Monday, January 22, 2018

Final Crisis Retro Review Part II: The Darkseid Plot

Overview

The simplest superhero stories have this plot: There is a villain on the loose, and only the superhero is able to stop them. The villain evades capture long enough to keep things interesting, then eventually loses. Slightly more complicated is this: The villains get organized, and start by attacking the heroes first, to try to clear their path to victory. After some initial success, the villains still lose.

Final Crisis shows a world in which the villains win – really win – and take control of the world: Not just the most powerful villains, but the worst ones, dedicated not to mere wealth, but to absolute power and absolute evil. As in many older superhero stories, the villains begin by subduing the superheroes.

It's a vision we've seen before. Most literally, Grant Morrison had a subplot about Darkseid conquering the world in his JLA story "Rock of Ages." There are few literary works more compelling than George Orwell's "1984," in which the politics of control meld with science fiction and subject the Earth's population to control over thoughts as well as over their physical bodies. Orwell's novel had its own forebears including the historical example of the Nazi domination of Europe and Stalinist domination of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Darkseid was, from Kirby's original work, deliberately patterned on Hitler. Final Crisis shows what happens when Darkseid wins, making Darkseid's Apokoliptan regime an analogue for Nazi Germany and the Darkseid-occupied Earth an analogue for Nazi-occupied Europe. A few weakened and isolated superheroes and other characters fight back, serving as an analogue for, say, the French Resistance, until finally the A-list superheroes retake the field and wipe Darkseid's rule away in a matter of minutes; here, those superheroes serve much the same role that the U.S., U.K., and Canada played in liberating Western Europe.

In FC, the bad guys do more than conquer half the world; they get virtually everything, and it is nearly to the point of destroying all reality. There is resistance remaining led by some scattered superhero groups under Mister Terrific, Alan Scott and Black Canary, by various governmental agencies, by a few survivors in Japan led by Shilo Norman and Sonny Sumo, and a couple of upstart supervillains. None of them stand much of a chance. Then, one at a time, DC's biggest heroes face off against Darkseid and take him down like a quintet of bowling balls hitting one pin.

The Darkseid plot of Final Crisis is, essentially, a very common, simple story with all of the variables set to their maximum values: The worst villains do the worst things and inflict the worst damage before the best heroes set things right with the best tools in the best way. This is a superhero-vs-supervillain story refined to its purest essence.

Themes

There are several interesting motifs common to past Morrison stories and his major influences shape the Darkseid plot:

• A time loop: Darkseid dies sometime around 2008 but falls into the past and is reborn on Earth for Seven Soldiers around 2005.
• A second time loop: Darkseid fires a bullet in FC #7 that goes into the past, exploding in Orion's brain in FC #1, then burying itself under the sidewalk 50 years in the past. John Stewart gives it to Batman, who uses it to shoot Darkseid in FC #6.
• A third time loop: Kamandi tells Anthro that people in the future will need the symbols he got from Metron. Thereby, Anthro writes them on a cave wall, and those symbols are ultimately passed on to save the day in the Final Crisis.
• A fourth time loop: Batman appears in the cave way back in Anthro's time, bringing with him superhero emblems that he turns into cave art, to put the superhero idea into humanity
• A fifth (!) time loop: Brainiac Five gives Superman knowledge of the Miracle Machine, which was based on the diagram on Metron's costume all the way back in FC #1. Superman takes that into the LSH's past, his own present, and uses it to save the future.
• Sneak attack: After the September 11 attacks, several Morrison stories feature villains making a sneak attack that circumvents defenses rather than a full frontal attack that tries to overwhelm the superheroes by force. Darkseid builds an organization that establishes his presence on Earth, recruiting allies and planting spies, before covertly taking out key threats and finally assaulting Earth's freedom in one, swift blow.
• A scattered team: In Seven Soldiers, the heroes are never present in the same place at the same time. This is also true in the victory of the biggest heroes at the end of FC, with Batman, the two Flashes, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern making their attacks in that order.
• References to unheralded stories from the Silver Age, including The Human Flame (1959), the Miracle Machine (1968), Superman making the entire world's population safe while a catastrophe is resolved comes from "The Man Who Murdered the Earth!" (1972), Libra (1974), the Flash winning a race for his life with Superman as the finish line (1977, more details below) and the Manhunters as a corps of pre-Green Lantern servants of the Guardians (1977), now re-imagined as Alpha Lanterns.

As the ultimate DC superhero–supervillain story, the Darkseid plot it gives us start-to-finish, alpha-to-omega, big-picture views of superhero history organized in multiple fashions:

• Publication history: FC has multiple categories of hero, representing different eras of comic books, including ordinary detectives like Dan Turpin, Golden Age heroes who came and went, government agents like Checkmate, Kirby's gods, second-tier superheroes, and the first-tier superheroes. Their success in opposing Darkseid correlates closely with their prominence in DC history. So, Batman strikes a crucial blow whereas the vastly powerful but never highly popular Martian Manhunter dies.
• Sources of superpowers: Extra significance is given to magic words, magic signs, and will-powered machines. While many comics accept these old ideas with no fanfare, FC presents the ideas over and over as though they are incredible and new.
• Past to future: FC spans human history from Anthro to Kamandi, and they are used as bookends who bracket the larger story, and briefly meet.

