Friday, August 29, 2008

Superman: Beyond 3-D #1

I read Superman Beyond late last night, barely awake, probably not the best way to read a really complex metafictional spin through the many Earths of the DCU. It’s not one of Morrison’s best works, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, and in some ways, it’s a more satisfying read than Final Crisis proper. There’s none of the frantic jumping between story points, while still maintaining the overwhelming feeling of desperation that hangs over all of FC to date.

This issue is another metafiction take on the history of superhero comics and the DCU, and as such, it touches on a lot of themes and concepts we’ve seen previously in Animal Man and Seven Soldiers. I felt like Seven Soldiers was Morrison’s definitive statement on the DCU, and the best followup to the exploration of superhero comics in Flex Mentallo. All Star Superman has been brilliant, but other than that, his recent superhero work hasn’t hit me in the way that his best stuff has. With this book, and Final Crisis in general, I really like the concepts and isolated moments, but it’s not hitting me on an emotional level. It’s a very clinical read, so hypercompressed that there’s no time for things to really sink in.

It’s a heady rush of concepts, a style he previously used in Seven Soldiers #1. The major difference is Seven Soldiers #1 was the culmination of a 30 issue story, and we had the emotional base for understanding these characters. I suppose you could argue that Final Crisis is the Seven Soldiers #1 of Grant’s entire lifetime of DC work. As such, we don’t really need to delve into character specifics, we know these guys from his previous stories, and FC is all about doing one final power metal riff on the classic melody he’s been working on since Animal Man.

The problem with that kind of greatest hits approach is that it doesn’t really do anything we haven’t seen before. Think of Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, it’s a great movie, that’s better than the vast majority of movies out there, but nonetheless feels a bit underwhelming. So many of the concepts and characters feel like lesser imitations of his own previous work. It’s got to be hard to for an artist to keep innovating like Grant has over the course of his career. This book is an evolution of themes from the past, but it doesn’t feel quite fresh enough to stand with the best of his work.

As I said before, the storytelling style of the Final Crisis books has been a bit difficult for me. I like that he’s trying to fit as much as possible into the series, it’s a nice return to the style of the Silver Age. After reading this issue, or an issue of FC proper, you feel like you got your money’s worth. There’s a wealth of concepts and ideas to ponder, and a lot has happened. But, the best Grant work manages to fuse that Silver Age abundance of ideas and narrative with the occasional slow down to focus on emotional beats. I’m hoping that the latter half of Final Crisis will give us some more personal moments mixed in with the spectacle. Here, we get to spend more time with a single story, but things happen so fast that it takes about half the issue to really ground myself in what this story is about.

Part of my issue comes from my not quite total familiarity with the Monitors. I understand all the big things, but I don’t the grounding that makes it easy to read stuff with them. It’s all in the text, but I’m spending a lot of time trying to keep track of what’s going on. What Morrison seems to be doing here is mixing the pacing of Silver Age comics, with the conceptual density of his own work, resulting in a work that simultaneously flashes by in an instant and takes a long time to delve into. That’s a mix that works on a lot of levels. Intellectually, this is a full, rich comic, one that definitely benefits from a reread.

The art is by Doug Mahnke, who did amazing work on Morrison’s Frankenstein book. There, his pencils had a subliminally dirty quality, and were the perfect match for the gritty pulp stories Morrison was telling in that book. Here, his pencils have been cleaned up a bit, and the element of his art that really stands out is the 3-D stuff. Unlike some online commentators, I really liked the 3-D pages, particularly in the book of infinite pages section, things really seem to pop off the page. Plus, just wearing the 3-D glasses for an extended period of time makes everything feel trippier. The world itself is discolored, only the comic looks right. That metafictional element makes reading the comic a trip in and of itself.

Superman goes on this quest to heal Lois with the ‘Bleed’ substance. This was a Warren Ellis concept from The Authority, the material that universes grow in. It would be logical that the placenta like material in which universes grow would heal people within the universe. It’s even referred to as Ultramenstruum in the comic, reinforcing the uterine connection.

