that he may languish in the aftermath of his search for “justice”? Very few, I’d wager.
Regard the Overman. How he does not celebrate in the mass killing that so eerily mirrors the one he came home to after three years of exile. How he slouches down among the ruins, inconsolable in the face of his continued existence and realization that he is now kin to his adoptive father, complicit in a Holocaust on the German people that trusted and loved him. But is this not the same Overman who was drained of his life force and conscripted by the Monitors in exchange for a ransomed cousin long dead? Who despite all that, won the grudging respect and trust of his polar opposite Billy Batson, and fought against the forces of Mandrakk regardless? Can he come back from this as he did then or will he be “destroyed” as Jurgen claims? Nothing may come of it, but anything is possible because he’s a Superman and it is, as Jurgen says, “The Beginning.”
Hitler and the Spear
Something of note is how Hitler once wielded the Spear of Destiny to combat the Justice Society of America; Odin was rather fond of Gungnir, a lance of immense power.
Dwarves and Sivanas
Der Ring des Nibelungen is full of duplicitous, ambitious, nigh-identical dwarves who regularly double-cross each other. Mime, Gunther, Hagan, and the rest are represented by the multiverse alliance of Sivanas who mostly consist of mean-spirited, diminutive mirrors to the classic Captain Marvel villain. Complete domination is their motivation, as it was with the dwarves, and their comparable shortsightedness (and treachery) leads to the undoing of whatever brief victories they win for themselves.
Overman and Captain Marvel
Billy’s contempt for Karl is rather ironic given how they both have simplified thunderbolts in place of the traditional Superman crest (Zeus vs. Thor!). Both of them were styled after the idea of Superman (Captain Marvel’s comic and how Hitler made Kal-El into Overman), but are not him exactly. And in an added twist, Billy was after a chunk of magic rock in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D while Overman’s motivation for joining Zillo was arguably the most selfless out of the five Supermen, finding his cousin Overgirl.
Fritz Lang was a German-Austrian director who was responsible for the creation of some of the greatest films of the Golden Age of German and Hollywood cinema. Among them was Metropolis and a movie adaptation of Die Nibelungen, possibly making Mastermen one of the most calamitous crossovers ever. Don’t let the often-demonized name fool you; he wasn’t a very big fan of the Nazis and left Germany the moment Hitler came into power.