The Attack

Darkseid's attack is multipronged:

Preparation
• Glorious Godfrey is an African-American televangelist undermining public sentiment.
• Mokkari and Simyan are creating genetically engineered versions of soldiers based on tigers.
• Granny Goodness possesses an Alpha Lantern, Kraken.
• Desaad possesses Mary Marvel.
• Mad Hatter technology is used to build mind-control helmets.
• The Dark Side Club, as shown as the evil force in Seven Soldiers Mister Miracle subplot, is kidnapping children and subjecting them to the Anti-Life Equation.
• Libra recruits supervillains as a prophet converting them to a religion of crime.

Initial Strike
• Orion is killed by a gunshot from the future.
• Libra kills Martian Manhunter to impress supervillains.
• John Stewart is attacked as he investigates Orion's murder scene.
• Hal Jordan is implanted with a suppressor chip to hide Granny's presence.
• Hal Jordan is framed for Orion's death.
• Batman is subdued and captured by Granny / Kraken.
• Lois Lane is injured critically, forcing Superman to remain at her bedside.

Takeover
• The Anti-Life Equation is broadcast globally, turning most people into slaves.
• Mary Marvel attacks Wonder Woman, infecting her with Morticoccus.
• Armies of Justifiers and other Darkseid slaves try to finish his conquest.

The Long Story

As I noted in my Kirby Fourth World retro review, a lingering mystery regarding the entire body of work is: Why Earth? With such a cosmic scope, why would gods trouble themselves so much with one planet? Morrison gives us a long story in which this makes sense, a literally biblical, literally cinematic story sketched in extremely broad strokes, in which Earth has always had the potential to produce the gods who will surpass the Fourth World's evil gods.

Metron arrives in his chair before Anthro, the first boy, and plays a role synthesized from many different myths: This is Early Man receiving technology from the aliens (2001: A Space Odyssey); this is Prometheus receiving fire from the gods; this is the angel telling shepherds that the savior will be born.

Metron says, "Have no fear. Here is knowledge." That line closely echoes the New Testament's angel visiting shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." (Luke 2:8-20). Metron gives Anthro fire and two symbols. The symbol on Metron's forehead is a vaccine against the Anti-Life Equation. The symbol on Metron's chest is a diagram for the Miracle Machine and we see it directly in the design when Brainiac Five shows it to Superman in the 31st Century. Fire is to Anthro's people precisely what the idea of tools is to the primitive men in 2001 and they promptly use it to win a battle while Metron's other knowledge plays a role, like the spacecraft in 2001 in the distant future.

Kamandi speaks across time to Anthro, telling him that they need the symbols. Thereafter, humans on Earth have the promise of future greatness. Darkseid's final battle for domination of the universe therefore takes place on Earth, and his forces show an awareness of this when Granny asks, on Oa, if the central power battery is the gift that Metron gave humanity. Ultimately, we see heroes born on Earth, plus Superman who was raised there, as the humans raised above gods who are the ultimate winners.

Liberation

The timeline isn't very precise, but Darkseid's forces control the Earth for "a few weeks" and then, from a position of absolute victory, he's taken down and out in what must be a matter of mere minutes by DC's A-list superheroes, who not only defeat him, but also erase him and his deleterious effects on the world completely. There are essentially five DC superheroes who are winners in this story while all the rest – the Hawks, the Atoms, Green Arrow – are B-listers who make a good show but don't quite measure up. Of the Big Five, four smack down Darkseid while the fifth eliminates Mandrakk. Those five, the top tier of DC superheroes are:

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Green Lantern.

It's a little more complicated that that because we have, in the end, multiple Supermen, two Flashes, and multiple Green Lanterns. But if we see each hero as a "brand," those are the five brands that come out on top, the winners.

Contained within FC's main plot are subplots for each of the Big Five. The obvious intent here is to give each of them a plot that is very refined as a sort of pure, refined version of the character's stories over the years. These are highly personalized subplots: We don't see, for example, Wonder Woman on trial and the Flash pulling something out of a utility belt. Morrison puts the Big Five into cliched versions of their most stereotypical stories because these are, ultimately, what made those characters so endearing and so popular. The plots are as follows:

• Wonder Woman is made captive, which renders her helpless. When she is freed, she turns the tide, in turn making the villain her captive. "It was Wonder Woman who bound Darkseid's body. With her lasso of truth, she chained the god of evil. And no one was hurt." What a beautiful line, particularly the final note, for a character associated as much with love and peace as with being a warrior. What that line communicates, poetically, is that Darkseid's hypnotic grip over 3 billion people was commanded to end by Wonder Woman with her lasso – a peaceful solution that nobody else could have brought about. We also see her comforting children both before and after the main action of the story. Though she spends most of the story as one of Darkseid's Furies, her star turn as one of the heroes saving the day is inspired.

