Thursday, January 29, 2009

Final Crisis #7: 'New Heaven, New Earth'

After a tumultuous seven issue run, Final Crisis wraps up with its best issue yet, an issue that manages to resolve all the threads in a satisfying way, and perhaps achieves Morrison’s long discussed goal of making the DCU a sentient entity. The parents of the universe are gone, the gods are fallen and it’s up to the characters to invent their own world. A large part of the issue is about the characters gaining the agency to control their own story and build this fifth world of their own design. It’s at once a return to the pre-Crisis DCU, and a celebration of everything that has come since. It’s a complex issue, and not everything about it works, but the overall impact is huge, I think this is easily the best issue of the entire series, and a great way for Morrison to wrap up his current time in the DCU.

The issue begins with a trip to an alternate world where there’s a black president and a black Superman. I was already talking about the resonance of Obama and this comic, and this opening fuses the iconography of Obama and Superman to foreshadow the emergence of a new, better world at the end of the series. It’s also a pretty badass moment to have the president rip off his suit and have a Superman costume underneath. The discussion afterwards about using the “wonder horn,” and the music they hear makes a lot more sense after seeing what Superman does later in the issue.

The issue is odd because it violates so many seemingly basic rules of writing, and in the process proves that rules are good, but what really lingers about a story is the energy and experience of it. The early parts of the issue are told in flashback, or perhaps narration in the present, it’s unclear. Images flow from the narration in a seemingly stream of conscious way, drifting from fight to fight in a haze of action. What this means is that we don’t get to see some important story points. I’m frustrated that we don’t get a closer view of Shilo activating his boom tube, after all the buildup of his story, he either doesn’t appear or is barely visible in this issue. I also find it frustrating that we never really see Wonder Woman liberated from her Justifier enslavement, we can infer it, and we get an emotional beat when she crumbles the mask, but we don’t get the seemingly critical moment when her mind comes back to the surface.

So, there’s some sloppy story construction on those beats. I’m not sure how much is a product of the art and how much is conscious choice. I will say that Doug Mahnke kills it on this book. I’ve heard a bunch of people say they wish he had drawn the whole thing, and I can’t disagree. JG Jones did a good job when he was on time, but he wasn’t good enough to justify the delays or art mess. He’s not Frank Quitely. If Mahnke could have drawn the whole story in a timely fashion, it would have been great to have him on board. At least in terms of art, the series goes out on a high note.

The other major issue is the amount of deus ex machina in the story. On some level, a story about gods is going to always involve this sort of ending, but the stuff about the monitors doesn’t feel as developed as other elements of the story, and that makes it feel kind of out of place here at the end. Darkseid was the villain of this whole thing, and to end on a different, somewhat related, but not really connected story thread feels a bit off. But, I think Darkseid gets a good finale too, so it works okay. It’s partially an issue of pacing, it might have been better to have Batman do the final strike on Darkseid in this issue, while Superman was off with Mandrakk and the Monitors so they could be intercut instead of happen in succession.

One of the things I love about the issue is the sheer epic quality of the story. I think that all three Crises, for their flaws and merits, manage to feel truly epic and important for the universe. They stand as testaments to the insane over the top storytelling capabilities of the DCU. On a meta level, the tour of all of the aspects of the DCU in this series is a way of showing its strength, the power of its lifeblood, a way to combat the vampiric death that Mandrakk represents.

This issue’s use of narration in particular makes it feel huge. I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what sequence certain events happen in, but I felt the importance of them, and was emotionally engaged throughout the entire thing, Lois’s narration serving as a way to heighten our emotional engagement with what’s going on. Yesterday, I said that Superman Beyond worked on an intellectual level and a pure spectacle level, but it didn’t have the emotional component. This issue has all three firing at full cylinder, reading the pages, I was really excited to see what came next because it really felt like anything could happen. There were a ton of panels in here that just made me smile, and that’s one of the greatest things about Morrison’s work, and superhero comics in general. They can be so huge, so archetypal that it transcends the traditional demands of a story and just hits you in that part of the brain that loves spectacle and excitement.

