Sunday, December 14, 2008

Final Crisis #5

Tim Callahan: Two of our colleagues over at CBR reviewed Final Crisis #5, and while one raved about it, the other thought it was pretty terrible. How could one comic cause such different reactions? And where do you stand on the greatness/atrocity of Final Crisis #5?

Chad Nevett: I was surprised at the two differing reactions, but also enjoyed each take. While I personally loved this issue, I like seeing what people who disagree with me say, maybe make me see things from another perspective or shed light on aspects/flaws I didn't notice. That didn't happen in this case, because this has been my favorite issue yet as Morrison goes full-on insane with compressed storytelling that enters scenes late and leaves them early. I think we're beginning to see that the slow beginning was very purposeful as the story picks up speed and looks like it will soon go too fast, breeze through events too quickly... which Morrison is known to do at times, but I always love. There's a manic glee in these pages that I can't help but love. Chaos in full swing, Darkseid is everything, and Metron continues to work against him in subtle, secret ways... Lovely. This was a goddamn good comic.

On the other hand, I can see why some wouldn't like it since it is very briskly paced and demands you pay attention, makes various allusions to previous Morrison works and, in some ways, requires that you've read those other works. Which brings me to a question I can guess the answer to: Dan DiDio revealed that Morrison's Batman story really concludes in the pages of Final Crisis #6... does that bother you at all? Since this series and Morrison's work in general already requires a certain amount of foreknowledge and interconnectivity with the rest of his work, is this a problem (or even a surprise)?

TC: I'm not sure I understand what DiDio said about that, especially the part where he described the "reveal" Morrison talked about this summer actually showing up in Final Crisis #6, and that was "the plan all along." Okay, I understand him, I just don't really believe it, because Morrison was clearly talking about the end of "R.I.P." and now his words have been retconned, or something. But I have absolutely no problem if Batman's story concludes in Final Crisis #6, although it seems like a weird place to put it since Batman has played practically no role in the series thus far. He was quickly dispatched in issue #2 and has been locked inside the Lump contraption ever since. I'll reserve judgment until I see how it plays out, but if it does happen the way DiDio says, then it's not like I'd be offended. I read all of Morrison's comics, obviously, and I think everyone else should too.

Final Crisis #5 was also MY favorite issue thus far. I forgot how good this series has been, actually, since the delays have derailed it from my mind, but we've pretty much raved about each and every issue so far, and yet when I read this one, I thought, "wow, I'll have to rethink that Best Comics of 2008" list I've been working on. I didn't even consider Final Crisis in my Top 20 list, but after this issue, I think I have to.

Did you read Jog's review? I think he nailed what's so great about the issue (as he does so often in his reviews of things), but I'm interested in one of the comments on his blog, by "Kenny" who writes, "Every positive Final Crisis review reads like someone already in love with the material speaking to others in love with the material about all the stuff they love with no explanation of why. After every Final Crisis review, I come away more and more confused - what am I missing? What is so obviously good about Final Crisis that by me not immediately grasping it, no one can seemingly explain it?" Now I think Jog does a pretty good job of explaining what's good about issue #5, but I think we should try to speak to all the Kennys in audience. So, if you were at a convention and Kenny came up to you with these questions, and you had a stack of Final Crisis comics handy, what would you show him and talk to him about to explain what makes this series so good?

CN: Of course, I've read Jog's take. His blog is among my usual "just woke up and want to read what others have to say about comics" rounds. Your question is one I've been struggling with for a long time, way before Final Crisis: how to explain something is awesome. I'm awful at that, especially because I always find myself using the same descriptors as those who hated what I so dearly loved. When you both use the same words to describe opposite reactions, is there any way to actually communicate meaningfully about a work?

I honestly don't know what to tell the Kennys of the world. In previous columns, we've discussed the techniques that Morrison uses in this book, which is a compressed sort found in his JLA work (were these people complaining about not understand things then?) plus loads others. The more I think about it, the more I don't see what's so confusing about this series, or this issue, which is pretty damn straight forward in that most of it is the forces of Darkseid versus the heroes. As it continues, it gets simpler, because Morrison reveals more... my advice, actually, is, if you aren't following along by this point, give up. A horribly pessimistic message that shows an odd snobbish cynicism, but we're five issues in and if things aren't making sense, I'm not sure they ever will. Grant Morrison is not known for ending that nicely and neatly tell the reader exactly what it all means. He does wrap things up, but it's in the same manner in which he's told the entire story. So, yeah, I have no means of helping those still lost. Maybe that's why I didn't go into teaching. But, you did, Tim, so do you have any ideas?

TC: Damn you, Nevett and your discussion-akido. I don't think I can really help the Kennys of the world either, beyond explaining the things that we've already explained in previous installments of "The Splash Page," but here's a list of things that make Final Crisis good: The way Morrison pulls in all levels of the DCU, from the street-level to the cosmic; J. G. Jones's almost tactile sense of dread; Carlos Pacheco's fluid panel compositions; Morrison's slow unfolding of the evil followed by the rapid acceleration of Darkseid's takeover of the Earth; the bastions of superheroism forming a resistance; Hal Jordan with 24 hours to save the world; The Super-Young Team's dramatic entrance; Rubik's Cube as Mother Box; Corruption vs. innocence; The way we jump from scene to scene without banal explanation.

These are all things that make Final Crisis work so well, but as you say, these are some of the same things that people complain about. And our sense of reality is skewed, as you know, since we appreciate the fact that this series draws upon Morrison's other work. Does this series work at all as an independent piece of superhero fiction? I've always assumed so, but others disagree. Yet that final page of issue #5 seems like a good litmus test for any potential reader, past, present, or future. If you don't think Nix Uotan's new look on that final page looks exceptionally cool -- and implies more excitement and imagination to follow -- than you probably won't be in tune with this series.

CN: I can't speak to how well this book works on its own since, like you, I've read what's come before. I pick up on the various references to Morrison's runs on JLA, Seven Soldiers and Batman. Would I be lost without that foreknowledge? Nah, because this book isn't half as difficult as some say it is, but I wouldn't be "getting it" as much as I am either. But, what piece of fiction, particularly corporate shared-universe superhero fiction, doesn't rely on what came before and subtle allusions to communicate its ideas to the reader? Unlike other books, this one doesn't just reference other big events or the "main" titles, it references "obscure" things like Seven Soldiers that, yeah, you should have been reading, because it was damn good. However, I don't think the actual plot references previous works to an extent that it actively hinders reading. I think the techniques Morrison uses probably cause more problems than quick allusions.

For the record, I love Nix Uotan's new look. I was wondering when it was going to show up since I flipped through the Final Crisis Sketchbook last week. The Fifth World superhero/god has arrived! I really enjoyed the two pages before that with Darkseid taking over half of the world with a visual allusion to Marvel Boy #2 where Noh-Varr and Plexus took control of the minds of New Yorkers to defeat the final Bannerman... striking with one fist and such. See, I got that, but does not getting it hurt the scene? Not at all! I think people get too hung up on the idea that there is so much going on with fast cuts and short scenes that there must be tons of things shown elsewhere key to understanding what's going on when there aren't. There really are not. I can only think of one: Metron is the guy in the wheelchair who solves the Rubik's cube in 17 moves. I think that may be the only thing that having read previous Morrison work actually provides needed insight. The rest is pretty self-explanatory if you've read the previous four issues.

TC: I didn't remember that it was Metron in the chair when I read the issue, and it affected my reaction to the book not at all. When I later read online that it was the Metron from Morrison's Mister Miracle I just though, "oh, that's right." It is a bit confusing because a dialogue tag seems to be pointed in the wrong direction during the Rubik's Cube sequence, but whether you know about Metron is irrelevant to understanding the plot. The guy has solved the cube in an impossible way, he has broken free of spacetime. Things are unfolding. It's all good. Great, even.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Final Crisis #4 (plus Final Crisis: Submit)

Chad Nevett: What a wonderful week for comics, particularly those who enjoy big inter-company event comics. We get not one, but two Grant Morrison-penned Final Crisis comics with issue four and the Submit one-shot, plus (plus!) Secret Invasion's penultimate issue along with another mediocre/borderline awful issue New Avengers that kind of gives new information but not really. And we're here to discuss them all, compare, contrast, and tell you which event is truly the best one, aren't we, Tim?

Tim Callahan: Absolutely! And why am I shouting?!? I don't know! But I can't stop! No event fatigue from this guy!

By the way, forget about the Marvel heroes vs. the Skrulls. Forget about the DC heroes vs. the Anti-Life. The real battle here is Brian Michael Bendis vs. Grant Morrison, isn't it? The top Marvel dog vs. DC's big gun. And since their both basically telling the same kind of story -- invasion of evil and the rag-tag collection of heroes who fight back against overwhelming odds -- we can see their contrasting narrative styles all the more clearly. It's as if they're two great directors remaking the same movie for two competing studios. Except with comics, and, you know, drawings by other dudes.

