Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Once dead, twelve heroes and villains were resurrected by a white light expelled from deep within the center of the Earth. The reason behind their rebirth remains a mystery. But it will not be a mystery for long. This is the Brightest Day.
So reads the mission statement which began each issue of the year-long, twice-monthly, just-concluded Brightest Day miniseries (written by Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi, drawn by various artists). One might therefore be forgiven for thinking that BD would have used this premise to mold those characters into an imperfect ensemble, in order to explore collectively what “life after death” meant in a superhero context.
Instead, BD farmed out almost half its potential cast to other titles, thereby transforming itself (rather quickly) into a multi-headed Rebirth-style rejuvenation. From there it reintroduced readers to Aquaman, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Firestorm, J’Onn J’Onzz, and Deadman, and used them in turn to reintroduce … well, you probably know by now, but let’s wait a while to talk about that.
Accordingly, Brightest Day forsook any kind of singular, standalone story for the handful of loosely-connected character-oriented plots mentioned above. In this respect it is a more polished, better-executed version of Countdown (To Final Crisis), the 2007-08 weekly series which spent 51 issues haphazardly trying to unify DC’s superhero books. While Brightest Day isn’t as big a mess, it makes no real attempt (beyond a series of perfunctory panels) to re-integrate the outsourced characters into the miniseries’ narrative. This ends up making those characters seem less important to the White Lantern’s underlying mission, and by extension makes the details of said mission more arbitrary.
In fact, the White Lantern’s omniscient, omnipotent involvement lends the miniseries a forced, artificial air. For all its talk about “living life” and “regaining life,” ultimately our heroes don’t enjoy a lot of free will. They behave as we expect them to and, except for one character failing a particular test, are rewarded (for lack of a better term) appropriately. I’ve watched enough Star Trek to know that, when manipulated by an omnipotent being, we mortals can usually figure out how to get our own way and make the omnipotent being like it, but that’s not the case here.
That’s not to say that Brightest Day felt entirely perfunctory or by-the-numbers. I imagine a reader’s enjoyment of the series will vary with his or her appreciation for the particular character(s) involved. For example, I’ve always liked Aquaman and Firestorm, and not so much the Hawks, and BD did nothing to change that. Nevertheless, while I liked parts of Brightest Day well enough, I have to say it was a disappointment. Brightest Day #24 tries to infuse the rest of the miniseries with deeper meaning, but in the end it came down to process. Twelve heroes and villains were brought back from the dead and moved from one set of Points A to another set of Points B (and probably a future set of Points C, etc.) While a good bit of it was entertaining, it didn’t live up to its potential.
More details, and SPOILERS, below…
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You know, I’m not sure what to think about the “new” Swamp Thing. Essentially, this is not the same character who first appeared in 1972’s Swamp Thing vol. 1 #1, who (among many other things) married Abby, participated in Crisis On Infinite Earths, and became one of Vertigo’s founding fathers. That fine fellow was, to paraphrase “The Anatomy Lesson,” a plant trying its best to be Alec Holland. By contrast, the character (re)introduced in Brightest Day #24 is Alec Holland, who’s been dead ever since Swamp Thing vol. 1 #1, and who apparently gives himself over (back?) to The Green in order to protect the Earth, blah blah blah. What’s more, the Swampy we’ve come to know has since been corrupted by Nekron’s influence — not exactly into a Black Lantern, but close — and he ends up being killed by the real Alec Holland. It reminded me both of the original Superman (Kal-L)’s death during Infinite Crisis, and Ben Reilly (thought to be the real Peter Parker) taking over as Spider-Man.
What’s more, it has the high-minded tone of “this is how things should have been,” which (intentionally or not) tends to diminish, however slightly, the Swamp Thing of Wein, Wrightson, Moore, Bissette, Totleben, et al. I mean, my first thought was boy, Alan Moore’s gonna get mad again, but then I remembered Alan Moore probably couldn’t care less about anything DC does anymore.*
Oh, and now Swamp Thing is out for vengeance against cartoonish corporate polluters, with John Constantine trailing along like a New Wave version of Jack McGee.
