When Words Collide

Mon, November 30th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 1st, 2009 at 6:01pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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BATMAN AND SUPERMAN AT THE END OF THE WORLD

"Final Crisis" Is Not Really Sad

Close-up silhouettes of Batman provide the backdrop for the opening three pages of Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Strikes Again," but the first superhero we see in full is a naked Ray Palmer, the Atom, savagely fighting for his survival in the microscopic world of a Petri dish.

Miller packs a lot of subtext into that scene. It's a transitional note to the reader, recalling the vicious but noble Spartans of Miller's "300" while Ray Palmer looks far more like Wallace from "Sin City: Hell and Back" than he does the traditional Gil Kane-drawn superhero version. It's as if Miller is warming up to a return to the DCU, or saying to the reader, "hey, this is going to be like the other stuff I've been working on recently."

It wasn't. It's not.

And the scene is a microcosm (appropriately enough) of what will happen in "DKSA" as a whole. It's the struggle against overwhelming odds. Madness encroaching. Light from above. Miller gives us the whole structure of the series in that near-opening scene, establishes the epic challenge the hero must face, and in the following scene, the naked Atom gets thrown into a teenage girl's mouth and vomited up to end the sequence.

So much for Silver Age reverence.

In Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones's "Final Crisis," two powerful heroes die in the opening chapter. The space god Orion lands on Earth with, "He is in you all…fight." The hero lives just long enough to utter that cryptic warning. And the mighty Martian Manhunter, J'onn J'onzz, falls to Libra's Spear of Destiny in an inglorious single panel. No heroic sacrifice for him, just the casual execution of an icon for the pleasure of some minor villains.

Heroes die. Legends supposedly live forever. Or something like that.

Like "DKSA," "Final Crisis" poses the questions, "what will the superheroes do at the end of the world?" "When it all falls apart, what will they do to stop it?" And "what the hell are these kinds of stories for?"

I've been diving into both "DKSA" and "Final Crisis" over the past few weeks because they are both major superhero comics from the past decade, and in preparation for my end-of-the-year "Best Comics of the 00's" list, I feel like they both deserve a closer look. On my preliminary list -- where I basically slapped down everything that made an impression on me since 2000, and then numerically ranked them according to the well-honed rubric of "this is better than that" -- neither "DKSA" nor "Final Crisis" cracked the top 20. But they were close, and maybe they'll move up by the time I polish the final list. That's what this column is for. To explore them. To think about them.

Silver Age Heroism Bares All

Either way, they shouldn't be ignored when it comes to "Best of the Decade" talk. "Final Crisis" got caught up in a mix of reader event fatigue, grand delays, and tie-ins (and unbelievably insipid lead-ins, one of which lasted for 51 issues) that focused attention away from the series itself. Many readers complained about the impenetrability, the inaccessibility of "Final Crisis" during the first few issues. All of this overshadowed the fact that "Final Crisis," when all is said and done, is one of the most powerful DC series in years. Maybe the best "event" comic ever produced for the company.

And it's interesting to note that even the CBR message boards have tended to change their tone toward this series. While most posters derided the series during its initial release, most readers posting after the release of the collected edition, after the series was considered out of its context as an "event" comic, and further distanced from the "Countdown" debacle, have said some variation of, "I didn't like it when I read it at first, but after reading the whole collected edition, I think it's great." The tenor of the discussion has changed in the intervening year.

A similar thing has happened to "Dark Knight Strikes Again" since it first hit the stands. Everyone seemed to hate Frank Miller's return to Batman when the series was hitting the stands back at the beginning of this decade. But over the past few years, and it's become even more noticeable in the past few months, readers -- particularly critics, perhaps with an eye on the End of the Decade retrospective lists -- have embraced "DKSA." It's in the throes of a popular reappraisal right now. It's good, all of a sudden.

And it is good, better than "Final Crisis," certainly, and you all know how much I was tuned into the frequencies of that series.

So I guess it comes down to this series of questions: "What makes 'Dark Knight Strikes Again' better than 'Final Crisis'?" "What makes both of them worthy of reflection?" "What prevents either of them from cracking the Top 20 Comics of the Decade?"

Good questions, all. That's why I asked them.

WHAT MAKES "DKSA" BETTER THAN "FINAL CRISIS?"

Captain Marvel Vs. 9-11

Three things.

And by talking about these three criteria, you'll get a window into my brain. How I judge comics in retrospect, which is different from how I judge them for a weekly CBR review. For a normal, short CBR review, I evaluate a comic based on creativity and aesthetic unity. How it works as a chapter of a whole, and how it works from page to page. How effective it is at delivering what it seems intent on delivering.

But when I step back and think about comics from a big-picture perspective. When I think about comics that really matter to me in the long term, here's what I'm looking for:

  1. Striking visuals -- not just well-illustrated, but pages and panels that break the rules or expand the rules. Comics that know they are part of a visual medium and push the boundaries of that medium

  2. Strong authorial voice, even when working with corporate characters -- in other discussions, maybe here, but definitely in "Splash Page" installments or message boards, I've talked about my 75% rule, where I like to see a writer come in and do his or her own take on a series. I like 75% authorial voice and 25% faithfulness to the "character," whatever that means. The math is kind of wonky, but my "rule" just implies that I want to see less slavish devotion to the previous tics of a character and more of an author's fresh take on the character. If I can't see the author's presence in a series, then it might as well have been written by a plot-producing machine as far as I'm concerned

  3. Something new -- scenes I've never before seen in a comic book. And after reading tens of thousands of comic book stories, I've seen a lot of stuff. And, sadly, much of it is the same kind of thing, again and again.

Certainly, "DKSA" has stronger visuals than "Final Crisis." J. G. Jones can't compare to the artistry of Frank Miller, even when Miller is at his most loose, even when Miller looks like he has slapped ink on the page and set Lynn Varley up with a digital painting kit and let her run wild with the filters. You might argue that Jones (and his "Final Crisis" compatriots like Doug Mahnke and Carlos Pacheco) are stronger illustrators. They are certainly more pleasant to look at.

But Frank Miller brings a stark graphic sensibility to "Dark Knight Strikes Again" that kicks it into the upper echelon of comic book imagery. He has carved his way through these pages, whether it's the Batboys swooping down against a swirling purple sky or Barry Allen and Carrie Kelly inside the treadmill. Whether it’s the ragged and aged Captain Marvel holding up the fallen structures of Metropolis or the Question leaping from the rooftops, the neon glow of the binary gas surrounding his body.

Absolutely Striking Again

These are pop-art images, poster-worthy visuals, even when Batman is beaten to a limp, ragged pulp.

The images in "Final Crisis" are in service to the story -- and the art in that series is excellent -- but the art never becomes the story. And, in my estimation, that's one reason it falls short of "DKSA."

And as much as Morrison returns to his favorite themes in "Final Crisis," as much as the series is so obviously a work penned by Morrison and no one else, it's not as distinctly Morrison's as "DKSA" is distinctly Miller's. Morrison explores the notions of apocalypse and transformation. He explores duality and metafiction. These are the things he continually writes about. And the dialogue, particularly in the "Superman Beyond" chapters, are quintessential Morrison.

But if you want an example of a distinctive authorial voice, you'd have a hard time coming up with a more blatant example than "Dark Knight Strikes Again." If Morrison filters the DCU characters through his sensibility in "Final Crisis," and he does, then Miller rewrites the DCU as his own psyche. The characters aren't filtered through him. They are him -- the heroes anyway -- and the world of the future DC Universe, as depicted in "DKSA" is the world of the early 21st century, fragmented and reconfigured by Frank Miller because it's his version of the world, his satirical take on everything from corporate culture to libertarianism to interventionism to terrorism. Jimmy Olsen stands beside the Naked News and George F. Will. Superman and his daughter stand in the wreckage of 9-11, reimagined as a fallen Metropolis. And the characters speak like their all aspects of Frank Miller himself. His opinions seem to burst forth from every page, along with an indicator not to take any of them very seriously at all.

