Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Doomsday Clock: The Nathaniel Dusk Films

One structural similarity between Doomsday Clock and Watchmen is that each contains a prominent story-within-the-story. In Watchmen, that takes the form of the comic book series Tales of the Black Freighter, and in particular one story, "Marooned," from that fictional series. In Doomsday Clock, the parallel effort is a movie series starring an actor named Carver Colman as a detective named Nathaniel Dusk, and in particular the details of The Adjournment, one film from that series. This is potentially quite interesting, as a story-within-a-story can be quite revealing about the main story yet to come, and – even if not useful for forecasting – it says something about the way that Johns is crafting this story, and his overall message.

Part of what makes this interesting is the incredibly recursive nature of a story that has a story-within-a-story homaging an earlier story that also had a story-within-a-story. In fact, that understates it considerably. The layers are so numerous that it becomes almost maddeningly complex, a narrative equivalent to the visual phenomenon called the Droste effect, where an image contains a smaller version of itself that also contains a smaller version of itself, ad infinitum. To demonstrate the complexity of the situation here, let us consider the facets created by the story-within-a-story of Watchmen alone:

1) The main Watchmen plot (including multiple subplots)
2) The plot of "Marooned" and other TotBF stories
3) The fictional creators of TotBF.
4) Real people included on the fictional creative team.
5) Works of fiction in the real world that influenced TotBF.

Now, adding the equivalents from Doomsday Clock, double that from five planes of reality to ten, and instead of a handful of interlocked relationships, we have literally dozens. This is complicated yet more by the fact that the Watchmen Universe only consisted of a single work you can hold in your hand, whereas the DC Universe has been described in literally tens of thousands of works – and make no mistake – Johns is reaching into some fairly obscure old material in creating some such connections. There are effectively, therefore, six levels in the Doomsday Clockversion because creators of the Nathaniel Dusk series may be chosen from: (A) The real world; (B) Existing DCU characters; (C) Totally new characters debuting in Doomsday Clock. Moreover, we have multiple timelines at play in the DCU, and this is a fact that I am quite sure willprove relevant to Nathaniel Dusk. In duplicating Watchmen's use of a story-within-a-story (henceforth, for brevity, SWAS) Johns has something so remarkably powerful for its multiple layers that I can't readily recall a comparable device elsewhere in literature. Someone more avidly avant garde might let this SWAS take over the entire story; I do not think this is likely to be the direction that Johns will go, but I think he has devoted whole pages to it for a reason, and that it is going to get more interesting as it goes on.

Tales of the Black Freighter

Moore includes a considerable amount of text and art in conveying "Marooned" and I am not going to attempt, in this post alone, to reviewing that in detail. I will point out some high-level observations and offer just a few examples to back them up.

First, "Marooned" is a comic book, like Watchmenand other things upon which it comments are comic books. However, "Marooned" is not in the superhero genre but rather the pirate genre. It is quite full of horror, however, and in that regard TotBF certainly resembles to some extent Swamp Thingwhich has a horror element and whose writing duties, like TotBF, rotated from one writer to another, including Moore, who is the writer of Watchmen. The end materials for Watchmen#5 describe the history of TotBF and offer real world artist Joe Orlando as an artist on TotBF, and includes a drawing by the real Joe Orlando (portraying, in an interview, a slightly different fictional Joe Orlando). So TotBF has a lot of interplay with the real world.

Now, how does "Marooned," in all its detail, relate to the main Watchmenplot? The array of little clever details are quite numerous, and I will make no attempt to list them, but I will offer one example that shows that some of the plot mirrorings are fairly superficial and pointed in scattered directions: Someone taking a phone call inWatchmenmistakes the name "Rorschach" for the words "raw shark." Earlier in "Marooned," the protagonist has eaten raw shark meat. This is undeniably deliberate, but what does it mean? Perhaps we can note that Rorschach is as mean as a shark or that he is "eaten" because the phone call leads to his arrest and the main plot leads to his death, but none of that is very deep, or serves as useful foreshadowing. It's just a phrase that occurs in one story while the same idea (though not the exact phrase) occurs in the other.

What is the main story arc of "Marooned"? It makes one shudder to recall. A shipwrecked man meets repeated horror in his efforts to return home and save those whom he loves. The protagonist's associates, family, and even their dead bodies are devastated and defiled as he attempts to achieve some good outcome. Ultimately, he causes all of that devastation – everything would have been far better if he'd done nothing at all. And only in the final scene, when he realizes how damned he and his efforts are, that he surrenders himself to the infernal Black Freighter, climbing aboard as the newest member of its damned crew. Bleakness leading to greater bleakness leading to ultimate bleakness.

Is "Marooned" foreshadowing the main Watchmenplot? It certainly mirrors it in tone. Does it mirror it in plot, and if so, who is the protagonist? The doomed sailor from "Marooned" tries to do well, but fails repeatedly to make meaningful improvement in his situation, and ultimately, his act of violence that is meant to do good does the ultimate evil. He meets this fact with resignation. Who in the main plot does so? Veidt, the Comedian, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, Doctor Manhattan – all these nominal heroes come to see that their acts of violence have done no real good. Even Rorschach, in his final moments, meets the futility of his predicament with resignation, asking Doctor Manhattan to go ahead and deliver the inevitable death zap. However, only Veidt plays the active role in making the final violent climax occur. If the protagonist closely represents anyone, it's Veidt. The looser tone of resignation, however, is certainly seen all over Watchmen. So, could a savvy reader have used "Marooned" to predict where Watchmenis going? Maybe someone can tell a story to that effect, but I doubt it. "Marooned" only reaches its conclusion a few pages before Veidt tells the details of his plan to Rorschach and Nite Owl. Perhaps if someone stopped reading Watchmen#11 mid-way, then put the issue down and spent a long time thinking they could have used their cogitations to predict what was about to follow three page-flips later. Even then, we'd have to trust that they hadn't finished the issue first. I myself read Watchmenin the single paperback volume and certainly don't remember setting it down to try to make predictions.

But I think Doomsday Clockmay be different. I will go out on a limb and make some specific predictions for things I think we're likely to see before the Nathaniel Dusk storyline is complete.

Similarities and Differences

First, one remarkable alignment that may indicate how closely Johns is following Moore's structure: TotBF was mentioned/shown in Watchmanissues #3, 5, 8, 10, and 11. Five issues into Doomsday Clock, the Nathaniel Dusk films have been mentioned in issues #2, 3, and #5, suggesting that Johns is following Moore's structure considerably, but not to the last detail.

On the surface level, we can see many similarities between the two cases: Both are fictional narratives in a visual medium. Both are serials. Both are genres – pirate and detective – besides superhero that were once very popular in comic books. Both have death and murder as prominent elements. And, in both cases, we are given not only the story-within-a-story's narration, but also its backstory, with information about the creators who are a mixture of real-life creators and those who are fictional. Both of them also have a limited autobiographical feel – TotBFis a comic book, Moore's own medium, and the backstory of Tales of the Black Freighterrotating from one main writer to another reminds me of Swamp Thingbeing passed on to Alan Moore, who was in the middle of his run when Watchmenwas written; meanwhile, Geoff Johns began (and continues) a career in film, the medium of the Nathaniel Dusk stories.

That is a good transition into the sharp differences between the two cases; they are in different media. They are aimed at different generations: TotBF is being read by one of Watchmen's youngest characters, a boy named Bernie; The Adjournment is being watched (primarily, that we see) by a man named Donald who is in Johnny Thunder's assisted-living facility, and is probably about 90 years old. We can already be assured that they have distinctly different plot structures: Adjournment is a film noir whodunit, with a complex structure – as many as four victims or would-be victims and at least two killers. Marooned, on the other hand, was an endlessly bleak horror story, a failed journey leading inevitably to tragedy, with events both within and outside of the protagonists' control always leading to greater horror. But, unlike Adjournment, there are no unknown identities in Marooned, at least none that last long.

The Motive?

So what is the point of Adjournment? I think there's a probable answer to that, but it's more likely that we can figure it out from what we can already guess about Doomsday Clock than vice versa.

In and of itself, Adjournment is a murder mystery. If it proves to mirror Johns' larger story, then we will find all kinds of parallels between them. The victims and killer in the movie will represent equivalent figures in the DCU.

Alternately – or additionally – there seems to be an important subplot in which the creators of Adjournmentwill have directly played a role in the DCU. We know that Coleman Carver had a room full of timepieces in his home, and these have been important to both Doctor Manhattan and victim of timeline manipulation, Wally West. Moreover, some Golden and Silver Age characters have been mentioned in the Nathaniel Dusk backstory; these characters' presence may be a throwaway, or may turn into something very important.

One thing that has been telegraphed to us already, as of DC Rebirth#1is that the New 52 reboot of 2011 and concurrent actions appearently taken by Doctor Manhattan if not others, is being portrayed as an unfortunate worsening of the DCU, removing the Justice Society and a decade of relationships such as Barry and Iris. Having passed that decree as truth, Johns must assuredly be on a path towards undoing those deletions. And so we have two major retcons to un-retcon.