• Batman is also made captive, and is put into a slow-acting death trap, from which he escapes to rain hell from inside the villain's own headquarters. Mokkari and Simyan attempt to clone Batman and make an army of Batman warrior, but Batman uses his own memories as a weapon, punishing the Lump, who is psychically transferring Batman's thoughts to the clones, and causing the clones to perish spontaneously. Batman psychically convinces the Lump to set Batman free, and then Batman uses Mokkari's abandoned gun to confront Darkseid. Pulling the almost ridiculously right thing out of his utility belt at exactly the right time, Batman uses the bullet that killed Orion to shoot Darkseid. The purest historical example of this ridiculous rightness of Batman's accessing a gadget might have been in the movie Batman (1966) when Adam West deals with a shark by pulling a can of Bat Shark Repellent out of his utility belt. As elaborated upon in Morrison's issues of Batman, Batman shooting Darkseid literally changes the entire nature of heroes facing evil. We can contrast this Fifth World event with the Fourth World confrontation between Mister Miracle and Boss Dark Side, in which Darkseid shoots Shilo Norman in the head, calling that his "first and last lesson in cosmic Realpolitik." In Batman's version, it's Darkseid getting shot (after, quite pleasingly, Batman cuts Darkseid off with, "Do I make myself clear?") and Batman gets his revenge for the month he'd spent in the Evil Factory. "Gotcha."

• As revealed on the last page of DC Universe #0, Barry Allen returns from the dead and his passage through sci fi / spiritual realms gives him knowledge regarding Darkseid's plan. Allen has to outrace death, and lead the Black Racer to a time and where death personified claims Darkseid instead of himself – killing two birds with one stone. Of course, it's no surprise that the Flash prevail by winning a race. In the execution (pun intended), this may be a conscious or subconscious reference by Morrison to a Silver Age story in Flash #249 in which a deadly super-powerful disembodied fist is following Flash, keeping pace with him, and will inevitably kill him when he tires and it catches him. Allen leads the fist to Metropolis, runs (vibrating at super speed) right through Clark Kent, and allows the fist to punch Superman harmlessly, and thus ending the threat. The tactics are very similar to the race that ends in Final Crisis #7, also running right by/through Superman and (look closely) through Darkseid so that the Black Racer continues the death of Darkseid set in motion by Batman's gunshot in the previous issue. Flash's race is also one of community, having been begun with Jay Garrick, continued with Wally West, having a break so that Barry can reunite with Iris, and is his reintroduction to the Justice League as Superman sees the red blur and comments, "Barry Allen?" A particularly nice ambiguous line is when the Flashes' arrival is announced with, "And then it seemed as if the sun had risen in the West." (as if the son had risen in [Wally] West). As with all other aspects of Final Crisis, the Flashes' race is not a twisty or arbitrary plot but simple, even clichè, and even predictable. When one reader posted on a message board that they wondered, after Final Crisis #2, what was coming next, I responded, "I know what's coming. The Black Racer's win-loss record in races is 9,378,621 to 0 but it's about to be 9,378,621 to 1 because now he's racing Barry #^!#!$& Allen." All of these superhero subplots, in isolation, were equally predictable if you knew that Morrison was giving us them at their most typical and finest.

• Going back to his original conception, three hallmarks of Hal Jordan are (1) Perpetually getting into trouble, (2) Fearlessness to the point of flippancy, (3) Winning effortlessly against impossible odds. While gods are dying, civilization is disintegrating, and Hal himself is framed for murder, Hal Jordan reacts to the Final Crisis like it's not even a big deal, telling Wonder Woman after his arrest, "I'll be fine." While even the other A-listers are battered, chased, enslaved, and besieged, Hal comfortably walks through the paces of his arrest and trial, knocks down one of the evil gods with a non-power-ring punch as the first significant win by any of the heroes, holds out his palm to get his power ring returned to him like a kid getting candy on Halloween, and shows up on Earth in time to strike the final winning blow. Hal's turnaround on Oa is so quick, so absolute, so effortless, I called it my second-favorite scene of the decade. As I note there, Hal manages to beat Kraken despite being the only person in the room who doesn't have a power ring and wins the same matchup that Batman had lost in FC #2. Hal's plan for what his strike force will do to Darkseid when they get to Earth is "kick his ass." He doesn't even need everyone's help, just "anyone who wants to." He's the god of confidence, cowboy cool reimagined as a flying spaceman. He doesn't believe merely that the Final Crisis is winnable, but that it isn't even going to be that hard. Ultimately, Hal and the Green Lanterns show up in time to defeat Mandrakk, not Darkseid, but as far as Hal is concerned, and as far as we get to see, he might have been able to win everything all by himself.
  