We've certainly seen a bit more of Secret Invasion -- or A LOT MORE, if you count all the tie-ins -- but as of October, 2008, I think it's safe to say that in the Bendis vs. Morrison showdown, Morrison is dominating. It's not even really close. Final Crisis is the better series by, oh, I don't know, let's say 1,000%. You're the math guy here, so I'll leave the precise calculations to you. And obviously you and I have a record of raving about Morrison's stuff, so we're going to seem biased, but I think we can objectively prove that Morrison's work here is better than Bendis's can't we? Or are you going to side with Bendis so we can get into an epic brawl of our own?

CN: How about my dropping Bendis's two Avengers books? While the main Secret Invasion book hasn't been horrible, although the quality did decrease there for a few issues, the tie-in Avengers comics have almost killed the whole thing for me. What a bunch of pointless wastes of paper, money and time. Random "See how this character became a Skrull!" issues with the odd Nick Fury and his new Howlin' Commandos one thrown in to tease us with the idea that they all won't suck so hard. Take the latest New Avengers where the Hood and his supervillain pals discover Skrulls are here... and... nothing else. WE ALREADY KNOW THAT THEY KNOW THERE ARE SKRULLS! THEY ARE FIGHTING WITH THE SUPERHEROES AGAINST THE SKRULLS! WHO CARES HOW AND WHEN THEY DISCOVERED SKRULLS? I SURE AS HELL DON'T AND I WAS EXCITED ABOUT THIS STORY WHEN IT BEGAN! NOW, MY ENTHUSIASM IS JUST ANGER AND FRUSTRATION! GAH!, sorry. But, really, does anyone think most of these Avengers issues have been good? Hell, I would almost settle for mediocre at this point so long as there was an actual plot, not one three-page idea stretched out to a full comic.

So, yeah, Morrison wins, because he's only given us one issue like that with Submit. And even it has more plot than most of those Avengers issues. People can argue that Secret Invasion has more of the 'splodey than Final Crisis and that they like Skrulls more than New Gods, but I flat-out defy anyone to say that Bendis has out-written Morrison, except if you're judging by the amount of pages each has turned in -- but it's easy to do that when nothing happens on most of them. How do people bitch about Final Crisis being boring when Secret Invasion has been nothing but showing when someone was replaced by a Skrull and superheroes fighting Skrulls? Seven months so far of this. Seven months. And I really liked what Bendis was doing before this, so I don't want anyone to accuse me of "hating" on him. If I sound like a "hater," it's because of the comics he's produced these past seven months. Tim, you talk now.

TC: I actually thought the most recent New Avengers issue was one of Bendis's better here's-how-this-guy-turned-out-to-be-a-Skrull backstories. It was a huge improvement over last week's Mighty Avengers issue which, as I commented to you on your blog, was one page of story stretched out for twenty-two pages. At least with New Avengers we got to see more of the Hood's criminal empire, and I kind of like the dynamic between the oddball grouping of characters and the Hood himself. But the Skrull Captain Marvel from Mighty Avengers already had an entire five-issue series about how he was, in fact, a Skrull. So seeing him again with such a focus seemed particularly unnecessary. And the art in New Avengers was pretty good. Much better than the art in Final Crisis: Submit. Matthew Clark's a wonderful artist. I followed his work on Inhumans, and I even picked up a few issues of the otherwise terrible Outsiders comic just because he drew them, and the first issue of the new Tangent series was stellar work. On Final Crisis: Submit he either suffers from rushed pencils or poor inking, or both, because it doesn't look like his normal style at all. It looks like a simplified and ugly-fied version of it.

Somehow I ended up taking the role of defending the Bendis comics over the Morrison comics. How did this happen?

I do have to admit that I liked New Avengers more than Final Crisis: Submit this week, but the main titles -- Final Crisis and Secret Invasion, proper -- show Morrison's dominance. There's more complexity and dread in a single page of Final Crisis than in a single Secret Invasion issue. And what has really happened so far in that series? The Skrulls have shown up in New York City. Some fake Avengers showed up in the Savage Land. They have fought. That's it. Seven issues of that, without even much in the way of character bits, ultimately. I've really started to sour on Secret Invasion, and I'm sorry to see that happen. I enjoyed the first half of it quite a bit.

But let's get into the nitty-gritty in the Morrison vs. Bendis face-off. Is it just our preferences, or is there some quantifiable difference between what Morrison does and what Bendis does? Why does one writer's series work so much better than the other's?

CN: Well, for us, I think it's the reason why the general comic reading population is responding better to Bendis than Morrison. Bendis writes a big blockbuster that seems exciting and action-packed where nothing really happens, while Morrison writes a more focused, smaller story where lots of stuff happens subtly. Bendis's book doesn't read as boring despite the lack of forward momentum, while Morrison's reads as boring despite lots of forward momentum. I think. And since we're not the types to prefer flash over substance, we're not going to prefer Bendis over Morrison.

I actually think the key word, really, is subtle. Morrison is much more subtle, so the plot and sense of what's going on kind of sneaks up on you, whereas Bendis just lays it all out and then has six different character tell the reader in their own ways what's going on. There are positives and negatives to both approaches, but I think Morrison's makes for a much more satisfying and lasting read... as long as you get it. It's more challenging and demanding of the reader. Which, as we've both said before, isn't necessarily the best way to go about writing a big inter-company crossover event book, but it sure as hell reads better than one.

As well, I think there's an awareness we have when they're pacing their stories. Where both use quick cuts and short scenes, we know that, in many, Bendis is referencing another comic where you can see that scene expanded upon, while Morrison is purposefully giving us that scene only. In that way, Bendis's writing feel more like a highlight reel of events despite the two using similar techniques in that regard. Maybe if we didn't know about those other comics, we'd be kinder?

TC: That seems true. But I'd also like to give Bendis some credit for his structural ambition in Secret Invasion. I don't think it's entirely successful, but if you look at what he's done in the main title and the peripheral books he's in charge of, he's creating an interesting pattern of layers. The problem is that the layers are all settling on top of one another instead of building outward. He's not really providing many new perspectives on events. It's more that he's continually adding resolution to a blurry photo. Everything comes more clearly into focus as the story unfolds in the different books, but I don't see the added details contributing to the meaning of the story in any significant way. There's a law of diminishing returns and Bendis passed that point a couple of months ago, I think. Yet I do give him credit for trying something a bit different.

Morrison, though, is doing almost the opposite, structurally. He's giving us the rough shape of the narrative at an accelerated pace. Characters come and go, major events occur without much emphasis. In retrospect, the death of the Martian Manhunter was a representation of everything Final Crisis is about. Things are quick and brutal and often not fully explained beyond the initial impression. But that initial impression is so much more interesting than the belabored description. Imagine if the writerly roles were reversed (which isn't all that hard when they're telling the same underlying story). Bendis would spend a third of a Secret Invasion issue and maybe a couple of New Avengers issues just explaining Kalibak's new animalistic form. Morrison gives us the image in a couple of panels, and a few words about it and moves on. Or, to flip it around, if Morrison were tackling Secret Invasion, we wouldn't know all the details of what Nick Fury has been up to. His "Secret Warriors" would be like the Super-Young Team -- a quickly sketched out group who appear briefly and evoke archetypes, not a fully-explained group of characters who we know everything about already.

Maybe the difference between Morrison and Bendis is the difference between an evocative pop song and a Wikipedia entry. Or is that just me being snarky?

CN: That sounds about right and I especially want to agree that I'm not trying to put Bendis down too much, because what he's going for is ambitious. He is doing a decent job, but you're right, the added levels of detail don't add anything to the overall story, which is my main frustration with those Avengers issues.

Like I pointed out a while back, these two stories are the same, really, and even just looking at how the invasion is handled demonstrates the differences between the writers: Bendis has everything out in the open where the Skrulls don't care that the heroes see them coming, while Morrison doesn't really have the heroes realize anything is going on until the Dark Gods have won already. And then instead of dwelling on that, the story just keeps on moving. How much time has passed in Secret Invasion versus Final Crisis? One or two days versus a few weeks minimum... Secret Invasion is almost like "What if Final Crisis took place only on the day that the Dark Gods put their plan into action?"

What does it mean, though, that the Skrulls are obvious and it's a very physical battle, while the Dark Gods take over in a mental way, breaking the will of everyone before engaging in physical combat? Does that difference in philosophy suggest something about these two books?

TC: Interesting. It does fit in with the stereotypical differences between Marvel and DC. Marvel, as fashioned through Stan Lee's "Marvel Method," is based on a kind of physicality through the dynamic Kirby-esque compositions. DC has always been the less dynamic, more intellectual company -- especially in the Silver Age with the science-based heroes -- or so the story goes. It's the difference between characters in motion in every Marvel panel and characters standing in talking in DC comics. Those old stereotypes don't really apply, of course, but they do seem to match up here. So maybe it's just a matter of a Marvel approach to an event being essential different than a DC approach.