In Superman Beyond, we saw Zillo Valla claim that Superman’s origin story was the most powerful story in the multiverse, the story that could pull Dax Novu back from the darkness. Here, we see that story invoked again, and replayed as part of the battle against Darkseid. It starts with the rocket full of Batman’s iconography. Batman is just as powerful an archetype as Superman, the core things that make him who he is will survive any threat against the world, he’ll always find a way. I love the idea that in a world made of story, symbols and images are the life essence, if those can be preserved on another world, Batman will find a way back to life.

That’s perhaps the boldest innovation in this miniseries, the idea that the DCU is literally built on stories. It will live on because it’s always “To Be Continued,” and the characters will perpetually deal with the same archetypal story elements. Something like the Joker/Batman conflict is a founding principle of the universe and it will always cycle itself through again and again.

Superman’s confrontation with Darkseid is really well done. At this point, Darkseid has infected virtually the entire populace, the world itself is evil, so what can Superman do? As Darkseid says, “Kill me and you kill everything!” So, Darkseid does precisely that, he fires the bullet at Orion, which he knows will eventually come back to kill him, and in the process, he intends to take the whole world down with him. At least that’s the way I see it, the whole bullet backwards in time thing is pretty hard to fathom, but this view of it makes sense.

I love the payoff on the Flash’s long run through the entire series. They bring death to Darkseid and zip off in a haze of trippy visuals and the sort of crazy science dialogue that Morrison does so well. Lois describes it as “the story of the flashes outrun Death, the Black Racer.” In some ways, this caption is used simply to facilitate the dissemination of narrative information, but I’d argue that the goal is also to transform this story into instant mythology. This is a story so huge they’re already telling it to kids within the DCU, it’s the creation myth of the fifth world, the way that the world was saved and changed and rebuilt. And, the crazy brilliance of the Flashes outracing Death and bringing him to Darkseid lives up to that kind of mythos.

From there, we see the dissolution of the world, conveyed in a series of perfectly chosen scenes that convey what I view as the dissolution of the entire multiverse. We see all the scientists working together to buil this Miracle Machine, even our old friend the Chief from Doom Patrol, whose head is no longer in a jar. This builds to the dizzying assault on Checkmate and the Atoms doing something. These panels are drawn from the pure reservoir of superhero stories. This is what every comic should feel like, filled to the brim with insane images and concepts. Morrison has talked about how comics have to up their game now that films can do superheroes. This is what he means, this is a comic that spans universes and does something you’ve never seen before in every panel.

It’s also a marvel of economy. The Arrow and Canary resolution is touching and funny in just three small panels. I love their hands barely touching as they drift through space, staring down at the Metron symbol. A panel down we can another fuck yeah moment with the appearance of Most Excellent Superbat and his team in action. I don’t know who these characters are on an individual level, but Morrison makes me care about them through the sheer pop joy inherent. Who doesn’t want to save Lolita Canary? Who doesn’t love Lighting Flash dashing between panels, all in a massive buildup of light and fire.

I’m honestly not totally sure on exactly what happens at this point in the comic. I know that the Checkmate satellite explodes, apparently killing Mister Terrific and Hawkman and Hawkgirl, while the Super Young Team and the others evacuate via Mister Miracle’s Boom Tube. Then, there’s a separate JLA satellite where the survivors of all the destroyed multiverse worlds stick around. So, are those worlds entirely destroyed, and then rebuilt later on, or are the only survivors the ones who were stuck in the freezer? I guess it might be that everyone’s possessed by Darkseid, and it takes Superman’s wish to make them better again. It doesn’t really matter, perhaps a couple more reads will make it clear.

The sort of free association storytelling is present in the panels where Renee tells her story. Speaking to Overman about his cousin’s death, we jump to a scene that may or may not have ever happened where he screams in the rain while holding her body. On one level, this is likely an allusion to the original Crisis’ famous dead Supergirl cover, but it also works as a visual way to express the emotion he’s feeling. The walls of reality are breaking down at this point, emotion and logic are converging into a psychogenic reality where idea and feeling are indistinguishable from physical reality.

This brings us to Superman realizing that Darkseid intended to kill himself to bring the whole world down into the black hole with him. If he possesses all their minds, his death will destroy everyone. But, Luthor won’t have that. As I mentioned in earlier reviews, Luthor always exists in reverse moral polarity to the world he’s in. Now that he’s in an evil world, he’s going to fight for good.

