REVIEW – Final Crisis: Fiesta

Joel La Puma here, playing catch-up on the deluge of tie-ins with this very first issue of Final Crisis: Fiesta. This is where I’ll be dealing with the numerous offshoots of the Final Crisis franchise, so look here for the assorted miniseries and one-shots of the line. This time around, I’ll be covering the first issues of Legion of Three Worlds, Revelations, and Superman Beyond.

L3W #1 coverFinal Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds #1
That cracking sound you hear? That’s my spine under the weight of all this exposition. This is perhaps Johns’ biggest challenge yet, in a career full of large-scale stories and projects – a tale involving all three versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes in existence, and tying it in to ongoing DC storylines. Considering that various reboots and a general lack of faith have relegated the franchise to a diminutive corner of the DC Universe for over a decade at this point, the vast amount of explanation here as to what the Legion actually is and why they’re important may be warranted, especially in a climate where most comics fans probably don’t know or even care why there are three Legions. But in telling a story in which multiple versions of the team are brought together from whatever segments of reality they come from, in a manner reminiscent of the old Crisis on Multiple Earths tales, Johns has probably made this series even less accessible than it would otherwise be. In short, this is not the series that’s going to bring new readers to the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Don’t get me wrong, one of Johns’s storytelling skills is balance; in his team titles, he excels in managing large casts and multiple plot points, as his JSA run will attest. However, when taking on large, crossover stories, such as his Infinite Crisis, he has a tendency to bury himself under his numerous intertwining plots in his attempt to surpass his predecessors, often leading to unsatisfying resolutions or certain plot points seeming insignificant or superfluous. This is especially problematic when telling a Legion story, as the grand space opera tales that the Legion is typically associated with depend on multiple plot strands converging into tremendous, climactic battles, sacrifices, and character changes. He did manage this well in his Sinestro Corps War in Green Lantern, but there he only had to focus on four main heroes and a couple of primary villains. This series promises a cast of near one hundred characters, at least two-thirds of which are Legionnaires alone. It’s something of a daunting task.

Now that I’ve outlined all the potential impediments to this series, let’s see how Johns handles his set-up. It’s really a pretty straightforward beginning: perennial Legion foe the Time Trapper has thrown Superboy-Prime into the Legion’s future, and his distress at finding his legacy something of a joke causes him to liberate the founding members of the Legion of Super-Villains from prison planet Takron-Galtos, taking with them every single prisoner in order to build an army against the Legion. This is the dilemma large enough to cause Brainiac 5 to call in the other two Legions in existence, and Superman as well. A great set-up, and it leads to a fitting and compelling character moment when Superman resolves to find a way to redeem Superboy-Prime. As the main thrust of the plot, it works. Other plot elements, however, potentially undermine this.

The first issue is that Superboy-Prime remains an uninteresting villain, largely because his default mode is psychotically violent. There’s no particular rationale to anything he does, merely that everything sets him off. The original point of turning him into a villain, that he was the distorted mirror of Superman – his homeworld was destroyed well into his adolescence, and the memory of what he’s lost has driven him mad with grief – has been so completely forgotten that the character’s nothing more than a plot device and an occasional insult towards the perceived entitlement of comic book fans. That nearly half of this issue is devoted to his arbitrary rampages is not compelling, nor does it inspire the readers to fear for the Legion. Good villains have unique motives and methods, and with very few exceptions (Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), have vulnerabilities. Superboy-Prime has become as much a deus ex machina as Captain Atom-turned-Monarch in this past year’s much-maligned Countdown: Arena; he exists for housecleaning and plot amplification, and that’s it. Prime accidentally killing Pantha because he didn’t realize his own strength was a surprise (if wholly gratuitous), but Prime destroying everything he sets sight on is not.

Much of the book focuses on the Legion’s struggle to maintain their position in the face of the universe’s rapidly-spreading xenophobia and the pettiness and myopia of the United Planets. It’s an interesting background, but the only evidence we ever see of the galaxy sliding towards dystopia is through that most dramatic of events, a senate meeting. Yes, Johns sees fit to have the other half of the book take place at a floor meeting of the United Planets, apparently forgetting that we’ve all spent this entire decade mocking George Lucas for doing essentially the same thing. During the meeting, the Legion’s place in the universe is called into question and facts about their formation are thrown into a new light through some odd retconning; Johns can take consolation in the fact that it’s at least no less exciting that Superboy-Prime getting petulant and hitting things.