But that takes the creators out of the equation, and I think there's an essential difference between the way Bendis and Morrison approach their writing. Bendis seems to start with particular scenes and dialogue, and builds a structure around that. He's notoriously bad at endings. Morrison seems to think of structure and concept first, and dialogue is used to emphasize thematic elements. He's notorious for starting things in a confusing way and wrapping it up with a strong finish.

I can't really think of many similarities between Bendis and Morrison, actually, other than the fact that they both have a distinctive authorial voice.

CN: They both love archery-themed superheroes. I also think they both place emphasis on the small things, the little bits of dialogue, the characters moments. They do in their own ways, but both Secret Invasion and Final Crisis have been full of small moments between characters in the middle of these large events. Things like the dialogue between Ollie and Dinah, and between Luke and Jessica... Those little moments are important to both writers. And, more than that, those moments never feel forced with either, which is a problem other writers have in these big event books. You never get the impression that Bendis or Morrison is including a scene like that to induce a "fanboy orgasm" or anything.

TC: That's true, although the cadence of their dialogue couldn't be more different. But, you're right. They both give us the small little scenes in the midst of the epic, instead of focusing on one endless battle after another. Perhaps that's why I didn't like the most recent issue of Secret Invasion -- it's mostly just a fight sequence and that stuff gets old fast.

CN: It does, but the story also needed an issue devoted to this fight. In a way, that may help Secret Invasion surpass Civil War, which built up to this fight and then just ended, whereas Bendis has given himself a little bit more room. We'll have to see if Morrison will give us a whole issue devoted to fisticuffs. I'm betting... yes.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1

Tim Callahan: So, Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1. Any chance that people who say Final Crisis doesn't make any sense will be able to figure this one out? Is it too much of a glimpse inside Morrison's head and not enough of a story? Is the 3-D too awesome?

Chad Nevett: Well, I've read the issue twice with a few skimmings and I think I get what's going on. It's all about technique since the story is very simple--so simple that Morrison tells it without any extra bits to explain it. I've talked about his compressed storytelling showing up in the past (two examples being the "Crisis Times Five" story from JLA and the first issue of Marvel Boy) and here it is again on full display. It's different from the way in which most writers tell a story in modern comics, so it does require a little bit of an adjustment. That said, it's more difficult than any issue of Final Crisis, so, yeah, people not understanding that series will have no hope here. Sorry.

I'm not convinced there's enough of a plot here, but that's because I can't really find a plot per se. Why has Zillo Valla gathered these heroes? To save... something? That part isn't entirely clear, but does it matter? There's an evil Monitor chasing them, they escape for a while, land in Limbo and then are found... and Zillo Valla may be evil herself? There's a very clear echoing of the quest Metron sends Green Lantern, Flash and Aquaman on in the "Rock of Ages" from Morrison's JLA run (Final Crisis is a retelling of it in many ways). There are references to his Animal Man run... and there's the story of the Ur-Monitor and the Ur-Superman that hints at the concept of Hypertime and the problem of continuity... the story is more commentary and allusion than plot, but it's still entertaining, I find. Granted, we can recognize the various allusions and what Morrison is commenting upon whereas the average reader may not, so I don't know how entertaining they would find this comic.

Then again, it's big and dramatic and full of wild concepts... isn't that what people want from Grant Morrison? I could do without the 3-D glasses, but Alan Moore did it, so Morrison has to follow suit...

TC: Yeah, let's discuss that last point. Morrison has a history of responding to Alan Moore through his comics -- the anxiety of influence is strong. His early Animal Man work -- issues 1-4 -- were direct pastiches of Alan Moore's style of comic book storytelling, which he will admit to. When I interviewed him about it, he mentioned that he knew that's what was expected of a British writer at the time. Basically, to be an Alan Moore duplicate. But he went his own way starting with "Coyote Gospel" in Animal Man #5. And by the end of that run, he's basically mocking Alan Moore with the line about using literary quotes to "dignify some old costumed claptrap" (I'm paraphrasing.) Now, in Superman Beyond, he's not only doing the 3-D bit in a fashion similar to the way Moore used it in the "Black Dossier" (although Morrison uses it more extensively), but he's got the Captain Adam character who is clearly a Dr. Manhattan analogue, and the character is ridiculous in relation to the other Supermen. Poor Captain Adam, with his observations about quantum mechanics, isn't very useful as a hero.

I'm sure I'm forgetting other instances of Morrison responding to Moore through comics, but I'm reminded of an anecdote a British journalist once told me: early in Morrison's career, he attended an Alan Moore reading and he heckled Moore from the front row, laughing at his self-importance. The journalist explained that Morrison sees himself as such a punk rock guy and Alan Moore as such an old fashioned hippie, and Morrison just laughs at everything Moore takes seriously. I don't know if that story's true at all, but there's no doubt that Morrison is well aware of his role in the comic book world compared to Alan Moore.

CN: I've yet to read Promethia, but, apparently, Seven Soldiers: Zatana is a pretty obvious response to Moore's magic-based work. There was also Owlwoman, the Earth-2 member of the Justice Legion A that Morrison introduced in the DC One Million 80-Page Giant special, as her costume was a take-off on Nite Owl's rather than the Owlman we know from the current DCU. There's also a strange relationship between Morrison's Hypertime and Moore's argument that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen contains every fictional story ever written, but Morrison beats out Moore there. So, maybe it's not all one-sided... although it really looks that way.

I noticed the visual allusion to Dr. Manhattan, but missed the commentary about him being a pretty useless superhero. There's a deeper commentary there, too, though: the violent, physically active superheroes are more useful than those who don't fight. The two most effective heroes in this book are Superman and Ultraman, two characters with opposite goals, but similar means. Now, this goes against Morrison's general pattern where physical violence is rarely a solution, but that doesn't seem to be the message here. Or, am I getting it wrong?

TC: No, I think you're right. It's nu-Morrison. And given that the Superman in the comic is the most closely related to the "form" of the Superman, and Ultraman is his direct opposite/doppelganger, it makes sense that they would be the ones with the most power. The other Superman are more distant permutations, and therefore less potent.

It is a far cry from early Morrison, when every hero would be a total screw up or barely accidental success.

Getting back to the actual comic, you know what I couldn't help but think about as I read the first handful of pages? The "Superman 2000" pitch that we spent all those weeks dissecting on our blogs. Didn't it remind you of the way Morrison and company planned to end the Kent/Lane marriage, with Lois on her deathbed and Superman trying to save the world (or multiverse) and his wife at the same time. Here's the relevant excerpt: "Luthor trips triggers he’s had in place for years, all while pitting an ever-weakening Superman against a phalanx of his greatest foes while the Man of Steel wracks his brain trying to figure out not only how to save Earth but how to get his--and, more importantly, Lois’s--life back." Obviously Luthor's not involved, but it's similar, no? Do you think it's at all possible that Final Crisis will end with a reset of the Lois and Clark relationship? Would DC dare to do such a thing? Do either of us care?

CN: I know I don't care, but after "One More Day" at Marvel, I highly doubt DC would try getting rid of Lois and Clark's marriage. It didn't really occur to me, but that similarity is there. For all we know, that "ultimate medicine" Zillo Valla promises Superman could somehow affect Lois's memory... I doubt it, though. Why risk such a huge backlash at the end of this event similar to the one Marvel experienced?

I have a feeling Final Crisis is more about establishing the "trinity" as important, ur-heroes almost. Superman's place is established here and Morrison is working on Batman in that title, but promises that Final Crisis also concludes the current journey he has Batman on. As for Wonder Woman, I don't know what Morrison has planned, but I assume she will play a big role considering the sliver cover of issue one, which featured cave drawings of those three logos. Now, do you "buy" Superman as the ur-superhero Morrison presents here? Or even those three characters as some sort of special "trinity" in the DCU?

TC: I really don't buy that Wonder Woman is an equal part. I think that's a relatively recent invention on the part of DC to try to make the character seem more important than she has been, historically. She was continually published, along with Batman and Superman, true, and that does show the strength of the character, but look at how she was portrayed throughout those early eras, and even in the JLA comics. She was second-rate. I think it's smart of DC to try to make her an equal part of some kind of essential trinity, but I don't think they've ever successfully pulled it off. There's never been a great Wonder Woman story, really. Not even George Perez's first 20 issues post-"Crisis." I like those issues a lot, but they aren't to the level of the best Superman and Batman stories. And if you think in terms of characters who inspired other characters, there are a million Superman rip-offs and nearly as many Batman copies, but how many Wonder Woman-like characters have emerged since the Golden Age? A handful? Not nearly as many.

