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!

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