Current Reviews


Final Crisis: Secret Files

Posted: Monday, January 5, 2009
By: Thom Young

Len Wein (plus Greg Rucka & Grant Morrison)
Tony Shasteen (plus Steve Lieber, Jack Kirby, & JG Jones)
DC Comics
Back in November, this was DC’s description of Final Crisis: Secret Files:
Written by Grant Morrison and Peter J. Tomasi;
Art by Frank Quitely and various;
Covers by Frank Quitely and Jim Lee and Scott Williams

Finally, the secrets of this year's most talked about event can be revealed! Witness how Darkseid's death shattered the Multiverse, creating continuity ripples throughout the DC Universe! Submit to Darkseid and read the full Anti-Life Equation! This is a book you cannot resist to buy!
As I type these words (on January 4 at 10:30 AM EST), that description for the issue is still on DC’s Web site even though there is also a link to the first few pages of the actual issue. In other words, the description of the issue hasn’t changed during the past two months. However, something changed, because that description does not apply to the book that was published--not in the least.

First, while one of the two covers is by Frank Quitely, none of the interior illustrations is by him--and, while the second cover is by Jim Lee, Scott Williams is not the co-signer of Lee’s cover (it looks like the name beneath Lee’s is “R. Friend”).

Second, Grant Morrison is not the principal writer, and Peter Tomasi did not contribute anything to the issue.

So what happened?

Uhm . . . ah dunno.

Rather than getting a story by Morrison (and/or Tomasi) that told how Darkseid’s death shattered the multiverse (lowercase m, thank you), we were given a story of “The Secret Origin of Libra” by Len Wein (the story is actually titled “Balancing Act!” but it might as well be called “The Secret Origin of Libra”).

Wein created Libra 34 years ago way back in Justice League of America (first series) #111. I loved those issues of Justice League from the early 1970s; they were the issues that were coming out as I first began collecting comics as a kid. Thus, I don’t mind this trip down Memory Lane with Wein as he revisits his three-decades-old creation--probably at Grant Morrison’s invitation (Morrison has acknowledged in interviews that he greatly admired Wein’s JLA work from that time).

Nevertheless, this isn’t the story that DC promoted.

Was Wein called in as a last-minute fill-in writer (and Tony Shasteen brought in as his last-minute fill-in illustrator)?

Uhm . . . ah dunno.

Rather than getting Morrison and Quitely on a story exploring how Darkseid’s “death” (I guess as shown in Jim Starlin’s horrendously inappropriate Death of the New Gods) created “continuity ripples” in the multiverse, we get a story that reveals that Libra was a kid whose mother died because a pharmacist didn’t measure out her medicine correctly (thus, Libra’s fascination with balancing scales).

After much online speculation about the identity of Libra (with Morrison also seeming to hint at times that Libra’s “secret identity” is that of a longtime and significant player in the DC universe), we finally discover that Libra is actually . . . a kid whose mother died because a pharmacist didn’t measure out her medicine correctly . . . oh, did I mention that already?

Uhm . . . oh . . . that kid then grew up to take astronomy classes from Ted Knight (who lived on a different Earth when Wein originally created the character in 1974, but . . . you know, continuity ripples, et cetera).

Anyway, the Kid Who Would Be Libra seems to have only taken astronomy classes towards his bachelor’s degree. Wein should have probably shown this guy (Justin Ballantine) working on a master’s degree and PhD, and serving as Ted Knight’s TA in graduate school. Oh well.

So . . . why did Justine Ballantine have a fascination with astronomy?

Because he became fascinated by stars while staring into the vastness of space after his mother died due to an accidental overdose of her medication caused by a pharmacist. . . .

He then became a villain who stole Ted Knight’s secrets for the Star Rod because his alcoholic father (who turned to alcohol following the death of his wife due to an accidental overdose of her medication . . .) beat him as a child for looking at the stars instead of “makin’ somethin’ of yourself!”

Yeah, it really reads like a circa-1974 story of Libra’s secret origin--the type Wein might have written 34 years ago (perhaps minus a Comics Code Authority stamp on the cover due to the depiction of alcoholism and child abuse).

It’s not a bad story. I would have enjoyed it when I was a kid 34 years ago. In fact, I enjoy it on that same fundamental level now. However, it really does not appear to add anything to Final Crisis. It seems like an Old School “Secret Origin of Super-Villains” story from the 1970s.

