When Words Collide

Wed, January 28th, 2009 at 5:34pm PST | Updated: January 28th, 2009 at 6:07pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

FINAL CRISIS: HERE IS KNOWLEDGE

[Please note: This column discusses the entirety of "Final Crisis" and thus contains what you might call SPOILERS, if you're one of those people who cares.]

The "Final Crisis" has ended! The DC Universe will never be the same!

Okay, it might be -- as both Marvel and DC have a history of completely ignoring Grant Morrison's changes to their universes -- but like the first two DC Crises mega-events (and no, "Identity Crisis" does not count), "Final Crisis" was an attempt to heal a DC Universe that had fallen ill. It was a sigil of renewal, a narrative of hope, and a reminder of the splendor of these fictional gods.

Marv Wolfman and George Perez's "Crisis on Infinite Earths" came along at a time when the DC Universe seemed too expansive, too confusing, too far divergent from its historical roots. Their "Crisis" was an attempt to synthesize the best DC elements into a cohesive, single Universe. One without parallel worlds or multiple incarnations of the same character. It was the death knell of the Silver Age, with the death of the Silver Age's icon, Barry Allen's Flash, as a symbol of the move from scientific fantasy to grim "reality." It worked (even though the ideal situation, as proposed by Wolfman, was to have all the comics start over again from the beginning, with retold origins, and that didn't happen exactly), and the "Crisis" itself was an overstuffed, manic, glorious series full of too much exposition and too little characterization, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

Decades later, when Geoff Johns and Phil Jimenez were tapped with celebrating the 20th Anniversary of "Crisis" with an "Infinite Crisis" of their own (and, according to reports, this was an idea spawned by Dan DiDio from nearly the moment he arrived at DC), their series attempted to heal the increasing moral darkness of the DCU. It was a symbolic death knell again, this time for the "Dark Age" of the 1990s (which lingered in the first few years of the 2000s), when Superman died, Batman's back was broken, and Wonder Woman turned into a murderer. It was an attempt to offer a critique of the DCU as it was and offer an inspirational alternative. At least, that's how it seemed at first, but by the end of the series everything kind of fell apart, and it became about the monstrous villainy of Superboy-Prime and the failure of Alexander Luthor to restore DC's Earth to a more wholesome time. It seemed to promise the return of the multiverse, and then it pulled back and ended up resolving nothing. It made a few cosmetic changes to "New Earth's" history, and, perhaps most significantly: Connor Kent died. Though Geoff Johns himself had helped turn a 90s fashion-victim of irrelevance into a character who mattered in the DCU, the death of that particular Superboy was, like the death of Barry Allen, the symbolic end of an era.

Little changed, really. Although it did lead into "52," which brought back the multiverse in its final pages.

But then "Coundown" squandered almost all the goodwill readers may have had toward the multiverse.

Which brings us to "Final Crisis," Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones's (and Carlos Pacheco's, and Doug Mahnke's) attempt to… well, what exactly was "Final Crisis" an attempt to heal?

I think "Final Crisis" was an attempt to heal the narrow-thinking the DCU has fallen victim to over the years. It was an attempt to embrace the entire saga of this superhero multiverse, with all of its apparent contradictions. It was the include-and-transcend ethos, dedicated to the service of an expansive story about the tenacity of the heroes overcoming the soul-crushing bleakness of the ultimate evil.

It was a story about Jack Kirby's corrupted legacy. It was a story about the relationship between creators and creation. It was a story about diversity overcoming singlemindedness. And as fragmented and chaotic (and narratively incomplete) it may have seemed, it was smart enough to weave those flaws into the text of the story itself. As Supergirl says in "Final Crisis" #7, the rupture in spacetime feels strange: "like it's all broken up from one minute to the next."

FINAL CRISIS: CELEBRATION AND STRUCTURAL DECADENCE

As I mentioned in last week's column, "Final Crisis: Past is Prologue," Morrison's version of the Crisis didn't begin on page one of the first issue of "Final Crisis." It began, thematically, years before, in other superhero works like "Zenith," and "JLA," and a literal prelude was provided in the pages of "Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle."

Darkseid had already won, the anti-life was encroaching, and nobody really paid any attention to it, until "Final Crisis" #1.

For the record, though the "Final Crisis" collection -- the hardcover edition, at least -- will only contain the seven issues of the series itself, the story actually follows this order:

  • "Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle" #1-4
  • "Final Crisis" #1-3
  • "Final Crisis: Superman Beyond" #1-2
  • "Final Crisis: Submit" #1
  • "Final Crisis" #4-7

Everything written by Morrison matters, and everything written by everyone else does not (with the possible exception of "Legion of 3 Worlds," but while that series may turn out to be an excellent addition to your library of awesome comics, it seems that all you really need to know about Superman's adventures in the 31st century is that he was indeed sent there during the middle of "Final Crisis" -- which conveniently removes him from the action, a point I'll discuss below -- and that Brainiac 5 showed him the Miracle Machine before sending him back, but that scene is included in "Final Crisis" #6 anyway). Also, "Final Crisis: Submit" #1 is a pretty terrible comic, and you could easily skip that one too. Basically, the Tattooed Man joined the superhero resistance and Black Lightning became a Justifier. There, now you can skip that comic and complain less about having to by tie-in issues to understand the main series.