And, you know what, every comic book called "Trinity" has been pretty bad. The Matt Wagner series was some of his worst work ever, and this new one by Busiek and Bagley is mediocre at best and dreadful at worst.

As a concept, the trinity is a good idea. It hasn't been pulled off yet. And I'm not sure that Morrison's even headed in that direction with Final Crisis, seeing as how he was so quick to eliminate all three of the characters from the side of the heroes. Batman's incapacitated, Wonder Woman has been corrupted, and Superman is on his multiversal sailing trip.

Speaking of Superman's trip, what do you think about the use of Limbo here? I was actually excited to see it. Gleeful even, because the Morrisonian Limbo, with Merryman and all, has always been one of my favorite DC concepts, and Superman is a VERY different character than Animal Man. Seeing Superman try to deal with the concept of obscurity was a lot of fun. AND when Merryman says, "I have a real talent for gritty drama" it made me laugh out loud because when I was about 18, I actually wrote a pitch for a grim n' gritty revamp of the Inferior Five. It posited that the characters were actually actors playing the roles of these incompetent heroes in the DCU and now they've been brought out of retirement to complete one last mission (this was probably around 1990), only the new "management" of the team--the ones hiring them to play the roles, wanted to update them for the new era and all I can remember about the details is that Dumb Bunny was updated into a dominatrix. I have no idea why a team of actors had to complete a mission, but it was obviously a brilliant pitch from my teenage brain. I can't imagine why DC never responded.

CN: I definitely agree regarding Wonder Woman. I've always seen the "trinity" of superheroes being Superman (the god), Batman (the man) and Spider-Man (the man who becomes god), which could be where DC is going wrong. A hero like Flash or Green Lantern might be a better fit by that schema...

Superman's reaction to Limbo is... I want to say very typical, in a way. He reacts the way he always reacts to a new place: with a strange combination of understanding and curiosity. He doesn't get hung up on the details, he just skims the surface, sees the lay of the ground and proceeds as such. He quickly realizes that this is where certain heroes go, that they lose memories of their past and that he should act quickly to avoid becoming like them. I much prefer the reaction of Animal Man... Superman's confidence almost makes his reaction boring.
Your pitch sounds similar to the sort of ideas I had when I was younger. Morrison's portrayal of Limbo is always one of hope, I think: that these may be forgotten characters, but they have potential, they could be stars or supporting players again... while, at the same time, gently mocking the characters. Unlike the trip to Limbo in Animal Man, we don't get much interaction with the residents here. I wonder, did Morrison feel a certain fondness for the characters forgotten in the late '80s that he doesn't feel for the mostly-'90s creations here? A lot of "Bloodlines" and "Zero Hour" creations in the mix here, which I can't see Morrison wishing would return any time soon.

TC: I'm curious about how Morrison even knows about some of these "Bloodlines" characters. Did he actually read those comics? I can't imagine that. I can't imagine anyone reading those comics without throwing them across the room. Those were the days when superhero comics were at their absolute worst, at least in my lifetime. But those 90s characters are certainly not portrayed with any affection here, not in the way that the forgotten Silver Age characters were portrayed in Animal Man.

I'm exceedingly curious about the Earth-20 that we get a glimpse of in this issue. Morrison apparently has an extensive backstory worked out, and this is the first time this alternate Earth has appeared, and all we get is a Doc Savage-ish Dr. Fate and his sidekick, Lady Blackhawk. But that one images evokes so many possibilities. Then again, I like these quick, imaginative glimpses far more than the extended looks we saw in the Countdown crossovers. Man, stuff like Countdown: Arena really sucked the joy out of the new multiverse really quickly.

How do you interpret the stuff with Mandrakk? He's clearly the ur-Anti-Monitor, but is he also tied into Darkseid? Is Darkseid a manifestation of Mandrakk? And why do you suppose Morrison named him Mandrakk? What do the "mandrake" connotations mean to you?

CN: I love alternate realities, but find they work best in limited exposures, mostly because of the unseen possibilities evoked. There's a mystery to alternate realities that is very intriguing--as long as some mystery is maintained by the writer.

I'm not quite sure how to interpret Mandrakk, but he could be a representation of Darkseid in the way that the Monitors are gods much like the New Gods of Kirby's Fourth World. Morrison has stated that the relationship between the DC heroes and the "gods" is one of the major ideas of Final Crisis. It's no coincidence that the evil Monitor is returning and will seemingly be victorious at the same time as Darkseid is taking over Earth. Whereas Darkseid takes over one Earth (and Morrison suggests crises on every alternate Earth, so a variant of Darkseid could be active on every Earth), the evil Monitor looks to take over the multiverse. The macro reflects the micro, I suppose? "Mandrake" has a few connotations, the primary one being the plant, which is a healer, an aphrodisiac, and a killer at various points. I can't see a clear link, but Morrison could be going for the vague allusion--or is referencing something else entirely.

TC: Maybe this connotation, via Wiki: "It is alleged that magicians would form this root into a crude resemblance to the human figure, by pinching a constriction a little below the top, so as to make a kind of head and neck, and twisting off the upper branches except two, which they leave as arms, and the lower, except two, which they leave as legs." As in, the Mandrakk becomes molded into humanoid figures -- the Anti-Monitor, Darkseid? I dunno. Something like that, maybe. Because Mandrakk seems like a name that's too specific for Morrison not to have any meaningful connotations. He could have named it something more vague and mysterious like he often does. But he didn't.

The more I think about this comic, the more I like it, but I do so hate the 3-D look, and I do think that the complaints about Final Crisis (which, in general, make little sense to me) would actually apply to Superman Beyond. It does jump around, it is full of Morrison bits that make little sense out of context, it is a bunch of ideas at the expense of story. But I don't find Final Crisis like that at all.

CN: I think it will work better when we get the second issue, particularly since it was originally written as one 60-page story instead of two 30-page issues. Since it takes place outside of Final Crisis proper, I also think that Morrison didn't necessarily feel the need to work as hard to be easily understood. This was his chance to just let go and do his thing with Superman--a nice contrast to the more focused and "tame" All-Star Superman, in my opinion. But, yeah, the more I think about and discuss this comic, the more I like it.

TC: All-Star Superman is tame? Well, it is compared to this comic, you're right. But I'll take All-Star Superman over Superman Beyond any day.

I may reverse that opinion once I see issue #2. No I won't. I freakin' hate 3-D!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Final Crisis #3

Chad Nevett: A week late, but Final Crisis #3 has arrived--along with the "director's cut" of the first issue. Quite the week for us Morrison lovers, eh, Tim? Lots happened and I'm not sure where to start, so I'll begin with the cover. I remember reading an interview with Chip Kidd, who designed the trade dress for the series and him discussing how the logo will change over the course of the series. Well, it's becoming very apparent (at least on the sliver covers, which are the ones I've been getting). The red is growing darker, the white font becoming rougher and falling apart. I don't really have a comment beyond "That's kind of cool." I can't remember the last time I saw a book with an evolving logo/trade dress. It's just that kind of "crossover event," I guess.

Tim Callahan: Is that what's happening? I much prefer the "iconic pose" covers, and I've been buying those instead. I prefer a higher ration of image to words on my covers, I guess. I do love Chip Kidd, though. But I'm not feeling the red sliver covers at all.

I'm sure we have some things to say about the content of Final Crisis #3, but let's talk about the "director's cut" of issue #1 first. It's the first of these so-called "director's cut" things I've ever bought--or even bothered to flip through. Have you ever picked one up before? Are they all like this, with the black and white art and the script and some commentary?

Anyway, I thought I'd be buying it just for the script and commentary, being a Morrison completest and all. (In San Diego, I even came close to buying Morrison's "MBX Sketchbook" for $25, until I flipped through it and saw very few sketches and very little commentary from Morrison. It was not worth even a fraction of that price--even for me, and when they marked it down to $10 on the last day of the convention I still passed it by. But trust me, my obsession almost got the better of me.) But, getting back to the Final Crisis director's cut: I was surprised how much I liked seeing J. G. Jones's black and white art. It really looked clean and seemed to make the story easier to follow. Less muddied by color, I suppose, even though I tend to prefer color in my superhero comics. (I cannot read the Essentials or Showcases when I have the option of the far more expensive Masterworks or Archives--the stories are so much more readable in color, usually.)

But I did find the script interesting, as Morrison lays out exactly what's going on in issue #1 in such a way that it makes it pretty clear that people who had trouble following certain parts (like the identity of the character who wakes up at the end) were having trouble with Jones's art, really. As a writer, when you say, in the script, that the character is clearly supposed to be a Monitor with the same "distinctive hairstyle," and the artist doesn't make it totally clear--well, I guess in the old days they'd solve it with a caption: "Nix Uotan, former Monitor, wakes up in the body of a BLACK YOUTH!" I'm glad he decided not to go that route, even when the art was a bit unclear.

CN: I love the sliver covers. I'm a sucker for design stuff like this, though.

