Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem: The End

Let's get this goddam thing over with.

Final Crisis: Revelations presents a certain critical challenge: it's not very good, but it's bad in a way that seems, on the surface, to contradict what I said about Final Crisis itself. That is, I found Revelations to be confusing and difficult to read, so what makes this story a failure when I dismiss similar criticism of Morrison's series.

The main difference, I would argue, is that Final Crisis yields greater rewards upon closer scrutiny, while Revelations doesn't. Now, I do have to say that some confusion was cleared up after multiple readings. For example, when I read this month to month, I did not realize that the dying nun who appears early in issue 1 becomes Radiant, the Spirit of Mercy. I would like it if we actually saw some kind of origin for her, rather than going from her flatline in issue 1 to Radiant's appearance at the batsignal in issue 2. Also, I didn't realize, in issue 5, that the men who tackle Vandal Savage after he stabs the Question with the Spear of Destiny are the same men who killed Radiant.

I think a big part of the problem here is Philip Tan's art. Although some images and designs look dynamic, the overall storytelling is off, and the final two issues look rushed with limited backgrounds. My main issue, besides the fact that the art is just kind of ugly, is that the use of long, narrow, vertical and horizontal panels does not convey enough visual information to tell the story. Here's an example of how the panel design crops and crushes the images:
In another example, on pages 2 and 3 of issue 1, we are supposed to be seeing Dr. Light having a "party" in his hotel room with three prostitutes dressed like Teen Titans. This information is only really conveyed through the dialogue because the dark, narrow, vertical panels cut off the images in such a way that the reader just doesn't get the visual information needed to give this scene its impact.

Also, I don't like Tan's design of the mark of Cain that appears on Vandal Savage's face, and the Question's appearance in a fedora and sports bra has to be one of the worst superhero costume designs ever. The Question's face also has too much detail for what should be a blank face mask.

Another problem I had involves writer Greg Rucka's use of voice-over narration throughout the series. Rucka's method results in two competing, rather than complementing, lines of narration: the narrator's and the dialogue's. In many scenes, like the one below, it becomes difficult to read the text sequentially while suspending both lines simultaneously:

I often found myself reading each page twice: once to follow the caption boxes and once to read the dialogue. This created a disjointed rhythm for the series as a whole, made more problematic by Tan's storytelling issues and the use of multiple narrators distinguished only by different color caption boxes. And when I could get into a reading rhythm with this series, I often found the results weren't worth the effort.

Revelations begins fairly closely tied in to Final Crisis. Dr. Light's party is alluded to in Final Crisis 1, where Light asks Mirror Master for some pharmaceutical assistance. Also, the Spectre attempts to punish Libra for the death of the Martian Manhunter, yet Spectre's powers have no effect.

The series also ties in to the most recent appearances of both the Spectre and the Question. In particular, the Question's story seems to pick up immediately after The Five Books of Blood left off, and the Spectre makes frequent reference to the punishment of his son at his own hands, which happened in an earlier Spectre miniseries. One purpose for this is to give Rucka a chance to wrap up these characters' storylines, which he started at the end of Gotham Central. However, it would be nice if DC had provided some kind of recap page for this series--even though I've read every appearance of the new Question and new Spectre, I still felt a little lost about their status quo.

I tend to get frustrated with the theological drama that Rucka deals with in his Question and Spectre stories. In issue 4, the Question claims that she no longer "believes" in God, at least not one who would allow the Anti-Life Equation to run free, or to allow Cain to punish the Spectre. The Question's crisis of faith needs a subtler, more nuanced approach than this. A character who is interacting with the manifestations of God's vengeance and mercy should not be having any doubts about "belief." Instead, the real debate should be about serving that higher power, which, in the DC Universe, undoubtedly exists as evidenced by the supernatural events that occur on a regular basis. Rucka is a talented writer, but I wish his exploration of faith in a universe where the existence of God is an empirical fact addressed that complex difference.

Revelations is also too long by an issue or so. The first two issues move along fairly well, with Vandal Savage emerging as Cain (a pretty terrible idea, if you ask me) and the Question coming into conflict with the Spectre. The last 2 1/2 issues, however, feature very little progress as the heroes are holed up in a Gotham City church while Cain and the victims of the Anti-Life Equation attack from outside.

In the end, I'm still not clear on the final status of the Spectre. I assume that Crispus Allen has been freed of Spectre and has been allowed to return to the land of the living, but I'm not entirely sure that that's what I'm seeing at the end. And though the series follows Final Crisis well at the beginning, the Question doesn't seem to end up in a place that fits well with her plot in the main series. This was, all in all, the least satisfying of the tie-in series.

In the May comics solicitations, DC has also announced 4 Final Crisis: Aftermath miniseries. Though I question the decision to put these out three months after the series has ended (and to put out so many at once), these do look like they will build on some of the more interesting concepts left over from the series.

Written by Matthew Sturges, art by Freddie E. Williams II, cover by Kako.

The Human Flame is a dead man. Literally just waking up after the events of Final Crisis, he realizes all the heroes in the DC Universe target him as the lowlife who taped the murder of the Martian Manhunter with his cell phone. On top of that, all the villains in the world want to kill him for selling them out to Libra. He's powerless and penniless, and his only chance for survival is to run! This 6-issue mini-series examines the underbelly of the DCU and what happens when the wrong choices catch up with you. Nothing can prepare you for this chase.

32 pages, $2.99, in stores on May 6.


Written by Ivan Brandon, art by Marco Rudi, cover by Scott Hampton.

