Geoff Johns et al., Blackest Night (DC Comics, 2009). $3.99, monthly.
By Alex Boney
There are many very good reasons to be skeptical of the Blackest Night storyline currently unfolding in the DC Comics Universe. One reason is that Blackest Night has turned from a relatively contained story running through the Green Lantern titles into a much larger crossover event stretching through much of the DCU. In the Free Comic Book Day Blackest Night #0, writer Geoff Johns admits as much: “I know that comics dubbed events can disappoint, both on a retail level and a fan level. I know the frustration of delays and accessibility” (p. 13). It’s not just delays and accessibility that plague crossover events, though. In recent years, comic book readers have been compelled to buy scores of tie-in books more out of obligation and completism than enjoyment. But the main reason why I was skeptical of Blackest Night is that its central focus is death. Death is essentially a revolving door in mainstream superhero comic books—a cliché that readers now meet more with a collective roll of the eyes than with shock or loss. It has become difficult to take characters’ deaths (and inevitable resurrections) seriously. But if there is one mainstream comics writer I trust to make an event comic book about death meaningful, it’s Geoff Johns. Thus far, Johns and the crew he has with him have managed to turn my skepticism and cynicism into excitement and pleasant surprise. Halloween II may be hitting theaters in a couple weeks, but Blackest Night is already the most important pop-culture horror story of the summer. Because it’s more than just a horror story, just as it’s (hopefully) more than just an event. At its core, this series actually has the potential to redefine life in mainstream superhero comics.
Structurally, Blackest Night is set up like any other superhero event story. The main event takes place in an eight-issue miniseries called Blackest Night. The ongoing Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps books house the main tie-in stories, while several miniseries (Blackest Night: Batman, Blackest Night: Titans, Blackest Night: Superman, and Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps) flesh out the action that’s taking place in the main series. As is the case with any crossover book, this all looks intimidating and off-putting on paper. But you don’t need to read all of the books for the main story to make sense. Blackest Night and Green Lantern are fulfilling on their own, and all the prerequisite situations and back-stories are relatively clear from the outset. But while the central situations and conflicts are clear going into Blackest Night, there’s a lot more going on in this story than is evident on the surface.
One difficulty a new reader might have with Blackest Night is that Geoff Johns has been laying the groundwork for this story since he launched the current Green Lantern series in 2005. During the 42 issues of Green Lantern that led up to Blackest Night, Johns has been planting seeds that are now coming to fruition. Early issues of Green Lantern (#5-6) re-introduce Black Hand—once a throwaway villain—more significantly into modern continuity, while the gradual shift of the Guardians of the Universe’s methods and motivations has been building toward the battle we’re witnessing now. Johns has proven repeatedly during the last decade that he’s gifted at the structure of periodical storytelling. JSA, Action Comics, and Teen Titans all provided case studies in how to plot an extended story while making individual issues resonate with history, nuance, and emotion. But Green Lantern has proven to be John’s best work to date in mitigating the limitations and capitalizing on the potential of periodical literature.
That said, I was getting a bit restless—maybe even bored—with Green Lantern during the year leading up to Blackest Night. The Green Lantern Corps is familiar to anyone who has been reading DC Comics at any point since the Silver Age. But Johns has been gradually introducing new Lantern Corps that follow the traditional ROYGBIV color spectrum familiar to…well, pretty much any high school graduate. By the time Blackest Night begins, we’ve been introduced to representatives of the Red Lanterns, the Orange Lantern, the Yellow Lanterns (or Sinestro Corps), the Blue Lanterns, the Indigo Lanterns, and the Violet Lanterns. All this sounds a bit gimmicky, and I suppose it is. I’m sure the Rainbow Lantern jokes flow freely in comic book shops, and the stories during the last six months (“Rage of the Red Lanterns” and “Agent Orange”) have seemed a bit like corporate branding rollouts. Some of the short stories in the three issue Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps miniseries felt forced and a bit stilted. But the overall premise Johns has created—that various and distinct human emotions are attached to each manifestation of light—is interesting and compelling. Red=Rage, Orange=Avarice, Yellow=Fear, Green=Willpower, Blue=Hope, Indigo=Compassion, and Violet=Love. A full, diverse manifestation of life is necessary if a manifestation of Death—the Black Lantern Corps—is to have any impact or resonance.
Ultimately, the treatment of death is the biggest obstacle in the story Johns has created. Death in superhero comics has become quite the cliché. In fact, pointing out the fact that death in superhero comics is a cliché has become quite the cliché. Maybe I was a more naïve reader in the 80s, but it seemed like comic book deaths seemed to stick in that decade. When the Flash (Barry Allen), Robin (Jason Todd), and Supergirl died, these events seemed to matter. But in the last two decades, death has become almost a rite of passage for superheroes. Superman, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Superboy, Flash (pick one), Captain America—all have died and returned, and it’s all become a bit much to take seriously. Every time a top-tier character dies, it’s almost a given that they’ll be back before too long. Returned, reborn, relit, or refried, these characters always seem to come back.
Since Blackest Night features the return of the many characters who have died over the years, this book runs the risk of turning into a “oh, look who’s back” tour. Luckily, Johns at least seems to be aware of this trap. In Green Lantern #43, Black Hand muses, “Death has been cheated many times in this universe” (p. 3). Thus far, the biggest resurrections of the recently-deceased have been Martian Manhunter and Aquaman. But these characters aren’t “back” in the traditional sense. They’ve been possessed by the Black Lantern power and raised from the grave in a zombie-like state. While they retain memories and personality characteristics they had during life, their intent is clearly to wipe out life on Earth in order to pave the way for a greater power to emerge. (We don’t yet know what this power is, though, and the mystery is one of the fun parts of seeing the story unfold.) Johns’ extensive knowledge and understanding of the DCU (rivaled probably only by Mark Waid) is in full effect in this series, and his breadth of comic-geek insider knowledge has provided many chilling moments in just the first few issues. When Ralph Dibny (Elongated Man) says “I smell a mystery” near the end of Blackest Night #1—just before beating Hawkman to a pulp—my eyes widened and I had one the few “holy crap” moments I’ve had reading comics this year. This use of the undead seems to capitalize on the zombie appeal of popular books like The Walking Dead and 30 Days of Night, but Blackest Night is perhaps more effective because these characters have familiar histories that impact their relationships with the living heroes they’re stalking.
The shock effect created by using recognizable dead characters is risky, though. If this story becomes a giant stunt to bring characters like Firestorm and Elongated Man back to life, then it will inevitably fall flat and affirm the cynicism that many readers have. But if Johns follows through with what he’s started—if he uses living characters’ encounters with the dead to realign their perspectives and their focus—then the book will succeed in making readers rethink the nature of death in mainstream superhero comics. Because at its center, Blackest Night is ultimately a book about life. Death’s greatest impact is reminding the living what they’re living for. And a superhero story focused on life will be a refreshing change of pace in a genre dominated by temporary, cheap, and meaningless death.