Jan 3, 2011

So What Was FINAL CRISIS About?

After two years, I finally bought and read FINAL CRISIS, by Grant Morrison and a host of artists, mainly JG Jones and Doug Mahnke. I'm not going to give it a full review - you can get those from anywhere around the 'Net, and the truth is that I think it's such a love it or hate it comic that no review is really gonna do you any good.

I will, however, address the question, "What's it trying to say?" or "What was it about?" Needless to say, there will be spoilers.
Before I go on, I would like to point out that I fully believe in the concept of "death of the author." That is, it doesn't matter what the author was trying to say; what matters is what you take and interpret from the work. Interpretations should, however, be backed up by evidence - lack thereof leads to (and I know that for some people this concept is mind-boggling) wrong interpretations. So there. As long as there is evidence for it, I think the interpretation is valid.

Okay, so, in FINAL CRISIS, we're introduced to a race of beings called the Monitors. There are 52 Monitors, one to, uh, monitor each of the 52 worlds in the DC Multiverse. They attempt to prevent any crossovers between universes from happening.

One Monitor, Nix Uotan, is sent to earth to be the hero of the tale while another, Dax Novu, is the best and most spirited of the Monitors, but is corrupted to become the evil vampire Monitor, Mandrakk, who wants to end the story of the DC Universe. With the help of the Supermen of 52 earths, Nix Uotan is able to hold back Mandrakk.

Okay, so one thing you should realize is that Morrison here is doing metacommentary. That is to say, he is using the superhero comic to talk about the superhero industry. This is by no means new; it's been around since at least the first appearance of Mary Marvel, where Captain Marvel Jr. is talking about going to his own series while Mary can stay with Captain Marvel's series for a while until she finds a comic of her own.

Popular theory has it that the Monitors represent the continuity-obsessed comics fans and their tendency to catalog and categorize comics stories instead of appreciating and exploiting its boundless possibilities. While that is indeed a valid interpretation, I think it's far more apt if we interpret the Monitors as the like-minded writers. It's actually a very slight modification to the same interpretation, because the end result is the same. The Monitors try to prevent crossovers just as fans and writers who wish to keep things in the DC Multiverse - one that was never created to be a multiverse - neat and orderly try to prevent crossovers. The message here is clear: in everyone's attempts to make things more easily digestible and easily cataloged, the sense of wonder that we feel in having a realm of possibilities open to us.

So now, remember, this is metatext, so when Morrison refers to the "Final Crisis" in this panel, he's not mainly referring to the in-story "Crisis"; he's referring to the comic FINAL CRISIS, which he is writing, which is his last-ditch effort to save the creation of the superheroes from a loathing and greed beyond measure - the loathing and greed of the fans and writers who wish to keep the hobby exclusive and insular, instead of opening it up to a world of possibilities.

It really makes more sense when you realize what he's talking about.

So, in FINAL CRISIS (mostly SUPERMAN BEYOND, actually), the vampiric Monitor is Mandrakk, who was once Dax Novu, "the best of them." Mandrakk is the guy waiting at the "end of all stories." (Morrison is not being very subtle here.)

Does the concept of Mandrakk sound familiar? Apply it to the current theory. Brilliant writer, whose legacy has been so tainted by what he's done that the current industry has taken him and perverted his legacy into a vampiric, parasitic one?

Yep, Mandrakk is Alan Moore (and, by extension, Nix Uotan is Grant Morrison - Grant does tend to have a character in his works who is representative of himself). Rather, because Moore actually left DC Comics and wrote a bunch of other stuff that had nothing to do with what his legacy is perceived to be, Mandrakk is what DC Comics has done to Alan Moore's legacy: instead of Moore being remembered in DC Comics as the one of the best writers they ever had, he'll more be remembered as the guy who wrote apocalyptic, dystopian stories who tried to end superheroes. This is most apparent with "Captain Adam," a Superman from a parallel world who is obviously based on WATCHMEN's Dr. Manhattan.