Perhaps I’ve been harsh, as there certainly does remain promise in this series, even if its opening is not particularly inspiring. As I’ve said, the main plot point, that of every prisoner on Takron-Galtos being freed and inducted into the Legion of Super-Villains, is at least an effective way of raising the stakes, and Superman’s reaction to the situation at hand is pitch-perfect. Further, George Pérez’s artwork is consistently excellent, on a level we’ve come to expect from him for decades now. His vivid facial expressions effectively convey the drama at hand without becoming overbearing or ridiculous; the book’s repeated use of tight close-ups, with an unusually high number of panels focused on just eyes alone, further underscore Pérez’s great work. The panel layout, however, sometimes becomes erratic or congested, and while this is occasionally used to effect, at other times it feels cluttered and arbitrary. These issues with the layout are actually about the same as the issues with the story itself; too much time is spent on superfluous details, and not enough is spent advancing the plot or establishing character. Again, a book with promise, but one that desperately needs a stronger focus.
Rating: 5.5/10

Revelations #1 coverFinal Crisis: Revelations #1
Something of the middle child in the Final Crisis lineup, Revelations has been the miniseries with the least hype surrounding it, probably because it’s not written by Grant Morrison or Geoff Johns. Greg Rucka, although something of a marquee writer at DC, has often been willing to delve into the corners of the company’s universe, as Gotham Central and Checkmate will attest. They’ve also been the books best suited for him, as his writing style can be overly dry or rigid at times – in a weird paradox, he seems to come most to life writing police procedurals or books about the sociopolitical implications of a superheroic world. Taking on a work infused with mystic cults and supernatural beings, even if it does involve two of his pet characters, Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen (both formerly of Gotham Central), is outside his usual domain.

The book is divided into two major plot threads, one following Crispus Allen in his role as the new host for The Spectre, the spirit of vengeance, and the other following Renee Montoya, the heir to The Question’s role, running from a cult who believes her to be their new leader. The juxtaposition is potentially interesting, as it invites contemplation on the fact that these two former detectives, defined by having two of the most rational, normal roles in the DC Universe, have now been thrown into lives far beyond the original intention for the characters. Allen’s narration does comment on his new role, but it’s more of the overwrought angst we’ve seen from him during the last two Spectre miniseries. I’d be inclined to say it’s more interesting to look at their new roles in the context of modern comics – as heroes get more and more mundane in personality, most unpowered, non-vigilante characters either move up in rank or get consigned to Limbo. Remember when James Robinson brought back Jason Bard in his Detective Comics run a couple of years ago? An interesting move that could’ve yielded great stories, as well as a brand-new narrative perspective in the book, but was quickly dropped as soon as Robinson left the title. Heroes have been made so blandly normal in the quest for realism that the perspective created by a Snapper Carr is no longer considered necessary. It’s like comic book writers suddenly started reading nothing but MFA graduate short story writers and decided, “You know what? This seems like a good place to take the superhero.” And you’d better laugh about it now, because when all Batman stories are about some revelation that occurs to him at his grandmother’s cottage in Vermont while he reminisces about the semester he went abroad to India, you’ll be buying up Silver Age Metamorpho issues just to have fun again. It’ll be Jhumpa Lahiri and Mary Gaitskill on Action Comics.

Anyway, the Spectre story is pretty much what you’d expect. A: Vengeance, B: Brooding. The notable moments involve him killing Dr. Light and Effigy (and the Hangmen, but do you care? You do not), as well as not being able to affect Libra at all, who apparently is cosmically unique and possibly eternal. Dr. Light’s death is a long time coming, although in true modern DC fashion, we’re given the gratuitous suggestion of rape and weird psychosexual issues before it finally happens. I’m not sure what makes these writers believe they’re capable of dealing with severe psychological and emotional disorders, but I’m sure it has something to do with reading too much low-rent, bestseller crime fiction and watching late-night forensics shows on cable. Also, the story unwittingly brings up a major unanswered plot hole: why hasn’t The Spectre been tapped to kill all of the major supervillains? At the very least, The Joker and possibly Lex Luthor surely have earned a visit by now, but any answer to this question would likely be a total cop-out and undermine the whole “Spirit of Vengeance” concept, so Rucka wisely doesn’t even ask it. Might as well just roll with your plot by that point.

The Montoya story holds a little more interest, as the Order of the Stone, who believe that Renee is their chosen leader, chase her around England, trying to force her into her destiny. The lack of narration during these scenes is welcome, and it places a needed emphasis on the action and the immediacy of Renee’s situation. Renee trying to spur herself on under her breath as she makes a leap is a great, vulnerable moment that strikingly conveys the character’s emergency. During the chase, the Order plumbs the ocean floor to find what’s obviously the Spear of Destiny, and later the two plots intersect as The Spectre is called to declare vengeance on The Question for the prerequisite cliffhanger ending. The action during these scenes is well-plotted, although the breaks to the more introspective Spectre narrative do unfortunately tend to reduce their tension. There’s some solid artwork by Phillip Tan that has a strong sense of the grotesque during some key scenes, and a good sense of pacing and structuring a chase scene, but it’s undermined by the extremely wearying narration. The strongest part of the book is the excellent coloring by Ian Hanning, who works wonders in using forceful, intense tones in conveying supernatural largeness. Some pages are brought down by the overbearing greys and dimness, but this is likely a function of the stilted writing and moody art combining to produce something that’s so damned serious about itself that it’s hard to accept without reservation. In a less conventional story, or one that at least had some levity or enough weirdness or idiosyncrasy to provide a counterpoint, it’d be an easier book to digest. As it stands, it’s just morose.
Rating: 4.0/10

