CONTRARIAN FANBOY: Final Crisis… In Praise of Noble Failures

One of the things that I respect most in the world of comics (and anything, really) is effort. Like any other artistic medium, comic books progress as an art form because brave people risk failure. Had nobody tried something new then we’d still be reading Stan Lee’s stilted prose and seeing nothing but stale retreads of Bob Kane’s ghost artists. Often, the grander these experiments are, the more epically they fail. As fans, it can be tempting to simply see these failures as indulgent and pretentious bores, but for me there is something worthy and dignified in a team of artists attempting to push the boundaries of what comics can do, rather than turning in another effort designed purely to separate me from my allowance.

The Platonic form of the Noble Failure

It’s the audacity, I think, that I respond to. And why not? Nothing could be more audacious, more constitutionally designed to fail than Kirby’s New Gods series, for example. These books swung for the fences, adding the real to the surreal, the corny to the melodramatic, the science fictional to the mundane, all in an effort to tell a story that crackled with energy. Taken as a whole, they fail to start, but contained within those brave pages are the seeds of amazing stories yet to come.

One of the more recent noble failures (and yes, I know, it’s more than five years old but for some folks it still stings) was Grant Morrison’s much maligned Final Crisis. In this one book GM tries to collapse the universe, deliver a fitting end(-ish) to his Batman R.I.P. story, resurrect the recently killed New Gods, start a war that spans all of time and most of space, diversify the DC comics universe, and show us what it would look like if evil, true evil, really won. The story’s möbius strip plot structure is a great narrative device which might have worked really well. The most interesting element of the story, though, is Morrison’s plan to have the narrative style match the story’s goal which, as Morrison describes in Supergods was to depict the unraveling of reality itself. Morrison tried to depict evil’s victory as poisoning reality to the extent that the logical structure of the universe cracks and falls apart. To do this Morrison tried to have each page, each panel, reflect a growing disorderliness and narrative disconnection.

That’s a heady goal, admirable in its audacity. Sadly though, like many of Morrison’s experiments (seriously, this guy has more near misses than true hits), it fails and the comic suffers because it just couldn’t hold the content together. So many important story elements were left outside of the main series that the books often seems unintentionally jumbled and poorly thought out. In the end, the book simply wasn’t enjoyable to read and that,more than anything, is what all of this is about.

C’mon, don’t you wish he’d succeeded?

Final Crisis, like a lot of Morrison’s oeuvre, is worthy of respect for its bold attempt to try and advance what the medium is capable of. For that, I will never regret buying, reading, and even re-reading the series. Compare that to a lazy and ridiculous cash-grab like Ultimatum and you will see the dreadful opposite of the noble failure: the obligatory mega-event. These things are as insulting as noble failures are respectable. They promise thrills and genre-shattering plots, but what they really do is waste your money and your time. Sometimes they even harm a series so irreparably that they might better be conceived as a fatal strain of comic-book cancer. X-Men reaching a fever pitch? Make Cyclops evil. Need an ending for a big series? Kill off a beloved character (it’s okay, they’ll be back). Examples of these kinds of books are so numerous that it is almost pointless to bring them up, and I’m sure you can think of quite a few yourself.

For the life of me I will never understand why some series are so well loved and books like Final Crisis, are so reviled. For all of its myriad flaws, Final Crisis tries to tell a much more interesting, complex, and audacious story in a much more interesting, complex, and audacious way. Comics are supposed to show us a world where anything is possible. This grand a vision means that writers and artists should dare to go big. I, for one, want to reward that kind of vision with my loyalty, rather than acting affronted that someone dared to try.