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Blackest Night

A comic review article by: Dave Wallace
Blackest Night is the culmination of many years of Green Lantern storytelling by Geoff Johns. Building on concepts hinted at decades ago in short stories by Alan Moore, Johns has gradually led the overarching story of the Green Lantern titles towards an epic conflict involving a veritable rainbow of different-coloured Lantern corps. And it’s this conflict that provides the proverbial darkest hour referred to by the Green Lantern oath for Hal Jordan and his fellow galactic peacekeepers.

Whilst Blackest Night certainly feels like the payoff that this extended build-up deserves in terms of scale and sheer spectacle--and provides an interesting and accessible hook by way of the central conceit of dead superheroes (and villains) coming back to life--it unfortunately falls foul of the many of the same flaws that have marred so many big crossover events in recent years.

Initially, I was pleasantly surprised by the story. The first few chapters feel tighter and more personal than I was expecting from such a wide-ranging story--mixing the colourful action and epic drama with more personal scenes of grounded superhero soap opera, and establishing a dark sense of foreboding that sets up the sinister second half of the eight-issue miniseries effectively.

Johns touches on some interesting issues when it comes to the constant cycle of death and resurrection that afflicts so many superhero characters, and he manages to balance the appearances of reasonably popular and well-known heroes like the Flash, the Atom, Hawkman, and Hawkgirl with lesser-known DC creations.

The writer also shows a strong awareness of continuity--especially when it comes to the many deaths that the DC universe has seen over the years. There are direct connections to the recent Identity Crisis and Final Crisis events, too, with the changed statuses of Martian Manhunter and Batman playing important roles in this story--and the dead Ralph and Sue Dibny becoming two of the most gruesome and disturbing Black Lanterns that plague our heroes.

What’s more, the book looks great. Artist Ivan Reis is called upon to illustrate some complicated panels frequently populated by countless DC heroes and villains (often with costumes that have been redesigned especially for this story), and he manages to bring the same level of dynamism and detail to all of them. His action scenes are exciting, his storytelling is clear, and his original character designs fit the tone of the Green Lantern universe well.

Each chapter of the story offers at least one show-stopping double-page spread (such as the impressive shot of Hal projecting an image of all of the DCU’s dead heroes). Many of these double-spread pages require the book to be rotated ninety degrees to read, thus ensuring that the reader stops turning the pages for at least a short time to fully appreciate the artwork.

Colourist Alex Sinclair also plays a key role in enhancing the art and teasing out many of the colour-based motifs that Johns has written into his story, such as the way that Black Lanterns hone in on emotions that are connected to each of the different Lantern corps. If I was reviewing the collection solely on the basis of the artwork, it would surely be at least a 4-bullet book.

So why have I given it such an average rating? Unfortunately, somewhere around the midpoint of the story, things suddenly start to fall apart--and Blackest Night goes irreversibly downhill from there.

For the first few issues, there’s very much a sense that all of the information that a reader needs to know is being provided by the book. As somebody who has only dipped in and out of Johns’s Green Lantern stories, I wasn’t always immediately familiar with the concepts or characters used in the early part of the story, but the book always gave me enough information to get by--enabling me to understand enough to follow the story adequately.

However, that approach changes drastically after we are a few chapters into the story. Suddenly, entire groups of characters appear who haven’t even been mentioned in the book until that point, and we’re clearly expected to know who they are and what they’ve been doing behind the scenes whilst the early issues were setting out the core plot points of the story.

Of course, this problem is because Blackest Night was a crossover concept that featured tie-in stories running simultaneously in several other titles--and it was probably a fair assumption on the editors’ part that those readers picking up the monthly Blackest Night title were also reading (or at least keeping abreast of) the relevant stories running in the Green Lantern titles and the other dedicated tie-in miniseries.

However, when Blackest Night is read after the fact as a single collected edition, isolated from the tie-ins, this assumption falls completely flat, as the reader has no way of knowing what was happening in these other stories. Characters waltz in and out of the book in a way that leaves their role in the story fractured and incomplete. For example, a key scene in the early part of the story involves the Spectre becoming a Black Lantern, but this transformation is never referred to again in the main Blackest Night miniseries--presumably because it was followed up in another book.

Even characters that originate in the Blackest Night miniseries feel ill-served by the way the crossover’s overall story has been handled. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the book’s main villain, Nekron, is very loosely sketched in Blackest Night itself--with no real effort made to convey his origins and motivations. Perhaps his character is established better in the tie-in stories. Again, though, that’s no use to me as a casual reader trying to enjoy this hardcover collection in its own right.

What’s more, regardless of these crossover-related problems, the tone and style of the second half of the story is quite a departure from the earlier issues--with far less of a sense that both the larger plot and the smaller scene-to-scene progression of the story are under Johns’s complete control.

In fact, by the time Nekron is revealed as the villain and the characters have worked out exactly what’s behind the resurrection of the dead, the story has descended into something of a sprawling mess with myriad rainbow-coloured characters flying about shooting coloured beams to destroy evil villains dressed in black in a chaotic fashion. Johns even has one of the characters explicitly remark that the events of the book feel reminiscent of a children’s Saturday-morning cartoon, and I can’t disagree.

This simplistic, naive tone makes it all the more strange that Johns peppers the book with jarringly gruesome details--such as the violent and grisly deaths of more than one of the Guardians, and the unsavoury antics of Black Hand with the skull of “Bruce Wayne.”

By the end of the book, the story has broken down so far that the plot feels virtually meaningless. It begins to become quite wearying to be faced with yet another splash page in which one of the Green Lanterns turns up with a whole host of heroes (or villains) to help save the day, or another passage of dialogue in which ideas of cosmic importance are vaguely attributed to under-developed characters.

Johns seems to be intent on substituting empty spectacle for any kind of depth or subtlety, apparently relying on Reis to dazzle readers with fan-pleasing panels packed with as many DC characters as possible to cover up for the thinness of the story. Although he does occasionally churn out the odd bit of fan-pleasing dialogue himself (such as the double-page splash that consists entirely of characters reciting the oaths of the various Lantern corps).

Nevertheless, despite the simplistic nature of the story, I can’t deny there are a couple of fairly inspired twists that I didn’t see coming. The plot point involving the Black Lanterns’ control over characters who have died but have already come back to life is an interesting wrinkle, and the identity of the first character to bear the inevitable title of White Lantern came as a pleasing surprise.

However, these developments are treated with as little depth as the rest of the story--offered up as cool individual moments but never really feeling as though their ramifications get the exploration that they deserve.

Those plot points that do seem to have been given a little more thought are largely left unresolved, presumably destined to play out in the next big crossover event, Brightest Day (by which time we’ll surely be being teased with the next big development instead).

In addition to all eight issues of Blackest Night, this hardcover also features a few neat extras in the form of variant covers for each issue, bare pencils for the original covers, and an issue-by-issue commentary by Johns and his collaborators. Whilst the commentary is not particularly insightful (often boiling down to simply talking about how cool a scene was to write or draw), I’m sure it will be appreciated by fans of the book who are keen to read a few behind-the-scenes comments from its creators.

In fact, this entire book is probably best enjoyed by those readers who are already big fans of the characters and concepts established by Johns’s previous Green Lantern stories, and who are interested in tracking down all of the tie-in stories and auxiliary titles to get the full picture of the story of Blackest Night. For me, though, dipping my toe in the story by way of the core miniseries hasn’t convinced me that exploring the event further is going to be worth the time and the not-inconsiderable expense that buying all of those other collections would demand.

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