In this all-new 6-issue miniseries, Nemesis awakens to find himself held captive by the Global Peace Agency inside the walls of the mysterious Electric City. His fellow prisoners are all members of the superhuman intelligence community, and they're subjected to systematic torture in an attempt to siphon the secrets of the DC Universe heroes in an effort to destroy them. As Nemesis works to escape, he finds few people he can truly trust. But nothing could prepare him for the hideous truth behind his situation!

32 pages, $2.99, in stores on May 13.


Written by Joe Casey, art by ChrisCross, cover by Stanley Lau.

Japan's Super Young Team wants nothing more than to be seen as heroes in the eyes of their adoring public. Unfortunately, their adventures during Final Crisis have gone unnoticed, and they've been reduced to performing at public appearances and on various TV shows literally dancing for their livelihood. But the appearance of a new American teammate and a deadly threat complicates the motives of the team as they try and find what truly makes somebody not just a hero, but a sensational hero. Discover the path to greatness in this exciting 6-issue mini-series!

32 pages, $2.99, in stores on May 20.


Written by Eric Wallace, art by Fabrizio Fiorentino, cover by Brian Stelfreeze.

In the wake of Final Crisis, the Tattooed Man is considered a hero for the first time in his life. At first, the rewards from his new lifestyle are a welcome change from the rest of what his existence has been, but soon the pressure to stay above temptation and evil start to wear him down. Matters are quickly complicated when he wakes up in the middle of the night to find his body covered in unfamiliar tattoos that seem to have a life of their own. In this 6-issue mini-series, the Tattooed Man finds himself in the middle of a life and death struggle with his own powers and the master plan they seem to have for him -- whether he likes it or not!

32 pages, $2.99, in stores on May 27.

The Human Flame and The Tattooed Man series both seem to stem logically from Final Crisis, and the Global Peace Agency and The Super Young Team are strong concepts that can use more exploration. I will definitely be getting Run for the creative team of Matt Sturges and Freddie Williams. Also, Ivan Brandon wrote the awesome Kobra: Faces of Evil one-shot, so I'm curious to see him play in the DC Universe some more. I was hoping for a Super Young Team series following Final Crisis, and Joe Casey is the best possible choice if Grant Morrison isn't writing it. I may end up skipping Ink or at least wait until I see some reaction to it.

Though I plan to do a follow-up entry when Legion of 3 Worlds finishes, this will be my last entry in this series. Thanks to all the readers who came on board for it, and especially to those who commented and kept the comments relatively civil.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dr. K's Oscar Picks

Here, without comment, are my 2008 Oscar picks:


Slumdog Millionaire


Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler


Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight


Kate Winslet, The Reader


Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona




The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


Slumdog Millionaire


The Duchess


Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire


Man on Wire


The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306


Slumdog Millionaire


The Class


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


Slumdog Millionaire


"Down to Earth," Wall-E






The Dark Knight


The Dark Knight


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


Slumdog Millionaire



Saturday, February 21, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem: Rogues' Revenge

Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge, by Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins, was probably my favorite of the tie-ins, though I'm liking Legion of 3 Worlds a heck of a lot (I will cover that series once it's completed). Though I have read complaints that Rogues' Revenge was not tied in to Final Crisis enough, I would argue that it was tied in just enough. While it isn't essential to the main series, Rogues' Revenge does follow a logical tangent from it that comes out of the first few issues without contradicting them. This makes for the best kind of tie-in to a major event like Final Crisis: the main series has created a space for a story like this, yet it can also stand on its own, as the reader is given all the necessary exposition. And the story is told in a tight three-issue series.

The primary purpose of Rogues' Revenge seems to be bridging the gap between, on the one hand, the death of Bart Allen, Salvation Run, and Countdown (the Pied Piper and Trickster plot) and, on the other hand, the upcoming Flash: Rebirth series. That may seem like a lot of continuity to keep up with, but this is one of the things Geoff Johns does well: tie together continuity threads while still managing to tell an entertaining story.

And Rogues' Revenge is a lot of fun. During his run on The Flash, Johns understood the importance of these villains to the series, and he had managed to flesh out their backstories to make them more interesting characters and to give a clear motivation as to why they would work together (they are mainly held together by the strict leadership of Captain Cold, who understands each rogue's damage enough to keep them in line).

Rogues' Revenge opens with the villains on the run for some time after the events of Salvation Run. They are being pursued on two fronts: the heroes want them for their responsibility in the death of Bart Allen, and the villains are after them because they refuse to join Libra's new society of villains. They choose to fight the society while also evening the score by killing Inertia, the villain truly responsible for Bart Allen's death.

Johns is a straightforward, entertaining storyteller who uses continuity as a launching pad for new stories. In this sense, his style contrasts that of Grant Morrison on the main series. Though I find both approaches to comic storytelling equally valid, I can see why many readers preferred Johns's more accessible approach. I'm entertained by Johns's comics (though I don't quite understand his obsession with traumatic arm loss), and I tend to follow whatever he does. However, it's also clear that we have a lot of the same touchstones when it comes to the comics of our youth, and that may very well be influencing my enjoyment of his stories.

To look at one particular characteristic of Johns's storytelling style, I'm using a couple of scenes not from Rogues' Revenge, but from Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns, a tie-in that many readers cited for its failure to connect to the main series.

Early in the book, the reader is reminded by the following image that the Guardian known as Scar is connected in some way to the Sinestro Corps, as indicated by the Yellow Lantern symbol that appears in her pupils (the Black Lantern symbol also appears there in an earlier panel).
Later, when Green Lantern John Stewart questions how the Sinestro Corps managed to ambush them, we get a cut to another panel showing Scar's pupils.