• Superman is the Alpha Hero on the A-list. His devotion to others is his vulnerability, so he is made hostage at the bedside of his injured wife, Lois Lane. After triumphing on two massive side adventures, Superman appears late in Final Crisis #6, after John Stewart and Supergirl note that the heroes need "more firepower" in the form of her "big cousin." When Superman does appear, enraged by what he sees, his flight to Darkseid's command center leaves heroes and villains falling in his wake. Without pausing at the door, he smashes his way in with one punch – his only use of direct force in the FC title itself – and for the duration of the story does no more than utilize his voice and his craftsmanship as a super scientist. His dialogue articulates the appropriate tone of horror in response to Darkseid's madness; then, when the slain Darkseid lingers as a malevolent ghoul intending to use the Miracle Machine against him, Superman dissipates Darkseid like a puff of smoke by singing a super-loud musical note. The construction of the Miracle Machine is Superman's greatest contribution to dealing with Darkseid, giving him one wish to fix the damage, a wish which was ultimately, "only the best for all of us." As important as Superman was to the Darkseid plot, he is absolutely central to the heroes winning in the Monitor plot, which is the topic for my next FC post.

Simplicity, Complicated

The Darkseid plot of Final Crisis has as its backbone one of the simplest superhero story ideas: Bad guys attack the superheroes, succeed initially, victimize innocent people, and then the superheroes turn things around. Morrison amplifies those simple things in scope and extent, and twists and tangles it up with five or so time loops, but he never deviates far from the formula. Along the way, he tells the story of pulp detectives, many different eras of costumed adventurer, and the basis of superheroes' superpowers. We see that some heroes are more potent than others, and that the worst evil, Darkseid, is greater than most heroes, but not equal to the top tier of DC's pantheon

Most of the seven issues of FC narrate the Darkseid plot, and it's not hard to imagine a relatively clean edit that eliminated the Monitor plot and left simply the Darkseid plot. That would have been a pretty good event. I think almost every reader, with a little effort, "got" the Darkseid plot. A standalone Darkseid plot without the Monitor plot might have been better received by many readers, for whom the Monitor plot was perceived as a confused and unnecessary add-on. A version of FC like that would have been a fine story, but it would have been something very much less than Morrison's intention. It would have been a very big story, but not the Final Crisis.


In my next FC post, I'll break down the Monitor plot. I don't think the majority of readers really "got" it. Some very thoughtful readers have posted many insights, but they don't agree that much on what the Monitor plot meant; there is no clear and detailed consensus. But I believe this: There is a reading of the Monitor plot that is extremely clear regarding Morrison's intentions. It is not a random add-on to the Darkseid plot. It is not a vague message about stories and readers and writers: It is a wonderful and unforgettable and essential storyline. It is a story to make you smile and cry and a story to love. It has an exceedingly specific point. It is for a very specific reason and a very good reason that Mandrakk appears right after Darkseid is defeated. I think that any reader who becomes aware of this reason will never forget it and will enjoy Final Crisis much more than they did before they were aware of it.  And that's my cliffhanger. Coming very soon (Doomsday Clock #3 will get my attention in the interim): My breakdown of the Monitor plot.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Final Crisis Retro Review Part I: Overview

So, a decade goes by…

DC's big crossover event for 2008 was Grant Morrison's Final Crisis. I started this blog very shortly after FC concluded, which would have been a fine time for me to write and post a breakdown. But, at the time, I focused on other subjects, and since then, I've commented on ongoing events while gradually working my way through comics history with retro reviews going from the Thirties back up to the 2000s. Now, I've worked my way up to the point where the blog started, ten years ago, and the time is right for a breakdown of Final Crisis. There's enough to say about it to fill more than one post, so I'm going to start with comments here about how the story was structured and some of the factors that I think detracted from the way FC reached the fans.

Final Crisis was not received by fans as warmly as other comparable DC events, including the previous two "Crises." Critical reviews on Amazon call it messy, scattered, and even incomprehensible. I think, for various reasons, the criticism is fair, and I'll spend some time talking about why. However, unlike a work that begins well then loses its purpose, or is mediocre in every aspect, Final Crisis – I believe – benefits enormously from re-reading and careful attention. I hope that with a thorough breakdown, it can be a much better story for people who give it more consideration.

Naturally, Final Crisis has already received a fair amount of attention, most of it during and immediately after its 2008-2009 release. I have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of those giants who've analyzed it before. I'm giving my breakdown now for a few reasons:

1) Working your way through it page-by-page with detailed annotations still loses the big picture. If the difficulty many readers have is that it's messy, annotations merely shine light upon the mess. What can help is an overview that puts the details into a meaningful structure.

2) I've enjoyed the work many times over the years, but I still didn't have a solid grasp of FC on the highest level – what it's saying about superhero stories and the people who write and enjoy them. The feeling that all the pieces fit into place didn't come for me until 2017.

3) As we'll see, the plotlines of Final Crisis weren't really complete until 2010, as some of the backstory was filled in with a Morrison mini-run in Batman #700-702, the fate of a Batman clone in Batman and Robin#8, and some mention of the Fourth World at the end of Return of Bruce Wayne. Some extremely helpful clarification was added by Multiversity in 2014. Some very fine annotations posted in 2009 weren't privy to all the information we got later.

4) Final Crisis commented on many the same things that Doomsday Clock is discussing now. It is timely to bring FC's comments into the discussion, and Johns' story may soon prompt us to do so.

An Apology

Among the various crossovers and tie-ins, ostensibly meant to give readers additional information or related reading, there are several that related to Final Crisis poorly – even very poorly. It's safe to say that there were works that strongly implied a connection to Final Crisis, perhaps even in the title, that turned out to be disconnected, or even contradictory. This surely didn't help the community of readers trying at the time to understand the story, and surely subtracted from the reception of the series itself. I will discuss these here, and the problems with them.

Countdown (to Final Crisis), The Death of the New Gods, and (Final Crisis) Last Will and Testament are three works that a reader would naturally expect to be connected, plotwise, to FC, but that failed to do so in an effective way, prompting a few disclaimers from the creators, mainly found online, that told readers to disregard their plot points as unrelated to Final Crisis and even continuity as a whole.

Countdown (#51-#1) seemed hardly to know what to do with itself, despite the fine talent of Paul Dini at the helm. It did not match FC in themes or tone. It did little to prepare readers for the important plot points of FC. Fifty-one issues were far beyond overkill for establishing those few plot points, and yet Countdown didn't perform that simple task adequately. The existence of multiple Monitors, the nature of Morticoccus, the fate of Earth-51, the temptation of Mary Marvel, and the death of Darkseid are all illustrated in Countdown, but in ways that seem mildly or substantially different from their depiction later in Final Crisis. And, really, there is no need to introduce the multiple Monitors before Final Crisis; it is not hard to understand their existence from the first page one sees them. If anything, the reader of Countdown is slightly less well prepared for Final Crisis than a reader who simply skipped it.

The same, and worse, is true of Jim Starlin's Death of the New Gods. DOTNG, a nice work in and of itself, with Starlin disposing of Kirby's Fourth World creations in a whodunit that establishes the Anti-Life Equation as a sentient and corporeal being. New Gods are killed, one after another, with Superman along as a combination soldier, detective, and witness as the ALE succeeds in killing every last New God using the Infinity Man as its tool. It's a good story, well told, but this plot is strikingly contradictory with that of Final Crisis, which begins with its own, utterly different whodunit, with Orion as the fallen victim. Orion dies in both stories, but at the hands of different killers and means. In FC, Orion is shot in the head with a time-travelling bullet by Darkseid, and his dying words are spoken to Dan Turpin in Metropolis before the Green Lanterns and Justice League take up the case. This is quite different from DOTNG, in which Orion's death takes place far from Earth and is known to Superman, who has no knowledge of any of this when FC begins. It's essentially impossible to digest DOTNG as having occurred before the events of Final Crisis.

The same can be said of Last Will and Testament, a work published midway through FC and originally intended to tie into it, but reference to FC was removed from its title before publication because it, too, contradicts FC on basic facts. In LWAT, Brad Meltzer shows how different superheroes react to the knowledge that the world is going to end the next day in a fight that they will lose. However, nothing like this situation occurs in FC, which, like other Morrison works that decade, shows a sneak attack as the killer blow, reflecting the real world events of the September 11 attacks. Therefore, LWAT can't even take place in DC continuity at all, and it becomes an unintended Elseworlds story, as does DOTNG.

Finally, the planned release schedule turned out not to be realistic, which led to artist J. G. Jones beginning the series, illustrating it wonderfully, but then handing off some of the duties as he fell behind. The fill-in artists performed admirably, with Superman Beyond's penciller Doug Mahnke doing memorable work on FC #7, but the shift from Jones to Carlos Pacheco and Mahnke was still a case of the original vision suffering due to an unintended failure on the organizational side.

One glitch may be bad luck, but four are a pattern, and this was only a partial list (note that Aquaman returned from the dead in FC, but all later stories ignored that). It is difficult to take this set of facts and not conclude that the writers of other stories were simply not informed of Morrison's plans by Morrison and whatever editors hold responsibility. And this certainly led to confusion on the part of readers as well as a bit of a grudge that they'd spent their comic-buying money on sixty or more prologue issues without receiving what they expected.

Flagship Crossovers

There was also confusion engendered by stories involving DC's two flagship characters, Superman and Batman that tied directly in with Final Crisis. In this case, a lack of communication cannot be blamed, because Morrison himself wrote two out of the three stories that I'll mention here. In these cases, nothing is strictly contradictory from one story to the next, but the plots become more convoluted than seem strictly necessary.

