Final Crisis Theory of Impenetrability

Three issues into Final Crisis, there’s a large contingent of people who feel that the book is “impenetrable,” and that it requires an encyclopedic knowledge of the DC Universe in order to understand it. I disagree. In fact, I think up to a point, knowledge of DC actually makes it harder to understand it.

From what I’ve read, the biggest complaints seem to be coming from people who know quite a bit about the DC universe and are annoyed that they don’t know the background on, say, Frankenstein (as he fits into the DCU), or Anthro, or Libra, etc. On the other hand, people who aren’t totally immersed in DC history assume they’re not going to recognize everyone, and are more willing to go with the flow.

Certainly, the book is steeped in the DC Universe. But for the most part, the characters’ back-stories don’t seem to be necessary to understand what’s going on in this story.

Example 1: The prologue in the first issue was set in pre-history, in which Metron of the New Gods filled the Prometheus role and gave fire to humans. A cavemen battle featured DC characters Anthro and Vandal Savage. A lot of people complained that if they hadn’t recognized the characters, they’d be lost. Well, no, not really — they’d just see a battle among cavemen, which gets the main idea across quite nicely.

Example 2: Frankenstein and S.H.A.D.E. figure prominently in the opening scenes of issue three. If you haven’t read Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein, you might wonder what the heck Frankenstein’s monster is doing working for an F.B.I.-like agency. On the other hand, the scene would still work if it were a random F.B.I. or S.H.A.D.E. agent. The back-story on the character isn’t necessary to understand his role here.

Oddly, I haven’t seen anyone complaining (yet) that they needed to pick up a Cave Carson showcase in order to understand the scene in which they discover a petroglyph.

I believe it was Bruce Timm who explained that on the Justice League cartoon, they made an effort to use existing characters from DC’s stable whenever possible. In one episode they needed a sniper. They could have just had a random sniper, but they looked through DC’s roster and decided to use Deadshot. Was Deadshot’s background necessary to understand the resulting episode? Not at all.

In a lot of these cases, what readers are missing isn’t a critical piece of the story — it’s bonus material. And again, it’s the people who have a solid but not thorough knowledge of DC who feel left out, because they know, say, JLA backward and forward, but not Kamandi, or they’ve memorized everything Geoff Johns has ever written, but didn’t read Seven Soldiers. So they feel like they should know the back-story.

As an experiment, I handed the first issue to my wife, whose familiarity with the DC Universe mainly comes from the animated Justice League. She had some questions, certainly, but she was able to understand most of what was going on.

Working up the scale, you eventually get to the readers who do recognize almost everything, and then the key issue becomes: what attitude do they take toward the parts they don’t know? Are they frustrating? Or are they puzzles to solve?

As for myself, admittedly I do have a strong grounding in the DCU, having read a lot of their comics over the past two decades. But there were still characters I didn’t recognize, like Dan Turpin and Sonny Sumo. Heck, I missed the fact that the evil caveman in the prologue was Vandal Savage, which enhances a later scene (when Libra mentions that the world has been waiting a long time for Vandal Savage to make good on his threats to conquer it*). Even so, these gaps in my DC knowledge didn’t prevent me from figuring out what was going on, because I thought, oh, these must be new characters. Picking up the details through sites like Final Crisis Annotations certainly enhanced the experience, but I didn’t feel that my initial reading had suffered at all.

So in short, here’s my theory (well, really it’s just a hypothesis) on how readers react to Final Crisis:

  • Minimal DC knowledge: Accepts gaps in knowledge, goes with what they do know and what’s on the page, and follows the book.
  • Medium DC knowledge: Gaps in knowledge are infuriating, feels the book is impenetrable.
  • Extensive DC knowledge: Follows the book, then gets involved in discussions afterward to see what they missed.

*I prefer the take given by some story I can’t remember, in which Vandal Savage says, “From time to time, I have chosen to rule the world.” It makes him more menacing, to think that for the most part he isn’t really trying, and when he has put the effort in, he’s succeeded.


11 thoughts on “Final Crisis Theory of Impenetrability

  1. Will

    Interesting points you have there. I think you are right, but I have another angle on the whole thing. Regardless of the required knowledge, I feel like what they are doing in FC is just silly. I’m trying really hard to like this story… but I just can’t. The only reason I’m reading it now is for the Flash story, and I was surprised that #3 featured them so little.

    The story itself, for me at least, features far too many characters that are either unknown to me or dated. It once again feels like a checklist of plot points and devices that have to happen to reach some ultimate goal or revelation.

    It feels like this whole story was born out of a provocative end point, and now we just need to get there as fast as we can.

    I would rather read a well written character driven story than Final Crisis any day. I think the only other story I have read that had this much going on in every page that I actually liked was Batman: Hush.

    The “anti life equation” spreading to the Internet? Ugh, it makes me want to smack my forehead.

  2. rwe1138

    I really only know Cave Carson because Johns used him in a few issues of JSA a while back.

    Concerning the animated Justice League, I believe they used Fireman Farrell in one episode. Just a fun easter egg for old time fans.

  3. Rich

    Oddly, I haven’t seen anyone complaining (yet) that they needed to pick up a Cave Carson showcase in order to understand the scene in which they discover a petroglyph.

    For what it’s worth, I thought those were just random archaeologists. That was an established character? Now that I look again I see “Calvin Carson” in the corner. I’m guessing there haven’t been complaints about that since it was essentially an easter egg.

    You may be on to something though. As someone in the ‘medium’ range, I keep feeling like I should understand why some characters matter or are present, or why they do things contrary to either continuity or their usual behavior. Case in point is the whole blow-up recently about whether Countdown and Death of the New Gods mattered, etc., since they didn’t square with Final Crisis. You’re right that those unaware wouldn’t care and just go with it.

    I have more problems with the pacing and frenetic style of the books so far than anything. I understand the tie-ins are filling in the blanks, but I’m not reading any of those (well, I read FC: Requiem). That’s a matter of taste though, and removed from prior levels of DC knowledge.

  4. chris w.

    Nice take there. I fall into category #1; I know about half the players involved by sight or by name, but I have no real knowledge of their backstory. Final Crisis is great so far, and the spillover into unexpected places among the other DC books I’ve picked up lately is welcome instead of annoying.

    This is one crossover that I’m happy to have affecting other parts of the DCU, especially in the JSA Annual and the Hawkman Special from this week. Both attempt to make sense of jumbled origins and skewed continuity that DC has suffered from using Final Crisis as a backdrop. If this is really the ‘final’ Crisis, I think it will put DC in a position to move forward as a whole and gain new readers if they make (and keep) their universe more coherent.

  5. mq1986

    I think I’m of the first category; I really don’t know too much about the DCU, but frankly, I feel like I don’t really have to know that much to understand Final Crisis. I think all that’s required to understand Final Crisis is a careful reading, instead of breezing through it. Unlike other comic books, every piece of dialogue and detail in Final Crisis counts–so you really have to pay attention.

  6. Kevin

    I’m in a pretty unique position actually- I probably fall into the second category in terms of knowledge, BUT while I am clueless on most things around minor characters, the one big exception is the New Gods, which I’m fully up on. So I’m really enjoying the story for its New Gods and Flash moments, and that keeps me happy enough that I don’t mind filling in the rest, such as SHADE, Frankenstein or whatever.

  7. Ranald

    I’m trying really hard to like this story… but I just can’t… The story itself, for me at least, features far too many characters that are either unknown to me

    And the very first comment proves the theory!

  8. BrianR

    I think DC had a lot of potential with this series, but they’ve thrown more into it than is humanly possible to really follow without buying side issues of other offshoot miniseries, or back issues of sometimes obscure titles. Unlike “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, they’re throwing too many loose threads into this series that will probably never all be resolved to satisfaction. And while I love the cameo appearances by lesser-known characters, most of them are just tossed-off because we don’t recognize them.

  9. Rockin' Rich

    I think this is one of the most perceptive comments I’ve yet seen about Final Crisis, Kelson.

    While Grant obviously relies heavily upon DC continuity, it’s pretty clear that it’s on an al a carte basis, picking and choosing the elements he uses to tell the story. And altering whatever he needs to revise, adapt or ignore.

    The only continuity that’s “gospel” to him, in fact, is his own; like “Seven Soldiers,” for example.

    He’s said (can’t remember where) that this is his last DCU work for the foreseeable future (or ever, though I’m not sure about that). So maybe that’s the true “final” aspect of this “crisis.”

    That said, I think the primary thing that’s driving this (other than commercial considerations) is telling a good story. When FC is done and everything comes together, I’m convinced that will be borne out.

    Grant is operating on several levels here, and Geoff is in synch with him on at least one (the more traditional DCU track) but there’s a lot of stuff going on on FC and its tributaries, and in your observations, Kelson, lies the truest path to dealing with FC for what it is at its core: a story.

    .-= Rockin’ Rich’s latest blog post: More Levitz =-.

  10. Rockin' Rich

    Pardon a typo or two in that post.

    Also, Grant has said in at least one interview that he wants to write Batman “forever” so maybe FC being his final DCU writing is bs.

    That begs the question of how his “Batman RIP” story-line fits into FC, of course…

    .-= Rockin’ Rich’s latest blog post: More Levitz =-.

  11. Kamino Neko

    I think this is one of the most perceptive comments I’ve yet seen about Final Crisis, Kelson.

    I’ll disagree with one thing about this line – it’s a perceptive comment about superhero comics in general.

    Possibly life, in general, but I don’t want to grow Kelson’s ego too much. ^__~


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