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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