Luthor claims that “Libra was the anti-life equation and now he’s not.” So, was Libra a physical incarnation of the concept of anti-life? I’m not sure about that, maybe it’s more that Libra was some kind of vessel used to channel the anti-life into our reality. I’ll have to reread to see what exactly was up with Libra throughout, but the point here seems to be that Luthor and Sivana have created a machine that co-opts the anti-life equation and overrides it. So, using this machine, they’re able to rescue the people under the control of Darkseid and restore their individual will.

This leads to the fantastic moment where Frankenstein rides a giant dog and hacks the head off of someone. It’s great to see Frankenstein back in action, I’ll always have great affection for all the Seven Soldiers characters, and particularly with Mahnke drawing, Frank is as good as he’s ever been.

The Morticoccus virus comes seemingly out of nowhere here. Apparently, it was mentioned in Countdown, and is a call back to Kamandi. The way it reads here, it sounds like the “god-bacterium” could easily be Darkseid himself.

So, this all leads up to Superman’s final confrontation with Darkseid. This is another huge fuck yeah moment. The world is seemingly collapsing, but Superman knows the nature of this world, it’s made of “vibrations,” of stories. If you put a better story against this bad one, the good one can win out. Darkseid is the bad virus designed to destroy the world, Superman is an agent of good, rebuilding the world from within. He sings like only he can and Darkseid explodes, unable to withstand the onslaught of pure universal essence.

I love these sorts of moments because deep down I do believe that good and hope will always overcome darkness. As in this series, things can go bad for a long time, but progress will always win out in the end. I don’t think a moment like this is hokey or unearned, it kills it on an emotional level. Love will win out in the end, you can have a whole world of darkness, but all it takes is one little light to make things bright again.

This leads up to the confrontation with Mandrakk, and our intersection with the stuff from Superman Beyond. Mandrakk is the anti-story, the desire to end the universe and prevent the characters from developing any further. He invokes Superman’s origin story, but positions Superman as his father, a man who failed to save his universe. The origin is the powerful keystone of the entire reality, and Mandrakk is trying to twist it to serve his own ends.

Superman igniting the Miracle Machine with his solar battery is a literal representation of the light concept I was talking about before. I love the panel where he reaches his hand out and seems to have a tiny galaxy spinning below him, electricity arcing to create the Metron symbol around his head. There, he truly is a god, the benevolent architect of a new reality.

This leads to another fuck yeah moment when we see a legion of Supermen descending on Mandrakk, shouting “Let the sun shine in!” You can’t help but play the euphoric Fifth Dimension song in your mind, the music that tore Darkseid apart now echoing in your own mind, a truly bizarre bunch of characters stand and tear down Mandrakk.

The choice of such wacky characters as a bunch of Earth-35 animals and Captain Carrot can easily be read as a meta assertion on the health of the DCU. Mandrakk is the kind of reductive writer who seeks to tear down the magic of these characters, while Morrison wants the universe to be strong in all its bizarre contradictions.

The assembly of Supermen also reinforces Superman’s status as the ur-hero of the DCU, the source of everything that has followed. He has inspired all these others, he is the true god and architect of this world, and next to that power, Mandrakk is decidedly insignificant. He is staked, and the cancer eating at this world is gone, the “symmetry of the orrery” is re-established, Darkseid’s hold is slackened and the world can go on again.

Part of this is Nix Uotan’s emergence as a fully realized 5-D aware being. His story is kind of a reverse John a Dreams. He starts out beyond reality a piece of the core universal essence that is chipped away into an individual form to become a monitor. Then he falls in to our reality and gets lost in a human life, forgetting that he was ever anything more than that. But, now he’s fully realized, he has his monitor powers, but also human emotion to anchor them. There is a power in our lives and loves on this world, and that’s what Mandrakk doesn’t understand.

In his power, Nix summons the “Forever People of the 5th World” and the Super Young Team shows up. This reinforces the idea that new characters will be inheriting the roles of the old archetypes in the new world. The Super Young Team are the new Forever People, Shilo the new Mister Miracle, and I’m sure we’ll see a new Orion and others in the future. But, where does that leave the original New Gods? They are seen here watching over the birth of a new Earth, Earth-51, rehabilitating the graveyard world into a flourishing New Genesis. The war is over and a new world can be born.

