Sunday Slugfest: Final Crisis #4 (of 7)

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Jon Judy, Paul Brian McCoy, Thom Young
"It's one month after the Anti-Life Equation was released worldwide. Millions now toil as slaves of Darkseid, while the Justifier shock troops of Apokolips lay waste to the planet Earth and hunt down its protectors."

Jon Judy:
Paul Brian McCoy:
Thom Young:

Jon Judy:

I read a review of the film W in which the writer rhetorically asked for whom the film was intended. If you are or were a Bush supporter and favored the invasion of Iraq, the writer asserted, you wouldn't want to sit through two hours of reminders of how easily you were duped. If you weren't a supporter of either, you wouldn't want to sit through two hours of reminders of how easily duped everyone else was. Regardless, this reviewer said, the film was likely to be an unpleasant experience for viewers.

I saw the film and concur.

What does this have to do with Final Crisis #4? Well, I think the same question can be asked of this series. For whom is this book meant? Is it for fans of the current DC, the oppressively nihilistic universe where everything seems to be going so very wrong all the time and the spouses of silly sixties characters get raped and the very fabric of reality seems to be perpetually threatened because of some multiverse which was there but made all kinds of continuity problems so they got rid of it which made all kinds of continuity problems so they figured, hey, bring it back and then we'll just keep re-living Crisis on Infinite Earths over and over, doing mini series after mini series and crossover after crossover of superheroes standing around and pointing at the sky and saying "Gee, the very fabric of reality seems to be perpetually threatened"?

Is it for those people? Those people who like superhero stories that are dark for dark's sake, not because they are good stories or make sense or are about characters who seem real – or as real as mainstream superheroes can seem?

Well, I find it hard to believe those people are too pleased with the little nostalgic nods to old school DC that Morrison has been slipping in here. I imagine they find Atomic Knights references downright silly, that they are less than pleased by images of warriors in futuristic armor riding giant Dalmatians. I can't imagine they give a damn one way or another over whether Barry Allen has returned from the dead. First of all, who cares anymore if anyone comes back from the dead? Sorry, that card has been played one million times too many. Secondly, dead superheroes make for dark comics, so why do they want to see him back?

So is this for old school fans? Hey, when I met Murphy Anderson about ten years ago, one of the things I had him sign was an Atomic Knights story. I loved those stories as a kid - they were fun and silly and post-apocalyptic but innocent and, hey, face it, giant dogs are way cool. Clifford cool. Silly? Sure, but our comics had flying dogs and cats and chimps and they were silly and we liked it! By golly we loved it!

So this comic book is right up our alley, right? No, not at all. I really could have lived without a two-page spread depicting four giant dead dogs. Morrison indulged my nostalgia fetish and then pissed on it, and I have to think that things like this aren't pleasing old or new fans.

Oh, and if there is going to be an anthropomorphic talking tiger in my comic book, his name better be Tawny and he damn sure better not be dismembering a Green Lantern.

But even beyond this one-size-fits-none issue, this is a flawed offering, starting with some shortcomings in the storytelling. For example, in one panel, The Ray is narrating while he bounces around the planet, finally landing in the Hall of Justice where he sees Green Arrow standing over the Tattooed Man. Ray has brought in some newspapers to keep the good guys abreast of things in their Darkseid-invaded world.

Well, this little scene is just plain confusing. Who is The Ray addressing in the narration? Green Arrow? Apparently not, as they begin their conversation with Ray's entrance to the Hall, and the narration precedes it. Well, then to whom is The Ray speaking when he says, in reference to Tattooed Man, "By the time you saw me arrive, I'd already dragged the guy through the shield"? And the image in that panel IS of The Ray arriving in the Hall, but with sacks of newspapers, not the Tattooed Man. Oh, the Tattooed Man IS in the panel, but Green Arrow is standing over him, so the caption has nothing to do with the panel.

So... after bringing the Tattooed man to the Hall, Ray went out for newspapers and left Arrow to just stand on the Tattooed Man? "Here, keep your foot on this guy's chest - I'm going out for some papers."

And it's not like Ollie is alone in the Hall. The three of them then enter another room where we find Black Canary, Barbara Gordon, Linda West, and Joan Garrick, as well as the West kids. So Ray dropped off the Tattooed Man - who they decided to keep under Ollie's foot in the foyer while everyone else hung around together in a separate room - he went out for some papers and some confusing narration?

Huh wha?

