So FINAL CRISIS finally gave up the ghost last week, collapsing a universe of plot threads into a chaotic black hole of crushed data bits, and triggering a flood of back and forth online excoriations and defenses, condemnation and praises that all (at least what I read) missed the single salient, unassailable fact of FINAL CRISIS #7:
But fun gibberish. Morrison at his worst is far livelier than most comics writers at their best, and energy still counts for a lot, especially in superhero comics. To say the series "defied expectations" is a bit like punching our teeth out then kicking us in the stomach for mumbling, to steal a Leigh Brackett line; as with "Batman RIP," the expectations largely existed only because DC's promotional machine (which caught its own nuts in the ringer by going public with the fake death of Batman in that storyline instead of the apparently "real" death of Batman - but if that's someone else's skeleton Batman's costume in Superman's arms at the end of FC #7, where did Bruce Wayne get his pants in FC #8 - and finding the outside world uninterested in the latter, since the behavior of hardcore superhero fans only corresponds with the behavior of the rest of Western Civilization during rare convergences of celestial objects) (Aside: somewhere recently I read a story whose great cosmic threat hinged on a moment when Earth would be "aligned" with the core of the galaxy. That's two points. Any two points are always in alignment, you geometry-deficient twits!) created those expectations! It's not a deft sleight of hand to say "the story's complete in these seven issues, and you don't have to read any of the ancillary books to understand it" when if you haven't read SUPERMAN BEYOND 3D you won't have a clue who the ultimate villain of the series is when he stumbles in at two minutes to midnight. It's just bad storytelling. Or bad promotion.
(Matter of fact, even if you've read SUPERMAN BEYOND 3D, you might not have much clue who he is, since he's one of those "cosmic" villains with a philosophical viewpoint passing for personality. Think Darkseid, with his namby-pamby attack on free will, is a bad ass? Mandrakk wants to wipe out everything in the universe but himself. Probably because his name got him beat up in grade school a lot. Didn't I write a lame magician character named Mandark... no, wait, Moondark... not my creation... back at Marvel once? Why can't DC give their ultimate villains cool names, instead of things like Neron and Mandrakk? Unless the point is he's supposed to be the death of all imagination - SUPERMAN BEYOND 3D takes place inside a story, believe it or don't... but don't they all? - in which case "Mandrakk" sums up that principle perfectly. That's the real challenge of Morrison; maybe even the worst aspects of his work are consciously added to serve a symbolic function. There's just no way to tell!)
Also, apropos of nothing, I'd really like to know how Batman gets from that supposedly "fatal" helicopter crash at the end of "Batman RIP" to JLA HQ in FC #1 in time to investigate Orion's death and get captured by evil New Gods in FC #2 without bothering to pick up a phone and tell Tim Drake he survived? And months after FC in DCU time, in the latest BATMAN Nightwing and Robin are unaware Batman perished killing Darkseid. Again.
But that's assuming FINAL CRISIS is about continuity. Someone suggested FC is Morrison's big slap in the face to hardcore DC fans, but I wouldn't say Morrison is contemptuous of continuity. He just doesn't care about it, and there's argument for that. It's not an indefensible viewpoint. Remember, he's the co-concocter of the short-lived "Hyperverse" concept, which, if I understand it properly (and I doubt anyone does, since it was only explained by suggestion and even its several architects had different interpretations of what it was about, which I suppose it what it was about), proposes that all stories are "real" at the time you read them, but the universe they exist in self-adjusts to render them "real" or "unreal" as required. He's certainly right that stories only really exist when they're being read. Or written. But since no story is fixed until the writing stops, and with an enterprise like the DC universe, a shared world constantly reshaped by diverse hands, the writing never stops... Certainly Morrison's obsessions on this point are still finding expression. "Batman RIP" was famously intended to render all the wildly variant versions of Batman from the '30s to the modern day "canonical," co-existing despite sometimes vast contradictions, while SUPERMAN BEYOND 3D sees Superman realizing "I'm inside a self-assembling hyper-story." That's a big step up from ANIMAL MAN, who only found himself inside an ordinary story.
