"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Blackest Night, written by Geoff Johns and pencilled by Ivan Reis, is the culmination of at least five years’ worth of Green Lantern storylines, not to mention elements from DC’s recent Big Events. It sets up several more storylines, both in the GL books and throughout DC’s superhero titles. It also lays out a new way to look at the very nature of life in the DC universe.
These are all elements of what I’ve called “process” stories: vehicles for taking characters from one basic setup to another, many times without much more depth than that. Process is a big part of Blackest Night — these rings work together thusly, these beings power the rings like so, etc. I haven’t had much use for process stories. Indeed, if BN were merely a process story, it would be an eminently appropriate way to cap DC’s perpetual-crossover period. One more cog in the four-color Rube Goldberg device.
Thankfully, Blackest Night aims higher — and that ambition saves it from the tedium of pure process. BN isn’t perfect by any means: it’s a gruesome spectacle of ripped-out hearts and (literal) emotional manipulation, Geoff Johns’ dialogue can be clunky, and Ivan Reis’ pencils are sometimes overwhelming. Ultimately, though, the miniseries is an engaging diversion with its own point of view, and I ended up liking it well enough.
Blackest Night postulates that all of life is a rebellion against nothingness. If I had paid more attention in my humanities classes (or, probably, if I’d read more of Action Philosophers!), I could tell you more about that particular worldview. For our purposes, it’s enough to frame the conceit of an “emotional spectrum” whose most well-known aspect is the green energy of willpower. Like the Green Lantern rings themselves, BN’s premise is as simple or as complicated as it needs to be. The core Green Lantern concept is pure wish-fulfillment: you, plus the most powerful piece of jewelry in the known universe. No spending your personal fortune over years of training, no happy accidents involving chemicals and/or radiation, no being born into a fantastic civilization. Instead, the ring just falls out of the sky and picks its successor.
Similarly, Blackest Night is sometimes simple, sometimes not. Its plot isn’t terribly sophisticated, mostly involving the use of various combinations of emo-spectrum energy to dispatch the Black Lanterns. I would say it’s like a videogame, but I have a feeling that videogames are more complex these days. That’s not necessarily a criticism, either: Blackest Night appealed to me on a visceral level, inviting “audience participation” (of a sort) and/or armchair quarterbacking. Because BN was fairly easy to follow, and its premise wasn’t that hard to grasp, I’d say that helped endear it to readers. At least, that’s a big part of what I take away from all those Lantern Corps T-shirts and ring giveaways.
Consequently, readers may have been challenged more by BN’s esoteric, continuity-intensive aspects. I want to say that most of these (including a Krona reference, a Pariah cameo, and the surprise return of Driq, the original zombie GL) were sequestered in Green Lantern, whose readers might presumably have been more dedicated, and thus more hip to such things. However, BN proper spends a decent amount of space on Firestorm, Damage, and especially Mera, none of whom are arguably as familiar to casual fans as the Atom or J’Onn J’Onzz. As if that weren’t enough, the all-important four-page spread — a great, well-executed reveal, even if we all saw it coming — includes such luminaries as Osiris and the first Captain Boomerang. There is such a thing as too much foreshadowing, and I’m sure no one wanted to spoil the revivals which weren’t completely obvious, but still: a little more context couldn’t have hurt.
To be sure, I’m probably imagining more wet-behind-the-ears DC readers than are actually out there. Boomerang’s death was a big part of Identity Crisis (as was Sue Dibny’s at the hand of fellow JLA spouse and future Black Lantern Jean Loring), and Osiris’ death likewise figured prominently in 52. If you’d been following DC’s events over the years, you’d probably at least heard about those characters, and you might well have gotten some closure from their return.
(That said, Osiris may be A-list next to Hank “Hawk” Hall, who died as the time-themed villain Extant in the pages of one of Johns’ early JSA issues, over ten years ago — several years after Hank was shoved into being Monarch, another time-traveling villain. I wonder if the casual DC event-follower remembers all of that.)
