Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Although I Still Live, My Heart is Filled With Death."

This started out as one of my usual capsule reviews; it kinda got out of hand.

BLACKEST NIGHT #1, GREEN LANTERN #43: This whole "Blackest Night" thing has me a bit flummoxed, I must say. I've never really been a fan of the whole Green Lantern concept; which is not to say that I don't like it, but I've rarely been moved to buy, mostly because of lackluster art or just superhero ennui. In fact, I believe I have owned more issues of GL in whatever permutation you can come up with before 1972 than since. The character(s) himself (themselves) is/are fine; the concept of a guy with a magic wishing ring is a sturdy one and can definitely interest a grade-schooler; DC eventually gilded the lily by introducing the idea of a whole legion of similar characters, a space police force who flies around the galaxy fighting evil with a catchy catchphrase. I enjoyed the occasional Gil Kane-drawn story as a child, and GL was always welcome in whatever Justice League adventure I read, and that includes the comic-relief of Guy Gardner or G'nort or Kilowog. But on the whole, I've more often as not been left cold by the whole thing. "Blackest Night" itself is the latest example of the sour, nasty tone that pretty much all mainstream DC comics have adopted by default; having explored rape and murder/degradation, in particular that of previously light-in-tone characters now seen as hopelessly old-fashioned and cheesy, now we're getting overtones of necrophilia as well as that most overexposed of comics genres (for lack of a better phrase), the zombie tale. I have been on record many times in the last few years as being mostly disappointed and even repulsed by this direction, and quite frankly had planned to completely ignore this latest exercise in unpleasantness. But a funny thing happened- I got curious after reading everyone else's reactions, and decided to check it out for myself. And I actually kinda- well, I didn't really enjoy it, but I was interested, even wanted to read more...much to my surprise.

It can't be easy to write modern mainstream superhero comics, especially in this day and age in which your ever-shrinking and ever-aging core readership is more knowledgeable and more tuned-in than ever before thanks to the Internet, as well as other media. Gardner Fox, John Broome, even Stan Lee and Larry Lieber had the luxury of writing to an audience that wasn't always well-versed in what we all know now as geek canon; the Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails, the ├╝ber-fans, were fewer in number and they all thought their audience would turn over every decade or so, and continuity wasn't particularly important, especially to DC/Charlton/Dell/Gold Key; even Marvel's continuity was more internal and dealt with character interaction (i.e., the Avengers knew the X-Men, Captain America might have an adventure with Giant-Man, etc.) rather than a strict timeline of "Green Goblin broke an ankle in issue #154, and must therefore have a limp in his next appearance in Marvel Spotlight #8 when he fights the Werewolf by Night" sort of stuff. And yeah, I know these things didn't happen in those issues, it's an example, OK? Anyway, these days, the average comics reader is familiar with decades of imposed continuity, and while I don't mean to turn this into an anti-continuity screed (I even kinda appreciate continuity, even though (as you can hopefully infer) I think it's gotten out of hand), I just bring it up as an example of what I think comes to bear in the thought processes of these men, who continually are expected to bring novelty, or at least the illusion of unfamiliarity, as they plow an increasingly spent field. The old days of plot-driven stories, chock-full of expository dialogue, expired aeons ago, and we've even become accustomed, nay jaded even, to the downbeat accounts of serious superguys, in stories that have weight and consequence. We just can't have a super-villain whose distinguishing feature seems to be his ability to memorize self-help books and instruction manuals, that's hopelessly corny and pathetic. The fanboys (and that includes the grownup ones who are paid to write about these characters) won't be able to respect or take them seriously. At the heart, it all comes down to the age old, desperate need to be taken seriously by the people that the creators and readers feel like they're judged by for reading "funnybooks". So what else to do but go where previous writers have been reluctant, unwilling or unable to go? Remove the funny. Remove anything but the grim, serious dramatics and if you mush have humor, it's got to be of the smirky, cynical, self-aware type. It's a vicious circle, when you have to continually out shock and outdo what has gone before, and it's been going on for quite some time now, with no end in sight. I suppose you could say it's the inevitable, natural progression. Entropy.

I'm not even going to try to recap everything that's going on; I haven't read every prequel issue or spinoff. Even though, as I said, it scans more clearly than you'd think, it's still somewhat convoluted; I suppose the Wiki is as good a resource as anything. Basically, as I understand it, as fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, a malignant force within the GL Corps, zombified Guardian Scar (gee, how could they not have known?) has enabled D-list John Broome-era badguy Black Hand to be her (the evil Guardian is female. Of course.) agent on Earth, and as given him the power (after he blew his own brains out and killed his family, of course) to raise the corpses of recently deceased super-people, to conquer the universe or something like that. The two issues I have read are pretty straightforward; especially compared to DC's last big company-wide crossover Final Crisis; a lot of that has to do with the fact that Geoff Johns comes from a more conventional space when it comes to conceptualizing than Morrison does, and by extension this reads in a more linear fashion. Johns isn't the type to get cute with the reader. A lot of this is as purple as the zombie "costumes" on display- in the past I've always regarded Johns as the type of writer (based on a limited sample set, mostly Justice Society series) who does well with character interaction but usually lapses into cliches when it comes to his overall plotting. There are familiar tropes here as well, but he's writing them in a dizzy sort of fevered pitch, as if he's trying to channel Stephen King at his most frenzied- the backstory of Black Hand in GL #43 is eye-poppingly lurid in more than one way, and while the sight of the shambling (and in Ralph's case, stretching) corpses of the Elongated Man and his wife Sue Dibny is every bit as deplorable as previous events with the formerly lighthearted and likable characters, it is effectively horrifying...and that, I think, gets to the rotten heart of it. You can tell that Johns is trying very hard to write something that doesn't just lie there on the page, and in these troubled times, that counts for much with me. It's not as cynical and self-serving as much of DC's mainstream output has been; I get the impression that Johns wants to horrify, and damned if he doesn't come pretty close, considering that this is, after all, a bunch of superheroes we're dealing with here.

Another thing that piqued my interest is that Doug Mahnke, one of my favorite artists currently toiling in the mainstream coalmines, draws the Green Lantern proper title. His work is stylized but not exaggerated beyond all reason, and he brings a sharp, well thought-out aesthetic to his layouts- to name but one example, the appropriately creepy recurring fetal position repose shots of the Black Hand. Johns doesn't get quite so lucky on the core Blackest Night title itself; Ivan Reis has a good-enough but unexciting Adams/Brent Anderson influenced style, not something I care to see but he has a few good moments, such as the two-page spread below, reminiscent of the goings-on that Bissette and Totleben used to pull off in their Swamp Thing days, that while on the choppy side, does succeed in building up tension as the Black Lantern rings seek out their hosts.

Click to see bigger. Along with Oclair Albert (who? sounds like a pseudonym to me) on inks, they keep things appropriately dark and murky.

Look, I don't know what to tell you, and by this late date, I'm sure you've already made up your mind if you're buying in or not- so I doubt I can sway you in one direction or the other. I was prepared to hate this, and it's very, very far from perfect...but I do admire the scope and the lurid drive of the thing, so I find myself interested despite my better judgment. Which is not to say that this will happen to you; I've seen other reviews that ran the gamut from praise to pan. I don't like this direction for characters I've grown up reading, but at this stage of the game, what else is there to do as the mainstream major comic publishers consume themselves, Ourobouros-like. Guess I can watch DC devour its own tail for a little while longer. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.

Green Lantern 43: A-
Blackest Night #1: B+

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