On the other hand, it's entirely about continuity. From the start, characters walk in without context, and frequently without being named let alone introduced. To keep track of what's going on, any track, it helps to know the vast bulk of DCU history from at least CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS on, and probably from JIMMY OLSON 133 on ("Kirby is HERE!") as soon as the short-lived Anthro wanders into the story. But this isn't continuity being continued. Morrison's out to unmoor (unMoore?) DC continuity, and largely succeeds, even as he jettisons the storytelling traditions of the form. Who's Metron, as the story opens? Who cares? We don't need to know who he is, what his past is, or his intentions. He's stripped down to pure role: he's given us a weapon against the gods, and we need it now!
What is the weapon? Anthro, the first boy on Earth, draws a symbol in the dirt - there's symbolism for you - and unexpectedly transports to the alternate future of Kamandi, the last boy on Earth... who later appears in a cage in Metropolis to warn "Terrible" Turpin - keep in mind none of these are named, except Turpin, who's once called Mr. Turpin and another time Danny Boy (the pipes, the pipes are calling?) - to warn him of the terror awaiting him. Batman, killed in #6, turns up alive and jumped to Anthro's prehistory in #7, presumably through invocation of Metron's weapon. Heroes jump in and out amid a hurricane of dangling plot threads, storylines of great moment are built then never revisited. (One issue, for instance, the Japanese faux-heroes led by Mr. Miracle and Sonny Sumo have the key to victory over the Gods of Evil, who have subjugated half the world and caved spacetime into a terracentric singularity that threatens to exterminate all other existence - and then are basically never heard from again, at least not in any significant way. Libra, the villain who precipitates the Crisis as Darkseid's prophet, is eliminated unceremoniously, almost off-panel.)
So what's the weapon? Sonny Sumo's another key; he's not Kirby's Sonny Sumo, who went back to live in ancient Japan and took the anti-life equation with him, but an alternate Earth Sonny Sumo who came over just to see what was happening. Jumping Earths - continuities - becomes a recurring motif throughout the run, climaxing in solar-energized Supermen from throughout the multiverse coming together to restore light to a desolated universe, as Superman uses a Miracle Machine (whoa, back that continuity knowledge up to mid-'60s Legion Of Super-Heroes stories) to recreate the world in his own image.
That's Metron's weapon: the power to escape from collapsed, hidebound, doctrinaire continuities and find new possibilities, to stare down inevitabilities with the unexpected. It's the only thing that brings sense to FINAL CRISIS' jumbled storytelling; the story structure chaos is itself the cure for the inflexible certainty of Darkseid's order. The rest of it, the continuity and storytelling fixations that often lock superhero comics into a glaring sameness, are complete irrelevant to story at hand. Everything is symbolism... that's why the lack of names, and backstories, of introductions and climaxes and payoffs and all the things these stories are supposed to have. Characters and events function symbolically, when they function. The final issue is like watching a DVD in fast forward, only one out of every 32 frames. But I do that anyway, sometimes. I expect various readers and critics will pore over every aspect of the series, looking for referents and clues to Morrison's meanings, but I suspect the symbols, absences and voids are less bearers of intended meaning than invitations from Morrison to interact with the story and use our own imaginations to fill in the gaps. That's what Morrison's final crisis seems to really be: not the "capture" of the DCU but the death of imagination, genuine imagination, free of constraints. In that regard, FINAL CRISIS is a giant Rorschach test, a dare to see what crawls up from our subconsciouses to make it whole.
Did I like the story? I don't know. I like my interpretation. Is that what Morrison had in mind? There's just no way to tell.
One thing he got completely wrong, though, unless it was more empty hype: his goal of FINAL CRISIS as "myth for the 21st century" springing off Kirby's "mythology for the 20th century." Like Kirby, he was doomed to failure at the outset, because the underlying principle is wrong. Morrison isn't the first to try it, by a long shot, and Kirby wasn't even the first. Nobody's done it yet. It can't be done, for various reasons, and if it is done it won't be done in superhero comics. And the notion that superhero comics are the right place for it is an error born of hubris and mistaken associations and linguistic confusions.
