Final Crisis

Before I sink into what will probably be a novel-length review, a quick word on some housekeeping

– From now on, Retro-Reviews are only going to refer to any material I review from anytime before the year 2000. I used it mostly as a signifier for the reviews I made on Facebook back in 2010 (as some of you may have seen in the half dozen old posts that all went up the other night) but I think that might confuse new readers; Scott Pilgrim isn’t exactly retro, is it?

– For the next two weeks I’ll predominantly be doing reviews of slightly older works, and by that I mean from 2011 and backwards. Until Batman Incorporated vol. 1 is out on April 11 there’s not an awful lot for me to talk about that’s up and coming and interesting to me.

– According to Yahoo, my “Batman: The Black Mirror” review is number 1 on the search page at the moment! Whoooo! If you haven’t read it already, go read it now. Then go read the book itself. Seriously. It’s really good.

Ok, now that’s all over with, let’s get into it. Just a bit of a warning, this is going to be long.

Final Crisis. Also known as the end of the Crisis trilogy, the Identity trilogy, and one of the most divisive pieces of comic book literature ever published.

Grant Morrison had been writing for Batman since 2006, and in the lead-up towards his work on Batman RIP he was announced as the writer of DC’s 2008 massive crossover event. The anticipation that built towards Final Crisis was tremendous; while it didn’t end up being as successful as the landmark 52 maxiseries before it, a weekly serial named Countdown to Final Crisis set up 52 weeks of lead-in towards the story (despite the fact a lot of it was retconned out afterwards, the promotional advertising was extensive and touched on almost every convention and internet site even remotely linked to comic books, and the eventual release of the first issue saw initial sales figures at over 100,000 purchases – an exceptional effort for a comic book. Issue 1 was ranked second the week it was released, only falling behind the second issue of Marvel’s 2008 event Secret Invasion. After comparing the two, I can definitely see why they lost to Marvel that week.

As I stated in my Batman RIP review, you could write entire essays on Final Crisis. The story is constructed almost solely out of Morrison’s trademark non-linear narrative and hallucinogen-inspired fantasy trip that only makes sense in a tangential, End of Evangelion kind of way, and while it certainly worked in some corners of his Batman run as a deep psychological probe into Batman’s very motivation for being and the stresses he’s under it does tend to falter a bit when such a psychological framework encompasses an entire universe of characters.

As its barest, minimum level, Final Crisis deals with the rise of Darkseid and his ilk as they take over the world, fitting with the promotional tagline that Final Crisis is “The Day Evil Won”. Every A-lister in the DCU is involved in some capacity as they attempt to halt Darkseid’s advance and consequently screwing-up of the Multiverse, and the Earth soon falls victim to the followers of Darkseid’s “anti-life” equation that encourages people to submit to his rule. This story also marked the triumphant return of Barry Allen, dead for the better part of two decades and last seen in a heroic sacrifice at the climax of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as well as the apparent demise of Batman after over half a century of crimefighting.

Now I’ve spoken about comic book death and crossover events before, and I tend to be fairly cynical on both those topics. The former problem lies in the inability to create sufficient suspense when you know one of the universe’s big three is in the crosshairs, no matter how much publicity is attached to it, and the latter problem deals with the frequency of such events that both undermine the concept of a massive crossover and dilute the impact of the former problem even further.

With Allen’s resurrection and Bruce’s death, both of these problems are averted.

While it is clear that the narrative is the kind of thing you need to A) read altogether as a trade and B) read at least twice through, it feels big. Colossal, even. Everyone is involved, from the heavy hitters to the C-list fodder. The stakes are high. Lives are lost. The game is irrevocably changed afterwards. Once you know what the hell is going on, you can see the grand enormity of both Darkseid’s assault and the lingering effect it has on the DCU at large.

On a deeper level, in relation to the two above character moments, Allen’s return from death was effective and – I imagine for long-time readers – quite shocking. In these days of comics when resurrection tools or alien lifegiving machines practically come free with the Sunday Telegraph it was quite a feat that Morrison accomplished in bringing back the original Flash in a way that was believable and hard-hitting to the audience. The fact that it was permanent just made it all the more awesome, because as far as I can recall hearing from fans at the time, no-one expected it to happen. Keeping someone – an A-lister, even – dead for that amount of time before bringing them back is exactly the kind of character death plot device that writers would do well to use more often if they’re looking to create suspense and anticipation. I believe Marvel have tried it with both Scarlet Witch and Jean Grey in their upcoming Avengers V X-Men event, but honestly, who couldn’t see them both coming back some day?

