Thursday, October 23, 2008

Final Crisis #4 and Final Crisis: Submit

After a lengthy delay, yesterday brought us two Grant Morrison Final Crisis books in one day. It would have made a lot more sense to put Submit out a week earlier, if only because it’s meant to be read first, and I think most people will have read issue 4 before they read Submit. But, the scheduling on this series has been a mess, and hopefully it will live on in trade as just a good story, not a frustrating serialized experience. Obviously, I’d like to see an issue every month, but if all the issues are as good as this one is, I’d rather wait than have a finished product. This is the most focused and emotionally singular issue of the series to date, the moment when all the build up is over and we’re trapped in the awful world of Anti-Life. Darkseid’s won, and there’s nothing left but hope.

Submit is far from Morrison’s finest work, but it’s a solid enough story, and does a good job of showing us in more depth one of the many potential stories floating around the Final Crisis parent book. Unlike most crossovers, I think Final Crisis really would have benefited from more tie-in books that actually tie in closely with the story. I read the first two issues of Final Crisis: Revelations, and they’re a messy, hard to follow story that’s more about Greg Rucka playing with his pet characters than actually tying into Final Crisis. That’s a valid choice for him, but I’d have loved to see more stuff like Submit. It would have caused an even greater scheduling mess, but it would have been interesting to see a weekly book running parallel with the main series, and that weekly book could have detailed a lot of the smaller stories that are happening beneath the surface of Final Crisis proper.

I was frustrated by the earlier issues of the series because of their frantic jumping from spot to spot. I think it works on a narrative level, hyper-compressing the collapse of the entire DCU into just a few issues. But, it made the series hard to engage with emotionally. This issue spends more time with fewer characters, and consequently, it’s a lot easier to get emotionally wrapped up in what’s happening. Notably, thought FC, I’ve wanted to see more of every storyline. Reading here, I wanted to see more of Grant’s Green Arrow and Black Canary, more of the weird Darkseid world, and of course, more of the Super Young Team. I’d have loved to see Submit style one shots for all the little pieces of the story.

As I was saying, Submit works as a good exemplar of what’s happening to everyone. The story itself is a bit post-apocalyptic cliché at times, and I was confused by that moment where the Tattooed Man’s son shoots Black Lightning, but on the whole, it works. One of the central themes of the series seems to be the unification of superhero and supervillain against this larger threat. The old definitions of good and evil no longer have meaning when all individual thought and freedom is being wiped away. It took this crisis to make it clear that the best way to save a villain is to be kind to him, to show that he’s not a villain at all. Once Black Lightning sacrifices his life to save the Tattooed Man’s family, Mark comes around and realizes that maybe the heroes aren’t so bad at all.

This leads into FC#4, where Ray assumes that Mark is actually a superhero, and he’s taken into the confidence of the Justice League. It calls back to the moment in The Invisibles where Jack restores Sir Miles’ aura, and in the process, makes it impossible for Sir Miles to hate him. The best way to defeat an enemy is to make him not be an enemy anymore. It just sometimes takes a bigger enemy to make that possible. I’m guessing we’re going to see a lot of the villains team up with the heroes to battle Darkseid, and Libra. We already saw hints of that with Lex Luthor, and there’ll probably be more to come. It’s a shame that we can get this kind of message in comics, but out in the real world, political candidates still speak seriously about fighting a ‘war on terror,’ and condemn anyone who would think about actually trying to talk to our enemies and try to understand them rather than bomb them.

Anyway, on to Final Crisis #4. The issue is unified through depictions of a world ravaged by the effects of the anti-life equation. The equation here is very close to what we heard in Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle, the series that is the clear prelude to everything that happens here. This issue in particular reminds me a lot of Seven Soldiers on the whole. The big heroes have been taken off the board, and it’s up to a bunch of b-listers to prove themselves worthy and save the world from this overwhelming, evil threat. While I enjoyed Morrison’s JLA, I generally like his big superhero epics that focus on more ground level heroes, not the big three. When you’ve got Superman involved, the stakes have to be raised so high to make it threatening at all, but when you’re dealing with a guy whose only power is to shoot a bunch of arrows, the threat feels more legit. These small enclaves of heroes, cut off from each other, all struggle to stay alive and defend their corners of the Earth.