When I first got into comics I was also obsessed with the notion of comics as mythology. (You don't have to take my word for it. Ask John Byrne, who knew me when, and he probably thought I was a pretentious little git about it too, but had the good grace not to say so.) I'd been studying comparative mythology for a dozen years at that point; it was my minor in college. (John, matter of fact, once asked me, since I majored in communication arts and minored in comparative mythology, if I intended to become head druid at NBC when I graduated.) A lot of people at that time were fixating on mythology as storytelling, prodded on by Joseph Campbell's work deconstructing heroic myths into a 12 step "hero's path. Little did I know George Lucas had tapped into the Campbell "formula" (not to mention Kurosawa films) as a structural tool for STAR WARS, quickly rendering the "Hero's path" a Hollywood gimmick used (mostly badly) in film after film after film after film, in the delusion it lent the material meaning and resonance. Obviously, almost no one using the "Campbell structure" had ever actually read Campbell, or they would have gleaned his important but widely overlooked caution that it only has meaning as unconscious structure - and conscious application voids it of meaning and resonance. But that's the result of most formal structures. If that's what you focus on, you end up with material whose only meaning if what it draws via reference. It's ultimately dead-end nostalgia, replicating form without content or context.
"The husks of the dead," as Qabalic Judaism puts it.
For a long time, the temptation has been strong among comics creators to treat superheroes as the equivalent of gods for the new age. This has been strong in Morrison's work, at least since ZENITH, which posited the marginally more mundane superhero-as-rock-idol. (He also used to talk about the comics writer as pop star, but I haven't heard him reference that much lately.) THE INVISIBLES was premised on people using magic, technology and imagination to create a new civilization unshackled from external authority (this is reflected in FINAL CRISIS). His JLA posited a future where all humans attain superheroic status, while NEW X-MEN pushed the "homo superior" concept to its logical conclusion, the eventual replacement of humanity altogether by mutantkind, a step as logical and inexorable as Cro Magnon squeezing out Neanderthal. Since returning to DC a few years ago, he has repeatedly reiterated the central, "adjusted" Nietzschean premise of his superhero work: that the superman (or, as both FINAL CRISIS and ALL-STAR SUPERMAN indicate, Superman himself) will inherit the earth, but we can all become the superman, which is to say become "evolved" beings, via acts of imagination, which is to say magic.
For a guy as apparently futurist as Morrison, it's an oddly '50s science fiction story concept filtered through old school hippie. But it's a good myth. Or would be, if it qualified as a myth.
The problem here is that most of us misunderstand the nature of myths. They've been presented to us as anthologies of stories of gods and heroes, from this culture or that. (The idea that mythologies are story cycles is reinforced by the use of the term "mythos" for interrelated shared world (or concept) stories by disparate writers, thank you very much, August Derleth.) The common view is that mythologies (it also doesn't help that the term was hijacked by Barthes and other semiologists to illustrate their philosophies, which once applied mainly to literature but have seeped into general use on general targets) are mainly the texts of dead religions, and religion and mythology are connected, but mythology isn't exactly that either. Mythology isn't even storytelling.
Mythology - it's important to differentiate between its nature and its artifacts; the stories are the artifacts - is a civilization's environment. It's a means by which members of that civilization make sense of the world and the times they exists in. (Religion, on the other hand, is an attempt to form a personal relationship with the world, or the powers perceived to control it. Mythology has no such requirements.) Commonly, mythologies evolve in civilizations where stories are passed down via oral, not written, transmission, which neuters all concepts of "authorship" and their content and meanings shift with the demands of the times. The civilization is the author.
But superheroes are not good vehicles for addressing our times. By their nature they stand outside our reality, and holding them up as an evolutionary goal is a basic (again, very '30s-'50s science fiction) misunderstanding of evolution, which has no "goals." Comics stories aren't the joint creation of our civilization but the products of individual minds, even when those minds work in consort (and just as frequently at cross-purposes) in a "shared universe," a rather pathetic, puny shadow of mythology. They're just stories, they don't function as myths function. It's not reflexive; myths are stories but stories aren't myths. (We also nurse the misdefinition of "myth" as falsehood, but that doesn't apply in this context either. In their own civilizations, myths may not be true, but they aren't strictly false either. They're analogues of reality.)
