Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #2

Final Crisis ends tomorrow, and I’ll be reviewing it tomorrow afternoon. But, before that drops, I’ve got a few things to say about last week’s Superman Beyond #2. This is an issue that’s frustrating on some levels, but really exciting on others.

My major trouble with the issue is the fact that it’s both a retreading of themes that Morrison has handled better elsewhere, and an essentially insular work. What does this book have to say about our world as a whole? What relevance does it have to your life or mine? There’s certainly some, but it’s more about the DCU itself, and the process of reading superhero comics. Some of Morrison’s best work, particularly pieces of Seven Soldiers and Flex Mentallo, were largely meta narratives about the nature of superhero comics, but they managed to tell those stories in a way that retained emotional relevance to the real world. They were about real people in a crazy world, this story, with its myriad of Supermen and convoluted Monitor mythology, loses that connection to reality and becomes, much like the original Crisis, a spiral into the mythology of the DCU itself.

My other major problem with the work is that all the major stuff has been covered elsewhere in Morrison’s canon. Final Crisis is by its nature a kind of greatest hits journey through his years of DCU writing, but at its best, the main series has managed to touch on new aspects of the universe and feel fresh. Here, the old sucking out the joy of superhero comics meta theme has been covered before. People have read Mandrakk’s fall into corruption as another riff on Alan Moore’s influence on superhero comics, a theme that Morrison handled much better in Zatanna #4’s Zor battle.

Both Seven Soldiers and Flex flourished because they used superhero comics as a way to riff on parental abandonment issues and emotionally arrested development. The Zatanna Zor battle is a riff on Alan Moore, but it’s also a confrontation with her own unresolved father issues, and consequently it has a strong emotional impact. Superman Beyond hits the popcorn spectacle and intellectual sides of things, but only occasionally hits me on an emotional level. Flex Mentallo, the greatest superhero story ever written, deals with superheroes from an aspirational point of view, spinning through the adolescent power fantasy and ultimate parent fantasy as a way of exploring our hero’s psychological condition.

I think ultimately a large part of it comes down to the fact that I generally enjoy the struggles of loser heroes rather than the super confident adventures of Superman. In All Star Superman, the entire series is about exploring Superman as a god totem, an inspiration to humanity who will show us the way then move on. The series often uses Superman in the way that Gaiman uses Morpheus in Sandman, or Miracleman in his run on that title, as an idea rather than a character. The All Star stories work because they deal with the idea of Superman and use him as an entrée to emotional engagement. The two greatest moments in the run are both in issue #10, the page where we see Superman comfort a girl who’s about to commit suicide, and the audacious finale where we find out that Superman actually created our world, and the idea of him was so powerful he infected our minds and emerged in our fiction.

This issue riffs on that idea, placing the Platonic ideal of Superman in conflict with a villain who feeds on the essence of the DC Universe itself, the Bleed. The life blood of the DCU is quite literally stories, it’s in the continuing narrative of these characters that the universe maintains its life. Stay out of the stories too long and your life will wane. That’s what happened to the characters in limbo, in the DCU, death is ephemeral, the only real way to die is for people to forget you. In that sense, the characters have more in common with gods than traditional literary characters. It is our belief and interest that sustains them. We know Batman will never die because he’s too powerful a thoughtform. Our desire for narratives about the character feed him, and out of that lifeblood, he’ll always emerge. So, who is the ultimate threat to these characters? It would be a character who could quite literally drain the stories out of them, and prevent them from continuing on.

The series presents a cosmology that’s similar to The Invisibles. In the lower world of the DCU itself, there is a division between good and evil. Characters align on either side and exist in “dualities.” But, on a higher level, there is no duality, only symmetry. That’s what Captain Atom says, and it takes a ritualistic fusing of matter and anti-matter to send Superman to the source of reality, the world of the monitors. When he reaches that world, it’s similar to the cosmology of the Outer Church and the Archons. The Monitors are the creators of the world, they guide the world forward, while Mandrakk struggles to destroy it. But, Mandrakk is the creator of the world as well, there are no sides, only circles.

