3 years, 10 months ago
Andrew Hickey writes on
Final Crisis. His book on fifty years of Doctor Who,
Fifty Stories for Fifty Years, is available from Amazon, Amazon UK, and, for print editions, Lulu. You'll also probably enjoy the interview he just did with me for Mindless Ones.
“There was a cosmic war. And the powers of evil won. And I know how this sounds, but they’re here among us now. I was kinda hoping you might be able to help me put some kind of team together.”
Grant Morrison, at the time Final Crisis was being released, said (in a now-deleted blog post, so I can’t quote it directly) that Final Crisis was clearly tapping into the same zeitgeist as Doctor Who, because of the number of superficial similarities between his story and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. He may even have believed it. But Final Crisis rather conclusively missed the zeitgeist at least as far as its intended audience were concerned.
Both Final Crisis and The Stolen Earth were inspired by the comic-book tradition of the crossover, where you get characters from many different series, all of which ostensibly take place in the same fictional universe, to come together to face a threat too big for any one of them. In fact both were inspired specifically by one such crossover, the crossover by which all other crossovers in comics are judged, 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, by Marv Wolfman, George Perez, Len Wein, Jerry Ordway and others.
That story was designed to clear up a DC multiverse which, according to geeks, had become “too complicated”, because of a plethora of different universes containing different versions of DC’s characters. The fact that this could be comprehended in seconds by any eight-year-old child reading the comics – “Oh, Old Superman and Flash With A Hat are from Earth-2, and Proper Superman and Proper Flash are from Earth-1, OK” – didn’t stop it from being an incessant source of worry for any reader who thought that Marvel’s self-consistent universe (a result of all Marvel’s main characters being the creation of three men – Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and, especially, Jack Kirby) was something that their main rivals should emulate.
And so, over the course of a year, came a comic which, however misguided its aim, was truly huge in scope. Its story involved a threat that destroyed a literally infinite number of earths, and saw the remaining five earths merged into one, and the whole of their history rewritten, so that where there had been an infinite multiverse there had now only ever been one universe. It also saw the deaths of beloved characters like Supergirl and The Flash (both of them got better).
It was a war in time, sparked initially by the actions of the oldest race of beings in the universe, the immortal godlike beings who claim the authority to police the universe, and who live at the centre of it. But it soon turned into a war between an absolute evil and a corrupted, broken, good, that ended with the whole of history being rewritte, and only a handful remembering that it had ever been different.
Crisis On Infinite Earths had been meant to be the final cleanup that would lead to a totally consistent DC Comics universe, with a fresh start for every character, but right from the start problems crept in. The new history of the Legion of Super-Heroes didn’t match that of Superman. Hawkman seemed to have two incompatible pasts. There was no way to make the Teen Titans make sense with anything much. The cracks were showing within months.
So in 1995 there was another huge rewrite of the whole history of the DC universe – Zero Hour: Crisis In Time – which involved all the characters going back to the Big Bang to once again reboot the universe’s history and wipe out these errors, and ended with new “#0 issues” for every comic, establishing the new history. Unfortunately, it ended up making the origin of Hawkman not make sense with anything else, Supergirl’s existence was a paradox, and it actually created more problems than it solved.
A few years later, Grant Morrison’s idea of Hypertime, which says that all stories are true, that multiple timelines can coexist, and that having a ridiculous attention to consistency at the expense of all else is less important than telling the current story, was brought in in a DC Comics story. This was considered far too silly, and promptly ignored by everyone.
So in 2005 there was another huge rewrite of the whole history of the DC Universe – Infinite Crisis. This was followed by 52, which ran from 2006 to 2007 and ended in a huge rewrite of the history of the DC Universe.
At which point, there began the Countdown To Final Crisis, which led to Final Crisis.
Final Crisis didn’t end with a huge rewrite of the whole history of the DC Universe, and this, among many other things, upset and disappointed the comics fans who were reading it. But they needn’t have worried. 2011 saw the release of Flashpoint, a series which saw a huge rewrite of the whole history of the DC Universe, after which every DC Comic started again with a new number one issue.
Crisis On Infinite Earths was part of a general sense of renewal at DC Comics, and came out at roughly the same time as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, regarded as the two foundational works of modern superhero comics. In the few years around Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC put out such works as Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. These titles are all regarded as being, if not masterpieces, then at the very least ambitious works which try to do something different with the medium.
In the two years since Flashpoint, DC Comics has put out many comics by sexual harasser Scott Lobdell, and a bunch of prequels to Watchmen written and drawn by people who don’t have enough reading comprehension to understand the original.
