Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, J.G. Jones and Doug Mahnke

I'm of two distinct minds where it comes to so-called "event" comics. On one hand, they are the sort of thing that rightfully deserves their place in discount back issue bins. But on the other hand, they are what initially brought me to comics as a teenager. Early adolescence disconnected me from what I felt were "childish" things - and comics were on that list. But somewhere around 1984 I was daring enough to venture into a local comic book shop (an extememly novel business at the time), where my eyes quickly found the first three or four issues of Marvel's Secret Wars.

Now, anyone who knows anything about comics of the past 25 years will tell you that Secret Wars (for lack of a better or more accurate phrase) sucks. And this is true. It does suck. Inconsistent and contradictory plotting collide with ham-fisted diaogue and ultra rushed art to create the paradigm of the "comics as pure product" movement. But to my teenaged eyes, it was a wonder. Here were all of the characters I had loved as a child fighting against all of their most familiar villains in an epic battle for the fate of existence. It was a way to instantly re-access all of these characters and catch up on the changes that had occurred to them over the years. It was my "gateway drug."

Since then I've lost count of the event comics series that have come and gone, especially from the big two - Marvel and DC. DC countered Secret Wars with the vastly superior Crisis on Infinite Earths (which, like its Marvel rival, still suffers from the passage of time, unfortunately), and those milestones set into motion an almost yearly competition in one-upsmanship. Sometimes this has resulted in fine comics work (think Marvel's Civil War or DC's 52), but more often than not it has still-birthed some real trash (how about Marvel's Secret Wars II or even DC's recent Countdown to Final Crisis?). Generally, the best of these have been mediocre comics...until now.

There was a time when letting Grant Morrison loose on an event comic would have been unthinkable - akin to having playwright Samuel Becket write the screenplay for a movie blockbuster like Avatar. Yet DC has proven itsef more capable of embracing the oddball and unique than its marvelous competition, so Morrison's Final Crisis may just be the ultimate expression of this editorial flexibility.

Final Crisis is... tough. It's a tough comic to get through and to grapple with. It's simultaneously gut-wrenching, unfriendly, confusing, scattered, brilliant, jam-packed, epic, and probably a few hundred more adjectives than I have time for in this review. The first time I read it (when it was released as seven single monthly issues), I would occasionally smile at some clever wink to the past, but in general I was thoroughly confused, and often that confusion led to anger. How was it possible, I asked myself, for someone like me with decades of comics reading under my belt, to be so flummoxed by the events depicted in this book? And if I was bewildered and cowed by Final Crisis, how would new comics readers feel after reading it?

Then, something wondrous happened. I bought the hardback collected edition of Final Crisis (which, along with the seven issue series also mercifully includes the two issue Superman Beyond miniseries and the Final Crisis: Submit one-shot) and reread the whole thing. I was amazed. It was more than just "better" the second time around; it was sublime. I can only think of a handful of comics I've ever really wanted to read more than once, and most of those are because I remember them fondly. Final Crisis is the first comic that I've experienced that seriously rewards multiple readings. Grant Morrison overloads every page - not necessarily with dialogue or with deeply-detailed images, but with ideas. He never insults or panders. Quite the opposite, actually. Morrison assumes that his readers can make sometimes huge intuitive leaps between even single panels. Is it wrong to ask comics readers to work a little harder to extract meaning from a book? I don't think so, but it took two readings for me to reach that place philosophically.

Yes, Final Crisis is technically an event book, but that should not undermine its value. It is an honest, earnest effort to bring art to what was once product birthed by the demands of the marketplace. It is a vibrant meta-comic that explodes with as much energy and determination as anything Jack Kirby could have imagined in his heyday. It is the post-postmodern mindset finally given life in graphic novel form. And, best of all, it ain't no Secret Wars.


Jesse said...

I grew up with comics and, like you did (initially), found Final Crisis to be a hopeless hodge-podge, briefly brought aloft by the power of Morrison's ideas. Your review has inspired me to hunt down the collected edition and give it another go. Thanks!

SkinnerBox said...

You are welcome. I hope you find the re-read as enlightening as I did. I have been pretty frustrated with a lot of Morrison's recent DC work - his Batman run made me want to pull my eyes out of their sockets. But...and this is important...I still think about it...and I actually want to re-read it as well.

Drop me a line and let me know what you think after your second go-through.