Still, it’s nice to have Swamp Thing and Constantine, or versions thereof, back in the DC Universe proper. It goes along with Death’s recent appearances in Action Comics; and was that Madame Xanadu I saw in this week’s Wonder Woman #610? I don’t think a new Swamp Thing series is imminent, either from DC or Vertigo, but hey, at least he can invade Gotham City again, for the first time.
Abrupt as it might have been, Swamp Thing’s portion of Brightest Day was handled pretty elegantly compared to Hawkman and Hawkgirl’s. Their particular plot involved breaking Hath-Set’s curse over Khufu and Chay-Ara, which doomed the two lovers to be reincarnated perpetually, and to have future reincarnations facilitated by Hath-Set killing them. This time, though, the Hawks travel first to the “bridge” planet called Hawkworld, and then to the Star Sapphires’ homeworld Zamaron, to a) discover the link between the eternal lovers and the Sapphires, and b) break the cycle of reincarnation by killing Hath-Set. That last turns out to be fairly simple, as Hawkman snaps his neck when the moment presents itself. However, Hath-Set had a partner, Chay-Ara’s mother, who (to make a long story short) winds up on the wrong end of the Love Entity. Along the way there are a lot of glimpses into the Hawks’ past lives, a lot of talk about staying together forever (in the ‘til-death sense), and of course a lot of fighting.
Up to issue #24, I thought this was a decent way to give the Hawks some closure, because for several years they’d been defined, at least in part, by this reincarnation cycle, and — you’ll pardon the expression — it was getting old. Removing this subplot seemed to be a good way to make the Hawks more accessible, and the two of them together was mellowing Hawkman into a more tolerable character. However, the whole arc relied too heavily both on knowledge of the Hawks’ past lives and on a decent familiarity with current Star Sapphire lore, and worked not so much as a reintroduction, but as a payoff. Furthermore, with Hawkgirl turned into … an air elemental? Wind itself? … by the events of #24, we’re back to Angry Hawkman Is Angry. Surely this situation won’t last long, and I expect it will be resolved either in Justice Society or in some future Hawkman title. Again, if I liked Hawkman more, I’d be more inclined to care.
Also left frustrated by the events of #24 was Deadman — or, more accurately, the revived Boston Brand, who spent much of Brightest Day as the White Lantern’s agent, bouncing from crisis point to crisis point and generally moving the plot along. Boston’s mission was to experience life, mostly through cheeseburgers and sex, and it did yield a nice couple of scenes with his grandfather.** However, it looks like the White Lantern and I read two different sets of Deadman comics, because the WL sees Boston/Deadman as worried only about himself. Boston sacrifices his life to save Dove towards the end of #24, not surprisingly returning him to the familiar Deadman role — and also not surprisingly, Deadman isn’t too happy about getting back to the old grind. Despite all that, though, I had thought Deadman was comfortable with his place in the universe, especially since his killer had been brought to justice, right? Even if the Hook is still out there, you’d think that would excuse a little single-mindedness on Deadman’s part. Boston’s arc was decent enough, but the context the White Lantern brought to it seemed a bit forced.
Similarly, the Firestorm plot — Ronnie, who’s been brought back to life, and Jason, who never died, have to work together — felt like it contradicted a previous story. Early in Jason’s series (around issues #9-#13), Ronnie and Jason worked together as Firestorm without being at each other’s throats. Ronnie then faded away, apparently having lost the connection to Firestorm which was keeping him “alive.” Next time we saw Ronnie was as the Black Lantern Firestorm, who killed Gehenna, which put Ronnie and Jason on less-than-good terms. In short, Brightest Day never mentions that the two had some small interactions before Blackest Night, which strikes me as a significant omission because it could have added some complexity to their relationship. “Former colleagues fighting” is better dramatically than “relative strangers fighting.” As with Hawkman, Brightest Day leaves Firestorm’s plot hanging, only this time with a literal countdown (gah! Surely DC is tired of that word!) to nuclear-man disaster. If it’s not resolved in a new Firestorm series (or miniseries), this seems like a good candidate for a Justice League storyline.
