After a two-month gap (partially planned, but also including an extra three-week delay), DC released issue #4 of Final Crisis this week.

And… I can’t really say that it was worth the wait.

Here’s what happens in this issue:  with Earth infected by the Anti-Life Equation, the heroes try to rally their forces against those who have been possessed. Meanwhile, Darkseid finishes reincarnating in the body of Dan Turpin.

And, umm… that’s it, really.

We get nothing new about the errant Monitor (the only plot thread that even remotely ties this in to previous Crises). We get nothing about Libra and his army of villains. Nothing about goings-on on Oa. We do get more non sequitur dialogue (the sequence between Green Arrow and the Ray, for example). We’re given the puzzling factoid that about a billion people planetwide were taken over by the ALE… which sounds large but is actually only about 15% of Earth’s population, making it odd that they seem to have a zombie-movie-like numerical advantage in all the crowd scenes. And through it all, every page practically screams at me, “none of this is going to matter to the DCU at large. There is no possible way this story can end except by pressing a giant reset button.”

(Except for the return of Barry Allen, of course. Which is itself a terrible idea:  Barry had one of the best deaths in comics history, by far the most memorable moment of his heroic career, and anything flowing from his return can only undermine that moment and seem anticlimactic by comparison.)

DC billed this as not only its biggest comic of 2008 but also the culmination of years’ worth of events, the capstone of a supposed “trilogy” including 1985’s classic Crisis on Infinite Earths and 2005’s less-than-classic Infinite Crisis. Thus far, however, that billing would appear to be the latest in a long string of editorial blunders, as the story bears little resemblance to its putative predecessors in terms of plot, tone, or theme. As many commentators have noted, it seems to be just a quixotic pet project of writer Grant Morrison’s with a lot of inappropriate marketing draped over it. Its re-envisioning of the New Gods makes it more of an indirect sequel to Morrison’s own 2004 Seven Soldiers project; in some ways it’s a reprise of Grant’s own “Rock of Ages” story from his days on JLA a decade ago; and it’s apparently meant as a tribute to Jack Kirby’s original work from the ’70s… but Kirby’s New Gods have always been an awkward fit in the DCU, even in the best creative hands, and that’s clearly still the case.

It’s not that I don’t like Morrison’s work in general. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his past projects, going back to his classic run on Animal Man. But we’re past the halfway mark of this seven-issue story now, and it still feels like it’s barely gotten started. Worse, it’s been plagued with stylistic and structural flaws since the beginning. At this point we’re supposedly in the midst of the dramatic “crisis” moment—”The Day Evil Won,” as the marketing has put it so relentlessly—and yet all I’ve seen so far is scattershot pacing; kitchen-sink plotting; flat, expository dialogue; and one-note characterization. Morrison has done far better work than this.

(So has artist J.R. Jones, who deserves his reputation as a top cover artist but who clearly isn’t in his element when it comes to dynamic storytelling, especially on a deadline. In FC he’s delivered slapdash art with no sense of drama or panel-to-panel continuity. The addition of co-artist Carlos Pacheco in this issue helps a bit—their styles mesh smoothly—but that shared style seems poorly suited for the sort of story being told, which cries out badly for something with the dramatic energy of a Kirby or (to point out the obvious comparison) a George Pérez. Just compare the weak, static, background-free, narratively empty group shot of the “drafted” heroes in FC #3 with the incredible, intricately detailed, dramatic, story- and character-advancing scenes of everyone gathering in the original Crisis.)

In comics, just as in film, there are certain familiar devices that are useful to keep the audience oriented—transitions, bridging scenes, location shots, cues to the passage of time. This book is woefully lacking in all of the above. Read the last Turpin scene in FC #1, for instance, then the Turpin/Hatter scene in #2, and ask yourself how the one is supposed to flow into the other, much less how one is supposed know exactly what happened to Turpin. (That’s not really clear until #3… as is likewise the case for what the Hatter has to do with anything going on, since the mind-control helmets hadn’t yet entered the story when Turpin confronted him.) Or let’s beat a dead horse and talk about the visually incoherent John Stewart attack scene in #2, and Batman’s interpretation of the evidence from it… a sequence which only makes sense in hindsight, and which puzzled even the guy who’s annotating the entire series.