I've gotten... three of these "director's cut" issues before, all from Marvel. The first was Avengers vol. 3 #1, which was the Kurt Busiek/George Perez "Heroes Return" relaunch. It had the complete issue with just Perez's pencils and then Busiek plot (since it was done Marvel style). I found it worth it for Perez's uninked, uncoloured pencils, plus it was cool to see a plot for a comic issue. By that point, I'd seen plenty of full scripts, but never really a plot. As a writer, it was interesting to see how Busiek described the story, how Perez interpreted that description, and then how Busiek dialogued it. The second was for Nextwave #1, which was the full issue as previously released with Warren Ellis's script and initial pitch. I got that because I'm a sucker for scripts. The third was for Captain America #25 and that was because I couldn't find any other version of the issue, so I went with the "director's cut." It was like the Nextwave one in that it was the same comic, but with the script added (plus maybe a sketch or two and some commentary?). So, I guess the only common thread is the inclusion of the script or plot.
As for this one, I haven't read the script through fully, but I did find the commentary lacking somewhat--something that almost always happens, though. There were a few interesting tidbits thrown in, but mostly just a lot of "Oh, I really liked this!" and "Wasn't that cool?" I don't regret buying it since, as you said, JG Jones's art with just inks is fantastic to look at, scripts are always fun to read through, and the commentary did provide some insights... I guess I always expect more from commentaries, whether on comics or DVDs, when they usually wind up just having people go "Yeah, I really enjoy this part" and stuff like that. So, I blame my heightened expectations for any feeling of disappointment I may have suffered. Although, I do think the commentary suffers from being about the first part of a seven-part storyline that's still in progress. Morrison obviously tip-toes around some plot stuff that, if the entire story were out, he could discuss more freely--which, of course, makes the commentary seem rather silly.

TC: Yeah, it's definitely not a spoiler-filled commentary, that's for sure. But there were some interesting tidbits there and in the script, indeed. Like the way Morrison describes Turpin in the script as "getting on now but he's hard as nails, like a Frank Miller hero." Or Morrison's repeated use of incredible: [from page 15, frame 1]: "Cut to the Guardians of the Universe -- and incredible shot of three of them standing together in a green-lit chamber with an incredible view of the center of the galaxy where there are thousands of suns, radiating an incredible brightness."

That's just daring your artist to screw up, right? It's like, "draw this, and make it all incredible, all the time."

Or the entire description for the most controversial panel in issue one, a terse three words: "The kill shot."

In general, the script is rather short on complex descriptions, and if you compare the style of this script to the one from Arkham Asylum, it seems like two completely different writers. Do you think that's just maturity and confidence on Morrison's part now? Or do you think he's just less invested in Final Crisis and doesn't worry too much about fancy panel descriptions because of that? Obviously, we'd just be speculating, but it is quite a difference, no?

CN: Well, the styles are different because Arkham Asylum wasn't exactly full script in that it was description and dialogue with no panel or page distinctions. I think that allowed Morrison to meander a bit more whereas the full script format for Final Crisis is more rigid. It's very much geared to "Here's what happens in this panel and then here's what happens in the next panel and here's what happens in the next panel" without any real allowance for tangents and meandering. Also, he's worked with JG Jones before and knows he can trust him--in fact, I'd say that's part of maturing as a writer: Morrison knows to trust the artist a bit more and not be a dictator every step of the way.

One thing I noticed was the omission of the first panel of page 10 in the script here, which showed up in Morrison's script when Entertainment Weekly previewed some pages: "Panoramic Manhattan city shot -- including all the architectural projects which were imagined but never put into practise in the real New York. Wind blows, birds rise up. Debris is torn from rooftops." If you compare the script included in the "director's cut," it appears that Jones added an additional panel to page ten where really instead of following this description, he drew a lovely shot of Detroit's skyline, which makes more sense considering after the above panel, the action moves to Detroit immediately. I'm rather amused/mystified as to why this panel description was left out of the script here, though. Part of including the script is to highlight what Morrison wrote and what choices Jones made as the artist, and here, he clearly thought including one lone panel of New York wouldn't make much sense. Seems like a cheat to me. If the point here is to illuminate the process, I really can't understand why the script included would be altered to reflect the art more closely.

TC: I suspect that the script has been edited more than that for publication here. It's probably not the "shooting script." It's the "sanitized for your protection script." When I've written comic book scripts, I find myself putting in descriptions of certain things and emphasizing something and then giving the artist a heads up on why it's important--giving some info about an upcoming plot twist. I don't know that Morrison did that in the real script for this issue, but he might have, and DC wouldn't want that information leaked through this director's cut, right? So, yeah, I doubt that this is the word-for-word script Morrison gave Jones, especially since you've already shown some changes that must have occurred.

What about the commentary? It has some interesting bits too, like when Morrison says that page 4 has "the big clue to the end of Final Crisis." It's the page where Metron gives fire to Anthro. What could that possibly mean? That Anthro will burst through from the past and kick Darkseid in the head? That everything will burn? Any guesses?

Also, there's the overt mention of Bludhaven as a New Orleans, post-Katrina, analogue. And the references to David Lynch. A summer crossover event that reads like a David Lynch superhero story? No wonder the internet didn't know what to make of it!

CN: Well, the "big clue" is even referenced later in the issue when Kamandi shows up and wants the weapon Metron gave Anthro. It seems to me that it will probably be the key for humanity (or superhumanity) to take that next step and become the gods of the Fifth World or something similar. The essence of the Fourth World gods, perhaps? I mean, what can beat a Fourth World god like Darkseid? A Fifth World god! I could be wrong, but that seems as likely as anything else I've read/heard.

But, let's not put the cart before the horse... Darkseid has just won. And, wow, evil won rather easily, didn't it? It wasn't much of a fight at all. Morrison always writes his villains as more intelligent than the heroes in that they always seem to win before the heroes even knew they were there. It's an effective trick as even though we know the heroes will win, things seem so dire and screwed up, it's hard to imagine how they'd win. I mean, at the end of Final Crisis #3, Earth is Darkseid's and our only hope are two guys who can run really fast? Somehow, I don't see them even taking out the now-evil Wonder Woman let alone saving the world completely... But, we also don't know who else is still free and willing to fight. We can probably assume Mister Miracle, Sonny Sumo and the Super Young Team are still around, but who else? Does that seem like a group capable of taking on Darkseid? Then again, Green Arrow and the Atom didn't seem like a likely duo to kill him in "Rock of the Ages" either, so... I have no idea where I'm going with any of this. You talk now.

TC: My impression of the Flash's role here, and I think Dan DiDio said something along these lines in an interview, is that Barry Allen isn't going to come in and save the day. He's just more of a messenger. A Mercury figure, who will point the way to victory or maybe guide the heroes toward something that will help them.

I do love the team-up of Sonny Sumo, Shilo Norman, and the Super Young Team. They're like the Legion of Substitute-Heroes, not quite the laughingstock of the superhero world, but a group that's not taken seriously by their peers or by the audience. But when the chips are down, they will kick some ass. It will be interesting to see how. That's where the fun comes in.

It's typical Morrison, too. He tends to show the "powerful" heroes as ineffective in a lot of his work. Think the Justice League standing outside the Painting that Ate Paris, completely useless. Or the X-Men needing help from the ugly and misshapen new recruits. Or Connor Hawke rescuing the JLA. Early in his career, Morrison didn't seem capable of writing effective heroes at all, and now he still seems to prefer the outsider types. The losers. Who doesn't though? Who wants to see Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman saving the day all the time? There's a reason Trinity is one of the dullest reads this summer.

What did you think about how everything was explained in Final Crisis #3? I understand the need for it. I understand why he had to show the bullet going back though time to kill Orion. Or an explanation of the Atomic Knights. But to me, this was actually the least interesting issue. I still liked it a lot, and I know that this issue fits into the overall scheme and I'm really enjoying the way the story works as a whole, but this one seemed more conventional than the previous two.

CN: When I reread Morrison's JLA last summer, I was surprised to find that nearly every story was resolved by characters without superpowers. One of his major themes is the idea that humanity is capable of saving itself and transcending beyond its limitations. I'm partly expecting something similar to the end of Flex Mentallo and the JLA "World War III" story at the end of Final Crisis. A bit obvious and repetitive, but it would certainly fit with Morrison.
I thought this was a decent issue. It dragged in some parts, but still had enough bits of madness. The first few pages are absolutely wonderful with Frankenstein, the Question and Nazi-Supergirl. The superhero draft is nothing new, but it's also expected in this sort of story--and its use here is wonderful as we see this build-up of heroes, but never see them in action and, then, the bad guys have won without much of a struggle. He really undercuts the convention by showing how predictable the heroes are. Mary Marvel acts as his mouthpiece, in a way: the heroes lose because they're so easy to predict. They always do the same things the exact same way, so they lose quite easily here. The book reads as a critique of this sort of story and Morrison's attempt to try something new with the "Crisis."