On the one hand, this is just clear storytelling, repeating information in order to make sure the reader is following along and can continue to follow. On the other hand, however, this is an unnecessary repetition that doesn't account for readers' intelligence or attention to the details of a comic that takes less than 15 minutes to read from cover to cover. In Final Crisis, Morrison would not have cut back a second time to Scar's eyes, as the first shot pages earlier should have done the trick.

I will say one more thing about Rage of the Red Lanterns: despite the claim on page one that "these events take place between Final Crisis #1 and #2," that connection seems unlikely. Hal Jordan, John Stewart, and the Alpha Lanterns have a pretty tight continuity in Final Crisis, and there is just not enough time for these events to occur. That being said, Rage of the Red Lanterns is still an entertaining story regardless of where it fits in relation to Final Crisis. It probably would have been best, however, if DC had left off the "Final Crisis" label from this book.

DC has recently solicited some of the Final Crisis collections. Here's the copy for the Rogues' Revenge collection:

Written by Geoff Johns, art and cover by Scott Kolins.

In the face of Final Crisis, Johns and Kolins revive the most ruthless Rogues Gallery of them all! At times, they've been laughed at, ridiculed and hunted -- but The Flash Rogues Gallery has had enough. The team of villains decides to remind the world why they're not to be messed with in this hardcover collecting their return in Final Crisis: Rogues Revenge #1-3 as well as a couple of their greatest hits from The Flash #182 and #197.

144 pages, $19.99, in stores on July 15.

It's nice that DC is padding the collection out with two of Johns and Kolins's best single issue stories from The Flash: the origin of Captain Cold and the new Zoom, respectively. I would say that Flash 182 is the best issue of their entire collaboration. However, due to the importance of Weather Wizard's son to the story's climax, I would have liked to see Flash 175 and 176 added as well, which established the relationship between father and infant child.

I'll have more on these collections in a later post, along with my comments on Final Crisis: Revelations.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem, Part 6

I've been asked on several occasions what tie-ins I would recommend as essential to the overall Final Crisis story. Other than Superman Beyond and the Batman issues, I don't think there are any others that include any necessary plot information, and in most instances, inconsistencies from the tie-ins to the main series might frustrate those looking for a perfect fit.

Also, when listening to the Comic Geeks Speak podcast on Final Crisis 7 (which was largely negative about the series as a whole), I was struck by a comment made by one of their callers. The caller complained about all the unnecessary or unrelated tie-ins that DC "made" him get. While I think there is legitimate criticism to make of DC thinning the Final Crisis brand, especially on something like Rage of the Red Lanterns, I also think it's odd to say that DC made anyone buy anything. But the expectations set up by the brand caused a lot of readers to reject or dislike otherwise good stories.

But I like Intruder W's comment about Submit in my last post: that Submit is a model for the type of spinoff that could be done from the main story, taking an idea hinted at, or a plot element alluded to, and develop a story around it. And the tie-ins have varying degrees of success when it comes to how well they do this. So, as I discuss the non-Morrison-penned tie-ins, I will be looking at their connection to the main story as well as their overall quality.

Final Crisis: Requiem, written by Peter Tomasi and drawn by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy, appeared first, and it fills in what many readers thought was the too-abrupt murder of the Martian Manhunter in Final Crisis 1.
In fact, in Requiem, J'onn puts up a fight that lasts for several pages, giving him a more heroic send-off that many fans thought he deserved.

His fight also includes a psychic attack on all the villains present, with each one imagining his death at the hands of his arch-nemesis--

--with the exception of Talia, who just starts making out with her fantasy Batman (one nitpick: Batman should be shirtless in that panel).

In this sense, Tomasi does a good job expanding on just a couple of scenes in Final Crisis 1, and Requiem develops a clear purpose: the reader has enough information about J'onn J'onzz's death to know what's going on in Final Crisis, but if the reader wants more information, or wants a more heroic exit for the hero, then Requiem is there for that. (Also, Doug Mahnke's art is much cleaner here than it is in Final Crisis 7.)

One problem emerges in this tie-in that will also plague others: the fit with Final Crisis is not perfect. One of the biggest problems that surfaces in these ancillary stories is the status of Hal Jordan and Batman. Both have pretty tight continuities in the main series, and both appear to be doing things that don't fit with those continuities. Batman is especially a problem, becuase of the lack of a clear transition from Batman RIP to Final Crisis. If Batman's supporting cast thinks he's dead, then how is he showing up for the funeral and driving the Batmobile around Gotham? Personally, this doesn't worry me that much, but I can see how it would frustrate some readers who take more pleasure in continuity than in story.

I'd be curious to hear what readers thought of Final Crisis: Resist. I stopped reading Greg Rucka's Checkmate series after the first year, so I was not up on the status quo of that organization when I first read this issue (and when did Snapper Carr get teleportation powers?). I place this story in the space between the last pages of Final Crisis 3, after Oracle has shut down the internet, but before Darkseid's total victory that the Flashes find after they've moved forward in time. I'm sure this one has several continuity problems, like Mr. Terrific's inconsistent location, but none really detract from the overall quality of the story, which is pretty fun. I especially enjoyed the fact that Snapper Carr and Cheetah hooked up. This is exactly the sort of thing I would expect to be happening at the end of the world.

If the first two at least attempted to fill in important or interesting story gaps from the main series, Final Crisis: Secret Files fills in a gap that is neither important nor interesting: the secret origin of the villain Libra. While I'm glad DC gave the job to the character's creator, Len Wein (and I'm glad to see Wein writing again for DC in general), I thought the character worked better as a mystery. The origin story is also fairly mundane, making Libra an abused kid who gets some assistance from Darkseid to become a one-off JLA villain. If anything, this makes the villain less interesting than he is in Final Crisis.