In fact, the script and art frequently seem muddled in relation to one another. Consider the Ray/GA sequence, which describes but does not depict the Tattooed Man’s arrival… or the ambiguous scene transition between the Tattooed Man and Black Lightning at the Hall of Justice, making it unclear who destroys the force field… or the scene where the Flashes battle the Female Furies, in which the camera angles and point-of-view keep changing arbitrarily and the figure positioning is painfully awkward.

The real problem here isn’t that the story is “confusing,” though, as some have complained (and others hotly contested). It’s just that it has no emotional resonance. The narrative style relentlessly leaches the dramatic impact out of what it depicts. It skips around among seemingly unrelated scenes, often eliding important developments, showing effects but not causes, while shifting characters on and off stage seemingly at random… thus almost deliberately avoiding dramatic tension. Morrison skims over so many events and points of view that he doesn’t provide a sufficiently sharp focus on any of them. Even supposedly crucial characters like Turpin and Shilo Norman have yet to appear in more than a few scattered panels. We see events from the margins; things are alluded to rather than shown directly; the reader is forced to piece it all together, and is left puzzling over what’s important and what’s trivial.

Honestly, I don’t mind having to “work” to understand the nuances and intricacies of a comics story, to grasp its themes, to figure out a mystery or interpret symbolism. I’ve quite enjoyed books like Promethea and Seven Soldiers. (And Watchmen. And From Hell. And Sandman. And Planetary. And so on and so forth.)

The actual plot, such as it is, is fairly simple and linear. I’ve read a lot of comics over the years, and so far there’s really nothing in this one that I haven’t seen before. (And seen done better, with more style and panache. And logic.) But why try to dress up a simple plot by telling it in an obscure, opaque style? That doesn’t serve to make it any more sophisticated; it just serves to annoy readers. Morrison has tossed off a few clever ideas along the way, true (the bullet through time, for instance), but if the book is nothing more than a vehicle for his idle concepts, there’s no point to it.

There are tantalizing hints that Morrison has a more robust, fleshed-out story in mind than what we’re seeing. Certainly interviews with him suggest that. But all that actually makes it to the page are selected short scenes, just enough for readers to (maybe) piece together the progression of events. It’s the details and context that make a story interesting, but most of that is missing here. It leaves us lacking the felt sense of scope and depth that a story like this ought to have. All we see are characters being moved around like chess-pieces.

(J’onn J’onzz’s death in #1 was perhaps the most vivid example of this, in the sense that its depiction was anything but vivid—almost deliberately eschewing any emotional connection to the long-standing character. He seemed almost incidental to his own death scene.)

FC certainly has its defenders. Some of them argue that the book needs to be judged entirely on its own artistic terms, rather than in the context of the larger DCU and its continuity; others argue that Grant’s failure to properly introduce even the most obscure characters or story elements is fine because they provoke reader curiosity about the rest of the DCU, pointing them to other stories by other writers. (These two stances are, of course, mutually contradictory.)

Reviewer Benjamin Birdie at Comic Book Resources describes the book’s style much as I just do, and even concedes that “it’s difficult, in a sense, to really take the necessary steps back to appreciate the story being told here,” yet somehow still praises it for offering “a critical sense of realism” that has greater dramatic “impact.” In discussion forums, Morrison devotee Paul McEnery has argued that “we’re getting a God’s-Eye view of the action because that is the POV of the comic. None of the characters are protagonists—the universe itself is the protagonist. … The Final Crisis is Basic Perinatal Matrix 3 in the Grof scale—the moment of crisis when the contractions begin and all seems lost before the light at the end of the birth tunnel announces the nativity into a new level of reality.” I find all of that more than a little new-agey and unpersuasive (indeed, I find it to be pretentious pseudo-intellectual twaddle).

As symbolism goes, Morrison might be on to something more meaningful if he were presenting the effects of the ALE as a metaphor for the growing sense of resignation to oppressive, unaccountable leaders and the resulting pervasive despair that have afflicted this country in recent years… but really, regardless of what he’s shooting for, elaborate symbolism and thematic linkages are frankly just artistic masturbation if he doesn’t communicate them to the readers by way of an engaging narrative.

I’m not someone who’s looking for “unthinking escapism” in my entertainment—on the contrary, I prefer a work that seeks to engage me both emotionally and intellectually. Either one, without the other, is usually unsatisfying. Back in the ’80s, Alan Moore did an epic story in Swamp Thing about good and evil as forces in a state of struggle—”American Gothic.” It was philosophical and profound and multi-layered, stepping way beyond usual comic-book moralizing… but it was also deeply grounded (dare I say “rooted”?) in the experiences of its characters. It was incredibly moving and exciting, and I still remember it fondly 20-plus years later. What Grant is doing here isn’t even in the same ballpark.