Of course, what it really ends up being is little more than a way for DC to sell another “tie in” to the major event.

Had Wein simply approached Dan Didio (DC’s Executive Editor) and said, “I’d like to tell the “Secret Origin of Libra” in a one-shot Secret Origins of Super-Villains Special,” Didio would undoubtedly have said, “I’m sorry, we just don’t have room on our schedule for a story that only a few longtime older readers are likely to buy.”

However, that’s not how this story was proposed.

Instead, this story seems to have been hastily put together to replace the original Final Crisis: Secret Files story. Since it’s a Final Crisis tie-in that focuses on a character Morrison is using, it’s sure to sell some copies--especially since the issue was promoted as having a story about the cosmic significance of Darkseid’s death, and which was to have been written by Morrison (and/or Tomasi).

Beyond describing it as “nice” or “adequate,” which it is, I suppose I should say something about Shasteen’s work as an illustrator.

Well . . . Shasteen doesn’t seem to be an illustrator of “superhero comics” in the traditional approach of figure composition. His costumed characters are not depicted as being “larger than life” with “chiseled physiques”--and that’s okay, I have no problem with Shasteen’s style in this regard.

Instead of giving us superhuman specimens of humanity that have the elongated proportions and the stylized poses of the Mannerism movement of Italian Renaissance sculpture (which is imitated in superhero comics coming out of the influence of Neal Adams and Jim Steranko), Shasteen tends to present superheroes with average body proportions and athletic physiques that are not overly developed.

He also tends to use a lot of black space in his shading (to take the place of detailed figure composition). Additionally, this story lacks detailed backgrounds. Both of those facts might indicate that Shasteen was called in at the last minute to quickly illustrate this replacement story by Wein.

That sense of the work being rushed due to deadline pressures might also factor into why Shasteen’s figures have a stiffness to their “natural poses” that cause the characters to look more like illustrations of posable toy action figures than of actual people.

Still, Shasteen did an adequate job that doesn’t detract from the story--especially if he really was brought in at the eleventh hour to get this story completed quickly.

I’d actually like to see more of Shasteen’s work (if he has more time to devote to it). However, he might be best suited for comic books that strive for a sense of visual verisimilitude--such as what Farel Dalrymple achieved in his recent work on Omega the Unknown for Marvel.

As for the “back up” material in this Secret Files:
  • Greg Rucka’s “The Words of Lilith” (Chapter 13, Verses 31-41) didn’t really grab me--though I am interested in how The Spear of Destiny might factor into the larger tapestry of Final Crisis (rather than in Rucka’s claustrophobic “companion series” Final Crisis: Revelations). If it doesn’t factor into Morrison’s story, then it’s just another example of a so-called “tie in” for no reason other than to sell comics that don’t actually have anything to do with the series that they supposedly tie into.

  • Grant Morrison’s “A Brief History of the Anti-Life Equation” seemed to have little purpose other than to explain why Jim Starlin’s use of the Anti-Life Equation in Death of the New Gods was ill-conceived and is of little consequence in Morrison’s story:
    [In Death of the New Gods,] the Anti-Life Equation took humanoid form, declaring itself to be one half of a composite Yin/Yang being with “The Source” itself as a counterpart.

    However, since The Source contains life and anit-life, good and evil, up and down, in and out, black and white, all at once, it must be regarded as an ultimate concept which cannot be halved or divided or contained [which is what Starlin’s story claimed in his ill-conceived tale].
    Morrison didn’t even address the even more ridiculous notion of Scott Free having acquired the Anti-Life Equation at some point prior to Starlin’s first issue of Death of the New Gods.

  • Finally, the four pages from the “Secret Files Sketchbook” were mildly interesting. However, I didn’t buy the Final Crisis Sketchbook when it came out last spring (has it really been that long?). In any event, these four “sketchbook” pages are somewhat interesting, but they hardly provide any vital information.
On the whole, if you once had a fondness for Len Wein’s Justice League stories from the early 1970s and don’t mind spending four dollars for a “Secret Origin of an Old JLA Villain,” then this book’s for you.

However, if you’re looking for a book that really seems to be significant in relation to Final Crisis, then give this one a pass.

What did you think of this book?
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