Comics Time: Final Crisis

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Final Crisis #1-7

Grant Morrison, writer

J.G. Jones, Carlos Pacheco, Jesus Merino, Marco Rudy, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, art

DC Comics, May 2008-January 2009

30something story pages or so each, I think

$3.99 each

WARNING: SPOILERY SO LOOK OUT

I find the way some people online spend paragraph after paragraph picking Grant Morrison comics apart for hidden meanings and insight into the nature of life and art and thought distasteful, because that’s the behavior of Baptists at Bible college, not grown-up art critics. Even so, I couldn’t help but realize after I finished reading through all seven issues of Morrison’s uniquely Morrisonian DC event comic that it could be roughly summed up in the words of Newman from Seinfeld: “When you control the mail, you control…information.” Right from the opening scene in which the New God Metron pops up on Anthro the First Boy on Earth and brings him both “knowledge” and fire, most of the book’s superheroic and supervillainous action revolves around attempts to transmit or block the transmission of information and/or light–which, as Barry “The Flash” Allen implies, are basically the same thing if you’re running fast enough.

On the side of light, thought, knowledge, the flow of information, you have Metron and his circuit pictogram, the Guardians and Green Lanterns and their will-powered light, the Tattooed Man and his magic ink, Lex Luthor and the Ünternet, the Ray transmitting himself around the world to pass on Metron’s anti-Anti-Life circuit, Nix Uotan’s Multiversal monitoring, the Monitors themselves as “beings of pure thought,” Barry Allen being reconstituted out of pure information to tell the other Flashes how they can stop Darkseid, the Miracle Machine taking relativity a step further by turning thought into matter, the Supermen of the Multiverse as an army of explicitly “solar-powered” heroes. On the side of darkness, mindlessness, ignorance, restriction of information, you’ve got Libra killing the heroes’ premiere telepath and literally extinguishing the Human Flame, the Justifier helmets shutting down thought (and blocking all the characters’ eyes), Darkseid’s fall creating a singularity out of which not even light can escape, the hanging of the Calculator – i.e. the villain whose M.O. is the transmission of information, “Dark Side,” Mandrakk the Dark Monitor who dwells in the darkness “where all stories end,” the Anti-Life transmission rendering all communication devices useless. Like a prism breaking light down, the comic’s storyline gets more manic and disjointed as it goes. Heck, I think you can make the case that the slow breakdown of a coherent art style into a panoply of pencillers before everything is finally refocused into a single (albeit different) art style is an effective reflection of that refraction. Not necessarily a persuasive case, but a case.

The message seems clear: Life and good is light and thought and our ability to communicate them both, death and evil is darkness and hate in thought’s place and being prevented from thinking or feeling or speaking freely. That’s an interesting and not entirely uncontroversial set of equivalencies Morrison is making here. If it’s less subversive than Jack Kirby’s original conception of life and Anti-Life, which as Tom Spurgeon has pointed out was an argument that taking up arms against Anti-Life is itself Anti-Life, it is at least subversive in its own, different way; I know I’m not the only reader of this comic who spits “Anti-Life!” in response to events in the all-too-real world. Anti-Life is in demand.

But you know what? I’m not sure how interesting any of that really is to me, in the end. Much more exciting than any kind of Lost-message-board “here’s what it’s about“-style theorizing was the simple experience of reading and enjoying a crazy-ass superhero story in which I almost never had any clue what was going to happen next! The supervillainy was seedy, joyless, and unnerving–the Fourth World meets the Black Lodge. The pacing was Morrison at his most fearless and formally inventive, at times as dizzying and dazzling as the Hernandez Brothers; I, for one, certainly never expected to read a superhero event comic that reminded me of “Flies on the Ceiling” (both formally and thematically!). The art got a little shaky in the middle, and I think at this point in his career we have to blame Morrison for necessitating a cast-of-thousands art-team approach in so many of his projects, but it’s bookended by career-best stuff from J.G. Jones and Doug Mahnke, images I can and do look at for a long long time. All the heroic protagonists got cool triumphant beats. The Twitterable/Facebookable/Google Chat Statusable quotes were almost unceasing. It was knowingly self-parodic at times and satirical at others and deadly serious at still others. Yes, Batman: Last Rites and Superman Beyond really should have been part of the main story somehow in that they’re the main storylines for the two biggest characters DC has, and it would be nice if they were going to be collected in the main Final Crisis trade between issues 4 & 5 and 5 & 6 respectively, but you know what? Batman killed the embodiment of evil and died, his body was cradled by Superman, and he was reborn as a caveman on the last page. In the words of the Dark Knight himself, “DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?” I loved this flawed, weird, complex, simplistic, fun, wondrous comic to pieces.

