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Brightest Day (Hardcover Vol. 1-3) (Review/Retrospective)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” This one’s not so much an “event” as a bi-weekly miniseries, but let’s count it anyway…

Balancing the internal storylines is a tough task for any anthology, especially one running over the course of an entire year. In this respect, 52 feels like the exception rather than the rule. It’s a fairly fundamental problem with Brightest Day that not all of the plotlines are interesting (and certainly not all of the time). It’s a rather strange phenomenon: the early issues try to balance the characters somewhat evenly across the issues, and feels somewhat awkward in trying to devote an equal amount of space to stories that aren’t equally compelling; on the other hand, the second and final thirds seems more comfortable devoting large stretches of single issues to certain characters (and to have other members of the ensemble go unheard from for issues at a time), which has the bizarre effect of meaning that a cliffhanger or two isn’t picked up for two or three chapters. It’s a tough balance to get right, and I’m sad to say that Brightest Day doesn’t acquit itself particularly admirably. It’s a shame, because there are some interesting ideas here.

Everything burns...

I can’t help wonder, for example, if the Aquaman story might have been better split out into its own condensed six-issue Aquaman: Rebirth miniseries (something of a spiritual companion to Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash: Rebirth). It’s perhaps the most interesting thread, but it suffers from being so spaced out in the pages of the book. To be honest, I could find something to like in each of the stories, but the chopping and changing between them just felt awkward and uncomfortable. I think pacing was part of the problem, as Johns and Tomasi never really found a rhythm that suited all the stories that they were telling – they were quick to drop certain angles for issues at a time, and the inevitable return felt like an obligation rather than one of interest.

Brightest Day supposedly picks up on the threads left by Blackest Night, specifically the twelve characters mysteriously returned to life at the end of that gigantic crossover. I say “supposedly”, because it doesn’t really follow the threads. While it does follow the bulk of the resurrected characters, many are shuffled off-stage to other titles. Zoom, for example, has his storyline detailed in Johns’ Flash, while Maxwell Lord is the subject of Generation Lost, and so forth. This would be grand, if Brightest Day didn’t spend so much time weaving in and out of other titles.

Quality father-son time...

It makes sense to exclude the members of “the twelve” that are being used elsewhere, but it’s frustrating to see the story return time and again to little snippets that have nothing to do with the unfolding narrative in Brightest Day. If Zoom is not being dealt with here, then there’s no need for a random page at the start of one issue that deals with the consequences of the character’s escape in Flash. Unless you were reading that title, the confrontation between Captain Cold and Captain Boomerang means next to nothing – especially jarring because it opens the issue.

“Is that why you freed the Reverse-Flash from Iron Heights, you stupid son-of-a-bitch?” Cold asks, in a plot point that was never brought up before and isn’t raised again. I’m sorry, but this sort of sloppy storytelling is one of my major problems with mainstream comics, in that a given title seems to assume that you are reading everything in the line. There’s a similar problem in Tony Bedard’s Green Lantern Corps, which seems tied to this maxi-series in an inexplicably strong manner – even down to using a surreal and almost random “special guest star” who means almost nothing in the context of that title.

Starting up a storm...

I don’t know, maybe this shared universe nonsense is a bit much for me. I honestly don’t have any serious complaints about continuity, and I think it’s awesome (in a very geeky way) that all these characters co-exist in the same fictional universe, but I think that too much crossover between concepts dilutes the line, and makes it all harder for a new (or less experienced) reader to get to grips with. I don’t mind the concept of a crossover or a maxi-series like this, uniting several strands, but I do wonder if it’s necessary to link the background of Hawkman and Hawkgirl to the Green Lantern mythos. I don’t mind a shoutout or a reference, like we saw in the origin myth presented by Blackest Night, but it feels surreal to see the pair involved in a massive plotline featuring several recurring Green Lantern characters.

This is a bit of a shame, because the series actually works relatively well as a “concept engine”, trying to reestablish and reinvent characters who have been trapped in a perpetual supporting role. If you look at the cast of Brightest Day, even the “heroes” are second-tier (at best). While Aquaman and Hawkman and the Martian Manhunter might have a key role in the tapestry of the DCU, I think Johns and Tomasi correctly decide that legacy isn’t enough to ground a character – these heroes deserve more than to just “get by” within the greater DC universe. They deserve a chance to be pushed to the front of this shared fictional universe, and that means finding interesting aspects about each to bring to the fore.

