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Final Crisis (Review/Retrospective)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. Later on today, we’ll be reviewing Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, so I thought I might take a look at a comic book tale which was heavy on Superman, Darkseid and Batman…

This epic elegy for a doomed civilisation, declining from splendor to squalor. This Final Crisis. This last ditch attempt to save creation itself from a loathing and greed beyond measure.

– Grant Morrison outlines the whole point of the book, in case you weren’t paying attention… in a narration which deserves to be read in the most pompously ridiculous style possible

Look, I could hitch a ride back with you. I have a real talent for gritty drama no one’s ever thought to exploit.

– Merryman makes a pitch for “relevance” in the hopes of escaping comic book “limbo”

Destruction or creation. Everything or nothing. A universe full or a universe empty. Life or anti-life. Grant Morrison certainly lives up to his reputation as a frustrating and challenging author – is Final Crisis the statement of a genre looking to make peace with itself, or nonsensical Silver Age surrealism repackaged for a modern world? Is it pretentious or profound? Insightful or devoid of interest? Can’t it be both, or are these mutually exclusive states?

We all knew Obama was Superman…

I’m sorry if I seem a little abstract.

– Barry Allen speaks for the event

Make no mistake, Final Crisis is pretentious. It is more complex than it needs to be and doesn’t necessarily offer the most coherent or well-structured narrative to compliment its grand ideas. In fact, it’s a mess. Although you might argue that the structure of the comic is intended to reflect the idea of reality shatter and time and space compounding (an exaggerated effect of what happens with regular comic books), that doesn’t excuse the shody pacing and poor structure which weigh down the later chapters.

That said, Morrison’s story is – as ever – packed with enough wonderful high concepts and clever ideas that the reader might well be convinced and intrigued by it despite the fact it doesn’t necessarily work perfectly as a story in its own right. I sound like I’m being harsh – and I probably am – I genuinely enjoyed it, even as I acknowledged the many flaws with the event. Being entirely honest, a lot of this is down to how much the book offers a reader – regardless of how you might feel about it, it certainly gives you a lot of food for thought, which is nice in this day and age. Indeed, I’m not the only one to feel that way:

It took me about a week to read Final Crisis. Lately I’ve been annoyed at how quickly I can read some trade paperbacks, often an evening, which I chalk up not to the speed of my reading but the thinness of the trades. I blanched at the cost of this hardcover, higher than most, but I feel I received my money’s worth in time spent reading.

There’s quite a bit to digest in this collection, which is great in this era of disposable entertainment.

For a guy who refuses to use guns, Batman’s not a half-bad shot…

The image of fire is deeply engrained in Morrison’s tale – it’s a fitting metaphor for story (“fire of the gods”), which is his real subject matter here. Fire lights away the darkness, illuminates our world and grants us understanding – it was the first gift from the gods, millenia before the birth of Christ. It is also “our first big mistake”. It burns, it consumes, it destroys. Unfocused and uncontrolled, it is nothing but raw destructive power. And yet it entrances us.

Stories are similar. The capacity of ideas to shape and distort or light up the world around us is nothing short of amazing – fiction arguably offers us truths we would never dare to articulate. Even the impartial and divine Monitors are “contaminated” by their interaction with an on-going narrative (in this case human existence) until “narrative formed around them”. “We all now have names and stories,” one confesses. Like any good story, “there are heroes and villains… secrets and lovers.” For there is no more resilent organism than an idea, particularly one expressed through story. I was certainly not surprised to hear Morrison describe Limbo as a place where “there are no such things are stories”. It’s hell, but more boring. Being deprived of stories would certainly stunt humanity. To rob us of imagination is perhaps worse than any bland threat to commit genocide or to destroy the planet. It’s telling that Morrison sets most of his story in “the bleed”, drawn from a printing term which refers to the “printing that goes beyond the edge of the sheet after trimming” – in essence, the bit of the comic that spreads from the edge of the page into our imagination.

A plot so complex you wouldn’t give it a green comic book reader…

In the beginning (or “previously”, embracing the book’s unashamed pulpiness), Morrison preaches, there wasn’t even darkness. Just white space. And then there was “a flaw”. And around that flaw was built “a concept”. And from that concept came “terrifying, unforeseen complexities and contradictions”. And yet, stories and communication are something owed as much respect and awe as fire – although there’s an undeniable power to be found, too often stories and communication tools can be abused and become tools of destruction, home to empty cynicism eating away at our very soul (much as Darkseid allows the anti-life equation to “go viral”, turning our own media against us).

