My son Coleman has been buying and digging DC’s latest extravaganza, Blackest Night, and he was kind enough to lend it to me so that I could check in on the company’s latest twists and turns in continuity. Lately he’s been one of my windows into the DC Universe (along with Batman and Robin and the disappointing New Krypton franchise); thanks to him, I have a better idea of what’s now happening to the Green Lanterns and the various other “colored” Lanterns of the DCU, the reds, the yellows, and so on, who together comprise Geoff Johns' so-called emotional spectrum. This “spectrum,” in effect a prismatic retcon of the Green Lantern mythos, strikes me as one of the more interesting gimmicks with which the DCU mythos has been retrofitted in recent years.
Unfortunately, no offense to Coleman, I haven’t found much to enjoy in Blackest Night. Not my cuppa tea, and all that.
Mind you, I’m grateful to have been able to read it; nice to keep a hand in, so to speak. But I’ve ended up having the same reaction to it that I’ve had to most of the DC and Marvel “event” series I’ve sampled these past few years: it ain’t for me. That this should be my default reaction to a type of comic book that once felt very much “for me” is bemusing, though it probably doesn’t warrant more than a gusty sigh and an “Oh well.” Suffice to say that these days I cannot muster enthusiasm for full-on continuity maintenance/revision.
From where I’m sitting, Blackest Night does not bear out the potential of the emotional spectrum concept. The series doesn’t offer much by way of world-building or sense of wonder. What could have been a grand pile-up instead feels like a confused postmortem. Its story-logic is thin and opportunistic, that is, frankly rigged, leaning toward nasty setpieces without the kind of connective tissue that would make those setpieces feel deserved and meaningful. As in so many crossover series, plot requirements are stipulated but not earned: a series of conditions, rather like rules in a game, are asserted so as to divide the story on several fronts and involve a plethora of characters. The results are both bewildering and unpleasant. Too many scenes are set up as if to torture beloved characters (and their fans) by having zombified mockeries of the dear departed -- the so-called Black Lanterns, based on the reanimated corpses of bygone friends and lovers -- attack the heroes and press them viciously in all their emotional weak spots. The dialogue is laced with cruelty and an unconcealed element of sexual sadism: some of the Black Lanterns get “hot” when they see nastiness enacted. For example, in issue #3 the “old” Firestorm, a Black Lantern, delights in forcing the “new” Firestorm to participate in the murder of his other half (Firestorm being the result of two people symbiotically joined).
This scene drags on with a kind of suffocating unpleasantness. That sort of salt-in-the-wound relentlessness characterizes much of the series, especially in its early, premise-setting chapters. Psychological suffering is the order of the day. Characters like the Atom are reminded over and over of the awfulness of Identity Crisis (a particularly wretched event series) and all the losses and shocks suffered in the recent past, et cetera, so that the process of grieving is prolonged, sharpened, and rendered sickening.
The upshot of all this is that many of the story-beats are repulsive to me. Worse yet, the narrative delivery is spastic, arrhythmic, and plain hard to follow. I cannot get an emotional toehold in the story, because I don’t see a robust, solidly crafted narrative follow-through to justify all the awfulness and the portentous hype that surrounds it. Despite the (I take it) painstaking seeding of this story across the DCU over the past couple of years, the actual storytelling is a hazy blur, the presumption being that I’ll do my homework so that I can understand the import of what’s happening.
It’s axiomatic by now that DC and Marvel have given up on casual readers. Hell, that was true twenty-odd years ago. The vast narratives of the DC Universe and Marvel Universe not only allow for, they’ve practically come to revolve around line-wide crossovers like these, mega-events that presuppose readers steeped in company lore and conversant with the latest involutions in continuity. Blackest Night is yet another example of a story that isn’t really a story in itself, but a skeleton, a notional blueprint, a whiteboard’s worth of Post-It notes. It continually gestures outward and backwards rather than resolving into a tight, self-contained performance. The resulting impoverishment of the narrative is twofold: for one, the plot judders unpredictably from one issue to the next, transitioning vaguely, with unexplained sidelong bits that are never fleshed out. The result is a hectic patchwork of allusions that makes clear only one thing, the fact that DC is banking on me investing in a bunch of interpolated tie-in issues from other series. Secondly, all the emotional cues are dependent on obsessive reader investment in the DCU characters, specifically the ways those characters have been “developed” or ravaged in other recent event series. Attempts at pathos depend on minute knowledge of the Identity Crisis/Infinite Crisis/Final Crisis cycle of crossovers, and, more broadly, on the literal-minded, demythologizing, and reductive treatment of the heroes that recent DC books have trafficked in so heavily, a kind of treatment that has rendered longtime favorites nigh-unrecognizable.
Granted, the Flash (Barry Allen) and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) are marshaled to serve as heroic exempla and anchoring presences, affirming putative Silver Age values. Also, some attempt is made to wake the Atom (Ray Palmer) up from his current spell of suffering and befuddlement so that he can likewise turn a corner. But these efforts at recuperation -- aesthetically conservative gestures toward DC’s well-remembered past -- are overshadowed by necrophilic renderings of death, torment, the plucking-out of hearts, and (what must be artist Ivan Reis’s forte) spectacular summonings and transformations of the armies of the dead. What we have here is an uncomfortable mashup between Silver Age conservatorship, which in itself is usually pretty boring, and Zombie Apocalypse style (bracing when done in a blackly comic style, enervating when, as here, it’s taken seriously).