In the case of Superman, the confusion is this: After Lois Lane is incapacitated by a bomb in Final Crisis #2, he is called away on a mission that sidelines him from the main action. Two missions, in fact. In Legion of Three Worlds, Superman is summoned into the future to help the LSH fight an attack that threatens their survival. In Superman Beyond, Superman is summoned into alternate dimensions to protect higher-level worlds, and all worlds, against the first attack by Mandrakk. Both of these stories, which are both quite good, have a curiously common context and seem to serve the same role, which may confuse readers as to which occurred first (if "first" even has an easy interpretation in stories with time and interdimensional travel). In both, Superman's summoners both promise him that he can be returned to the "exact instant" from which he was taken. In fact, this seems not to be the case. The timeline, from Superman's point of view, must go like this:

1) Lois Lane is injured by a bomb.
2) Superman is taken on an adventure involving the Monitors.
3) Superman is flying in the sky over Metropolis.
4) The LSH brings Superman to the future.
5) Superman and the LSH defeat the threat.
6) Brainiac 5 shows Superman the God Weapon that can do anything.
7) Superman returns to Earth and witnesses that Darkseid has conquered it.

This can all be sorted out from the stories, but not until Final Crisis #6 at the earliest. Perhaps there's no proper cause for complaint; a mystery is what readers often expect and appreciate. However, this feels more like an over-busy nesting of storylines with confusion that has no payoff except understanding the basic facts. It feels as though the premise of Superman being called away was perhaps intended for one of the two side-stories, but then was used for both of them.

Something similar occurred with the Batman title, then penned by Morrison. Final Crisis was published concurrently with Morrison's masterpiece, close to my heart, Batman R.I.P. The publication times interlocked, with RIP beginning before FC began and ending before FC ended, with about four months during which both stories were in monthly publication. However, the story timelines were related in a completely different way, with Batman, R.I.P.'s main plot (flash-forwards withstanding) ending completely before the main action of Final Crisis' Darkseid plot began. Readers eventually found out, in 2010, that about four days of story time took place between the end of Doctor Hurt's attack in Batman and the death of Orion early in Final Crisis. Until then, it had been a mystery how Batman made his way between the plots of RIP and FC and from his zapping in FC to the start of Return of Bruce Wayne. Readers picked up each of the following issues with some significant uncertainty regarding how "Batman" had arrived into the situation:
Batman #676: An unidentified Batman and Robin declare that they will never die.
Final Crisis #1: Batman surprisingly alive after RIP.
Final Crisis #7: Bruce Wayne in a cave, writing on the wall.
Batman #682: Narrating flashbacks from his entire career.
Return of Bruce Wayne #1: Again at the cave.
Blackest Night#5: The clone body fried by Darkseid.
Batman and Robin#6-7: Again the clone body.
Batman and Robin#15: In silhouette, tells Doctor Hurt, "Turn around, Doctor. It's all over."

Eight times in two and a half years we saw a version of Batman enter the story without readers knowing who that Batman was. We also saw Batman depart from the stories of RIP and Final Crisis without understanding what the helicopter crash or eyebeam zap really meant. Twice, he apparently departed from the DCU, though the RIP helicopter crash ultimately proved to be of minor consequence and its drama at odds with the mundane escape-from-crash that got Bruce Wayne home by the end of the night. (In addition, two RIP crossovers strictly contradicted this by showing Batman's superhero allies unaware of his fate after RIP.) That's not to say that all of those scenes amount to mistakes: These were, in many cases, deliberate mysteries intended to heighten intrigue and keep readers guessing; however – and here's the rub – only in many cases. In other cases, there are scenes that seem straightforward with undramatized mysteries behind them; in other cases, there are scenes that seem mysterious with a perfectly mundane reality when all the facts were known. Simply put, there was sometimes annoying confusion rather than entertaining mystery. Cumulatively, these disconnects detracted from the overall experience, and Final Crisis was one of the works to lose a bit of cachet.

I have posted the aforementioned comments here because I feel it's an important critique of FC in the larger sense, and once one allows for the many, highly flawed connections FC and other stories, it further emphasizes how good FC itself was as a standalone work. Having dispensed with my critical comments regarding the crossovers, I will close this post with a quick summary of how my next two posts will review the series itself.

What Final Crisis is…

Final Crisis is a seven issue miniseries, but also had many crossovers. I won't review all of that here. For my purposes, Final Crisis is the seven-issue miniseries plus the two issues of Superman Beyond, which chronologically fit into the middle of FC. That said, I find many of the crossovers, particularly Final Crisis: Revelations, to be very good. Material found in some other places, including Batman #701-702, Multiversity, and online interviews illuminate the discussion, but I'll only discuss those insofar as they cast light on FC.

It is very helpful to note the general structure of FC and I will offer this here, then elaborate on it in the next two posts.

Final Crisis has two central plots that are not connected to one another in a straightforward cause-and-effect way.

1) The Darkseid Plot: Darkseid and his underlings hide on Earth, kill the last New God, Orion, and carry out surprise attacks against the superheroes. When they have accomplished their preliminary goals, sidelining most of Earth's defenses, they seize control of the world, holding it for several weeks until Earth's major superheroes liberate it and undo the damage.