Adam says, quite coldly, that he is the "endgame of the idea that spawned the likes of Ultraman." That idea is, of course, Superman, and the invention of the superhero, and when Adam says he is the "endgame," it means he is the logical extrapolation of that idea to the farthest extreme: a cold, inhuman superpower who is more fascinated by atoms and neutrons than humanity. In other words, very much like Dr. Manhattan:

Forget being "like" Dr. Manhattan; Morrison's character is Dr. Manhattan.

So basically, when Mandrakk shows up at the end of FINAL CRISIS, or, as he says, "at the end of all stories," the DC Universe is in a major shambles. And who saves it?

That's right, Superman saves it. Take note of the fact that Superman's hand over a swirling spiral of energy. That's very much like the "hand at the dawn of creation" - the symbolic beginning of the DC Universe.

Superman is recreating the DC Universe with this action, and he's assisted by:

A bunch of Supermen from a variety of earths (led by Captain Marvel, the original and best "next Superman," natch!). The message is obvious: No matter what you do to DC Comics, or perhaps even comics in general, Superman will be there to make sure it's not going down. Everything in this genre comes from Superman, and the idea is so ridiculously powerful that you just can't kill it.

But note who actually kills Mandrakk.

Yep, the Green Lanterns kill Mandrakk. Metafictional meaning? The Green Lantern franchise is now the central franchise in DC Comics.

Now, Grant Morrison is not very subtle in his execution of this story. It doesn't really work on multiple levels with many layers of meaning - there's the bottom layer, where you know what happens and you're not sure if you get it (unlike other comics where you would at least get the lowest, most superficial layer), and then there's the other layer, the metatext. I explained this comic to two people who read it and got what happened, but didn't get the metafictional meaning, and one of them gave me a very telling response.

"What about people like me, who don't know or care about that stuff?"

And that's the ultimate irony of FINAL CRISIS, I think. In trying to write an allegory about "saving the DC Universe from a greed and loathing beyond measure" and saving DC Comics from the vampiric practices of comics culture, Morrison wrote a story that you would only fully understand if you knew of the history of comics and current industry practices, which could possibly be considered just as vampiric as anything he was speaking out against.


Paul C said...

Great post!

I love Final Crisis but it's hard to disagree with that final criticism. If I had read it when I was a teenager, before I read Watchmen and understood how comics have changed in the past couple of decades, I'd have been completely baffled. I'm usually all for comics that require you to track down other comics but there's a difference between "as seen in issue 103" and "that guy's meant to be Alan Moore, and those guy's are meant to be writers/readers." Morrison's dancing very close to the line between clever and self indulgent.

On the other hand I do think Morrison's genuine and easily apparent love for the medium, the genre and the characters keeps it just the right side of self indulgent. And I can't help but admire Morrison for doing all this in a huge mainstream company wide crossover, and I admire DC for letting him.

I also really like how Final Crisis contains loads of cool little scenes in between all the meta textual stuff. Scenes like Green Arrow saying goodbye to Black Canary, Tawky Tawny defeating Kalibak and becoming leader of the Tigermen and pretty much every scene Barry's in. I think these bits are cool whether you get the meta textual stuff or not.

Duy Tano said...

I think that one of the things that did turn me off to FINAL CRISIS was the artistic inconsistency. I had certain expectations, artistically speaking, when I hear the word "CRISIS," and that's art in the style of Perez. Even though INFINITE CRISIS had different artists as well, I think the team of Jimenez and Reis and Perez and Ordway is more consistent than the team of Mahnke and Pacheco and Jones (the last of whom I don't think is a good fit for "epic" stories at all).

The other thing is that I'm just so tired of comics constantly referring to themselves. It was cool in WATCHMEN and TOP TEN and SUPREME (the first instances of me reading that), but then when I'd finally gotten around to reading ANIMAL MAN, the whole "self-conscious" thing started to feel really tired. Even the one part of ASTERIOS POLYP I don't like is when they refer to the simplistic nature of comics, and I also didn't like it recently in THE ADVENTURES OF UNEMPLOYED MAN. At this point, it feels passive-aggressive, kind of like some comic book references are to keep overly judgmental readers out of the hobby or to disclaim that, "Yes, we know that comics are regarded as a childish medium, and this is where we prove you wrong," or whatever.

Matthew said...