That brings us to The Adjournment. Our murder mystery has two victims. It also has two killers, and one of the killers will turn their sights on the detective who is trying to solve the case. To tie the just un-retcons we expect together with the Adjournmentplot, I suggest this: The older murder victim represents the Justice Society. The younger murder victim (divorced) represents the lost loves and legacies that the New 52 retcon removed. The latter was, apparently, removed by Doctor Manhattan, and the former by a wish that Johnny Thunder made to protect the JSA. Johnny tells us this in Rebirth as: "McCarthy yelled, 'Take off your masks!' You know I was only trying to protect them. I'm sorry for what I did."

This is a very specific reference to a story published in Adventure#466 1979 with key scenes set in 1951. In that story, an unnamed Joseph McCarthy demands that the JSA unmask themselves. They do not comply and retire from crimefighting, even though they continue to live their civilian lives. Apparently, Johnny Thunder, in this timeline, made a wish to his Thunderbolt that protected them from McCarthy but removed them from ever having been the JSA  – perhaps even from ever having lived.

There may be a tiny Easter Egg confirming this. Early in that story, the leader of a gang of anti-JSA criminals tells his colleagues, "…having failed to come up with a plan to stop the JSA once again, I must declare this meeting adj…" The word that is cut off is obviously "adjourned," and the title of the Coleman Carver movie is The Adjournment. However, what was more significantly adjourned was not a meeting of a bunch of criminals, but the outright existence of the Justice Society. It is that which the movie symbolizes. The detective's last name is Dusk, signifying the end of a day and the beginning of night. The act by Johnny Thunder ended the "day" of the Justice Society and brought on a long, dark night.

And it's here that I make a prediction that goes to the core of the difference between TotBF and the Nathaniel Dusk films: The damage done in "Marooned" was complete, total, utterly bleak, and irreversible. That's what Watchmen was about, but is obviously not what Doomsday Clockis about. The Justice Society will be made to have lived again. And now, note the timeline. McCarthy's hearing with the JSA took place in 1951, before the last two Nathaniel Dusk movies. The current timeline, therefore, forked off from the one we previously (pre-Flashpoint) knew. Therefore,The Adjournment is from 1954 in a timeline that didn't use to exist, and will be somehow altered again. If the events of Doomsday Clockundo Johnny Thunder's errant wish, then the world in which The Adjournment was made will not have existed, and so I predict that by story's end, we will see a new version of the Nathaniel Dusk series. Perhaps there'll be different plots, in which the deaths of the older and younger man do not occur. Perhaps different actors. Perhaps the films will not exist in this form at all. This will be a stylistic flourish for Johns to reveal late in the story, and we'll see that the new/restored timeline is a happier and more optimistic one.

Behind the Scenes

A more complex situation is the behind-the-scenes one. The characters of older DCU stories are mentioned in the materials concerning the Nathaniel Dusk series. Up to nine of these are mentioned in Doomsday Clock#3. One more that I missed: Bruce Nelson, who is a detective who debuted all the way back in Detective Comics#1. (Nelson's story began in San Francisco but inexplicably moved to New York in the second issue, perhaps DC's first retcon. Doomsday Clockplaces him in San Francisco.)

We know that some of the individuals who, in the post-Crisis timeline, became some of the Golden Age's superheroes, are still alive in the current timeline, but did not become superheroes. We also know that Johnny Thunder did something to prevent the JSA from having their careers. Perhaps the explanation can be found in an older comic that went a lot like that. In JLAvol1 #37, an evil version of Johnny Thunder tells the Thunderbolt to make it so that the JLA would never exist. Going back in time, the Thunderbolt systematically makes one change after another to prevent any of the JLA members from beginning their careers – for example, stopping the lightning bolt that gave Barry Allen super speed, preventing the explosion of Krypton, and diverting Abin Sur from Earth and his meeting with Hal Jordan. If Johns is following that formula here, then all of the JSA's civilian identities should have lived normal lives with middle adulthood in the 1940s and 1950s. Carver Colman would have been 28 years old when the JSA debuted in 1940. He is suggested to have been an "American hero" in DC#3. His murder, in the current timeline, took place in June of 1953 or 1954, and he was murdered with his own award trophy, the same way that the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, was killed in Watchmen#8 with the trophy shown on the issue's cover.

Cumulatively, this builds suspicion that Carver Colman actually is one of the Justice Society members whose lives were rerouted by the Thunderbolt in its alteration of the timeline. How can this be? According to the end materials, Colman's purported mother was not his real mother, as claimed in a letter found after his death. If he was removed from one family and placed with another, perhaps this was the alteration made to the timeline to prevent his hero identity from emerging. Perhaps his real name is one that we know as the secret identity of a Justice Society member.

If so, who? The strongest signs point to Hourman. Above all, Colman had a room full of clocks, called a "ticktock room" in the celebrity gossip. Rex Tyler's nickname (yes, this would seem to give away his secret identity) was Tick Tock Tyler – this is surely not a coincidence on Johns' part, and is either the giveaway clue or a red herring. One more, subtler clue in DC#2: A present-day ad for a drug called Travodart is made by the "Bannermain Chemical Co." Bannermain, as other readers have pointed out, is very close to the name Bannerman, which was the name of Rex Tyler's boss and the chemical company for which Tyler worked until he eventually became the boss and named it Tyler for himself. If Bannerman remained the name of that company, then Tyler not only failed to become Hourman, but perhaps failed, also, to live any of his life as Rex Tyler. Yet another clue regarding his death: A woman in Johnny Thunder's retirement home calls him a "deviant" and part of the modern backstory of Tyler is that he battled addiction to the Miraclo drug that provided his powers. So, we may find out that a change made early in Tyler's life put him on the path to become Carver, and an untimely (no pun intended) death. If so, the restoration of the timeline to include the Justice Society will also save Tyler.

It is also worth noting that the name Carver Colman sounds a lot like the Carter Hall identity of the JSA's Hawkman, so perhaps that is who Colman was in the original timeline. If so, note that the older Carver Colman fan is named Donald. Don Hall, the Dove half of the Hawk and Dove duo, could conceivably be retconned as a relative of Carter Hall, which could explain why he is a fan of Colman, as an actual relative of his. However, the age does not seem to fit.

Then again, perhaps a Colman is just a Colman, but one who had significant ties to the Golden Age heroes; John Law and other Golden Age characters are tied to his story, and he may be more of a catalyst than a main player in the backstory of the JSA that was, now isn't, and will be again.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Doomsday Clock 5

As Doomsday Clock approaches the halfway mark, we have several storylines, each of which contains some degree of mystery. Most characters in the story are profoundly unaware of what is coming. The two most central characters, Dr. Manhattan and Superman, have been seen rarely and sporadically. The subplots themselves seem highly disconnected. Explosive confrontations are about to take place. This is the point when complexity and confusion may be peaking, and the story will soon have to sort out the uncertainties and present some thunderous showdowns.

First, Doctor Manhattan is doing something in the DC Universe. We have hints about his purpose, but most clear is that he is responsible for the changes that took place with Flashpoint. Part of this is the removal of the Justice Society from the timeline, and we know that Johnny Thunder wishes to restore them; this will almost certainly succeed in some form.

Second, Veidt wants to retrieve Doctor Manhattan from the DC Universe and get him to return to the Watchmen Universe and stop – or reverse – the nuclear annihilation in progress.

Third, there is the Superman Theory which concerns an unknown number of masterminds; perhaps someone has been manufacturing superheroes and supervillains in America by activating people's metagenes and perhaps someone is seeking to reveal and stop this and/or turn public sentiment against all superheroes – perhaps most centrally Batman. Then again, this could all be the work of a single mastermind. Lex Luthor is certainly related to this, but how? And how is this related to the other plots at all?

As a backdrop to these and the larger story, there are a number of parallel subplots involving tension between Russia and the United States. Such plots existed in the original Watchmen, in the 1992 Watchman Universe, and in the present DC Universe, not to mention such history and fact in the real world. These plots are probably not logically connected, but the obvious thematic similarity seems a knot to untie.

With that, Doomsday Clock#5 explodes with many incipient and imminent confrontations.

The issue's first panel is the brain scan from February showing Veidt's tumor. This is his own personal "doomsday clock" as its growth, if left unchecked, will incapacitate and kill him at some time in the future. The (seemingly) sign of his inevitable death is ironically coupled with the text of Metropolis hospital workers who deem him "lucky" because he survived a long fall with minimal injuries. The overall effect is that common people are ignorant of coming danger. In this case, it is some background characters' and the danger is to Veidt alone, but this is suggestive of larger plots in which common people are unaware of disaster that is coming, while Veidt is, perhaps, uniquely aware. In a more immediate sense, everyone in the hospital is unaware of Veidt's origin and abilities, so he is easily able to free himself and make his way to the Owlship.

Meanwhile, there is a showdown transpiring in Gotham City, the sheer complexity of which is rare if not unprecedented. Batman has been injured by a crowd, and is now unconscious where a fallen Bat-Signal has killed someone. On the scene are the Joker and his gang, while Marionette and Mime are headed to the same location, and the Comedian is pursuing them. And, in an unfinished thought, Veidt suggests that the escape of Marionette and Mime was intentional, and will draw out Doctor Manhattan. This could lead to a complex brawl where, possibly, nobody is on anybody else's side. Then again, the Comedian could side with Batman or the Joker. Possibly, even, the Joker and Batman could align against the intruders from the Watchmen Universe. Seemingly the most likely outcome of the inevitable battle is that Doctor Manhattan will come onto the scene and through his vast powers, make the fight meaningless. But then what? Something that Veidt is planning?

