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Geoff Johns’ Run on Green Lantern – Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps (Vol. I & II) & Rise of the Black Lanterns

All right, gang. Let’s go shoot some zombies.

– Captain Cold, Blackest Night: Flash

It wouldn’t be a massive world-ending crisis of a DC Universe cross-over if there weren’t tie-in issues by the bucketful. Sinestro Corps War, Geoff Johns’ earlier Green Lantern mega-event, was relatively low-key in its ambitions, only really spilling across into four specials that dealt with the wider DC Universe. This time there’s close to thirty, which is, as you’d imagine, quite a lot. Given the relatively simplistic nature of the event (it’s basically “superhero zombies”), you’d be forgiven for expecting that the crossovers and tie-ins would become dull or monotonous, but they mostly avoid that. It’s partially due to the variety of perspectives offered, but also due to the extremely talented pool of writers and artists on hand.

As cold... as ice...

One of the things I lament about big events like this is how they typically intrude on a regular writer’s run. For example, woe betide the reader attempting to follow Grant Morrison’s Batman without reading his Final Crisis. Or good luck trying to get into Ed Brubaker’s Captain America without having to contend with Civil War. It just disrupts the narrative flow of these long-burning arcs and themes the writer has been working on. On the other hand, there’s a geekish thrill to be had in knowing what, for example, Batman got up to suring the last time the world nearly came to an end. Blackest Night actually manages to satisfy fanboy-ish desires without disrupting too many (or any) on-going narratives.

It does this by offering us spin-off miniseries rather than forcing a tie-in arc into the book’s main title. So, readers who are interested in following Grant Morrison’s superb Batman & Robin without an interest in zombies can continue to read his book without even realising that there was a killer zombie apocalypse that Batman and Robin dealt with a few weeks back. Or those who are reading James Robinson’s averagely mundane New Krypton arc for Superman, but don’t want to follow Green Lantern events, can continue their reading uninterrupted. It’s beautiful. The complaint is that this forces completists to buy even more books, but – if they’re all good books – that’s a problem worth having. If they’re bad books, simply don’t buy them.

Dead ringers...

However, it helps that these are all good books. They aren’t all brilliant, but they are all different enough from one another that monotony doesn’t set in. We’re somewhat lucky in the superb creative teams that have been associated with each character. Blackest Night: Superman, for example, comes from the pen of James Robinson, the author who has been handling the character over the past few years. Blackest Night: Wonder Woman is the work of Greg Rucka, who would be a superb choice even if he wasn’t one of the most highly regarded creators ever to work on Diana. Even the relative newbie of the bunch, Peter J. Tomasi on Blackest Night: Batman, represents a bit of foreshadowing: Tomasi was recently announced to replace Grant Morrison on Batman & Robin. Geoff Johns even steps in to handle Blackest Night: Flash, reflecting his own stewardship of that particular franchise. These are writing assignments drawn randomly from a hat – these are writers who know and love the properties that they are working on.

It’s also worth reflecting on the fact that each of the stories is crafted in a different mould. Blackest Night: Batman is a chaotic all-action spectacular with freeze-guns, body-swapping and the demon Etrigan, while Blackest Night: JSA is a zombie siege story ala Night of the Living Dead or other classics. Blackest Night: Superman toys, appropriately enough, with the small town horror like so many fifties monster films, while Blackest Night: Flash balances a collection of important scenes with Johns’ typical character work. At three issues a piece, none is long enough to get boring and each is different enough that you aren’t left with twenty-something issues of superheroes punching zombies. And it certainly helps that the spin-offs seem to be in perfect thematic step with the event itself, even shedding new light on it for me.

It's not a bird... but it is plain bad news...

There’s a moment early in Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern which kept coming back into my mind as I read these collections of miniseries and one-shots. In that scene, Batman and Green Lantern have apprehended the criminal and are making piece with one another, after a somewhat rocky start in Rebirth. Wanting to share something with Bruce, Hal offers the caped crusader his ring, and demonstrates its power: he offers to use the ring to take Bruce back to that defining moment, to help Bruce come to terms with the death of his parents and move on (as it helped Hal overcome the loss of his own father and move on). Bruce starts to concentrate and a hazy form emerges, that iconic scene from Crime Alley. And then he stops. He can’t do it. He can’t come to terms with the pain. And he can’t let go of it.

