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Geoff Johns’ Run on Green Lantern – Brightest Day (Review)

It must be difficult to follow an absolutely huge event like Blackest Night, which cemented Green Lantern as one of DC’s largest franchises (perhaps second only to the Batman books under Grant Morrison). After all, the gigantic crossover was the culmination of over five years of work by architect Geoff Johns, and it might have been easy for the writer to pack it all in and call it a day. However, he didn’t. This collection, covering the entire New Guardians story arc, is very clearly a bridge between two big Green Lantern events – Blackest Night and War of the Green Lanterns. It also works a launching pad for a whole host of other titles, from Brightest Day to Emerald Warriors to Green Lantern Corps. However, the collection works at its very best when it is smaller in scope, and more intimate – when it pauses to wonder what happens to a world-saving superhero when the heat of the great big galactic threat has passed.

Hal's still got really poor self-image...

I like Geoff Johns. For my money, he’s easily the most accessible mainstream superhero writer working today at either of the two major companies (at least on a consistent basis). The writer tends to attract a fairly strong pool of criticism on-line, with all manner of commentators crawling out of the woodwork to pour scathing criticism and hatred on the writer’s work, which seems a bit unfair. I can recognise the writer’s flaws – some of which we’ll discuss in a moment, which include a heavy reliance on childhood trauma and perhaps an over-simplification of core concepts in order to springboard his story – but I don’t think that they are significant enough to justify the attacks that he has received. Certainly, he’s one of the stronger and higher-quality monthly writers at the moment, and I think that the vocal criticism he has earned derives mostly from his relative sales success.

I think Johns’ great strength has always been the way that he can boil down the decades of continuity that many heroes find themselves bogged down by, and deliver a simplified and concise little story building upon that. Johns gets the very core of most of his characters – whether it’s a clever moment in Flash: Rebirth where Barry Allen explains the only reason Superman ever won a race against him was because the event was for charity, or even that fantastic confrontation at the end of Sinestro Corps War where Hal explains to Sinestro that he doesn’t win because he was born without fear, but because he can overcome it. They are little touches, which boil the characters down to their best in a short sentence, and tell you everything you need to know.

Into the black again?

Some might call that over-simplification, complaining that Johns’ work lacks complexity or nuance. I think that such a suggestion is a little bit to shallow itself. Johns doesn’t deliver mind-bending concepts like Grant Morrison churns out on a monthly basis, but he does have a clear grasp of the basic mechanics of a superhero story. His tales are always efficiently constructed and feel more substantial than most other writers, despite the fact that the author has a preference for splash pages and big action sequences. There’s something to be said for being able to plot and write a relatively straight-forward superhero arc, a skill Johns seems more adept at than the vast majority of writers.

There are a lot of criticisms levelled at The New Guardians, a ten-part arc that serves as something of a bridge between two much bigger story arcs. I actually quite like the core of what Johns is doing, but I find that structure of the story feels a little weak. This isn’t necessarily due to any quirk with comic book story-telling conventions, and more to do with the fact that the book consciously feels like it’s a “lynch pin” book. We are treated, over the course of the ten issues, to a conversation copied verbatim from the miniseries Brightest Day, a shadow-y conversation from Green Lantern Corps and Emerald Warriors, a passing reference to an arc in another title and a random story page wasted explaining why Sinestro is going to be appearing in Green Lantern Corps.

You've got to be kitten me...

The problem with each of these, apart from the panel space they eat up and distract from Johns’ story, is the fact that they clutter the story. The White Lantern that Sinestro and Hal and Carol discover is ultimately a completely pointless plot point. It’s a macguffin from another series, and is pretty much forgotten about (save for some expository dialogue) once the group leave. So a sequence in Green Lantern feels like a deleted scene from Brightest Day, with a story-telling hook suggested that won’t be followed up in this title. Similarly Sinestro’s departure, which is completely pointless since he’s back almost straight away. It feels like a one-page ad for Green Lantern Corps. If I hadn’t have read it, I wouldn’t have known he was gone, and just assumed – if I worried of such things – that his appearance in Green Lantern Corps took place between the pages here. I don’t find out what happened to his daughter, nor how he interacted with Kyle, so it feels like a waste of space.

