Thursday, July 2, 2009

Trade Waiting - Final Crisis

Final Crisis is perhaps the most interesting event book put out by Marvel or DC in the past decade. Excluding the story itself, there is the disaster that was Countdown to Final Crisis, the surprising small scope of the event itself with its lack of tie-ins and the lack of fallout from DC's line of books (no, a couple of Aftermath miniseries barely related to the event and put together as an after thought does not count as fallout) and, last but not least, the fan reaction to the story which still divides people to this day. As mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of Grant Morrison, so I enjoyed Final Crisis even though I don't think its flawless nor the modern masterpiece that some other fans praise it as. Hit the jump for my review of Final Crisis.

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by J.G. Jones, Doug Mahnke, Matthew Clark, Marco Rudy, and Carlos Pacheco
Collects Final Crisis #1-7, Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1-2, Final Crisis: Submit plus material from Final Crisis Sketchbook

Considering how expansive the Final Crisis hardcover is, it's hard to figure out where to start for this review, so I guess I'll start by saying that Final Crisis truly encompasses the idea of what an event book should be. It is epic in both scale and intent unlike so many other event books from the past decade. It is not mere fluff and filler. Characters from every corner of the DCU fill the pages with the greatest heroes facing down the ultimate evil in an attempt to save existence itself from total annihilation. The story just feels like an epic, which is what Morrison was going for, and it is a credit to his skills as a writer. This is not to say that all of the other recent event books have been bad, though most have, it's just that they fail to live up to their event status.

Despite the fact that Final Crisis does become truly epic at the climax of the story, it actually starts off fairly low key with a man on the street build up to the end of the world, which is an aspect of the story I really liked. In fact, the first three issues feel more like a prologue to the story than part of the story itself at times. Morrison takes his time slowly building the tension and suspense while still moving events forward. One of the effective ways Morrison does this is with the methodical way the evil New Gods go about eliminating some of the top members of the Justice League.

First, with Martian Manhunter, then Batman, and finally Superman and Hal Jordan. The amount of ground Morrison covers in those first three issues helps out as well. There is a sense that something big is going to happen and Morrison helps establish this with the way he has various small scenes that take up a page or only a few panels. I know this "channel zapping", as Morrison described it, wasn't the most popular idea at the time, but I do like it, both when I read the first few issues as singles and in the trade. It allowed Morrison to hit the high points of his various plots and covered a lot of ground while doing so while still moving the story forward at a brisk pace. It work well in both the beginning of the story and the end while contributing to their different tones. The slow burn of the first three issues stands in stark contrast to the way many of the later events are paced, which is probably the reason I liked it as much as I do.

After issue #3, the collection then moves on to the tie-ins, Superman Beyond and Submit. Submit, a minor tie-in, shouldn't have really been in the collection. It's a perfectly fine story and provides some nice background to the events in Final Crisis #4, but it adds nothing essential to the overall story and the style and tone of the issue does not gel with the rest of Final Crisis, despite being written by Morrison.

Superman Beyond, on the hand, was an interesting failure. It deals with one of Superman's two side stories in Final Crisis (the other being Legion of Three Worlds) and follows the Monitrix named Zillo Valla as she recruits Superman, along with four other Supermen from across the Multiverse, in order to save her people from destruction.

After escaping from their mysterious attack aboard the Echo of Midnight, the group crash lands in Limbo, which is a place last seen in Morrison's Animal Man run.

There, Superman and Earth-5's Captain Marvel discover the secret origin of the Monitors and the Multiverse, which is what Superman Beyond is mostly about. This is also what makes Superman Beyond an interesting failure. The main problem with the Monitors is that they were always more plot point than actual characters, even in Countdown.

Morrison sets out to create a whole mythology and history for the Monitors of Nil, and he succeeds to a degree. It turns out that they are a race of Science Gods that are descended from Monitor, a conscience void that the Multiverse exists in. Ignoring the fact that Morrison's story doesn't mesh well with what has come before, he never fully explains the concept. The foundation that Morrison starts out with is solid enough, but the details are just not there.