TC: Have you been reading any of the spin-offs so far--like the "Requiem" one-shot or the "Rogue's Revenge"? The "Requiem" book was obviously directly related, since it expanded upon the death of J'onn J'onzz. I don't think it was necessary, but it was a nice little story that has a heavy emotional core. "Rogue's Revenger" seems quite unrelated, at least so far, and Scott Kolins is churning out some really atrocious art these days, so you aren't missing much if you skipped that.

But I'm looking forward to a lot of the skip month spin-offs, definitely. Especially Morrison's 3-D Superman thing, and, of course, "Legion of Three Worlds." That's got me jazzed. I'm guessing you won't get them all. How do you decide what to buy and what to skip with something like Final Crisis?

CN: I'm only buying the Morrison-penned tie-in books. I figure those will be worth reading since he's writing the main series. The Geoff Johns stuff doesn't interest me at all, mostly because I don't like his writing. As for the others... what else is there? Some Greg Rucka stuff involving the Spectre, right? I really don't care about that, either. There's that Brad Meltzer one-shot and I'm strangely tempted to get it. I can't explain why--maybe rereading Identity Crisis a few weeks back has me wanting to give him another chance after his god-awful Justice League stuff. I may get that "Resist" one-shot since it's the other side of Morrison's "Submit" one, but we'll have to see. When it comes to crossover events like this, I usually stick as close to the core book as possible, only buying tie-ins if they're by the writer of the core book or have other interesting allures. Like with Secret Invasion, I'm buying the main book, Bendis's two Avengers titles, Captain Britain and MI:13 because it looked interesting and has turned out to be absolutely wonderful, and I may pick up Secret Invasion: Thor because Matt Fraction is writing that. Besides that, I don't think I've gotten anything else... Oh, I got that "Who Can You Trust?" one-shot for the Noh-Varr bit. And, if any of the books I'm already reading have tie-in issues, I'll get those. But, yeah, since I'm usually buying the main book because of the writer, tie-ins not written by that writer have to look very good for me to touch them. Although, I admit I'm that special sort of sucker who says, "HA! You won't get my money with your stupid little tie-in books!" and then buys a five-buck "director's cut" of the first issue... after already having gotten the sketchbook, too...

TC: Well, if you miss anything good in the Final Crisis tie-in books, I'll let you know, trust me.

(By the way, the Jason Aaron-penned Black Panther tie-in with Secret Invasion is definitely worth getting.)

I'll be buying all the Final Crisis books, no matter who's involved. Not because I need them, but because I buy so much anyway, what's a couple more books? I am a sucker who will one day pay the price for his suckerness. (Like when my house collapses under the weight of crappy back issues.)

One more thing I'd like to add before we conclude: Final Crisis is really, really good. (And maybe the tie-ins will be good as well?)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Final Crisis #2

Timothy Callahan: We both liked Final Crisis #1, but I got the feeling that we were in the minority--or at least the minority of loud internet voices. And then when the sales figures came out everyone made a huge deal about it selling less than Secret Invasion--a lot less--even though the numbers reflect the amount of issues ordered by comic shop owners and don't correspond to actual sales. All of which led the internet to call for Didio's head. It's been one of those hot topics, this Final Crisis. So, here we are, looking at issue #2, and wondering--what was the uproar over issue #1 all about? Why didn't people like it? Is issue #2 going to remind people that Grant Morrison does actually know what he's doing?

Your thoughts?

Chad Nevett: People were expecting a big event book and got a Grant Morrison book. I noticed some criticism, but not a huge amount, but that could just be the blogs I read. I figure the fault lies with DC marketing and editorial for people's expectations not being met. If you're familar with Morrison's work, Final Crisis #1 came as no surprise and did exactly what was expected: a smart, slow-building story that is actually far bigger and more expansive than most event books, but doesn't seem like it is. And, issue #2 didn't really deviate from that path except upped the amount of bad things happening. In the first issue, the Martian Manhunter was murdered and that's about it. Here, the JLA is hit harder and may provide some sense of dread for the average reader that the first issue lacked. Also, the stuff involving Anthro and Kamandi wasn't well-received, so the lack of them (aside from one panel where the focus was elsewhere anyway) should help, too.

As for the sales of issue one, Steven Grant said it best: Final Crisis #1 still sold the second-most issues of that month, so why would anyone be mad at Dan Didio? It was still a wildly successful issue, selling nearly one hundred and fifty thousand copies--seriously, why would anyone be upset with him? Or, as you even said in your review of Final Crisis #2 (or was it your blog post linking to the review?), it seems weird having to defend DC's top-selling book.

Issue #2 was a great comic, wasn't it? Big surprise for us to really enjoy a Grant Morrison comic, I know, but this issue contained from where the first left off while expanding the scope of the story even more. Yes, it's a slow build, but that means the pay-off should be even bigger. I'm enjoying Secret Invasion, but it's been in a sort of holding pattern since the first issue where the beginning of the invasion was the climax of the story almost. That hasn't happened here and won't for a while. Morrison seems more inclined to write a cohesive overall work that will stand up to repeated readings rather than a "tent pole" event book that everyone will forget in six months. Neither approach is wrong, they just have different goals in the short- and long-term.

TC: Final Crisis #2 was excellent, yeah. I thought it was terse and powerful and sinister. Just like it needed to be. I have no idea what's going on with Darkseid and the evil New Gods, other than them inhabiting the bodies of humans--Turpin is in particularly dire straits--and there's plenty of mystery with the Libra character. There's far more mystery here than in Secret Invasion, which should more accurately be titled Quite Public Invasion, Seriously, Have You Seen All the Skrulls? That would be harder to put above the title on the crossover books, though. And geez, talk about crossover books. Marvel's got a million of them, and as I think you alluded to in a comment on my blog, even Bendis can't keep his own Skrull invasion timeline right, as he directly contradicts the events of Hank Pym's Skrully replacement in two comics that both came out this week. I'm enjoying the wacky fun of Secret Invasion, because it is just a wild ride of Super-Skrulls smashing into people and buildings--and it's kind of fun to play along with Bendis as he reveals, "oh, that's why that character was acting weird in that issue last year," except even those revelations seem a bit inconsistent. Maybe they were all planned, but he's the guy who changed Ronin into a girl just because the internet found out about his plans, so I have a feeling that he hasn't necessarily been planning every beat of this story for years.

Final Crisis, though, is so Morrisonian--and count me as one of the readers who does not mind AT ALL that Countdown ended up being inconsistent, even though I bought and read every damn issue--and so tightly constructed, and so self-contained (now, although with the spin-offs and one-shots it may get messier) that we can really get an event book that makes sense. I'm going back and rereading Crisis on Infinite Earths right now, because my son really wanted to read it, since he's becoming interested in more and more DC characters--so we read one issue each night together--and even though Marv Wolfman was the architect of the whole story, and the crossovers were tangential, the twelve issues don't really make sense. Monitor has to die, why? Because of some vague need to transfer his life energy into saving Earths 1+2? Really? Or was it because Wolfman needed a dramatic sacrifice at that point while the rest of the early issues were just pages of rallying troops? More likely the latter. And Harbinger's whole character is just a giant plot mechanism that shifts and changes as needed. No, it's not a very good story. Final Crisis might end up being. It's certainly good so far. It's a real story that just happens to be an event book because it takes place on a huge DC canvas.

What about this complaint, though: Final Crisis, like many DC books, is just about the DC Universe and that's it? It doesn't relate to real world problems or fears the way Secret Invasion does? It doesn't have the human drama of the Marvel books? It's just cosmic characters having a bad week? Any validity to criticisms like that?

CN: At their core, how are these two stories that different? In one, we have aliens pretending to be people in a calculated invasion to take over the planet and, in the other, we have evil gods possessing the bodies of people in an effort to take over the planet. Um, how is Secret Invasion more relevant other than being more obvious about exploring the same themes and ideas as Final Crisis? Hell, Final Crisis is the true "Secret Invasion" if you look at it the right way. The heroes don't know it's happened yet! They don't know that there was a battle in heaven and evil won, and, now, evil is about two steps away from having Earth, too. How is Secret Invasion not just about the Marvel universe when half of the tie-in books show flashbacks to comics from years ago? Or when one of the big surprises in Secret Invasion #1 is a ship full of Marvel heroes from the 1970s? When you look at both books, you realize the differences lie in the ways the stories are told, where the emphasis is placed, not the actual plots, because they're remarkably similar in many ways. What's the different between watching the Young Avengers in action or seeing the Super Young Team hanging out in a club, setting up their eventual (I assume) foray into the action? How many people are actually familiar with the Young Avengers or the Initiative in any way, really, but give those characters more slack because they're appeared in titles before, albeit ones not read by anywhere near the majority of the Secret Invasion audience? What's the difference between a brand new character and one that's been around for a couple of years but you've never actually read about before, really? There is none, except weird biases some readers have--and the ways in which the stories are told.