Not that our civilization doesn't have myths, but the authors of those myths are Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, not Camus or Isaac Asimov or Stephen Cannell or even Grant Morrison. And we no longer live in a world where magical/fantasy/mythological/religious constructs are required, or even useful, to make sense of it. Those are "comfort" constructs, ultimately reductionist to give us the consolation that even if we are unable to control our world in any strict sense of the word, we may at least simplify it to easily digestible bits that we might at least entreat. But our world is too complex for that to be of any practical use, so resorting to it is ultimately a surrender to an inability to cope with the complexities. In this, FINAL CRISIS shares the weakness of its inspiration, Jack Kirby's "Fourth World," and of most comics. It fixates on good and evil, where we're all now very aware, even if we don't admit it, that the concepts are basically nonsense. To have meaning they require a singular society, and a reason why multiculturalism is denounced by many is that it forces a constant reexamination of what those terms mean. In a world of moral relativity - and, yes, that is our world, and, really, always has been - we need better terms than those. Reducing our philosophical world to good and evil seems at great odds with everything else Morrison tries to accomplish in FINAL CRISIS and his other work (except for THE INVISIBLES, where he struggled to break down the barriers, and is arguably the closest thing to a contemporary mythology Morrison has yet produced). Again, it's ultimately not an interaction or imagined interaction with anything, just nostalgia. Which is the main reason superheroes are perceived as the ideal vehicle for a "new mythology": because ultimately, especially in a "multiverse" built on other people's old and endlessly reworked and reconfigured concepts, even in a project as adventurous (and if nothing else can be said for it, it's at least adventurous) as Morrison's FINAL CRISIS, they're just nostalgia too.
1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 8-14):
ELEPHANTMEN 15 by Richard Starkings etc. ($2.99; standard comic)
Still one of the most attractive series published today, despite a rotating talent staff. And the stories are almost there, but they just can't seem to resist making the reader say "huh?" at least once per issue. Here's it's twice. Last issue (this is pt. 3 of 3) the big cliffhanger was a human girl attached to an Elephantman - genetically altered intelligent animals used as soldiers/living weapons in a devastating war but now acclimatized to western civilization and filling various jobs there - showed signs of imminent death by extremely virulent pathogen extremely fatal to humans, and this issue... nothing. Not a trace. Meanwhile, an Elephantman crime boss is trapped in a hospital that's under attack by his worst enemy, who has plotted the whole thing out to kill him. His girl friend falls into the enemy's grip - and then runs up to the Elephantman two pages later and they leave the hospital without further encounters. No explanations. You can chalk it up to laziness, clever storytelling, or seeding the plot with mysteries, but the principle remains: if you're going to make someone caught in a situation they can't escape a key plot point, when they escape that situation you have to tell us how. (In the latter case, the villain shows up later bleeding slightly, so I guess that's our indicator. But it still doesn't explain anything.) I like ELEPHANTMEN a lot, but I'm getting tired of not being about to like it a whole lot more.
From Antix Press (9333 Oso Ave, Chatsworth CA 91311):
DR. GRAVE by Ed Clayton ($14.99; trade paperback)
Pulp hero parody, with a clever joke, though I'm not sure how long that alone can sustain a series. Dr. Grave is a wonderful character: vile, self-obsessed, bad-mannered, greedy, racist, sexist, opportunistic, constantly blaming and berating others (mostly his long-suffering Indian man-servant, trapped into his service for unspecified reasons) for his blunders and for not joining his rash, thoughtless actions; embracing the imperialist underpinnings of adventure pulps, Clayton makes his hero simply a man who feels entitled to the world, and anything less is intolerable stupidity. Yet he's also a genuine bulwark against evil, or at least against non-Western cultures. Somehow (his entertaining, distinctive art doesn't hurt) Clayton manages to sustain the bit at high pitch throughout the volume, playing with a number of familiar comics tropes along the way. On dying, Dr. Grave gets the best resurrection story ever. Like I say, I don't know how long the core joke can sustain itself, but for the length of this books it's just fine.
