17 September 2009

Flashmob Fridays #001: Final Crisis

Here's the deal: Flashmob Fridays here on Trouble with Comics means that every Friday, the TWC gang will receive last-minute notice that it's time to review a particular comic or graphic novel (or movie or novel or who the hell knows what? It's EDGY, baby!), and we'll aggregate them all here on Flashmob Fridays.

This week's inaugural edition covers Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, JG Jones and company. TROUBLE TEAM GO.

Johnny Bacardi:

Final Crisis? Okay, first things first -- as if we needed reminding, and apparently in some circles we did, stories are eternal, comics can be a medium "free from restrictions," Superman is the foremost avatar of the manifestation of the human imagination, and superheroes are not meant to have darker sides but should remain heroic, Alan Moore be damned.

Also, Grant really, really, really liked Jack Kirby's comics. It's hard to say what this would have been like if Morrison had had his way from the outset; this just reeked of editorial interference, which of course he denies... that would be an excuse, anyway, because even by Moz's standards, this was so chaotic and messy that it was a real chore to follow.

Sure, he at least tried to play fair with the readers by keeping everything as linear as production schedules would allow, but the storytelling style he employed was choppy and haphazard- we got glimpses of things, rather than any sort of coherent, sustained scenes, with admittedly a few exceptions, and while I am not always averse to narratives in which the reader is expected to do his or her share of work to get the total picture, I keep wondering if this message, that's he's given us before, is worth the effort. Part of this readability issue may have to be laid at the feet of this art collaborators; one wonders what a seasoned old pro like George Perez, who has lots of experience in depicting multitudes of characters, all shouting and brawling and shooting things out of their hands while rubble and cosmic energies crack and sizzle around them, would have done.

J.G. Jones is a hell of an artist in my book, capable of drawing lithe, sensual figures and telling a story well, the same with Carlos Pacheco and co., and Doug Mahnke, whom I consider one of the best, if not THE best, artist working on mainstream superhero comics today, comes along at the end and saves the day...but it's as if all of them saw Morrison's involved scripting and took it as a sign to ramp up their OWN tendencies towards obfuscation irregardless of how disjointed it all became. I suppose after all is said and done, though, this has to be viewed as a measured success, even though I have to wonder if this is what the braintrust at DC had in mind when this all got started; Morrison did, I think, say what he wanted to say and in the process gave us some FUCK YEAH moments, some of which will stick with readers, or at least this reader, for a long time -- not the least of which was Mahnke's brilliantly realized image of Frankenstein riding a hell hound to the rescue, as well as the ascension of Mr. Tawky Tawny to Chief Tiger Badass (amusing, and fitting), Batman's climactic showdown with Darkseid (I still liked it better when he dodged the Omega Beam in Justice League Unlimited) and Superman's climactic aria.

Still, after all this, I have to wonder: first of all, is a more sophisticated-in-the-telling version of Showcase #100, or even Crisis on Infinite Earths, something that we should celebrate and one of our best writers aspire to? And two, is our Grant a one-trick pony? He's been trotting out the same metaphysicalities for two decades now, from Seven Soldiers back through Seaguy all the way to the Invisibles and Flex Mentallo. Based on the odd work like the more-excellent-as-time-passes WE3, I'd say not.

But to be honest, I find myself wishing that Morrison would step away from the capes and even comics in general for a little while and take a vacation of some sort, recharge the old batteries, do a little sigil magic whilst masturbating, whatever- just think of something new. We'll see where he, and DC, go from here; one has to suppose than event fatigue will someday set in, even among the hardcore faithful, who seem to be dwindling in number.

Alan David Doane:

Oh, Final Crisis, how I so wanted to love you. When DC announced it was going to re-team the writer and artist of Marvel Boy (one of the best Marvel series of the past 25 years, brilliant and gorgeous from start to finish), I was cautiously optimistic. I knew Morrison and Jones could deliver the goods, but recent Morrison sojourns into the bowels of the DC Universe have been hit or miss; not much since Seven Soldiers has turned me on, and even that brought maybe only 60 percent of the fun promised in the premise.

No need to mince words, Final Crisis is a goddamned mess. But so's your bed after a particularly energetic round of coitus, so that's not always a bad thing. Unfortunately, Final Crisis feels nothing like sex (Morrison's best comics actually often do) and a lot like driving past a homely hooker at 70 MPH and wondering if maybe she was better looking than you thought, and maybe you should turn around and give her another look...?