For all that I’ve written here,  I’m still being far more charitable than some critics. Consider “Jim Doom,” who wrote about issue three (emph. mine):

With a lot of comics, you read them once and then you’re done. But with Final Crisis, I’ve read each of these issues several times, trying to figure out — am I missing something? Or is this really as awful as it seems?

…Jay Garrick has apparently assembled all Flash family members, past and present, so he can explain what just happened. … Jay explains the situation as follows — he and Wally saw a window in time open up, heard the command to “Run,” and so they immediately started running alongside Barry. Barry was apparently chasing the bullet that went backwards through time, trying to stop it, but it was too late. The Black Racer was also following the bullet, but it looks like he was just there to claim Orion when Orion bought it (in the revised Final Crisis version of Orion’s death — not the Death of the New Gods version or the Countdown version, both of which also happened in 2008).

Upon failing to catch that magic bullet, the three Flashes decided to turn around and run back to the future, and that’s when Jay pooped out. He made it back to the present in order to tell his story, but for some reason completely beyond my understanding, Wally and Barry decided to keep running until 3 weeks from now.

Meanwhile, Libra was apparently given the keys to the stupid Super Friends hideout that the bad guys all use now. He slams a new anti-life helmet on the Human Flame’s head, apparently revealing that this slow-motion charade to gradually woo the Flame into Libra’s command was really only just to get that helmet on his head. Considering Libra was able to get the Martian Manhunter there in the boardroom for an assassination and wipe out the top floors of the Daily Planet, one wonders why he did the slow-burn wine-and-dine song-and-dance with The Human Flame if he just needed the loser to put on a new hat.

Now I realize Lex Luthor is in a tough spot, but really, if a guy walked up to me after concluding his weeks-long project to get the Human Flame to try on a new hat and then said “Renounce science, swear an oath on the Bible of Crime and pledge your service to the Master of All Evil,” I think I might be tempted to laugh. …

There’s no way around it — Final Crisis is really bad. I can’t believe how bad it is. On one hand, it’s written cryptically enough and with enough intertwining plot points that it begs you to think, but then it’s so riddled with logic holes and nonsense that it punishes you for thinking. I keep re-reading it, struggling to accept that it’s really as bad as it seems, but then I just keep hating it more and more each time.

Or there’s the question posed by Jon Judy:

For whom is this book meant? Is it for fans of the current DC, the oppressively nihilistic universe where everything seems to be going so very wrong all the time and the spouses of silly sixties characters get raped and the very fabric of reality seems to be perpetually threatened…?

[Or] is this for old school fans?… No, not at all. I really could have lived without a two-page spread depicting four giant dead dogs. Morrison indulged my nostalgia fetish and then pissed on it, and I have to think that things like this aren’t pleasing old or new fans.

…I’ll throw in an extra half-bullet for that final splash page. Chilling. Chilling. Now if only I got to spend some time seeing the protagonists in this story deal emotionally with chilling things like this.

Me, I’ll just leave it at this:  I can acknowledge FC as being amibitious in concept, but it remains woefully unsatisfying in execution. If Grant wants this story to be remembered as anything other than an audacious failed experiment, he needs to pull one helluva rabbit out of his hat sometime in the next three months.

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6 Responses to “Final Crisis, so far”
  1. Andrew says:

    So far so good, I could add …

  2. I’m tempted to think their time-fall went further back than 1-2 years. I don’t have evidence to back it up right now, though.

  3. I thank Jim Doom for noticing my remarks and weighing in with a counterpoint on FC #4, complimenting it for at least showing more of the bad stuff going down rather than merely alluding to it. Fair point, although IMHO it’s a far cry from redeeming the overall storytelling style.

    At the same time, however, he offers another legitimate complaint:

    I [don’t] know which pre-Final Crisis continuity I’m supposed to accept and which I’m supposed to ignore. Orion’s third death in FC #1 made me think I was supposed to ignore Countdown and DONG, so I never really understood when Darkseid fell (in the Final Crisis version of events), or if it had anything to do with either Countdown or DONG and the reasons behind the death of the Fourth World. I didn’t know if I was supposed to remember those motivators (the Source did it!) and some of the outcomes (like Darkseid falling, but not Orion falling), or maybe just remember the motivators and not the outcomes, or just some of the outcomes and not the motivators, or neither. The fact that I don’t know what the mystery is doesn’t make me more intrigued.

