Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: J.G. Jones
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Publisher: DC Comics
A strange contradiction occurred in the marketing of Grant Morrison’s much-anticipated Final Crisis. As heavily as it was hyped, as openly as Morrison himself spoke of it in interviews, and as obvious as the Big Death of the first issue has been to everyone, it’s still been one of the most mysterious projects in recent memory to come out of any comic company. Asking any group of comics fans would have certainly yielded different answers from each person on just what the book was actually about, which isn’t entirely shocking for a writer known for off-the-wall tangents and representations of supremely abstract concepts. The question remains, is the book as opaque and inaccessible as Morrison as been accused of being, or does it truly have the makings of the great DC epic that people have been hoping was in him since his much-loved JLA run?
Most of the issue is indeed setup, with a structure that can only be described as in medias res, an odd feeling for a book that begins literally at the dawn of mankind. It opens on a scene featuring Anthro, the First Boy, visited by the New God Metron; with all the mythological underpinnings that Morrison likes to attach to his work, it’s no surprise that Metron plays Prometheus and gives Anthro the knowledge of fire, which he uses to fight off an enemy tribe. This segues nicely into a scene in the present featuring retired Inspector Dan Turpin, a Jack Kirby creation first appearing in the original New Gods series, lighting a cigarette and commenting that fire was the downfall of man – “like everythin’ else the sad, stinkin’ human race ever thought up…we take a good idea. And we use it to kill ourselves.” The cynical note is a great counterbalance to the grandiosity of the fire-from-the-gods opening, as is the revelation that Turpin has stumbled across the dying body of Orion, New God of War. There’s a deeply bitter humor to this scene that underscores its eerily foreboding nature, as Orion’s body is splayed among a pile of toy space guns in a clever artistic touch. When Turpin notes, after a desperate warning from Orion to fight a corrupting influence that’s spreading everywhere, that being there feels like a “sacrilege,” the reader can feel it too. This is a book that begins at a low point for heroism and promises to only sink deeper.
There’s a lot more ground than that to cover, of course, as the “Crisis” occurring here isn’t about the destructive path of one villain. This is a slow, gradual evil seeping into everything. Along the way, Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and John Stewart investigate the scene of Orion’s death, prompting the involvement of the Guardians of the Universe and the Alpha Lanterns (the GL Corps’ Internal Affairs division, of a sort); Turpin discovers the Dark Side Club, where super-powered teens fight for the amusement of the idle rich; Dr. Light and Mirror Master defeat a group of obscure teen heroes en route to discovering what seems to be a version of Metron’s reality-traveling Moebius Chair; a major DC hero is killed in a moment that passes by as if just another happening in a daily routine; Anthro has a vision of Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth; and the Monitor for Earth 51 is exiled to a life among humanity for his failure to prevent his Earth from turning apocalyptic, one of the only threads from Countdown to Final Crisis this book actually picks up. There’s a lot of material here and it comes at a breathless rush that’s both exhilarating and overwhelming, and although there’s never much time to let a new development sink in, as it all takes shape it gives the impression of a world speeding towards something inevitable and cataclysmic.
If I’ve spoken most deeply about the thematic concerns of the issue, it’s because the book’s shape is largely inclined towards them. The reintroduction of Libra, an obscure Justice League villain who once stole half the League’s powers, is telling in this regard – he’s here to “balance the scales,” as he says, and Morrison’s structure is all about balance, about opposition of extremes. Libra himself posits that he’s there to answer the question of what would happen if the world were divorced from its sense of moral order, and the intricate anarchy of the book’s structure is both that answer and its rebuttal, Morrison creating chaos and attempting to control it with a sense of perspective as broad as a horizon. It’s all about what happens when the fates of gods and humans intertwine, and even the middle ground of the Justice League is notably absent from these proceedings, which are dominated by large cosmic concepts like the Monitors, the Guardians, and the New Gods, as well as smaller-scale heroes like The Question and minor villains like The Human Flame. Everything in the book furthers this dichotomy, from the Anthro framing device to the human avatars of the evil New Gods, but the most useful tactic is placing the narrative in Dan Turpin’s voice. He’s the human anchor of the book, someone who’s spent his life among gods and tried to preserve his sense of purpose in the face of what they represent; an old man surviving among a generation of young superhumans; and thanks to a retconned role, an early kid hero as part of the Boy Commandos, a nice thematic connection to the Dark Side Club’s corruption of youth – this is a character who has spent his entire existence parallel to the superheroes and gods which dominate the DC Multiverse. It not only makes it all the more fitting that Morrison has chosen him to be the reader’s guide through this stage of Final Crisis, but he serves as the reason to stay with the story during the moments when the presence of too many godly pantheons feels alienating. As hard as it can be to care about a group like the Monitors, it’s that much easier to become emotionally invested when Turpin clashes with Darkseid.
The art by J.G. Jones is unerringly excellent, and helps to supplement the ideas that Morrison is working with. It’s a disarming mix of splash pages and tight close-ups, surprising transitions and askew angles of perspective that serve to throw the reader off balance and constantly change the book’s sense of scale from small, personal moments of doubt or triumph to epic, world-changing occurrences. He often combines the two in clever ways, such as the dizzying upward angle on Turpin as he stands over the fallen Orion, or the running gag of the Human Flame chronicling the meeting of the Secret Society of Super-Villains and the eventual death of his rival with a cell phone camera. The coloring by Alex Sinclair is also notable, as it’s full of deep, rich tones that react well with a heavy use of shadows and the garish brightness of the costumes on display; there’s a gravitas to all of the art that’s compelling and helps ground the sometimes manic pace of the plot. Perhaps the most telling moment in the book is the final shot, a first-person view through the now-human Monitor as he wakes up to a television report on the death of a major superhero, which echoes eerily the feeling one gets when turning the television to news of a major disaster. Contained within it is everything significant about the book – a conflation of humanity and deity, and a deep sense of alarm at catching up to events when they’re already spiraling out of control. All of it promises a work that’s profoundly large and still deeply, if desperately, human, and though the book does have moments when it stumbles while trying to deal with its myriad of plot threads, its thematic depth and scope are reason enough to follow it where it leads.