DC Comics, 34 pages, $ 3.99
Look, I know.
I know it’s annoying that DC wasn’t up to the task of promoting Final Crisis properly. I know it’s annoying that the warm-up stories meant to support the series did nothing of the sort and even managed to outright contradict it in some respects. I know it’s annoying that Grant Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.” story had such an anti-climactic ending, and that somebody at DC thought it was a good idea to tell people that Final Crisis would address all the questions left unanswered. And I know it’s annoying, finally, that the schedule was screwed up so badly, that six people get an “artist” credit for this issue when it should have been one, and that multiple key plot points from the yet-to-be-concluded spin-off series Superman Beyond, also written by Mr. Morrison, had to be sacrificed in the name of getting things done, in the end. I know, I know, I know. Believe you me. I know.
But, listen: None of that matters.
What matters is that, ten years from now, when, surrounded by your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, you’re pulling your hardcover edition of Final Crisis off the shelf, you’ll say, blimey, what a shame Kirby wasn’t around to draw this, back in 2009. Because, in an ideal world, there would have been no other choice. Of course you can quibble that the book would have looked better if Mr. Jones had illustrated the whole thing, and so on and so forth. But, honestly, those other guys aren’t doing such a bad job. If there’s anything of substance wrong with Final Crisis, it’s that Jack Kirby didn’t draw it. He could have made it better.
Other than that, though? I’m hard-pressed.
I’m looking at how all the various strands of the story suddenly high-five each other; how every other page reads like a massive pay-off; how all of it keeps gaining traction somehow until it reaches critical mass; how everything suddenly slows down and comes to a halt when Batman fires that bullet straight at you, like a break in a musical performance; how, as Barry Allen puts it, “it all runs together and becomes one thing,” literally ending up on the same page; how Superman – furious, terrible, helpless Superman, just look him in the eyes – descends from the skies and right into the heart of the enemy, blowing it all to smithereens in his rage; and how he’s too late.
I see all that, and I wouldn’t know how to make it any better.
Well, let’s be fair. There are one or two plot points that could be viewed as lackluster, as Joe McCulloch notes in his review. But, you know, they’re plot points. Could Mr. Morrison have come up with some super-clever, heretofore unimagined way of defeating Mary Marvel that no one who’s been reading her adventures for twenty years could ever have foreseen but still would have been as clean and as smoothly efficient as the one that’s on the page? Probably. Could he have invented a way for Batman to be the cavalry that didn’t depend on Darkseid’s henchmen acting a little stupid? Likely. But come on. It’s silly worrying about this stuff, and this book has bigger fish to fry. Personally, I’m glad no pages were wasted just to make the story watertight against these sorts of complaints. Now that would have been bog-standard.
I find it more interesting that what’s beneath the decadent and destructive façade of the rampaging Mary Marvel is not some mature, cynical person who’s come to the conclusion that this is the way things are, but a helpless little girl possessed by some dirty old man from another plane of existence. The Marvel Family - children’s characters, you see – are holding their own and beating back the forces of decadence and destruction. They’ve got their own tiger, in fact, but just because he’s smartly dressed and well-spoken doesn’t mean he has no teeth. “Tawny bites!” we learn. What do these things say about superhero comics and pop entertainment at large?
Also, let’s take note that it’s not Superman who rushes in, beats Darkseid and saves the day in the end, but the guy without powers, who just keeps going. Batman endures everything the bad guys can dish out, puts his mind to work and then, when everybody’s already written him off, sneaks in to deliver the one blow that counts. And, what do you know, the big villain turns out to be a foul, cynical and perverse old prick who can’t really do any harm to anyone unless everybody else is too busy wallowing in their own guilt, fear and indecision to challenge his so-called Anti-Life Equation. And all that’s left to do, finally, is to save humanity from itself. Now isn’t that an intriguing development?
So, “a deeply formulaic plot-resolution-through-hitting piece”? “Bog-standard”? Did we read the same book?
Another complaint that throws me for a loop is the one about the book’s supposed inaccessibility. Look, I don’t know the first thing about Brainiac 5, about the Green Arrow and Black Canary thing, about the Marvel Family or the Flashes or Checkmate. I’ve never read Green Lantern or Crisis on Infinite Earths or Countdown or The Death of the New Gods, or what have you. Among people writing about American comics, I dare you to find someone who’s more ignorant about the DC Universe and its characters than I am. But do I find Final Crisis inaccessible, or reliant on any prior investment in any character or concept that I emphatically do not have? To my own surprise, no. I don’t.
I can look at that machine Brainiac 5 shows Superman and be blown away by the seven layers of meaning it adds to the story. I can feel the tension between Black Canary and Green Arrow in my gut when one of them has given up on love and life. I can get on the Marvel Family’s side in their struggle against the vile corruption that’s threatening to consume one of their own. I can cheer at the Flashes’ unflinching bravado as they set out to literally race death. And I can shiver when I get a glimpse of Checkmate’s plans along with Renée Montoya. I can do all that just fine without having any prior investment. And if I can do it, chances are so can everybody else.
The reason why all of this works is that the creators have succeeded in breaking their theme down to terms every human being can understand. It’s about pain and love and life, about choices and decisions. If you choose life, you choose love and struggle and pain, and you also choose a path that leads to further choices, further possibilities, multiple Earths and universes. If you submit to Darkseid’s Anti-Life Equation and give in to fear, doubt and indecision, your choices will slowly and steadily be eliminated, until none are left. That is what Darkseid stands for. He is humanity’s “dark side” personified - the end of all choices.
One of the features of a good work of fiction is that you can pick out pretty much any element in it and find that it’s somehow plugged into the work’s larger theme. And here, indeed, the theme is everywhere. It’s in the “God-Weapon” Brainiac 5 shows Superman, “a machine that turns thoughts into things” (Hey, kids: comics?). It’s in Lex Luthor’s choice of life over Anti-Life. (“You’ll never choose again,” the bad guy that’s even badder than him responds to his mutiny.) It’s in the Flashes’ – three Flashes’ – resolution to fight what seems inevitable, death itself. And it’s in Batman’s decision to face the Omega Sanction by confronting Darkseid, finally. By choosing “The Death That Is Life,” as readers of Mr. Morrison’s Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle know, Batman opens himself to a limitless supply of new possibilities.
I was predisposed not to like this. It’s the sort of thing I don’t like, with the sort of characters that don’t mean anything to me and in the context of a publishing line run by people whose sensibilities couldn’t be farther removed from my own. I shouldn’t have liked Final Crisis. It very much was going to be not my kind of comic.
But here we are, and it is. I thought the first issue was pretty good, and each subsequent one kept getting better. And now here’s a 34-page penultimate chapter that’s nothing but pay-off, one after the next, delivered with breathtaking care and precision, bursting at the seams with creative zip, and so rhythmic in the way it still manages to get in all the character beats, all the human moments, all the larger and the smaller puzzle pieces tying into the big, overarching theme of it all that you can dance to it. It’s the best superhero blockbuster comic I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful and intelligent and defiant, it’s got more heart and soul and brains than all the other ones put together, and it’s got the bells, whistles and fireballs, too.
Well, it still doesn’t have that Jack Kirby art. But, you know. You can’t have everything.