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Classic Comic Compendium: THE MYSTERY PLAY

'The Mystery Play is kind of an outlier in Grant Morrison's body of work...'

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God is dead.

No, you haven’t somehow clicked over to a Nietzschean discourse. Nor do you really have to worry about any of the religious or philosophical implications of the statement, unless you want to. It’s there if you choose to analyze the work in that context. Rather, the murder of the actor playing the role of god serves as the catalyst for mystery in the existential drama of The Mystery Play by Grant Morrison, Jon J. Muth, and Todd Klein. It gets a bit meta.

Using a revival of the old Northern English mystery play tradition (live performances of reenactments of biblical stories, particularly things like the story of the fall of man, for moral lessons) as the hook, The Mystery Play largely circles around the investigations of a local reporter and a Mancunian detective visiting in the small town of Townely. In the course of trying to solve the murder of god, we delve into the corruptions of the town’s mayor, a dialectic on the truth from the devil, and a priest who seems to have lost his faith. All while making you wonder what’s real and who you can trust.

The Mystery Play is kind of an outlier in Grant Morrison’s body of work, falling more within the oblique impressions of Arkham Asylum than their more straightforward bombastic mad ideas, but stylistically taking the form of a murder mystery. It’s a somber, more introspective piece that leans hard into literary and philosophical themes. It raises questions of guilt, responsibility, madness, ambition, and obsession as it searches for an elusive, and perhaps absent, truth.

Jon J. Muth’s artwork here is sublime. His painted work beautifully encapsulates the soft-focus hallucinatory atmosphere of the tale, blending realism with a kind of brown/beige haze that kind of makes it feel like you’re witnessing either a dream or a nightmare. Particularly impressive is the sequence where the detective is interrogating the actor who plays Lucifer when reality seems to break down and we’re faced with a devil that seems to have walked out of a Goya painting. There’s a fascinating divide between the play being performed and real life, as a bare Adam and Eve are revealed to truly be wearing nude-colored bodysuits drawn on with approximations of their nakedness. It’s a wonderful visual clue that the lines of reality and fantasy are somewhat murky in the tale.

Todd Klein delivers an interesting pair of font and word balloon styles through the story. The first is an oversized mixed-case balloon that he uses for the dialogue from the actors in the play and the second is the more standard all caps style for the real world interactions. There is, however, a fascinating point where the real world balloons give way to the play style, making you wonder about that particular development in the plot. As the characters potentially become the next act in the overall mystery play, complete with a role fit for the one character’s name.

There is one key tenet that runs through the story, though, embracing one existentialist ideal, that reality can be what we make it, but perhaps an objective reality can cause yours to come crashing down before it actualizes. The Mystery Play from Morrison, Muth, and Klein is unlikely to give you answers to the big questions, but it is going to make you think. Especially about the horror of an empty coat on a hook.

Classic Comics Compendium: The Mystery Play

The Mystery Play
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Jon J. Muth
Letterer: Todd Klein
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
The fully painted psychological thriller THE MYSTERY PLAY illustrates the devastating power of fear and accusations as a small-town community is ripped apart from within. When the actor portraying Satan is accused of brutally murdering the actor playing God in a Renaissance festival, a rural English village teeters on the edge of self-destruction. Looking to save the town from itself, a mysterious detective arrives and begins to piece together the clues of the slaying. But even if the enigmatic stranger can solve the disturbing mystery, the revelation of his true identity and past may still lead to the fiery end of the village.
Release Date: March 24, 1994 (original hardcover) | October 24, 2017 (collected edition)
Available In: The Sebastian O / The Mystery Play by Grant Morrison collection

2 COMMENTS

  1. I really appreciate the site covering old comics like this, I bought it when it first came out but struggled with it, and I’m a huge fan of Grant Morrison’s. It’s definitely made me want to dig it out again and see how I get on with it twenty five odd years later tbough, so thank you again for this.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Alex. The Mystery Play is definitely one that I think holds up well over time and has some interesting shifts when your own perspective changes. That’s one of the things that I love about going back to look at comics I read earlier in life, potentially having a new understanding of the stories, their themes, and potentially new meaning.

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