Back, in black
Lisa: Dad, you shot the zombie Flanders!
Homer: He was a zombie?
To paraphrase Milton Berle, of all the universe-shattering events DC Comics has published over the years, Blackest Night #1 (written by Geoff Johns, penciled by Ivan Reis, and inked by Oclair Albert) is certainly the most recent. At the risk of being unfair to the various bits of Green Lantern lore Johns and his collaborators have been outlining over the past five years, Blackest Night is essentially a zombie story. A mysterious, malevolent force “recruits” its members from among the universe’s deceased, giving them black power rings and bidding them to “rise.” Now the Green Lantern Corps, and their colleagues in the superhero community, have seven more double-sized issues (plus ancillary tie-ins in other titles) to stop the Black Lanterns. I thought issue #1 was promising, and I’ll tell you why.
The miniseries’ format reminds me of 2005-06’s Infinite Crisis, which was arguably shorter (seven double-sized issues plus associated tie-ins) but which had to deal merely with remaking the universe to suit a particular set of tastes. Accordingly, as did Infinite Crisis #1, the first issue of BN deals mostly in recaps and setups. After a couple of pages with Black Hand (who got last week’s Green Lantern #43 all to himself), Johns and Reis reintroduce readers to Earth’s four Green Lanterns, with an eye towards remembering their lost loved ones. Naturally, this is nothing new to longtime GL readers, although for some reason I now want to compare our heroes to a boy band: Hal’s dreamy! John’s stoic! Guy’s funny! Kyle’s sensitive!
Ahem. A fairly clever story invention — Superman’s date of “death” is now the superhero Memorial Day — then facilitates a survey of various other super-types and the people they have lost. Of course, the category of “formerly dead” superheroes is not forgotten, since Hal (died 1996, revived 2004) updates the recently-returned Barry “Flash” Allen (died 1985, revived 2008) about who has passed away in his absence. There is carnage too — typical for a Geoff Johns book, you may say, but we’ll get to that — most notably at the end, when the Black Lanterns start causing trouble in earnest.
Essentially, Blackest Night #1 lays out the relevant sections of DC continuity, establishes the problem, and steps on the gas. It does each of these things fairly well. Reis and Albert are fine storytellers whose style combines the realistic approach of Bryan Hitch (or Jerry Bingham) with the fluidity of Alan Davis. Reis seems particularly to have grown as a storyteller since 2005, when he penciled the Infinite Crisis warmup miniseries Rann-Thanagar War. There he focused more on the foreground, such that his panels lacked a definite sense of depth. Since then, though, he went on to pencil Green Lantern‘s previous big event, “The Sinestro Corps War,” which featured multiple huge fight scenes involving scores of Green Lanterns, superheroes, and Sinestro Corpsmen. (I can’t decide whether BN‘s two-page spreads of deceased superheroes and Black Lanterns are darkly funny parodies of similar spreads in Infinite Crisis and “Sinestro Corps.”) Blackest Night‘s cast of thousands offers more of the same, and Reis, Albert, and colorist Alex Sinclair seem up to the task.
For his part, Johns tries nobly, but can’t quite get away from the crush of continuity upon which this series is built. Somewhat ironically, this has nothing to do with the past few years of Green Lantern backstory: if you know the basic Green Lantern/Guardians of the Universe setup, you won’t have much trouble figuring out such things as the “War of Light” and the rebuilt Coast City. Instead, Blackest Night loses momentum when it pauses for memorial interludes. Scenes such as Damage’s bitter exchange with Atom-Smasher, and the argument between Mera and Tempest, will probably add context to subsequent issues; but here they remind the reader that these characters’ histories must necessarily be distilled for the uninitiated.
Johns also gets a little too adventurous with his use of narrative captions, and thankfully this doesn’t last too long. Nevertheless, on the first page alone there are four dialogue tracks to follow, and there are only three speakers. The omniscient narrator (who pops in for place names) “speaks” in both green and black italicized captions. Black Hand’s internal narration is rendered in (unitalicized) black captions. Black Hand also talks on this and the next page, and that’s shown in black word balloons with uneven white borders — but his mysterious master also gets unevenly-bordered black word balloons, although those borders are gray. Furthermore, each of these tracks seems independent of the other: Black Hand’s thoughts and speech aren’t necessarily part of the same track, and neither necessarily meshes with the master’s speech. As if all that weren’t enough, the master’s speech seems redundant in light of everything else on these two pages. Rewriting Black Hand’s internal monologue for the omniscient narrator probably would have made things clearer, but that’s not the style these days, so Johns’ script suffers accordingly.