26 Responses to Comics Time: Final Crisis

  1. Duncan says:

    Great review, Sean – one caveat, though:

    I find the way some people online spend paragraph after paragraph picking Grant Morrison comics apart for hidden meanings and insight into the nature of life and art and thought distasteful, because that’s the behavior of Baptists at Bible college, not grown-up art critics.

    I’m not sure if I/we qualify as “some people” here, so it’d be nice – informative – to know if that’s the case, or if it’s just David Uzumeri/Douglas Wolk/the Barbelith board who need be aggrieved.Fwiw, I’m not sure if many or any of the above have particularly laid claim to the high calling of ‘art critic’. I do understand your need for a disclaimer, though.

  2. David says:

    Heh — that’s funny, when I read that paragraph I had the same reaction — “is this about me?”

    Crisis of infinite egos?

    Your review looks good, Sean, but I’m only skimming it right now… will be back tomorrow to give it a thorough going over!

    Really excited to read #7 now!

  3. Kiel Phegley says:

    That spot on L&R comparison is kind of freaking me out.

    Good job, Sean.

  4. Ben Morse says:

    I never got around to comment on it, but last week you quoted Chris Sims as saying something along the lines of “Grant Morrison treats us like grown-ups” and then said how that encapsulates a lot of why you like him.

    Ok, I get that, cool, but let me present a corollary (probably the wrong word, fuck it, I’m going to come off as the unitellectual one in this exchange regardless): do the recent comments he has made here, there and everywhere about FC being a “channel-flipping comic” or whatever not kinda imply that he doesn’t think today’s reader is capable of having an attention span to support the slow build? And heck maybe that’s true, but when he called FC a true sequel to the original Crisis over on Newsarama today, all I could think about was how that story, dated though it may be, really took the time to build a strong throughline even it took awhile, trusting the readers to have the patience to see it through.

    Sometimes I don’t feel like Morrison of today has that confidence in the readers to have that patience, or maybe he has no interest in writing to those readers, prefering to tell a “channel-flipping” story instead of giving us an hour-long drama. I’m honestly not the type who thinks Grant Morrison is a callous man who has any widespread malice towards a large portion of his audience that he gears his stories one way or the other to neglect anybody, but it’s something I thought about.

    End of the day, Rickey summed up for me my feelings on FC pretty well recently: “It doesn’t matter if rap is good or bad if you don’t like rap,” so for the most I have (and will continue to) keep my mouth shut, but these are thoughts I had and I felt like writing them. I’m glad most people seemed to dig Final Crisis because I prefer when people enjoy comics to when they shit all over them and make it harder for other people to enjoy them. I hope I didn’t just do that for anybody. If you liked Final Crisis, you shouldn’t let a jackass like me spoil your enjoyment just because I don’t like rap.

    And with that, I should go, because I have a feeling I’m about to become the proverbial Catholic at a pro-choice rally.

