Saturday, 14 February 2009

"You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything."

Phew, that was a close one!

For a while there, I had the feeling that time had been compressed down into a constant yesterday. And brothers, sisters, I have to say -- I was getting tired!

And yet... somehow, I don't think I've quite escaped the feeling yet. There's still a little bit of it left in me (in all of us?). Time to fight? Yeah, let's.

So -- it's my contention that Grant Morrison and co's Final Crisis is a better event than it is a comic. It's certainly not a better "event comic" than its direct competitor, in terms of brand unity and marketing, but who gives a damn?! [1] Final Crisis seemed like a strange alien singularity from which the comics Internet would never escape -- suck it, Secret Invasion! Only Abhay Khosla cares about you! [2]

Back to Final Crisis: you want annotations? Why we've got several varieties for your reading pleasure. Mindless bitching? Check. Sour, witty takedowns? Why not! For a while there we were blessed with both articulate essays on the series' faults and equally well-reasoned defenses on a daily basis. And then just when I thought I was done thinking about the damned thing, Sean Witzke posted a Unicorn-slaying critique of the book, and Plok wrote a brilliant analysis without even reading a page of it!

I have neither the skill nor the inclination to work out whether or not this comic has been good or bad for DC comics -- the sales seem to have been solid, but people have expressed concern about reader burn-out. What I do know is that the comic has a weirdness to it, and that people get really caught up in the book, regardless of what they thought of it.

Now, as so many people have pointed out, a lot of this comes down to Morrison's elliptic storytelling style, but the way this style is used in Final Crisis bears closer attention. Tom Spurgeon took the book to task for poor deployment of fractured, neo-modernist storytelling:
Compare Morrison's use of disjointed narratives in Final Crisis #7 to something similar like the panel to panel leaps in Jaime Hernandez' "Tear It Up, Terry Downe." In Jaime's story, everything you need to understand it is there in front of you; what you'll see if you give yourself over to it isn't a nefarious plan of some fake cosmic bogeyman but a story of emotional betrayal and how quickly our positions can change vis-a-vis the people we love. When a narrative technique is most effectively used, it tends not to bring to mind another use of that technique but some sort of gut-wrenching effect based on the content being marched through its paces. I just didn't get that here.
I'd say that Final Crisis achieved this effect at points (i.e. during Turpin's disjointed fall through the first four issues, in Batman's triumph in his own title, and with the self-constructing myth that was issue #7), but that Tom is probably right overall. The funny thing is that Morrison has been using these techniques brilliantly for years, so what went wrong here and in his recent Batman run? [3] Well, shit, it's gotta be because these are big, tentpole event books, huh?

Maybe not. Maybe it's just that Morrison's still making an argument that he'd already won by the time he wrote Animal Man #26 back in 1990. Maybe it's just that after seeing the man make a demonstrative call for kinder, more imaginative escapism in All Star Superman, it's tiring to see him write about this kind of story instead of just writing it.

Except... except that's not quite true. Because there are elements of the story that do seem new, even if they end up being all the more frustrating for it. Take the Super Young Team, for example. Sure, there's a lot of cliche in their conception, but there's also genuine energy to the group from the designs on up. Which just makes it slightly maddening that they DON'T REALLY DO ANYTHING IN THE END!

Two more examples of the ways in which Final Crisis does/doesn't work, one an obvious example of "big event" corporate re-prioritising, the other a truly idiosyncratic touch:

1. The Return of Barry Allen
  • Ok, but honestly, why bother? What's the point of dredging up this old corpse? To give forty-year-old men a mild, illicit boner? Fuck that: he doesn't do anything in the story that the current Flash couldn't do equally well.
  • Except, hey, if that's your thing then fair enough. Are you looking forward to reading Geoff Johns' take on the character? Cool. Johns' writing doesn't do anything for me, but whatever.
  • And maybe there is something to the way Morrison reintroduces the character -- the idea of the man reforming himself from pure cosmic information to save the day is kinda curious...
  • Or it would be, if it hadn't been presented in the collection of mangled trailers that was DC Universe #0.
  • Oh, and also: all three Flashes spent far too much time standing around. This does lead to one or two nice touches ('We have to save everyone. We start with family', for example), but it also feels like a waste of time and space. [4]
2. Superman Sings His Way To Victory
  • This idea is goofy and cute, if anti-climactic (seriously, I've linked to Marc Singer's review already, but it's worth another look).
  • I suppose this scene is also kinda stupid, if you look at it from a certain point of view. Except why would you want to do that when it's, y'know, pure superhero poetry?
  • Also, you guys all know this plot point has started one hell of a meme, right?


