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.