Veidt himself seems to have a new objective. Learning in snippets of overheard conversation about Superman, and what he represents, Veidt will likely take the Owlship to Metropolis, and orchestrate a meeting between Superman, the DCU's symbol of hope, and Dr. Manhattan. But to what end, and to what intended end? Veidt sees the DCU in stark terms, and his only goal is to get Dr. Manhattan to return to his own universe and save it.

The other collection of major characters in the story is an Odd Couple that has become a trio and may soon become quartet or more. Saturn Girl, New Rorschach, and Johnny Thunder are in Pittsburgh, where the oldest of those has sought and now found what appears to be the last physical link to the Justice Society: Alan Scott's Green Lantern. There are lots of Easter Eggs along this path: We see Johnny Thunder's reading materials that include "The Mystical Land of Badhnisia" (only the first few letters of each line are shown, but there's nothing else that it could plausibly be), "Aladdin," and a newspaper story titled "Green Fire Consumes All-American Steel." Badhnisia is the country where a young Johnny Thunder was first connected to the power of the Thunderbolt. Aladdin is, of course, the real-world genie story which inspired the Johnny Thunder character, and as we learn, the Green Fire is the source of Alan Scott's ring power. Moreover, "All-American Comics" is the title in which the Golden Age Green Lantern first debuted. If the Green Lantern's lantern physically exists in post-Flashpoint/post-Rebirth continuity, this suggests that the Justice Society is not completely expunged from the timeline, and we will inevitably find out how they may return. Perhaps an old Alan Scott will be able to use this lantern. Perhaps someone else will. Somehow, Johnny Thunder will get his Thunderbolt back. Somehow, Jay Garrick will reemerge from the limbo into which he passed after his brief appearance during "The Button." The Justice Society is coming back, whether as young men and women, old men and women, or some other reincarnation. Their return will mean a lot to the timeline of the DCU, in whatever form it takes. They could also, at full power, help provide a serious check to Dr. Manhattan if any coming confrontation becomes a fight. As powerful as Dr. Manhattan is, he could perhaps be matched by the power of such figures as Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, the Thunderbolt, and most certainly by the Spectre. Then again, the JSA subplot may be primarily a vehicle for returning a team that Johns loves to DCU continuity.

Several of the storylines are now advancing a common symbol: A bright light that can attract someone powerful. Saturn Girl says that a bright light can easily attract Dr. Manhattan. It's not coincidental that in the same issue, we see the Bat Signal broken, because it is a bright light that attracts Batman. This also gives added meaning to the last issue, in which a bright light attracted Mothman in the Watchmen Universe, and bug-zappers attracted insects. We may soon see Superman serve as the (metaphorical) bright light that attracts Dr. Manhattan.

It is time to recognize that the Supermen Theory subplot in Doomsday Clockis taking us back to a place where we've been before. First, the Luthor in Doomsday Clock is far from the Luthor we've seen wearing the Superman symbol and serving in the Justice League. He's closer to the sociopathic businessman introduced by John Byrne than the post-Rebirth Luthor, as affirmed by his obvious affection towards Lois Lane. And, hearkening back to another Geoff Johns project that came later in that continuity, this plot of creating superheroes by awakening metagenes was also a subplot of 52. In that story, Lex Luthor had a widely-publicized method of creating superheroes, which he used to various evil ends, including the deliberate murder of most of them by switching their powers off suddenly at midnight on New Years Eve. In Doomsday Clock, we don't know who has been creating superpowered people, if indeed any centralized authority is doing so, but the bigger story is the fear and conspiratorial paranoia surrounding it. If Luthor is to be believed, a metahuman who has been a member of the Justice League is the one behind it. Or is Luthor's claim pure hype and lie? 

The international superhero story also references 52. When a terrorist is about to kill journalist Jack Ryder on video (in imitation of real-life incidents), the terrorist is himself torn apart by Black Adam; this resembles a scene early in 52when Black Adam kills the villain Terra-Man. Black Adam goes on to invite all superheroes to his territory in Kahndaq. The end materials to the chapter document teams of superheroes operating in several countries around the world, including Russia, the British Isles, France, India, China, and Israel. These superheroes draw upon many source materials, including 1990s Justice League titles, the League of Heroes and other old Batman stand-ins as resurfaced during Grant Morrison's Batmanrun, and even the Super-Friends (moreover, the publication which cites this information is called Trouble Alert).

At this point in the story, what might stand out most is how much is going on without anybody knowing for sure where this is going. With the possible exception of the offscreen Doctor Manhattan, who in this story understands what is going on? Veidt has a plan and his plan may still be on track, but he was surprised to see the Comedian, doesn't know the ins and outs of the DCU, and was apparently taken surprise by the collapse of peace on his own world. The Comedian is somehow twice finding the trail of other people from his universe despite their sudden appearance, and he seemingly must have assistance from Doctor Manhattan to find trails that appear out of nowhere. Saturn Girl is from the future and is also a mind-reader, so she may understand the big story, but her sudden freakout during the hockey game seen during "The Button" is at odds with her calm confidence seen at other times, and implies that something about her state of mind is somehow troubled.

Meanwhile, among the stars of the DCU, another dynamic is slowly taking form, which is likely to be more important as the legacy of Doomsday Clock. Superman is the nominal star, and will surely be seen more in the series' second half. But so far, we've seen quite a bit of an ineffectual Batman: His Batcave was found out by someone who's spent only months as an imitation superhero. He underestimated new Rorschach, who also knows his secret identity. Batman was surprised that new Rorschach escaped, but Veidt is shown to have a keener mind, saying "of course" when told of the escape. Batman furthermore underestimated Veidt, allowing him to eject him from the Owlship, and was pulled to the ground and beaten senseless by a crowd of ordinary people.

Meanwhile, Superman is what people can "believe in" and it is Superman as a symbol of hope that will be put up against Doctor Manhattan's nihilism while Batman's vigilante tactics have led to his popularity in Gotham City to collapse.

The original Watchmen series ran immediately after Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The two series were not logically connected, nor planned in coordination with one another, but they did build upon similar themes. Both replaced a shiny, smiling superhero with a Machiavellian vigilante who didn't mind breaking bones if the ends justified the means. Both showed the more powerful beings in their world as too detached, and ultimately unreliable. DKR was a powerful affirmation of Batman and both implicitly and explicitly beat down the idea of a Superman.

Doomsday Clock #5 may be sending the signal that this work is not only an anti-Watchmenbut also an anti-Dark Knight Returns. DKR changed comics. Whatever its general effect, it also had the specific effect of seeing Batman climb in popularity and Superman decline, as I've argued here. Perhaps what we are seeing is Geoff Johns' bid to boost Superman and undo the effect of DKR. We'll learn more next issue.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Doomsday Clock 4

One of the dramatic elements of Doomsday Clock and the various prequels in the story arc is the way characters are brought onstage. This began with the very appearance of the Comedian's button and Dr. Manhattan back in DC Rebirth #1, and the appearance of Superman's logo at the end of The Button and continues into the current series. Perhaps the biggest surprise of DC #4 is the fact that it centers so completely around the new Rorschach, one of Johns' new characters. A series that is about the encounter between two worlds and only has eight more issues to do so is still setting things up, and if one of these issues is devoted to one character, there must be a good reason for it.

Readers may be tempted to find this issue – with no Superman, little Batman, little Veidt, and no Mime and Marionette – advancing the main plot comparatively little, but this only highlights a number of brief, intriguing connections to the main plot. Devoting an entire issue to the new Rorschach indicates in flashing red letters that he is going to become a very important figure. The remaining issues of Doomsday Clock are likely to feature a battle for this young man's soul.

As previously hinted, new Rorschach is Reggie Long, the son of Rorschach's psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Long. He was orphaned by Veidt's alien plot, and also driven mad by it. This issue has so many scenes that reflect other scenes, in itself or in previous works, that it can make you feel like you're looking down a hall of mirrors. We see Reggie twice spend time in mental asylums; once on each Earth. Both times, his placement there earns our sympathy, but is not without justification. Both times, he meets superheroes who are in there with him; both times, that superhero helps him escape. We should perhaps note the asymmetries where they occur: One, Watchmen's Mothman, is a figure out of the past, whereas the other, Saturn Girl, is from the future.

Another double-up in Doomsday Clock that is highlighted by the Mothman's story is the similarity between the Watchmen old-timers and the Justice Society. Both teams were driven underground by pressure from their respective governments. It is interesting to note that this plot development – copied many times in subsequent goverment-vs-superhero stories – began with a 1979 JSA story scripted by Paul Levitz. Why is this relevant? Both backstories name-check the real-life HUAC which advanced the anti-Communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In both cases, the superheroes are confronted by a McCarthyesque government panel and are driven into retirement or other unpalatable options. What makes this similarity relevant is the ongoing Johnny Thunder cameos, particularly in Rebirth wherein he implies that he chose to protect them by making them "go away" when the committee asked them to unmask. Placing this in the larger Doomsday Clock story suggests some complicated relationships between timelines. If Johnny Thunder commanded the JSA to disappear, and Dr. Manhattan is also manipulating timelines, then we have two forces altering history for the worst. That seems overly complex. Perhaps Johnny Thunder and/or the Thunderbolt are agents of Dr. Manhattan. In fact, the Thunderbolt seems like an appropriate candidate to be Dr. Manhattan given their similarity. In any case, this reflects on how events in the Watchmen universe may have served as a pattern for alterations made to the DCU.

