The Mystery Play is another short-form Morrison work from the “adult comics” era of the early ’90s. It feels decidedly removed from pretty much anything Morrison has done in the past fifteen years, as he moved more and more towards excess, overt surrealism, and craziness in his work, forsaking the more low-key enigmas of this book. The Mystery Play is more restrained, a book of quiet interactions and moments of ambiguity layered over a fairly straightforward story.
The art by Jon J. Muth sets the tone for the work as a whole. It’s gorgeous painted work that is a bit too realistic to come alive as comic book storytelling. You can feel the photo reference in every page, which means that even though the art is aesthetically wonderful, it suffocates the story. The moments where the art works best are actually the surreal sequences, like Carpenter’s interrogation of the Devil or the climactic crucifixion. There, the juxtaposition of the art’s realism and the surreal content creates amazing moments. But to use super realistic art to depict reality feels redundant.
Over the past two articles, I’ve covered Morrison books about teenage protagonists. Throughout his career, he’s often focused on young people, and when he writes about adults, they’re rarely the ordinary working people we see here; they’re usually people living in fantasies, clinging to the dreams of their adolescence rather than giving in to typical adult life. This conflict is dramatized in Flex Mentallo, where Wally Sage is torn between the super-hero dreams of his youth and the need to abandon childish things and grow up. Shortly after writing this book, Morrison would go through a similar conflict and re-embrace the super-heroes he loved as a kid. But this book comes from a period when he was not writing super-heroes and was focused on more adult concerns.
That’s not say The Mystery Play is totally out of Morrison’s wheelhouse. The story begins with the murder of God, or rather the actor playing the deity in a present-day revival of a medieval mystery play. Sergeant Frank Carpenter comes to the community of Townely to investigate the murder, but we soon find out that Carpenter has a sordid history of his own: he murdered an eight-year-old girl in the same town years ago. Like many Morrison protagonists, Carpenter is someone who’s consciously chosen to reinvent himself, to come to terms with his own demons by taking on the identity of a policeman and solving the murder.
On one level, his decision to go back to Townely seems like a psychotic break. Why return to the site of the murder he committed? Why not take his newfound freedom from the asylum and escape? However, in the scene in which he interrogates the actor playing the Devil, we see that Carpenter is haunted by what he did. Throughout the story, he discusses his need to see the whole picture, to look at all elements in tandem rather than individual pieces. He longs to make the kind of connections that will absolve him of his individual role in the murder and allow him to become part of a larger collective again.
That emphasis on collective over individual, the whole over the parts, is something that recurs throughout Morrison’s work. Much of The Invisibles revolves around the characters gradually realizing that they are part of much more than their individual lives, that they are pieces of a giant collective organism that stretches back and forth through time.
Here, it is a way to examine how one event, the murder of “God,” can unravel the sins and secrets of the town. We see the mayor indulging his bizarre sexual habits and a preacher who no longer believes in the Heaven he uses to keep his flock in line. In the end, the entire town becomes complicit in Carpenter’s crucifixion, when Annie Woolf outs him as a murderer. They need a catharsis more than anything, and Carpenter becomes a convenient scapegoat.
The Mystery Play has some interesting themes and exciting moments, but ultimately it fails to coalesce into something more than the sum of its ideas. It feels like Morrison has toned down his natural personality and is trying to make a self-conscious departure from previous works. Admittedly, the Morrison of the early ’90s was a very different person and writer than the Morrison of today, but even compared to a contemporary work, like Doom Patrol, this is restrained and missing some magic.
That said, I would love to see Morrison try something more like this today, if only to challenge himself. It seems like his upcoming Image series Happy might be a return to something more like this. Either way, I’m excited to check it out in a couple of months.