Monitoring the situation...

I admire that about Brightest Day. It demonstrates remarkable faith in the supporting characters of the fictional universe, which – I think – makes it a worthy successor to Blackest Night. As much as Blackest Night was an event focused around the already-popular Green Lantern mythos, Johns also used it as a springboard to push the Flash, the Atom and Mera to the forefront of the DC Universe. The Flash went on to be the basis of the next big event, and Mera has built herself up quite a cult following. I think this makes more sense as a business model than simply framing each major event around Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, particularly when DC is looking to establish its characters as well as Marvel has, leveraging the impressive ensemble that populates the shared universe.

And I think Johns and Tomasi do solid work with the characters here. In particular, Aquaman gets a huge push, driving the miniseries’ most successful storyline, and setting him up for a new series written by Johns and pencilled by Ivan Reis. Johns finds an angle to Aquaman that makes the character interesting – he’s not so much the King of the Seas as a character caught between two worlds. Freed of the supporting cast from Atlantis (save Mera), Johns manages to create a compelling take on a character, demonstrating that he’s more than the dude who talks to fish. While Grant Morrison’s Justice League remains my favourite portrayal of Aquaman, Johns has sold me on the character’s on-going, which seems to be the main purpose of this event series.

Sink or swim time for Aquaman...

Indeed, the other character who really impressed me here was the Martian Manhunter. The character has historically been associated with the Justice League, and I think he best use to date has been as one of the protagonists in Darwyn Cooke’s celebrated New Frontier. However, he has struggled to find his own identity outside of the Justice League, perhaps because of the character’s pronounced similarity to Superman: he’s an alien from a dead alien world who came to Earth to fight crime. Sure, he’s telepathic, but he’s also a flying brick, much like Superman.

Geoff Johns’ Blackest Night did try to give us a rehabilitation of the character, demonstrating that he is a hero to be taken seriously, despite his rather silly little outfit. While that appearance played up the character’s similarities to the Man of Steel (“I’m as powerful as Superman. Why does everyone forget that?”), Johns and Tomasi make a shrewd decision to play up the character’s differences from Superman in this story. “I envy you sometimes, Kal,” the Manhunter confesses to Superman. “Because you didn’t have to watch your planet die. Because you began your time on Earth surrounded by love, and I began mine surrounded by fear.” It’s an interesting attempt to add complexity to the character and distinguish him from the iconic Superman, and I like it. I think that the series works best in trying to find these new angles for the characters, which seems to be the miniseries’ raison d’etre.

Mars attacked...

That’s not a bad thing, by the way. Half of Brightest Day reads like a sales pitch for things to come, as if produced out of a checklist of long-term plans that DC have had on the backburner for a while. “Make Aquaman cool” would be one entry on the list, as would “integrate Vertigo with mainstream DC.” It seems quite clear that Brightest Day was written when the DCnU relaunch was being planned, as it serves as a fairly effective introduction to several of the key titles. Sure, Gail Simone and Ethan Van Sciver’s The Fury of Firestorm might disregard a lot of what was suggested here, but you can see the elements being lined up.

In fact, if half of the series is about setting up things to come, the other half seems to be about closure. Before the relaunch was announced, I thought that the book was being treated as a chance to clear the backlog of poisonous continuity that had built up around the characters. Indeed, the entire Hawkman and Hawkgirl plotline seems mired in a long and complicated back story, that their story here seeks to finally resolve. “You’ve finally come back!”the Predator greets Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and there’s a sense that perhaps the series is trying to tidy things up a bit.

Going nuclear...

It’s interesting how many older characters the series features, and how you could argue that these older figures represent the old DC universe, about to get shuffled off-stage for the relaunch that’s planned. The Martian Manhunter returns to the sight of his arrival on Earth, and visits the daughter of the scientist who pulled him across the cosmos. Despite the shifting timescale of modern comic books (which would suggest the character has only been active for ten-to-fifteen years in-story), she’s old now. She looks like she’s at least seventy, if not older, perhaps the same age as the DC universe itself.