At this point, the Fourth World gods seem to have passed beyond physical form, and serve more as touchstones for the next generation. They are the archetypal essence of good, and will reign supreme in a world where the archetypal essence of evil has been defeated and fallen deep down in to a black hole. And, they will guide Earth 51 to better things. It’s a classic Morrison trope, the worst, most corrupted thing drawn back to goodness through positive influence. Earth 51 is Quimper, plunged through the worst shit and reborn as a glorious flower.

This all leads up to the Monitors abandoning their post and descending down into reality to live as humans. The Monitors were old order gods, trying to maintain order in the universe, to keep the parallel worlds separated and limit humanity. They are the evolutionary shackles that helped us grow, but have to be thrown out as we advance into a new world. They are in some ways like Barbelith, and the dissolution into white here echoes Jack’s entrance in to the supercontext at the end of The Invisibles.

Superman Beyond equated the Monitors with the DCU’s writers. So, does this ending imply that the DCU is now beyond writers, it’s a self sufficient entity guiding its own way. One could argue that if this is meant to be Morrison’s farewell to the universe, he’s sending it off to a place where malevolent gods no longer control it and the characters are free to live out stories without his outside influence. Throughout Morrison’s DC work, we’ve seen negative portrayals of god-like controlling figures, from Morrison himself in Animal Man to the Time Tailors in Seven Soldiers. Both the Monitors and Time Tailors are mixed influences, but the point of this ending seems to be that it’s time to stop trying to control everything and to let the universe direct itself.

Superman is such a strong idea, he can guide things forward in a fine way. There’s no longer needs for an intermediary, people have shown that they can control their own destiny. Our heroes are now like the gods of old, and the fifth world has begun. We get very little glimpse of what that fifth world will entail, but I guess that’s ultimately up to you. We’re all Nix Uotan, waking up anew, ready to write our own story.

In a lot of ways, the story is comprable to The Invisibles’ liberation from the needs of a structured universe at the end of the series and the journey out to the supercontext. The DCU has been engineered to specific ends by these monitors, they thought that they needed to rule like that to ensure the safe progress of the universe. They sought to keep the universes apart and organized because it was too dangerous to let them mix. But, the people here have shown that they can manage their own reality. The child universe has become an adult and we don’t need the gods to guide us anymore. We can be our own gods. As King Mob said on his way to the supercontext, “I’m ready to play with the grown-ups, babe.”

This leads up to one final big moment, the return of Batman, who’s stranded way back at the Dawn of Man, drawing his sigil on a cave wall. Will the bat symbol become as enduring a symbol as Metron’s sigil? How will he make it back to the present day? Has he become a god? Who knows, but the ending feels right, and I’m eager to see Morrison pick up his story again when he returns to the title in the summer.

So, after all that, what is the major takeaway? The DCU is built on stories, and as such, the Miracle Machine can control it by rewriting the story. When Superman wishes for a happy ending, he’s essentially rewriting his own reality. He’s the ur-hero, the source of all good in the universe, and he’s always going to do just the right thing. This version of Superman seems very influenced by Morrison’s vision of the character in All Star Superman. I think he works even better than Morrison’s JLA Superman, outside of All Star itself, this is one of the best Superman stories of all time.

At this point, he seems to have become meta aware of the nature of the universe. He knows it’s built on stories, and will always continue on, but he’s got to make sure this story goes out on a happy ending.

And it does. After all the messy darkness of the previous six issues, this single issue manages to resolve pretty much all the narrative threads and give us a glorious rush of hope to overwhelm all the darkness. It’s a lot to fit in a single issue, but Morrison pulls it off, and makes it emotionally relevant. I had mixed feelings on Final Crisis throughout, I really liked most of it, but it didn’t hit me in the way that the best Morrison does. But, this issue, he’s at his best, and it’s a great farewell to the DCU for now. I want to read some creator owned work soon, but in a year or so, I wouldn’t mind a trip back to the DCU to check on the Fifth World’s progress.

No comments: