Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Batman is dead.

It's raining blood and tiger cats are riding giant dogs. The fabric of reality is being torn asunder. Batman's got a gun; he must choose between his consistent morality and a once-in-a-lifetime exception. The President of the United States is an African American Superman. Sexual objectification of contemporary female superheroes is fought out between Supergirl (the blonde bombshell, like Marylin Monroe) and Mary Marvel (with a shaved head recalling Britney Spears). Green Lantern Hal Jordan stands trial for a crime he didn't commit. There are crop circles. There are angels and prophets, cannibals and vampires. There's a tiger with a checkered jacket adjusting his bowtie after clawing out someone's innards. Prometheus is bound to a wheelchair. Frankenstein quotes Milton. A Rubik's cube turns people to dust. Hell hounds chase a school bus. An avatar of death, armored in black, is on skis. 98% of the world's population raise their fists to the devil himself after he hacks the internet. A beautiful kiss and tragic self-sacrifice. The first boy on earth, the last boy on earth. Time runs backwards, then forwards. Red and black. Superman screams, winks and sings.

I give you FINAL CRISIS by Grant Morrison, J.G. Jones and Doug Mahnke. And after spending the entire night up reading, enjoying every single minute with laughter and plenty of jaw-dropping moments alternating between shock and awe, I still have no idea what the hell just happened.

Many people have raised the same point about this work - and a true point: this comic is terribly complex and confusing. The story begins as a murder mystery dressed with Greek myth at the curtains, but from there it explodes into wild chases and space odysseys that, by there very dream logic nature, belong in a comic book. Gritty realism and nihilistic philosophizing switches places with completely over-the-top action and complete baloney physics. Earth-shattering truths are delivered in between outlandish dialogue lines you sometimes want to read twice to believe. Deus ex machina abounds frequently. The comic remains completely po-faced about it all from start to finish.

And that is exactly why FINAL CRISIS is so brilliant. It manages to be, simultaneously, what comics *were* and what comics currently *are* - what they have become. For Morrison, superheroes have begun to be little more than moralizing or philosophizing social commentaries with only enough life to sustain a narrative structures that can support "realistic" plots. Stories that give you factual reality to believe in, rather than any merit of the story itself. It's all very formulaic. And it's all so very...boring. The very image of Superman holding Batman's burned and battered body expresses this: the imagery is bewildering and chilling at once, and makes us ask ourselves what comics once stood for, and the grim redundancy they've become. Have we kept the magic alive or did we kill it?

I've been reading DC comics for less than a year. So I had to do my fair share of homework on characters and events. I knew Barry Allen gave his life to save the world in the first Crisis but I've had very little exposure to Darkseid. I was plenty familiar with the Guardians of the Universe but not the Monitors. I know who the Tattooed Man is but had no idea about Black Lightening. Did the story ever contradict itself, or even the artwork? At least a couple of times, yes. Did the story every become so muddled that I couldn't understand what was going on? Definitely.

But again: that's EXACTLY why this works. Because you have to just believe in the story itself. Morrison has said in interviews that while background will enrich the story, EVERYTHING you need to read and enjoy FINAL CRISIS is right there in its own pages. The will to believe - the faith in the magic of stories (not storytelling, but stories themselves).

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