  5. D&D: Aw jeez, sorry guys! Honestly, it wasn’t directed at any one writer or site, and I’ve been known to enjoy the hell out of big gigantic Morrison posts from time to time. It’s just that the brand of close reading (not the annotations, that’s a different beast) to which I was referring incorporates a lot of trends of which I am deeply skeptical: poptimism; the notion of “pop comics”; investing superheroes with a lot of metaphorical/mythological/symbolic weight; superhero comics as a primary focus for critical engagement; UK comics-creator culture; jazzy critical prose; fiction as puzzle rather than narrative; Internet-fueled theorizing; focusing on what art means rather than how art works; etc. When people really go yard on a Morrison comic, all of that is brought to the fore for me in a way that makes me skittish. So are there times when a Mindless Ones FC post or a Vibrational Match Filth post turns me off? Yeah. On the other hand, will I be reading y’all’s posts on Final Crisis #7? You bet.

    Kiel: I’m reasonably sure I came up with the L&R thing on my own, but I’m also pretty sure that Jog brought it up first.

  6. Duncan says:

    Ben – I think that’s totally legit; but, look, it was only the final issue that was described as channel-flicking… the series build was very slow, horror-style, up until #4 – I think the intention has been to create an effect of acceleration.

  7. Ben: I see what you’re saying, but I disagree, because if overall fan reaction is any indication, it requires more of an attention span to follow Morrison’s channel-flipping structure than it does to follow a straightforward old-school superhero story, not less. And like I said, it has a lot more in common with the techniques of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, which are all about having enough faith in the reader’s intelligence and sophistication to follow whatever you throw at them, than they do with, say, the no-attention-span editing of MTV or action-movie trailers, which are about keeping people entertained with a series of shiny objects.

  8. Duncan says:

    Okay, cool, Sean – I’m kind of massively, inchoately angry + brittle today for mystery reasons, so you know.

    You did kinda list a whole bunch of things I like & do there, but it’s never seemed terribly apparent – this gulf of orthodoxy between ADDTF and MO/m.e. – before, really. Why should it, I suppose?

  9. It shouldn’t! Orthodoxy is Anti-Life anyway.

  10. Ben Morse says:

    Yeah, I hear what you guys are saying, but ultimately, y’know, rap analogy.

    Still, glad you got what you got out of it. That makes me happier than writing an esay tearing it down further would.

  11. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I think with Kirby, anti-life was basically war, which I still find more compelling than whatever it is Morrison is saying. Morrison’s superhero ideas always feel to me like something you’d see some bald guy lecturing about on PBS on Sunday afternoon. I do like some of what Morrison does with pacing in this series, but I’m a bit suspicious that it has all that much to do with what Los Bros do except in a really facile way.

    In fact, all that comparison makes me think is “Tear It Up, Terry Downe” was way better at three pages than this thing was at 168. Viva Los Bros!

  12. Tom: Well I don’t see how it’s all that different from what Los Bros do, except in a really facile way! I mean, one’s a drama (well, soap opera in Jaime’s case) and one’s an action comic, so they’re using it for different reasons, but, like, duh. Tell me what I’m missing. We can take “shared-universe superhero storytelling is running on fumes” as read, if it helps. ;)

  13. Ben: I’m certainly just as interested to hear your problems with the comic as I am in Tom’s, if you feel like you’d get something out of writing them out.

  14. Ben Morse says:

    Appreciate the opportunity, Sean, but I really do think a lot of it just comes down to a simple “I didn’t enjoy it.” I don’t think there’s much to gain from me rattling off a list of moments I didn’t like, because there’s nothing pat or logical for why I didn’t like them, I just didn’t like them. I’m pretty sure any discussion we’d have would be circular and frustrating, at least on my end. Our opinions on what we enjoy are just different sometimes, and that’s fine–good even!

  15. Rickey Purdin says:

    I’ve been looking forward to reading the online criticism/annotations of this issue as much as I was the issue itself!

    And I don’t so much get tired of the religious fanaticism of the sites like you do, I don’t think. I get lost while reading them when they spin too far into obscure philosophy, sure. But I still like hearing what everybody has to say.