Now, the fact that this scene started a meme doesn't mean that it's great art, or great comics or whatever. Indeed, if anything my argument would be that the aims of the two plot points I've just discussed butt against each other so that neither plot element feels properly aligned. But what I would say is that there's something to this misalignment that makes Final Crisis fun to riff on or write about. Maybe that's what's going on with the choppy storytelling that Spurgeon bemoans -- maybe it's not so much there to generate an aesthetic effect as it is to provide the reader with the raw materials to create one. This approach might drive Geoff Klock up the wall, but it also provides the Mindless Ones with ample space in which to work their magic.

The last time a Grant Morrison comic felt this big and messy and open and interactive was probably at the end of volume three of The Invisibles. The conclusion to that story was frustrating, but I have a lot more time for those comics, partly because the stakes were higher, and partly because the build-up was better (The Invisibles was one of my favourite comics of the 90s, while Final Crisis follows on from/contradicts a fuckload of terrible comics)[6]. I mean, sure, you can mock The Invisibles for being drug-addled and hippyish (because it is!), but it was a genuine attempt to make sense of the Universe through a broad mash-up of 20th Century pop culture. You can find similar meanings in Final Crisis, for sure, but there are too many other priorities in the mix, which means that its interactive nature is annoying as often as it is invigorating.

In trying to be a big, dark superhero comic that reflects the times while also providing a sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis and Jack Kirby's Fourth World books, Final Crisis sets itself a lot of contradicting expectations, so maybe it's no surprise that it's a mess. But mess has always been Morrison's medium, so it's equally unsurprising that he makes something out of all of this. What that something is... well, as both Steven Grant and Tucker Stone have already said, that's pretty much up to you.

Me? I'm done thinking about the book, at last! I'll check out whatever Andrew Hickey has to say about it, because his enthusiasm for the book is always entertaining, but... yeah. It was a big event, lots of people had interesting things to say about it, but it's over now and I don't feel like much has changed.

Right now I'm thinking about Criminal, Seaguy, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, All Star Superman, Pixu, The Umbrella Academy, I Killed Adolf Hitler, Empowered, Scott Pilgrim, The Education of Hopey Glass, Or Else, Finder and I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets and I'm thinking yeah, that's it. There's a whole world of different stories out there, and isn't savoring them what Final Crisis is supposed to be about? It's ironic that in putting forth this argument Final Crisis ended up acting just like its villains Darkseid and Mandrakk, at least so far as the comics Internet was concerned:

So hey, here we are, the comics blogosphere -- changed forever/forever the same! Who cares: I'm just glad that I got to read everyone doing their thing, and I look forward to another year of madness, hopefully with the same energy of these FC posts but with a far broader scope.

Then again, I'm one to talk, given that I've been publicly reading The Filth till the staples come out (about which, more at the end of the month).

Oh, and DC comics? Yeah, I'm looking at you. Next time you publish a comic where the bad guys want to make all stories their story publish a comic, please make sure you don't colour a black man white before having him disappear from the narrative:

(Image via the ever-awesome David Brothers)

Yeah, I know it's Grant Morrison's fault that Mister Miracle's big moment is narrated rather than seen in Final Crisis #7, and I'm holding him responsible for that disappointment. But the colouring fuck-up? That's on you, DC, and that shit will not stand. [7] Fucking idiots.

[1] Lots of people, apparently. Hey, whatever floats yr proverbial boat!

[2] Though that said, his very best pieces on Secret Invasion (i.e. all of them!) are almost enough to tip the scale on their own!

[3] Three examples of Morrison using these same techniques far more effectively would be The Filth, Mister Miracle #4 and Seven Soldiers #1 respectively.