The back of the book contains more of J. G. Jones's sketchbook pages, with further evidence that he and Morrison generated a bunch of crazy ideas that barely made it into the series (including the new Aquaman, who only shows up in two panels).

For the sake of completion, I want to mention DC Universe: Last Will and Testament, by Brad Meltzer and Adam Kubert. Though this comic doesn't come with a Final Crisis label, the story does take place during the Crisis, and the format is basically the same. Because I wasn't present for any of the editorial decisions that went into this series, I hesitate to speculate on why this wasn't specically labelled a tie-in. Perhaps there were early concerns about diluting the brand that were later abandoned. But I do get the sense that, due to the fact that both Meltzer and Kubert are notoriously slow, the creators were given a lot of lead time on this book, and the were, therefore, given only the most cursory information about the plot of Final Crisis. Characters--again, Batman and Green Lantern, but also Superman, Flash, and probably some others I didn't notice--are used in ways that don't agree with the rest of Final Crisis. But, more importantly, the main story about Geo-Force seeking revenge on Deathstroke just isn't that interesting, and it does little to overcome the issue's other flaws. Like Secret Files, this is a forgetable story that also fails as a tie-in to the main series.

Overall, these single-issue tie-ins don't take full advantage of the potential that Final Crisis holds for these ancillary stories. Of the four, only Requiem and Resist deliver on that potential. Although I hesitate to say that DC should have done more tie-ins, there may be some good stories that have yet to be told.

Up next: Rogues' Revenge and Rage of the Red Lanterns.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem, Part 5

One tie-in I should have included in the previous post was the Final Crisis Sketchbook, which actually preceded the regular series and reveals just how far the initial plans for the series changed in the final product.

The foreward indicates that Morrison and artist J. G. Jones met in May 2007 to begin initial plans for the series, and from the content of the sketchbook, it looks like they generated a shit-ton of ideas, many of which never made it into the series. For example, they came up with redesigns for the New Gods and Forever People (the latter being completely revamped and updated). Only the designs for Darkseid, Metron, The Black Racer, and Mister Miracle appear in Final Crisis (and the Mister Miracle design was previously used in Seven Soldiers).

The Forever People update is particularly fascinating. As the scan shows, Morrison's idea was to make the new Forever People the 21st century equivalent of what hippies were for the youth of the 60s and early 70s. This makes some sense, as the Forever People have always been the Fourth World concept that aged the worst. However, it would only be a matter of a few years before this concept were to become dated once again. (I do, though, think the updating of Vikin the Black as "Black Viking" is pretty cool.)

The most extensive and detailed concepts in the sketchbook come in the section on Japanese superheroes, and like the Fourth World updates, most of these never made their way into the series.

The Big Science Action team is mentioned in the series, but the description in the sketchbook fleshes out their history and members in great detail. Most of the members--Cosmo Racer, Boss Bosozuko, Hammersuit Zero-X, and Junior Waveman--are fusions of Marvel characters with Japanese pop culture. Jones's art in this section is much less sketchy, looking like Big Science Action got well beyond the idea stage and may have been jettisoned late in the game. Even the Super Young Team, which has a prominent role in Final Crisis, does not look as clearly developed or finalized as a concept. Morrison has created out of whole cloth a history of Japanese superheroes in the DC Universe, and I'd like to see DC run with a Super Young Team series that would capitalize on these ideas.

At the time the sketchbook came out, it was difficult to see how all those ideas were going to work together in one series. And clearly, Morrison is an idea machine, and those ideas may get diluted as they move from that initial stage to the final product. Whatever the case, the sketchbook probably gives us the closest thing to undiluted Morrison as we can get, and it would be interesting to see more of what was generated during these brainstorming sessions.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem: Submit and Batman

Superman Beyond 3D is certainly essential to understanding the conclusion of Final Crisis, and that contradicts statements made by Dan DiDio and Grant Morrison that one could follow the main series without reading the tie-ins. In fact, many of the problems with Final Crisis seem to stem from the marketing of the series before its release. It would be nice if, as a result of this series, DC developed more secure marketing plans for its events, which could be sustained without contradiction throughout the event.

I don't want to spend to much time on the marketing of the series, as it really has no bearing on the story itself, and it will ultimately be irrelevant as the series moves in to its future as a collection (the marketing did set expectations for many readers and may have led to some disappointment). I also wonder, though, about the eventual publishing future of this event. The Final Crisis hardcover will not contain Superman Beyond, which I think is a mistake. However, DC is releasing a Final Crisis Companion trade paperback, but I'm not sure what the contents of that will be. At the very least, it should contain the Morrison-penned tie-ins.

Final Crisis: Submit is probably the least essential of the Morrison tie-ins. In terms of plot, it serves the purpose of getting the Tattooed Man to the Hall of Justice in Final Crisis 4, and it places in his hands the sigil that will resist the Anti-Life Equation. The story also plants the seeds for Tattooed Man's conversion from villain to hero.

While the appearance of Tattooed Man at the Hall of Justice in Final Crisis 4 is sudden, it's not the only sudden, unexplained appearance of a character in that scene, or in the series in general. I can't imagine, if I hadn't read Submit, that I would be any more confused by the character's appearance than I would Green Arrow's, The Ray's, or Wally West's family. Hence, the tie-in does not fill in any significant blanks in the series, and there are probably many more significant ones later in the series that could use some elaboration and explanation.

As it is, though, Submit is a satisfyingly straightforward story, and a departure from the more disjointed storytelling technique that Morrison uses in the main series. In fact, the story is fairly basic in its plot: Black Lightning rescues Tattooed Man and his family from the Justifiers before submitting to their control himself. But, as it stands, it is also fairly unremarkable in relation to the rest of the series as well. At the very least, Morrison proves that he can do a plot-driven action story.

