When Words Collide

Wed, January 21st, 2009 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

FINAL CRISIS: PAST IS PROLOGUE

After ridiculous delays, mismanaged scheduling, and a gaggle of fill-in artists, "Final Crisis" is due to wrap up next week.

Amidst all the complaints (ranging from "I don't get it" to "you need a Ph.D. in DC continuity to make sense out of it" to "it sucks") many readers found something quite remarkable happening -- an event comic that became more sophisticated and thrilling as it progressed. Unlike Marvel's "Secret Invasion" which started incredibly strong, but finished with a whimper (along with a hop, skip, and jump into "Dark Reign"), "Final Crisis" started with a sense of dread and then continued to build, climaxing in last week's issue #6 with the showdown between Darkseid's physical form and Batman with a cosmic gun.

But I'm not here to talk about "Final Crisis," at least not directly. I'll save my retrospective on that series until next week, when (fingers crossed) the last issue will ship, and I'll have a chance to analyze the series as a whole, and talk about what worked, what didn't, and what it implies about the future of DC's superhero universe.

What I want to discuss this week is the stuff that led up to "Final Crisis." The Morrisonian texts that either foreshadowed what was to come (years, if not decades, before the first issue of DC's mega-event hit the stands), or can be seen in fragmented, reflected form in "Final Crisis" proper. Some may say -- Grant Morrison himself might say -- that all of his DC superhero work was building toward this moment. That everything implied what was to come in the showdown between the forces of the dark gods and the heroes of Earth. And while that holistic view might work in a broad sense, three texts above all others seem deeply linked to the story Morrison tells in "Final Crisis." And the first one isn't even a DC comic.

"Zenith: Phase III" in an Out-of-Print Edition
ZENITH AND THE ART OF THE APOCALYPSE

Originally serialized in "2000 AD," Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's "Zenith" strip was the first superhero comic in a British weekly better known for grim, sci-fi visions of the future as seen in the adventures of its most famous character, Judge Dredd.

"Zenith" was different. Serialized in four parts over half a decade (when it began, Morrison hadn't written anything for American audiences, yet by the time it finished, Americans had seen many of his major works, including "Animal Man," "Arkham Asylum," and "Doom Patrol") "Zenith" tells the story of a selfish pop star/superhero who is the antithesis of everything good and pure in the world.

In other words, it was cynical and funny and brilliant, like the best "2000 AD" comics, but it was a far cry from the Marv Wolfman/Chris Claremont style of heroic soap opera comics that dominated the American landscape at the time.

"Zenith" is nearly impossible to find these days -- you have to track down all the individual "2000 AD" issues one at a time, or you have to shell out top dollar on ebay for the long out-of-print collected edition -- but it's certainly an essential Morrison work, and one that's worth reading from beginning to end. Nearly everything Morrison is known for (mad ideas, metafiction, recursion, transcendence, thought-power, heroes wearing jackets over costumes) can be seen in its purest form in "Zenith."

The important Phase (and "Zenith" was, indeed, divided into four distinct "Phases," with the occasional interlude between) for our purposes -- for "Final Crisis" purposes -- is "Zenith: Phase III," which you might think of as "Morrison's version of 'Crisis on Infinite Earths,' but with British heroes, most of whom are complete bastards."

While Phase I established Zenith's world and culminated in an anti-climactic "battle" with a Lovecraftian god, and Phase II was "Dr. Strangelove" filtered through the emotional core of "Star Wars" and starring a villainous Bill Gates type, Phase III was a full-on multi-dimensional crisis, complete with superhero team-ups and planet-hopping and heroic sacrifice.

Zenith Mocks the Assembled Heroes

If there is a "Crisis" subgenre in superhero fiction, and I think we can safely say there is, then "Zenith: Phase III" has everything you'd expect to see: a multitude of heroes (over 50 of them, almost all of whom come from the history of British comics, and nearly all of whom would be unrecognizable to American audiences), a grand assembly with speeches about how to overcome the forces of evil, exploding planets, the forces of chaos vs. the forces of order.

Though, in Grant Morrison's case, the good guys are the force for chaos and the bad guys want to establish an oppressive order.

That was true 20 years ago in "Zenith: Phase III," and it's true in "Final Crisis" as well. Both series feature heroes working to maintain the chaotic, messy brand of "life" in the face of a nearly omnipotent force of "anti-life" or complete and utter surrender to an imposed order.

In "Zenith: Phase III," the Lloigor (the same Lovecraftian beasts that had given Zenith and company trouble in Phase I) have begun to infect the parallel realities and its up to the heroes to stop them by blowing up the tainted worlds. It's the polar opposite of the "save the parallel worlds" philosophy of the Marv Wolfman "Crisis," and it shows Morrison's anarchic approach to superhero melodrama.