It took me a while to get it, but this is the beauty of what Geoff Johns is doing with Blackest Night. I remarked that, on reading it, it felt like a conclusion or a finale – I think I know why. In bringing back the dead, Johns offers us the final stage of grieving. This is a saga not about the first six phases of mourning, but the last one. This event is all about acceptance. It’s a full circle – it’s no surprise that James Robinson’s Starman epilogue takes us right back to the opening moments of that first issue. David Knight’s death spurred the events of that saga, and his brief resurrection provides its coda.

There's no cop-out here...

Think about all the heroes you know and how they spend so much of their journey in the company of the grim reaper. Think about just how much death defines them. Bruce Wayne is playing out his anger over the loss of his parents, night after night on rainy rooftops. Spider-Man acts to keep a promise to his dead uncle, feeling responsible for events outside his control. Superman is the last child of a dying planet. Death is everywhere – it’s a key part of the origins of the vast majority of superheroes, and plays an even greater role in their later lives. It’s the death of Gwen Stacy which defined Spider-Man. Jason Todd’s death started a dark spiral for Batman. The most significant thing Superman could do in the last few decades was to die.

“Death defines us”, to quote the narration from a Black Lantern in Blackest Night: Teen Titans. Blackest Night is basically a group therapy session with one note coming out of it: get over it. Or, to quote Captain Cold, “When life hits you hard, you gotta shrug it off.”

It'll be a Wonder if she makes it through this...

Blackest Night is about saying goodbye, looking back and letting go of all that pent up frustration and angst, an invitation to look forwards rather than backwards, the heroes finally free of the burdens which follow them.The deaths of loved ones are accepted, even honoured. Max Lord stages his confrontation with Wonder Woman in Arlington Cemetery, surrounded by an army of soldiers who died fighting wars, and whose deaths still weigh heavy upon the nation. Yet making the choice to live outside their shadow does their memory no disservice.

Similarly, to look towards the future is not to disrespect the rich legacy of these characters, many of whom are seventy or eighty years old. Blackest Night, as an event, represented a dramatic restructuring of the DC Universe, and a bold embrace of the new – Brightest Day is an attempt to resculpt that old and familiar fictional universe into something new and exciting where anything can happen. However, before that can happen, the old ghosts must be laid to rest one last time. The cycle (here epitomised in The Atom and Hawkman as Carter Hall outlines the partner that he and Hawkgirl have fallen into – “I’ve died every way possible, but not before I watched her die” – an everlasting cycle of death and rebirth) must be broken. Old demons (“I used to be nothing but a bastard,” narrates Oliver Queen in Green Arrow, as he outlines a list of his flaws and mistakes, mistakes he keeps on making) must be laid to rest. The emotional conflicts which have defined these characters for so long must be allowed a hint of closure (“You’ve got to let it go!” Montaya instructs Professor Rodor in The Question). And, if that takes a zombie apocalypse, well… so be it. We’re in the right sort of genre for it.

You can't fight (Dr.) Fate...

In Blackest Night: JSA, Power Girl (who just launched a defense of her own complicated backstory, warning Wildcat not to dismiss her own tangled history, “You always think you can say what you want!”) finds herself literally confronted by her past in the form of her own dimension’s Lois (killed by “one crisis too many”). Despite my misgivings about Blackest Night: Superman, it does well to pit Clark Kent against his direct predecessor, the original Golden Age Superman (Kal-L), signifying the danger of this sort of baggage. It’s fitting to see Kal-L’s inspirational final words and commentary on the genre from Infinite Crisis (“it’s never going to end”) warped into a threat by his zombie self.

There is the sense of a crushing continuity in the Blackest Night: JSA and Blackest Night: Superman specials, both written by master of DC continuity James Robinson. In both, heroes are confronted by their original forms – Superman’s original iteration, and the original heroes to use various legacy identities – attacking the “poseurs – none of them worth the names they’ve stolen”. We need to let go of such things if we are to move on and embrace the future. of course, it’s somewhat harder to take such an observation at face value when DC have spent five years restoring Hal Jordan and are just revitalising Barry Allen as I type this. Still, maybe this represents something of a philosophical line in the sand: from here on, only forward!