    Also, Dave mentioned to me how he just enjoyed the EXPERIENCE of reading an issue of something once and the idea of that floored me and made me jealous that I don’t do that more often. I could see how that would be a fun ride here, but there was no way I coulda done it if I’d tried. I HAD to try and pry open the secret meanings and ties, cause, shit, I know they’re always there in a Grant book. That’s just a facet of why I love his work. haha

    And lastly, this issue reminded me of what I’ve heard Frank Miller and Alan Moore say about their big works from the ’80s and how there was a misunderstanding of their intentions and they ultimately feel that the creative ball was dropped by most others in the industry after what they did helped birth grim and gritty. FC #7 reminded me of that because, damn, how fun would it be if FC birthed a quality imagination revolution? I mean, the books are apples, oranges and candy canes when compared, but their potential legacies, I think, are triplets. Here’s hoping some kid likes FC as much as I liked The Death of Superman. :)

  16. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Ha! I’ll pass on the invitation; thanks. That’s pretty much all I needed to know.

  17. Tom: “That’s pretty much all I needed to know”–what’s “that”?

    The more I think about it, the more I agree with you about Kirby’s conception of Anti-Life ultimately being more compelling. “Orwellian dystopias are lousy” is not a super-bold statement on Grant Morrison’s part, certainly not on the level of “war is inherently wrong” was coming from a World War II veteran.

  18. Tom Spurgeon says:

    What I mean is that we’re not in nerd court. I remain unimpressed by your comparison, but I don’t feel like writing a three-graph post in response to it, either. Since all I’m offering up a standard is that I’m unimpressed, I don’t think I’m compelled to go any further. In other words, I’m not interested in arguing the point, I’m interested in hearing your argument. And if I’m not going to, well, that’s pretty much the end of it for me.

    I could have back whole months of my life 1998-2001 if I had realized this kind of thing back then.

  19. Ben Morse says:

    You’re my hero, Tom.

  20. Ben Morse says:

    And that was not meant as a slight at you, STC, just a recognition that Tom’s philosophy could save me too a lot of time and stress.

  21. Tom: “I could have back whole months of my life 1998-2001 if I had realized this kind of thing back then.”

    But then we probably would never have embarked on this beautiful friendship! Thank goodness Lost has taught us that the past is immutable.

    In all seriousness, I totally get your drift. I promise you I’m not sitting here saying to myself “Ha, I argued him to a standstill and he walked away–this means all my points are correct and all his are wrong and I WIN!” I’ve had some experience with that kind of interaction lately. It’s not how things work in the real world. You know I’m not trying to be Nerd Court judge, jury, and executioner, right? I sure hope so.

    As for my argument, I don’t know if I really have a fairly elaborate one to make. I think in both cases, what I take away from structuring your panels like they do is that they have a lot of faith in the reader to make those jumps across the gutters, as it were; and that in both cases they correctly feel that they gain something from making the reader do that work. I know I find it viscerally thrilling to watch people paint their stories, if you will, in that pointilist fashion. Seeing people who know just what moment to select and show you, to convey any number of other moments behind and between them–it’s really exciting! Like I said, I think that Los Bros and Morrison are doing that with very different goals in mind. Generally, Gilbert and sometimes Jaime do it to devastate (Poison River, Flies on the Ceiling), Jaime does it to make you just shake your head and chuckle in mixed recognition and awe about how he can nail down someone’s life in a handful of panels (Tear It Up, Terry Downe), and Morrison does it either to creep you out (early FC) or give you big superhero thrills (late FC) or convey a conception of reality as some big dizzying thing we perceive imperfectly (all of FC). It’s the creepy stuff that made me think Flies on the Ceiling most directly.

    Hey, that’s my argument!