Still, to Morrison, the DC universe is something sacred – it’s fun to hear Superman talk about an “abstract, infinite intelligence” with “our entire multiverse growing inside it”. The human imagination is a truly magical place, infinite in its majestry. At the very least, Morrison took the time to pay you a compliment. “There’s actually only one story,” another character suggests – which is certainly true of the comic book multiverse in all its glory (which, incidentally, would also make it “the last story” as Lois remarks, albeit in a slightly less depressing manner), with every possible story happening as part of one collective whole.

I sea where this is going…

It’s rare for a story to take the time to focus on the sheer beauty of that idea – we’re too busy ranting or raving or nitpicking or deconstructing, but it’s great to hear that articulated. Morrison doesn’t offer us a cynical argument about how ridiculous this all is, or how confusing continuity is, but a suggestion of the wonderful meta-fictional construct that has been unconsciously cobbled together over seventy-odd years. It’s fitting that Final Crisis returns Jay Garrick to the spot where he and Barry first teamed up in Flash of Two Worlds all those years ago – the site of DC’s first in-continuity crossover and the location of the birth of the multiverse – for the rebirth of the multiverse, all these worlds that “vibrate together” “like an orchestra”.

Final Crisis is – as far as I can tell, at any rate – an argument against those “celestial parasites” who sought to drain the multiverse dry. It’s hard to read the book and not get a sense that DC’s policy of destroying the multiverse during Crisis on Infinite Earths was one Morrison heavily disagreed with (indeed, you could read Animal Man to figure that out). The idea of boundless human potential, despite all the convoluted continuity and tripwire that comes with it, is “a better story” than the mundane policy of only one “real” Earth or the darkness and cynicism that we’ve been sold time after time in recent years – and Morrison seems to end his event with a promise. “No further exploitation,” is the mandate from the monitors, “this multiverse of life deserves freedom from our interference.” Take that, DC editorial!

(By the by, it’s not too hard to discern a faint hint of anger on Morrison’s part, directed towards DC editorial. Was I the only one to detect some mild frustration with the cobbled-together run up to Final Crisis involving the godawful Countdown to Final Crisis and various other miscommunications between authors and editorial figures when Luthor lamented of Superman’s deus ex machina, “too bad we’re only permitted to work on sections”?)

You can’t outrun your destiny…

Of course, it’s all on you. As the Reverand Good declares while seeking to corrupt Dan Turpin – a stand-in for Jack Kirby if ever there was one – “The superhumans huddle in their holes, afraid to face us. Yet this ‘ordinary’ maggot of a man battles on alone against anti-life infection.” It’s up to use regular humans to save the world, after all. It’s our imaginations that give the images power, right? We’re the cause of, and solution to, every Crisis event – to quote Darkseid, it’s all “in all of us”. It isn’t bound by the laws of reality, anything is possible – our brain can solve a Rubiks Cube in 18 moves, but our imagination can do it quicker.

If your superheroes can’t save you, maybe it’s time to think of something that can. If it don’t exist, then think it up. Then make it real.

– Metron saves the world

Final Crisis is – as is most of the major companies’ output these days – a strong condemnation of the empty violence of old. It dares to ask us what would happen if those nihilist fantasies were allowed to play out to their logical conclusion – what would happen on “the day evil won”? Of course, tools like death and violence and darkness and despair have their uses, but they have been overused. As Wonder Woman observes, “What used to be be meaningful and significant… is losing importance.” This dark cynical emptiness – represented by the world-consuming vampire Mandrakk and parodied by the “goth” look of a Mary Marvel who “just couldn’t stand being wholesome and plain and boring one second longer” – isn’t even necessarily “evil” per se, it’s darkness for darkness’ sake.

Armed and dangerous…

Even the bad guys can take issue with that (be it Johns’ Rogues in Rogues Revenge of the unlikely Luthor-Superman team-up – “an historic first team up of the forces of ‘good’ and the forces of ‘bad'”). In fact, it’s telling to note the first question that Barry Allen – the martyr to the “simpler times” of the Silver Age – asks on his return to the world of the living: “What have they done to the world?” What have we done to the world?

