Final Crisis, whose paperback edition comes out next Thursday, was as divisive a superhero comic as there’s been in years. The range of reactions to Grant Morrison’s (and a zillion artists’) massive DC-universe epic wasn’t just along the axis of readers who loved it and readers who hated it (and there were plenty at both extremes), but along the axis of those who found it very readable and those who found it totally incomprehensible. (I’m way up there in the loved it/readable quadrant, but all four quadrants are well-populated.) Its reputation among superhero readers (and Morrison buffs) who haven’t yet read it is, consequently, weirdly mixed; I’ve talked to a number of people who suspect that it might be up their alley, but have also heard that it’s pretty deeply linked to decades’ worth of other comics and suspect that they might find themselves frustrated by it. So here are a few notes for anyone thinking of taking the plunge.
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You don’t actually have to have read any other particular comics to understand Final Crisis. And I say this as somebody who ran a blog annotating the whole thing; in fact, I suggest you avoid looking at annotations your first time through, because a lot of the fun of reading this story is working it out for yourself. Morrison throws you face-first into the deep end, and never lets up with the barrage of characters and settings and gizmos, but every one that matters is introduced by name and given enough explanatory context to get you through. Almost every page alludes, one way or another, to particular comic books of the past, but they don’t assume or rely on knowledge of those comic books: it may deepen a megageek’s enjoyment of the story to notice that, say, the bouncer outside the Tokyo club at the beginning of chapter 2 is riffing on the cover of an issue of The Flash from 1966, but if you don’t, you’ll never know the difference.
If you really want to do some preparatory reading, a point of reference that comes up a lot is Jack Kirby’s four interconnected series from 1971-1974 (New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle and Jimmy Olsen), currently collected in the four-volume Fourth World Omnibus; Final Crisis is, in a lot of ways, an elaborate love letter to Kirby. Another worthwhile piece of background is the Morrison-written Seven Soldiers of Victory project, originally published 2004-2005, whose Mister Miracle segments lead directly into one plot thread here; a third is Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, from 1985-1986, to which Final Crisis can be read as a sequel. Again, though, none of those are prerequisites.
You can also safely skip the other Final Crisis-branded titles. The only tie-ins that really matter to the story are Submit and Superman Beyond, both of which are included in the Final Crisis book itself. Part of Batman R.I.P. intersects with Final Crisis, but you’re fine without it, too. Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge is a fun little Flash story that happens to fit into the main story’s timeline but has no bearing on it. Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds is a crazily densely packed Legion of Super-Heroes story (see Techland’s Legion history from last week) whose only significance to FC is that it moves one character into position for the conclusion. Final Crisis: Revelations introduces a character who is dispatched in a single panel of the main story, and otherwise basically just muddies the waters. The Final Crisis Companion collects a few one-shots that expand on points of FC proper that didn’t particularly need expansion. And whatever you do, for God’s sake, don’t inflict the four-volume Countdown to Final Crisis on yourself.
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That said, you have to read Final Crisis closely. Morrison’s story is heavily compressed, and relatively light on direct explanations of what’s going on (aside from Superman’s expository dialogue, which in the best Silver Age tradition never lets up). But nearly every visual detail and line of dialogue carries a good deal of weight. Several characters appear in multiple guises; if you’re not attuned to visual cues, it’s easy to be confused by the abrupt introduction of the kid who’s waking up at the end of the first chapter, for instance, or the old man on the last few pages of the book. Lots of plot points, big and small, zoom past very quickly (there’s a wicked little parody of Marvel’s Civil War that occupies a single panel). The tone of the story keeps shifting, too, from police procedural at the beginning to grand Wagnerian opera by the climax. Go slowly if you want to keep your footing.
For all its density and cosmic excess, Final Crisis is basically high-grade fun. A lot of Morrison’s favorite concepts are packed into the book, especially the idea that people can shape the world by inscribing symbols into it. (The heroes of the story are the people who make marks and propagate them–the caveman writing the protective sigils a god has given him wherever he travels, Nix Uotan drawing his memories into reality, Black Lightning risking death to deliver the Daily Planet.) You can also read it as a story about the relationship between the world constructed by superhero comics and the readers monitoring that world from outside it. But more than anything else, it’s a titanic spectacle, with a cast of thousands and magic space cops and time-traveling bullets and cavemen and conspiracies and romance and extradimensional vampires and a tiger-man with a jet pack and a gigantic fight scene that involves Frankenstein on a motorcycle. It’s kind of a mess–there’s no way it couldn’t be–but it’s an incredibly entertaining mess that aims very high.
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