  22. Carnival of Crisis

    * Final Crisis #7, by Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke, came out yesterday. I reviewed the entire series here. There’s a burgeoning comment thread attached to that review, mostly focusing on critical approaches to Grant Morrison comics, here. And there’s…

  23. Ben Morse says:

    Ok, STC, you flattered me over e-mail (or at least I think you did), so I’ll go ahead and put what I wrote privately out there for public consumption (and if by some chance Grant Morrison is reading this, please remember that every interaction we have ever had has been great and I really do like a lot of your work and the stuff I don’t care for is probably just beyond my understanding and please don’t put a hex on me)…

    Honestly, I’d kinda reached the point with Final Crisis where I’d reconciled with the fact that it just wasn’t for me but there was really nothing to be gained from me railing against what I didn’t like about it, since so much just comes down to my personal tastes as opposed to hard and fast “he did this wrong” stuff, but that interview on Newsarama, with Grant saying this was the “true sequel to the original Crisis” or whatever, honestly pained me. Ok, “pained” is way too strong a word, but I groaned.

    Monitors or not, this story was so far afield from the original Crisis in terms of aesthetic, storytelling operation and so on and so on that hearing him make that comparison just made my brain hurt. I LOVED the original Crisis, and ravages of time be damned, I still love the heck out of it. For whatever reason, I did not particularly enjoy Final Crisis. I was cool with that because I was just like, “Well whatever, I’m not the target audience here and that’s fine, let Sean and Kiel enjoy,” but if it was really supposed to be Morrison’s follow up to Crisis mark one, what does that mean then? Am I the target audience and the project failed? Am I too dumb/jaded/different than I used to be to enjoy the sequel to perhaps my all-time favorite story?

    It’s giving me a headache. I wish he had never said that.

  24. Kiel Phegley says:

    Coming up reading superhero comics created in the wake of Watchmen where the primary unit of storytelling was the page as opposed to the panel, the first time I read Wigwam Bam, I was floored by the pacing alone almost completely independent of the effect that pacing had on the story. Ever since then, I’ve been pretty keyed in to how often mainstream creators waste time and effort padding out pages. I don’t know how much I can synch up with Sean’s assertion that Morrison’s methods align with Los Bros. in a thematic sense (I’ll admit I need to do a lot of L&R gap fill-ins before I can try and proclaim critical opinions of their work even in blog comment threads), but I do think that in general they’re sharing similar elements of the comics toolbox.

    Maybe this is all conjecture on my part, but I think a lot of time people toss flak at superhero creators as being unable to use these kinds of pacing techniques and storytelling methods because the so-called assembly line method of comics making doesn’t allow for a more fluid, rhythmic flow rather than a dry formal one. I even think that a lot of superhero creators themselves unwittingly agree with this. It’s nice to see a comic that can prove that there are more ways of crafting big sci fi action tales than cribbing ideas established over 20 years ago.

  25. Marc says:

    “I find the way some people online spend paragraph after paragraph picking Grant Morrison comics apart for hidden meanings and insight into the nature of life and art and thought distasteful, because that’s the behavior of Baptists at Bible college, not grown-up art critics.”

    Though it is the behavior of grown-up literary critics.

    If your point is the quasi-devotional nature of a lot of Morrison criticism, I get that vibe myself. But if it’s aimed at the act of looking for meaning in comics and writing about it… well, I don’t understand why you would disparage that, especially in a post that practices it so well.

  26. Zom says:

    I hope, when looking at our annocommentations, that our readership is smart enough to see through some of the bluster (“let me tell you something about superhero comics…” for example) and recognise that the Mindless project is as much about our reading experiences as any kind of traditional criticism – perhaps more so. I try to flag this up whenever I can within the body text of posts, just to keep people on the straight and narrow.

    As for page by page analysis, I simply see this method as a convenient way in to talking about the things that I want to talk about, but would have trouble building into a regular review. In our first FC 7 post I discuss a range of stuff that wouldn’t hang well together if I’d tried to merge it into a single, cohesive body of writing, and most of it’s only tangentially related to what’s actually going on on the page.

    Interestingly, this topic – how to say the things I want to say without the limiting framework of a traditional review – has been bugging me for a while now. I’ve been gipping to write all sorts of disparate things about Born Again for a good long time, but simply haven’t known how to go about it in any way that made sense. Think I’ve cracked it now, however.

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