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.


Anonymous said...

Very cool, Dr. K.

Years ago, Scott (I think you've met Scott) and I were talking about how hard it would be for any comics story to beat the scope of Crisis on Infinite Earths -- where the very whole of existence is in jeapordy all at the same time, and ends with "real" change in the DCU.

We figured the only way to outdo it would be to create a story that made the reader actually feel like their life was in danger, as well as the characters.

So far, your breakdowns make a pretty convincing argument, I think, that Final Crisis, narratively, was almost that comic.

CandidGamera : said...

I accept your interpretation of what Grant was trying to do, but I still don't find it especially accessible, and felt that the disjointed feel of the latter half of the series subtracted from the overall entertainment value. Skipping from story beat to story beat and simultaneously moving back and forth in time was just too much.

My favorite incarnation of Grant Morrison's work is when he has a strong editor smacking his hand when he tries to get too clever by half. His JLA run, for instance.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I enjoy your posts, Dr. K. One word I saw used quite a bit (mostly involving JG Jones' artwork) was 'dread.' This was NOT a fun comic to read, but I'm on the side of those who loved it. I agree with you that the story did get confusing (you get whole pages with GL dilating to two or three panels with the entire GL Corps, as an example). At the same time, with the price of comics being what they are, I'd rather have a book I need to read twice and pore over the artwork then flip through it at the bus stop and wait for the trade. Your last two posts are good examples that this book CAN be understood.

salkjdf said...

Great analysis, very cogent. We're so used to reading comics in more-or-less the same way. But with Final Crisis, we're faced instead with a quick, steep learning curve as we figure out how to read it. I understand why some people couldn't (or wouldn't) keep up. But then others refused to even try, as you described (superbly) in your first post.

Regardless, it's nice to see someone draw connections to works like Ulysses. When FC began, I was halfway thru Manhattan Transfer; these days I'm re-reading Infinite Jest. I'm struck by the similarity between the structures of these three works. What Morrison called "channel-flipping" is really a form of modernist collage/montage.

I also hear an echo of the reception that has greeted works of radical modernism. There's baffled outrage from some readers who claim it's incoherent & inherently flawed; other readers feel a rapturous sense of discovery & a sense of possibility that's akin to emancipation. I suspect that Morrison is aiming for the latter, esp. given the metatextual themes about creativity.

Me, I'm thrilled that someone's attempting to write modernist superhero comics. If FC isn't quite as successful as Seven Soldiers (& most critics seem to agree it isn't), it's still refreshing to read a superhero comic that challenges you & encourages you to use your intellect as well as your eyes.

Caleb said...

Guy Maddin's James Bond would be fantastic.

Unknown said...

Just one nitpic, are you sure that the monkey handed man is Simyan or another of Darkseid's ape men? Because honestly, I don't think anyone has figured out who that is supposed to be

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I'm right there with you, except for one of your panel selections.

"I'm in a confusing story!" bit is a pet peeve of mine. If a character in a bad movie notes that it's like he's in a bad movie, that does not make the movie any less bad.

From a confused reader's perspective, a character saying that things are confusing isn't a useful cue. The reader knows that the work is confusing, and the author having a character admit as much could be (not necessarily is) a cop-out. Noting the confusion, rather than resolving, explaining, or doing anything with said confusion, does little for a reader beyond indicating that the author is not necessarily incompetent and is messing with you.

It's a personal peeve. Nothing serious.

Menshevik said...

Since the discussion has moved on to part 2, I take the liberty of responding here to your reply to my part 1-related comments:

Re. the Final Crisis and Secret Invasion comparisons, I’m not sure if in this particular case you can take the art for art's sake approach and glibly declare commercial success or the lack of it irrelevant. We are dealing with two event series aimed primarily at the semi-captive audience of superhero fandom and there I think sales figures at least provide some measure of indication of how much the audience is engaged or entertained by reading the series. IMO they does at least provide some measure of gauging merit, even though one should not make a fetish of them and certainly one should also consider long-term effects if we are dealing with serial entertainment. (For instance, when Grant Morrison wrote the X-Men, sales increased, but some interpret the long-term effects as negative because the new readers Morrison brought with him left when he stopped writing and many of the oldtime fans driven away during his run were reluctant to return.)

Not that disregarding sales really helps when you set up criteria and standards that in all probability are not shared by the detractors of FC. Such as the apparent supposition that a story told in a non-linear way is inherently superior to one told in linear narration. Or the one that if a reader dislikes FC as an incoherent mess that shows a fault on the part of the reader who than can be filed among uncultured peasants who read superhero comics only for senseless violence. You praised leaving gaps in the narrative as providing a kind of freedom to the reader, others might see it as turning the reader into the author’s serf. The reader has to work for the writer by filling in the gaps left by design, laziness or incompetence, he has to pay dues (the price of purchase) for this and if things don’t work out satisfactorily, then you declare it all the reader’s failure, not the writer’s.