Batman’s death was equally effective in my mind; being relatively new to comics and unfamiliar with the flexible physics of comic book death, as well as having read Morrison’s RIP run and being well-aware that Bruce Wayne’s days were numbered, I was in exactly the right foreboding, watching-a-train-wreck mood that a reader should be in when they know a big death is coming and it’s been made clear that it’s going to stick (not that it did, but at the time I didn’t know that for certain). When Darkseid’s Omega beams struck Batman right in the noggin, I remember being shocked by the double-page spread that depicted it right after his triumph defeat of the god of all evil.

The shock turned into tears when this happened.

Yep, tears. I cried. I yelled. I felt as if I’d just been given a shiny new flamethrower only for it to explode in my hands and leave me with stubs instead of forearms.

Looking back, despite the fact I know the true meanings behind it, I still hold up this panel as one of the most effective comic book pages I’ve ever seen. To the reader at the time, Batman hasn’t been vaporised or sent to another dimension. His body is there. It’s charred. It’s lifeless. It’s deader than Las Ketchup’s music career.

As far as the audience can tell at the time, Batman is dead in Superman’s arms.

While it’s true that he ended up returning a couple of years later, the image is still effective. It’s so striking they even used a variant of it for the collected edition’s cover. That’s how you punch a reader in the gut.

On a related note, they did kill Martian Manhunter in the story’s opening, but to me this felt far too quick and undermined by all the story that followed. He certainly wasn’t mourned as much as Bruce was, so I can’t help but feel J’onn’s death was hastily added as a favour from Geoff Johns so that he could be used as a plot device once Blackest Night rolled around.

As I said, every A-lister has their part to play in the endgame. Green Lantern brings the universe’s emerald power to bear against the main baddie. Superman travels through layers of metaphysics and psychologically-charged alien dimensions to find the weapon that will save the world. The two Flashes – Allen and West – team up to thwart Darkseid and rally support for a final strike. Wonder Woman…get’s possessed almost immediately and wears an S&M mask. Unfortunate, but like I said – they’ve all got a part to play (no matter how ridiculous).

If there’s one thing Grant Morrison does not do in his writing, it’s give a precede; the story opens with the bare minimum of explanation before the sky goes red, a God is murdered, an old guy gets kidnapped and our favourite Martian is spiked through the heart. Events proceed faster than a Tokyo bullet train and there is very little in the way of expositional dialogue until the very end; the reader is either left to work things out mostly for themselves or, if they’re new to the DC Universe, have absolutely no friggin’ clue as to what the blue-faced hell is going on.

A large portion of fan backlash against Final Crisis revolved around how awful it was reading the story in bite-size chunks each month, a good deal of which was rescinded when the same fans read it all in one go. This is something I cannot stress highly enough to someone wanting to venture forth and read this seminal work; do it in one go. Don’t read bits and pieces here and there, or the story will be lost in a miasma of tangential references and obscure imagery that only the most devout DC readers will pick up on a first reading. This is especially true during the two-part Superman Beyond interlude; I’ve read that thing at least 4 times and I still have trouble figuring out what the red-nailed hell is going on.

Speaking of my reading of it, I absolutely hated Final Crisis when I first experienced it. I mostly stuck to it to find the conclusion to Batman’s death arc, and to be honest the only thing that made me read Issue 7’s conclusion was the tiny hope that maybe Bruce would turn out to be alive somehow – a hope that was indeed validated. But the fact remains that trekking through Final Crisis in single-issue form was like navigating a Shanghai markets and all I can speak is German. I had no idea what the green-nippled hell was going on.

Coloured hells aside, I did look favourably upon Final Crisis shortly after the softcover release one evening when I’d had one too many bourbons and was listening to Jeff Wayne’s musical rendition of The War of the Worlds. I found the musical themes matched the book surprisingly well, especially during the Superman Beyond chapter, so if you take nothing else away from this review then take this; read this book in its entirety when you’re slightly drunk and listening to Jeff Wayne. Seriously. It makes all the difference.