In sum, Blackest Night is Marvel Zombies by way of Julie Schwartz, but in earnest-redemptive rather than darkly humorous mode. It mixing of genres, superheroes and horror, flatters neither, lacking the exuberant, can-you-top-this excess of an untrammeled zombie tale but also the unembarrassed gosh-wow absurdity of a top-rank costumer. Impeding everything is the series’ obvious function as a franchise-builder: a calculated, fussy attempt to ravel out the implications of the emotional spectrum concept and pull off yet more retconning of the Lantern Corps mythology. I suppose these aspects -- revelations about still more bad things the Guardians have done, still more trouble Sinestro is going to cause, and so on -- are tied to Johns’ larger plans for Green Lantern, but they just confused me. The whole thing is a mess.
What is most frustrating is that, as I follow the story’s dotted line, I cannot make out any sense of progress, or of narrative way stations or stops reached along the way. Everything seems to be taking place in a very short time and a very constricted span, despite multiple clues that it is supposed to be taking place over a long period and on a vast, cosmic scale. I cannot grasp the significance of what is happening and the story’s premise remains soupy and uncertain under foot, like quicksand. Again, there are gaps that seem to want to be filled by tie-ins -- and apparently we are now above such hand-holding devices as editorial notes, sign-posting, and expository dialogue, things that would make all this confusion easier to process. I’ve guess we’re supposed to assume that we’re too grown up for that.
Compounding the problem are fumbles in the visual storytelling, as in, for example, the spread in issue #1 that introduces the idea of the Black Lanterns’ “rings” spreading out across the universe. I was genuinely puzzled by the sequencing in this section -- I couldn’t figure out where I was, or why -- and wondered for a moment if I had inadvertently skipped some pages (nope). You’d think that the complicated plotting of crossover events like this would enforce an editorial commitment to crystal-clarity in breakdowns and layouts, but, based on this and Final Crisis, you’d be wrong. These are comics made for readers accustomed to Wikipedia glosses and blogospheric chatter: occasions for networking and the accrual of insider knowledge rather than freestanding stories.
In other words, what we’ve got here is a highlights reel rather than a game: a flickering series of reminders that Something Important has been going on.
I shouldn’t be surprised, I know. Most comic book fans are familiar with the continuity system and the implied contract behind it. We understand that “event” comics and their tie-ins are supposed to interlock, but also that such meshing inevitably involves some grinding of gears. Imperfect if not broken interfaces are part of the system. The problem is that overreliance on the system vitiates the drama of the individual comics, hollowing them out so that to get anything like meaningful emotional payoff you’ve got to invest in the entire crossover just for the sake of investing. That’s the only way you can feel you belong to it, or feel as if it belongs to you: the way sports fans will follow a losing team come hell or high water just because that’s what it takes to feel a sense of ownership. The emotional payoff has less to do with what's in front of you and more to do with your sense of your own effort and commitment.
There’s some sociocultural interest in this kind of exercise, but it’s not an artistic interest, is it?
Intensity, as in the spectacular brutality of Reis’s images, would seem to be Blackest Night’s only virtue. The spectacle reaches fever pitch in #8, with three double-page spreads and one foldout that works as a four-page spread -- in essence, a poster. This is where Reis excels, not in the beat-by-beat delivery of narrative (among the series’ many graphically exciting stunts are several spreads that have to be turned sidewise to be read). Story-wise, Blackest Night is barren; the gourd is empty and dry. The antagonists’ motivations are barely even sketched in, and the conflict seems phony. The storyline is justified only metanarratively, as a commentary on continuity itself and on the elusiveness of comic book “death,” rather than justified intrinsically in terms of story-logic. Sure, it’s momentarily clever to point out to fans -- who already are very aware of such things -- that continuity maintenance is, increasingly, a form of graverobbing. Ha. But this is not grounds for a major crossover series.
What happens in the end (do I even need to say SPOILER ALERT at this point?) is that the real-world ulterior motive behind the series is fulfilled, meaning that several once-dead DC characters are revived, so as to pave the way to Johns et al.’s follow-up crossover Brightest Day and what is generally being touted as a tonal shift for the DCU, something, presumably, along the lines of Marvel’s new “Heroic Age.” Hmph. By now I guess we can take it for granted that readers take this sort of thing for granted: everyone knows that the big event series are rigged to revise the rules of the game, to position new or revived properties, and to set up further event series. Everyone knows that crossovers always have larger editorial mandates in sight. But in this case the obviousness is especially brazen. I’ll concede that Blackest Night #8 takes some stabs at poignancy by spotlighting the reactions of the resurrected; that’s nice. The results, though, are garbled due to hastiness and compression, the assumption being, I suppose, that these things can always be explored in greater depth in some other comic. Again, this isn’t storytelling but blueprinting. By which I mean marketing.
In the end, Blackest Night is simply about an idea, the kind of evocatively ghastly idea that Reis can render with gusto: “the dead will rise.” This is high-concept marketing with a vengeance, a sure-fire sales lure, and I understand that, sure enough, the series has been a hit. There is, admittedly, a certain appealing craziness to the premise. I gather from talking to Coleman that he enjoys the series’ sheer chutzpah and the fact that it doesn’t try to over-rationalize everything. He thinks of it as old-fashioned or Silver Age-ish in that respect, and I can see that. Anyway, I appreciate the loan; I like keeping tabs on things like this, even if only from arm’s length. But from my point of view as a reader -- and this is fatal for my long-term interest -- Blackest Night is not about a conflict whose terms make sense inherently. What’s more, it seems a bit desperate. Its emphases on grief, psychological torture, and head-exploding, chest-bursting body horror strike me as cheap and unmotivated: frantic lunges for currency in a comic book universe half-buried in its continual obsessive exhumation of the Silver Age past. The coming Brightest Day will perhaps tack in a different direction, but I don’t expect that to last.
There must be an interesting way out of the sand trap of continuity, but this ain’t it.