Superman spends a lot of his time beating himself up...

The temptations to give in to the past are strong. The third issue of Blackest Night: Batman manages to be the most powerful of that miniseries, because it hits perfectly on the temptations which grip all of us – no matter how strong. As the Black Lanterns play out the final moments in the lives of Tim Drake and Dick Grayson, Tim ponders whether this reenacting represents “some kinda restart button”, as if he can somehow relive the moment and make it turn out better this time, the way it should have. “What if this is all about do-overs?” Tim asks Dick. Hell, when Liberty Bell is confronted with her deceased father and given the chance to run with him in Blackest Night: JSA, she concedes, “Even if this kills me, I just can’t turn away.”

And, to be fair, comic book characters could be forgiven for believing in “do-overs” and second chances to set things right. I believe it was Professor Xavier over at Marvel who remarked on the “revolving door” that seems to stand in the place of St. Peter in the comic book afterlife. Characters always get second chances, or return from the dead, or get to make things right, or return to the way that things used to be. That’s why the medium has become a little stale. How can these characters take change (or even death) seriously when it is so frequently overturned?

Open the door! Get on the floor! Everybody walk the dinosaur...

So the Black Lanterns, in their own weird way, serve as a hugely catstrophic group therapy session. As Donna Troy observes, in order to defeat them, the heroes must effectively bury their dead completely – and accept that they are well and truly gone. “Now and forever, Terry is dead to me,” she declares in Blackest Night: Teen Titans. In the same miniseries, Garth gets his own for of closure, with regards to the love he’s been carrying around for his deceased teammate Tara. His conclusion? “She wasn’t worth it.”

The only way to defeat them, as Hal Jordan himself articulates in the main series, is for the heroes to make the conscious choice that, as Wonder Woman puts it here, “living is better”. It’s telling that Dick Grayson, a character relatively removed from the main event, closes Blackest Night: Batman with the observation that, “Now we take what we’ve learned and use it — pass it on — so we can fight them tomorrow”. The operative word there is “tomorrow”. Because a dawn will always rise, and a lot is determined by how you face that dawn.

Death becomes her...

Or maybe I’m just reading too heavily into it, I don’t know. It’s all good comics though, solidly entertaining for somebody looking for more of the event. Of course, quality varies from story to story, with different authors and different artists at work – but the truth is that you’ll find something worthwhile in all of them, even if you have to dig a little beneath the surface.

I remarked in my main review that Blackest Night, as an event, consciously shied away from the big hitters of the DC Universe. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were tangental figures at best. The appeals of these miniseries is that it allows the reader to view the story from their perspective. However, there’s also the appeal of the one-shots, spending time with the types of small-timers and bit players that Geoff Johns clearly loves. “I like to keep a low profile,” Ray Palmer observes at the end of his chapter, after he “just saved the universe”. While Blackest Night is about celebrating the less recognisable names in the DC Universe like Green Lantern or the Flash, even the guys with “low profiles” get in on things.

I fell in love with a beautiful Stranger...

I absolutely adored the rather meta-fictional element of “resurrecting” series that had “died” – creating “undead” one-shots for series as diverse as Phantom Stranger or Starman or Weird Western Tale. It doesn’t hurt that – like the bigger miniseries – there’s a lot of diversity here, from great character work (The Atom and Hawkman) to wonderfully ingenious premises (Weird Western Tales – which is set in the present day with all your favourite Western heroes). At their most mundane they’re highly readable, and at their best they’re brilliantly entertaining.

However, I have to admit being a bit disappointed with Blackest Night: Superman. Superman is a character surrounded by death, but defined by life. The last son of a dying planet, his biggest event was his own death – and yet he’s at his best at his most joyous and optimistic rather than melancholic and contemplative. He’s the first superhero and his origin really set the benchmark. Jor-El is really the prototype of Thomas Wayne or Ben Parker or any other deceased parental figure. And yet, Robinson pits him against two of the more iconic figures from Crisis on Infinite Earths – his own predecessor Kal-L and the Pyscho Pirate, only person who remembers that there was a Crisis at all.

