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.


Luis K. said...

Excellent analysis, Dr. K. :) I look forward to the next installments.

David Campbell said...

Nice work, Doc. Can't wait to read the next post.

Shon Richards said...

Your analysis of fanboy rage is dead on. Final Crisis itself wasn't that hard to understand but man, trying to understand why people hated it so passionately was beyond my grasp.

Anonymous said...

I understand the complaints about it being incoherent and all, but I just kept on reading. And reading. And reading. And every reading brings up another tidbit I haven't noticed before.. And I'll read it more.

Looking forward to the next installmets.

SallyP said...

An excellent review. I too am at a loss to explain all the hatred. If all you wanted as a reader was a mindless fight fest, there is always plenty of that to be had, but Final Crisis was something that engaged your brain, and I loved it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why you single out Valerie for a review of credentials, work history and potential confict-of-interests when none of the other blogger/reviewers are so detailed, other than a vague impression of an ad hominem attack to detract from parts of her review that you disagreed with. Was there something more to it?

Kevin Church said...

I don't know why you single out Valerie for a review of credentials, work history and potential confict-of-interests when none of the other blogger/reviewers are so detailed, other than a vague impression of an ad hominem attack to detract from parts of her review that you disagreed with. Was there something more to it?

Valerie herself has never hesitated to bring up her work experiences as a basis for her opinions, so it seems perfectly fair to bring them up when responding to her, particularly when she responded with such a fierce amount of hyperbole.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know why you single out Valerie for a review of credentials, work history and potential confict-of-interests when none of the other blogger/reviewers are so detailed, other than a vague impression of an ad hominem attack to detract from parts of her review that you disagreed with. Was there something more to it?"

Well he did say most notably. Sounds like it was just the most obvious or most publicized example.

Dr. K said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. As I mentioned in the post, this is the first post in a series, and throughout I will be engaging different online critics on their evaluations of Final Crisis. It's ironic, then, that your would make that comment on the section where I talk about the critical mistake of making assumptions about a series before it is finished.

I would also point out that I disagree with Jog, and spend a bit more time parsing out that disagreement than I do on Val.

But, more to the point, I think that Val represents a particularly egregious example of the kind of hate directed at Final Crisis that I wanted to address. Her critique made assumptions about business decisions regarding the series, she perpetuated the false dichotomy of Secret Invasion vs. Final Crisis, and she used sales numbers as evidence in her argument about the series's quality. So it was important for me to mention her past and current job history because that's essential to her ethos in presenting her criticism. It's not an ad hominem attack if she makes herself and her work experience an essential part of her argument.

Finally, the strong language she used was indicative of a lot of the hate directed at Final Crisis. Were there others who used such language and could have served as examples here? Sure, but Val's whole package served as a nice exemplar of the particular type of criticism I wanted to address.

Plus, hers was some of the more widely read and circulated criticism in the comics blogosphere, as was Jog's.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The challenge is to discern when a work is a brilliant piece of work that demands higher levels of reader participation and when a work is simply disjointed. What marks a failed use of this approach? What differentiates a work that's brilliant that a few readers "just don't get" versus a work that's gibberish but a few readers insist has meaning if you try hard enough?

My off-the-cuff, obvious answer would be its ability to still communicate and resonate with the readers. And here Final Crisis gets a middling grade from me. The "hyper-compression" Morrison employed created some cool effects, and it was, for the most part, nifty.

Nevertheless, it lost power as it went on, due to the long series of climaxes and Big! Explosive! Moments!, each one diminished in force by the repetition. Imagine a song of constant soaring solos; it just doesn't quite work.

The earlier issues of FC did build tension somewhat, but the final issues were too "whammy"-filled to feel like story. A quilt of exciting moments is weak beer compared to a good story.

Also, given that the story is meant to be fast-paced, it's a structural weakness that simple story cues require secondary, careful readings.

When Nix Uotan had his throwdown with the Evil Vampire Monitor (a character I'd never seen before, because I read FC alone -- another significant structural flaw), it took me a few careful readings of panels to decipher the action. That's not a failure of readership -- once I saw what was supposed to be happening, it made thematic and story sense -- it's a failure of execution, and a significant one. If FC is meant to be a fast-paced, exciting superhero romp, and it is, the action should be immediately comprehensible. What it means can be complex and require secondary readings, but the actual action on the page should never be confused. While you could lay that failure at the feet of the artists, I would say that Morrison shares the blame. Either he's not constructing his scripts clearly enough for the artists to understand what's important to portray, or he's designing scenes that are beyond the reach of comic artists to portray.

