Review: Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Matthew Sturges' Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! is probably not a book for me. It's a bloody dark comedy and crime story, but without the hint of nobility I think you find in Gail Simone's Secret Six, in contrast, or even in Sturges' own villain-focused Salvation Run. I struggled to decide whether Sturges tries to make a larger point here about the ongoing struggle between DC Comics' heroes and villains, or if the focus is simply madcap action. Disappointingly, as well, there's no sense in the book that DC intends to do more with the featured villain, the Human Flame, making me wonder whether Run! wasn't really intended as nothing more than a venue to capitalize on the Final Crisis name.

Run! has an aesthetic that I like. In as much as is possible in comic books, Sturges tries to present the book in real-time (or, at least, tells us how much time elapses between each scene), and keeps the Human Flame on the go the entire time -- running from the mob, heroes, and fellow villains. Flame gets continually beat to a pulp, managing each time to escape and find himself new and increasingly more dangerous powers that pull him out of one predicament and into the next, with increasingly explosive results. Part picaresque, part satire, Run! is a glimpse of the DC Universe through the eyes of an Inferior Five-level villain; as Green Lantern John Stewart describes him, Flame is an amateur wildcard who gains infinite power for one shining moment, before crashing and burning in defeat.

The premise does sound promising, and as such it's difficult for me to discern where it goes wrong. Perhaps it's Flame's lack of remorse; Flame continues an ongoing diatribe throughout the book where he wonders, even, if his part in killing the Martian Manhunter counts as murder since the victim wasn't human. I don't need my villains to be reluctant, necessarily, but Flame is a brute -- not a funny brute like Lobo (even if he's meant to be) and not even skillful like Lex Luthor, the Joker, or Vandal Savage in Sturges' Salvation Run, and as such I'm not driven to follow or root for him in a "it's good to be bad" kind of way.

Second, while I think artist Freddie Williams likely achieved the intended tone in this book -- giving every punch that the Human Flame gives or receives a cartoony quality -- the presentation didn't work for me either. As with Flame's personality, there's just no place for me to hang my hat; Williams' Flame is suitably ugly, as are his villainous allies and the filthy holes in which they have to hide away -- but with all the and ugliness, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to like. Granted, it's a dark, dirty story, but if the characters don't try to be in some way likable and the art doesn't try to be in some way attractive, I'm not sure what's in it for me as the reader to stick around.

At the core of Run! is that infamous moment in Final Crisis where, at the Human Flame's request, the villain Libra kills the Martian Manhunter. It's a startling scene meant by writer Grant Morrison to be different from your typical superhero death, like when Max Lord killed Blue Beetle; Beetle dies triumphant, whereas Libra dispatches the Manhunter with brutal swiftness and zero theatrics. Libra dies in Final Crisis, such that it's Flame who emerges as representative of this new, tougher villainy; around the middle of Run!, when Flame kills some of the sillier villains of the DC Universe (including the Condiment King), shouting about the villains' "stupid code names," it seems indeed that Flame will be the harbinger of this new era of DC Comics villains.

Unfortunately, Final Crisis itself failed to shake the DC Universe. Whereas the line-wide "One Year Later" event after Infinite Crisis made something of a difference in the DCU, DC's half-hearted attempt to keep Final Crisis from bleeding over into the monthly books have left a kind of confused space -- Batman's dead and characters mention having been possessed by Darkseid, but there's no residual affect of all the people of Earth having had to live in refrigeration, for instance.

To wit, it's almost a "running" joke in Run! that Libra has disappeared, given that it was never quite clear to the reader from Morrison's end who Libra was or what Morrison's really intended with him. The Human Flame, therefore, is a hanging chad, the remnants of an incomplete plotline, the representation of a good thought by Morrison that unfortunately, in a shared universe, never got picked up the way the sensibilities of Infinite Crisis did.

Sturges does his best with an intentionally farcical comic about a D-list villain and his near ridiculous lust for power (and also the frustrations the Justice League face trying to catch low-level villains), and I've no doubt that was enough for some (I don't mean to be humorless -- Sturges notes on his blog that "If you can’t see the fun in seeing kindly nurses getting punched in the face . . . well, let’s just say that’s the classy part of the story," and I understand he's shooting for a certain kind of valid humor here; I'm just not sure it makes the book). But Run!'s opposite number, when you think about it, is James Robinson's Cry for Justice, which shows the trauma of the Manhunter's murder from the Justice League's perspective, and whether you like Cry for Justice or not, it has the cache and impact that Run! does not, relegating Run! to footnote status on the buy pile.

If Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! really resonated with you, I'd like hear about what made it work for you. For me, I couldn't escape the idea there wasn't much here that it was really crucial for me to have experienced, and maybe a different book deserved my dollar instead. That's no fault of the writer's, necessarily, just how I felt in the end.