The part of the comic that really interests me is the conceptual material near the end of the book, where Superman hears a story about the birth of the universe. Ironically, this is also the material that fits most with the complaints I had earlier, about this book retreading the thematic ground of previous Morrison works. The trip to Limbo hits the same story beats as Animal Man, but twenty years later, the concept isn’t so out there and audacious. Or perhaps, it simply feels less otherworldly in a book where we’ve got Supermen from five universes together. What made Limbo work so well in Animal Man was the real world grounding that Buddy’s life provided.

You don’t get the sense that Superman would be terribly shaken to find out his entire life was a fictional creation. He’d be able to deal with that, just like he deals with anything. Superman is so powerful in our world that limbo doesn’t pose much threat for him. He’s never going to forgotten, in a lot of ways he has become more powerful than the human beings who created him. If he was to meet his ‘writer,’ who would he meet?

The major evolution of Morrison’s DC cosmology in this book is the notion of stories as the basis for the universe itself. Perhaps this is the final piece of the master plan started with Animal Man. There, Buddy Baker found out he was just a character in a piece of fiction, here Superman finds out that the entire basis for the universe is stories. Literally, the DC Universe is made up of thousands of stories, each comic they publish develops and changes the universe a little bit, some more than other.

This whole thing gets back to the notion of hypertime. The idea there was basically that continuity is determined by which stories ‘stick.’ The more powerful stories, like the death of Batman’s parents, form the backbone of the universe, the essential basis for the character. Other stories may exist as rivers off the main timestream, less essential pieces of continuity that may no longer fit into the overall narrative of the character. So, if you’re trying to figure out why Superman’s heat vision does one thing in a single 50s story, but doesn’t do that today, you could just say that the 50s story in question was part of an abandoned branch of hypertime. Continuity is built out of elements that recur for the character. The more an element is used, the more essential it becomes to continuity, the closer to the center of hypertime. But, every story still exists, and they’re all true in some way. 60s TV Batman is just a different branch on the hypertime river than Dark Knight Returns Batman. And, it’s possible to try to knit it all together, by making everything true, as Morrison is currently doing in Batman.

Anyway, Morrison gives us the origin of the universe when he says “A flaw found at the heart of monitor perfection! Monitor makes a concept to contain the flaw!” That is the beginning of thought, the beginning of stories. Out of a white void of perfect singularity comes an anomaly. To deal with that anomaly, one must conceptualize it as other, and come up with a mental reason for its existence. If you see a splotch of red paint on a white wall, you would think, someone must have put that paint there. You make a story in your head.

This one narrative multiplies into others, and reveals “unforeseen complexities and contradictions.” This panel, depicting the bleed, also functions as an origin for the multiverse. The first story creates others, they each branch off in distinct directions, and eventually you’ve got the convoluted continuity of the DCU.

Captain Marvel and Merryman discuss the idea of a universe with universes within it, or a story with all the other stories in it. This ties into the idea in The Invisibles of the UFO, the piece of universe trapped within itself. That void that Superman refers to is the initial world of the monitors, the more the monitors reach out, the more they encounter other stories. The story “without limits or definition” that spins out of control could refer to the multiverse going out of control before Crisis.

This is where my lack of knowledge about the Monitors becomes problematic. Morrison seems to posit the idea that the Monitors exist beyond DC continuity, they were there at the beginning and are the ones who oversaw the start of existence. He then goes on to say how the ‘flaw,’ the first contact with stories, was sealed over with the first ‘monitor,’ who looks a lot like Superman. I like the idea of the entire DCU flowing from Superman himself, the first superhero who led to the creation of everything that followed. But, is this stuff actually referring to the fusion of everything into a single universe after Crisis? I’m not sure where Morrison’s commentary on our world in relation to the DCU lies and where his comment on the internal nature of the DCU is.

