So where could you possibly begin to describe a book like Pax Americana? You could start by mentioning the title alludes to a world peace governed by the American powerhouse. Or that Morrison is, once again, is highly adept at creating a realistic set of characters in an alternate universe in just a few pages. Or that Quitely brings us the most incredible visual interpretation of a story that you have seen in recent times. All of those things are true but none of them are a starting point. In fact in true Grant Morrison style, we shall probably start at the end.
The graphic art form is not constrained by linearity, as possible in most forms of media, it is about slowly piecing together a story. It often requires a little more concentration and may be quite confusing at times, but it can truly create a mystery out of the simplest of plotlines. When removing straight-line flow, it allows the creators to be bold and craft together images that bring shock and awe in amazement. This is where Frank Quitely excels in destroying all known boundaries, a post modernist approach if you will. Combine that with Grant Morrison, who is no stranger to complex and convoluted storylines, and have him not only tell the story backwards but intertwine different timelines together. It may sound like it is too mind boggling to really get a firm grip on, but it is not. It just requires a little rereading and an appreciation that the story you think is the story, really isn’t the story. Once you let go of these fundamental steps of comic reading you can finally begin to appreciate the imagery at play. Pax Americana was never about the murder of a President, it wasn’t even about the murder of an idea, one that was borne out of tragic nonsensical circumstance. It was about the fulfilment of a father’s legacy for world peace. It was about that one speck of blood on the feather of a dove.
The homages to Watchmen trailblaze throughout this book, whether it be the superhero combination of The Question and Blue beetle emulating Rorschach and Owl, or the exact replicate of Dr Midnight in Captain Atom, forehead symbol and all. There are subtleties where they are needed and some of the characters origins’ are drawn to provide a historical perspective into President Harley. But the story is one of many intricate subplots and the themes covered have been seen not only in Watchmen, but also books like Justice League and The Boys. In fact the book almost relies on these as essential reading material in order to appreciate the concepts it portrays. The clues are everywhere but they are also quite difficult to coalesce, especially considering how many timelines are depicted without any reference points. Each set of conversations are integral to the man behind Pax Americana and his subsequent murder. It is incredibly clever how Morrison affects background information in the presence of current events, without appearing to do so. The consequences of President Harley’s death are discussed in the context of retiring current superhero teams, such as the young female hero Nightshade. Not only that but the underlying themes are not overtly discussed in open dialogue, but are alluded to in the context of regular activities. As Beetle and Question continually argue about approaches to crime fighting, there are undertones of conspiracy and governmental subterfuge. I have rarely read such intelligent and intricate writing. It is all in there, you just have to listen.
Frank Quitely has a way with pencils. His usage of intricate detail and shading perfectly accompanies the feelings of the character he is drawing. Whether this be the interrogation beating, the self-actualising child or the indifferent super being, the pencils mould into the feelings. So when there is an extreme of emotion or violence, the attention to detail is phenomenal and it is as if the whole character reverberates on the page. His skills are not limited to a certain style of drawing; they are adaptable to whatever the situation. This also applies to his use of panels, which are almost impossible to categorise. The reason for this is that every page seems to employ a varied form of visual storytelling. The simple devices include progressively zooming into certain aspects of the scene as it progresses. It allows certain parts of the plot to unveil in the process. Some scenes are shot from a stable perspective and do not waver. The action sequence involving the peacemaker heading towards the White House, whilst overcoming terrorists is a beautiful example of this. The protagonist moves from identical sized panels across the page in a variety of sequential battle poses. The detective scene where Question discovers how Nora was killed is similarly directed, thirty-two boxes from the same viewpoint. However here Quitely enacts threes scenes from the same room, at the same time playing out in various orders. It is incredible how it fits together and becomes a coherent page, especially as the panels focus on certain environmental constructs that act as constants allowing us to follow the story of Nora’s death.
In fact there is a page that features hundreds of panels from centimetres to millimetres in size. It is again a very clever idea that there is a broken man who relives the memories of his life. They progress into smaller and smaller panels and then as they return to normal size, the pictures depict a realisation and the final image is of our President, reformed as a whole. It is here that, as he peruses his memories, he begins to understand everything and his face is one of tearful enlightenment.
These are not even the best pages because the opening silent panels depict the most incredible assassination I have ever seen in comics. As we initially focus on the two symbols of infinity, it pans outwards to reveal the death of the President in a grotesque fashion. As it moves into larger perspectives, we can see that the page is moving backwards and we are seeing exactly how he died and the culprit firing his shot once he readied his position. Each panel holds iconic imagery in its borders, as not a single box is wasted in the story of how the President was killed.
It is not often you are able to read a comic like this one. It is so complete in so many ways and manages to bring forth classic trope characters in a way never seen before. Quite simply with this level of ingenuity and weaving story development, you will never read a comic like this again.
*What the story means – Warning! Spoilers but not really!*
So we start with the death of the President of the United States. This is a man that realised that his father’s comic books were key to the development of Pax Americana, world peace. It is a story about superheroes and villains, and one about the cyclical nature of the world, hence the infinity symbol and the blood stain on dove references. President Harley killed his father by accident, as he was startled whilst holding his gun. Yellow Jacket was a comic artists and a vigilante who had had enough of the corrupt government in the sixties and seventies. His death plunged Harley into a depression that took years to lift, one that was probably sparked by time evading Captain Atom himself, who was not even created then. It was then algorithm 8 was developed and Harley developed a group of superheroes to protect the world. As he stopped terrorists in the White House, he rapidly ascended to the presidency. I think Harley always knew his death was essential to world peace, for the heroes to become villains, at the very beginning. Captain Atom was approached by Harley way back when he was working up the ranks. It was here he gave him a comic book and asked him to do the impossible. He wanted Atom to resurrect the president, to “Redeem the ultimate villain” (there are massive similarities between this comic and the Watchmen). This is where Nora discovered the truth, as she argues with the Peacemaker about killing their leader. I don’t actually think she argued against the assassination but against the idea that the government was trying to stop his plan coming to fruition. She was killed by a superpowered agent of the government, the same people/scientists that may have actually prompted Captain Atom into exile. These scientists were then also murdered by probably the same assassin that killed Nora. The idea that Harley is going to be resurrected may be in jeopardy, as whoever the undercover organisation are, have questioned whether Atom will return at all. If that is the case and Atom could not perform his duties, then the plan would fold and Pax Americana would be no more. What I love most about this book is that the very first scene is pre-ordained by the man who was brutally murdered. President Harley asked the Peacemaker to murder him for the sake of world peace.