But, boy, "Superman: Beyond" #1-2 turned out to be incredibly important to the main "Final Crisis" story in the end. Fellow CBR reviewer Chad Nevett and I have been posting our conversations about "Final Crisis" since the first issue on "The Final Crisis Dialogues" blog, and though I suspected that "Superman: Beyond" might play a meaningful role in the conclusion of the main series, both Chad and I thought that it was more of a thematic parallel. That the themes and structure of "Superman: Beyond" would echo that of "Final Crisis" proper, but the explicit plotline of the spin-off wouldn't intersect with the heroes-vs-Darkseid plot which is the core of "Final Crisis."

We were wrong. Mandrakk, the vampiric, corrupted Monitor from "Crisis on Infinite Earths," and the big baddie from "Superman: Beyond" shows up in "Final Crisis" #7 and it takes the assembled, multiversal Superman Squad (along with the Green Lanterns, the Super Young Team, and Captain Carrot and half the Zoo Crew) to save the DCU.

Let's just pause a minute to appreciate the arrival of Captain Carrot and company. True, they don't actually do anything other than show up and pose before the final assault, but their appearance in this comic shows the scope of Morrison's plan. He embraces the variety of the DCU, not to sterilize it and cut it down to size like Marv Wolfman did, but to celebrate its diversity. While Darkseid chants of "one body. One mind. One will. One life that is Darkseid," Morrison gives us a range of different heroes, of all shapes and sizes. They may all be based on the first Superman -- the first "superhero story" -- but they are not identical. Their differences matter. Life matters. Multiversal chaos will overcome singleminded order any day, and though a new order is established at the end of "Final Crisis" -- an order based on hope and rebuilding a status quo that's not all that different from what came before, the explicit declaration at the end of "Superman: Beyond" #2 appears again in "Final Crisis" #7, in a slightly different guise.

Superman's "To Be Continued" epitaph is rewritten in the series finale as a drawing on a cave wall. A drawing of a bat, crafted by a man with suspiciously familiar tights.

To be continued, indeed.

And if you're the least bit skeptical that "Final Crisis," even with all of its "evil has won" darkness, is a celebration of the DCU, then consider how Superman ultimately destroys Darkseid.

Though the evil lord's physical form may have been rendered useless thanks to Batman in issue #6, and though the Black Racer may have finally caught up to the Apokaliptian ruler thanks to the lightspeed swiftess of the two Flashes, Superman is the one who shatters Darkseid's incorporeal essence.

With a song.

THE DCU TODAY AND TOMORROW (AND YESTERDAY)

Odds are that "Final Crisis" has undergone extensive transformation between concept and ultimate release. Early rumors hinted that the DC icons might transcend to become gods of the Fifth World, and then when that seemed not to be the case, at least it seemed likely that some kind of ascension would occur with Batman, if not anyone else. Certainly the rebirth of the New Gods in "Final Crisis" #7 seems neutered, with New New Genesis rising out of the ashes of Apokalips almost as an afterthought.

But the graveyard of comic book history is littered with the graves of what might have been, and we didn't get a story about the birth of a decidedly different Fifth World. What we ended up with was a story that moves the DC mainstream away from the linear thinking of "this is what superhero comics should be" to a more inclusive "this is what superhero comics can be" with an acceptance of the absurd variety within it.

"Final Crisis" also offers a commentary on the act of creating comic books, with the Monitors established not as continuity cops, but as beings who can both change the nature or reality and feed off of it. That was the first Monitor's ultimate downfall -- his thirst for fiction corrupted him and turned him into a nearly mindless being who devours stories instead of shaping them. All of this was directly stated in "Superman: Beyond" #2 and brought back in the finale of "Final Crisis," giving the Monitors an allegorical meaning: they seem to represent the comic book writers themselves, and the way Superman saves all reality from the encroaching darkness and devastation is by wishing for a "happy ending." He's a character who is so strong -- whose fictional potency is so unimpeachable -- that he can force a writer (a Monitor) to change the direction of the story.

Evil can never win in the DCU, because Superman exists.

And Morrison emphasized the centrality of Superman not just by showing his multiversal doppelgangers, but by removing him from "Final Crisis" during the middle of the series. The world fell into darkness so quickly -- the anti-life spawned so many Justifiers -- because Superman was not around. Batman was captured, Wonder Woman tainted, and Superman absent. But it was Superman who mattered most. The first DC superhero. The symbol of hope. The sun god. The light in the darkness.

Whether or not "Final Crisis" will matter in the long run, or whether the DCU will look any different next year than it did last year, well, that remains to be seen. But "Final Crisis" will stand as a celebratory testament to the power of its fictional world, whether or not its loose ends and open possibilities are ever followed upon.

"Final Crisis", with its unconventional rhythms, may have pushed some readers away, and as a series full of delays and artistic changes it's not perfect.

But what is, other than Superman?

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, grant morrison, superman

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