The Darkseid plot is enclosed by a somewhat larger context of the entire timeline of the interaction between Kirby's Fourth World characters and the superheroes of the DCU; this is seen in flashback

The great majority of Final Crisis #1-7 and a few of the crossovers are devoted to the Darkseid plot. In many respects, I think the reader response was almost as though Final Crisis simply was the Darkseid plot, or that it should have been no more than that.

2) The Monitor Plot: As introduced by Marv Wolfman as part of Crisis on Infinite Earths, godlike beings of ancient origins called Monitors observe and direct events in the DC Universe, though Wolfman only posited two characters called the Monitor and Morrison gives us 52 Monitors, each responsible for one of the 52 dimensions of the Multiverse. In recent times, at least two Monitors named Mandrakk and Ogama conspire to destroy and feed upon the worlds of the Multiverse. They fail in two attempts to kill Superman, and are fated never to defeat him, with the good Monitor Nix Uotan returning from exile to aid Superman, other Supermen of the Multiverse, and the Green Lantern Corps to defeat Mandrakk and his ally Ultraman.

The Monitor plot is found in just a few sections of Final Crisis, predominantly in issues #1, #5, and #7, in addition to almost the entirety of the two issues of Superman Beyond. There are also a few scenes that tie the Darkseid and Monitor plots together, and many scenes that narrate events in the Darkseid plot but intertwine thematically with the Monitor plot.

The Monitor plot is not simply a superhero-supervillain story, but is an allegory that comments upon the relationship between comic book writers and comic book superheroes.

Interestingly, while a large proportion of reader commentary online had a critical or mixed reaction to Final Crisis, most readers seemed very supportive of Superman Beyond, and I wonder how the response would have been if Final Crisis #7 had simply ended with the defeat of Darkseid and then the material that ended Final Crisis #7 with the culmination of the Monitor plot had appeared under the banner of "Superman Beyond #3". I suspect that this minor alteration of the structure would have led to a warmer response by fans, who would have found the second encounter with Mandrakk to fit more easily within the framework of Superman Beyond.


Next up: The Darkseid plot!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Doomsday Clock 2

In its opening installment, Geoff Johns' Doomsday Clock provided many indications where its story must go. In the second issue, many inevitable other shoes fall, and there may be more to the style than the substance. We knew that characters from the Watchmen and DC Universes would collide, but Johns patterns the events after stories we've seen before and, surely, foreshadows events later to come in this one.

In the first pages, the team of Veidt, the new Rorschach, and villains Mime and Marionette board a modified Owlship and make the interdimensional voyage to the DCU in pursuit of Dr. Manhattan. Johns intertwines several story threads in narrating this escape. It's a necessary plot point for this escape to succeed, or we wouldn't have much of a story. But Johns, using some of the characteristics of Moore's storytelling (and not merely his characters) signals many other things to us.

First, we learn why Veidt has calculated that Marionette, a person with no superpowers, may help him wrangle the godlike Dr. Manhattan because of their special history. Some years ago, when Manhattan arrived to stop Mime and Marionette during a bank heist, he seemed to be on the verge of killing them when he halted. Something broke through the impassive cognition of the former-human-now-superhuman when he might have killed them and led him to mercy. Instead, he apprehended the couple alive. Veidt is clearly calculating that another, forced, appearance of Marionette may remind Dr. Manhattan to leave his activities in the DCU and return to the Watchmen Universe and save it. However, we readers see something else, which may mean that Veidt doesn't understand the situation fully. At the moment of killing Marionette, Manhattan, with his super senses, heard the heartbeat of her unborn baby, signified by blue (Dr. Manhattan) sound balloons rendering the sound of the heartbeat as "BABUM". A photo of the bank teller’s young child is shown to us because the teller had just tried to use her own child as a prompt for mercy from the criminals. Dr. Manhattan's act of mercy is the pivotal event in this issue, as signified by the cover, that shows the very same midsection of Marionette's costume where Manhattan was looking and listening when he showed that act of mercy. For the Watchmen Universe's sake, we hope that Marionette can trigger that same mercy now that she is no longer pregnant. We also have a subtle reminder that Dr. Manhattan can undo physical damage when he levitates the bank manager's recently severed finger upon arrival. We also see the significance of the Marionette character name, because a marionette is a figure that is manipulated by someone else, just as Dr. Manhattan may prove to be in the metaphorical hands of Veidt.

And undoing physical damage is what is required, and certainly what Veidt is banking on. The plan for Veidt to manipulate Manhattan into saving the Watchmen Earth happens too late for him to prevent nuclear holocaust. Veidt and his team leave only moments before New York is struck with a nuclear missile. This event is packed full of references to other stories, and it might be worthy of a spoiler warning, because these point where Doomsday Clock will likely travel.