Lord-y, Lord-y, Lord-y...

That said, it’s clearly a conscious choice to avoid Superman’s Kryptonian heritage (and I’m pleased that the oft-mentioned-but-never-arrived zombie Jonathon Kent was chosen to represent his father), but it seems odds with the “Superman as alien amongst aliens” thing that DC was going for with the character, with New Krypton and so forth. Plus the fact that “zombie Krypton” is a whole lot more accessible to people than than “zombie alternative universe older version of Superman”. It’s not a bad thing, but it feels like a missed moment. Though apparently I’m a lot fonder of Robinson’s other contribution to the collection (Blackest Night: JSA) than most, so maybe it balances out.

The other story which really deserves attention here is the contribution from the event’s architect, Geoff Johns. He’s been gradually realigning the Flash mythos within the wider DC Universe, in a more subtle manner than he did with Green Lantern before Rebirth. Indeed, while Blackest Night: Flash is clearly the miniseries most closely tied to main series (even borrowing some key scenes), it’s also perhaps a demonstration of how carefully Johns has moved and manipulated Barry Allen’s villains within continuity. During his earlier run The Flash, he crafted wonderful and distinct personalities for them all, but since the decision to bring Barry Allen back into the fold, he’s been painting them very much as villains in search of a hero.

Maybe the Rogues need to chill out...

“The Rogues”, to use the name they’ve chosen for themselves, have steadfastly and patiently refused to engage with the wider events. In their tie in to Final Crisis, Rogues’ Revenge, they find themselves under siege for refusing to take part in a wider organisation of villianry. Here, they find themselves threatened by all their undead associates. In neither case do they require any interference from a hero of the DC Universe – they can take care of themselves, while they seemingly wait patiently for the return of the Flash. They don’t depend on him to validate their existence – they can survive and react without him (serving as the protagonists of these two miniseries, for example) – but they are still “his” selection of bad guys. Not anyone else’s.

There’s something appealing in the complexity with which Johns renders them. None of them would stray into “anti-hero” territory along with Sinestro from Green Lantern, but that doesn’t render them unsympathetic. Indeed, there’s a bizarre honour to their actions (“The Rogues don’t kill women or children,” Captain Cold explains to Boomerang when he discovers what Boomerang has been up to) and something almost endearing in their sense of collaboration as they face their threats together (as they march into battle, Cold states, “the Rogues don’t run”). Johns skilfully uses the villains in roles traditionally reserved for heroes: by pitting them against more evil threats, he can allow us to root for them, even care for them.

Flash back...

While the other miniseries are entertaining, Blackest Night: Flash is the only one which feels important, because it fits comfortably between Johns’ relaunch of Barry Allen in Flash: Rebirth and the launch of The Flash, his regular on-going series. As such, he manages to neatly tie-in the climax of his run on Green Lantern (though he will stay on, Blackest Night was the event he built on from the very beginning of his run) to the start of his run on The Flash. There’s even a nice character beat in here for those who felt that Flash: Rebirth never really got a chance to connect Barry and his grandson.

It’s nice the way that Johns has tied in big events to these little spin-offs. Indeed, moments shown fleetingly in the main miniseries (for example, Deadman’s resurrection or the resurrection of Hank Hall or Bart Allen’s conversion) are cleverly tied into these collections. In fairness, they are tied loosely enough that you can read one without the other and not believe you’ve missed anything essential, but they fit together really well. The fact that snippets of these stories were “important” enough to make it into the main narrative adds a weight to the events that you wouldn’t get otherwise, but also helps the different threads tie into one another and intersect – you don’t have to strain your brain to see how the jigsaw fits together.

He ain't 'fraid of no zombies...

It’s an excellent collection, really well put together. For someone skeptical of big events, this one has actually won me over a bit, I must confess. I wouldn’t do this very often (in fact, I imagine this is me event-ed out for at least a while), but it certainly represents one of the more open and accessible of these major crossovers in quite some time, perhaps due to the union of a simple story and so many unique approaches to it. None of these collections will stand on their own, but if you enjoyed Blackest Night, they make a fitting companion…

Check out our reviews of Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern

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