Icons, or People?

The big crossover event is nowadays a staple in comic books. It wasn’t always that way, but  Crisis on Inifinite Earths broke new ground, and showed the potential for the “big event” to boost sales. After all, when the entire DCU/ Marvel Universe is going to rocked by the event that’s coming, you’re going to want to read about it. It’s going to change the world in which our favourite characters live, and you don’t want to be left out of the loop.

In a lot of ways, the effect Crisis on Infinite Earths had on the comics industry is comparable to the effect Watchmen had – Watchmen spawned a wave of “grim and gritty” comics, trying to ape the success of the progenitor. And with the “grim and gritty” wave and the “big event” wave, you’re left with a lot of pale imitations and recycled ideas, churned out ad infinitum, because if its sells comics, why change it?

Infinite Crisis hooked me back into the main DC Universe after a long period of reading only Vertigo and random Batman graphic novels. No, I tell a lie… the events that preceeded it hooked me back in.

On a fateful evening, my housemate wandered into my room, looking slightly stunned and despondent. He had in his had a comic he had been given for free as part of the promotion of the upcoming Infinite Crisis. He mumbled “Blue Beetle’s dead” and put the comic on my desk. “You should read it, it’s really well written”

I had only the vaguest idea of who Blue Beetle was, except that he was one of John’s favourite characters. I left him to his mourning and started reading. Within pages, this character I knew nothing about had become a character I cared about. He was us, the little guy, doomed to being second string in a world filled with amazing heroes.  He was the guy who just watched all these great heroics, trying hard to keep up, but never earning notice. It was a fantastic story, the little guy slipping under the radar and uncovering the big bad’s plot. But this is comic-land, right? He’s going to get away, warn the big guns… Half an hour ago, I had no idea who Ted Kord was. But his death kicked me right in the gut. I was hooked. I had to see how this was going to play out.

The next thing was Identity Crisis – another book which managed to take characters I was unfamiliar with and make me really, really care. It brought me right back into the mythology I’d let pass by the wayside over the last few years.

After reading those two, there was no way I wasn’t buying Infinite Crisis. And yet, when the dust settled, I was left dissapointed. There were some epic moments. Some really epic moments. Fantastic fight scenes, big heroic turnarounds… but the humanity wasn’t there. (And as if we haven’t seen the “Batman nearly shooting/killing someone” scene enough already… It was wooden)

Final Crisis has me even more cold. Three issues in, and I’m not feeling it at all. There’s defininately a grand, layered, intricate plot afoot. The plotting is impressive. But it’s… flat. It was while reading Superman Beyond 3D that I realised why Morrisson’s writing in Final Crisis has been grating on me so much.

*Controversial Statement to follow*

Grant Morrisson can’t write characters. Or at least, he isn’t writing characters. He needs to take a lesson from Brad Meltzer on that one.

The dialogue in Final Crisis doesn’t feel like its being spoken by people living in a world. It feels like dialogue explicitly written for stage and being delivered by actors. “All the world’s a stage”… taken a little too far. Now, comic books have rarely been a paragon of great dialogue, let’s be honest. In fact, Morrisson is clearly channelling the “old school” of comic book writing, where people announce themselves in grand fashion and spout catchphrases like it’s going out of fashion. I’m pretty sure that this way of writing dialogue is no accident – Superman Beyond pretty much makes explicit the fact that “All the world’s a stage.”

Further, the plot is driving the characters. They’re all just playing a part in whatever grand design Morrisson has up his sleeve. There’s no apparent motivation, personality, or individual psychology involved in what any individual is doing. They’re dancing along like puppets on a string. The Villains are being eeevil because they are eeeevil and they’re villains and that’s what villains do. The heroes are doing what they do. But there’s no humanity behind it. Not like you saw in Identity Crisis. In Final Crisis, Morrisson has the Super Young Team talk about people becoming brands, icons, commodities. That’s what he’s reduced every character in Final Crisis to. And I’m sure it’s intentional, which grates on me even more – he’s cutting out the humanity to support his intellectual musings.

Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but for me, characterization is key. The comics I put on the top of the pile as the best comics written all have characters at the core, driving the plot – not the other way around. Watchmen, for example, is shaped and driven by the worldviews of the characters. Every character in that book, down to the nobody on the street, has a fully realised voice. I can’t engage with a comic when there’s no psychology behind a characters actions. And in Final Crisis, it doesn’t feel like there is – the only thing that’s driving the plot is Morrisson’s design, his idea of narrative rules shaping the universe. What he seems to miss is that those narrative rules are formed by the thoughts and ideas of people – people, language, consciousness came first, and built those structures. They have to be centre stage. Now, maybe he’ll prove me wrong in the last issues and pull it all together. I won’t exculde the possibility. But I’m not hopeful right now.

Having read a interviews with Morrisson about FC, you can see that he’s trying to do some very big, very interesting things. Certainly, he is  highly skilled when it comes to putting together a plot – the level of detail and the layering is certainly very, very impressive. But without characters at its core, it’s flat. To me, at least. I fell in love with the DCU because of the characters in it.  Blue Beetle and Ralph Dibny drew me back in. Reading about the Green Arrow “family” kept me in, and drew me into Green Lantern.

The reason I loved Sinestro War: It combined superhero space adventuring slugfests with a plot that was at its core driven by the personalities of the big players – Sinestro’s desire to create order through fear, Superboy-Prime’s childish arrogance, Hank Henshaw’s desire to die… Maybe Green Lantern stuff lends itself to the psychological more easily, given that emotion is the core of the mythology, but Johns did a great job of constructing a great plot driven by the people in it. (And the slugfests were awesome.)

Here’s the bind though – I do agree with Morrisson’s idea that Superheroes are icons. That they represent more than just some crazy people in costumes (in contrast to Watchmen, where they really all were just crazies in costumes.) But I think he took it a step too far. He focused purely on the icon, the myth, forgetting who was under it entirely.

*Digs in and waits for the Legions of Morrisson Fans to attack*

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~ by Anthony on September 7, 2008.

One Response to “Icons, or People?”

  1. Nah, I agree with you. But then, the bastards killed Ted Kord, so I would.
    What bugs me is all the multiverse and hypertime bullshit. I don’t care about your cosmology, I care about your characters!

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