Context Is For The Weekly
It’s fair to say that Final Crisis, the 2008 DC Comics crossover by Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones (plus various other artists towards the end, as the monthly schedule required Jones to have assistance), is not the most well-received of comics crossovers. That’s partly because of the context in which it came.
Straight after the success of 52, a weekly comic which had run for a year, and told a story spanning the whole DC Universe, DC Comics decided to release a second 52-week comic, Countdown, which would be counting down to…something.
This was a bit of a problem. 52 had been far more popular than anyone had expected, but that was largely because the comic involved four of DC’s most popular writers, all with very different writing styles and abilities, working together to come up with a single coherent story that had the best aspects of all four writers’ work, and which in particular had a structure mirroring that of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers – a massive work which Morrison was finishing up just as he was starting on 52. Readers started 52 with fairly low expectations, but it soon became a reason to make sure you got to the comic shop every day, and it inspired a flowering of discussion, analysis, and fanfiction (including Al Ewing’s truly wonderful Diary Of Ralph Dibny at http://dibnydiary.blogspot.com , a truly hilarious look at the events of that comic through the eyes of a minor character).
Countdown, on the other hand, involved a bunch of C-list writers and artists doing a story that was driven more by editorial fiat than by the writers having any ideas. Expectations started high, and fell quickly.
It was also my entry into comic blogging. I’d seen how much fun people were having with weekly updates about 52, and thought I might try to do the same with Countdown.
I lasted ten issues. My last blog entry on the subject said, in part:
The most entertaining thing in this comic, by a long way, is the pull-out ad for hot dogs. At least that has some Sergio Aragones artwork. Unless you have a burning desire to see incompetent drawings of the scantily-clad bottom of a teenage girl, there is no possible reason for wishing to read this.
Countdown may well be the biggest mistake DC have made in ten years or more. Because they’re turning Countdown into a brand, but what that brand says to me is ’steer clear’.
I may pick up some of DC’s new titles, but it will be cautiously, and I will not be inclined to take a chance, or give any comic from them the benefit of the doubt. DC have consistently mis-solicited these comics (Keith Giffen is still not working on the title, despite having been solicited as breakdown artist on every issue). They have lied in the promotional interviews (saying the title would be self-contained, when it’s anything but). And they have insulted those of us who gave them the benefit of the doubt but pointed out the flaws in the comic (saying we don’t understand how it’s being paced).
Everyone involved in the production of this series should be ashamed of themselves for producing such meretricious drivel. But not as ashamed as I am for supporting them.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me every week for ten weeks straight…well, there’s no word for how foolish that makes me, and how ashamed I should be. But even someone as stupid as me eventually learns.
This would not have been a problem, except that shortly thereafter it was announced what Countdown was counting down to, and the title was renamed Countdown To Final Crisis.
Which itself wouldn’t have been a problem, except that nobody had told either Morrison or Jones (both of whom had already done a great deal of work on Final Crisis itself) that this was happening, and nor had the people working on Countdown been given more than the most cursory idea of what Final Crisis involved. So where the big shock in the first issue of Final Crisis was that one of the New Gods (a collection of immortal characters created by Jack Kirby) had been killed, throughout Countdown New Gods had been being killed off left, right, and centre, and there’d even been a Countdown spinoff series entitled Death Of The New Gods, in which all the New Gods had already been killed.
This led to a lot of anger from comics readers, who realised that they had bought fifty-two or more terrible comics, at a few dollars apiece, on the promise that they would lead into a story which manifestly had no connection with them. And they decided to blame the new comic for not fitting in with the previous ones.
This problem was compounded by the fact that Final Crisis itself really doesn’t work like a standard superhero crossover. It doesn’t really tell a linear story at all, as such, but rather acts almost as a collage, fragments of story colliding and implying something vaster that is never clearly displayed. That’s not to say that it’s a particularly difficult story, in any way – at its heart is a very simple story of goodies and baddies, with Superman and Batman defeating Darkseid and Mandrakk The Dark Monitor. It’s not particularly subtle – it’s bombastic and Wagnerian, and all told in primary colours – it just requires a very slightly different set of reading tools to those required by other superhero comics, and many of the audience weren’t expecting that.
Ultimately, Final Crisis’ failure is a failure of marketing far more than of the work itself. Fillet steak may be nice, but if the customer thinks they’re ordering a hamburger, they may well still be disappointed, especially if you punch them in the mouth for fifty-two weeks in a row first.