Johns then switches to Hal’s internal narration for the next several pages, and that’s fine as long as Hal’s sufficiently connected to the subject of his narration. However, when Johns segues from Hal’s character-specific exposition to a series of vignettes with other super-folk, Hal’s narration actually continues, via one-word captions which describe each vignette’s theme. It reads like this: Hal says “People are needed. Family.” A page worth of graveside remembrances (with its own place-name captions) follows. “Friends.” Another page (and more place-name captions). “Heroes.” Another page. “Leaders.” And another. “Legends.” Last one. “After the ceremonies, Guy and Kyle head back into space….” It probably read better in the plot description, and for that matter in the script, than it does on the page.
The issue’s best extended scene involves Hal and Barry in the Justice League morgue. When I saw that the JLA was storing the bodies of its dead foes in an underground vault three stories deep, I thought “hey, that’s a good idea after last year’s Nightwing arc about super-graverobbing.” Sure enough, on the next page, Hal says “Dick Grayson uncovered a body-snatching operation….” It’s a simple way to justify the situation through continuity, and fortunately it’s not the only one in Blackest Night. As he did in the first half of the issue, Hal can be an excellent source of exposition, and since Barry is a relative newcomer to the present-day DC universe (not unlike the wandering DC reader who may have come back for this miniseries), he is a good provider of questions.
The issue ends on another extended scene, this time with Hawkman and Hawkgirl arguing about whether to join the Atom in visiting his ex-wife’s grave. However, they’re attacked by a Black-Lantern-fied Ralph and Sue Dibny, who (assuming the Black Lantern rings don’t make them any more powerful) apparently take full advantage of the element of surprise. Ralph clubs Hawkman senseless with the latter’s mace, while Sue spears Hawkgirl. Ralph and Sue then perform what I presume is the signature Black Lantern move: ripping the victims’ hearts out in order to charge up their rings with the emotions the hearts once held. It’s probably more effective on a symbolic level than it is a biologically sound maneuver, but it’s marginally better than the vomitous Red Lanterns. (And no, making fun of the Red Lanterns never gets old.) While I’m a little surprised that Johns/DC would kill Hawkman and Hawkgirl, it does explain why they didn’t die in Final Crisis. And, of course, whether they stay dead (i.e., whether they’re candidates for the usual reincarnations) will no doubt be settled by the end of issue #8.
This brings us to the aforementioned carnage quotient. Last week I didn’t especially mind Black Hand’s grisly full-page suicide in GL #43, in large part because Johns had gotten away from gratuitous bloodletting over the past few years. However, arguably BN #1 is a return to form. It may depend on whether you think zombies in general are creatures of gratuitous violence, but there is a good bit of blood and gore in the Dibnys vs. Hawks fight. (Forgot to mention — in classic horror-movie fashion, the Hawks are killed right as Kendra declares her eternal love for Carter.) Earlier, a rogue Guardian takes a good chomp out of another’s shoulder. I suppose the true test will come in future issues, when the Black Lanterns cut loose on the world at large. If the violence gets back to “Black Adam vs. C-list Teen Titans” levels, I’ll feel less charitable.
On the subject of superhero death generally, though, I continue to have high hopes for Blackest Night. Granted, many of the dead characters listed in issue #1 were killed recently, by Johns and his colleagues, as part of other DC events; but many were not. Indeed, as with the Hawks, BN may ultimately offer a way for fan-favorites like the Dibnys to be revived themselves. (Considering how Ralph and Sue are portrayed here, that would be a nice consolation.) Whatever happens, I suspect that Blackest Night will be DC’s last word on the revolving door of death for a good while. I’d like to think that that, in turn, would rein in DC’s somewhat-capricious approach to death.
In that regard it’s possible to view Blackest Night as a sort of epilogue to the Crisis-cycle which ostensibly ended earlier this year. Certainly BN builds on the consequences of Final Crisis, although it started out as a strictly Green Lantern-oriented storyline. Still, I hope that BN turns out to be more of a response to the body counts than a justification of them. It wouldn’t be right for DC to kill all these characters just so it could bring them back in such a convoluted manner (assuming, again, that BN will make such honest-to-goodness revivals possible). Sure, we’ve all wanted to bludgeon Hawkman to death … but not like this, darnit! Not like this –!
Overall, once all the setup is out of the way, Blackest Night #1 successfully creates the appropriate mood of impending doom. Where the first issue of Infinite Crisis was mostly setup, this first issue presents a much less convoluted story, and therefore gets going sooner. I was wondering how Johns and Reis could stretch such a simple premise out over those eight double-sized issues, but the Black Lanterns look pretty tough right out of the gate. Besides, there’s the political intrigue on Oa, the probable disposition of each rival Lantern Corps, various encounters with zombified loved ones, and (I expect) at least one suicide mission to Sector 666. We’ll be living with Blackest Night at least until February, so it had better be entertaining. If this issue is any indication, it will be.