First, civilian bystanders see the nuclear missile that will kill them and exclaim, "Look! Up in the sky!" and "Is that a plane?" These are catchphrases from the older, simpler days for the arrival of Superman. Here, these phrases are darkly ironic because it is doom, not salvation that flies toward them. And here, there is a choice for the story later to make: Is this indeed their final doom, with death standing in for life, marking the Watchmen Universe as a place where evil wins, much as Earth Three with its Crime Syndicate has been deemed by earlier writers? Or, is this a temporary, reversible death that Dr. Manhattan and others will make un-happen when the story moves on? Clearly, Veidt is banking on the latter. And we get a big stylistic clue that Johns is foreshadowing such an ending when the first use of Veidt's interdimensional travel button (marked with Dr. Manhattan's hydrogen atom symbol) does… nothing. But the second time he presses it, prompted by Rorschach, it does work, and barely in time to prevent their own deaths, which really would be final because of the vitality of their mission. Here, and perhaps again later, we can expect to see an initial failure be followed by success on a second try. And ultimately, this is the likely thematic arc for the story as a whole, with the sunnier DC Universe winning out and applying its happy-ending rules to the always bleak, fatally doomed Watchmen Universe as designed by Alan Moore.

And here we see the most profound allusive symbolism of the scene, and the reason why the nuke had to hit now for it to be un-happened later: This recreates the Superman origin story, with a rocket carrying the last survivors out of the very last instant before destruction to another world where there is hope. See this scene, and this series, as a conversation between, at least, Jerry Siegel, Alan Moore, and Geoff Johns. Moore tried to kill the world of superheroes with Watchmen. Now, in 2017, Johns is reminding us of the original version of this story, from 1938, where the escape of a final survivor from the death of a world provides hope for everybody.

Though Superman is, therefore, at the very forefront of the issue's symbolism, he is not seen. The rescue squad splits up, with Veidt contacting Lex Luthor and Rorschach going to Wayne Manor.

Before meeting Rorschach, Bruce Wayne encounters a Rorschach test, the scene imitating Kovacs' such test in Watchmen. Here, the symbols prompt him to imagine major events in his own life, including his parents' deaths and his role as Batman, but he answers dishonestly, saying that every pattern reminds him of a boat, because as shallow Bruce Wayne, he wants to go boating. As a backdrop, the DC Universe has multiple events mirroring those from the Watchmen Universe, with frightened citizens protesting against Batman's vigilantism as part of a much larger plot that has only been hinted at, with the Russia of both universes stirring up some evil in what, plainly, resembles events in our Putin-Trump-afflicted world of 2017 just as the original Watchmen had a Soviet Union plot resembling its Cold War setting in the mid-Eighties. Five Russia stories, two real and three fictional. Clearly this is the larger story towards which Doomsday Clock is headed, but for now we have only hints, primarily from the end notes about a metahuman conspiracy, about the form that will take and how exactly the Russias in both universes seem coordinated. Along the way, Johns may just provide an explanation within the story for why the DCU is so America-centric. (Obviously, the historical reason is that DC and its market originate in the U.S.)

Veidt and Rorschach's first move is another stylistic flourish by Johns. In order to understand the universe around them, they go to the public library and read. This is exactly what Dick Grayson did in the classic story "To Kill a Legend." In that story, two DCU characters (Batman and Robin) travel to another universe and give it a happy ending by preventing the Wayne murders. That universe, as I noted in my breakdown of Doomsday Clock #1, is also precisely 20 years behind Earth One, where we now see that the Watchmen Universe is precisely 25 years behind the DCU's Earth Zero. The precise multiple-of-five difference in timelines and the use of the public library is a big clue that Johns has that story in mind as a template for this one. We get yet another clue that Johns is trampling on Alan Moore's gloomy vision by the Owlship landing in the abandoned carnival grounds from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. However, Rorschach hints at some dark potential when he observes that Veidt's selection of literary figures (Hemingway, Woolf, and Mayakovsky) all committed suicide.

At Wayne Manor, we see that this Rorschach is either very lucky or very good, because he almost immediately finds the Batcave. In the issue's final story pages, the slow, moody focus on style suddenly wheels into high-paced action. Luthor and Veidt have a sit-down and begin understand, but don't much appreciate, one another. Meanwhile, Batman confronts Rorschach, and in one telling panel, we see that Mime and Marionette have escaped. The larger surprise, however, in the accelerated final pages is that the Comedian is somehow alive and in trying to shoot Veidt, accidentally grazes Luthor.


In the moments along the way, we get the opportunity to see how members of each universe view the other. This is, strikingly, at the very heart of the tagline for the original series: Who watches the Watchmen? Here, Luthor and Veidt watch one another, and neither is as impressed by the other as he is by himself. Meanwhile, Rorschach sees Batman as a "monster" because he fits the psychological profile of collecting clues from those he vanquishes.

The Veidt-Luthor and Rorschach-Batman confrontations were planned, and less surprise than lead one to mull over how much each is their respective universes' version of the other. The escape and surprise appearance complicate already-complicated expectations, and clearly require later resolution. Geoff Johns is doing a very good job of making this a full and compelling twelve issues.