Which is a shame, because the book could almost use more space. You might wonder how a ten-issue story arc might feel compressed, but the story does feel like it’s several other stories condensed down into one. There are enter chapters in the collections that function as stand-alone chapters (for example, the superb spotlight on Atrocitus and the Spectre), and the race to collect all the emotional entities feels almost rushed as we feel the new ominous threat building in the background. However, though the plot might concern the attempt to tame the mysterious creatures before an old enemy can do the same, that isn’t really what the story is about.

A smashing read...

Because the story is about Geoff Johns’ Hal Jordan, the character he resurrected five years ago, and how his life is basically falling apart as the dust settles in the wake of the big cosmic threat that he just vanquished. Johns dares to wonder what a superhero does when they’re between jobs as it were. Hal Jordan is an adrenaline junkie. He’s reckless and he thirsts for adventure. Indeed, the only way he can converse with his on-again off-again girlfriend Carol Ferris is when they’re roaring through the sky in jet fighters. This isn’t a man who knows how to slow down. And he’s heading towards a nervous breakdown.

“Hal? When was the last time you took off that ring?” Superman asks at one point, and Carol seems to need to repeatedly remind Hal that he is dating a pilot with the callsign Cowgirl. It’s heavily implied that he isn’t too bothered to see her on returning to Earth. Instead, Hal just jumps into the next big thing, pushing himself and straining himself. Characters are genuinely concerned about him, from Carol to Barry Allen to the Guardians of the Universe. Even Larfleeze, the most self-absorbed creature in the universe, can spot that Hal’s coming apart a bit, “Cross the line, Green Lantern? You’re the one working with me. Sinestro. Atrocitus. So who’s crossing what line? Or is there even a line at all?”

He's making a list...

Because here, in this space between events, Johns hints at some stuff that was bubbling away under the surface all along. Hal is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s taking all his will to hold himself together. Green Lantern: Rebirth provided a handy explanation for Hal’s murderous rampage as Parallax, blaming it on a giant yellow fear cockroach, but here Johns suggests that Hal hasn’t come to terms with it. “You still cryin’ over that?” Lobo goads him, but it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be. And, in fairness, it’s the first time we’ve really seen how far the creature got under Hal’s skin, beyond the anger and the rage and the pain. It’s the fear.

Because that’s the sad truth of the man behind the mask that Johns really gets at here. If Hal slows down, even for a little while, he’ll let the mess that is his life catch up with him. He’s have to confront the real problems that affect him personally. Here we see Carol Ferris, the love of his live, abandon him, throwing his own words back in his face. He asks, “So when are you coming home?” She replies, “I used to ask you that same question. And I’m going to give you the same answer you gave me. When my job is done.”That must have hurt. And it’s a small taste of the personal pain that awaits Hal if he doesn’t soldier on and find another major crisis to avert.

Purple reign?

Because that’s what Hal’s good at: flying. That’s why he doesn’t ask for help. He’s concerned about his friends, but he also believes that he can do this on his own. There’s something telling about the fact that Hal is more willing to dive into another end-of-the-universe scenario than he is to spend time recovering at home with his girlfriend. It’s more than a little bit sad, and it’s a nice little character arc that Johns has pushed the character down, one that makes sense.

It is, in a way, also a nice little metaphor for superhero comics, at least under the current publishing model. It’s big event after big event, pushing forwards, with the individual books allowed very little space to recover and tell their own stories in between. It’s nice of Johns to sort of address that through Hal’s perpetual adventure, a self-sustaining event-generating quest that demonstrates that sometimes even comic book superheroes need to take a breather between the occasional universal threat.

Burning rage...

