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.