So, no, I don't see any validity in that argument.

TC: Maybe DC should promote Final Crisis as "Even more secret, even more invasive than that other event." There's definitely a bias against Final Crisis and I'm not exactly sure where it's coming from. Maybe it's just that kind of over-reactive fanboy bias that pops up all the time on the internet, but why did it sell considerably less than Secret Invasion at the retailer level? Surely the Morrison name draws more readers than the Bendis name, but maybe not. Maybe everyone's all Crisis-ed out. Just to get some background, I dipped into a CBR thread, to see what exactly people were complaining about, and here are some examples:

Lt. Marvel says, "I also like the storytelling in which characters are mentioned by name. I don't know all of the Titans that were defeated, for instance. Back in 1985, if you had read Brave and the Bold/DC Comics Presents for the obscure characters, a Roy Thomas Earth 2 book, and Swamp Thing for the mystics, you could easily follow every scene."

So I guess he wants every scene to read like Crisis on Infinite Earths, where every line of dialogue is like, "Blue Beetle, come over here," and "Okay, Katana, I'm on my way."

bjtrdff, in response to someone who says Final Crisis #2 wasn't hard to understand, says, " Are you Grant's grandson, or did you just do cocaine before posting? It's not a matter of knowing who characters are, or that things are unanswered. It's the layout of the entire book, and the transitions."

Are these legitimate complaints? Do things need to be more clearly labeled? Are the layouts and transitions problematic? Do people who like the comic do a lot of coke?

CN: I can understand having problems with the transitions as is pacing here is very similar to that of Marvel Boy and the JLA story "Crisis Times Five," which most attribute to his working on 2000 AD where the page demands forced him to develop a very quick pacing that jumps from scene to scene and relies on the reader to fill in some blanks. I had some problems with those stories at first, but I got over it. I improved my reading ability and didn't blame Morrison because he was writing faster than I could keep up. And, before anyone says anything, I don't do cocaine.

As for the first complaint, would he have liked Final Crisis more if it had a page at the front like Secret Invasion that told you the name of all of the characters, which is all well and good but doesn't really tell you anything that meaningful? What does it matter if you know the name of a character appears for a couple of panels and is dispatched or if you don't? Does it make that big a difference? Does your reading enjoyment hinge on that small insignificance? That is a very, very, very stupid complaint. I'm sorry, but it is.

I am actually having a hard time with the complaints I read, because I've seen complaints where people attack the pacing or use of characters, and it's a case where what they say as a negative, I was about to say as a positive. It's like if you have two guys, one who likes girls with glasses and one who doesn't... there's no way one is going to convert the other to his way of thinking. Do we really need to be apologists for this book, Tim?

TC: On some level, I suppose we do, not just because of this particular comic, but because these complaints represent a frustrating level of ignorance about basic storytelling methods. I don't think it's purely just a matter of never-changing taste. I think it's a matter of certain readers not being patient, or certain readers not looking at what actually happens in the comic. I read a dozen comments speculating on which New God might be inhabiting Turpin's body, even though the story clearly indicates that Darkseid has taken Turpin's body after the events at the end of issue #1. Now that might be a misleading bit of suggestion in the comic, but that's the clear suggestion, and one character says it explicitly. Some readers still didn't know. So for me this is about helping people realize that a comic, even a superhero comic, might require a little tiny bit of effort to read, and that's not a bad thing.

I don't think the girl with or without glasses analogy quite works. It's more like someone thinking Saved by the Bell is better than The Office or something like that. That's not taste, that's just plain wrong. Okay, it's not that bad. Secret Invasion is maybe the best Marvel event ever, so I shouldn't criticize it just because some readers like that and not Final Crisis, but it chafes me when readers are both loud and ignorant. Although the reviews of Final Crisis #2 have been far more favorable than those for issue #1, so maybe the tide is turning.

CN: Firstly, which version of The Office and which version of Saved by the Bell?

Secondly, as I've said, I haven't seen as many negative criticisms of Final Crisis as you have since I insulate myself in a lovely little bubble of blogs of like-minded individuals. What I have noticed is that issue two has indeed been received more warmly, suggesting that the slow build is working. The consensus still seems to be "good Morrison comic, bad event comic," which I don't necessarily agree with, but I think is still a valid comment.

Thirdly, yeah, we really should make it clear that we like Secret Invasion and don't mean to slam it in an effort to defend Final Crisis. It's not an either/or choice with those books, which is what I think is partly fuelling some of the negative criticisms directed towards Final Crisis. What I want to know is why anyone would want Final Crisis to be more like Secret Invasion? Do we really need two identical books (despite quite possibly being about the same basic ideas)? Wouldn't people rather have two distinct books that tell the stories in their own distinct ways as the stories demand?

TC: I'm pretty sure any version of The Office is better than any version of Saved by the Bell, by the way. Unless you have different kinds of Saved by the Bell episodes in Canada.

I would think people would want two distinct books, and maybe they do and there's like six guys on the internet whining about "not getting" Final Crisis #2. So, I'm going to move on to a plot point question: Do you assume, like I do, that the bullet in the final image--the one Barry Allen is chasing (or being chased by--although I read it as chasing)--is the one headed for Orion in the past? Or do you think it's destined for a different target?

CN: We actually do, it's called Degrassi...

But, I didn't assume either possibility as correct, I just figured it could be either one and I'd wait until future issues to explain that. My first instinct was to assume it was heading for Orion, but since the other possibility is just as valid, I'd rather wait and see. I'm also unsure about the chasing/chased, but that's because the perspective on the art is unclear.

Is that, perhaps, a key to liking this book, that willingness to not get everything and assume that answers will come later? I think that goes hand-in-hand with being an attentive and careful reader, because not everything is meant to be understood right now. Some fans want it all right away and that causes problems for them, do you think?

TC: Probably. The ones who complain are the ones who, when you take them to a movie, constantly turn and ask, "who's that guy? What's he doing?" and you yell at them and say, "watch the damn movie and you'll find out!!!!" I think we all know people like that.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Final Crisis #1

Chad Nevett: Well, Final Crisis #1 has finally shipped after an entire year of build-up in Countdown along with DC Universe #0 and the sketchbook from a few weeks back. It has been a long, long wait for the reuniting of Grant Morrison and JG Jones to deliver what we hoped would be one hell of a crossover event. Now that it's here, what did you think, Tim? Was it worth the wait? Did it deliver? Are you anticipating the second issue with bated breath?

Tim Callahan: I don't know that I've ever anticipated a comic with bated breath. Except that Captain America Annual where he fought Wolverine. When I saw the Mike Zeck drawing for that cover, I could not wait to buy that comic. And, guess what, I never saw it in the comic shop! I have still never actually seen that comic, although I think the story is included in some Wolverine hardcover that I own, so I did eventually read it. But I have never seen the floppy version, and after all those years of anticipation and then disappointment--and when I read the story, I was even more disappointed, because it sure didn't live up to that Mike Zeck cover--I think I've become to jaded to bate my breath for anything. (Although I am unusually excited when I see that a new issue of Morrison's Batman is coming out, so there's some bate for you.) So, no, I won't be anticipating Final Crisis #2 with bated breath. But I did like the first issue quite a bit.

Here's what I liked about Final Crisis #1: the scope. Morrison is great at the huge, cosmic stuff, but he's also great with the small, street-level scenes. I like that this comic features both the Rene Montoya Question, Guardians of Oa, and the Monitors, all without feeling like one of those late 80s, early 90s crossover events where the characters all just hung out together. Like, here's Vigilante standing next to Firestorm getting ready to punch Time Travelling Robots from the Future. That may sound cool in theory, but those crossovers didn't make much sense for the characters. Morrison has each level of character maintain his or her own plane of existence withing the DC Universe. The Question talks with Dan Turpin, the Green Lanterns talk to eachother, the lame super-villains fight the lame super-heroes. The Monitors hang out and observe. Everyone has their place, and Morrison moved deftly between each layer. The layers may begin to overlap as the series moves forth, but I still doubt we'll get a scene where Rene Montoya punches a Monitor in the face. That's not what Morrison seems to be setting up here.

I also like that it's basically a detective story at first. And seeing the Green Lanterns actually acting like the space-cops they're supposed to be is a nice touch.

I also like that Morrison has made the Monitors more interesting, and more dignified, in just a few pages, then we saw in the entirety of Countdown.

And J.G. Jones's art was nice, especially in the opening sequence. But it looks a bit sloppier in the middle, doesn't it. Compare the Secret Society pages to the initial Anthro pages, and it almost looks like a different artist. Still good all the way through, but not as great as the opening.

Did you like the first issue as much as I did? If not, what's wrong with you?