In the higher realm, Superman exists in the form that was built by Dax Novu, a form that I’d argue represents the ur-superhero from which all other superheroes, and the DCU in general flows. Superman is an ideal that inspired every other superhero that followed, so you could easily argue that the source of the DCU is that platonic ideal of Superman. The story is powerful enough to fuel the entire universe, that’s why Zillo Valla tries to use the story to save Dax. Perhaps the story that inspired the universe can pull Dax Novu back from evil.

It doesn’t, but Superman still overcomes Dax. The battle is essentially the life force of the DCU, Superman, the ur-superhero, versus the destructive impulses that try to tear down heroes. It could easily be read on a meta level, Mandrakk is the kind of writer that seeks to tear down the mythology and take the magic away from the DCU, but no matter what’s thrown at him, the myth of Superman remains strong. I do think that’s a really interesting point, and ties in nicely to the themes of both Final Crisis and Morrison’s Batman run. All these books came out of the post 9/11, Iraq War depressed mindset, and I think Morrison’s essential point is that hope is so strong, it’ll always overcome the people who try to tear us down. Obama has been associated with the iconography of Superman, and it’s easy to read this as a story about the rebirth of the best of America, and the world in general, overcoming an era of vampiric destruction.

But, the story doesn’t end, and it’s in the final couple of pages that we get my favorite beats of the story. For one, I love the throwback to the winking Superman of the 50s, as Lois struggles to recall this crazy story she imagined. But, it’s the final page that had me just saying “Yes!” out loud. For Superman, and the DCU in general, stories are their life blood, so “To Be Continued” means that they’ll survive another day.

That final page also echoes the end of Mister Miracle, where Shilo burst triumphantly out of the grave. There, Morrison presented Achilles as the ur-superhero, who inspired future heroes. Much like in The Invisibles, Morrison is presenting similar concepts through different lenses, here Superman is the inspiration, there it’s Achilles, but it’s the same idea. This essential force of good will always overcome the forces that prey on life. Hope will overcome fear and repression will crumble. Sure, it’s still out there, but it’s in that struggle that we get better. The very idea of a grave in superhero comics is somewhat ridiculous, as we saw in Batman RIP, it’s just one more obstacle. The hero will always find a way out.

In a recent interview, Morrison talked about his recent comics as experiments in audience participation. With Batman RIP and Final Crisis, he’s been leaving room for the audience to discuss and reinterpret old stories through the lens of his current material. I love that concept, and I think in general, it works well. So much of the furor around Batman RIP was the speculation about who the Black Glove was and what Batman’s final fate would be. I don’t think the finale, either in Batman proper or in Final Crisis quite lived up to it, but the experience of speculating was a lot of fun. And, I think after the story’s over, you can read it as simply a great story.

An issue like this can be read on a straightforward level, as just a wacky Superman story, and I think it works there, more or less. But, it’s more interesting to analyze in light of Morrison’s other work and on that meta level that I’ve been talking about here. I think it is a great issue, and the more I write about it, the more layers I uncover. I think that’s largely Morrison’s point with the issue. But, I don’t think that excuses that lack of immediate emotional impact on the initial read.

The question that lingers now is what will happen in the last issue of Final Crisis. We’ll presumably see a universe wide rebirth and explosion into a glorious new age. But, how much time will there be to cover all this. Things looked pretty dire at the end of #6, how much can be resolved? Word has it that the issue will be along the lines of Seven Soldiers #1, a supercompressed narrative. I love Seven Soldiers #1, but that issue had the emotional attachment of all the previous character minis. I’m not as attached to the characters in Final Crisis. But, if it can match the intellectual density and moments of ecstatic emotion that Seven Soldiers #1 had, it’ll be a great conclusion. We’ll find out tomorrow.

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