Morrison also muddles the concept some more with the idea of "stories," which the Monitors are defenseless against. The idea of a story is the driving force behind the Monitors and their downfall. It is an interesting idea, but Morrison, again, never really fleshes it out enough in a coherent way to make it truly work.

Parts of Final Crisis, Superman Beyond in particular, are aware that they are, in fact, a comic book story. For example, the ultimate weapon used to defeat Mandrakk in Beyond (he returns for the end of Final Crisis though) is a giant Superman statue/robot.

Mandrakk himself, a fallen Monitor and the incarnation of Evil, is also treated as a living story. There is also a scene where Superman writes down his own epitaph, which also served as foreshadowing for the end to Final Crisis, that reads "To Be Continued." As with the Monitors, it is all a great idea that fails upon its execution either due to lack of exposition on Morrison's part or a lack of pages to fully flesh out the ideas.

The problem with Superman Beyond is that Morrison is trying to fit two ideas that really needed their own miniseries. Both ideas needed a lot more fleshing out than they got, so everything feels compressed and kind of jumbled. The narration isn't the best either, which is another hindrance. The underlying ideas are good and if you read the issues a couple times you can get what Morrison was going for, but, ultimately, they just need more room to breath.

The truly wonderful thing about Superman Beyond though are the various Supermen. As mentioned above, Captain Marvel of Earth-5 is part of the group as is Overman of Earth-10 and Captain Adam, the Quantum Superman of Earth-4 as well as Ultraman from the Anti-Matter Earth. Morrison was born to write Superman and it's obvious from the way he handles the various incarnations that appear in the story that he has a firm grasp of what makes the character tick. He does a good job of introducing the Multiverse characters and establishing their personalities early, but some of that is also because of how most are built on the standard archtype. It is also interesting just to see the various Supermen interact with each other. Mahnke's art is also a visual treat, especially since DC removed the 3-D aspects from the story, which make it much clearer.

After the tie-in interlude, the collection picks back up with the main story again with issue #4, which picks up some weeks after Darkseid has enslaved most of the Earth using the Anti-Life Equation. Morrison continues his carefully plotted story that focuses on the fall of Dan Turpin and the rise of Darkseid, which I found particularly compelling. I like the idea that Darkseid had to ruin a noble spirit in order to fully manifest, which is made all the more meaningful since Turpin willingly gave in, adding more to the idea that Evil has truly won.

There are also some nice moments with Barry Allen and Wally West up against the new Furies. The focus on Black Canary, Green Arrow and the Tattooed Man at the Hall of Justice was also good. Morrison also does a good job with the post-Anti-Life Equation Earth and makes it seem believable that Evil has truly won.

Issue #5 is the last strong issue before things begin to break down, narrative wise. It mostly focuses on the Battle for Bludhaven and the assault by Darkseid's forces on the last remaining human strongholds. Darkseid himself finally gets a decent amount of page time, which is pretty good stuff, and Morrison starts introducing the plot threads that will eventually bring about the climax of the story.

Issue #6 six is where things start to get a bit too chaotic for my tastes. Morrison continues with the various plot threads he's been pushing the forefront, but the "channel zapping" method starts to fail. Not for any reasons of narration, but that there just isn't enough room for Morrison to fit it all in.

For example, Batman finally shows up again after vanishing in issue #2 and it comes out of nowhere with little set up. Many of the other scenes, aside from the Battle of Bludhaven, also need a lot more breathing room. Morrison is basically writing too large of a story into too small a space. Luckily, Morrison does manage to squeeze in the essential plot details so nothing important is lost.

This narrative breakdown continues in issue #7 as well. Some things get more space than others, but some need more face time, sometimes much more, than the limited page count could afford. The biggest example is Mandrakk's reappearance and defeat, which felt flat, and Darkseid's fall is less than impressive as well. Morrison does make up for it to a degree by bringing the story to a quiet, yet mostly satisfying close.