A scene with striking overtones of older DC / JSA lore is the rooftop encounter in which Reggie and Mothman met. Reggie was about to commit suicide by jumping from a height but didn't because he coincidentally met Mothman, who also seemed to be jumping to his death. The original Mister Terrific, Terry Sloan, was contemplating suicide when he happened upon a woman who was also intending to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge. Later, Michael Holt was also contemplating suicide when the Spectre spoke to him, leading him down the path to becoming the second Mister Terrific. Reggie has a similar encounter but his path was already turned in a dark direction, and he became a new Rorschach.

So consider now the life of Reggie Long thus far, and the various origin stories it resembles. He loses his father and mother and seeks vengeance upon their killer. This is Batman's origin. He sees the gravest horrors and emerges from a fire to begin a life of adventuring. This is Rorschach's origin. He contemplates suicide but meets someone else and this saves him. That's Mister Terrific's origin. Look at the cover of this issue, also its first panel: The tall stack of pancakes and syrup remind Reggie of the wealth of Batman. That's not his story: Even the smallest bedroom in Wayne Manor feels too luxurious for him. This Rorshach identity surely isn't working out. Going forward, I think we're very likely to see Reggie turned by good influences from the DCU into something more akin to Mister Terrific.

Meanwhile, in the goodness-deprived Watchmen Universe, Mothman's life ends as a bit of a bad joke, as a moth kills itself by being drawn to flames. This is one of three times in the issue that we see an insect incinerated: The Mothman is one. The other two are mosquitoes, zapped by electricity. This pattern is also not coincidence, and readers who felt that this issue was too slow-paced were missing portentous hints as that pattern went forward. We (and Reggie) see a mosquito flying down the Arkham hallway, and into a bug zapper hanging in front of Killer Croc's cell. Later, we see the Mothman killed by fire. But the third time, looking very much like the first, the mosquito is not killed by the bug zapper. Just short of entering the device, the second mosquito is killed from behind by a white bolt that leaves a trail of smoke with Dr. Manhattan's hydrogen atom insignia: The second mosquito is killed by Dr. Manhattan. We also see the photo that reminds him of his past life as Jon Osterman floating in the breeze. Why – what does this tiny, insignificant event mean? First, it tells us that Dr. Manhattan is present at that point in Arkham Asylum. Is that a clue to his "secret identity"? Maybe. So far, if we find out that some Arkham resident is "really" Dr. Manhattan in disguise, it would be a hollow reveal: We've hardly seen any of them doing anything interesting. Perhaps more significant, it shows us that Dr. Manhattan is at work in the DCU, tampering with events. And more specifically, it shows us that he is in Arkham as Saturn Girl meets Reggie Long. This is something he wanted to have happen, or at least, condones.

That visitor from the future, Saturn Girl is smiling and cheery throughout her brief appearances in this issue. This leaps out as an anomaly. We first saw Saturn Girl's current visit to the 2010s in DC Rebirth #1. She is serene, saying that everything will be all right. Later, during the opening moments of The Button crossover, she is terrified and panicked, telling us that Superman will not arrive to help and everyone will die. Now, she's serene again. What is responsible for the whiplash turn in her demeanor? Is this mere emotional instability? Probably not, because she refers to knowledge of events that drive her responses.  But why the alternating responses? It's probably too soon for us to know, but Dr. Manhattan's manipulation of timelines seems a likely answer. Remember, Saturn Girl is not precognitive – she's telepathic, and happens to be from the future. What we're likely seeing at this point is an experiment that Dr. Manhattan is carrying out, and Reggie Long, a "mosquito" in comparison to the vast, indifference of Dr. Manhattan, is probably on a path towards the light (to use this issue's metaphor), from the darkness of Rorschach and Veidt's grand tragedy to the light of Mister Terrific, a character who, in both previous versions, turned from suicide to hope.

Nevertheless, we should remember what happened to that mosquito. Dr. Manhattan killing for no reason is chilling. Because he can just as easily turn that power to killing anyone else. But the photo of Jon and Laurie might give us hope. He's still clinging to memories of humanity. He is letting Saturn Girl take Reggie down a path towards the light, and we need that experiment to succeed so that Dr. Manhattan can believe in the light. Later, he's going to turn things dark again, as Saturn Girl's panic revealed. But later still in this series, he's going to meet the greatest representative of the light. He's going to meet Superman.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Final Crisis Retro Review Part III: The Monitor Plot

We Don't Get It

A major fraction of Final Crisis is devoted to the subplot I'll call the Monitor plot. Based on Marv Wolfman's characters who are central to Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Monitors are beings who monitor activity in the 52 Earths of the Multiverse. The Monitors go through a great deal of drama on their own plane, interacting with beings in the Multiverse on a few occasions. The Monitor plot consists of a few scenes in Final Crisis proper, plus the entire two issues of Superman Beyond. In this third and final installment of my FC review that begins here, I'll focus on the mysterious Monitor plot.

It's easy enough to understand the Monitor plot on the surface level: Who says and does what, when. It is much harder to understand what the point of it all is: Why are these things happening? How does it relate to the Darkseid plot? What rules are at work? What is Morrison trying to say with this story?

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I don't think readers, overall, "got" the Monitor plot, at least not in detail. I think for some readers, the portions of the Monitor plot in FC proper were a path to nowhere: A lot of things happening, some of them apparently very important, but with no clarity as to what was happening or why, or what it meant. Reading online reviews, I find some readers regretting FC's complexity and indecipherability. Some readers seem overall pleased with FC, but discuss only the Darkseid plot, as though the Monitor plot just didn't happen. And though many very astute readers pierce the veil of allegory and get a general read on Morrison's overall intentions, they still seem, as I did, doubtful about the details, such as who, exactly, does Mandrakk represent? We had no explanation as to the Whys of this story: Why does this stuff happen? Even the cause-and-effect relationship between the Darkseid plot and the Monitor plot seems like a riddle: Did Darkseid's attack somehow prompt Mandrakk's attack on Superman? Or did Mandrakk's desire to attack somehow use Darkseid as his pawn? And Morrison once said that when we read Final Crisis we will realize why this is the final crisis: Did anyone come away with that understanding in concrete terms?

Between 2009 and 2017, I re-read Final Crisis many times. I enjoyed many portions, particularly, the Big Five superheroes' victories in the Darkseid plot, and I grasped, in general terms, how the Monitor plot illustrated Superman's victory on some high cosmic level, but the pieces didn't fit together very well, and I felt that something remained unexplained. Then, something clicked. I saw a pattern on one page that seemed to fit, and when I considered wider portions of the story, those seemed to fit as well. I believe there's a key to Final Crisis' Monitor plot, and once one sees it, the whole story becomes more explicable: One can see Morrison's intended message, and the logic of the Monitor plot goes from murky and arbitrary to exceedingly clear. Ultimately, one can see not only why Mandrakk appears after Darkseid's defeat, but understand that the choice of page and even the exact panel where he appears are not arbitrary. I hope that those who read this post will find Final Crisis much clearer than they found it before, and that they see the final showdown with Mandrakk to be a remarkable climax in its own right, one of the most thrilling victories of Superman and his allies.


Just The Facts

There is a surface level to the Monitor plot, in which the Monitors are powerful beings in the DC Multiverse. As the surface level is fairly clear and the basis of the deeper level, I'll begin by laying out its facts.

In the distant past, a group of Monitors, initially one and then more, began to oversee the Multiverse. Long ago, the best of them, Dax Novu, became corrupt and, as the hideous evil Monitor, Mandrakk, was exiled to a crypt where he must wait for a Doomsday Clock to reach zero.

A surreptitiously evil Monitor named Rox Ogama frames a good, young Monitor named Nix Uotan for the destruction of his world, Earth-51. Disguising his own guilt, Ogama pretends to defend Uotan. Uotan, to the chagrin of his lover, Weeja Dell, is punished by being exiled to the "germ world" of Earth-0. A Monitrix named Zillo Valla consoles Weeja Dell, offering a brief summary of how contact with the germ worlds have introduced time and story, beginnings and endings, amongst the Monitors themselves. Uotan lives as an ordinary young man on Earth-0, trying to regain his previous status.

Zillo Valla summons several of the Multiverse's Supermen to help her and her world escape the wrath of Mandrakk. After a chase through Multiversal space, leading to Limbo, the Supermen find an infinite book that contains all stories, including the history of the Monitors mentioned above. Ultraman, who celebrates evil, triumphantly announces that the book ends with destruction: Evil wins in the end. Superman, joins his opposite, Ultraman, in inhabiting a Thought Robot in the Overvoid. In this form, Superman defeats Mandrakk, who recklessly destroys Zillo Valla during the battle.

