Armagideon Time

Crisis of faith

February 3rd, 2009

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The conclusion of Final Crisis, patient Grant Morrison’s love letter to the DC Universe, shipped last week. Internet fandom’s reaction to the miniseries has been mixed, with the predictable panoply of axe grinding, entitlement, and starry-eyed pants-wetting from the expected quarters. The past seven days have seen numerous virtual street battles between pro-Marvel, pro-DC, Morrison-loving, Morrison-hating, and Morrison-hating-hating factions bent on spinning the ”significance” of a high-profile superhero “event” comic — a Sisyphean task all round, especially when the tenor of the discourse (with rare exceptions) resembles nothing so much as this…

It may seem quite silly to those of you outside the comics scene, but that that’s what fandom is about — obsessing about the ephemeral beyond the limits of rationality. I thought Final Crisis was a decent, if flawed, piece of work that demonstrated a level of craft far above what usually emerges from these line-wide editorially-mandated publicity stunts.

Any comic that offers a straight-faced depiction of Mr. Tawny Unleashed…

…is all right by my reckoning. Yet for all the glorious talking tiger ultraviolence, the real impact Final Crisis had upon me was to convince me, once and for all, that I have outgrown my urge to read what passes for superhero comics these days.

I was thirteen when the first issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the grandsire of DC event books, hit the stands in the spring of 1985. At the time, my tastes skewed more towards Marvel’s roster of superhero titles, though I never self-identified myself as either a “Marvel Zombie” or a DC partisan. I gravitated to what appealed to what passed for my tastes in those days, be it Atari Force, Dreadstar, Firestorm, or the Fantastic Four.

DC was getting steamrolled by the mighty Marvel juggernaut at the time, then flush with the runaway success of the X-Men franchise. Despite the critical and sales success of titles like Saga of the Swamp Thing and New Teen Titans, DC struggled to shrug off its (somewhat deserved) image of bland predictability and boring characters. Attempts by the company to shake things up (or “Marvelize” them, as some suspected) — reforming the Justice League as a group of Detroit-based z-listers and replacing Green Lantern with an African-American substitute — were either misfires from the get-go or failed to generate the hoped-for buzz, while ostensibly popular characters like Wonder Woman and The Flash languished in fan-apathy limbo.

Crisis on Infinite Earthswas DC’s attempt at radically reinventing its image, timed to coincide with the company’s fiftieth (though that could be disputed) anniversary. At the time, it seemed to be simply the answer to Marvel’s Secret Wars maxiseries from the previous year — a puerile slugfest which resulted in some minor, mostly cosmetic changes for the participants — but the ultimate purpose of Crisis was to codify and streamline the aggregate DC “multiverse” into a single cohesive universe.

As such, it was accounting and inventory-taking posing as a twelve-part superheroic epic, and despite the best efforts of Marv Wolfman and George Perez (pulled from New Teen Titans, which never fully recovered from the distraction imposed by COIE upon its creative team) the series lurched awkwardly between unresolved plot points before it concluded in a big ol’ fight with an emphasis on clearing out redundant and/or forgotten properties while setting up new ones.

Even through my nostalgically warped vision, it comes off as incredibly overblown and generically “comic booky” today, with toxic levels of melodrama and exposition spackled over a lattice of predictability, but my younger self could not get enough of it. One of book’s strengths was that Wolfman and Perez were able to make even the most musty z-lister come off as something special, even if the character in question was being used as cannon fodder for cheap pathos.

Crisis on Infinite Earths, whatever its other faults may have been, succeeded in presenting the DC Universe as the rich tapestry it was (and is), a stroke of genius assisted by the concurrent release of the Who’s Who in the DC Universe directory series, which laid out the major, minor, and terminally obscure players in handy encyclopedia format.

As an effort to repackage known and follow properties into something that young Andrew would enjoy, Crisis on Infinite Earths (along with Who’s Who and Secret Origins) did a remarkable job…for a short while, at least. The wave of relaunches (Frank Miller on Batman, John Byrne on Superman, George Perez on Wonder Woman) and debuts (Captain Atom, Blue Beetle) that followed (rather unevenly) in the wake COIE ranged from mildly diverting to marvelous, but the maxiseries also set a very problematic example which was soon incorporated into the marketing strategies of both DC and Marvel. (Ironically, while Crisis bombastically rearranged the set dressing, it would be two non-continuity titles, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, released by DC in that era that actually expanded the possibilities of medium.)

Event titles became a regular occurrence in the years following, reiterating the formula of “relaunch X, kill Y, introduce Z” while utilizing tangential crossovers (clumsily pioneered in Crisis, then turned into a dark science in Marvel’s Secret Wars IIand DC’s Millennium) to goose sales. It’s a process that hazards diminishing returns against fandom’s completist impulses, a generally safe bet with proven economic appeal in the face of a contracting readership base.

And so it was from 1986’s Legends up through DC’s current five-year cycle of ” Neverending Crisis” spinoffs, flipping franchise dipswitches to sustain fan interest (and outrage, but all publicity is good publicity). Grant Morrison broke with the tradition in Final Crisis, the capstone (hence “final,” though that remains to be seen) of DC’s efforts to squeeze blood from powdered stone. Where Crisis on Infinite Earths concentrated on the structural aspects of the DC Universe, Morrison instead chose to focus on its cosmology, relying heavily on Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos to do so.

