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.