The Mystery Play
Written by Grant Morrison; Art by Jon J. Muth
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Painter
Grant Morrison might be the most divisive man in comics today. To some he's a stylistic genius whose concepts leap from the page and to others his concepts tend to be a mishmash of randomness with little underlying structure. I'm in the second column since for every work he does like All-Star Superman where Morrison juggles the lofty ideals with telling the story there's three where he drops the story for the sake of the big ideals. The Mystery Play falls in this second category where Morrison piles metaphor upon metaphor and loses track of both the mystery and any kind of structure to his metaphors. Muth's artwork may have been fantastic but it can't save this book.
As an attraction a small village in England is staging a performance of the Mystery Play cycle, a set of medieval plays with a biblical theme. During the performance of the initial play the actor who played God is murdered. A quirky police detective arrives to investigate the murder and in the process dark secrets are uncovered.
Morrison's plot is confused. That's not a typo; it's confusing as well thanks to how it's told. The story shifts focus wildly; it's hallucinogenic sequences collide with the abrupt transitions to narrative scenes that feel shuffled like a deck of cards. Is this out of place scene a dream sequence or part of the plot? This does not come across as an intentional effect since as the scene goes on the context makes it clear.
Another case of this is the use of metaphor. For the first half of the book "God" has no name other than "God" and I thought this was an intentional part of the story. Then suddenly in the middle of a scene someone starts talking about an argument with a "doctor"; since there was a coroner in an earlier scene I thought they were talking about him until a few pages later it became clear that they were talking about the murder victim. There's one more scene where the victim has a name and then it's not referenced again. So was Morrison trying to isolate the victim from the story, build a metaphor around the death of "God", or just couldn't decide what he was doing?
Even when he's explicit with his themes Morrison can't bother to establish them smoothly. There's brief segments that establish a moral decay in the village but it's a case of telling the reader about it rather than showing it. Supposedly the murder is changing things for the worse but we as readers never actually see that happening. When it comes to the use of religion there's pieces that look clever when they're isolated and when put in context with the whole work don't fit. As an allegory it fails leaving only the plot to carry the weight.
Not that the plot makes a lot of sense anyway. Morrison attempts to build to a big plot twist that once revealed doesn't make any sense and then throws it out for an ending that's back to metaphor.
Despite all those complaints I have nothing but compliments for Muth's artwork. He paints scenes that are hauntingly beautiful in their gloominess. Everything is overcast in his art; gray and black predominate and the negative space formed by them in the panels creates striking images. The book is done in oil paints with the characters in fine detail and the background is broad strokes of shading. It's a wonderful style for a mystery and I'd like to see more of it.
The failings of The Mystery Play are completely Morrison's. He tries to have things both ways and have a allegorical story and a murder mystery and fails to do either well. Muth's artwork is great but it's not a good enough reason to read this pointless story.