Of course, DC wants you to be more excited than mere closure, since BN leads into Brightest Day and its affiliated titles. In that regard, BN does provide context for the future adventures of its featured characters, but it doesn’t feel unfinished. Once the heroes figure out how to destroy the Black Lanterns, the cathartic moments follow one another quickly (and often violently): John Stewart and Xanshi, the Atom and Jean, Kyle Rayner and the infamous refrigerator. I said before that BN was full of process, but I’m not sure that DC’s other events devoted quite as much to this sort of fanservice. Bringing characters back from the dead is one thing, but addressing character flaws which go back over twenty years is something else.
Earlier too I mentioned that Blackest Night has a very visceral appeal; and I would say more specifically that it is set up to keep both its characters and its readers reacting. The carnage in other big-event comics took place over days or even weeks, but BN pretty much lives up to its name, going from dusk to dawn in Coast City and elsewhere. There’s no time for the heroes to strategize, so the fact that the two big plot twists — “cross the streams” to destroy the Black Lanterns, and dogpile on Black Hand to take out Nekron — are gift-wrapped for the good guys. We never really find out why Dove is so effective and Alan Scott isn’t (although we might in Brightest Day), nor do we learn how one becomes a White Lantern (including why Boston Brand gets to keep his white ring). Again, it would work well as a multiplayer videogame, where all you have to do is fly around and shoot at whatever your differently-colored buddy is shooting.
For that reason I recommend reading the concurrent issues of Green Lantern alongside BN proper, because they offer more spectacle and a little more insight into Sinestro, Star Sapphire, and even Atrocitus. Sinestro reclaims leadership of his Corps from Mongul in GL #46, the stories of Xanshi and Driq are told in #49, and the big Spectre-vs.-Parallax fight (a callback to Green Lantern: Rebirth) happens in #s 50-51. Doug Mahnke’s pencils are also a good complement to Ivan Reis’s. The eight issues of Blackest Night hold together reasonably well, but the miniseries works much better with its parent title.
Readers looking for more insight into the characters might also be well-advised to check out the various ancillary miniseries like BN: Wonder Woman, BN: Flash, or Tales of the Corps — because all the mayhem in BN proper doesn’t leave much room for characterization. It’s almost like the characters are too busy reacting to react in unique ways. If I didn’t already read these books, I wouldn’t have much sense of GL, the Flash, or the Atom as characters, beyond what they tell each other about themselves. In fairness, the characters tend to be defined by their emotional affiliation; so when Hal makes his big “we chose to live!” speech at the end, it is very much in the mold of the willful James T. Kirk-type into which he’s developed. Since the white light of life has intruded on the dark matter personified by Nekron, I suppose the various Lantern Corps each reflect that spirit of assertiveness-slash-rebellion in their own ways — but Hal is our hero, so he gets to lead the charge. (His spirit of rebellion is probably more egalitarian than Sinestro’s, although the GL issues do show Sinestro in a halfway sympathetic light.)
Blackest Night’s biggest asset has to be penciller Ivan Reis, who I lauded back when issue #1 came out. By and large he organizes the story well, although he has a little trouble keeping up with the super-speedsters and his crowd scenes don’t invite one’s eyes to linger upon them. He does quite well with figures and expressions, especially his lithe, wide-eyed Barry Allen. His Black Lanterns are suitably scary, even in those crowd scenes where their masses can overwhelm one’s gaze. The early issues’ moments of horror are also balanced nicely by issue #8’s understated reunions — and yes, I was moved not only by Aquaman and Mera, but also by Carter and Shiera (she was a pleasant surprise). What with all the Black Lanterns, the energy beams, and the morbid nighttime settings, I’m sure much of Blackest Night is meant to have a wearying sameness, but Reis and his inkers did a good job keeping things moving.
