The Mystery Play is an often overlooked seventy-six-page graphic novel published by Vertigo in 1994. It has a structure, length, and tone that was never repeated by Morrison, dating as it does from a stage when Vertigo was still exploring the kind of work it would showcase. It’s a comic which confounded many readers by refusing to conform to the traditional demands of the murder mystery in explaining ‘who did it’ – which was a shame because it’s a far more adult and thought-provoking tale than much of what Vertigo subsequently released.
The plot concerns the murder investigation of an actor playing God in an amateur theatre production in the fictional municipality of Towneley. But nothing is quite as it seems: an escaped psychiatric patient, desperate journalist, and corrupt Mayor complicate matters intriguingly. Traditional Mystery Plays portrayed the Christian story in theatrical performances across medieval Europe, exploring the relationship between god and humanity from Creation to Final Judgment. Morrison and Muth give us a modern-day interpretation using themes of performance to tell an analogous story.
As the community come together to unwittingly act out interpretations of biblical characters like Jesus (Carpenter) Judas (Woolf) God (Bell) and the Devil (Severs), Morrison invites us to dissect the nature of religion and the universe. The entire comic is a symbolic performance surrounding a performance, laced with rich imagery encompassing faith, death, human frailty, and the roles we’re pre-destined to play.
The staging of the comic is deeply theatrical. The locations are often rendered as flat washes of impressionistic colour and light, as flimsy and surreal as stage sets. A reliance on dialogue and iconic imagery, and the absence of captions, adds to the feeling of watching a play unfold. Muth’s wonderful watercolour paintings blur the line between reality and fantasy: biblical characters appear in turns real and as actors playing a role. The early page-wide panels (pages 2,3,4,5,7,8,10,11,12) evoke the wide viewpoint of an audience gazing upon a stage, suggesting that the Mystery Play that opens proceedings is a theatrical story born of humanity’s imagination. Pages 13 and 14 introduce a new actor, an escaped mental patient pretending to be a detective, with a double-page spread of similar dimension. From this correlation we can infer that the murder investigation is also a performance, to be interpreted like the play it mimics.
Morrison underpins his theme with W.B. Yeats’s The Apparitions, ‘a considered personal response to the occult’ (Yeats and the Occult, p205) embodying dreams of death via the most disturbing image Yeats witnessed – ‘a coat upon a coat-hanger’. But we are explicitly told through dialogue that Yeats, as a believer in the occult, ‘understood only part’ of what he saw (page 20, panel 5). The universe is, therefore, more complex and unknowable than Yeats realised.
The comic’s message is acted out for us: God is dead, an invention of one of “the details” (page 19, panel 1) – the quotidian events, indeed the very genes, that define humanity. The church is literally empty; even the reverend has no faith in God but is happy to pretend if it provides comfort to his flock; and the crucifixion and resurrection of ‘Detective’ Carpenter (Jesus) is ‘sort of cathartic’ (page 76, panel 2) but ultimately hollow.
There’s been much speculation on the deeper meaning of The Mystery Play. My take is that, like Carpenter’s nonsense crossword, the answer to who killed ‘God’ and the puzzle of our own existence can never be clear, but we nonetheless strive to figure it out regardless. Morrison and Muth highlight how we seek as a species to understand the universe, but just as we feel close to knowing we are, like Carpenter, undone by our own limitations and animalistic degeneracy. Death awaits us all, an ever-present shadow, an empty coat as vacuous as the façade of God himself. As a species, we invent and perform stories to try to rationalise an existence we cannot comprehend because we only see ‘fragments’ of reality and can’t ‘see it whole’(page 23, panel 6).
Theatricality and performance are therefore intrinsic to The Mystery Play’s meaning and structure. Where it slips up is in a lack of subtlety: the comic is so concerned with telegraphing its serious allegorical content that it leaves little to the imagination at times (‘carpenter’; hollow churches etc), spelling out subtext which would better remain implied. Muth’s artwork is truly beautiful, but also static and heavily photo reliant. The glaringly vectorized lettering and meticulous brushwork seem to exist on different planes. Collectively it lends a stilted, artificial air to an idea which deserved more time and attention in the subtle details of its execution.
Despite these minor failings, it’s a genuinely bold and thought-provoking comic, well worth seeking out. Had Vertigo continued in this vein Morrison et al could have created some truly groundbreaking literary work. That they didn’t is a loss to us all.