The Martian Manhunter’s plot contrasts his relationships with two women: D’Kay D’Razz, another Green Martian bent on bringing her race back to life; and Melissa Erdel, the aged daughter of the scientist who brought J’Onn (and, we learn, D’Kay) to Earth. D’Kay’s scheme — what? You thought someone named D’Kay wouldn’t have a scheme? — is rather predictable (not to mention twisted and violent), involving a Mars-is-restored fantasy which soon turns grim. By contrast, Melissa’s is touching. Melissa was wounded in an explosion caused by J’Onn’s arrival on Earth, leaving her with a bit of shrapnel in her skull that was slowly destroying her mind. J’Onn has been visiting her in the nursing home, appearing to her as a sort of super-powered vision of her father. In issue #24, though, he removes the shrapnel safely from her head and tells her the truth. Her faculties restored, she explains that she’s always wanted J’Onn’s forgiveness for ripping him away from the life he knew. He tells her “[y]ou didn’t steal my life. You and your father gave me one.” It’s a somewhat pat resolution (if J’Onn could take out the shrapnel just like that, why hadn’t he?), and it is a bit on-the-nose in light of his choosing Earth over Mars, but it’s still kind of sweet.
Finally, I liked the Aquaman plot best not just because it was the most superhero-y, but because it turned out to have the most in common with Brightest Day’s eventual theme. Basically, Aquaman discovers that Mera was originally sent to Atlantis to kill him, as her people’s revenge for being exiled from Atlantis to the penal colony/dimension of Xebel. This is complicated further by Mera’s sister Siren leading an invasion force, assisted by Black Manta, who had fathered a child (Jackson “Aqualad II” Hyde) able to “unlock” the Xebelians’ Bermuda Triangle prison. That’s pretty complicated, but through it all Aquaman comes across pretty well — neither square-jawed nor jaded, but capable and heroic.
His main problem throughout this plot is a constant reminder of his Black Lantern incarnation, manifested symbolically in reflections and physically through his command of only zombified sea creatures. It’s a nice indication of Nekron’s lingering influence on the Earth, presumably cleansed upon Swamp Thing’s return.*** It’s also a creepy, arresting visual which illustrates what’s at stake without letting it get in the way of the action. This plot leaves a thread dangling, but ironically enough for the only characters we know are getting their own series (written by Johns, with art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado), Aquaman’s story stands pretty well on its own.
Like 52, Brightest Day’s art was handled by a bullpen of pencillers (Reis, Prado, Ardian Syaf, Patrick Gleason, and Scott Clark) and inkers (Oclair Albert, Vicente Sifuentes, Mark Irwin, and David Beaty), each assigned for the most part to a single set of characters. Except for Gleason, these artists’ styles were similar enough that the book looked fairly uniform, and I had no real complaints about their storytelling.
Johns and Tomasi also worked well together, to the point where I had a hard time telling who might have written what. To me, Johns’ dialogue can get a little too hard-edged, and Tomasi’s characters tend to be too verbose; but those tendencies were less evident here. I have an educated guess about who wrote what — Johns on Aquaman and the Hawks; Tomasi on Deadman, J’Onn J’Onzz, and Firestorm — but I wouldn’t be surprised if their collaboration were more complex.
As for the story’s juggling of plots, I will say it read better in big chunks (where the shifts in scene and tone were less noticeable) than it did as biweekly installments. This is a nice way of saying that the series felt somewhat disjointed in single-issue form. Early on, BD’s focus on the Hawks and/or Deadman’s travels failed to hold my attention, and the Firestorm plot (dealing both with Stormy’s mechanics and with those of his Black Lantern counterpart) felt similarly ungrounded. The series picked up steam with the Martian Manhunter and Aquaman plots, and of course as everything came together in the last few issues.