Captain Marvel voyages the Multiverse, eventually joining up with the Question, Renee Montoya, to form a cavalry of all the Supermen. Rox Ogama transforms into a new incarnation of Mandrakk and recruits Ultraman, transforming him into a Vampire Superman.

Rounded up during Darkseid's occupation of Earth, Uotan is transformed into a new kind of Monitor/hero dubbed the "Judge of All Evil." When Darkseid is defeated, Mandrakk and Ultraman arrive to confront Superman, having just dispatched Supergirl, the Radiant, and the Spectre. Superman activates the Miracle Machine and fixes all the damage done by Darkseid's forces. The Supermen of the Multiverse arrive along with Hal Jordan's force of Green Lanterns. Nix Uotan takes over, summoning an army of angels, the animal heroes led by Captain Carrot, and the Forever People of the Fifth World. With heat vision, the Supermen lay waste to Mandrakk and Ultraman, with the Green Lanterns delivering the final blow.

Back in the Monitor's plane, Nix Uotan is vindicated and acquitted, and he commands the Monitor to stop interfering with the characters on their worlds. He is reborn, again, as the young man back on Earth-0.

Index of Prominent Monitors

Earth-6: Marvel Universe. Monitor: Weeja Dell. (In Multiversity, this Earth's number changed to 8, while Earth-6 became Stan Lee's Just Imagine universe.)

Earth-31: Dark Knight Returns Universe. Monitor: Rox Ogama (or Zillo Valla; the syntax is ambiguous). (Before Multiversity, Grant Morrison removed the entire Dark Knight world from the Multiverse at Frank Miller's request.)

Earth-43: Blood League universe of vampire superheroes, based on the Batman-vs-Dracula story, Batman: Red Rain. Monitor: Zillo Valla (or Rox Ogama).

Earth-51: According to Countdown, originally like Earth-0 until Batman killed the Joker; the whole universe was ultimately destroyed. Remade as a Kamandi / Kirby world. Monitor: Nix Uotan.

Earlier, unspecified Earth, perhaps pre-Crisis Earth One: Monitor: Dax Novu.

Meaning

It's clear that Morrison did not create the Monitors as just another group of DC characters. As readers noticed, the story hints, and Morrison confirmed, they represent storytellers; their names, in fact, are all derived from the gods of writing in different mythologies. To understand the story, then, we have to understand which real people the Monitors represent, and how their interactions in the story convey a message.

Some readers have suggested a very tight interpretation of the Monitors, where each Monitor stands for one particular writer, and wherein the Monitor plot, then, tells the story of specific comic book writers. Moreover, some readers have suggested that Mandrakk stands for Alan Moore, and that Nix Uotan stands for Grant Morrison himself. Meanwhile, it would be logical to suggest that a few of the remaining Monitors who represent specific Earths of the Multiverse represent the writers who created those worlds; e.g., Rox Ogama is Frank Miller, and Doug Moench would be Zillo Valla, and Weeja Dell is some writer associated with Marvel Comics. I'll say in the early going that there are excellent reasons to make those associations. I will offer, however, that it is difficult to map the entire Monitor plot according to those precise identities. For one, there are far too few named Monitors with sufficient screen time to tell a very rich story about writers. And if Morrison wanted to tell a story about writers, would he really make Doug Moench one of the principal figures and leave no space for, say, Jerry Siegel, Gardner Fox, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Len Wein, Dennis O'Neil, Cary Bates, Elliot Maggin, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, and Geoff Johns, to name just a few? I also find it extremely unlikely that Grant Morrison would assert that Frank Miller is a bad guy who is framing good writers for crimes they didn't commit. To play it on the safe side, I will suggest that each Monitor be seen as a school of thought, a movement among writers, editors, and/or fans, a style of approaching the stories, and in cases where a movement can be reduced to only one writer, so be it: There are certainly scenes where we can seem to pin a Monitor's identity down to one writer, but I will suggest that, even then, the message is intended to be broad.

So what is that message? Clearly, there are bad Monitors whom we root against: the two incarnations of Mandrakk corresponding to Dax Novu and Rox Ogama. There are good Monitors whom we root for: Nix Uotan and Weeja Dell. Zillo Valla is perhaps between the two or plays different roles at different times. Reader analysts and Morrison offer many tidbits about what is good and what is bad here, but we have to be careful not to overgeneralize and call the bad side all instances of dark, grim and gritty storytelling. Recall that Final Crisis itself has a lot of dark stuff in it, ranging from J'onn J'onzz catching a flaming spear through the chest to supervillains discussing the rape of female superheroes. And no matter how we interpret what is "bad" storytelling according to this parable, what bearing does that have on Morrison's promise that this is the truly final crisis?

There is a key that will make the Monitor plot instantly comprehensible, but before explaining what that is, I will need to include a couple of interludes that provide necessary background.

Interlude: Alan Moore's Superman Stories

In a short span of time, Alan Moore gave us two of the most highly regarded Superman stories of all time. "For The Man Who Has Everything," in 1985's Superman Annual #11 and "Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow?" published in two issues in 1986 had a tremendous impact on the publication history of Superman. These stories, like many of Moore's works were good – very good. If you consult various best-of lists, you'll find both of those high on the list of best Superman stories ever. Moreover, the unpublished Moore concept Twilight of the Superheroes would have been another monumental Superman story, and a story, Kingdom Come, arguably inspired by Twilight of the Superheroes, is also on many such best-of lists.

FTMWHE and WHTTMOT have a surprising amount in common, and an obvious precedent that seems to have gone unmentioned. First, both result in the destruction, or deconstruction, of Superman, though neither shows his biological death. In each, Superman is shown alive, but not as Superman, and in both cases, he is an ordinary man with a wife and children. In the one case, Superman chooses to end his own superhero career, and in the other, he reveals his fondest wish to be an alternate reality in which he never began it. They both have further similarities: They show Superman hurting someone with his heat vision. They discuss, but do not depict, Superman's death. They both have main action set in the exact same place, Superman's Fortress of Solitude, as Superman faces off against enemies he cannot physically beat. WHTTMOT also shows Superman abandon his oath never to kill; not only does he deliberately kill Mxyzptlk (with the admittedly excellent excuse of needing to save the world), but he is willing to kill the Legion of Supervillains, as the mind-reading ability of Saturn Woman reveals. Moreover, in WHTTMOT, Superman not only decides that he needs to retire; in the identity of Jordan Elliot, he looks back on his time as Superman, and denounces the entire idea of his ever having been Superman: "He was over-rated and too wrapped up in himself." Fans should take this line like a sock to the jaw; why would a Superman book portray Superman calling himself over-rated?

As a sidebar, and a check regarding Moore's originality, both of them owe a debt of gratitude to 1980's then-recent Superman II, which also shows Superman facing an enemy he cannot physically beat, and also shows a principal showdown in the Fortress of Solitude, and also shows Superman renouncing his powers so that he can settle down as an ordinary man with Lois Lane. However, Moore's story reverses the chronology: In Superman II, Superman realizes that he is needed by his world. In Moore's stories, Superman decides, consciously or emotionally, that he is not. To a considerable extent, if you rearranged the order of Superman II so that he defeated Zod, then gave up his powers to be with Lois Lane, you'd have an Alan Moore story.

The destruction of Superman is not a plot trajectory that Moore happens upon by happenstance. Notice that FTMWHE also shows us Batman receiving his heart's desire, and Batman also wishes that he had never been Batman. And as seen in Watchmen, the Green Lantern story "Tygers", The Killing Joke and elsewhere, Moore shows superheroes self-destructing – morally, tactically, and fatally – because that is the end that Moore desired.

Twilight of the Superheroes is a story that was proposed by Moore in 1987 but never written. I discuss it here, but suffice it to say, it also destroys Superman and DC's other superheroes. Not only does Superman abandon his role as a superhero, to make himself one of many factions ruling Earth like a superpowered Game of Thrones, but he ultimately chooses to kill his rivals, in a battle to the death with J'onn J'onzz and then is himself killed, by Green Lantern Sodam Yat.

It was very soon after those monumental Moore-Superman stories that Time Magazine, in a 1988 cover story, had Superman say that while he's beaten every villain in his stories, turning fifty years old may be his greatest challenge yet. Note that it is the in-story Superman who has beaten his villains, and it is the Superman who exists as a fictional entity in our world who was turning fifty and facing the challenge of maintaining his legend while also retaining relevance. The Time article notes that Superman's current challenge was "a deplorable element that might be called adultification, in which a figure created for children is subjected to adult concerns." Moore took adultification to the extreme, in which Superman could no longer be Superman, morally or otherwise. For Moore, Superman had to forego his principles. For Moore, Superman had to stop being Superman and die. And in the immediate wake of Moore's stories, the world saw that Superman might eventually face an existential challenge. It was on the cover of Time magazine.