Batman 682 and 683 are a different matter. These issues are, for Batman, the equivalents of Superman Beyond. These issues take Batman from his capture in Final Crisis 2 to the point where he could shoot Darkseid with the god bullet in issue 6. In a storytelling style similar to the later issues of Final Crisis, the narrative is disconnected and nonlinear, but the explanation for that becomes apparent at the end of the first issue: Batman is being subjected to a psychic attack as a prisoner of Darkseid's minions, Simyan and Mokkari, after his capture in Final Crisis 2.

In these two issues, Morrison takes us on a Cook's tour of Batman's career, from the goofy Silver Age stories to the grittier modern stories. These two issues present a perfect encapsulation of Batman as envisioned by Morrison. Morrison's Batman, as depicted here and in RIP, can beat any attack because he has prepared for them all, and a psychic attack that might destroy a powered hero will not bring him down. I especially like Morrison's take on the Joker, showing how Batman's arch nemesis can move from comic villain to homicidal maniac yet still consistently remain the same character. If anything, I hope Morrison's work on Batman sets a new status quo for the character whenever he returns after "Battle for the Cowl."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem: Superman Beyond 3D

Many critics of Final Crisis have complained--rightfully so--that too much important stuff happens in the two issues of Superman Beyond that should be included in the main series. Essential information about Mandrakk (who only shows up in the main series in the final issue), the origin of the Monitors, and the nature of the multiverse appears in Superman Beyond, and I would also argue that many keys to reading Final Crisis appear here as well, especially since reading itself is such a crucial part of Superman Beyond.

However, the two issues are also tied together through the use of 3D technology--a gimmick I appreciate in spirit if not in practice, as the 3D glasses don't fit around my regular glasses very well, and the 3D effects always come off as distorted for me.

The 3D glasses, or "Overvoid Viewers," themselves are presented as artifacts of the story world and, therefore, provide the most obvious example of Morrison making the reader a part of the story. Like Superman, we get to upgrade to "4D Vision" in order to see the story as he sees it. In fact, the Overvoid Viewers are "forged from Superman's own cosmic armor" that he wears in issue 2. And the 3D effect, when it works, enhances images where Superman reaches through the page and out to the reader.

I like Douglas Wolk's analysis of this page. He reads the caption text about "A sound like breathing" and "The whole continuum...trembles, as if cradled" as a reference to the reader's relationship to the comic: the reader breathes and cradles the comic in his or her hands.

This isn't the first time Morrison has done something like this--he's done it before in Animal Man and The Invisibles in particular. In fact, as both Wolk and Marc Singer (among others) point out, Superman Beyond is heavily self-referential to the point of having an autobiographical subtext (I especially like Wolk's reading of Morrison's "anxiety of influence" over Alan Moore). Morrison "self-quotes" from almost all of his major works here, including Animal Man, The Invisibles, Zenith, and JLA (especially Rock of Ages, World War III, and Earth 2).

This may lead to accusations that Morrison is repeating himself, and I will admit he does crib a lot of the best bits from his JLA run, though I don't hold that run in as high esteem as a lot of Morrison fans. (For one, that's the first of Morrison's works where I got the sense that the final product really missed something in the transition from script to page. It's been a problem in Morrison's career that artists seem to have difficulty bringing his vision to the page. I'm trying to be politic here because, as some commentors have pointed out in earlier posts, that may not be a problem of the artist per se, but rather a failure of communication from the writer to the artist.) I would say, however, that Superman Beyond (and Final Crisis in general) does not represent a mere repetition, and that Morrison does move forward with ideas that have been developing throughout his career. In particular, Superman Beyond presents the clearest articulation of Morrison's idea that the shared universe and continuity of a comic book company is essentially a single story (or a "self-assembing hyper story," to be precise). The infinite book that Superman and Captain Marvel read obviously embodies that concept (and it makes my head hurt just thinking about it. One would assume, if it contains every book possible, that it contains every rumored, aborted, or unpublished story in the DC Universe as well, meaning I could read Alan Moore's "Twilight of the Superheroes" and Rick Veitch's final, censored Swamp Thing story, or Jamie Delano and Neil Gaiman Swamp Thing run that was supposed to follow Veitch's or ....).

As in Final Crisis, Morrison finds moments here that show how he perfectly "gets" a character. And in this exchange, we see both the quintessential Superman and Ultraman: Also, Doug Mahnke really nailed Superman's profile there.

Morrison also makes a strong case here for keeping the Fawcett-style Captain Marvel around, even if he is relegated to Earth-5. Though Superman and Ultraman are meant to form a "symmetry" that, when brought together by Allan Adam (who, as a Dr. Manhattan analogue, represents the logical conclusion of the Superman concept), combine to defeat Mandrakk, Captain Marvel serves as an important complement to Superman as well. Captain Marvel can, after all, read the infinite book, and he intervenes to keep Superman and Ultraman from destroying each other. Captain Marvel is a character who works fine in his original conception, and I don't understand why DC feels the need to keep screwing with his status quo, especially by darkening the character up. But I also think the character works best when kept to his own separate universe, with its own rules, logic, and continuity, and perhaps Morrison is making that possible here.

In rereading Final Crisis for these posts, I've treated Superman Beyond as Final Crisis 3.1 and 3.2. I'm assuming that Legion of 3 Worlds will explain how Superman got from Lois's bedside to the 31st century in FC 6, but the delays in that series leave that particular story connection up in the air. Next, I'll touch on Batman 682 and 683, as well as Final Crisis: Submit and their relation to the overall story.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem, Part 3

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone for the support and debate that's been going on in the comment sections. With the debate, I especially welcome the opportunity to defend or, if necessary, revise my thoughts on this series. As long as it all stays civil.