It’s not really fair to say that Blackest Night works best for those who bring the most to it, because that takes a lot of the storytelling burden off the people who are telling the story. Indeed, I’d say Geoff Johns was burdened significantly by his own reputation, both in the buildup to BN and in its execution. BN had been hyped since before the first issue of Final Crisis, and it had to satisfy those DC fans unsatisfied by 2008’s big event. However, with its promise of violent death, BN also risked alienating readers who might have gotten tired of DC going constantly for shock value. Thus, giving the Black Lanterns the ol’ rip-your-heart-out-and-show-it-to-you bit as their signature move was, on one level, pretty bold. (Granted, it might also have been pretty easy. I don’t know how many DC fans really get into such things.)
In the end I think most of us knew generally where Blackest Night was headed, but I for one didn’t expect it to speak so directly to the readers. I see Douglas Wolk’s point about BN being “profoundly reactionary,” but I don’t see DC going as far as he does. Outside of the characters killed in Blackest Night itself, DC didn’t 86 any of these folks just so it could bring them back here. It killed J’Onn and Aquaman and Captain Boomerang and Osiris and most of the rest for reasons arising out of their particular stories. Those reasons may have ranged from simple shock value to setting up a successor, but for the most part they had nothing to do with Blackest Night. Therefore, I doubt seriously that DC wants us to forget how or why Max Lord or Professor Zoom died. To do otherwise would make their deaths meaningless, and if there is one thing which DC appears not to want, it’s accusations of meaningless, capricious death. (It’s sure had enough of those in the past few years.) Put more bluntly, DC saw value in killing those characters, and now it sees value in bringing them back.
From that perspective, BN isn’t erasing the publisher’s mistakes as much as it’s creating new opportunities. (DC isn’t reviving all the martyrs, either — at least not yet — so Ted Kord won’t be reclaiming the Blue Beetle name anytime soon, and Ralph and Sue Dibny are still ghost detectives.) Blackest Night has also revealed a whole new Earth-centered aspect of DC cosmology, expanding Geoff Johns’ earnest conception of multicolored avatars across the range of human experience. Sure, much of it is setup for Brightest Day, Green Lantern, and the rest, but so far it comes across unobtrusively. On its face Blackest Night is a process story painted in lurid, emotional strokes — a zombie story made marginally more lively by Lantern Corps trappings. There’s no hard sell of the next big thing …
… because the next step is for those hypothetical new readers to explore DC’s superhero line on their own. Teases aside, Blackest Night #8 really did give me the sense that a page of DC history had been turned, and that readers were free to walk away if they wanted. Considering DC’s recent practices (especially relying on Final Crisis anticipation and 52 goodwill to sell Countdown), that’s a tremendous step in the right direction. Rather than selling plot twists or continuity tweaks, DC sold Geoff Johns, and apparently trusts readers to follow him into Blackest Day. That’s a pretty good strategy, I think: not only does it let him conclude Blackest Night satisfactorily, it lets him evangelize for DC’s superheroes, which clearly he loves, loves doing. That love comes through pretty clearly in Blackest Night, and if you don’t run screaming from Johns’ emo-spectrum theories and differently-colored avatars, BN gives you a lot to ponder. That sense of something deeper, something yet to be revealed, is what I think makes BN more than mere process; and the fact that Johns knows how much to dole out makes BN a tighter story. The Gospel According To Geoff will no doubt be a vast, intricate work when it is fully realized, and it doesn’t need to be thrust upon an unsuspecting reader all at once.
Overall, then, I’d say Blackest Night was pretty successful. It used traditionally B- and C-list characters as headliners, it allowed readers to get in on the ground floor for a number of reintroductions, and it told a reasonably complete story. BN probably won’t be remembered for its piercing philosophical insights, and I’m not so sure the ideas behind the various Lantern Corps will become cornerstones of DC’s cosmology — but for once I think a Big DC Event has left the superhero line in a good place.