Nah. I wanted to like Final Crisis, a lot. Morrison is one of the few writers left working for DC that I can ever find entertaining, never mind enlightening (you know, Morrison, and then there's that other one, you know, that guy...?), and here and there one finds moments that flash of the very best Morrison can deliver, but in the final analysis, having read the series three times through now, it's just a disaster. It starts off coherently enough, with the murder of Orion and the investigation that follows. But within a few dozen pages it's all over the map, and not in the good way New X-Men sometimes was.

Jones's art never seems as focused as it did on Marvel Boy (or even Wanted), and he disappears for the most part after the first three issues or so anyway; Morrison has too much going on and doesn't bring enough structure or order to allow the reader to immerse themselves in the story that's trying to be told. Batman's initial defeat seems tossed off and just background material, almost forgotten by the time it's called back in his eventual checkmate move; the beats seem all off on the key events of the story. One feels hard-pressed to be able to even the existence of a narrative structure, never mind try to describe it. And yet at the end, in the Monitors sequence, you have the feeling of an epic story coming to its logical, almost wholly unearned conclusion.

Morrison's best works in comics so far are WE3, JLA: Earth 2 and New X-Men; only the first two are perfect, with New X-Men losing points for its multiple artists and the rush jobs they were forced to endure. Final Crisis has that problem, and a strong sense of editorial throttling added to the mix as well. As a result, it doesn't get anywhere within a million miles of the high points of any of those other Morrison-written comics.

Matt Springer:

As a reader of spandex fantasies, I prize ideas and ambition above perhaps all other things. I will forgive many sins, from leaden dialogue to skritchy art, if there's an idea I enjoy, or if I think the enterprise had aspirations to greater things.

Final Crisis is an incredibly ambitious comic, and ultimately, I think it falls a bit short of those ambitions. But lord, what a story it tells in the trying. Darkseid taking over the earth with the Anti-Life Equation, Batman killing him by shooting a bullet backwards through time, the Flashes of three generations racing against the odds to save the multiverse (again)...and in the end, Superman shattering the grip of evil by singing just the right song.

Visually, it's a bit hard to judge the work; the rotating door of artists kicked in at some point mid-series, as it often does on an event comic, and that makes it hard to make any comprehensive critiques. I will say that I think Doug Mahnke ended up being a better fit for the title than J.G. Jones; I feel like Jones produces work that's a bit too "real" for a story this fantastic. I did like Carlos Pacheco's pages, though, and always wish that guy got more work.

Morrison's work often rewards, if not requires, multiple readings. I've only read Final Crisis once so what sticks out to me are the massive moments of genius, the frequent narrative gaps that demand filling (and often become full once that second or third reading is complete), and the sheer ambition of the piece. The guy wanted to tell the ultimate story of evil triumphing over good, and good winning anyway. He got close.

Christopher Allen:

"We have come for light
Wholly, we have come for light"

--The Breeders, "New Year"

Instant, Non-Final Thoughts on Final Crisis

* The cover to the hardcover is one of the bleakest, least appealing I've seen for a DC book. Rather than conveying significance, it feels more like Anti-Life itself. The story itself, while dark at times, is meant to be fun and ultimately uplifting. The cover feels like defeat.

* J.G. Jones's slight alteration to the design of New Gods' knowledge seeker Metron is as simple, crisp and correct a costume update as I can remember since John Byrne's smart redo of the Fantastic Four.

* Killing Orion first is a typically right-on Morrison move. The DCU's true warrior, locked in eternal struggle, until now.

* As much as we complain about decompression, some moments need some space, and Libra ends up less memorable due to his introduction being shoehorned into all kinds of plot and a meeting of the Injustice Society.

* A few other writers might have come up with The Orrery as a literal mechanical device controlling the workings of the universe, but who else would throw away the idea that time itself is a kind of virus or germ contaminating its previously unchanging workings? I'm reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright's great, arrogant quote, "Why, I just shake the buildings out of my sleeves."

* It's pretty clear even in the first issue, with the way Superman is drawn, that J.G. Jones was getting artistic pinch-hitting early on, right? Or maybe he just draws a bad Superman.