Along the way, Johns does some nice things. I am still in love with this clever little supporting cast that the author has built up around the franchise, with Larfleeze and Atrocitus in particular standing out as two of the more exciting comic book creations in recent memory (perhaps paired with Grant Morrison’s Damian Wayne… it’s a spin-off waiting to happen). I am a bit frustrated that Johns seems to insert another childhood tragedy into the back story of Larfleeze (Johns writes abandonment issues like they’re going out of style), but it is handled so subtly that it works. Plus, the character is genuinely highly amusing. “I have arrived!” Larfleeze declares on reaching Los Vegas, which must be his Mecca. In another wonderfully effective sequence, Larfleeze accuses a human host, “He stole my privacy!” It’s telling Larfleeze considers memories to be material possessions.

Atrocitus actually serves as a nice continuation of some of those classical biblical subtextual ideas that we occasionally saw in Blackest Night. He’s a very grim crusader, and one who has his own idea and ethos. He might run the risk of seeming like another grim and gritty nineties anti-hero, but he’s distinctive enough to remain interesting. It’s telling that, after this collection, I’m actually a little excited for Peter Milligan’s Red Lanterns book.

Methinks he doth protest too much...

There are plenty of other nice touches, as well. There are some great instances of the author smoothing over continuity, rendering old storylines as part of the new mythos without getting bogged down enough to alienate readers. I especially like the incorporation of the Predator as the entity of love, referencing one of Carol’s seemingly endless evil split personalities, and the incorporation of classic baddy Hector Hammond (and another retro villain) into the plot. I do like the sly reference to Richard Donner’s Superman, as – when asked to name “the most valuable thing one can possess” – Lex Luthor responds with, “Land.” While I dread the return of “real estate con man Lex Luthor”, it’s a nice little reference.

It’s also nice to see Hal play a space cop on earth, effectively serving a “cease and desist” on Larfleeze as an illegal alien. It has been a while since Hal has been to Earth, so it’s nice to see him back again, and that Johns hasn’t forgotten it. Indeed, it’s to Johns’ credit that he can incorporate criticism of his own work as smoothly as he does. With some fans feeling fatigue with these multi-coloured Lantern Corps, it’s nice to see Lobo reference it, “Ya can’t swing a dead cat without hittin’ someone wearing a power ring anymore! I don’t know what god ate a rainbow and threw it up across the universe – but I’m gonna find out so I can shove it back down his throat! You flying glow fairies have been clogging up the place — and it ain’t big enough for all a’ us.” I think there’s enough variety and respect for classic Lantern characters to be found here that the spectrum doesn’t “clog up the place”, but I appreciate Johns acknowledging the point.

Like death on a hover bike...

I love Doug Mahnke’s work on the title. The artist is a true find, and one whose work brings a lovely consistency to the book. His characters and constructs are all well-defined, and he has a great eye for action (which is essential for a book like this). Hell, if you don’t believe me, look at some of the picture up here. I love it when a title can keep a consistent artist, and Mahnke is the kind of find it’s great to have on a high-profile book like this. I hope he keeps it up.

The biggest flaw with The New Guardians is the simple fact that it feels rather rushed and condensed. What should have been maybe five stories instead got boiled down to one massive epic, and I think the pacing suffers for it. Equally, the book seems to devote a great deal of space to making sure the reader is aware of other endorsed titles on the market. Look, if I want to read them, I will buy them. Truth be told, I have bought most of them. However, it isn’t good storytelling to devote so much space to so many random and pointless threads.

And you thought Peter Sarsgaard was creepy...

That said, it does work well as a breather, affording Johns the chance to develop Hal’s character and that of those around him. I don’t think Hal and Carol’s relationship has ever been captured so well, and his origin for Dex-Starr is nearly perfect – it’s that fantasy that, if our animals could talk, maybe they’d love us as much as we love them (“you make my life better, you silly cat, and I know if you could talk, you’d tell me the same thing”). It’s simply concepts, done really well. It’s not necessarily a good jumping-on point, but it’s a nice chapter in an impressive on-going saga.

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

2 Responses

  1. are you going to review any more?

    • Comics?

      I’d love to. It’s just about finding the time.

      My plate is quite full at the moment, alas. The blog is sadly not something I can afford to do full-time.

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