Lest there be any doubt, Final Crisis is in part a response to Moore's Superman stories, and to Moore in general. The three aforementioned stories are each quoted by Final Crisis, verbally or visually, whether through direct intent by Morrison or by the freshness of Moore's work in Morrison's memory as he crafted a response to it. Some of the shout-outs include:

• In FTMWHE, Mongul says that the Black Mercy gives its victims their "heart's desire." In FC, Libra uses that same phrase, and Luthor later repeats it twice.
• The title of Twilight of the Superheroes is remixed by Libra on the very same page: He promises "An end to the age of superheroes. A full-on, no bull&@%& twilight of the gods." And note very carefully: We do not see Libra's "heart's desire" emerge from a drawing of Libra but from the image on the screen of a cellphone brand-named DAMRUNG, which is a pun on "Samsung" but also an abbreviation of the German (via Richard Wagner) word "Götterdämmerung" which means "Twilight of the Gods." It is the author of Twilight of the Superheroes who tells us that the destruction of the superheroes is one's "heart's desire." Note that this makes two references to Moore's Superman stories in the same panel. I will also add that Libra was created by Len Wein, who brought Moore onboard at DC. And, though I saw several reviewers note the significance of the phrase, "twilight of the god," I haven't seen anyone link it to Moore's title.

• In WHTTMOT, Superman witnesses the violent death of one of his friends and is attacked by deadly force in the Daily Planet newsroom, an attack that leaves him physically unharmed but standing in the newsroom in his Superman costume after his Clark Kent clothes have been blasted off of him. This also happens in Final Crisis #2, and the art is quite parallel. (In WHTTMOT, Superman's Clark Kent identity is thereby destroyed forever. In FC, nobody is left conscious to see Clark revealed as Superman.)
• In FTMWHE, Jor-El is a broken, bitter old man who is disgraced by his failed prediction of Krypton's destruction. When Mandrakk confronts Superman, he opens with the taunt, "Your father failed to save his world."

Further references to Moore works include Morrison's take on Dr. Manhattan in Superman Beyond, a particular reference to Swamp Thing, the Superman derivative hero named Supreme, and a possible reference to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that I'll mention later.

However, the similarities and shout-outs go still deeper yet. And this brings us to one more interlude that turns into an explanation of exactly how these works are related.

Interlude 2: Substory S

Imagine, if you will, the following plot elements occurring within a comic book story. The events jump around a bit in their relatedness, so it is more of a sub-sequence of a story than a subplot. I'll call this Substory S.

1) Brainiac 5 knows that Superman is going to fight a battle for his and the world's survival.
2) Brainiac 5 shows Superman a machine that can win the battle for Superman. Brainiac 5 does not give Superman the machine; he simply has him look at it.
3) Superman must face off against a being of pure evil at the command of godlike power.
4) A shield is placed around the scene of Superman and his enemy's upcoming battle. Other superheroes, even very powerful ones including Captain Marvel, cannot break the shield open.
5) Other characters present in immediate proximity to this battle include Batman, Wonder Woman, Luthor, and Supergirl; it is made clear that Supergirl has recently been vanquished.
6) We are reminded of Superman's oath not to kill.
7) Superman and Lois Lane have a conversation immediately before the ultimate showdown.
8) As Superman prepares to use the machine that Brainiac 5 mentioned, the evil godlike opponent announces that he will destroy Superman.
9) Superman responds to the threat with "That's right" / "You're right about that" but it is an ironic response; Superman does not believe that the villain is right, but that he himself will vanquish the villain definitively rather than vice versa.
10) Superman delivers the fatal blow to the villain, and the villain is destroyed.
11) Even though the godlike evil villain is destroyed, Superman now faces a threat to his continued existence.

That's a very specific list of events and situations. Do you know in which story those events occur? Trick question. Substory S – every one those details – occurs during the end of Final Crisis and Substory S – every one those details – also occurs during the end of Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" This is not a coincidence. At the final showdown, even the page layout matches, closely. Click to zoom in on how the climactic scenes align.


That illustrates how points 8, 9, and 10 line up on a single page, but alignments between the two stories go back to the first scene of FC #6, when Brainiac 5 shows Superman the Miracle Machine, mirroring the way in WHTTMOT, Brainiac 5 gave Superman a statuette with the Phantom Zone projector. The alignment between the two stories is so detailed that in neither one does Brainiac 5 give Superman the machine, and this is highlighted with the dialogue in FC when Brainiac 5 says, "Look at it, Superman! Just look!" In WHTTMOT, Lois Lane similarly tells Superman, regarding Brainiac 5's gift, "Take another look at it, Superman! Look at what it's holding!"

The stories align in far more ways than could possibly be coincidental, taking us from Brainiac 5 showing Superman a machine, "Look at it, Superman!", to a conversation with Lois Lane, Captain Marvel trying to help, Superman's "That's right," and then the final zap of the colorfully glowing god-villain. Morrison obviously wrote many details into FC with Moore's story in mind.

The end of Final Crisis, with the Darkseid plot concluding and the Monitor plot coming to a head, is a response to, sequel to, and a rewrite of Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Morrison's handling of Substory S is key to understanding his intentions with the Monitor plot. By putting Superman in the same situation that Alan Moore put Superman in to end him, Grant Morrison shows us how the story should go – how Superman's story really goes.

Compare and Contrast

Given the great degree of similarity between Moore's and Morrison's versions of Substory S, we should pay attention to the differences between them, because therein is the heart of Morrison's message.

In Moore's story, Superman is isolated from his allies by a barrier. In Morrison's story, Superman bashes his way through the barrier with one punch at the end of FC #6. In Morrison's story, therefore, Superman has assistance from his allies, most notably Batman (who, inside the compound, had already shot Darkseid with Radion), the Flashes, Wonder Woman and even Luthor and Sivana.

In Moore's story, if Superman kills, he must renounce his superpowers and give up being Superman forever. FC has Darkseid articulate this, taunting Superman: "Kill me, Superman. Kill the frail old man [Turpin] upon whose soul Darkseid fed and fattened! How can you hurt a foe made of people? … Kill him. Kill me and you kill everything!" This is the predicament. Superman can physically kill Turpin's body, but then – because this is a remake of Moore's story – Superman would actually lose. But that's not how it goes, because Batman already fired a gunshot that specifically doomed Darkseid while leaving Turpin alive. And then the Flashes show up, bringing Death personified to take Darkseid out of Turpin. In Morrison's story, Superman is not alone, and the importance of alliance and loyalty is spelled out in Wally West's dialogue, "Think I'd leave you to do this on your own? Together, Barry! We're going in together and we're coming back together!" And so Batman, the Flashes, and then Wonder Woman all do their parts to reduce Darkseid to nothing more than a disembodied presence glowing like a neon sign that, as it happens, looks a bit like glowing Mxyzptlk in WHTTMOT.

In Moore's story, once Superman has beaten Mxyzptlk, he faces an even greater threat: Moore writing Superman into a self-defeating renunciation of himself and his powers. In Morrison's story, Mandrakk, representing Moore, shows up and demands that Superman give up and be devoured.

At this point, we can explain a few events in FC that happen so quickly that they seem incongruous with the narration. First, we see Supergirl slung over Ultraman's shoulder, though we never saw them fighting. Second, we see the Spectre and the Radiant (who excused themselves to go handle other business at the end of FC: Revelations) on the ground.  These jarringly abrupt appearances of Supergirl and the Spectre, both already defeated, translate directly onto the previous use of those characters by Moore. The almost bizarrely abrupt appearance of the vanquished Supergirl represents her bleak cameo in WHTTMOT, in which her then-recent death in Crisis on Infinite Earths was on Superman's mind when a much younger version of Supergirl visited him along with the Legion of Super-Heroes. It was to make these stories parallel that Morrison showed us Supergirl and not, say, Hourman or Alan Scott on Ultraman's shoulder, and why we didn't see Mandrakk and Ultraman defeat Supergirl in battle; Mandrakk was showing Superman his defeated cousin, but he didn't defeat her.

And, when Mandrakk arrives, he throws the Spectre and Radiant to the floor, and says that he "fed on these 'servants of God,' defenders of this universe. Drained now. Meaningless." That last word highlights that Mandrakk is not just some big, bad supervillain of the DCU; he's a writer who can make characters weak or meaningless. And why the Spectre? In ordinary terms, the Spectre is the most powerful character among DC heroes, almost impossible to defeat. But Alan Moore defeated the Spectre. He did this in Swamp Thing #50, when his Great Evil Beast drains the Spectre and leaves him lying limp on the ground. Compare the artwork. But for the addition of Final Crisis: Revelations' The Radiant, the art showing the Spectre prostate is similar in the two stories. As with Supergirl, the introduction of powerful characters already beaten comes across as jarring and unforgivably brief to a reader expecting conventional superhero storytelling. We see Supergirl and the Spectre already beaten because they were already beaten when Moore tried to kill off Superman.