But no matter the reason, it was still, ultimately, a failure. But it’s one I love.
So Many Times Faster Than The Speed Of Sound That Our Words Couldn’t Catch Up
While Final Crisis was promoted as one of DC Comics’ endless series of Crises, and as a sequel to those other stories (and it made a nod at that with its fifty-two Monitors, a multiplicity replacing the singular Monitor of Crisis On Infinite Earths ), it really had very little to do with those earlier comics.
Rather, it’s part of a story that Grant Morrison has been telling since he first started working for DC Comics in the late 1980s. It builds on threads from Morrison’s run on Batman, which had started a couple of years later and would continue for another five years, but also on his Seven Soldiers maxi-series, which in turn built on elements from his JLA series of the mid-1990s.
Most of the elements that he uses in Final Crisis come originally from the work of Jack Kirby. Kirby is one of the most important creative figures in comics history, and created or co-created, amongst others, Captain America, the Challengers of the Unknown, the Avengers, Thor, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, the X-Men, and far too many more to name. It’s not even a slight exaggeration to say that Kirby’s imagination was worth many billions of dollars – sadly almost none going to Kirby himself.
After spending the 1960s pretty much single-handedly creating everything that everyone liked about Marvel comics, the early 70s saw Kirby move to DC after a falling out with his editor and co-writer Stan Lee. Once at DC, he began what was to be his greatest work, the Fourth World saga.
The Fourth World was an epic story that took place over four separate comics, all written and drawn by Kirby; New Gods, The Forever People, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, and Mister Miracle. Each of these titles could be read independently, but when taken together they told a story of a war between the Gods that had left them destroyed, and replaced with new Gods – those on New Genesis, such as Highfather and Lightray, and those on the desolate hellhole of Apokolips, like DeSaad, Verner Von Vunderbar, and their leader, Darkseid.
The Fourth World series didn’t sell as well as was hoped, and they were all cancelled midway through Kirby’s planned story, but the characters and ideas had a much wider appeal. George Lucas clearly based Darth Vader at least in part on Darkseid (the other parts were based on Doctor Doom, another Kirby creation), and the idea that Luke Skywalker was secretly Vader’s son, raised by his enemies, seems to have been inspired by The Pact, in which it is revealed that Highfather and Darkseid swapped sons.
Darkseid became, in fact, so popular that he was hugely overexposed in the 1980s in comics by talents that were almost unimaginably less than Kirby’s. It got so bad that in Keith Giffen’s parody series Ambush Bug, every issue ended with a “shock reveal” of Darkseid as the cliffhanger, so overused was this among the supposedly serious titles DC were publishing.
One of the things that Grant Morrison did so well in his 1990s run on JLA was to get to the core of the concepts Kirby had created for the Fourth World, and to blow away decades worth of accumulated cruft, revealing their true brilliance. In particular, he saw the core of Darkseid, and his quest for the Anti-Life Equation which would let him subjugate the whole universe to his will:
I will remake the entire universe in the image of my soul, Desaad… and when at last I turn to look upon the eternal desolation I have wrought… I will see Darkseid, as in a mirror… and know what fear is.
Most villains in genre fiction from the 1940s through about 1980 were thinly-disguised Nazis, but Kirby, who was a Jewish liberal who had served in World War II, had a real horror of Nazis that went far beyond creating mere jackbooted thugs – his art combined a Wagnerian feel for the epic and mythical with a Manichean sense of good and evil, and the result was probably best described by Marc Singer:
Thanos lays bare its psychosexual death drive, and brilliantly, but Darkseid is a more mature, more psychologically stable, and therefore far more threatening figure: imagine a Hitler who’s both physically intimidating and not the slightest bit insane. Darkseid is what Hitler wanted to be, the visions he sold to himself in his sleep made real. A walking dream, or nightmare, of total control.
Morrison returned Darkseid to that character in his JLA run, after decades of Darkseid being a character who would turn up to be beaten up by Superman. He took the setting of Apokolips and made it feel genuinely apocalyptic, and gave Kirby’s creations a power they had lacked since Kirby’s original run on the titles had come to its abrupt end.
This had continued with Seven Soldiers, Morrison’s series of seven interconnected titles, each of which could be read separately, but which built up to a greater whole. One title there, Mister Miracle, had seemed to be almost disconnected from the rest of the titles, as if it was dealing with something even bigger, lurking in the background while the rest of the story was taking place. That title, of course, was the one that dealt most directly with Kirby’s creations (though two other Seven Soldiers miniseries, Klarion and The Manhattan Guardian, were also based on Kirby characters), and it introduced a radically new version of the New Gods that still fit thematically with everything that had gone before.