Also, I want to thank everyone who participated in the song meme. That sure turned out to be a thing, didn't it?

By the way, I agree with New York Magazine's Vulture Blog, this one was my favorite. (And while you're there, check out the Registered Weapon web comic--it's hilarious.)

I'd like to point everyone to a couple of articles in Final Crisis that are worth checking out. Steven Grant in his Permanent Damage column at CBR makes some points about the series that dovetail with what I've been saying, though he comes down a bit more ambivalent on the series than I do. I especially like how he separates the (mostly failed) publicity for the series from the story itself.

Also, Andrew Hickey is doing a nice series of posts on Final Crisis, with the effect of kicking me in the ass to get my series done before he makes me redundant. He even does an insightful, extensive analysis of the song that Superman sings to kill Darkseid.

And, finally, Marc Singer provides some essential reading on Final Crisis (though our opinions on the series differ), while also (sadly) bringing his blog to a close. Marc does an amazing job breaking down the various climaxes in the final issue, and he makes a strong case for ignoring the external controversies (shipping delays, editorial statements) when evaluating the story itself. I've admired Marc's blog and his academic writing, and I look forward to his promise of more of the latter in the future.

As I promised, I want to talk about some of my favorite moments in Final Crisis. I'm going to consider just a few here, as I've already gone through some in the previous post.

Other than the death of Batman, one of the most talked about scenes in the series was Mr. Talky Tawny's defeat of Kalibak in issue 6. It was, in fact, a pretty awesome scene. After reading the story as a whole, though, I marvel at it even more. Morrison devotes several pages to Tawny, while giving the new Aquaman only three panels (two shots in issue 3 and one in 7). The Tawny story, though brief, is one of the few complete narratives in the series, going from him offering Freddie Freeman some Tiger Tea to Tawny using the strength of the Tiger Tea against Kalibak, and ending with him becoming leader of the tiger men.

I also really like the trial of Hal Jordan scene in issue 5, with this conclusion that gives a sense of urgency to this turning point in the series: the Guardians have realized their own fallibility, which also proves just how screwed up things are, and they unleash the whole power of the Green Lantern Corps despite the uncertainty of their success. This scene also forms a nicely contained narrative, and it makes me wish that DC had hired Carlos Pacheco to do the whole series. Nothing against J. G. Jones, who did a fine job, but if Pacheco could have done the whole series as well as he did this Green Lantern scene, that consistency could have gone a long way to overcome some of the series' flaws.

While I initially thought this shot was awesome, I'm starting to rethink my first impression after reading Marc Singer's commentary on it. I like the gathering Morrison has set up here--angels, Supermen from all the parallel universes, the Green Lantern Corps, the Super Young Team, and the Zoo Crew--but I agree with Singer that nothing much happens as a result of it. This is, almost literally, the A-to-Z of the DC Universe, symbolizing the range of stories that can be drawn from this universe (though to be really inclusive, it should contain Scooter, Prez, Date with Debbi, Sugar and Spike, and Cap's Hobby Hints, among others). And this really should have been a double-page spread, while the shot of all the Supermen in the previous spread (though awesome in itself) could have been reduced.

Next, I'll start covering the tie-ins, beginning with the Morrison-penned issues.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem, Part 2

When I studied James Joyce in graduate school, the professor approached the author's work in a way that stuck with me. He argued that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses teach the reader how to read them. In other words, these novels contain cues within the text itself that help the reader follow these unconventional narrators, and once the reader recognizes these cues, the reading process becomes much less difficult.

While I wouldn't necessarily say that Final Crisis is the superhero comic equivalent of Ulysses, I do think that the text of Final Crisis does cue the reader with some metacommentary that can make this unconventional narrative less challenging.

This metacommentary takes a couple of forms. The first type is fairly straightforward and takes its inspiration from film: the POV shot. This serves the purpose of making the reader a part of the story, like this one from the end of issue 1:

So, at the end of the first issue, we are symbolically left in the story world until the next issue starts with the image that opens this post--yet another direct address to the reader.

We get a similar shot in issue 5, this time from the POV of Darkseid's henchman Symian:The image is complicated by the fact that the hands in the panel are holding what amounts to a comic page, just as our real hands are (unless you read your comics by laying them down flat on a table and use tweezers or a high powered fan to turn the pages in order to avoid having human hands touch them).

The second type is a bit more complicated. Characters in the story occasionally use dialogue that can have a secondary level of meaning beyond its diegetic significance or importance to the story, where it directly addresses the reader with directions or other metatextual information. Often, such scenes occur in panels where a character is looking directly into the "camera" and addressing an ambiguous "you." (This technique features more prominently in Superman Beyond, where the 3D effects work to involve the reader in the story with even more depth. I'll cover this in a later post.)
Metron's lines, "Have no fear. Here is knowledge," lets the reader know that he or she has (or will have) the knowledge necessary to get through this story. That knowledge may come from an understanding of DC Universe continuity, but it's not necessarily so. The series foregrounds storytelling and imagination frequently, especially in the final issue, so our cultural knowledge of stories in general should get us through. Other cues, like Frankenstein quoting Paradise Lost in issue 5, let us know that we have other sources to draw from as well.

These two panels resonate throughout the series, but their importance can best be summed up as such: "What you are about to experience will be a challenge. At times it will be confusing, but you have what you need to get through this." It's knowledge--or, better yet, applying knowledge through imagination--that not only gets the reader through the story, but also allows the superheroes to triumph in the end.