CN: Of course I liked it. I liked it quite a bit, actually. It was exactly what I was hoping for: a Grant Morrison comic that uses the entire DC universe as the backdrop. I mean, this guy goes from the Stone Age to the last guy on Earth! He has the Guardians of the Universe and the Monitors of the Multiverse with everything between thrown in. As you said, he moves within these layers with ease, just dropping little bits of story on every page that will no doubt accrue over the course of the series.

What particularly impressed me was how unlike most big event books this was. I've read a few things online taking it to task for that--that it isn't new reader friendly or doesn't match up with continuity or relies on Seven Soldiers for a plot point or two... but since I am not a new reader, someone who cares much about recent DC continuity or ignorant of Seven Soldiers, I don't care. And neither does Grant Morrison apparently, because all he wants to do is tell a huge story of some sort that, let's be honest, doesn't require you to know all of that stuff anyway. Do you absolutely need to know who Anthro is? No, because that knowledge doesn't really add much since the important information is obvious: yeah, he's a caveman. End of lesson--and if you couldn't figure that startling piece of information out on your own, there's no helping you. Hell, Morrison does a better job at getting across who everyone in this story is, at their core, than I've seen in recent history. What better way to tell a new reader that the Green Lanterns are space cops than to have them ACT LIKE SPACE COPS? Or to get across the idea that the New Gods are very big, very important and much more powerful than regular superheroes than to have the superheroes treat them as such? The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is a very new reader-friendly book--it's just that the average fan knows too much and, weirdly enough, having too much knowledge gets in the way here. You have to accept what Morrison tells you rather than enter with your own preconceptions. Wait... did I just say that knowing too much hinders your reading of a Grant Morrison comic? What?

I am going to disagree about the art... except for the way Lex Luthor looks in the first panel he appears in. That is sloppy, but that's all that's sloppy by my eye. Although, those opening pages are gorgeous. That double-page spread is beautiful.

What did you make of the death of the Martian Manhunter? I thought it was a great match with the death of Orion, the "Dog of War" (although, Morrison casts him as the god of war, really) since Mars is also the Roman god of war. I wonder if we'll continue to see such doublings as the series progresses.

TC: I always get annoyed when people evaluate a book negatively because it's not something else. It's not "new reader friendly," and that's bad? Says who? New readers? I don't think new readers are saying anything, although I would like their opinion out of curiosity because, like you, I don't think it's new reader unfriendly anyway. And the Martian Manhunter death is getting flak on the internet because it wasn't a majestic enough death for such an important character. The death happened, "off-panel," some critics have said, and the Manhunter deserved better. First of all, I don't see how his death happened off-panel, since you can see him impaled by a flaming spear pretty clearly. Second, just because he deserves better doesn't mean he's going to get it. He's killed by SUPER-VILLAINS, not nice, sweet, kindly old farmers who care if he deserved better or not. His death is disgustingly under-emphasized because these guys don't value human life. Maybe instead of criticizing Morrison for under-playing the scene, readers should think about the effect of his under-playing it. What does it mean in the context of the story? Third, does anyone really think J'onn J'onzz is dead for good? Come on! He'll be back in a different form by the end of the series.

So, my recommendation to everyone is to read and interpret what's on the page, not to speculate on how it "should" have happened. Of course, I only really apply that approach to a few creators, but Morrison is definitely one of them, because I trust that his decisions have meaning and are not just examples of bad storytelling.

And I wouldn't be surprised by more doubling, of course, since we've seen so much already: Orion/Martian Manhunter, Anthro/Kamandi, Turpin/Green Lanterns, even Oans/Monitors, and the implication in DC Universe #0 that Libra/Flash are somehow doubled. Doubling? You bet.

What do you make about the Seven Soldiers connection? How does this story fit with what Morrison did in Mister Miracle? Do you think that contextual knowledge, while not necessary, would help figure out what's going on here? What's the deal?

CN: I saw those complaints about the Martian Manhunter stuff as well and immediately thought that had Morrison shown the entire death on panel, those same people would be complaining about another long, drawn-out murder of a superhero--the sort of complaint Geoff Johns gets a lot. But, people love to complain... I'm just always surprised when they complain this much about a well done comic.

I do think knowing what happened in Mister Miracle #1-4 and Seven Soldiers of Victory #1 helps, but isn't necessary. It is nice to finally see Mister Miracle make a bit more sense, though, as it was, by far, the least important of the Seven Soldiers series, and didn't tie into that story that much. It established the conceit of the New Gods manifesting themselves on Earth in the bodies of humans, which we see here. Seven Soldiers #1 shows where evil--Darkseid--actually won, but it's a subtle win and not required to see. As I said earlier, though, Morrison makes it pretty clear what's happening in Final Crisis, so I don't think Mister Miracle is absolutely necessary. At least, not yet.

To test my theory that this is new reader friendly, I gave this comic to my roommate, Adam, who reads comics from time to time. He's not a DC fan at all and hasn't read a DC comic in ages, but he's familiar enough that he seemed like a good test audience. Yeah, he had no idea what was going on. He followed some of the stuff well enough like the Orion scene, the Green Lantern scene, and the Justice League scene--but, the stuff involving Anthro, the Monitors and then Kamandi really threw him off. The Anthro/Kamandi scene especially had him wondering what was going on. And, some of the recent changes in DC like the Martian Manhunter's costume change or even the reintroduction of the multiverse did not make it easier for him. However, the Justice League scene that has people bitching over Morrison's little mini-revamp of the New Gods' role in the DC universe did go over well and established the New Gods as very powerful, mysterious and badass according to Adam. Some of his problems are problems he has with superhero comics in general, but, he did say, he would not buy the second issue. He also really, really hated Morrison's writing of the cavemen stuff since they were shown in camps with tools, but no fire--which is apparently very, very inaccurate. So, I guess I was wrong.

TC: You were, and so was I, because I read it to my son tonight, and he had no clue what was going on without me explaining everything (and saying "orrery" out loud repeatedly is pretty difficult!). So, it's not new reader friendly at all. But that's okay. I want stuff targeted to me anyway. I'm the one reading it, and your roommate and my son would never have picked it up without us saying, "here, try this as a guinea pig." I asked my son to rate it after we finished reading it, and he gave it 3 and a half stars out of 5. But, he gives everything 4 or 5 stars, because he's a little kid and lacks critical discernment.

I don't have a problem with the cavemen having tools and no fire, because it's not real cavemen. It's DC Universe cavemen, and the rules don't apply to them. They are above the laws of anthropology.

How do you think Final Crisis compares to the other big event this summer: Secret Invasion?

CN: Good question as I've been enjoying Secret Invasion quite a bit. But, that's also based on the Avengers titles that Bendis is writing, as well. It's really given the even more depth than it would have were I just reading Secret Invasion. It also has a couple of months on Final Crisis, but were I to compare the first issue of each... I'd have to say that Secret Invasion is a better event comic, but Final Crisis is just a better comic period. As you said, it's nice to have a book whose target audience seems to be me. Final Crisis is Morrison being Morrison without much attempt to pander whereas Secret Invasion is much more basic and easy-to-get-into. Adam, for example, read my copy of Secret Invasion #1 and had no complaints about not getting anything. It's a better book at being for everyone, while it seems from our experiences and the reactions online that Final Crisis is more for us Morrison fans who have read everything he's written for DC and a lot of his interviews, so we really get where he's coming from, what he's building upon, and what his intention is. I enjoyed Final Crisis #1 more than I enjoyed Secret Invasion #1--but Secret Invasion seems a better event for the masses.

Does that make sense and, more importantly, do you agree with my assessment?

TC: I do agree, and everything you say seems to perfectly encapsulate the differences between a Morrison comic and a Bendis comic. Bendis can wallow in self-reflexive dialogue and a lack of plot progression, but his stories are always simplistically structured and accessible. Morrison plays with structure and subverts expectations while molding traditional superhero tropes to fit his own personal concerns. I like Bendis, but I can't say that rereading Bendis's work adds anything that I didn't pick up the first time. Morrison, on the other hand, writes stories that work on multiple levels and reward a second or third reading of his entire run (on whatever). Secret Invasion is also more fun: Dinosaurs! Skrulls! Jive-talking Luke Cage! Mockingbird! And feels more like a summer movie. Final Crisis feels more like Watchmen. Not that it aspires to be Watchmen, or that it comes close to mimicking it in any way--but it has a gravitas to it, and it has a tightly-wound structure (and a murder "mystery") at its core. I'm just going to read the heck out of both series, and pretty much all their spin-offs too. I'm on the event train this year.

CN: Me, too, which is weird. How did Marvel and DC so capture the imaginations of two readers such as us? I never thought I'd see the day where I was reading both summer event books and really liking them. Who'd've thunk it?

TC: Either they're doing something right, or we have become soft in our old age. Probably both.