    The continuity SNAFU is indeed another perfectly legitimate complaint, and I didn’t raise it mainly because it seemed like water under the bridge, having already been discussed ad nauseam online when FC #1 came out five months ago, before this blog launched. I am definitely enough of a geek to have given it some thought, though, so for the record… let’s stipulate a few things:

    * DoNG was a mediocre and pointless series.

    * Countdown wasn’t merely mediocre, but painfully bad.

    * The climactic events of DoNG and Countdown do not mesh seamlessly, to put it mildly.

    * Nor does either one leads smoothly into Final Crisis #1.

    * DC editorial pretty much screwed the pooch in terms of clearing the stage for the story Morrison wanted to tell, and has no apparent excuse for having done so.

    Nevertheless… a little creative thinking can manage to reconcile most of this without throwing anything out of canon altogether.

    How’s this for a theory: Orion obviously wasn’t killed in DoNG, since he returned to fight the hyper-powered Darkseid. He was mute at that point, but let’s chalk that up to still not being fully recovered from his near-death experience. He did, at least, fight Darkseid to a draw.

    Darkseid then turned his attention to Earth, as seen in the final issues of Countdown, where he could attempt to co-opt the remaining “soul power” he had banked in Jimmy Olsen. Orion, more fully recovered, fought him again, and successfully killed him. He then wandered off forlornly, to meet his death under circumstances later disclosed in FC.

    None of this—nor the earlier New Gods’ deaths, from Lightray on up—was detected by the Guardians of the Universe (in contrast to the “deicide” alert in FC #1—a plot thread still dangling, BTW), because (let us speculate) the Source and/or Darkseid were using their powers to mask it all from the Guardians’ attention. This was no longer the case when Orion finally died, hence the Guardians noticed and reacted.

    After Darkseid’s death, his life force (and presumably that of his fellow Apokaliptians) “fell backward through time,” as depicted (very confusingly) in DCU #0, and explained by Grant Morrison in a Newsarama interview (which also clarifies a number of other things not quite on the page).

    He/they landed on Earth a couple of years earlier, in the form of human avatars—as seen first in Seven Soldiers—and have since been working on rebuilding their power in order to make the leap to whatever they have planned next.

    How’s that?

    (Not that I forgive DC editorial for putting fans in a position where we have to do so much work just to make sense of things, though. It’s more than a little offputting.)

  4. […] I end up switching places with reviewer Chris Miller, he’s absolutely correct in pointing out the problems that can arise when one chooses to […]

  5. I seem to recall from assorted interviews that the disjointedness of the storytelling here was planned out deliberately by Morrison and company. Not unlike the new Galactica pilot mini-series, now that I think it over.

  6. Tom Galloway says:

    There’s a couple of other problems, one internal, one external.

    It’s also very unclear just how the anti-life equation works. So far we’ve seen at least three methods;

    1) A disease of some sort, which Mary Marvel infected Wonder Woman with.
    2) An Internet/electronic communication attack. Unclear if you have to look at/listen to something for an extended period of time or if seeing/hearing any of it sucks you in. The latter’s implied, but on the other hand the free heroes aren’t going around blindfolded with their fingers stuck in their ears going “la la la la I can’t hear Darkseid”.
    3) Helmet/disk attachment…which is kinda redundant with methods 1 and 2 available.

    The external problem is that if this is on a par with Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis, well, for good or bad, both of those had significant lead ups across the line and while they were going on they had strong influences on the regular books.

    But as mentioned, the supposed lead ups of Countdown and Death of the New Gods weren’t. And currently, you’ve got major storylines completely unrelated to FC (or each other) going on across the line…even by the same writer! Batman RIP by Morrison, New Krypton in the Superbooks, Reign In Hell, Rann-Thanagar War, and, oddly enough given FC is supposedly setting up the Fifth World, a God from the Third World wandering around in JSA. And JLA looks to be completely ignoring FC after a quick Martian Manhunter bit.

    So FC and its explicit spinoff books and minis (and even only some of those; so far Legion of Three Worlds and Rogues’ Revenge seem only tangentially related to FC) seem to exist in their own little continuity corner. All the regular books are acting like it’s business as usual, hardly covering “The Day Evil Won”. It’s hard to feel FC is at the level of its supposed previous two “BIG Crises” if all the regular books are acting like it’s not happening or going to hit a reset button real soon now.

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