Posted by: Brian Hibbs on January 31, 2009
For those of you keeping track, I wasn’t that big a fan of SUPERMAN BEYOND #1: I admired it, but didn’t like it very much and spent a lot of time thinking about why. So when issue #2 came in, I didn’t exactly break down the doors of my comic shop to pick it up: I ended up reading it, in fact, right before FINAL CRISIS #7 on Wednesday. And so, for better or for worse, I’ve got to review the two books together, because my experience of one is hopelessly tied up in the other. Check it out, if you want, after the jump.
To put it plainly, Superman Beyond #2 is really, really clever. I mean, it’s absurdly fucking clever: Not only do you have a 3-D comic book in which Superman must be joined with Ultraman, his symmetrical opposite, to travel to the higher reality of the monitors (a plot point that is analogous to the way your eyes work with each other via the 3-D glasses to give you stereoscopic images), but in order to process the big battle of the story properly–Superman battling with Evil and the idea of Superman battling with the idea of Evil are literally the same thing–the part of your brain that experiences the story textually and the part that experiences it metatextually must also work together (again, the way your eyes do with this 3-D process) in order to “get” the full “image.” For a certain type of formalist who’s also a fan of superhero comics, it’s impossible not to love.
And love it I did, so much so that it pretty much overwhelmed all my previous criticisms and won me over.
And yet, the more I think about it, the more I feel those criticisms are still valid: The Monitors are higher-reality beings who have become infected with the disease of story, and Morrison has mapped out a grand little epic for them with fathers and sons, and lost loves, and fallen heroes who create the weapons that will bring them low–combined with the way Batman and Superman’s side-stories play out in Final Crisis, it makes me think that Morrison’s structural model for this whole event is as much Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, as it is any Crisis or other big superhero event–but Morrison seems to think taking the exposition out of an exposition info-dump makes it less of an info-dump and more a story. It doesn’t.
Scott McCloud talked in Understanding Comics about the “blood in the gutters,” the moments between panels where the real action takes place and reader closure occurs. (And isn’t it possible, by the way, this term at least partially informs Morrison’s metaphors of blood and vampirism throughout this book?) Perhaps Morrison feels he can shorthand so much story information and character motivation because the reader will ultimately make all those connections on their own anyway, just as they do the action between panels (and, let’s face it, it’s not as if the motivations of heroes when the fate of universe at stake is particuarly subtle. To quote Tony Shaloub’s character in Barton Fink: “Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a roadmap?!”).
And perhaps this also explains why the response to Final Crisis has been so diametrically opposed on the Internet–you’ve got those people who provided their own catharsis between the panels and those who didn’t, just like you’ve got those people who fucking love Lord of the Rings and can get all worked up over the saga of Boromir and Faramir and Denethor II, and guys like me that dug all three movies but is still pretty “meh” about the whole thing. I feel like Morrison’s shortcutting works better the closer he gets to working with established characters (and probably the closer his take on those character is closer to mine), so that although Superman’s motivation–the life of Lois Lane, hanging between heartbeats–isn’t any more fully developed in this miniseries than Overman’s quest for his sister, or the chick driving the Ultima Thule’s for Novu Dox, it still means more to me (thanks to a bajillion years of established continuity) than the others, and even more than the fate of countless imaginary universes at stake. Without that bit of motivation that personally speaks to me–the desire to take on anything to save the person you love–would the cool-as-hell end of Superman Beyond #2 have seemed quite so Excellent to me?
Maybe? Or maybe when you get into the realm where formalist thrills are supposed to deliver your emotional thrills, elegance is as important as ambition. Because Final Crisis #7–as full o’ ambition and intelligence as Superman Beyond, if not more so–didn’t kung-pao my chicken nearly as much. I can totally see why Graeme and Douglas and Jog and everyone else is turning up, like the Pax Drei at the end of this book, to defend it at this crucial moment of critical analysis, but FC#7 is like issue #1 of Superman Beyond all over again for me. I see a lot of what it’s doing–operatic motifs; the fragmentation of the storyline’s narration mirroring the fragmenting of linear time at the end of the universe; hell, I even caught the line from “Hair” yelled out by one of the the Supermen analogues that manages to underscore the recurring references to music in this issue as well as point toward the dawning of the new age (of Aquarius?)–but didn’t find myself caring particularly much.
Maybe it’s because when you do decide your story is going roll at the level of almost pure signifier, that shit has got to roll correct. You can’t pull a lumpy-ass space vampire out of the last twenty pages of your tie-in miniseries and have him show up as your ultimate big bad without expecting a certain amount of “umm, foreshadowing, plz?” on the part of your audience. [I can only imagine how baffled I’d be if I hadn’t picked up the second issue of Superman Beyond–which I almost didn’t.] You can’t show the end of the universe being overwritten by Superman firing up the magical Maytag wishing machine, and not expect a certain amount of “Really? That’s it?” You can’t score an opera that gets shoved on stage with almost no rehearsal and be surprised when people complain that the singing is uneven. (Swap in “miniseries” for “opera” and “art” for “singing,” would you?) No joke, I think Morrison has thought out Final Crisis to a level as fine as Moore did Watchmen–there’s a concision of commentary in what Morrison is doing with the character of Super-Bat that knocks me on my ass–but do I think Final Crisis is as good as Watchmen? To me, it’s not even close–while you can argue that, just as Moore doesn’t nail the landing in Watchmen, Morrison doesn’t quite hit the mark at FC‘s finale, it’s really all the little misses and fudges and afterthoughts and “well, I gave you everything you need to know about this character in six nouns, two verbs and a very cool adjective, what more do you need?” Internet interviews throughout Final Crisis that keep it from being sublime.
Or maybe it’s not a formalist issue at all. The last time I was in CE, Hibbs was talking to a customer about the upcoming film adaptation of Watchmen and said something with which I strongly disagreed: he said, “Nobody loves Watchmen for its plot. They love it for its structure.”
Now, structure may be Watchmen‘s strongest point, but if it wasn’t for the characters, I don’t think it would’ve made it beyond a second printing. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan and John and Laurie and that dude on the Black Freighter–I didn’t have decades of experiences with them but Moore gave me reasons to care about them as their stories unfolded, and caring about them is what made the story worth reading for me.
I don’t doubt that those who had an exultant experience reading Final Crisis truly did, nor am I saying that they’re wrong to do so, even with all their caveats. But I’m genuinely surprised Morrison couldn’t get me to care about what happened to the entire cast of the DCU in almost the same number of pages Moore was able to make me care about analogues of barely-known second-stringers. The fault may be mine, or it may be the work’s, and it may not be the case several years from now when there’s a collected edition with the relevant Superman and Batman crossovers pulled under one cover. And maybe, when the majority of your story takes place in the reader’s heads instead of on the page, it should be no surprise when the story absolutely works for some and absolutely doesn’t work for others. But for me right now–as a certain type of formalist with a love of superhero comics–good art that jams all the blood into its gutters isn’t really much better from bad art that has no blood in it whatsoever. Judging the work on what it delivered, I’d say that Final Crisis #7 was Eh, and the miniseries as whole was OK.