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7 comments:

  1. I've only read this and ESCAPE (been thinking of checking out DANCE, but having a homophobic ChrisCross on the art is making it really hard for me to justify that purchase), and I gotta say I really, really liked this book. It's just over the top and nuts, something that I think the DCU could use more of.

    I don't know if we're meant to root for the Human Flame or not, though having him go up against even worse villains helped a little bit with me. But I liked the fact that the dude just NEVER gives up. He knows he's a loser, he's getting beaten up every couple of pages, yet the guy just gets back up every time through sheer force of will, purely because he is so sick and tired of being a joke. I can dig that. I can kinda-sorta root for him while anticipating his eventual comeuppance. (The final page was just sublime in terms of schadenfreude, I thought.)

    Also, I've been a fan of Freddie Williams since ROBIN and MISTER MIRACLE, but I thought this was his best work to date; some of the more violent scenes didn't sit well with me but that's more an issue of personal taste. But overall there seemed to be more detail and energy packed into every panel compared to his previous work. Also, it turns out he can draw funny; the burning cow mascot in the first chapter still cracks me up. (I do wish the book kept that kind of effed up, demented humour throughout.)

    It didn't "resonate" with me exactly, not like FINAL CRISIS let's say, but I found RUN! a damn fun book, and that's good enough for me. Mind you, after this story I don't think I want the Human Flame back; as far as I'm concerned his story is over. Then again I had hoped that Black Adam's story ended in 52.

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  2. I'm in the middle of Dance and I'm enjoying it far more; Ink is next unless I decide to take a break to read other things, and then Escape, which I think will be the most my speed.

    Thanks Jeffrey for your comment, which is exactly the kind of feedback I hoped for. I agree part of the appeal of this book is the way the Human Flame continually bounces back, and goes from defeat to increasingly volatile powers in each chapter. I have trouble with his comeuppance, however -- do we root for the Human Flame to win, or lose? Or to win and lose? Are we out of it entirely and it's only meant to be escapist enjoyment with no moral consequence? Or is the confusion the point?

    I like that I struggle with this book, but the struggle doesn't sit as well with me as usual. And your point that the Human Flame's story is over is a good one -- maybe it's the fact that, whereas most of comics is serial storytelling, it's clear here that the Human Flame's story is over, that I don't like; "over" is a nice change of pace, but necessarily lacks the weight of "to be continued." Which feeds into a kind of gross consumerism -- that is, perhaps I'd rather a story that leads in to something else to buy than one that just ends -- that I'll have to think on.

    Good thoughts; thanks again.

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  3. I couldn´t care less about the human flame. That´s the problem with DC. A complete story about this stupid guy who no one cares about and not a single explanation about Libra.

    I wouldn´t even considere reading this stuff.

    I´m a DC fan and it hurst me how poorly they use their characters. that´s why Marvel always kicks DC´s ass.

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  4. I agree with Lucho. I have a choice to purchase Capt. America - Reborn or Run. Cap wins hands down because Brubaker writes with far more compelling depth and multi-layers that I believe Run just doesn't have. Ok, fair enough, I should bite the bullet and buy both and then give a fair test comparison, but money is short these days and my purchase decisions are influenced greatly by CE reviews and fan comments.

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  5. Also good points. It's obvious Run! has no permanence (unless another writer comes along and builds on it, which is unlikely). I don't want to say a comic must always have relevance, consequence, or meaning -- at some times, it must be valid for a piece of media just to be what it is -- but indeed I can't imagine great purchases of Run! versus another DC title or, as weaver says, Captain America: Reborn; in that way, Run! strikes me personally as something of a waste. But -- I know someone out there must have found it funny, or really likes Freddie Williams' art, and there's value in the book that way.

    My goal is to stop buying books that don't have this relevance for me, or at least to not buy them right away. There's something so attractive about that Aftermath tag, though ...

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  6. I know you haven't reviewed the other Final Crisis Aftermath books yet, but as a general question to everyone, are any of these FC Aftermath series required DC reading? I haven't read Final Crisis yet; do these books help explain anything that happened in FC? Or are they just kind of follow-ups with some of the characters that appeared in FC, but in terms of someone following DC they don't mean anything, and I can move onto Blackest Night?

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  7. In general I'd put them in the follow up camp; they kind of remind me of the Star Wars books, where even the most minor cameo character gets their own book unrelated to the ongoing story. Run!, as you've heard, is pure follow up and didn't, in my estimation, have much weight; I liked Dance, but there's nothing in there you need before Blackest Night. I'm halfway through Ink now and again I wouldn't say there's much that ties in to Blackest Night (but Tattooed Man does have, as I understand, a forthcoming appearance in Titans). I'll read Escape after that (or take a break from the Aftermaths), and Escape I know has an additional follow-up miniseries Nemesis; don't know about a Blackest Night tie-in, but I don't think so.

    Hope that helps!

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