They fight filled with the human spirit, filled with concern and love for each other. That is the force that will ultimately outlast anti-life. The Justifiers are made to believe that the only thing that matters in the world is serving Darkseid, is living for Darkseid and dying for Darkseid. In Kirby’s original Fourth World stuff, the Justifiers served Glorious Godfrey, a charismatic preacher who preached the gospel of anti-life, of cutting oneself off from emotion and free thought in favor of an adherence to the nihilistic conformity to the braindead regime of Darkseid. The critical page in this issue is the depiction of the Darkseid factory, where people “Work! Consume! Die!”

The force of Darkseid is about reducing people to slaves to routine, about removing the joy from life and replacing it with empty service to an evil god. It’s easy to live our own lives fueled by anti-life, to drift into a routine that reduces us to braindead zombies unable to think for ourselves, unable to create new things and better our situation. To serve anti-life is to become trapped forever in the status quo, to hate all things, and exist in the same way forever. The core battle of the Fourth World was the progressive invention of the New Gods versus the dark stagnation of Apokolips. Now, the entire world has been turned into Apokolips, and the Justifiers struggle to extinguish any spark of individual thought or resistance. Taken into anti-life, it seems so much easier to just stay the course and serve Darkseid. It doesn’t take any initiative, and you’re just like everyone else. But, that doesn’t make it right.

It would appear that things are at their low ebb. But, sparks of hope do resonate throughout the issue. Across the world, heroes are fighting back, and Green Lantern is setting up forces for a last stand. I liked seeing Black Adam, and as I was saying before, it seems that he’ll team up with the heroes to fight a battle that trumps their own differences. It was also good to see the Ultramarines and Superbia again, as well as Bot’swana Beast and the Great Ten. This story doesn’t feel particularly connected to what’s going on in the rest of the DCU, but it’s full of ties to Morrison’s own DCU stuff, and it looks like it might serve as a proper finale to twenty years of work.

The most notable sign of resistance is the read of the Metron mark. We first see it The Tattooed Man, whos’ got the full Metron going on. The life equation lives on, hidden beneath the surface, but still there. And then, in my favorite moment of the issue, Shilo Norman and the Super Young Team burst forth from some kind of dimensional barrier, all of them wearing the Metron tattoo on their faces. It was such an awesome moment when he returned, but things quickly go South when he’s shot. This is nicely juxtaposed with the Darkseid crew saying “Freedom’s spirit falls.” But, I’m guessing the entire series will function as a larger retelling of the Mister Miracle story from Seven Soldiers. Death is just a part of the anti-life equation, and Shilo has overcome it before and will overcome it again.

The entire series has had the feel of a giant superhero Robert Altman style ensemble movie, and the last few pages are the “Wise Up” sequence from Magnolia, everything’s hitting its low point, hope being extinguished in a glorious burst of cross cutting, all structured around the return of Darkseid. After doing some great work with Ollie and Black Canary earlier in the issue, Grant tears it all apart, turning Oliver into a Justifier. Is it possible this is part of his plan? Maybe, but that doesn’t make the shot of Black Canary looking down at the world, knowing that something bad has happened to him any less sad. But, she’s a leader, and she goes to work.

Throughout the issue, the world of Darkseid’s crew feels diseased and evil, and it all culminates in the crowning of Turpin as Darkseid. His voiceover chronicles the raging humanity within him, his futile attempt to hold back the darkness. The world collapses around him, the spirit of freedom is shot down, and the war is over. “The choice is simple. There’s no choice at all. Only Apokolips and Darkseid. Forever.” The way the scenes are juxtaposed, the heroes’ battle becomes a representation of the internal battle within Turpin. It’s as if he sees all these other scenes in his mind, all these failures to resist the Justifiers, and in the end, he himself falls too. These scenes are incredibly creepy, and by the end, you can barely recognize Turpin, he’s become all Darkseid.

I really loved this issue. It’s harrowing and epic in a way a lot of superhero comics try to be, but very few actually reach. The jumps between stories don’t arbitrary and distracting as they did from time to time in the first few issues, because of the central event in the issue, all the stories are really a single story, the battle of life against anti-life. So, it’s one emotional arc even as we jump from group to group. And, the ending is great, much like the darkness at the end of Batman #680, this is the feeling of total dissolution, that everything’s gone to shit and there’s nothing we can do about it. But, the Metron symbol is still there, it will echo from beginning to end, and as long as people fight, anti-life will never be totally victorious.

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