From JK Comics:
NEW WORLD RISING by Jerrod Kloetzer & Fernando Pinto ($18.99; trade paperback)
Mixed minds here. I love the energy, a wildly anarchic throwback to underground comics, with a band of fed up tough guys wreaking havoc on Aberdeen WA (best known as the boyhood home of Kurt Cobain, and, having been through there a couple of times, it doesn't strike me as much of a stretch to say living in Aberdeen could drive you to psychotically anti-social behavior) as they plow toward the greatest caper of all time. The story rips along at a crazed pace; what it lacks in plot logic it makes up for in speed. But the weaknesses don't stay down. Every character sounds like they learned English from PULP FICTION, and the endless "street" talk gets oppressive quickly. (A little macho swagger goes a long way.) The art's okay; I wondered why it's mostly in pencil, since the imprecision of pencil makes it hard to tell a lot of characters apart, but the occasional inked pages answer the question. As bitter black comedies go, it has strong moments, but having everyone the heroes go up against be complete blundering idiots stacks the deck a little too much, and the final goal, once achieved, leaves us not so much inspired as wondering "okay, now what?" Still, it has its moments, and the talent, especially Kloetzer, shows potential.
From Dark Horse Manga:
MPD-PSYCHO Vol. 1 by Sho-u Tajima & Eiji Otsuka ($10.95)
An ex-police detective, finishing a stretch for a murder committed by one of his multiple personalities, joins an elite team hunting serial killers. Art and story are pretty good, but I'm starting to feel serial killer stories are just thinly-veiled pornography, with every writer out there - I'm talking worldwide - in a mad, desperate race to come up with more and more perverse, gross and graphic means of abusing and murdering people, mainly women, mainly pretty women. Every serial killer in fiction now has to be some sort of damned artist. Fact is most serial killers are just killers and there's nothing especially interesting about them, and their psychology is pretty standard across the board. But the big lure of these stories isn't the why of killings but the ridiculously ornate and fetishistic nature of the murders. That's certainly the case with MPD-PSYCHO (the justice its hero metes out seems almost an afterthought by comparison) and that it's well-written and very well drawn just makes it more repulsive.
BLAZING COMBAT by Archie Goodwin & various ($22.99; hardcover)
In the mid-60s, Jim Warren went one step further in "re-creating" EC Comics (he'd previously issued horror mags CREEPY and EERIE) with BLAZING COMBAT, Archie Goodwin's attempt to recreate Harvey Kurtzman's legendary war comics FRONTLINE COMBAT and TWO-FISTED TALES. Enlisting mostly former EC artists like Wally Wood, John Severin, Frank Frazetta, Joe Orlando and Angelo Torres, as well as artists best known elsewhere like Alex Toth and Gray Morrow, and, like Kurtzman, focusing more on the men engaged in war and on the civilians who felt its effects, Goodwin created a couple dozen plus excellent, humanistic war stories - all basically primers in creating short-form comics - that the times had no interest in. (This was 1966, when most Americans were strongly pro-Vietnam War and anything that even vaguely smacked of, say, considering the Vietnamese as human beings or suggesting war could have devastating consequences was considered un-American; the populist backlash against Vietnam was still a couple years away.) This material has been resurrected a couple of times, never with much fanfare, so it's great to see a high end collection. Worth every penny; like I said, even if you don't like war stories, if you want to learn how to write comics stories, you'll never find a better example than Archie Goodwin.
From Boom! Studios:
LEFT ON MISSION by Chip Mosher & Francesco Francavilla ($14.99; trade paperback)
Somebody's been reading Jim Steranko and MODESTY BLAISE. I don't mean Mosher, who turns out a decent story of a semi-retired spy abandoning his wife and son to hunt down a former lover gone rogue across three continents before she can sell stolen secret information. I mean Francavilla, whose sense of breakdowns gets the story off to a visually interesting start. The problem is his art is very good during sequences where characters stand still, but goes wrong (at least anatomically) where action's called for. Where it's good it's good but he wears his weak points on his sleeve. The same can be said of Mosher, who turns in a nice bit of spy fiction marred by his main character. Though called in because he's supposedly the "top guy," he sure doesn't prove it, constantly getting captured, having long chats with his target then letting her get away, etc. I know he's a different sort of character, but Jason Bourne's a good example: he's feared because he's dangerous, and virtually every move he makes reinforces that perception. You don't get to be top spy by worrying about your feelings. (It's also a little too much sop to spy story convention he hops into bed with the target without so much as a thought to his marriage. It makes him creepy, and there's no story point to him even being married, since it never really figures in anywhere.) LEFT ON MISSION is still a pretty good read, but it needed a hero capable of living up to his press, or, better, a better reason why he's recruited for the job.