I am with you on the waiting-until-now view on reading Final Crisis. It's in the mail for me, along with some Top Ten. I fear it will only hasten my tiredness of all of DC's crises, which is at a high point now. There is this huge part of me that just wants comic books to be comic books and not focused on the Next Big Event, but I don't make the decisions.

Duy Tano said...

Matt, I think the trick is to not view it as a crisis. It has little bearing on the continuity and you can pretty much treat it as its own story. It's an epic story, but luckily, it is mostly self-contained.

Anonymous said...

First off, let me say this is one of the BEST comic sites I've come across on the net.

I really think you have a good case in that Mandrakk represents comics post Moore, and as much as I hate to admit it there's probably something to the notion of Nix being GM's "fiction suit" for this book.

To be charitable, I'd like to think that it's a call to the idea that superhero comics, in all their ridiculous glory, are worthy of more than deconstruction and shoehorning of other mediums.

It's funny, because as GM fan I consider FC a failure though a worthy one given all that it tried to accomplish. To me the last issue of FC is like a poem, swinging between beats, justified by the breakdown of time.

That to me was an incredibly impressive feat, utilizing the plot to support your experimental structure.

At the same time, FC was in many ways a hot mess. Countdown, the art disasters, the confusing nature of the non-GM tie-ins. There are just too many pieces, and it really needed 12 issues instead of seven.

For all that, I admire the way all of FC was merely a portion of Darkseid's plan to be reborn through Batman and Hurt. Even if I suspect GM improved some of that. ;-)

-Saj P

Duy Tano said...

Hey, thanks for the compliment!

I think the problems with Final Crisis can be summed up thusly:

(1) It was called a "Crisis," and that conjures up certain expectations to be like COIE and Infinite Crisis, which this wasn't like at all.

(2) Countdown was a mess! Grant didn't even read it!

(3) JG Jones just shouldn't have been the artist. He's a good artist otherwise, but was not up to illustrating what Grant gave him. Mahnke pretty much proved he should have drawn the whole thing!

Anonymous said...

Heh, I really disliked Infinite Crisis.

Countdown was sort of a strange deal, apparently GM and the other 52 writers were supposed to do it but were too exhausted after 52. GM told them where it had to lead but got ignored.

I was reading Rikdad's Batman and Return of Bruce Wayne annotations, have to admit that while I think there was some improving on GM's part the pieces - stretching all the way back to Seven Soldiers - comes together with perhaps minor flaws.

We'll see if the last act of Batman Incorporated holds up...

-Saj P

Unknown said...

Good "review" of Final Crisis.
Still, I have a question...I understood most of the metacommentaries, but after 2 years, I still don't know who is supposed to be (as a fictionnal character of the DC universe), or what is supposed to be (as an idea of Grant Morrison), the hairy guy of Final Crisis 5, who is in a cell with Nix Uotan, just before Metron remembers that he was a new god by completing the cube.

If you can answer that question, you have my respect for life.

Duy Tano said...

I could not answer this question, so I asked Final Crisis enthusiast, Travis Hedge Coke. (travishedgecoke.blogspot.com) He says this.

"It's not confirmed anywhere, that I know of, and I think it works better if we don't know, mainly because it's an infodump character, but popular theories included the typing monkey from Morrison's Animal Man run, or Himon in a apish body. The monkey was another form of Grant Morrison in that story, or The Writer as he's later called in Suicide Squad or something like that.

When he's done teaching/lecturing, he's not in the room anymore, just as the monkey in Animal Man died when he completed his task and Grant showed up, except here, it's our boy, the Judge of All Evil sitting exactly as the monkeyman was."

Unknown said...

Thank you (and Travis) for your researches, you definitively have my respect for life :-)

Jim Harbor said...

Gonna have to disagree on the GL thing. if you look at the Miracle Machine and hwo Grant works it it "The Ultimate technology" here, technology, magic, and on the metalevel storytelling, are the acts of imposing imagination, through will, onto a reality. The Green lanterns, are based on this idea; their weapon is literally imagination itself. So we have Superman, the best story and the GL Corps, the best storytellers. Wielding the most powerful weapon in the universe: Imagination.

Duy Tano said...

I like that!

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