One of the most touching moments of the story sees Boston visiting his ninety-eight year-old grandfather. It’s interesting that the character speaks of his own history in terms of the shared universe, rather than reflecting on his own life. When Boston tells him the remarkable story, his grandfather shrugs it off with a smile, contextualising it in the grand history of DC comics. “After everything I’ve seen throughout my life, from the birth of the Justice Society to the day the world met Superman,” he remarks, “I don’t doubt it.”There’s a very strong emphasis on history and the past here, but the series also seems to suggest that you mustn’t become trapped by it.

Whiter than white?

In retrospect, you could make the case that Brightest Day exists to prepare readers, unconsciously, of the upcoming seismic shift in DC continuity. While it’s respectful of the past, it does suggest that somethings are best left there. J’onn rejects the idea of abandoning Earth and restarting life on Mars, while Mera turns her back on her people, the Hawks resolve their issues, and Professor Stein – the older component of Firestorm – dies. These are endings, the story suggests, but they are also the opportunities for new beginning. “Endings are not on your mind,” D’razz advises the Manhunter, articulating the conflict, “it’s the chance of beginnings that have taken root in your heart.”

Indeed, I think the aspect I like most about Brightest Day, amid the somewhat clumsy plotting and awkward pacing, is the humanism at the heart of the story – something that seems at odds with the actually story being told. It’s fascinating, because Brightest Day is actually a very dar and violent little tale. I remember a lot of readers being surprised because they assume that, with a title like “Brightest Day”, the story would be relatively light-hearted and would see a notable reduction in the amount of on-panel violence and gore. It doesn’t quite work out like that, and Brightest Dayis a remarkably graphic mainstream comic book.

There's life on Mars...

The first issue features a Martian who has been hiding on Earth pulling her human skin off and massacring her entire family (including the dog). Hawkman warns his opponent, “The only thing you’re going to be holding, Hath, is your own warm guts which will finally end this curse of yours forever.” That a very strange sentence, if only because it seems a rather convoluted thing to yell in the middle of a superhero battle. Aquaman even loses his hand again. The series features a Black Lantern dubbed “Deathstorm”, who Johns has admitted is a parody of the sort of “x-treme” nineties anti-heroes, offering dialogue like, “This is gonna be so boss.”

This might seem a strange choice for the series, but Johns and Tomasi seem to be making a point about how our heroes are strong enough to survive this sort of thing – that it’s the ability to endure this cycle of violence that makes them heroic, rather than wallowing in it. Indeed, while the loss of Aquaman’s hand is an homage to a classic nineties storyline, Johns has Mera make it clear that history won’t be repeating – Black Manta won’t be killing any more children. Apparently it is possible to go too far, and Brightest Dayseems to be an attempt to define that line – to determine how much violence can be applied, without being too excessive. I’m not convinced that Johns and Tomasi get the balance right, but I appreciate the attempt.

Dead sea sharks...

However, I was discussing the stronger underlying themes of the series. I’ve always been impressed by the thematic optimism that Johns strikes in his work. A lot of fans dismiss the writer because he tends to subject his characters to horrible events, and to maim them or kill their loved ones, or to insert tragedy into their back story. I can understand these points, but I think that what makes Johns’ work so successful is that fact that he contrasts the violence around his heroes with their own state of mind. To Johns, a hero is a character who doesn’t break when faced with these sorts of things, and who can take what life throws at them.

I’m not sure that “spirituality” is the right word, because it implies an almost religious element, but I do like that sort of aspect of Johns’ work. It’s the kind of thing you could see playing out in the background of Blackest Night, and what made the crossover work as more than a collection of action scenes. It’s an attempt to make peace with the world at large, in the face of tragic circumstance. “Life is not what you plan,” the ring tells Boston Brand, and I think that Johns believes that it’s how we cope with that randomness and unpredictability that defines us. The Martian Manhunter offers a response, one that is quite heart-warmingly optimistic, and proves that Johns isn’t the cynic many suggest him to be. “We are all connected,” J’onn observes. “We are one. And together we can achieve anything.” That’s the triumph of the human soul, right there, and it’s something that Johns returns to a lot in his superhero work.