(Please note, the latter is not a sign of sophistication. A good artist knows what his instruments can and can't do, and creates accordingly. One can "stretch the medium" to great effect, true. However, as avant-garde as a violinist can be, he'll never be able to play it loud enough to shatter rocks, and he's a moron if he tries. I'm not saying that's what Morrison did, but defending the work as simply "stretching the medium" is insufficient. Explain why it doesn't go so far as to fail the medium.)

All that said, I enjoyed FC, though not as much as the wicked-cool Seven Soldiers of Victory. But I can understand the problems many readers have, and I share in them.

I look forward to future articles. FC was a hoot, if a powerfully flawed one, and I do enjoy good exegesis.

Dr. K said...


Thanks for that thorough and thoughtful comment, and this is the type of conversation about Final Crisis that I'm enjoying. You've touched on some of the critical points that I've been wrestling with, and I will probably need to consider them in a post rather than in a quick response to your comment. I'm especially sympathetic to your question about determining success or failure of the type of narrative experimentation I describe here. I know I wouldn't hesitate to criticize another work for being disjointed and poorly paced, so what makes FC different?

Also, your point about Morrison's collaboration with his artists is a good one. I've often wondered the same thing about his work with Howard Porter and Tony Daniel. However, determining some miscommunication between writer and artist is difficult without having some inside view of how that communication went down.

I do disagree with you, however, on this point: "If FC is meant to be a fast-paced, exciting superhero romp, and it is, the action should be immediately comprehensible." I think there are too many assumptions going into that statement about intentionality (note the passive construction) and the reader's expectations. It may be more accurate to say that some readers who dislike FC expected "a fast-paced, exciting superhero romp" and were disappointed when they didn't get it.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to have bad modernist writing?

Menshevik said...

Not sure about this "false dichotomy" business; I really do not see why people should not be allowed to compare "Final Crisis" and "Secret Invasion" both on its artistic and its commercial success. After all, DC did not put out "Final Crisis" as a work in and of itself - like e.g. "Watchmen" - but as the big crossover event of 2008/9 which was going to transform their entire fictional universe hopefully raise DC's sales and market share and thus had a direct counterpart in Marvel's "Secret Invasion". Such events are in effect forced on fans because if they want to find out what happens to their favourite characters, say Batman or Superman, they are now obliged to buy the mini-series "Final Crisis" and maybe even some of the tie-ins. The situation is thus comparable to a reading assignment in school or college, and thus as in the example you give of your own students, you may end up putting readers into an antagonistic mood. (Not to mention that especially among the younger segment of readers there are going to be some who find that modernistic writing goes over their heads). Especially if the story is about characters the writer in question did not create him/herself and to which long-time readers feel just as if not more entitled than him/her. Part of the "hate" FC got was not because Morrison killed a hero of his narrative, but because he apparently killed off their Batman (not in an alternate reality or imaginary story), and that probably would have been the same had Morrison chosen to use a more conventional narrative form.

Re. Val D'Orazio: I disagree with a lot of her hyperbolic assessments (there have been worse things than Batman's FC death, e.g. the fate of the Ultimate Wasp), but on the other hand I think your interpretation of her criticism is off in certain respects. For instance, she sees Final Crisis in the context of what DC has been doing over at least the last five years (going back to a time she was able to observe at close hand from the inside in her former job at DC) while you seem to treat all criticism of FC as just criticism of this one series and not as the latest example (culmination?) of a long-term editorial policy involving other crossovers etc. written by very different authors. And I am also not sure if the last-issue turnaround really did confound the criticism of "Final Crisis" and its tone up until then as conclusively as you say it did. The endind still could end up as a fleeting glimmer of (false) hope in a darkened DC universe.

Well, I don't know exactly why some fans are so angry over Final Crisis because I haven't read it (I read neither "Final Crisis" nor "Secret Invasion" (apart from a few SI tie-ins I could not avoid) as I've gone through a crossover overload and now take the position of "wake me up when it's over"). On the other hand, do the people who go on about how impossible to grasp and explain the anger of some fans over Final Crisis is even want to try to understand it? For instance, doesn't SallyP set up an interesting dichotomy of Morrison admirers who engage their brain and Morrison detractors who only want "a mindless fight fest"? I'm not generalizing, but there is an elitist streak to some of Morrison's fandom that tends to look down on other fans as well as other writers.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful review.