From TwoMorrows Publications:
MODERN MASTERS VOL. 19: MIKE PLOOG by Roger Ash & Eric Nolen-Weathington ($14.95; trade paperback)
In the late '60s, when he first appeared on the scene after a stint as Will Eisner's assistant, Ploog already had one of the most idiosyncratic styles around, because almost nobody remembered what Eisner's work looked like. Arriving at a moment when Neal Adams was pushing the business toward pseudo-realism yet bearing no resemblance to Kirby's work or other action artists, Ploog's "high octane cartooning" was another breath of fresh air, a sign that "commercial" could expand to encompass practically anything, after a long, long stretch where house styles were enforced and divergence was discouraged. And it has only become more of itself as the years have passed, bold and grotesque and beautiful and always instantly identifiable. As usual, the interview section of this MODERN MASTERS volume has its moments but is really little more than introduction to Mike and his art, but the real introduction is in the art itself - pencils, paintings, printed pages and designs - and the art is aces, as always. Worth picking up, especially if you're unfamiliar with Mike's work.
Notes from under the floorboards:
Have to cut it short this week. Tech difficulties on the corporate end here. (Everyone's leaving town early for the New York Con, cutting down my lead time.)
In case you hadn't heard, Iran now has a space program.
TRUST ME (Mondays 10P) is the latest original "drama" (it's more on the lines of "dramadies" like BOSTON LEGAL) on TNT's roster, and apparently with the same inspirational pedigree as shows like DAMAGES: dealing with the current high pressure world of advertising agencies, it feels like it began with someone in management saying, "AMC's winning a lot of awards for MAD MEN, we should have an "ad agency" show too." But it's more like 30 SOMETHING, starring 40-something-going-on-12 creative team Mason (Eric McCormack) and Conner (Tom Cavanaugh) coming to bickering loggerheads when Mason's promoted over Conner to run their department as their agency contemplates dissolving the department altogether. Griffin Dunne and Monica Potter provide support. Critics have savaged the show for its forced, excessively quippy dialogue (they don't seem to want to disappoint any WILL & GRACE fans wandering in for McCormack) but it's not that bad. It's... amusing. But McCormack still gets props from me for his hero-villain Col. Mosby in the LONESOME DOVE series, and though he hasn't show that sinister intensity since (and I couldn't stand WILL & GRACE) he still has enough good will here to give him a long rope. Cavanaugh is Cavanaugh (remember ED) but his tics work okay here. The actors aren't the problem, and neither is the directing; the problem is the vanilla, step-by-step writing that's not terrible but takes no risks either. It's familiar. But that's the TNT style: they're out to be the hottest cable channel of the '90s.
Yowch! New York's mayor Mike Bloomberg got bit by the groundhog he was waiting on to tell him whether Wall St. would have six more weeks of depression. (That's what Groundhog Day is for, right?) Back in Madison, people would gather around the Sun Prairie burrow of Jimmy the Groundhog and wait for him to pop his little head up. My old friend Mark Bergman used to fantasize about positioning himself on a nearby hill with a high-powered rifle, and when that little head saw the light of day, blam. Not a chance to see his shadow. I know it sounds cruel, but bear in mind this was six more weeks of Wisconsin winter on the line.
This week's media piracy update: the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, in discussion among several nations (including Canada, which has been telling its citizens otherwise), includes the criminalization of private, non-commercial copying of material. (Such use has been regularly upheld as legal by courts.) The US Trade Representative was happy to share this with the film and music industries but refuses to verify it for the general public, citing "national security" considerations, despite Obama promises of new government transparency. I guess if we're being sold down the river - as a deterrent to real media pirates, apparently.
Congratulations to Chris Sequira, not only for recently having an Iron Man story published on Marvel's website, but also for being the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "notes in an octave." (Take the first two letters of each logo in last week's challenge and you get do re mi fa so la ti... and that brings up back to do.) Chris generously wishes to point your attention not to his Iron Man story but to Gaslight Grimoire, celebrating an anthology of new Sherlock Holmes stories. Check it out.
No Comics Cover Challenge this week because I'm out of time to get any, but sprinkled through the column is a weird Gene Colan-drawn science fiction story from the early '50s which prove his unique style was in place even then. Nothing to figure out about it, just enjoy it and we'll see you next week.
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