The Constantine Gardener...

In contrast to that optimism, Johns suggests that it’s the villains who can’t make their peace with the consequences of life’s random chance. Perhaps that’s why John typically writes such strong villains, because they feel decidedly more human than his heroes – because they don’t overcome the hurdles put in front of them. Captain Cold dismisses Captain Boomerang’s attempts to figure out the reason for why he came back. The villain insists, “We don’t look for answers to the ‘why’ because we know there’s no master plan. We take what we can outta life because we know life doesn’t give back.” Hawkgirl’s mother can’t fathom why her daughter would fight for love, a concept that has caused nothing but suffering, “What has love truly brought you over the centuries– but pain?”

The White Ring – the voice of “the Entity” – is consciously written as if it is the voice of an entity close to God. It offers nothing but judgment and commandments, proclamations without explanations. It advises Hawkman and Hawkgirl, after they’ve fought so furiously for their love, “You must live life separately to live life stronger.” Hawkman doesn’t understand or comprehend. It makes no sense in the context of what we’ve just seen, he demands, “What? What’s it talking about, Deadman?” Boston, the messenger, honestly replies, “I don’t know.” The randomness of the Entity is meant to reflect the beautiful chaos of life, but this doesn’t make for good storytelling – it seems arbitrary that Firestorm’s confrontation with the Anti-Monitor is cut off so suddenly. Still, I can see what the team are trying to do.

Gone to ground...

While the White Ring seems to seek the greatest good – the preservation of the planet Earth – it’s curiously disconnected from the lives of those it has chosen to carry out its will. “It is part of the plan,” it offers as a justification for its increasingly aggressive actions towards its champions. If you believe in religion, or chose to believe in a concept like “God”, Johns and Tomasi suggest that the creature’s sense of scale must be so incredibly vast that it would take little interest in our own individual existence.

The concept of the Judeo-Christian God, as depicted in the Bible, is one far removed from our petty mortal concerns, make rules that might seem arbitrary (read Leviticus) or remaining relatively disengaged from mortal affairs (as in the New Testament). I don’t want to generate too much controversy, but there’s a very strong religious element to the story. One wonders if the command to the Manhunter to burn the forest, without any explanation or context, is a deliberate echo of the Binding of Isaac from The Book of Genesis, where God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son.

"It's always Batman..."

I wonder if the superheroes are designed to serve as something of a contrast to this more detached and uninvolved “Entity.” Grant Morrison made the case in his celebrated Justice League run that the superheroes were the spiritual descendents of the Greek and Roman Pantheons, and one wonders if there’s something similar at work here. In fact, the attempt by Johns and Tomasi to anchor these particular heroes to “the elements” might be read as a commentary on this – an attempt to anchor the science-fiction superheroes in rudimentary science in contrast to rudimentary religion.

It’s telling that the whole thing might have just gone a lot smoother if “the Entity” had simply been up-front with everybody to begin with. Tomasi and Johns seem to suggest that only people can judge the actions of other people. Ultimately the balancing of good and evil must be made with one’s self – it isn’t for divine beings or those with more power to measure the quality of our life. Batman, ever the stand-in for the human side of the DC universe, offers a fairly good way of measuring one’s lasting legacy, asking, “Did I do more good than bad?” Even Batman, the most cynical character in the DC universe, offers a cautiously optimistic judgment on his own life, suggesting, “I hope so.”

Life's a beach...

It’s remarkably touching, and I think that Brightest Day is at its best when it plays to these themes. There is one more aspect of Brightest Day that tends to generate controversy or discussion – and that revolves around a reveal towards the end of the series. Those looking to avoid spoilers may want to click away now. Those who remain on the site do so at their own peril.

Brightest Day reintroduces Swamp Thing to the DC universe. Being honest, I thought it was inevitable. I think that Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run stands with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as one of the single best in-continuity runs for DC comics, so it seems a bit of a non-brainer to reintegrate the character. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other – I just want good stories. An in-continuity Scott Snyder Swamp Thing series is just as fascinating to me as an out-of-continuity Scott Snyder Swamp Thing series. So the introduction of Swamp Thingfeels like another item on the series’ checklist.