Let’s say that the Monitors are like the 4-D beings in The Invisibles, they exist outside time, they were there at the beginning of the universe and are helping to guide things to make sure they proceed the way that they’re supposed to. In this case, rather than guiding one universe forward, they’re guiding a series of multiverses towards some kind of ideal. But, there’s also definitely an Eden thing going on here too. The Monitors aren’t fully aware of their mission, as John a Dreams was. Rather, they exist in a pure state outside of time, and it is an encounter with time, with stories, that infects them and brings their world from a sheltered nothingness to a chaotic something. It would make sense that all the flaws, everything they’ve experienced is leading them towards a role in the Final Crisis. Every world in the multiverse is spinning toward destruction, and they will have a role to play in the oncoming battle.

Notably, the monument that they call the “relic of first contact” is a giant statue of Superman. That would tie in with the idea that Superman, as the first superhero, is also in a lot of ways the creator of the DCU. It was the meeting of the Superman idea with the guardians of universes, the monitors that led to the creation of the DC multiverse. Now, the Monitors insert themselves into time to gather an army of champions, all echoes of that first conflict, to do battle and save their universe.

In that sense, the Final Crisis is an echo of the conflict that led to the creation of the universe. Much of Final Crisis has a religious tinge, there’s the Bible of Crime that Libra preaches, the New Gods and Darkseid. Morrison’s made it clear in his JLA that the superheroes would be the ones to take over for the New Gods, and start the new age of things. They are the template for human evolution, so it would be logical for the creators of the universe, and the heroes within it to come together to overthrow the old gods and pave the way for a new universe.

In that sense, is it that the Monitors, with their placenta like bleed are the female element, and Superman is the male element. When they come together, they create a universe. But, what are the Monitors, beyond a sci-fi concept within the DC Universe? Are they God? Morrison’s never been one to shy from metafiction, most likely they’re another iteration of the Time Tailors, the writers of the stories themselves. After all, what is the process of creation but the intrusion of something into nothing. A story hits your mind like a flaw, sitting there until it needs to be addressed, growing and layering on itself. Now, the writers of the stories are drawn into the world to save it from its darkest hour yet.

So, perhaps the issue wasn’t as thematically redundant as I’d thought previously. There’s a ton of material here, but I feel like there’s a disconnect between this really fascinating conceptual thematic material, and the fairly standard story itself. Those few pages, I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around, but I feel like the story itself needed a bit more to really grab me emotionally. Still, it makes a lot more sense after really examining it. All these Supermen are here as the ‘founding father’ of their respective world. He is the first superhero, the spark that made something out of nothing, and now he will have to save the world in its darkest hour. A world’s Superman is the best representative of its nature, with a Superman like the DCU’s, there’s no way that evil will win in the end.


RAB said...

What I missed most from this issue was getting to see some imaginative alternate Supermen. When Grant introduced the Superman Squad in All-Star Superman it was not only a lot of fun but also revealed something about the essential nature of Superman. I was expecting something along the same lines here: revealing the ur-Superman by showing that fundamental core identity reflected and embodied in strange counterparts. Ultraman sort of counts but that teutonic Superman was seen off way too quickly...and I don't see Captain Marvel or that "Captain Doctor Manhattom" mashup guy as being avatars of the platonic Superman in quite the sense I was hoping to see.

There was that Countdown Arena comic a while back that did something a bit closer to what I was expecting here, but perhaps that was a case of taking the premise too literally. Grant's Superman Squad worked so well for me, I was hoping this book would have more of that feeling.

Patrick said...

The actual Superman related stuff here definitely paled next to All Star, if only because All Star has been so good it makes pretty much every other Superman story ever pale. The main story felt sort of dashed off, it was those mind bending depictions of the universe's origin that made the book work for me. It was one of those cases where I felt like my brain wasn't quite capable of handling the material in the book.

We'll see what issue 2 brings, though it looks like it won't actually turn up until sometime in December.