That said, I don’t think Brightest Day would have worked as well if it were split into discrete Rebirth-style miniseries. Perhaps this could have been a kind of Seven Soldiers-style format, say with two oversized BD issues bookending a series of four- or five-issue Aquaman, Hawkman, Firestorm, and Martian Manhunter miniseries. A “Life Restored” moment at the end of each miniseries (and in the outsourced bits as well) would then have fed into the second big BD issue. Actually, I’m a little surprised DC didn’t try something like that, but I imagine logistical concerns (like Johns’ schedule) won out.
However, putting all these characters into the same book did reinforce a sense of underlying mystery and interconnectedness. It would have helped if these characters — most of whom were friends and colleagues — realized those shared connections, even in a setting as kitschy as the two married couples comparing notes over dinner. (In the Satellite Era, the JLAers socialized quite a bit in their off-duty hours.) Regardless, although the connections weren’t played up, they were there; and it simplified matters to have everyone in the same book. It also allowed Boston/Deadman to weave his way through the various arcs, something which a series of miniseries couldn’t have pulled off as smoothly.
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In terms of the bottom line, Brightest Day has had consistently good sales since last April’s issue #0 debuted at the top of ICV2’s chart, and is up there with the Bat-books and Green Lantern as one of DC’s most successful titles of the past year. Not only has it placed consistently in ICV2’s top ten (and often in the top five), it has used the favorable buzz from Blackest Night and Green Lantern to stir interest in its B- and C-list cast. Moreover, despite issue #22’s sales being down to almost half of issue #0’s, its top-ten status seems pretty secure, thanks to overall declines in periodical sales. I’d say that’s good news generally for the upcoming Aquaman series, as well as whatever else comes out of BD.
Unfortunately, in an historical context, Brightest Day’s overall numbers aren’t as impressive. Issue #22 sold 69,824 copies to retailers, which lags behind comparable data from DC’s other year-long, more-than-monthly, event-style miniseries. Countdown #3 (third-from-last in the book’s reverse-numbered order) sold a scarily-similar 69,829 copies to retailers, but its final two issues ticked up to 70,163 and 72,703 copies each. 52’s final three issues were miles ahead of both its successors, selling 97,073, 94,934, and 102,075 copies of issues #50, #51, and #52. Brightest Day’s final numbers won’t determine entirely the success of its spinoffs — I’d imagine Aquaman #1 would do better than 70,000 copies just on the strength of Johns, Reis, and Prado — but as a rule, I have to think that the spinoffs won’t sell as well.
As a story, Brightest Day had its highs and lows. As continuity, though, fans can compartmentalize BD into individual arcs, choosing to remember what they liked over what they didn’t. Geoff Johns’ real skill may lie in that realm: making comics which are, at a minimum, more good than bad. I say this as someone who’s read a good bit of Johns’ DC work, and who thinks that at this point he’s probably close to the top of his game. Clearly, Brightest Day entertained enough readers to keep it at the top of the charts throughout its year-long run. I think it’ll do well enough to make Aquaman a decent-selling book, at least as long as Johns is associated with it. Whether BD’s coattails are long enough to carry books for BD’s other principals remains to be seen.
It’s probably not news to note that year-long, process-oriented miniseries can attract a significant audience. Nor is it that insightful to call Brightest Day an improvement on Countdown. For now, though, the White Lanterns at DC must be pleased with Brightest Day. It carried a decent amount of momentum from Blackest Night, it set up at least one new ongoing series, and it repatriated Swamp Thing and John Constantine. Too bad it couldn’t have done these things in one cohesive story.
* [And then I saw Let’s Be Friends Again’s be-careful-what-you-wish-for take, seasoned with the notion that Johns and Moore are fighting some invisible, arcane duel of wits through the ether, and thought my first impulse might not have been too far off.]
** [I’m pretty sure no sex was involved with the grandfather, although I can’t remember about the cheeseburgers.]
*** [During the course of Brightest Day, in another symbolic “purge of darkness,” Aquaman’s dismemberment is re-enacted and subsequently healed. I don’t think this is meant explicitly as a commentary on the Peter David run, just something else about Aquaman that needed “fixing.” Although, he’s called “Arthur Curry” a lot more than “Orin” in this miniseries….]