Superman Beyond #1 coverFinal Crisis: Superman Beyond #1
…Subtitled “Everything Grant Morrison Had to Rein in While Writing a Massive Crossover Event.” If you haven’t read this, the most likely thing you know is that the book has several sections in 3-D and accompanying glasses to go with it. It’s a fun gimmick at first, if a bit disorienting, and a good-natured homage to the gimmickry of the Silver Age, but it wears out its welcome soon. There’s at least an appropriate storytelling contrivance for it; Superman is traveling through the Multiverse, and the quest forces him to upgrade his own vision to 4-D to process the realities he’s dealing with. The journey, impelled by a Monitor who needs help saving the Multiverse, will allow Superman to save his wife Lois, hospitalized after the explosion of the Daily Planet in Final Crisis #3. Along the way, he’s accompanied by a number of surrogate Superman: Ultraman, the evil Superman from the Crime Syndicate’s world; an alternate Captain Marvel from the Fawcett Comics-derived Earth-5; Overman, from a Nazi-controlled Earth; and a “Quantum Superman,” an alternate Captain Atom from an Earth clearly evoking Alan Moore’s Watchmen. All of this suggests Superman’s role as the first, preeminent and archetypal superhero from which all others sprang in some fashion, and it’s a great opportunity to explore Superman’s role and meaning by juxtaposing different interpretations.

Let’s be straight: this is a comic book for comic book readers. It reveals itself based on how much history of the medium you know. For instance, to understand the Quantum Superman/Captain Atom, you’d have to be aware that Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen is based on Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom (now a DC property). The positing of Manhattan, a godlike figure with a great deal of distance from and little initial concern for humanity, as a Superman offshoot is a particularly interesting proposition. Manhattan’s role as a Nietzschean man-as-God (or alternately, a Deistic portrayal of a distant, uninvolved God) in the world of Watchmen suggests a similar placement of Superman in our own through this juxtaposition – that the figure, his mythology, and its effect on our consciousness is so powerful that he has become almost a religious figure for us. It’s a case of our mythology defining our world and helping our culture develop; Morrison also did this in even more literal terms recently in All-Star Superman, where Superman creates a microcosm universe that’s clearly our own, with Nietzsche, Siegel & Schuster, and everything else.

The story takes a self-referential turn as the Monitor’s ship crashes in Comic Book Limbo, from Morrison’s famed Animal Man run, and it’s a pretty fantastic moment (and yes, Merryman is there, and gets a memorably funny and poignant moment too). After all, what comic character is less likely to be forgotten than Superman? While there, they work to take the famed single book of Limbo’s library, which contains all other books, and discover the history of the Monitors. It’s a fairly convoluted part of the tale, but to sum up the important points: the Multiverse exists as a flaw within the first Monitor, and it spread because it was, at heart, a narrative. Even in a void, stories are the basic state of life, and impossible to contain. I’ve seen arguments that suggest this section as a meditation on DC’s pretty futile obsession with stringent continuity, which is valid, but I think there’s more to it than just a commentary on DC. The idea of life as a narrative is a recurring Morrison riff, but he elevates its scope here to suggest that even in the face of an infinite, immeasurable void, life’s meaningful merely because it happens. It’s humanism expressed through metafiction, and its contrast to the condition of Limbo, where “nothing ever happens” as a rule, suggests the same about our fictional creations. They matter simply because we invested time and care in them, and deserve a measure of respect for the role they play in our attempt to understand the world through art. In a comic book environment that currently inclines more towards the dictates of name-brand writers, it’s reassuring to actually hear this from one of the most famous figures in the industry (not that many of his peers have caught on, but it’s a start).

There’s also a plot point about a Dark Monitor about to rise, but it’s hard to comment on that facet until the nature of the entity is revealed – whether it has any significance to the themes explored is still unknown. Regardless, this is a fun issue with a fantastic sense of scope, expressed not only in the imagination of Morrison’s ideas and penetrating nature of the book’s themes, but also the excellent art by Doug Mahnke. The angles of perspective from which we view these scenes are often wonderfully surprising, particularly a panel that gives us a head-on view just above a wide beam of Superman’s heat vision that’s pretty stunning. His quick depictions of some alternate Earths are also well-conceived, strange, grandiose, and often hilarious, as well. Unfortunately, the 3-D effects, while impressive, only get in the way of enjoying Mahnke’s art. David Baron also provides some interesting color usage, particularly the sickeningly muted tones on display during the scenes in Limbo. There’s some issues with scene transitions and set-ups – some action scenes occur without really understanding the catastrophe at hand – but for any reader who can move past the disconcerting nature of the book, it’s an energetic but thoughtful read.
Rating: 7.0/10