The power of love...

With regard to the above discussion on the humanism of Geoff Johns’ writing, it’s telling that Johns has Swamp Thing go on the rampage when he lacks the humanity of Alex Holland to anchor him, another example of how Johns seems to want to humanise the heroes of the DC universe (in this case, literally). It’s fascinating, given how it’s a frequent criticism that DC’s heroes are typically less “grounded” or “human” than their Marvel counterparts, and I wonder if the humanism of Brightest Day is a conscious attempt to redress that perceived imbalance.

There was a lot of on-line discussion about the reveal that Swamp Thing was “the big bad” at the end of this gigantic crossover, with a lot of readers feeling somewhat disappointed at the lack of a build-up or lead-in towards it. I find that attitude fascinating, because I suspect there was a large overlap between that demographic and the one that consider Tony Daniel’s “fair play” mystery about the identity of the Black Mask in Batman to be “too obvious.” Apparently you can’t find a happy medium.

Green and black...

I think that Johns and Tomasi did a fairly solid job leading into the reveal towards the end of the collection. After all, we’re told “the green must die.” There’s a conscious environmental theme to certain storylines, from the Martian Manhunter’s attempt to kick-start life on Mars through to Aquaman’s attempt to contain a topical oil slick in the Gulf of New Mexico – there’s definitely hints of a theme to be found, if one looks hard enough, particularly the idea of anthropomorphic personification, with the Firestorm Matrix serving as “an actual spark that preceded the existence of the universe.”

There are hints dotted all over the place, throughout the run, even if none of them are obvious, sometimes hidden in random babble or exposition. Possessed by the White Light, it’s hard to believe nobody found Batman’s imagery suggestive when the Dark Knight observed, “It’s all connected. Like roots twisting in the ground.” Even when it’s being wilfully oblique, the White Ring admits that it is working on “the plan to stop Earth from turning against humanity.” There’s enough foreshadowing there to tie it all together, and I’m surprised that nobody seems to have deduced the twist ahead of time, particularly given the trend towards reintegrating Alan Moore’s works into the DC universe.

White knight?

The artwork across the collection is impressive, but that’s no surprise. Patrick Gleason and Ivan Reis are probably among my favourite artists working at DC today, and they acquit themselves remarkably well – both artists having a great synergy with their writers. It looks really good, and I think that’s a credit to all involved.

Unfortunately, Brightest Day is just too disjointed and awkwardly plotted and paced to stand up to comparison with the celebrated 52. I admire its use of theme and character, but the story doesn’t feel well-told enough for me to ever really engage with what’s going on. It’s a shame, because Johns and Tomasi really are stronger than their work here would suggest, and it would have been easy to tie up some to the loose odds-and-ends the impede the enjoyment of a collection. Still, it does seem to succeed in the editorial objectives set for it. It sets up a lot of threads I expect to see resolved down the line, and it reworks various characters, pushing them to the front. I just wish a little more attention had been paid to the story that was being used to do this.

2 Responses

  1. I never actually finished the final issues of this series, though I do actually have them sitting in a box in my closet; I generally found Brightest Day to be a decent bathroom read but not really much more. The focus on Deadman was nice, though in contrast my eyes glazed over anytime Aquaman and Mera made an appearance…I need give it another shot the whole way through now that its more of a stand-alone story and tenously out of continuity (though the verdict is still out on that one)

    Side-note, I just picked up Vols 1-3 of Swamp Thing, but I understand that whatever Geoff Johns did here (and Scott Snyder is now running with, which is excellent by the way) doesn’t necessarily negate the Alan Moore run…but I only know that second-hand at this point. Looking forward to finding out.

    • Enjoy it. I don’t think they negate it completely, but they play off it. In fairness, I think that it’s fair for Johns and Snyder to differentiate their runs from Moore’s, if only because the guy wrote the book on Swamp Thing, in so many ways – trying to continue his themes or develop them beyond the work he did feels like a losing battle, so it makes sense to change the background a bit.

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