Friday, January 30, 2009

The Comics Page #19: Final Crisis

Final Crisis promo image
Despite the impression given that it would be delayed until the release of CHINESE DEMOCRACY DUKE NUKEM FOREVER, FINAL CRISIS #7 came out this Wednesday to baffle and amuse, piss off and delight comic readers everywhere. As I hinted earlier in Twitter, I was enjoying the series thus far, and I have to say the final issue didn’t change my opinion; it’s a good finish to a good crossover. I may in fact be in a minority on this, though with internet comics fandom it’s hard to tell; consensus is really only possible to derive at the extremes and not so much even then. But whatever the objective reality, the anti-FC voices seem to be shouting the loudest, so I may as well do my part to add to the positives.

(Spoilers follow.)

It must be said that I’m a fan of Grant Morrison’s work, to the extent that I like most of what I’ve read of him. There’s a lot of his stuff I haven’t read to start with- SEAGUY, WE3, most of his JLA run- but I am keen on what he does, which according to the current debate may bias my opinion. The popular theory is that those of us who are fans of Morrison are inclined to overlook flaws in FINAL CRISIS’ execution and pretend he’s just working on a deeper level, and though this may happen in some corners it’s not a fair assessment overall. Yes, a book by Morrison may tend to get more backers than a similarly obtuse and nonlinear title by someone not well known, in the same way that Martin Scorcese or Terrence Malick might get more leeway for their next picture. But I think this is partly because when you’ve followed someone’s work, you tend to know how they work a little better, and you are in fact capable of understanding their work more, and since all art is communication, you receive it better than most. I understand that Morrison is in favor of compressed storytelling and making the reader work a little, so I’m willing to do so.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To put it as simply as possible, the final issue of FINAL CRISIS features a number of big-ass things happening. Darkseid, who has succeeded in turning most of the world into slaves, is killed. Since he’s a god, his death weakens the reality of that universe, thus threatening the encroachment of an evil vampire demon of sorts and a bunch of tentacled abysmal horrors. The gathered superheroes first evacuate the universe, and freeze and miniaturize the civilian population to keep them in storage while the final confrontation happens. Superman, backed by the Green Lanterns, the Supermen of many universes, a bunch of angels, Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew, Captain Marvel, the Monitor of this universe, and the Japanese reincarnation of the Forever People all stand against the demon, and Superman uses something called the Miracle Machine that the Legion of Superheroes will have in the 30th century to rebuild the universe after the confrontation finishes.

Makes sense. There’s also some stuff with the Flashes outrunning death and Wonder Woman being snapped out of her control by Frankenstein, which is cool. Like every big crossover event the book features a number of minor points which either set up or wrap up various and sundry other books in the name of housecleaning. Part of the baggage.

Now, the big issue with FINAL CRISIS has not been what happens in it, but how it happens. Morrison’s approach to the book has been kind of a mash-up; instead of a straightforward and clear narrative, we get pieces of the action from various viewpoints all across the universe, sometimes in the past tense, sometimes in the present, no one person being able to sum everything up and the narrative captions not doing that much to clarify either. As I said a long time ago in my review of SEVEN SOLDIERS #1, Morrison’s approach to this kind of cosmic storytelling sometimes makes things hard to follow, but there’s a method to it. Individual comic books are very easy to reread; they’re short, don’t have too many words, and do have lots of memorable pictures so you can easily find a specific bit in the story. FINAL CRISIS is not written to be flipped through, but pored over a little bit.

Obviously this approach is not without its flaws. Because there’s no central character arc the overall emotional effect is diffused; there are some very affecting moments, but we don’t quite get in-depth on any of it. Of course, the same can be said for a lot of these events- INFINITE CRISIS started with a scene of Animal Man at home, left him for some considerable time, picked up with Power Girl, put her off screen for a few issues, etc. It’s the nature of the beast to focus on a general event happening to lots of characters and not sticking with any one of them. The fractured narrative also has a slightly distancing effect; we have to expend energy to figure out just what’s going on and so can’t quite get the moment-by-moment how-will-our-heroes-prevail effect of a more straightforward epic hero narrative. Wonder Woman doesn’t get the best story arc compared to Batman and Superman, and Mary Marvel’s arc wraps up with an irritating cliché. There are, to be sure, some bits of the story I’m still not clear on.

But Morrison doesn’t make things so obtuse that we don’t get the general gist of it. I didn’t read SUPERMAN BEYOND #2, a tie-in book that according to everyone was absolutely necessary to get the backstory on Mandrakk, the thing in the void that’s threatening to kill our Earth. But I got that he was an ancient demon living in the blackness and waiting for an opportunity like Darkseid’s death to destroy everything, and that he represents Evil as Oblivion as a contrast to Darkseid’s Evil as Control. And like any good comics writer Morrison does load up the story with moments of awesomeness that, depending on the viewer, practically justify whatever plot goofiness was needed to make them happen.

Let’s face it. We’re talking about the Big Company Wide Crossover Event, which has long been defined by convoluted storytelling, casts of thousands, cosmic wibbliness happening everywhere, and an emphasis on fist-pumping cool moments over plot logic. It’s like one of the season finales of the new DOCTOR WHO, for better and for worse, and Morrison isn’t actually straying too far from the conventions of the form. What he is doing is playing to its strengths and trying to ignore the weaknesses as much as possible.

But what FINAL CRISIS does right that so many of these events don’t is in delivering the payoff. FINAL CRISIS #7 is the issue of triumph and glory, and too often as of late, as a result of trying to raise the stakes as high as possible, superhero victories have been so pyrrhic and brief as to be unsatisfying. Here, we take our time, we see Dr. Sivana and Lex Luthor smiling as they help put together a machine to rewrite the laws of physics, we see Supergirl and Wonder Woman tell the story of how the universe was saved to a room of waiting children before they go to deep-freeze, we get payoffs to arcs that weren’t even technically part of this crossover, we get a sense that the world might actually become more interesting as a consequence of all this.

In the end, the story of the Day Evil Won, the story of Batman’s death (for the moment) and Mary Marvel temporarily losing her grip and Superman crying yet again, ends up being a feel-good event. It’s the brightest and shiniest thing to happen to the mainstream DCU in some time, and thus a great catharsis. It’s not the best comic out there but it was quite a ride indeed.

Grade (tentative): A-

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