And yet, we can go home again. Barry can – as the personification of the good old days – return and make us heroes again. As he demonstrates with Iris, who has been waiting so long (“sorry I was late,” he touchingly apologises, in an ironic echo of the Silver Age tradition that – despite superspeed – he was never on time), love can conquer even the crippling anti-life equation. Even the strong and solemn Hawkman cannot contemplate living in a world devoid of love. The most powerful moments of Morrisons’ admittedly fuddled climax see the heroes facing their fate together (did anyone else hear the “finale” music from Lost in their heads during those scenes? no? just me?).

It’s not the end of the world…

Incidentally, it’s fun to note the role that different media play in this. The internet is the medium of “anti-life”, the home of viral and infectious information without content – a big empty void. In contrast, print media wins the day. “Don’t just burn the newspapers,” Black Lightening objects, “People struggled hard to make them.” Appreciate the people who bring you print media a bit more – particularly when it’s loaded into a rocket and sent to the multiverse (a wonderful way of evoking Superman’s origin).

Of course, all of this sits quite uncomfortable – and perhaps headache-inducingly – with the ridiculousness of the execution. Witness Superman travel the 52 worlds of the multiverse in a big yellow submarine with several copies of himself! See troops riding on dogs instead of horses! Superman winks at the reader! The resurrection of the Zoo Crew! Superman defeats evil by singing! A giant, reality-destroying vampire! These ideas ultimately play better when considered expressions of Morrison’s core themes and a firm defiance of the cynicism in modern comics than they do as moments in a continuous story.

Batman plans to punch a Lantern’s lights out…

Which arguably brings us to the event’s fundamental flaw: the narrative doesn’t necessarily tie together particularly well. One gets the sense that the story might have worked better had Morrison been granted more space to tell his tale. It says something about the volume of ideas Morrison is trying to fit into his story that it feels refreshingly hypercompressed at just seven issues. Several moments – such as Superman’s dramatic return to Earth at the end of the penultimate chapter – feel crammed on in there, vying with another huge cliffhanger in the issue’s final two pages (one of which is a splash). Similarly, what the hell happened to Wonder Woman as one of Darkseid’s Justifiers? That thread, which doesn’t exactly grant Wonder Woman a particularly compelling arc, is resolved in an almost off-handed fashion. Morrison also finds time to give Aquaman perhaps the shortest resurrection in comic book history (given he was dead again by Blackest Night, his appearance here dismissed as “rumour”).

Morrison himself has defended the the “abridged” style he adopted, arguing that he’s simply omitting boring exposition:

I choose to leave out boring, as I saw it, connective tissue we didn’t really need for this story to work. I choose to leave out long-winded caption-heavy explanations that bring readers ‘up to speed’, even as they send them to sleep.

I don’t think that argument holds, though. There’s a point at which “caption-heavy explanations” become essential to the flow of the story. It’s worth remarking that the first half of his collection actually flows quite well, identifying the players and raising the stakes in an organic fashion. However, once he’s raised the tension to a peak level, it seems that Morrison discovers he only has so many pages to resolve the plot.

It’s exactly the sort of problem that Russell T. Davies would have while writing the season finales of the revamped Doctor Who. He’d have one-(or two)-and-three-quarters episodes of build-up, putting his character in an impossibly dire situation, and then spend fifteen minutes wrapping it up (and no less than five of which would be devoted to closing the season’s emotional arc). Morrison seems to have the same problem here – at about the point where Superman Beyond enters the narrative, the plot collapses under the weight of symbolism and metaphor. It’s still possible to follow it – undoubtedly – but the story itself becomes less engaging.

The flipside of this is that Morrison does manage to tell his story over an incredibly vast canvas, spreading from the Guardians of the Universe of the Green Lantern mythos to the New Gods of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. It truly feels like an adventure which spans the length and breadth of DC continuity from Kamandi: The Last Boy to Anthro, the first boy. The problem is that Morrison can’t seem to decide on the scope of his focus, wanting to at once tell a deeply intimate story (as in the one-shot Submit collected here, focusing on the Tattooed Man and Black Lightning) and yet an incredibly vast one. It’s very difficult to tell a story dedicating to using characters as archetypes (as Morrison does with Superman here) and yet attempting to offer a personal perspective (with the Tattooed Man’s transition from villain to hero). And I’m still ticked at the editorial decision to “kill” Batman off here rather than in his own book. It remains a cheap publicity stunt, and one which has surprisingly little weight on the page here.

