Trouble with Comics

Daily Breakdowns 073 - Blackest Night

Blackest Night #1-8

Writer - Geoff Johns

Penciler - Ivan Reis

Inkers - Oclair Albert & Joe Prado

Publisher - DC Comics

A few months back, I posted something about my preview of the review of this series being that, “it’s awful.” That was written when I had only read the first three issues. Honestly, I was put off somewhat by the killing of some DCU characters, but moreso by how other innocent, dead DCU stalwarts were turned into essentially dirty jokes, a zombiefied Elongated Man with a morbid parody of his mystery-sniffing ability being one example. It seemed to me that Johns was following in Identity Crisis writer Brad Meltzer’s footsteps and presenting another creepy, sordid take on old DCU characters that, however dated and dull, had remained essentially harmless throughout my lifetime. 

It took a while to kind of get past this, but by the end of the series I found I enjoyed it, mildly, and as long as I didn’t have to think much about it. On a superficial level, it’s nice that second string characters like Flash and Green Lantern (as well as Atom and the decidedly third string Mera) held much of the spotlight while Superman and Wonder Woman were cameos at best and Batman utterly absent. And there were flickers within me of the 10 year old Chris Allen who dug seeing the multicolored Lanterns, and though overly busy and over-rendered, Reis has some basic, Alan Davis-inspired skills that hold up well enough over the course of the series, especially when he has to draw crowded scenes of all the DCU heroes and heroines involved, diluted and basically inert as they may be.

It occurs to me that that was a pretty backhanded compliment to Reis, but really, we’re talking about Johns here. I can’t fault his work ethic—he tries really hard to turn what seems obviously to be an idea born on the commercial side (multicolored Lanterns, different rings and insignia, plus superheroes mashed up with the currently popular subgenre of zombie horror comics) into something that seems momentous and meaningful and with moments for his favorite characters. He fails in a number of ways.

First, good intentions aside, and granting that I haven’t read any of the spinoff miniseries or tie-in books, Johns is not very good at characterization. He gives these Silver Age heroes much creeper-than-usual villains to face, so their straitlaced speeches are more comforting than ever, but one never gets into any of their heads. There’s no difference between Flash and Atom, for example, and Hal Jordan is only slightly different than those two because of a slightly more casual form of speech. Johns threw me off a few times with pop culture references that were no doubt appropriate to a lot of the people reading the series, and yet they felt odd coming from the mouths of some of the characters. I guess we were all young once, yet after years of adventures against real (in the DCU) menaces, I found it strange that Guy Gardner would make a Skeletor reference to Nekron. There’s false bravado and laughing in the face of death, and then there’s making a reference to a bad ’80s cartoon while you face an enemy with billions of undead souls in his thrall. Seemed pretty lazy.

Aside from the attention paid to Aquaman’s widow, Mera, who is just really pissed off, Johns has nothing in mind for any of the female characters. He’s content to instruct Reis to place a couple dozen of them in the various double page spreads throughout the book, but there are no subplots for them aside from a tiny, easily resolved one about whether Wonder Woman goes to the side of the dark or the light. 

If I’m being honest, the idea of different colored Lanterns with each representing a different emotion is a pretty good one. That said, Johns doesn’t do much with it. The Red (rage) Lanterns are assholes, the Orange (Avarice) ones are greedy, etc. Maybe it’s unfair, but I kept thinking, “Man, Alan Moore could really do something mind-blowing with this idea.” Johns is content to use it for some jokes when it comes to the negative emotions, and corniness when it comes to the loftier ones like love and hope.

It has to be said that despite eight issues with basically a pretty simple plotline and a handful of major characters, a lot of necessary information is conveyed in the tie-in and spinoff books. The forming of the different Lantern factions, and some important background information such as Hal Jordan’s antipathy towards Sinestro or that his ex-girlfriend is now in the Pink Lanterns (I think), isn’t explained, and newcomers have to glean what they can. 

Some choices probably seemed a lot better on paper. The Flash becoming a Blue Lantern because he inspires hope makes sense, but once he’s blue he doesn’t look like the Flash much anymore, and becomes unimportant. Lex Luthor as an Orange Lantern in glowing orange armor looks silly—I can’t recall any imposing villain in orange, ever. Wonder Woman in pink because she loves Earth so much just doesn’t look much like Wonder Woman. And really, what’s with this goofy idea that as soon as these heroes choose sides, their costumes automatically change color, or the dead ones’ costumes change with this Black Hand/Nekron Black Lantern rebranding? It’s stupid. 

It’s worse that instead of embracing the action-figure-driven stupidity, Johns tries to float a theory or two to show he’s serious about the endeavor. Nekron isn’t just a dead(ish?) creep, he’s actually sentient dark matter. Or something. Black Hand isn’t just a second rate villain in a Bullseye suit turned into Nekron’s toady, he’s a long-simmering avatar of evil according to the Johns-scripted backup journal entries each issue. 

Aside from several heroes getting punctured through the chest, or pulling long, greasy tongues out of evil mouths, there isn’t very much action in this series. Lots of characters get lines, and then then all pose together, but there’s not much fighting. It’s so overly populated it’s like Lollapalooza or something—lots of good acts but none of them have the time to really work up any momentum. 

I found a couple examples where it really felt there was no editor on hand to question Johns on what he was doing. Repeatedly throughout the series, there are captions referring to power levels at a certain percentage, or stiff, computer-like declarations about an emotional tether being established or severed, and while this all relates to Nekron and his plan to take over the universe and snuff out all life, it’s never explained why it all has to be so robotic. Nekron isn’t a robot, and we never see any technology employed on his behalf; it’s magic if anything. 

The other example, and I’ll allow that this could have been editorially-approved and perhaps even driven, is that at the end of the series, several dead heroes and a few villains are resurrected. Now, we’ve already had Hal Jordan and Barry Allen brought back from the dead in the past few years. One can make a case for Hal, and not as much for Barry, but fine. They’re here. But why we need the original Hawk back, or Professor Zoom, or the original Captain Boomerang, especially as his son has taken his place, is beyond me. Worst of all is bringing back Boston Brand from the dead. Brand is only interesting as Deadman, a kind of ghost who can possess other people as he rights wrongs and pursues justice. As a regular, living guy, what’s the point?

All in all, I get it. Johns came up with a way to make the Green Lantern Corps seem important and not just a dilution of one decent character, ironically by diluting them much further. He tied a boring enemy into them and made him important by his ability to resurrect dead heroes for his bidding. He brought back Barry Allen from the dead, because there wasn’t a perfectly good Flash he had spent many years establishing. And it was all good, as long as you were thinking towards the ultimate goals of lots of action figures and maybe an animated movie or videogame. As a story, it makes your headache and it’s hard to find much creative justification for it.

—Christopher Allen