* J.G. Jones is not quite Quitely, Cassaday or Hitch, but he's a distinctive, exciting enough stylist that it's a real risk putting him on a monthly book, even a miniseries. He's like a really talented running back or wide receiver. If he's in the game, you'll see brilliance. If he's out, it's that much harder on a replacement, who's not up on the more complex packages. You almost wish for a lesser artist than Jones from the start, for consistency vs. the high points of his pages distracting from the rest.

* I like how worldly Morrison took some of the most obvious, pop culture aspects of Japan and came up with the ridiculous but appealing Super Young Team, all ready for someone else to run with them in another project.

* The Alpha Lanterns don't really feel like a Morrison idea to me. Johns? They just seem really obvious.

* Delicate balancing act, the J'onn J'onzz funeral. Somber but with the little bit of metahumor in Superman's hope for his resurrection.

* The Evil Factory - Jones has the same gift for depicting horror and weirdness matter-of-factly as Chris Weston.

* Jay Garrick with Robert Mitchum's face--good call.

* I have no real feelings about the return of Barry Allen, but it was done pretty well here.

* It seems like a mistake, the bad girl stuff with Mary Marvel. Kind of a tawdry representation of Anti-Life when Morrison had been pretty effective in building the horror up to then.

* Superman Beyond is included in the hardcover, and feels somewhat out of place. A decent, trippy multiverse story with multiple versions of Superman and forgotten heroes going against a space vampire named Mandrakk. If it had been a Quitely-drawn All Star Superman two-parter it would have gone down a treat. As a stand-alone it's not bad, and it's the best Doug Mahnke art I've seen, even without the 3D effects from the original comics. It just doesn't sit right in this collection, especially as it interrupts a story that's hard enough to follow as it is without 40-plus pages of distraction.

* The Submit story, though much more tied into the events of Final Crisis, is much worse, and though I wasn't there at the time, I'm guessing this was when readers really started to turn on Morrison. It's not a bad premise -- Black Lightning protects a family from Darkseid's Justifiers -- mentally enslaved human soldiers rounding up the unconverted. Lightning tries to convince supervillain The Tattooed Man that he can be more, be good, before Lightning himself is overcome, symbolically forcing The Tattooed Man to choose to be a hero to balance the scales. I like the basics of it, but Matthew Clark is a middling superhero artist and there's a feeling at times that his storytelling choices forced Morrison to have to rewrite some of his script, perhaps on short notice. There's no flow to a lot of it.

* Back to FC proper, and as much as I hoped for consistency in the art, Carlos Pacheco is welcome, with the delicate curve of Black Canary's chin and a rock-solid depiction of Hal Jordan.

* Darkseid as a huffing, puffing vessel of evil even he doesn't quite comprehend is somehow more chilling than the grinning, haughty Darkseid we all knew.

* From the fourth issue on, Morrison seems unable to keep all his plates spinning. The Weeja Dell/Nix Uotan thread begun in the first issue finally makes sense and turns out to be the most important part -- eternal love and devotion to a noble idea trumping Anti-Life -- but it has to fight for space amid dozens of superheroes on motorcycles, Lex Luthor deciding he'd rather try to save Earth so he can take it over later, the Tiger people from Kirby's Kamandi, and Batman of course getting the best scene, the showdown with Darkseid. The last issue has its moments, mainly Superman and Darkseid and the weapon of music, but it feels frantic and disjointed, and Mahnke, though good, is just too ordinary to wrap things up in high style. Admittedly, there's so much plot and exposition to get through that any artist would have trouble really shining. The scene hinting that Batman is alive but in another time is easy to mock, but memorable and surprising. It's a shame the Weeja Dell stuff and the other plot threads don't conclude as strongly, as if Morrison is just plain exhausted.

* All in all, the harsh criticism seems unfair. It's pretty easy to reread the book and see several simpler but perhaps more triumphant iterations. The Weeja Dell story could have been the hook, or Superman and the musical god weapon, or just a good old fashioned gathering of disparate heroes against a big menace story. All of them are here, as well as creation myth and espionage and redemption and corruption and youthful vigor and hard-earned wisdom and a just man falsely accused. Morrison is guilty only of too much ambition, of wanting to do more with a big superhero event story than most readers would have expected or even wanted. Give him credit for putting three or four times as many pieces out there rather than blame him for failing to pull all of them together.