This looks like a job for Supermen…

Not withstanding that, the entire collection has some serious pacing issues. Although it doesn’t quite finish him off, Batman fatally wounds the events big villain before the end of the penultimate chapter – it just takes him an issue or so to die. And then a bigger bad emerges for about four pages which – fantastic symbolism aside – is an awkward transition even if the character’s appearance in Superman Beyond is considered foreshadowing. It’s as if Morrison pushed his story as far as he could, and then realised he had a single issue to fix it all and to put it all back.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a condemnation of “the final machine” which is a literal deus ex machina that “turns thoughts into things” (yes, in keeping with the metafictional theme, it’s effectively an imagination). The fact that Superman uses a device he finds at the start of the penultimate chapter and which only grants him “one wish”. What better way to end a story about stories than with a wonderfully overused device like that? After all, the whole point of this collection was to illustrate that – due to the nature of story – it’s impossible for evil to ever truly vanquish good and, no matter how successful they may seem, the laws of narrative will always intervene on behalf of the good guys.

Up and Atom!

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering how much the DC Animated Universe (you know, Batman: The Animated Series and so on) have influenced Morrison’s writing. Of course, Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited were admittedly heavily indebted to Morrison’s Justice League run, so maybe he felt the need to return the compliment. Renee Montaya, aka the Question, is a key character here – having been created on the television show. While we get a subplot with Hal being accused of murder, John Stewart is the Green Lantern trapped on Earth (and the one we spend the most time with) – reflecting the fact that he was the Justice League’s resident Green Lantern, one of the few times the character has been pushed to the fore. The use of Dan Turpin as a stand-in for Kirby (and a victim of Darkseid) recalls Superman: The Animated Series, and that version of Batman also had a brush with Darkseid’s “Omega Sanction”.

Of course, you could equally make the argument that Morrison is making a well-deserved tip of the hat to maestro Alan Moore, with his use of the Charleton Comics characters – Captain Allen Atom and the Question – who formed the basis of Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach in Watchmen. Of course, I’m not going to spot all the references included in this vast volume, but it’s interesting to note, given Morrison has repeatedly been interested in revisiting Moore’s seminal masterpiece.

Feel the power of the Darkseid…

Final Crisis has a bit of a reputation for being impenetrable. It’s not, really. Indeed, the main miniseries is relatively easy to follow, though some parts do require a bit of thought (and maybe a re-read) to fully “get”. On the other hand, Superman Beyond – which is included here – is so dense it’s almost abstract in part. I still get a little bit dizzy thinking too hard about it. I think Final Crisis comes under a lot of flack because it requires a lot more from the reader than a typical crossover comic book event – of course, I haven’t been bowled over by too many comic book crossover events, so my endorsement doesn’t exactly mean a lot. Still, this isn’t a book that you can “switch off” and enjoy for the random thrills. It does require engagement, but – if given – it will reward the reader appropriately.

The artwork is strange. I love the work of J.G. Jones on the main series, but his work apparently lead to deadline slips, so the final couple of issues feature a huge amount of fill-in art from various other illustrators. It’s a shame, because the style change so late in the game is visually jarring. I also can’t help but wonder why Superman Beyond wasn’t reprinted in 3D – similar to how Geoff Johns’ and Richard Donner’s Last Son was issued with 3D glasses in hardcover. Strange. Still, no use crying over spilled milk.

I ain’t going to Oa…

The truth is that I wouldn’t really recommend Final Crisis for a reader who isn’t at least casually familiar with DC comic book lore. It isn’t a “blind buy” recommendation. Don’t get me wrong, I could follow it easily enough, and I’m hardly a comic book guru, but it’s still not something I’d ever loan out to somebody looking for a quick recommendation. That said, it’s a story which offers something considerably different from most superheroic comic books, and perhaps something close to a mature reflection on the genre which has struggled with its own maturity over the decades. It’s also a charming meta-fictional odyssey which explores the nature of stories. It’s a sappy, pretentious love letter to a seventy-year-old sweetheart from the most ardant fan. It’s not nearly objective enough to be perfect, but it’s endearing enough that – perhaps like Barry – we might just run with it.

