“The Dead Will Rise!” is the tag line. It evokes a zombie story, obviously (albeit one with a SF slant given the GL angle), which seems problematic both generally (zombies have been done to death in the last few years, no pun intended) and personally (I’ve just never found zombie stories very interesting).
Heaven knows there are plenty of dead characters to work with in the DC Universe, though. In fact it’s become a routine reader complaint in recent years, almost a running joke, that killing familiar characters is the most hackneyed way to goose a subpar storyline (at least, next to bringing them back). Last year’s offing of J’onn J’onzz and Batman (not to mention the return of Barry Allen) in the pages of Final Crisis are the most recent and obvious example, but far from the only one. Thus the premise runs the risk of descending into been-there-done-that cliché, or even worse, self-parody.
So: excessive hype; niche genre; story hook that treads overly familiar ground and risks being exploitative. All the ingredients for a massive disappointment. My expectations going in were not high.
Surprisingly, then, I have to say that the first issue actually of Blackest Night actually got the story off to a great start, with solid character notes, some touching emotional moments, a few surprises, and genuine suspense about what’s to come. (Not to mention terrific art.)
Spoilers below the fold.
Geoff Johns’ loose tie-in with last year’s big event hasn’t quite finished yet (Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds #5 hits the stands next week, after much delay), but in many eyes it overshadowed the book it supposedly tied in with, and this one looks likely to leave Final Crisis looking rather inadequate as well. Johns is a hit-and-miss writer in my book, but he’s obviously one of DC’s go-to guys these days… and when he’s on, as he is here, he really lives up to expectations.
For one thing, he doesn’t shy away from the excess of death that’s plagued the DCU in recent years, nor for that matter the transience of it; he confronts it head-on, addressing the emotional toll it’s taken on the whole fictional reality. The story opens on the anniversary of “the day everyone thought Superman died” (remember the big story of 1992?), as heroes around the world, and their loved ones, gather to mourn their lost comrades. It simultaneously introduces the main players in this book (notably Hal Jordan and his fellow GLs), provides a tidy expository introduction to several key deceased characters with whom some readers may be unfamiliar, and hits some strong emotional notes about how the survivors feel.
Thus (despite the long slow build in other comics) the story opens accessibly and stands on its own, unlike quite a few other crossover events. In the process, it underscores just how commonplace superhuman death has become. As the story moves on, this is explored more directly through the dynamic between Hal Jordan and Barry (Flash) Allen—both of whom have themselves died and returned from it, the latter recently enough that he’s not fully aware of how many friends and colleagues also died during his absence.
Johns doesn’t seem to be just hanging a lampshade here. The preponderance of death as a story device isn’t something he’s trying to brush aside; in many ways it’s the story’s focus. It’s possible that a few of the more recent deaths we’ve seen were done with an eye to laying groundwork for this story, but most of them weren’t, and he’s revisiting them here to explore their ramifications in ways the original stories often didn’t. Meanwhile Johns’ sense of voice for DC’s cast of characters rings true, which isn’t always the case.
As the story shifts gears it takes us to Oa, home of the Guardians of the Universe, concerned because a “war of light” is breaking out between different factions around the galaxy. Johns’ notion of an “emotional spectrum” is IMHO one of the more precious conceits he’s introduced into the GL mythos since he started writing the book, but it’s the backdrop here rather than the centerpiece, and thus not overly distracting. The actual centerpiece involves the emergence of rings of power separate from that spectrum—Black Lantern rings which cause the dead to rise, reanimated but devoid of free will, and hunting—no, not brains in this case, but hearts. And behind it all lies a sense of foreboding linked to the GL oath—“In brightest day, in blackest night…”—and the prophecy Johns has carefully established goes with it. Something major is clearly in the offing.
In a turnabout from Johns’ usual storytelling style, though, there’s no overt Big Bad in the story yet. There’s obviously some larger agenda at work behind the Black Lanterns, but who and why remains to be seen, and the story is building at a measured pace.
One key shortcoming to the story does emerge toward the end of the issue, something that’s practically a Johns trope by now: excessively graphic violence. I really don’t need to see blood flying around as hearts are ripped out and heads bashed in on-panel. Fortunately artist Ivan Reis handles these scenes at least somewhat more tastefully than many others might… and indeed his art is superlative throughout the book. Both his design sense and his figure work set the mood perfectly from scene to scene, and his portrayal of action is never less than clear. It’s a challenge to draw a “big” multi-character story like this sacrificing either style or detail, but his work here compares well to the master of that balancing act, George Pérez. The two-page spread where Hal lets his ring show Barry how many of their colleagues have gone the way of all flesh is just breathtaking.
By the end we’ve already revisited a couple of the prominent beats from last year’s event, as a BL-ified J’onn J’onzz returns to confront his former teammates Hal and Barry, while Hawkman and Hawkgirl (seemingly killed in FC, only to evade the reaper by post hoc editorial fiat) are killed (decisively) by… none other than the much-loved Ralph and Sue Dibny (themselves deceased since 52 and Identity Crisis respectively).
Shock endings: another Johns trademark, sometimes to the detriment of the larger story being told. In this case, however, I have a fair amount of confidence that he’s taking us in some genuinely unexpected directions, and that the end result will be worth all the narrative zig-zags and emotional turmoil of getting there. Maybe even worth all the hype.
And maybe, just maybe, after this blowout, death will be treated a little more seriously in the DCU. Maybe?…Tags: Barry Allen, Blackest Night, Dan DiDio, DC Comics, Final Crisis, Geoff Johns, Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, super-heroes