But Final Crisis and the Monitor plot are not simply responses to one specific story. There are suggestive connections to other Moore stories. Captain Marvel, J'onn J'onzz, Green Lanterns, and Batman all have key roles in Twilight of the Superheroes. In that story, Superman thinks he can trust Captain Marvel, but near the end, he finds out that who he thought was Captain Marvel had actually been J'onn J'onzz the entire time; Superman and the Martian Manhunter fight until Superman kills the Martian, then a Green Lantern, Sodam Yat, kills Superman. Finally, it's revealed that Batman has been a key player in staging all of this bloodshed. In Final Crisis, Superman tells Mandrakk, "I counted on Captain Marvel of Earth-5 to come through." Earlier, Superman delivers the eulogy on Mars, beginning, "J'onn J'onzz was my friend. Always there, always strong, always reliable… He was someone I could confide in." Superman holds what seemed to have been Batman's body in body language recalling the Pietà. And finally, Green Lanterns are part of the cavalry who finally slay Mandrakk. Are these points all intended to address, very specifically, the beats in Moore's unpublished story? Maybe they're intended. On the other hand, if accidental, they highlight the striking difference between how Morrison writes the characters and how Moore does. In Morrison's version, the heroes trust one another, fight for one another, and believe in one another. In Moore's version, a physical barrier keeps them apart in one case, and their animosities lead them to a bloody massacre in the other. That sweeping difference is not accidental.

But the main characters in this final showdown are Superman and Mandrakk. Hearing Mandrakk's demand that he die, Superman says no. Then, using a power we've never known him to have before (shining light from his hands), Superman powers the Miracle Machine and wishes for "the best for everyone." Superman's allies, the Green Lanterns led by Hal Jordan and the Supermen of the Multiverse led by Captain Marvel of Earth-5 show up. Then, having heard Superman's wish, Nix Uotan arrives and – note the narration boxes – becomes the narrator of the rest of the story. Nix Uotan, the Monitor, represents the writer of this story, Grant Morrison, and declares, "This is between Monitors now," meaning that the fight is between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Uotan says, "Mandrakk! At my right hand stands Superman himself." "Right hand" is a possible pun on "write hand" and an indication that Superman and the writer stand allied against the threat.

The writer is infinitely powerful, so he summons an unbeatable team of heroes, including the vengeful angels of God, the Green Lanterns, the Supermen, the Zoo Crew of Captain Carrot (speaking of lighthearted storytelling), and the Forever People. Mandrakk recognizes Uotan and says, "My son?" which is a probable pun on "Morrison" being "Moore's son." Declaring "There is no limit to what I can do" (because he is, after all, the writer), Nix Uotan has his unbeatable team burn Ultraman and Mandrakk with heat vision and the Green Lanterns spike the vampire Mandrakk through the heart. Uotan tells Mandrakk and the now-skeletal Ultraman that the Multiverse has natural defenses that he cannot imagine: Superman's and his allies' goodness will not allow Alan Moore or any other writer to kill them off. End of story.

In summary, the climax of FC #6 and #7 shows events that closely parallel Moore's previous stories, particularly "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Regarded in 1986 as one of the greatest stories of all time, it did not, as Moore intended of that story, Watchmen, and Twilight of the Superheroes, spell the end of inspirational happy-ending superhero stories. The Monitor plot in Final Crisis was written, in large part, to rebut Moore's message and Moore's intentions, and the close parallels between Moore's and Morrison's scenes show us a large part of the meaning of Final Crisis in considerable detail, not as vague and open-ended as readers' analyses in the past saw it. However, the climax of the Monitor plot is only one part of the whole story, and with that in hand as a kind of Rosetta Stone, let's look at the whole Monitor plot to decipher all of Morrison's points.

The Monitor plot, Decoded

As the Alpha Lanterns seal off "New Earth" (which is Earth-0), looking down on it, the Monitors are on a still higher plane, looking down on them. Concerned about the loss of Earth-51 (off-screen, supposedly in Countdown, but we don't know what form of disaster Morrison actually had in mind), the Monitors repair the orrery of worlds (an orrery is, in its main sense, a moving model of the solar system). The loss of Earth-51 is really Rox Ogama's fault, but Ogama pretends to speak in Nix Uotan's defense. This scene is, first of all, a close parallel to Hal Jordan's trial by the Guardians. When Zillo Valla, via Rox Ogama, says that the Monitors have been contaminated by the life forms on the germ worlds, it may be that they got the idea of framing an innocent Monitor from the Alpha Monitors, whom they were just watching, and who were in the process of framing Jordan. However, Uotan lacks Jordan's grace, and actually gets punished, exiled to Earth-0.

Given what we learned about writers above, what does this mean? If we cram that storyline into the existing framework to fit the facts, we have Rox Ogama (Frank Miller and/or Doug Moench and others writing stories where our heroes become antiheroes and some heroes get ruined) bring us to a state where Nix Uotan (DC writers who celebrate the heroic nature of heroes) have trouble thriving, but Weeja Dell (Marvel writers like him) support him from afar. Clearly, Morrison chose the worlds of the Monitors with care, and in an interview, he found those choices "somehow appropriate." I think something like the above is Morrison's statement, but we don't get a lot of elaboration. In FC #2-4 all we see of the Monitor plot is a few panels that show Nix Uotan failing in his fast food job while he draws comics (Final Crisis itself; this is, for now, Grant Morrison) seeking a purpose. The good writer is out in the world, trying to learn from it, but not making clear progress.

We can also interpret Zillo Valla's comment that "Time has entered [their] timeless world. Beginnings and endings." Is it plausible that comic book writers once had no time in their lives, no secrets or lovers? No, I'm sure they had those in the Thirties. But what didn't have time, beginnings, or endings were the old-time stories. As I have discussed here, DC stories in the early days largely operated on cyclical time, with nothing much ever changing. It was a gradual process from about 1959 to 1969 in which the narrative shifted from cyclical to linear, culminating with marriages (first: Barry Allen), deaths (first: Ferro Lad) and growing up (first: Dick Grayson leaving for college). The stories suddenly had beginnings and endings. And with that, the world of DC stories became a place where heroes could die, introducing mature storytelling, perhaps, but also creating a place among writers for would-be Mandrakks.

Then, in FC #5, Nix Uotan is thrown in a cell with a few fellow outcasts, people who aren't susceptible to the Anti-Life Equation. Somehow, by seeing things differently, by believing in a better world (inspired by Weeja Dell = Marvel?), Uotan and his fellow outcasts (one of whom is Metron in disguise) are capable of extraordinary things, like beating the record at Rubik's Cube, and their imagination seems to have great power. This begins the Fifth World and makes Nix Uotan a super-capable writer, the Judge of All Evil, who sees comic book panels all around him in 360° vision. This seems to show that some writers, Morrison included, just get it in a way that the people caught up in the storytelling of Moore don't. Comic books aren't about trampled rights, torture, and degradation. The real world has plenty of that for its outcasts. Comic books are about the way out for the dreamers and believers in heroes.

Within the pages of FC, this paves the way for Substory S, in which Moore's temporary victory over heroism eventually fails. And when it's over, the leaders of the Monitors who sought to exile Uotan (writers preferring heroism) now take direction from them and decide to let the heroes be heroes, without writers trampling them as Moore and Miller both did to Superman, in order to make their own fame.

Now if this is the story of writers, it covers an era from Moore's heyday around 1987 to 2008, by which time Morrison and Johns had brought back Silver Age greatness, with the JLA and Batman each getting Morrison's treatment, and Green Lantern getting Johns', with the Barry Allen Flash returning in FC itself.

Back at the beginning, Libra explained that the superheroes win "because they truly believe their actions are in accordance with a higher moral order." Moore's and Miller's brand of storytelling took away the higher moral order, and this not only meant that the superheroes could lose (literally die, as Moore wished) but the whole superhero comics industry could lose. The Final Crisis is about the superheroes facing this threat, from writers (and editors and fans). But in Final Crisis itself, we only see a single instance of the threat, with the heroes prevailing between 1986 to 2008. What about the far future? That was the topic of Superman Beyond, which in Superman perception took place during FC, is actually set logically long past it, in an indefinite future yet to come.

In Brightest Day: Green Lantern(s) in Final Crisis

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the Darkseid plot implicitly breaks the heroes (superheroes, detectives, and government agents alike) into different groups, with the Big Five standing out as the only superheroes to strike effective blows against the big villain(s). There's an asymmetry, though, in that Green Lantern and his allies ultimately play no role in Darkseid's defeat, but show up to deliver the final blow to Mandrakk. This violation of the pattern, I think, reflects the particular publication history of Hal Jordan.

Hal Jordan, as noted earlier, has a history of getting into trouble with the Guardians. This cycle repeated over time and escalated, with Hal being punished at reduced powers on Earth (in the acclaimed 1970s run of Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams), sent into exile in space (in the early 1980s, making him absent from Crisis on Infinite Earths), and later a murderous villain in the guise of Parallax, ultimately killed off and removed from the DC lineup. Hal got the full Alan Moore treatment, deconstructed and eliminated.

But it didn't last. Hal returned to life and the DC lineup a few years before Final Crisis, and in the hands of Geoff Johns, rapidly became a top seller, with the Green Lantern title and its related events contending, at least temporarily, with Batman and Superman for the most popular DC character. And this, I would offer, is why Hal earned a special role in facing off against Mandrakk. Hal's story, as well as any character's, showed that Alan Moore's thesis that optimistic superheroes had run their course was wrong. Ultimately, Hal makes a better hero than he does a villain. And the character who had lost his solo title a few times and was completely killed off came back to show that his story as a hero is one that people want to read. When the Green Lanterns are almost back to Earth, they see Monitor ships representing the higher plane of writers. Hal tells Guy, "Whatever they are, they're our way in!" Ultimately, writers put Hal back into the story, and that was his victory.