In "Final Crisis," Darkseid and his minions have enslaved most of the inhabitants of Earth with the Anti-Life Equation, and because the infection runs so deep, the heroes see almost no way out except escape to a parallel dimension. There's no easy target to punch, and even Batman's cosmic bullet of death seems like a speed bump on Darkseid's path to complete domination of the keystone world of New Earth.

"Zenith: Phase III" ends with the apparent heroic sacrifice of the title character, but Morrison turns that cliché on its head when we discover that it was actually an alternate reality version who died -- a good and noble version of our selfish and often cowardly hero. We don't know how "Final Crisis" will end just yet -- and for all we know, issue #7 might not give us any kind of conclusive wrap-up anyway, given Morrison's history with these sorts of things -- but we have to wonder if Morrison, 20 years later, will end this crisis a bit differently. Batman's heroic sacrifice comes to mind, and I suspect his apparent death means something deeper than a simple good guy sacrifice. (I'll speak more on Batman's death later in this column.)

"Final Crisis" doesn't depend on "Zenith: Phase III" in any contextual way. It can't. There's no explicit connection between a 20-year-old British comic book series and DC's mainstream superhero event of 2008-2009. But in "Zenith: Phase III," we can see the Morrison's proto-crisis, and putting the two side by side shows that even though his attitude toward superheroes has changed over the last two decades (the cynicism of "Animal Man" has turned into the optimism of "All-Star Superman"), his storytelling habits and thematic preferences remain nearly the same. Or, if not the same, at least related -- tied together within Morrison's central framework: chaos trumps order, life trumps anti-life.

Anti-Life Reigns Supreme
THE JUSTICE LEAGUE HAS BEEN HERE BEFORE

If "Zenith Phase III" was Morrison's first try at a crisis-level event story, then "JLA: Rock of Ages" is Morrison's first run at this particular Darkseid-enslaves-humanity narrative.

Serialized in "JLA" #10-15 (from the late 1990s), "Rock of Ages" is Grant Morrison's finest hour on DC's most important superhero team. I think Howard Porter's artwork nearly ruins Morrison's entire "JLA" run, and I don't blame you if you haven't made it through "Rock of Ages" because of the awkward visual foreshortening and fish-eye perspectives, but there's no doubt that "Rock of Ages" is the unofficial prequel to "Final Crisis."

Some internet commentators and message board enthusiasts have accused Morrison of ripping himself off and retelling "Rock of Ages" on a grander scale in "Final Crisis," but I don't see that at all. What I see is Morrison building on the promise of "Rock of Ages" and expanding one background aspect of it into a foreground epic. I see, implicit in "Rock of Ages," that "Final Crisis" was inevitable.

"Final Crisis" isn't a rewrite of "Rock of Ages," it's a sequel. A much bigger, better-drawn sequel, like "Crisis on Infinite Earths" is a much bigger, better-drawn sequel to "Crisis on Earth-Two!" In "Rock of Ages," Morrison's main focus was the threat of the Lex Luthor-enhanced Injustice Gang. The alternate future in which Darkseid enslaves humanity with the Anti-Life Equation is just that -- and alternate future. It's central to "Rock of Ages" only in that it forces the JLA to come up with other means to defeat Luthor and the gang. Destroying the Philosopher's Stone (or Worlogog, as Metron calls it) would have unleashed the Darkseid-laden future, and though the Atom's microscopic punch to Darkseid's brain temporarily solved the problem, it was really preventing the Philosopher Stone's destruction that saved the Earth. After that, it was all Plastic Man and Electric Superman to the rescue. (And though Morrison made the best of it, he was saddled with the ridiculous Electric Superman for much of his "JLA" run, and that's as big of a distraction as Porter's "extreme" artwork.)

At the end of "Rock of Ages," before Metron takes the Worlogog and zooms off to the source wall, he warns the JLA: "You are only forerunners," he says. "Prepare the Earth for fortification." And as Metron later explains to the android Hourman, "in the game of the gods, creation itself is the playing field. Sometimes Darkseid wins, sometimes we win. Each time, the universe is remade, as you have witnessed. In the end, balance is served."

While Metron may not explicitly mentioned a "Final Crisis" in his speech, it's easy to see the connection now. The DC universe will not look the same when it's all over, and a character named Libra stands ready to balance the scales in the end. "Rock of Ages" is more than just a precursor to Morrison's current work. It's a direct prequel, and the enslavement of humanity as depicted in one possible future has occurred, for real (or at least comic book "real") in the DCU.