If this is of interest, you might like to take a look at our complete reviews of Grant Morrison’s Justice League work:

Also, you might enjoy our other reviews and explorations of Grant Morrison’s Batman-related works:

By the way, if you’re looking for a more in-depth exploration of Final Crisis, you could do a lot worse than these compiled annotations here.

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7 Responses

  1. This thing just gave me a headache while reading it, and I’m a Grant Morrison fan.

    • It’s a bit nuts. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t see flowing – for example, Wonder Woman is a justifier one moment and… not one the next. It works a lot better as a collection of ideas than a story, which I think is its main weakness. Morrison can do great stories and great ideas at the same time (we3, for example, or All-Star Superman), but if he stumbles, it’s usually on story mechanics.

      On the upside it means that – despite how infuriating his work might be – it’s never boring.

  2. Great review.

    I think you’re right, Crisis has some fantastic ideas in it, but narratively its a mess. If you were to ask me point blank “What happens in Final Crisis” I don’t know if I’d be able to tell you.

    Still the best thing I can say about this review is you made me want to go back and revisit it.

    So cheers.

    • Thanks Bryce. It is a fun read when you know what you’re going to get from it. I have to admit that I admire DC for just giving Morrison the freedom to work, even if the results aren’t uniformily excellent – Final Crisis is probably the most fascinating “event” comic ever written.

  3. I highly recommend the Graphic Audio version of FINAL CRISIS over the actual book.
    (I’d say the same for COUNTDOWN, but for different reasons.)

    It follows the overall narrative of the book while slipping in the appropriate emotional impact of each event by giving the important details the attention they deserve.
    http://www.graphicaudio.net/p-718-final-crisis.aspx

  4. Final crisis has grown on me and I consider it a classic. There are some really good analysis about it online. Here is a quote form one analysis (which you can read in full here: http://www.comicscube.com/2011/01/so-what-was-final-crisis-about.html?m=1)

    “FINAL CRISIS, we’re introduced to a race of beings called the Monitors. There are 52 Monitors, one to monitor each of the 52 worlds in the DC Multiverse. They attempt to prevent any crossovers between universes from happening.One Monitor, Nix Uotan, is sent to earth to be the hero of the tale while another, Dax Novu, is the best and most spirited of the Monitors, but is corrupted to become the evil vampire Monitor, Mandrakk, who wants to end the story of the DC Universe. With the help of the Supermen of 52 earths, Nix Uotan is able to hold back Mandrakk. Popular theory has it that the Monitors represent the continuity-obsessed comics fans and their tendency to catalog and categorize comics stories instead of appreciating and exploiting its boundless possibilities. While that is indeed a valid interpretation, I think it’s far more apt if we interpret the Monitors as the like-minded writers. It’s actually a very slight modification to the same interpretation, because the end result is the same. The Monitors try to prevent crossovers just as fans and writers who wish to keep things in the DC Multiverse – one that was never created to be a multiverse – neat and orderly try to prevent crossovers. The message here is clear: in everyone’s attempts to make things more easily digestible and easily cataloged, the sense of wonder that we feel in having a realm of possibilities open to us.

    So, in FINAL CRISIS (mostly SUPERMAN BEYOND, actually), the vampiric Monitor is Mandrakk, who was once Dax Novu, “the best of them.” Mandrakk is the guy waiting at the “end of all stories.” (Morrison is not being very subtle here.)Does the concept of Mandrakk sound familiar? Apply it to the current theory. Brilliant writer, whose legacy has been so tainted by what he’s done that the current industry has taken him and perverted his legacy into a vampiric, parasitic one?Yep, Mandrakk is Alan Moore (and, by extension, Nix Uotan is Grant Morrison – Grant does tend to have a character in his works who is representative of himself). Rather, because Moore actually left DC Comics and wrote a bunch of other stuff that had nothing to do with what his legacy is perceived to be, Mandrakk is what DC Comics has done to Alan Moore’s legacy: instead of Moore being remembered in DC Comics as the one of the best writers they ever had, he’ll more be remembered as the guy who wrote apocalyptic, dystopian stories who tried to end superheroes. This is most apparent with “Captain Adam,” a Superman from a parallel world who is obviously based on WATCHMEN’s Dr. Manhattan.”

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