Comics Time: Blackest Night #0-2

Blackest Night #0-2

Geoff Johns, writer

Ivan Reis, artist

32 pages each

#0: Free

#1-2: #3.99 each

Despite months of “Prelude” issues (whole story arcs, actually), a zero issue, and a “Prologue,” in Green Lantern #43, it’s the official first issue of Geoff Johns’s years-in-the-planning event comic Blackest Night that counts. And to be honest, my first read-through left me cold, largely by way of contrast.

That first Sinestro Corps Special a few years back was a first-round knockout–nutso heavy-metal character designs and all-out ring-on-ring action by Ethan Van Sciver, a Humpty Dumpty Green Lantern getting shot in the head, and a final “holy crap, this is going to blow you away if you’re a giant fucking nerd” secret bad-guy reveal splash page that, since I am a giant fucking nerd, blew me away. By comparison, BN #1 doesn’t have a whole lot going on. The “hey wouldn’t it be neat if…” idea of different-colored Lantern Corps isn’t new anymore. Both the comic’s general premise of dead heroes being brought back to life as killer zombies and the identities of many of the specific heroes to be revived were already common knowledge for most semi-savvy superhero fans. Van Sciver’s career-best art, and Doug Mahnke’s star turn on the tie-in issues of the main Green Lantern title–both of them weirder and harder-edged than mainstream comics need to be, with Mahnke in particular edging upward toward the top mainstream tier of Quitely, Romita Jr., Cassaday, and Frank–are replaced by the stalwart but pretty traditionally superheroey art of Ivan Reis, looking like Jim Lee scaled back toward Neal Adams a bit but somehow muddier and murkier than he’s been on GL in the past. There’s no last-page reveal at all. And the violence is extreme even by dismemberment enthusiast Johns’s standards.

But I think that this was ultimately a case of me expecting something different than what Johns was attempting to deliver. He doesn’t need to launch several years’ worth of future stories here–instead, he needs to tie several years’ worth of past stories by writers across the DC line together. He doesn’t need to kick off a thrilling saga of space-faring combat–he needs to start telling a horror story about dead superheroes coming back to life and murdering their friends. He doesn’t need to redefine and reinvigorate a character and his mythos–he needs to serve up a series of snapshots of multiple characters and the mythos of the entire DC Universe.

So rather than writing a review of BN #1 the second I bought it, I sat on it, keeping it in my backpack and pulling it out every now and then for another flip-through, another read. Now that I knew what to expect, I started to enjoy it, and the following issue, a lot more. I could admire how Reis made the Black Lantern versions of kindly old superheroes like Martian Manhunter and Aquaman into hulking, uruk-hai-style physical and existential menaces. I could get a kick out of his little flourishes, like the impressive Green Lantern hologram display of all the DCU’s dead heroes, or his riff on Rags Morales’s hyperthyroidal Hawkman (now the standard portrayal of the character, much to my amusement and delight). I could chuckle at the “jump scare” of turning a page on a quite rooftop conversation between Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara to suddenly find Hal Jordan’s plummeting body smashing the Batsignal into pieces.

For as long as I’ve been reading it, Johns’s superhero writing has consisted almost solely of finding ways to express through action and dialogue exactly what each of DC’s superheroes means. As they fight, heroes will explain what it is that makes them tick and what iconic qualities they represent in DC’s pantheon, while villains will berate them for failing to live up to those demands. If this sounds boring or precious, most of the time it’s neither, because Johns just happens to be really good at identifying those core components of each character and basing fun action adventures around them. With the exception of the Justice Society of America–there’s just no way to remove the smell of mothballs and Ben-Gay from a team full of septuagenarians, guys in gimp masks, and (oddly) perky teens–his major recent works, lengthy runs on Action Comics and Green Lantern, have been like a carefully curated retrospective of Superman and Green Lantern’s careers, enemies, and milieux. At this point, if my comics-curious best friend from high school asked me to loan him comics that would inform him as to why Supes or GL are awesome, they’re what I’d hand him.

I guess that the idea behind Blackest Night is for Johns to take aim not so much at any particular character or even set of characters but at a basic fact of life for the DC Universe itself, the simultaneous omnipresence and impermanence of death. Everyone’s always getting killed (editorially speaking, Dan DiDio’s tenure at the top has been like a Robespierrian reign of terror for the men and women in tights) yet everyone’s always getting brought back to life (at the same time he’s been reviving more dead people that Jesus and George A. Romero combined). The power of the Black Lanterns reanimates dead heroes as extremely violent and extremely douchey killing machines, who taunt and mock the heroes they target for death, who are then brought back to life in the same fashion to continue the cycle. Depending on how much credit you’re willing to extend Johns, you could argue that this concept makes literal the way the constant death/rebirth cycle makes a metaphorical mockery of whatever import these characters’ adventures are supposed to have with us. If it’s all a wash eventually, what the heck difference does all the blood sweat and tears, all the rage and avarice and fear and will and hope and compassion and love that drive the multicolored Lanterns, even make?

Chances are a lot of you are simply saying “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.” Unless you have some basic investment in the idea that these characters can still be used to tell involving stories, this probably won’t mean much to you. Moreover, unlike Grant Morrison, Johns’s evangelical belief in the power of superheroes isn’t accompanied by the experimentalist brio that’ll hook the hipsters. He’s simply trying to make a really good superhero comic book. But here’s the thing: A little faith is all you need. As other people have gone into in great detail, Johns strove to make this thing as new-reader friendly as a comic that culminates in the Elongated Man and his rape-murdered wife rising from the dead and slaughtering the umpteenth incarnation of Hawkman and Hawkgirl can be. Obviously I like superhero comics and have read quite a few, but without having read them as a child, I lack the masters degree in minutiae that many fans, particularly self-identifying DC fans, seem to view as a necessity. Therefore, while I think I’d heard the names of, say, Aquaman’s little posse of Garth and Mera and Tula and Dolphin before, I had no idea who the hell they were when they all showed up to fight over Aquaman’s grave. But because Johns’s writing is always primarily concerned with explaining and exploring each character’s role in the pantheon, I didn’t need to know who they were–it was explained to me between, and during, punches. So then it becomes a scene not about trivia questions, but about characters’ past mistakes and biggest failures literally coming back to destroy them. It’s quite effectively done. It’s not knocking me on my ass the way Final Crisis did, but who says it needs to? It’s a fun, violent superhero comic that has a sense of weight, a sense that within its confines, what’s happening to the characters, despite all the dying and rebirthing, matters to them. Clearly it matters to Johns, and I think his ability to translate that into writing that’s creative and entertaining rather than insular and pathetic is his personal power ring.