Another possible tidbit: In Superman Beyond, there is a panel that summarizes, with one picture, the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The superheroes we see include Superman, Dawnstar, and Hal Jordan. Hal didn't actually appear in COIE, a fact made more striking when one considers the huge number of obscure characters who did appear. The panel in Superman Beyond may be a glitch; then again, it may be a pointed retcon. We could take that panel as an indication that the early, 1980s, phase of Hal's fall from grace didn't happen, and that from here on out, we can consider him to have taken part in that huge adventure after all.

Story about Story

As an overarching observation about the style of Final Crisis, note the rather intense nestedness of the storytelling. Dan Turpin is telling a story. Libra tells a story. Investigating the Orion crime scene, we have about a half a dozen characters trying to tell a story. And so on. In the climax of FC #7, Wonder Woman and Supergirl tell the story of FC itself to children waiting to be shrunk and saved. Speaking through the fourth wall, the incredibly miscellaneous quartet of Cassie Sandsmark, Red Devil, John Stewart, and a Morrison invention named Iman ("magnet") talk to us about Superman. In a world where superheroes inspire us, Superman inspires them. He's the superheroes' superhero.

And Lois Lane tells a story that appears in narration boxes on twelve different pages of FC #7. After that, Nix Uotan takes over. And do you know what story first had Lois Lane telling a story? Action Comics #1. That's the beginning. Nix Uotan, an avatar for Morrison, finished Final Crisis #7. This is the story of all our stories. And what it said along the way was that the best heroes come out on top. In fact, we see that Lois Lane's last story ends up following Batman into the past, so that he can bring the superhero symbols, his own included, into the future. This is yet another time loop, and a time loop is a story that has no ending. So the heroes live on forever and ever, in this case and many, many others. But a sideplot features a more universal story, one that goes beyond, and focuses on Superman. It's Superman Beyond.

Superman Beyond

As things are going almost literally to hell on Earth, Superman is called away by Zillo Valla who, if we interpret correctly, represents "dark" stories that mean well, like Batman: Red Rain, but that turn our heroes into monsters. See, there's a threat from Mandrakk that might destroy everything, Lois Lane included. And the threat in the real world is, nobody's going to like the comic books anymore if you kill all the good heroes, who brought them to the comic books in the first place.

And Superman Beyond leaves the comic book world of Earth-0. It's about something else, the higher level where the stories are stories. And there's not just one Superman; there are the Superman of one comic book company (Fawcett's Captain Marvel), and the Superman of another (Charlton's Captain Atom, here looking more like Dr. Manhattan in yet another Alan Moore nod), A Nazi Earth-10 (AKA, Earth X, the Roman numeral for 10) Superman who speaks German, and the evil anti-Superman Ultraman from Earth-3. These represent many instances of the Platonic idea of Superman.

The problem is, the echo of the harm that Alan Moore has done to the comics is threatening them all. This destroyer, Echo of Midnight, may destroy many pitifully vulnerable worlds like Earth-13 and Earth-20, later shown in Multiversity. The Supermen dump Mandrakk's echo on the destroyed Earth-51 and then go off-path to Limbo.

Limbo, as we can tell by the cast of characters, is where the characters who aren't being written about anymore end up. For Superman to end up here suggests that Superman is facing, eventually, the threat of being killed off by the ruin of heroic superhero comics.

Eventually, Captain Adam realizes that Limbo not being a place, the rules that would destroy Superman and Ultraman if they touched don't apply because nothing can happen. Merging them, we get for the first time the Platonic Superman, an invention of Dax Novu, and if Novu was the early Alan Moore, then I'm not sure how that fits into the comic history timeline; Moore's work on Supreme came later. Perhaps Dax Novu stands for all good, pre-Crisis writers, and then Dax Novu's creation of the Thought Robot Superman could be anyone's from Jerry Siegel onward.

Though Final Crisis #7 gets the last word, the battle between Superman and Mandrakk here is the real climax, because it's not Superman surviving one writer or another, it's the idea of Superman defeating the idea of killing him. If ever anyone wants to eliminate Superman, they're going to lose, because, as Zillo Valla (clearly not simply Doug Moench or Frank Miller) tells us, "the story of a child rocketed to Earth from a doomed planet" is "a better story, one created to be unstoppable, indestructible!" Being reminded of this, Mandrakk destroys Zillo Valla. In the real world, this means that in trying to destroy heroic superheroes, Moore and his ilk would destroy the darker, horror kind of comics that he likes, to his own chagrin, yet Superman, a better idea, and his target, will survive! This battle isn't taking place in 1986, 2008, or even 2017. It's taking place in an indefinite future. Always, Superman will be threatened by people who don't like the idea of him. Always, he will prevail and continue to be a story that inspires people. This is his ultimate, infinite, "beyond" victory, but it was published before, and sets the stage for, the victory over Moore and WHTTMOT's Substory S, that is the climax of Final Crisis.

At the end of Superman Beyond, Superman gets what he was looking for. It turns out that he can save Lois Lane just by being Superman, because that's what Superman does. He answers Mandrakk and Alan Moore that the story of Superman doesn't end (see below): It is to be continued.

He ends the story with a wink, which readers recall from the end of "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" In fact, the wink is an older Superman story motif, primarily from animated/live media including the George Reeves TV series, the 1966 Filmation animated series, and originating, apparently, with 1940s Fleischer animation.

The Infinite Book!

In Limbo, the Supermen encounter an infinite book, one with every story in it. This is a wonderful cosmic idea, although, alas, one that the theory of computer science shows to be impossible. This is the subject of one additional likely reference to Alan Moore. Moore's cosmology of League of Extraordinary Gentleman is a world in which every story ever told is true. The connection between these two is suggested most strongly when Mandrakk, near the end of Superman Beyond #2, says, in the first panel of his last appearance, "The whole of existence in a single book." This is a strange point for Mandrakk to emphasize as he speaks to the camera. Time and time again, when a Morrison story presents a character uttering a nonsequitur, or an unexpected cameo, this is a clue of significance that deserves careful attention. In this case, it seems odd that Mandrakk would find the book to be a powerful weapon, though we may ponder if it is; I suspect that the significance here is likely yet another Mandrakk-Moore connection.

At the end of Superman Beyond #1, Ultraman reveals that the infinite book has an ending, and in the end, evil wins! I have to say, I found that pretty chilling as a reader. This book seems to carry the weight of authority, like the book of Destiny in older comics, and if it ends with evil, wow, our story is headed somewhere bad, isn't it? Ultraman sure thinks so. Superman says it merely sounds like a challenge to him.

As I finished my first and second and tenth readings of Superman Beyond, I never found a resolution to my concern. Obviously, we don't see evil win, so it seems as though the matter is simply ignored. It isn't. It's addressed on the last page, impossible to miss, in huge letters. Superman's answer to Mandrakk, and Grant Morrison's answer on Superman's behalf to Alan Moore, is "To Be Continued." Superman stories don't end. In Superman's universe, it is always to be continued, and we never get to the end of the book. But if we did, sure, evil would win in the end. That's how that book must end. But Superman's book loops on forever. And this is why, in interviews, Morrison can say that when you understand Final Crisis, you'll see why it is the final one. This is about how the heroes and their end interrelate. And the way they interrelate is that the big ones, at least Superman if not the entire Big Five, are all "to be continued."

In fact, the first word we read from the infinite book is "Previously!" That's not how a story starts; it's how a story continues. Put that and Superman's epitaph together, and you get a serial format, beginning each issue with "Previously" and ending each with "To be continued." Superman's story goes on. They never end. And, as Morrison defines Mandrakk in an interview:

"Mandrakk is actually the ultimate evil where there's no hope. The grave. He's entropy, I suppose. No matter how hard you try, this entity will consume the universe and you'll be sucked into the gaping, bulging Black Hole of Mandrakk."

By maintaining hope, by never entering the grave, by never being consumed, Superman thereby beats Mandrakk, not just the Alan Moore of 1986 but whatever other Mandrakks arise in the future. He emerges triumphant from every crisis, and that is the story of the Final Crisis.

To Be Continued

Since 2009, DC's continuity has been reconfigured twice. Final Crisis is well in the rearview mirror and its yearlong tour as DC's most talked about event has long since past. It stuck in my mind the whole time. And it felt like I didn't get it, and I didn't read anything suggesting that anyone else really got it. I hope this analysis, years after the fact, revives the story in at least some readers' minds, and enters the scattered trail of blog posts and sub-reddits to transform it into a story that people get, and that people enjoy to its fullest.


I believe that people who have seen the alignment of "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" and Final Crisis will not be able to think of this story the same way afterwards. I invite people to read Moore's story again, then read Final Crisis again, and see if it isn't a new experience. I hope that people who shrugged off Mandrakk's bizarre appearance the first time around will see it now as an essential part of the story, the main part of the story, and see how Superman and his allies defeat Mandrakk as a wonderful victory. And if a story that ended nine years ago can enter readers' minds again, that would really prove the main thesis of the Monitor plot, that superhero stories don't really end, and that they are always To Be Continued.