Morrison also just plain "gets" a lot of the characters and, because of that, manages to produce a lot of great moments that can be found throughout the series. Morrison also manages to make the story feel epic by using the "channel zapping" method since he hits a lot of different plot lines which makes the story feel like a world wide crisis, something many events fail to do with their limited scope. The subject matter and scope of the story also help with that epic feeling. Morrison described the story as the "Lord of The Rings" of the DCU and while Final Crisis doesn't live up to that claim, it does come close.

Final Crisis is not the best superhero story there ever was nor is it Morrison's best. What it is though is the kind of superhero stories that I want to read. Superheroes are, by their very nature, a slightly silly concept and there has been a continuing trend in superhero books to downplay that aspect by making things more "serious." Final Crisis celebrates the idea of stories and the unlimited potential of the medium where other stories seem more content to imitate the grim and gritty "realistic" stories of the past. Marvel is the biggest perpetrator of this trend since they style their stories as "superheroes in the real world," which completely misses the point.

Final Crisis is, ultimately, a story about awesome and fantastic people doing awesome and fantastic things, which is what superheroics should be about. Morrison manages to maintain that sense of wonder that makes superheroe stories work so well. It also manages to maintain a sense of levity while still making Darkseid a threatening and imposing character because Morrison treats the material seriously without taking it too seriously or trying to make it as realistic as possible, if that makes sense.

One thing I don't really have much to say about is the art. I like Jones's work and the various designs he came up with and I love Mahnke's work, but I just feel DC really should have waited for Jones to just finish the whole thing. Mahnke's work looks rushed at times, most likely due to the army of inkers and the fact it was rushed, as does Jones's at time, and it does no one any favours. There are also problems like the fact that Mahnke's Darkseid is no where near as imposing as Jones's was, but I don't think it's really so bad that it's worth getting into. The art is basically good in the early stages, loses some of its detail in the later parts and proves that if collections are going to be your final product than your work should be tailored to look good in your final product.

Verdict - Must Read. Despite some flaws, both major and minor, Final Crisis is still an epic and engaging story that treats superheroes with the fantastic wonderment that is lacking is so many other superhero stories.

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Pat said...

I feel like Final Crisis really wont be appreciated for what it is until it really sinks in how awesome and epic it is a few years from now...I know people get pissed at how inacessible it is but i found it to be the best out of all these events Marvel or DC has put out yet

Salieri said...

I understood Superman Beyond the first time I read it, and IGN's interview with Morrison confirmed my suspicin: the original OverMonitor is intended to be a blank piece of paper. It's all detailed on the Monitors page on wikipedia.

Additionally, Morrison's treatment of Darkseid is meant to be a reflection of his extremist religious aspect. Hence, you have his Justifiers as anti-intellectuals who scream their narrow philosophy at everyone, and his followers as extensions of his entire body. He gets allprepared for the big takeover, goes on about 'God Incarnate'...but, as with Lord Sauron, Darth Vader, the Pope, or Phillip Pullman's interpretation of God in His Dark Materials...all that's really there is a bitter old man, cackling madly and going on and on about how great and powerful he is even while he rots away. The fact that this occurs in front of the Superman - a representation of the best aspects of humanity - doubles it's significance.

This is why Mahnke's interpretation does not gel with Jones'; at that point in the script, all the power is meant to have gone from Darkseid, leaving behind someone who cannot walk without calipers. Note that in every panel with Darkseid before issue 7, we look from underneath him in order to emphasise his power, yet by the end, we are lookng down at him in order to imply his loss of power.

Daryll B said...

I respectfully disagree with you but I appreciate that you thoroughly thought out your support of the book other than some of the "It's great because Morrison wrote it" I have seen in other places.

In my opinion, both Annihilation events, War of Kings, 52, and Sinestro Corps War were done better as universal epics / personal tests stories.

At times I felt Morrison and Johns visions clashed as much as Jones and Mahnke's art styles did. And don't get me started on continuity headaches or lack of great battles (i.e. The bludhaven battle..sue me I wanted to see 'regular' humanity's last stand).

All in all I said it before, this was done better by Morrison when it was Rock of Ages in JLA.

Thanks Guys!

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