The hints at a bigger context, present throughout Mister Miracle, which had been published between November 2005 and May 2006, finally paid off in Final Crisis, which is the story of what happens after the New Gods have gone to war and destroyed themselves, and of how some of them come back, and of the true context behind the War in Heaven.
It’ll Prove I’m Absolutely Right About Absolutely Everything
So what’s it about?
Well, it starts with an immortal time-traveller, one who quests for knowledge and has a strange morality barely comprehensible to humans, bringing fire to the first humans and so giving one faction a technological advantage against its enemies.
It ends with the survivor of a war over the nature of reality itself, plummeting back through time and arriving alone and lost.
The story takes place in the aftershock of a war which has altered the very shape of reality, a war which was over before we become aware of it, and is about the fight with the evil that survived it; a fascistic, controlling, malevolent evil with no redeeming features whatsoever.
“There’s no such thing as infallibility in this universe, Malet Dasim: I’d have noticed.”
It’s about control, and about the way ideas control us.
It’s about the Omega offensive and black holes.
It’s about how life is all about change, and growth, and the fire of the new, and how the opposite of life is authoritarianism, despair, depression, suicide.
“Have you any idea how easy it is for a God to hollow out a living mind and hide in the bleeding shell?”
It’s about that evil taking over everyone on Earth, turning every single human being into an extension of himself, with one mind and one will.
It’s about how life is pain, but it’s the pain that comes with freedom, and the solution to that pain is nonexistence or blind obedience, which causes a numbness which is worse than the pain.
It’s about how ideas matter.
“The horrific potential of a single stray thought to completely alter reality”
It’s about how ageing brings a corruption of the physical body.
It’s about entropy, and how decay is inevitable, but that very decay is what gives us freedom.
“What happens in a world where good has lost its perpetual struggle with evil? ”
It’s about two humanoid talking tigers having a huge fight.
It’s about how the drudgery of factory work feels like selling your soul.
“Stop! You must be supercool to proceed! ”
It’s about bringing the Flash back from the dead to fulfill DC’s editorial mandate.
It’s about putting information needed to understand what’s going on in a 3D spinoff comic rather than the main story.
“When have any of these young wasters ever faced a monster bent on turning Tokyo into a radioactive toilet? ”
It’s about tying up twenty years of Grant Morrison’s unfinished plot threads in a neat bow.
It’s about superhero comics as commentary on other superhero comics.
“Splintered like light through a prism in an infinite number of deaths”
It’s about how the choices we make determine whole multiverses.
But it’s also about trying to push the boundaries of the superhero event comic just a little further than it had previously gone. It requires a certain amount of intelligence from the reader. That damned sadist Morrison is trying to make his readers think. Not a lot – I don’t want to give the impression that this is the comics equivalent of Finnegans Wake. It’s just a story that assumes that the reader is an active, rather than a passive, one; one with basic inferential skills, who can pick up contextual clues so that not every tedious punch has to be shown on-panel.
It’s an experiment in telling an information-dense story by relying on the readers’ knowledge of the characters and situations – Morrison and the artists working with him can show Mirror Master or Talky Tawny or Black Canary in one or two panels and assume that the reader knows what sorts of things they’ll be getting up to the rest of the time.
But unfortunately, even this small amount of variation from the established norms of superheroic storytelling caused a massive amount of confusion. Googling “Final Crisis incomprehensible” gets 129,000 results. TVTropes says “Reading it in its original form was confusing at best, incomprehensible at worst.”
In the few years immediately before Final Crisis DC had made a lot of mistakes, but they’d also produced a surprisingly large number of genuinely interesting comics. Slowly but surely, over the next few years, everything interesting in DC’s line has been weeded out and replaced with identical dull tortured heroes doing nothing. Final Crisis seems to have been the point at which DC editorial decided that experimentation and creator-driven stories were a bad idea, and at which they started to put together the plan for “the New 52”, the production line of editorially-driven crossover fodder that today masquerades as a comic line. It seems to have been the point at which they decided that their audience really weren’t readers, but purely consumers.
It’s the point at which Darkseid won.
New 52 = Loneliness + Alienation + Fear + Despair + Self-Worth / Mockery / Condemnation / Misunderstanding
All is one in DC Comics.
Dan Didio is.
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