"Dark Knight Strikes Again" is Frank Miller in dialogue with himself, the comics of the past, and the world today. "Final Crisis" is about the power of stories, about the power of the superhero. It doesn't stand a chance against Miller's rage.

And finally, "DKSA" has more "newness" than almost any other comic of the past ten years. "Final Crisis" has some things we haven't seen before, like the manner of the Manhunter's death, the Green Lantern Corps as true space police, the Super Young Team, the multidimensional Superman robot, defeating the forces of evil with the purity of song. But all of that originality (as effective and inspiring as it is) occurs within a relatively traditional framework.

Martian Manhunter Dispatched

But flip open some random pages of "DKSA" and you'll see things that barely resemble any other superhero comics. Or any comics at all. Sometimes, Miller's work looks more like shapes at play than comic book work, and whether it’s the previously-mentioned dropping-the-tiny-naked-superhero-in-the-mouth or the lumpy, hunchback Lex Luthor, Miller's work looks and feels like something strange and different, and that alone makes it good. Miller's little jokes -- the "Will Network for Food" homeless man with a cell phone, the gauntlet Superman must run through (including a robot dinosaur and a Bizarro) to see Batman, the constant attention to fashion and television "news" and a giant frog punching Metropolis -- these things are odd and wonderful.

And it so obviously turns from cynical satire to earnestness in the final, post 9-11 chapter, that what could have gotten old quick -- what Miller could have run into the ground by the finale -- takes a turn in a new direction. And it enlivens Miller, makes the final chapter seem fresh and new when it could have easily become just the last of the domino gags hitting the table.

So "Dark Knight Strikes Again" above "Final Crisis?" Yes. Without a doubt.

WHAT MAKES BOTH OF THEM WORTHY OF REFLECTION?

I hope I've already demonstrated that, but if not, let me sum up: They try, and sometimes achieve, something different.

WHAT PREVENTS EITHER OF THEM FROM CRACKING THE TOP 20 COMICS OF THE DECADE?

For one, this was a pretty strong decade for comics. Probably the single greatest decade ever. The 1980s had some huge milestones, but once you get past the work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller and a little book called "Maus," the pickings get a little slim. The 2000s have had, in addition to continued work by Moore and Miller, plenty of good work by Grant Morrison (far better work than "Final Crisis"), Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, new guys like Matt Fraction and Jason Aaron. Ed Brubaker. Scott goddamn Pilgrim. And that doesn't even include manga or any of the Pantheon or First Second graphic novels.

"Final Crisis" just isn't good enough, as much as I enjoy it.

Batman Ragged

And even "Dark Knight Strikes Again," with all of its Millersque qualities and daring visuals and insanity can't quite top the likes of "Ice Haven" or "Asterios Polyp." Because for all of my compliments about the strong authorial voice, I could also have added a few things about its lack of narrative cohesion. Miller's voice takes over and the story slips away. And what started as a story about domestic terrorists as heroes -- Batman and his gang -- had to rethink itself in the post-9-11 world, and though it finished as a story about Batman's domestic terrorism, and the way he enlisted all the other heroes to help, it lost some of its teeth (literally and metaphorically) in the end. Miller couldn't celebrate terrorism in that cultural climate, so he had to soften it, change it around, twist the story into something palatable, but it doesn't really follow from what came in the opening issue.

Yet, the more I wrote about "DKSA," the more I realized how much I truly appreciate it, even with all of its contradictions and problems, its grotesqueries and its wrong-headedness. It's a major work of superhero comic book art. No doubt about it.

Maybe it will crack the Top 20 after all.

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.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

TAGS:  when words collide, final crisis, the dark knight strikes again, frank miller, grant morrison

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