Harvey, re the question of separating flawed work from work that demands and expects high levels of reader participation (and has reasonable expectations of what the readers might be expected to achieve), I have to say that I've been asking myself the same thing. It's a tricky one, but I'm tempted to lean towards intentionality as one route out of the mire. The text of Final Crisis appears to deliberately reference its (for lack of a better term) incomprehensibility on a number of occasions, flagging up that this is something that we, the readership, should be engaging with. Texts that are simply plotted badly don't do this - they don't prepare you for a job of work, they just *are*.

The question becomes, then, does Morrison ask too much of us on occasion, and are there simply errors in plotting that slipped through the net - that can never be satisfactorily engaged with in any way that doesn't look like utterly unsubstantiatable fanwank?

In my opinion, yes he does, and yes there are. Doesn't stop me being a big fan of the miniseries, however.

Of course

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Dr. K -- in rereading my comment in the light of day, yeah, your objection is a good one. That troublesome sentence you called out isn't correct. I was conflating a number of things and phrased myself poorly. Whoop.

Dr. K said...

Menshevik--With Final Crisis and Secret Invasion comparisons, I balk at the notion frequently made that the latter was somehow better than the former because it sold more. That is, comparisons between the two often conflate commercial success with artistic success. Certainly there are relevant comparisons to be made about marketing strategies and such.

Regarding your points on Val D'Orazio: my main concern there was that she characterized FC as a dark, depressing, and hopeless series before it had even finished. So, she may have been seeing a trend in that direction from DC over the last 5 years, but FC ends on such a strong note of hope that it defies that trend and, I think, reverses it. Val and others who criticized FC for its darkness jumped the gun.

Zom--your comment helped me out a lot. FC's references to its own incomprehensibility are definitely keys to distinguishing this work from others that are merely poorly constructed. I will definitely be pursuing this more later.

And Anonymous on bad modernist writing: sure there is such a thing. Do you want examples? Later writing by Ford Madox Ford attempts to duplicate the narrative experimentation of The Good Soldier but fails to achieve the same level of quality. And some of Wyndham Lewis's work doesn't hold up very well, either. That's what I have off the top of my head.

Anonymous said...

All I have to add to this is a big thank you to DC for allowing something beyond the usual mega-fight that makes up typical "Event" story lines.
I enjoyed this thoroughly. Going back and rereading the 7 Final Crisis issues from start to finish I picked up on so much more that was going on with the narrative.
It really is a story about storytelling. A story about imaginations transformative power. Imagination and the will. Life versus anti-life. Novelty versus homogeneity. Anti-life is the absence of will. The absence of the ability to imagine possibilities other than the apparent.
All in all this is a work that I can go back to again and again and reap greater rewards each time. That's in part what makes good literature.

Pinkhamster said...

Quote from your blog:

"the false dichotomy of Secret Invasion vs. Final Crisis"

Quote from Grant Morrison on "Secret Invasion:"

"We're going to kick their ass so hard. [Laughs] Marvel had its big year last year with 'Civil War,' which was an amazing event and really changed the Marvel landscape. With 'Secret Invasion,' we've seen the Skrull thing before. We've seen it in the Kree-Skrull War, again in series like the Fantastic Four. They re kind of resting this year. [Laughs] So if you re a Marvel fan, come over here. There s only one book to read this summer. It's simple."

Anonymous said...

Yes, but that doesn't make it *not* a false dichotomy

Other things might, but that's another conversation

Pinkhamster said...

It does, however, make it rather pointless to blame the supposedly philistine Marvel fans for crowing about Marvel's sales victory over Final Crisis when the creator of Final Crisis made public statements of such braggadocio and contentiousness in anticipation of crushing his opponent.

Anonymous said...

Is true, but my point still stands.

I should point at that I consider all the personal insults, one-upmanship, and name calling that have revolved around this comic unbelievably juvenile and tiresome.

Pinkhamster said...

Ah, I see. I didn't realize this comment discussion was about the defense of "your point." I thought it was for responses to Dr. K's essay.

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