Actually, I remain unconvinced that Morrison's non-linear storytelling is really crucial for the vocal dislike. It does seem to me that a lot of the praise heaped on Morrison for his work in general is on the lines of how clever his plots and storytelling is, while most of the complaints seem to concern his treatment of the characters he uses for them. So I think it is possible that it is more of matter of Morrison failing to win his readers' hearts than their minds. And when fans think that a writer is doing injustice to their favourite characters they also become a lot more critical about other aspects and will become less forgiving about e.g. plot holes and continuity violations (such as I would guess the unanswered question of who killed the driver in "The Big Sleep" would only be bothersome and "important" for readers/watchers who were not gripped by the novel/film on other levels).

Regarding your accusation of Val D'Orazio and others "jumping the gun": In this particular case, D'Orazio took into account more than 80 per cent of "Final Crisis" (the mini-series) and more than 90 per cent including tie-ins. (People who voice the opinion that Morrison hates superheroes in general presumably also take into account at least some of his other output, e.g. his X-Men run, so for that particular statement the ending of Final Crisis makes a difference of less than 5 per cent of the material under consideration; if the opinion is completely false, one really should be able to demonstrate this using examples from the 95+ per cent of material). “Jumping the gun” happens at the start of a race, not on the last ten or twenty yards of the final spurt. Maybe some of the vocal critics of FC were convinced that their previous assessments were incorrect, but I have my doubts. The happy ending of e.g. the Threepenny Opera does not change the general tone of work as a whole, and from what I’ve read about FC #7 it not only has a deus-ex-machina ending (this description is from a review praising it), but one that sounds somewhat ridiculous even for a superhero comic. I sometimes wonder how long the people who castigate fans for voicing their opinion “prematurely” expect them to wait or give a writer the benefit of the doubt. (In the case of “Brand New Day” I think it took over a year and 36 issues for that particular tactic to silence dissenters to be used appreciably less). Are readers supposed to wait until Morrison dies or stops writing superheroes until they are permitted to voice an opinion on his superhero writing?
In itself, this one little issue cannot reverse the trend, that has to be done in the publications of the future. And that leaves us with the question: How much freedom did Grant Morrison have to write the ending of “Final Crisis”, how much was preconditioned on what he agreed on with DC in advance and by DC’s preparations for their post-FC stories, how much of the change to a more hopeful tone was Morrison’s idea and does not stem from other people’s plans for the stories to follow? (Compare e.g. with the ending of One More Day, written and rewritten by J. M. Straczynski to fit in with the new status quo and more “positive” tone of Brand New Day.)

Anonymous said...

Menshevik - you should perhaps read a comic before you launch into a five paragraph denunciation of it? Of course, if you're not interested in it then that's fine. Life's too short to read things you have no interest in! Though apparently life's not too short to write lengthy attacks on things you have no interest in...

Dr. K said...

Menshevik--I don't think we're that far apart on most of your points. As I acknowledged at the end of my most recent post, I worked out this interpretation because I wanted to find a way to make the story work. I completely understand that many readers would not want to do that. I didn't make any judgment based on that; in fact, I admitted that superhero comics in general have trained readers to expect a traditional linear narrative.

And on sales being a measure of quality--I don't think that the sales on Secret Invasion could be used to measure reader engagement. Many factors go into the sales success or failure of a comic: publicity, marketing, collectibility, variant covers, perceived importance, etc. We can't know how many copies of Secret Invasion sold to those readers who were simply engaged with the story any more than we can know how many copies of Final Crisis sold to those who bought two copies in order to get both covers.

Anonymous said...

Harvey, reread my last couple of comments. No-one's saying that referencing faults makes up for said faults - it's a little bit more complicated than that

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis, I know that I felt despair as I read the issues up to Darkseid's Thumb down. A real sense of hopelessness and despair.

Anonymous said...

"Just one nitpic, are you sure that the monkey handed man is Simyan or another of Darkseid's ape men? Because honestly, I don't think anyone has figured out who that is supposed to be"

I'm pretty certain - though it's understandable given the hairy-handedness and 'hpph'ing that one might think it was Simyan (though the character is otherwise wordless, if so) - that it is in fact supposed to be Himon

It echoes certain scenes from that comic - the original Mister Miracle #9, iirc - and he often works in concert with Metron (originally typo'd "Matron" there).

Anonymous said...

Hrrf. Pic link?