Sep 26, 2018

Grant Morrison's Final Crisis: Genre Coding

In a few months, Grant Morrison will take over Green Lantern, and focus on the “space cop" aspect, which has been Green Lantern, Hal Jordan’s deal since his creation, fifty years ago, but something usually left to window-dressing, because he’s a superhero. Ten years ago, was Morrison’s first stab at coptalk Green Lanterns, at genuinely applying the rhetoric and practices of, if not real police, police genre, to the Green Lanterns, including Hal, in what was at the time, the best-selling comic from DC, Final Crisis.

Crime Story to War Story
Genre Coding in Grant Morrison's Final Crisis
Travis Hedge Coke

While issues were serializing, Final Crisis received grief, even from those enthused by it, for being “confusing,” for dialogue tics and the nature of its location changes. For, not feeling superheroic. In retrospect, it is easier to note that, while FC features many superheroes and supervillains, the structure of the storytelling is not superhero. It starts out, crime drama, the language and shapes of crime investigation television and novels.

The prologue, set in the distant past, is a boy learning how to stop a crime from occurring, by picking up a flaming stick, a proto-lantern, to take this back to the Green Lantern space cops, one of whom is featured on the cover of the first Final Crisis issue. The first current-day scenes are crime investigations and criminal activities. A retired police, investigating someone shot dead and left in a pile of refuse. The active space cops are called in on the same case. A retired detective (turned superhero), investigating missing children, finds her case crossing over with this murder.

Superheroes recovering missing/stolen property are assaulted by a drug-dealer and a rapist (who are also the supervillains Mirror Master and Doctor Light), concurrent to a march down Main Street by supervillains using an excessive force protest to distract still more police and superheroes… from the murder of undercover superhero/policeman, Martian Manhunter, by an organized criminal enterprise who video-record the death as an open threat and recruitment tool.

Our retired old cop from the beginning, Turpin? Led by a criminal-with-a-family into a club whose manager, a mysterious crime boss, might know about these missing kids and his decedent. While the space cops are having their investigation taken over by special forces/internal investigations, our ground level and retired Turpin is being pushed around by crime boss, Darkseid, and shown that those children are now sharp-toothed monster slaves.

That is how Final Crisis begins. Not with direct punching of crime in its supervillain-proxy face, but with leads, desperation, interrogations, and hope. Special crimes units, badge numbers, with cross-referencing of investigations. Kneeling on the pavement and looking for bullet fragments. Walking into clubs and asking the scary, well-dressed asshole at the back for anything, because you know you can’t arrest them.

In 2008, the audience for crime fiction was substantially bigger than that of superhero entertainment. Lot has changed, since then, but not as much as superhero diehards might want. The audience who understand the pacing and lingo of crime fiction probably still outweigh the audience who know the beats to anticipate with the average superhero comic. Superhero rhetoric can be more genuinely impenetrable to a wide audience, than the rhetoric of TV crime shows, but especially ten years ago, when everyone thought they were just a chance’s breath away from being a special investigator.

As Final Crisis progresses, we expect it to dip into tradition superhero arcs and paces. To make the laps we know, use the touchstones we expect. And it does, in its way. But, more, it goes from being a crime story to war. As the crimes expand in intensity and number to a global and then post-global scale, the tone and the genre markers adapt from knees on the the pavement, beating mooks with a toilet seat in a seedy motel room, to drafts, to armies, to fields of the dead and newspaper front pages announcing news from the front.

While “channel-zapping,” the quick scene changes or interstitial moments may have annoyed some people deeply expecting a superhero comic that reads just like any other superhero comic, a 2008 or 2018 television audience ought to have no trouble. What is a David E Kelley show without short bursts of music between scenes or a quick flash to check in on a character before moving to the next plot-moving sequence? If you can cope with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and numbers and talk say people undeniably can, what fear have you of Final Crisis?

The last big criticism, then and when the comic is discussed anew, was that it was too much about genres, about stories and comics and media, in metaphor and mimicry. Again, do these people not watch television? Have they heard no songs as an adult? Music talks about other music and itself, about movies and stories all the time. If you haven’t heard a song use the phrase “love story” or call out another musician or song this year, what are you listening to? How? Do you? Watch? TV?

“We immediately escalate everything to a ten,” to quote from It’s Always Sunny…, which could not exist without “talking about” all other TV that exists.

If anything, Final Crisis, was a little late in coming, except nobody else in comics was getting there, either, except maybe Jack Kirby, forty years before, and to be entirely fair to all everywhere, nobody really knows in the moment what Jack Kirby was fully accomplishing. Kirby comics are going to last because he got genre, he understood genre markers and audience expectations. Jack Kirby understood non-superhero audiences in ways other superhero talent of his age and eras and even those far younger and long after, have often not. The predecessors of Final Crisis, Kirby’s Fourth World comics, New Gods and The Forever People went full war story for pages or an issue, then gothic horror or gothic farce the next. Scenes and characters interwove in ways that felt, in the moment of reading, natural or drastic, but always almost naive. They were not naive. They were built that way; to do a job.

Final Crisis is a built thing. If you are expecting a submarine and you get a Lotus Elan, it is fair to be confused, even frustrated. But, if you are told you’re getting an Elan, you see the car, the car runs great, looks good, eventually, step back and go, Hey, yeah, it’s a car. Then, get in the car and go some place.

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