Many of the other direct addresses to the reader come from Darkseid's minions, and their dialogue serves the opposite purpose of Metron's lines. In issue 2, as the possessed Alpha Lantern Kraken takes Batman prisoner, she looks to the "camera" and says, "The life you know is over. Mine now." Such images recur throughout the next two issues as Darkseid's power grows and his possession of Dan Turpin becomes more entrenched, until we get to this image at the end of issue 4:He looks at us and gives us the thumb's down. We are screwed. But we're now also subject to the chaos and destruction that Darkseid creates.

With the reader made a part of the story, the disruption that the world faces with the release of the Anti-Life Equation at the end of issue 3 manifests itself as a disruption of the story's structure and linearity as well. Note at the end of issue 3 how we go from Oracle deleting the internet to the Flashes moving forward in time, past the point where Darkseid has won (note, too, that Barry Allen has already given us a warning of what's to come when he tells "everybody" to "RUN!" at the end of issue 2). We are immersed in the chaos, and we are frequently told that the story is spinning out of control.

Many reviews of the series, even negative ones, point to the fact that the first 3 issues were the best, because that was where the story made sense. And it's at this point that readers split: either you accept these cues, go along with the chaos and destruction, and finally participate in the resolution, or you reject the storytelling shift and refuse to go along (and accept Anti-Life--Just Kidding!).

Reading the series through the lens of this particular interpretation helped me to arrange a coherent story from what seems on the surface to be a disconnected series of events. In fact, that disconnectedness is essential to my understanding and enjoyment of the series. I freely admit, my interpretation came from some good will toward Grant Morrison as a writer based on years of reading and enjoying his comics.

But if this interpretation holds up, then it turns out to be a huge risk. It's not what a lot of readers want from a superhero comic, but because it is a huge, company-wide crossover with promised significance, a lot of readers felt compelled to follow it despite the fact that they would otherwise reject such unconventional storytelling. It would be like if MGM and the Broccolis handed over the next James Bond movie to Guy Maddin--it would definitely change the way we think about James Bond movies, but most moviegoers aren't there for that.

And while this interpretation might help justify some of the apparent "flaws" in the storytelling, it can't make up for some of the practical problems the series faced, like production delays and fill-in artists.

Next: some favorite moments that were just pure, good comics.

Final Crisis Post Mortem Interlude: The Song at the End of the World

In Final Crisis 7, Superman finally kills Darkseid by singing a song into the newly constructed Miracle Machine. Morrison doesn't let the reader know exactly what song Superman sings, but instead leaves it up to the reader to fill in this particular gap.

Here's how I like to think it went down:

What song do you think killed Darkseid?


Chris Sims presents a good argument that only the unholy sound of Katy Perry could destroy the ultimate evil. If only she would then be encased in inertron to protect the rest of us.

Dorian imagines that Superman would destroy Darkseid with a song about his own existential angst.

Mike Sterling believes that Darkseid could be brought down by the same thing that caused my parents to bang on my bedroom door and scream, "KEEP THAT NOISE DOWN!"

Benjamin Birdie says what everyone already knows: Superman is a big Bikini Kill! fan.

In Kevin Church's world, Superman is singing the Ladyhawke cover.

Dave Campbell helps explain why Darkseid destroyed Indiana first.

Bully also presents a strong case that Michael Parè has something to answer for.

Special thanks to Kevin Church for putting the image and text together and saving me from throwing in a sloppily pasted word balloon and text in ComicSans.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Final Crisis Post Mortem, Part 1

Now that the main Final Crisis series is over, and all the tie-ins but Legion of Three Worlds completed, I thought I'd throw in my take on the event as a whole.

While I enjoyed the main series quite a bit, the tie-ins were a mixed bag, so I'm going to devote the next few posts to assessing those in relation to Final Crisis itself. I would have to say, though, in general, that DC diluted the brand too much by attaching the Final Crisis label to unrelated or inferior product. That's not to say all the tie-ins were bad, but that the better ones were only tangentially related to the main story, while others were disappointing (the exceptions being the Morrison-penned tie-ins).

I've especially been enjoying much of the online conversation that has emerged on Final Crisis. Some criticism, like Benjamin Birdie's reviews at Comic Book Resources and Douglas Wolk's own assessment and his useful annotations on all Final Crisis-related comics, has sent me back to the series with new eyes, illuminating some aspect that I hadn't seen in my original reading.

Like Wolk, I'm also fascinated with the negative reaction to the series, notably the anger that comes out from some bloggers, as well as from commentors on blogs that review the series favorably (all it took was for Chris Sims to say "I loved it" for the hate to start on The ISB).

The angry, negative reaction seems to come from two directions (I'm excluding from these responses negative reviews like Jog's of issue 7, which, while ultimately negative, does present a balanced assessment of the effect of the series' ending on his opinion of earlier issues [though I would say that 29 “deeplys” are a bit excessive in explaining its flawed condition]. I also exclude criticism of the book's uneven schedule and the lack of a consistent artist on the entire series--these are legitimate criticisms, though the former should have no effect on an assessment of the series as a whole.). One, readers found the series dense and confusing. I have to say that, while I don't agree with this assessment, I do have sympathy for it. Part of that sympathy comes from the fact that my area of specialization is British Modernism, and I've watched my own students struggle with the unconventional narrative experiments in Joyce, Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, and others. Morrison has done similar narrative experimentation with Final Crisis, playing, at times, with a nonlinear structure without cueing the reader to the time shifts and intentionally leaving gaps in the narrative that the reader must actively fill in.