"Final Crisis" Begins Three Years in the Past
THE SUPER-ESCAPE ARTIST AND THE LEGACY OF SUN RA

Trying to mesh the early afrofuturism of the cosmically-inclined jazz artist Sun Ra with the Kirby Kosmic of the Fourth World, Morrison launched "Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle" as part of his ambitious "Seven Soldiers of Victory" revamp a few years ago.

At the time, Morrison's "Mister Miracle" seemed out of place even amidst the eclectic variety of "Seven Soldiers" miniseries that came out that same year. There was something off with "Mister Miracle," something that couldn't be explained away by simply saying, "oh, after Pasqual Ferry jumped ship for Marvel, the art never recovered and it didn't really make a lot of sense after that." While that may be partially true (and even if Freddie Williams II couldn't capture the visual magic that was lost with Ferry's departure), the fact was that "Mister Miracle" really did not seem to make any kind of sense. Klarion hadn't been seen in a while, and neither had the DC version of Frankenstein, so Morrison's complete reimagining of those characters didn't chafe with what we knew about the DC Universe. But the New Gods and Darkseid popped up all the time in various DC superhero comics. They were essential components to Morrison's own JLA just a few years earlier. Why was Morrison now writing them as if they were a bunch of weird guys and gals who looked human at best (and homeless or crippled at worst).

And why was Shilo Norman acting like he'd never even heard of these people? Didn't he used to hang out with Scott Free and pal around with guys like Orion and Metron?

Morrison's "Mister Miracle" just seemed like a misfire, something that had no chance of reinvigorating the character or the Fourth World concept.

But, oh wait. It makes complete sense now that "Final Crisis" is around.

It's exceedingly strange to think that Morrison wrote a four-issue miniseries back in 2005 that was the direct and explicit prequel to a comic book series that wouldn't hit the stands until the summer of 2008, but that's exactly what happened. "Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle" is the four-issue lead-in to "Final Crisis," and though "Final Crisis" can be understood without "Mister Miracle," the same doesn't work in reverse.

And reading Morrison's "Mister Miracle" will explain plenty about current situations in "Final Crisis." The Omega Sanction that Batman faces in "Final Crisis" #6 is the same torment Mister Miracle faces in issue #4 of his series. It’s a never-ending series of alternate lives, filled with despair. It's the trap from which none can escape, except for the world's greatest escape artist.

And if Shilo Norman could do it, I think we can hold off on sending flowers to Bruce Wayne's funeral.

After Mister Miracle escapes the Omega Sanction, Metron tells him that he has "survived this first initiation into the mysteries of the New Gods." "Today," says Metron, "your true life begins." It's handy to have Metron around to explain stuff for us, so it's a good thing he solved that tricky Rubik's Cube in "Final Crisis" #5, isn't it?

Escaping the Omega Sanction

Morrison continues Mister Miracle's story in "Seven Soldiers" #1 (which, like "Final Crisis" faced a significant delay and baffled a not insignificant portion of its readership), as Boss Dark Side kills Shilo Norman with a bullet to the head. Mister Miracle rises from the grave in the final page of "Seven Soldiers" #1, and he even mentions that he beat death in one of his word balloons in "Final Crisis," but the connection between the two comics goes deeper than that. In "Final Crisis" #6, when Batman comes face-to-face with Darkseid and draws the super-gun, the image superimposed behind Darkseid is the same image we see in "Seven Soldiers" #1. It's J. H. Williams III's New Gods circuitry cut and pasted into "Final Crisis" #6. Even the pacing and layout of the page is similar, though in "Mister Miracle" its Boss Dark Side who draws the gun, and in "Final Crisis," it's Batman. But the parallel is obvious. Morrison's "Mister Miracle" and the final issue of "Seven Soliders" is central to "Final Crisis."

All of which means that when Darkseid fell backwards through time after his defeat at the hands of Orion, he didn't just fall backwards through DC time, he fell backwards in our time as well, landing in a 2005 "Mister Miracle" series that seemed out of place back then. Well, it was indeed out of place, since it was the first part of a story that didn't officially begin until three years in its future. Who else but Grant Morrison would even attempt something like that?

"Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle" will be missing from the inevitable "Final Crisis" hardcover collection, but it, above all, deserves inclusion. It's more important to "Final Crisis" than any of the spin-off titles or one-shots with the "Final Crisis" label (with the possible exception of "Superman Beyond"), and what seemed at the time like a complete creative misfire has become something far more interesting -- far more important -- in retrospect.

Next Week: If the stars align, and "Final Crisis" #7 actually arrives, join me for an in-depth look at what it all means now and forever (or at least until the next crisis comes along).

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, final crisis, jla, grant morrison, zenith

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