Then there are the numerous scenes of large groups of superheroes duking it out with large groups of villains around the world. Yes, okay, we get it; the odds are overwhelming, as is the case with every other crossover ever. Fine. At least we don't have to endure... oh, wait, spoke too soon. We get to see a bunch of heroes looking up at the red, stormy skies, panic-stricken by the supernatural weather.

Wow, yeah, this is so much scarier than any other Crisis ever! Oh, no, really, this time it's serious! See, red skies! Rain! Lots of supervillains!

I've been there, and I've done that, and it cost me less than $20 for twelve issues, as opposed to this story which is going to run me $28 for seven issues.

Then there is the central conflict of this issue – a tortured Turpin resists going over to the dark side – er, Darkseid – which the baddies badly want because they believe it will fulfill some prophecy. Finally – spoiler alert – they put one of their mind control helmets on him – the same kind of helmet that they used to control Green Arrow and Black Lightning and who knows who else – and he succumbs.

So if it was so important that he give in and they had these helmets lying around, why didn't they just put one of those helmets on him to being with? It reminds me of every episode of Voltron, how the lions would spend twenty minutes getting their asses kicked before saying, "Hey, you know what, we're more powerful as Voltron. Why don't we just form Voltron?"

"Hey, we got these helmets. Why don't we use them?"

There are some things going on in Final Crisis that show promise, that make me optimistic that the climax and conclusion of the series will pay off on my investment of time and money. Putting aside my sarcasm, Morrison does a good job of creating a palpable sense of danger and foreboding. Cool, I sense the odds are overwhelming. I do not, however, see any reason to care for the characters as individuals beyond whatever feelings I had for them coming into the series. A couple of panels of Barry and Iris reuniting is supposed to give one the emotional resonance this long-time-coming meeting should have? Canary and Ollie's rushed farewell is supposed to tug at my heartstrings? Seriously, I didn't need all that attention paid to scenes of carnage and outnumbered superheroes – it was overkill. I did want more time to emotionally connect to the people who are dealing with all of that carnage.

Oh, wait, I'm talking about the good parts now. Well, Jones' art is, as always, stunning. The Fourth World villains have more gravitas than any other villains in the DCU. The threat seems real and palpable.

That's a lot of good. Unfortunately, the storytelling is confusing, the characters take a back seat to the plot, and I'm nervous that Morrison et al. won't pay off on all of this set-up.

It's a meh comic, but I'll throw in an extra half-bullet for that final splash page. Chilling. Chilling. Now if only I got to spend some time seeing the protagonists in this story deal emotionally with chilling things like this.

Paul Brian McCoy:

Dear Final Crisis Diary,

Thursday evening, when I sat down to read this issue for the first time, I was confused from start to finish. Somehow I had missed Final Crisis: Submit and it seems like ages since the last issue was out, so I had forgotten where we left off.

The TV was also on and Dr. Girlfriend was trying to talk to me about something. "Her day" or some such nonsense. I was on my second Black Harvest (a drink I believe we invented - it's like a Black & Tan but made with Guinness and Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale) and my cats were crying about not being fed. It wasn't time to feed them, yet.

Luckily, I was able to mostly ignore these distractions, and the first two pages of this issue seem to be set directly following the conclusion of issue #3. Unluckily, the next few pages take place after the Submit one-shot, and I was immediately thrown off my game.

Things look bad in the DC Universe. But apparently there's a resistance.

The rest of the book was a bunch of craziness, short scenes, and continuations of scenes I had forgotten about.

I put the book down and frowned. That wasn't very good, I thought, as all the noises around me came back into the foreground. Dr. Girlfriend was not happy. But neither was I. So I put the book away and tried to be a good boyfriend for a while. I fed the cats, made us another round of drinks, and we caught up on some quality television (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Sarah Silverman Program - I laughed until I cried at poop jokes and dry heave jokes).

On I thought about Issue #4 and found that I couldn't even remember most of it. Clearly this was a faulty book. I would have remembered a good book, right?

Anyway, instead of reading it again, Dr. Girlfriend and I watched two weeks worth of Dexter (which is getting pretty good again, after a very disappointing first episode). Then it was off to bed and then up and off to work again.

Now it's Dr. Girlfriend is at work, the cats are fed, I'm halfway through my first Black Harvest, and I've just finished reading Final Crisis #4 again, and guess what? It's pretty darned good.

Is the art up to the standards of the previous issues? Sadly, no. But it's not bad or distracting. There doesn't seem to be the same level of innovation in layout and design, but don't get me wrong. This still looks great. But a little of the spark is missing from Jones' pages and the contrast between his pages and those by Pacheco and Merino is startling. It goes from being a gorgeous work of art to an almost ordinary comic book. Pacheco and Merino's pages are still good, but we're talking about two different levels of good smacking into one another again and again.

As for the story, I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about it. The pacing is nice, we get a wide variety of settings (both physically and temporally), and we close on a very powerful and dark moment.

I do want to point out a few scenes in particular, though. Green Arrow's self sacrifice so the others can escape the oncoming hordes of evil is a very effective scene. Unlike a very similar scene in the second issue of Legion of 3 Worlds, Morrison gives us everything that we need to make the scene work both dramatically and logically. Because Ollie at least voices the need to destroy the navigation system he has an actual motivation for staying behind. His goodbye to Black Canary is simple, but emotionally satisfying. Then he puts up a good fight, for a few moments anyway, before being captured. And he goes down cursing the bad guys.

The scene isn't drawn out to artificially create tension. The character dynamics are classically consistent, and these are people that the readers care about. And then immediately following, we see Black Canary get down to business organizing the resistance. Excellent scene on all points.

Another scene that works exceptionally well for me, is the transformation of Dan Turpin into Darkseid. It is gradual, taking place over the course of the entire book, as he fights to hold off the manifestation. But ultimately, necessarily, it is an impossible task, and if things looked bad as this issue began, they look far, far worse going into the next issue.

Morrison has actually taken Darkseid, a character that has been extremely overused as a Big Bad over the years - to the point of being something of a cliche - and made him frightening again. He's not just a big scary monster; he's a force of nature.

The sense of exhaustion that carries through Turpin's narration is the perfect touch. There's something much more disturbing about the sheer existential weight of Darkseid's manifestation and transformation of Turpin's body from flesh to stone, then page after page of armies beating on each other.

The big events of Bendis and Johns are pathetically shallow in comparison.

And that is why this is the only event comic of the past few years that I think is actually worth reading and, more importantly, worth reading again and again. With each re-reading, more layers reveal themselves. Layers of symbolism. Layers of reference. Layers of excitement, tension, and mythic drama.

The final scene I want to mention sums up all of this. When Barry kisses Iris and cures her Anti-Life infection, this story became magical. In the darkest of times, Morrison gives us a brief flash of hope. No pun intended.

Read this book. Not once. Maybe not even twice. But read it over and over. Go back to the beginning and read the whole series so far. Then do it again when the next issue hits. Don't worry about the tie-ins. So far, you really can read this on its own and get the whole story. If something happens in another book, there's enough here to keep you on track. If you pay attention.

And speaking of paying attention. Why is there a little, tiny Justice League in a jar at the Hall of Justice? Anyone?

Thom Young:

With this latest chapter, my enthusiasm for Final Crisis has waned a little. As I explained in the Sunday Slugfest of the first issue, I found the opening chapter to be rich in religious allusions and motifs.

In the Sunday Slugfest of the second issue, I mentioned that Morrison was taking an unconventional approach in contrast to the way these types of “mega-event” stories of cosmic crisis are traditionally told:
Usually, the exact nature of the threat is identified in the first issue, the troops are rallied in the second issue (and assignments are given), and the remainder of each crisis involves all-out super-powered action as the heroes attempt to overcome the villainous scheme, fail, re-attempt to overcome the scheme, and succeed.
I didn't realize it at the time of the second issue, but Morrison was planning to follow that formula (at least to some degree). He just waited until this fourth issue to give it to us.

After four issues, the exact nature of the threat has been identified, the troops have been rallied and assignments have been given, and we are now being given the rest of the formula. The heroes have attempted to overcome the villainous scheme, they’ve failed, and are preparing to re-attempt to overcome the scheme.

I have no doubt that they will succeed by the final chapter.

Unfortunately, I had thought Morrison was going to break from the formula. In hindsight, though, I suppose it was inevitable that Morrison would end up giving us this traditional plot for DC superhero team-ups that go back nearly 70 years to the early issues of All-Star Comics written by Gardner Fox. The plots may have become slightly more sophisticated, but it’s still the same basic formula.

What I had really pinned my hopes to for this series was Morrison’s development of far more sophisticated literary themes than these types of stories normally have. I imagined he was going to be taking a theme that had fascinated Jack Kirby--but that Morrison would be able to develop it to a greater extent than Kirby ever could.

Unfortunately, Kirby’s dialog wasn’t always equal to his concepts and illustrations. Additionally, his “high concept” works were either canceled (his Fourth World titles at DC) or editorially compromised (The Eternals at Marvel, which was actually canceled after being editorially compromised) before he had a chance to develop them to his envisioned conclusion.