But often when I teach Modernist texts, students react with a sense of antagonism, as if the writer is trying to trick the reader and hide meaning in a text that should otherwise be straightforward and transparent. This is similar to the negative response that Final Crisis received, exacerbated by the fact that superhero comics tend to follow pretty standard narrative conventions and present fairly passive reading experiences (though continuity in superhero comics tends to require some level of active reading). Such a sense of antagonism led Final Crisis haters to claim that Morrison was using the series to express his own hatred of superhero comics--an evaluation that proved to be wrong in the end.

However, as a student, what attracted me to Modernism as an area of study was the immense amount of freedom its texts give the reader as a participant in the creation of meaning, and it is this same effect that attracts me to what Morrison is doing in Final Crisis. Heck, he basically tells the reader that he or she has a job to do in the story on the first pages ("Man...Have no fear. Here is knowledge.") and in later appearances of Nix Uotan and Metron. That active role the reader must play in this series is exciting: we become creative forces in the DC Universe through our knowledge of continuity and our interpretations of the text.

The second kind of harsh negative reaction comes from those who seem to have a preset narrative for Final Crisis in mind and react angrily when it doesn't meet their expectations. Or, worse, they believe that they've divined Morrison's and DC editorial's intentions behind the series and are critical when the series hasn't met those goals. They were fed by rumors that editorial exerted a heavy hand on Morrison, forcing rewrites that added to delays in publication and to the readers' confusion.

Such assessments often went so far as to declare the series an artistic and commercial failure even before its completion. Many critics, for example, commented on DC's failure to adequately publicize the death of Batman in issue 6, not taking into consideration the obvious possibility (especially obvious to those familiar with the standard conventions and tropes of comics narratives and cliffhangers) that such publicity wouldn't be necessary if Batman were to be shown alive in the very next issue (in fact, imagine the online fan backlash if DC engaged in a media blitz announcing the death of Batman in issue 6, and, just a few weeks later, the Dark Knight turned up alive in the very next issue). Most notably, former DC employee and current Marvel writer Val D'Orazio referred to the series as a desperate and cynical attempt to establish Marvel-style darkness and seriousness to the DC Universe in an effort to compete with Marvel in sales. She even went so far as to refer to the death of Batman as classless, “sensationalist crap” and "one of the most ugly fucking things [she's] ever seen in [her] life." In other words, she appears to have wanted Final Crisis to be a certain thing—a “Marvelization” of the DC Universe—and she deems the series a failure when it doesn’t meet that particular desire. She also cites, as evidence of the series’ failure, the fact that it was outsold by Marvel’s massive crossover, Secret Invasion. However, as the author of an upcoming miniseries starring niche characters Cloak and Dagger should know, sales are never a determiner of quality.

Such reactions, however, fail to take the long view or to consider the fact that the series wasn't over yet. As both Benjamin Birdie and Rachelle Goguen, among others, have pointed out, the final message of the series is optimistic, but Morrison had to take the DC Universe, and the readers, through the deepest pit of despair--a threat to which they had lost before they even knew a threat was there--in order to make that optimism even more triumphant.

Serial narratives like superhero comics present an obstacle to criticism, as reviewers often find themselves in the position of evaluating only part of a story when they choose to focus on individual issues. Such critics may have to give the creators some benefit of the doubt regarding the overall plan for the series, or they have to hold out hope that their predictions and negative assessment bear out for the remainder of the series. And with Final Crisis, apparent flaws in the narrative turn out to be part of the overall design that is only apparent with the final issue, especially the disjointed nature of the narrative, which, in the end, is acknowledged by characters in the narrative (in issue 6, Nix Uotan announces to Metron that he "can't coordinate" all the events happening simultaneously, as if the narrative has taken on a life and momentum of its own).

Jog makes a fair point in his review: "Final Crisis, in contrast, has functioned primarily as oscillating series of thematic prompts that sort of look like a story when you stand back and watch them all swinging in a web of trails, but don't particularly connect as one when examined closer." I think it's easy to see Final Crisis as a disconnected series of events that don't really cohere. (Even the more negative critics agree that there are some awesome individual moments in the series.) However, this view is only true if you expect the passive reading experience of a narrative that lays out the connections for you. This is not necessarily a bad expectation--most Western forms of entertainment train us for a passive viewing or reading experience. But another valid view allows for the reader to make the connections him- or herself--to fill in the gaps with the story that Morrison trusts us to make--and to participate in its creation.

Readers of superhero comics have always benefited from a strong participatory role. Part of the appeal of DC and Marvel comics for many readers is the opportunity to engage in the history and continuity of these shared universes. When I started reading comics in the early 70s (about the time I started reading, period), one of my favorite series was Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. My first exposure to the series had me hooked, and I wanted to learn more about these characters' histories: how they joined the team, who died, who got married, etc. Over the years, I would feel smart when I got a reference to an earlier story or recognized an obscure character.

With Final Crisis, Morrison has kicked that participatory tradition up to another level, proving, like Mister Miracle's letter from the New God's alphabet, that comics can be a medium "free from restrictions," much in the way artists from other media did throughout the 20th century. It’s also the ne plus ultra of Scott McCloud’s concept of “closure” that he describes in Understand Comics, where the gap in the gutter between comic panels is filled in by the reader, who is trained by the narrative form to make certain decisions regarding that transition from panel to panel. Closure, for McCloud, is what separates comics from other artforms, and Morrison is combining that concept with the reader’s knowledge of DC Universe continuity to create a new kind of closure.

Perhaps some debate could be had as to the wisdom of using a company-wide event as a vehicle for narrative experimentation. But I would reserve that debate for those who have better knowledge of the business side of the industry. I, for one, was glad DC put out a series that challenged me and inspired an intellectual conversation about it.

In the next post, I'll discuss some of my favorite moments in the series, and then in later posts, I'll move on to the individual tie-ins.