[4] Really, if any comic character deserves relentless storytelling, it's the Flash.

[5] I'm also very fond of Andrew Hickey's discussion of this topic, and Sean Collins' Animal Collective riff captures where my head is at right now in some inexplicable way. Also, how cool is the 5th World remix of 'Losing My Edge'?!

[6] I'm talking about Countdown here, rather than the previous two Crisis books, Seven Soldiers, Batman: RIP and Jack Kirby's New Gods stuff, though the fact that Final Crisis sets itself up to follow all of those books doesn't help, as I note a few lines later. Sean Collins had a good discussion of this over on his blog, didn't he? Ah, here we go. And for the record, I don't actually care about Countdown, but the lack of a solid lead in to Final Crisis does make it less powerful than, say, The Invisibles, or Seven Soldiers #1. I know that Morrison has talked the comic up as the culmination of his superhero work, but it feels more like a reiteration to me, so... I guess I'm not really buying that argument either. Wait, have I ended up claiming the there's both too much and too little build-up to Final Crisis? I guess I have! Well, there is such a thing as the wrong kind of build-up, and wouldn't it be just typical that you'd have to employ such an odd term to describe Final Crisis? Yes, it would.

[7] Yeah, I'm aware that DC comics could care less what I think, but it's fun to let the angry out every once in a while. And, seriously -- THIS SHOULD NOT HAPPEN!


sean witzke said...

Yeah, FC is kind of built to set every corner of the internet on fire. Secret Invasion it's like... okay, Bendis though McCain would win and possibly hates Muslims. Why did I buy this? You've nailed it.

I really don't understand how people are saying it's experimental, though. To me it felt like a giant step back from Seven Soldiers.

Other than that, have you heard back about your 33+1/3 proposal yet?

David said...

Hmmm... typing this pished so who knows how it'll read in the morning. With FC, I don't think it's as ambitious as Seven Soldiers, but... there are big gaps in it, and they seem to be there to be filled with whatever the reader wants to bring. Seven Soldiers had much more interesting gaps though -- I can't argue with that!

I've not heard back about my 33 1/3 proposal yet -- I'm officially shitting my pants, but we'll see how it goes.

Anyways, I'm off now -- time to make some chips then sink into a drunken stupor!

David said...

Ah, I'm sober now and have just received my 33/13 rejection.

I'm kinda bummed out, but like I said before, I'm confident enough in my idea to complete the book and try to sell it elsewhere.

Been reading Luke Haines' Bad Vibrations today, and have caught some of Haines' villainous confidence, so... yeah, I can make this work.

Also, I actually don't think that Grant Morrison's work is crazy experimental or anything -- he uses some tricksy literary techniques, but... really, his work's no more difficult than some of Alan Garner's weirder children's novels (Red Shift and the Owl Service, for example, both of which are definitely an influence on the bald-yin).

The Invisibles volume 3 comparison is mostly there because there's a similar overload of context in both works -- the difference being that I find FC's context far less interesting than The Invisibles'.

Well, that's not quite true -- I'm mad for the Kirby element, but that material was better served by Kirby himself. It was every bit as amped up and personal and expressive as, say, The Invisibles, and it loses something when it makes the transition to mere "continuity".

Still: FC was definitely more interesting than Secret Invasion, though Abhay's posts on that book were crazy entertaining...

sean witzke said...

Oh it sucks to hear that. If you're gonna continue on with it are you still going to base it on Young Team?

David said...

Young Team is built into the structure of the novella, with each one of the ten chapters approximating and commenting on its corresponding track on the album. As such, the book's pretty much got to be based on MYT, which I’m fine with. The only question is whether I leave it as a novella or see if it can be either extended or combined with further chapters.

I have a couple of different ideas as to what to do with it, but I'm going to think it over for a while before I dive in and start writing.

Also, the Luke Haines book is called 'Bad Vibes' rather than 'Bad Vibrations', and it's funny as all hell. Haines' misanthropic shtick can be a little pantomime sometimes, but on the whole he's on target, and his blundering self-belief is quite contagious. And hey, the whole skewed take on the Britpop era thing chimes nicely with part of what my book was supposed to be about, so... yeah, must processes!