To his credit, Morrison is one of the few comics writers who actually understands the essence of what Kirby was getting at through the oft-cited baffling and bizarre high concepts — a strong faith in the triumph of good over ultimately self-defeating evil. It’s a very simple idea to grasp, but one that tends to elude those who worship at the altar of the anti-hero and affected cynicism.

A dark god who rewrites the rules of the universe to obtain his darkest desires, willfully oblivious of the consequences, who is brought down by the sacrifices and ingenuity of the just. Throw in Mr. Tawny kicking some ass and a narrative style that requires active engagement, and you’ve got some pretty remarkable stuff…

…sort of. Part of the problem I have with Final Crisis is that for all the dread, all the tension, all the suggestion of insurmountable odds, the limitations of the superhero genre (and a meta-awareness of the industry and economics) make the resolution a foregone conclusion. It’s not that I desired to see it otherwise, but the nagging realization that one is reading disposable entertainment where the stakes are willfully artificial. Good will triumph in the end, because it’s a mainstream superhero comic, and DC has already published solicitations for titles featuring these characters for the next few months.

The acknowledgement of those conventions, reinforced from the first issue with the death of one major character and the return of another long dead one, does establish the overall tone that the story is as much about reading superhero comics as it is a story featuring superheroes. That might underpin one of the major themes, but it also smacks of the shaggy dog story gimmickry that Morrison has a unfortunate tendency towards. Tack on pseudo-Campbellian twaddle about superheroes as modern myths, and things veer into the realm of the insufferable.

Those stylistic quibbles (many of which I’m inclined to blame editorial interference, the nature of event books, and the rotating roster of artists for) aren’t the reason I left Final Crisis with the feeling that I’m done with contemporary superhero comics. I mentioned in a previous post about genre conventions that “it’s the ride, not the destination.” I still hold to that principle, only after some thirty-odd years of wearing grooves in the same route, time and again, I’ve reached a point where I can identify every rock and piece of litter from ten yards away, and not even a spin in a custom-tooled sports car can shake that sense of ennui.

Hey, as long as I’ve got my collection of Captain Marvel Adventures, I’ll be fine.

6 Responses to “Crisis of faith”

  1. adam

    Thanks for this – you’ve voiced a nice alternative view. I just sat down and read it all in one hit today and I tend to agree with you.

    One of the main thoughts that came unbidden into my head was “hasn’t morrison done this before?” and maybe better? I’m thinking of his Rock of Ages storyline in JLA with a dash of his World War III storyline for good measure.

    But enough about me. I like what you’ve got to say.

    Where did the image at the top of this post come from?

  2. Andy G

    An oddly muted event from DC’s perspective though? Where are the spin off titles being lined up (a new Flash title, that’s about it)? Not that I’m compaining, more “event” comics like this, (where the dozen or so titles written by the author comprise the whole event) the better in my book.

  3. Rol

    I’m not yet tired of comics (amazingly!) but I am tired of the overreactions of comic fans. You summed up the ridiculous nature of their behaviour perfectly.

  4. bitterandrew

    Adam: The panels are part of Psycho Pirate’s rant at the end of COIE #12.

    Andy: It was, though you can see shoehorn smudges around most of the tie-ins. It makes me wonder why DC didn’t just let Morrison do a cosmic magnum opus along the lines of All Star Superman (i.e. unconstrained by continuity issues) and leave the wrapping of the cycle in the hands of a more traditional writer.

    Some of the clumsier parts of FC could have been avoided and perhaps (HA!) the fanboys would have complained so much. Slop for the bottom-feeders and an epic for the rest of us.

    Rol: I can empathize with the *ahem* “substance” of some fan complaints, but the manner and tone in which they are typically delivered completely undermines whatever point they’re trying to make.

  5. C Lue Disharoon

    Think I’m gratified to have missed most of comics in the past decade, simply because, when I found my way back around to the discussion once I finally got online, I’ve mostly been enjoying said discussion at a less-than-rabid volume on clever blogs by writers with self-effacement, wit, and genuine self-respect that allows for reflection and perspective. I must be ignoring something…oh, yeah, I don’t read the forums voraciously…:-D

    My point is, I’ve been getting life experience and read some pretty good stuff, and gotten involved with creating, myself…so that I spend my time on characters that help me work out my world and scratch that old itch…learned to draw a bit, stretch my writing skills (even practicing first with some old characters and thus cheering the little kid inside)…DYI is the real source of satisfaction.

    Not that it’s all roses and no gardening…hahaha…I will say, “nobody’s favorite” is a good guide for what to NOT do on a rainy day!

    I used to find the argument above true for myself, and it’s still so true I don’t buy new comics at present, either(though I hear of some unconventional ones that might hit the spot!)…but isn’t the real boredom to do with the personal growth we hear, calling us? If ever I burn with the gem like flame, it’s in thanks to what made comics, video games, music etc. so good to me in the first place: it freed my imagination, and made learning about the world, my adventure!

    So thanks, Boston!

  6. C Lue Disharoon

    Your “Myth of Sisyphus” quotation suggests you agree 😀

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