With Final Crisis (and Morrison’s strong use of Kirby’s concepts), I had hoped to see Kirby’s theme of the conflation of the divine with the mundane displayed in a work that transcended the norm for the superhero genre in terms of narrative complexity and intellectual depth. It might still achieve that in the final three issues of Final Crisis, but I have my doubts after this fourth chapter.

It’s not that it’s a bad issue. It’s well illustrated and has non-stilted dialog that works in service to the mostly formulaic plot. However, at this point in the series, I had hoped to have seen more development of the themes and motifs that began the story--specifically, the nature of the ending of Kirby’s “Fourth World” and its transformation into Morrison’s “Fifth World.”

Is this somehow related to the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar? Is it also related to the concept of the Teutonic Ragnarök that Kirby indicated in New Gods #1 was the ending of the “Third World” that led to his New Gods in the Fourth World?

Certainly, Morrison is still showing us these themes and motifs, but they’ve been moved to the back of the story for now. I have no doubt they’ll come to the forefront again by the sixth or seventh chapter.

For instance, the gift that Metron imparted to Anthro at the beginning of the first chapter Final Crisis is no doubt related to the Tattooed Man in this chapter being able to activate a sigil hidden on his body as a tattoo that then transformed his appearance into that of Metron (but without either becoming or being possessed by Metron). I'm interested in seeing where that part of the story leads.

I guess what really has me disappointed with the way the overall Final Crisis event is developing is the nature of the Anti-Life Equation that Darkseid (and his minions) have activated in order to enslave humanity. As I mentioned in the Sunday Slugfest of the third issue, the Life Equation (which Kirby equated with The Source) is about freedom of choice and freedom from tyranny. Within the Manichean Dichotomy of Kirby’s Fourth World mythology, the Anti-Life Equation was obviously about the control of all living thought by anyone who could gain access to it--which is why Darkseid was always in pursuit of the equation in Kirby’s original work (and in subsequent DC stories using the New Gods).

If we forget the post-Kirby idiocy of Mister Miracle, Scott Free, supposedly acquiring the Anti-Life Equation (and I certainly don't mind forgetting about it), then the Anti-Life Equation has proven to be an elusive concept that none of the New Gods could easily grasp. All they knew in Kirby's original stories was that fragments of the equation were scattered about within the psyches of individual humans.

Morrison has had the elusive Anti-Life Equation be discovered too quickly for my taste. However, I’ve always thought Kirby's vision was to have the Anti-Life Equation be associated with the Ragnarök that the New Gods would face--and so it makes sense for Morrison to have it come up quickly in his story.

Nevertheless, once it was activated (as it was in the third chapter), I had not expected Morrison to take the plot into such a conventional concept as the creation of “Apokolips on Earth”--where humans affected by the Equation either slave away in factories (while sporting glowing red eyes) or walk around like zombies in The Night of the Living Dead (as they seem to be doing in Morrison’s Final Crisis: Submit one-shot and in Greg Rucka’s Final Crisis: Revelations tie-in series).

Instead of the conventional apocalyptic images of cites burning throughout the world while people walk about like zombies or are herded around by Darkseid’s enforcers (Justifiers) riding around on satanic dogs, I think it would have been far more frightening if we had seen very little change from normal, everyday life--just slight changes that indicate even less humanity in the way people treat each other.

The scene in this fourth chapter in which Iris West Allen was brought out from under the influence of the Anti-Life Equation would have still worked, but it wouldn’t have involved Iris having glowing red eyes as she stared at the television with a dead expression on her face.

For Kirby, the Anti-Life Equation seems to have been about a loss of freedom--not due to the iron hand and the boot heel of a totalitarian power, but due to the lack of interest in maintaining one’s individual sense of humanity and in opposing the totalitarian forces that seek to control economic and military power. In that regard, Kirby’s gods of New Genesis--particularly the hippy-inspired Forever People--were primarily concerned with love and other positive emotions as the foundation on which to maintain the Life Equation and to offset attempts at Anti-Life.

Thus, Iris Allen’s overthrowing of the influence of the Anti-Life Equation due to the love that she and Barry Allen share is in perfect keeping with Kirby’s concept. I just wish the story could hit close to home the way I believe Kirby intended--that normal, everyday people are capable of Anti-Life if they distance themselves from positive human emotions and only concern themselves with achieving economic power and material comforts.

Morrison still seems to be playing with this concept. However, his use of apocalyptic imagery--burning cities and hellhounds being ridden by masked enforcers--works to distance the audience from seeing the Anti-Life Equation for what it really is, and for what I believe Kirby intended.

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