I mentioned that the story has layers, and it most certainly does; superficially it’s layered with the veritable plethora of characters starring within its pages, each contributing to both their own subplots and the arc of the story as a whole. Getting a bit deeper, the story seems like a remarkable use of the graphic medium through its heavy use of symbolism and connected prose that, as stated previously, does little to inform the viewers for the majority of the story. While in almost any comic this latter fact would be a death sentence, it blends so well with the rich tapestry of images and characters that for some of the time I found I was putting the plot to one side and focusing more on the artwork than anything else. Somehow having only parts of the story explained allowed it to be read in a way that’s unlike any other comic I’ve encountered, with the exception of all of Morrison’s Batman stories after The Black Glove.

Furthermore, the layers themselves represent dozens of literary aspects that are either well fleshed-out by story’s end or still touched on in a satisfying way. Final Crisis is many stories all encapsulated in one overarching narrative; it’s metaphysical journey into the heart of the human spirit. It’s a story about the return of love and the death of hope. It’s a story about perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s justice, betrayal, evil, resurrection, despair and emotion. It spans the gamut not only of graphic novel narrative, but of literary content in general.

There are several moments within the story where the dialogue feels grandiose but not to the point of being too unwieldy, and it strikes a good balance between the dark forebodey-ness of contemporary comics and the larger-than-life well-loved cliches of Golden and Silver Age stories. Wonder Woman proclaiming “The armies of Libra have arrived!”, “I’ll do what I can to plug the hole in forever!” being shouted by Superman as the bad guys close in, and other similar parts of dialogue give it a kind of Gothic-pop feel that meshes the two types of sentencing together quite well, which is only enhanced by the visuals.

Speaking of the visuals, the art is at once marvelous and slightly schizophrenic; J.G. Jones began as the principal illustrator, but deadline problems and personal issues meant the art had to be double-handed by others, most notably future Green Lantern artist Doug Mahnke who drew the entirety of the final issue himself. Jones’ art is wonderfully textured and full-lipped, strongly evoking the styles of Tony Daniel and Ivan Reis, however the villains portrayed within his pages – with the exception of Darkseid, who’s creepy no matter who’s drawing him – all seemed a little bland in terms of faces and costuming detail. Conversely, Mahnke nails the villains quite well – especially Mandrakk, who has a suitably Gothic appeal with all the in-depth facial lining and grotesquely-proportioned body in both Supes Beyond and the final issue – but makes the normal faces – particularly the human ones – appear alien and slightly deformed. The Obama-esque Superman at the end looked more like a mannequin than anything else, and the principal Superman seemed to be trying to channel a slightly androgynous look that didn’t mesh well with that friggin’ annoying curl on his forehead.

On the whole though, the artwork is still well handled and as engaging as I would now expect a blockbuster event’s artwork to be. It stands head-and-shoulders over events like Secret Invasion art-wise, but it doesn’t quite reach the remarkable standards of works like Blackest Night and Siege.

Speaking of Secret Invasion, at the start I mentioned it’s no surprising that it beat Final Crisis 1 to first place the week of release. I don’t say that in a nasty way, because as I’ve established I ended up quite liking Batman’s swan song and Superman’s “use American Idol to save the world” bit at the end. At the same time, though, I can definitely see why this won’t appeal to everyone. Grant Morrison can be an acquired taste at the best of times, and this work is like his usual gigs multiplied by ten. If you’re not a hardcore DC buff or someone deeply ingrained in interpretation of semiotics and obscure symbolism, this may not be the book for you on a first reading.

If you can get past the lack of major exposition, the bipolar changes in artwork and the mind-screwy nature of the middle chapters, it’s a story that is far from being the best but is most definitely memorable. It’s the kind of book I still see people writing and talking about on forums years later, whether detrimental or affirmative, and the events in its pages affected – and, depending on the New 52’s continuity, may continue to affect – the entire DC universe in ways not seen since the very first Crisis.

I’ll borrow a Yahtzee Croshaw methodology in this instance – you have to try it for the utter uniqueness alone.

STORY: 4/5

OVERALL: 11/15

BEST QUOTE: I. Am. The. New. God. All is one in Darkseid. This mighty body is my church. When I command your surrender, I speak with three billion voices. When I make a fist to crush your resistance, it is with three billion hands. When I stare into your eyes and shatter your dreams, and break your heart, it is with six billion eyes! Nothing like Darkseid has ever come among you. Nothing will again. I will take you to a hell without exit or end, and there I will murder your souls!” – Darkseid

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