DC Comics might very well have called it "Blackest Night: The Brave and the Bold."
Blackest Night, the latest miniseries event from DC Comics, does double-duty both as a line-wide DC crossover, and another chapter in writer Geoff Johns's ongoing Green Lantern series. As such, whereas DC crossovers usually take as their center DC's Big Three characters -- Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman -- Blackest Night ostensibly stars Green Lantern Hal Jordan, except for the moments when Hal's busy in the Green Lantern title and Johns switches the focus to newly resurrected Flash Barry Allen. Hal and Barry's "brave and bold" friendship, not seen in comics in over twenty years, drives the thematic depth of Blackest Night, and it's engaging even as the bucking of DC's usual stars may feel offputting to modern readers.
The New World's Finest
Indeed, for fans of Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis or early Justice League work, Blackest Night is very much about the "internal League" that Meltzer suggested. While the Big Three might get the most accolades, the real force of the League when the action ends is Hal and Barry, the Atom Ray Palmer, and then the zombified Black Lanterns who comprise the story's most high-profile villains -- Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Hawkwoman, and Firestorm. Blackest Night is nearly not at all about the Big Three, but rather spends much of its time excising the final guilt left over from Identity Crisis's murder and mayhem, and returning the League to Silver Age status. To an extent, Blackest Night might also have been called Justice League: Rebirth.
As a fan, I rather balk at Superman not saving the day -- he's DC's first superhero, for one, and for two and three he's the leader of both the Justice League and the Super Friends; it's almost blasphemy for Superman not to save the day. But, I'll grant that my affection for Superman stems in part from a general lack of any other DC superhero to latch on to in the same way -- in the mid-1980s Hal Jordan earned his reputation as a "whiner," and much as I like Wally West, he never demonstrated leadership enough to outshine Superman.
Blackest Night turns this; Hal and Barry emerge not only as DC stalwarts (at one point, the Atom and Aquaman's wife Mera stand in for Superman and Wonder Woman, but Barry, Atom notes, remains the Flash), but also as interesting characters in their own right, especially together. Again, Blackest Night takes many of its cues from re-establishing Hal and Barry's friendship: Hal died a sinner and Barry a saint, but death, Blackest Night opines, is the great equalizer; Hal is too reckless and Barry too cautious, and their struggles in Blackest Night teach them each a lesson about the others' approach. If their friendship is a little too neat, at least it feels fresher than Superman and Batman's bickering that's become commonplace of late.
(As well, though I'd rather look for story meaning within the story, one can't help also perceive the economics of this situation. It must certainly behoove Johns -- newly named DC Chief Creative Officer in charge of representing the DC heroes in other media -- to buffet DC's second-tier heroes. Johns, let's be clear, wrote a great Big Three in his previous Infinite Crisis crossover, but with a recently-failed Superman movie, the Batman trilogy coming to a close, and the Wonder Woman concept constantly in rewrite, the DC Universe must necessarily re-center toward heroes like Green Lantern, Flash, and Aquaman if those properties are ever to be strong enough to carry movies and television shows. Spider-man and Wolverine don't always save the day at the Marvelous competition.)
Getting Too Full of Ourselves
Yet, more significant than Johns re-centering the DC Universe character-wise is the way he re-centers it cosmologically (and, amidst all the spoilers, this is what I found to be the one great surprise of Blackest Night). Rather than Oa, home of the Green Lanterns' Guardians, being the long-established center of the DC Universe, we learn that all along life began on Earth, and that the Guardians lied in order to protect Earth's life-giving "Entity." This follows a similar sentiment in Johns Green Lantern: Sinestro Corps War, which established Earth as the center of the DC Universe's multi-dimensional "multiverse."
Johns makes a specific choice here that can't be overlooked -- rather than Earth being a backwater planet so uncivilized that the Guardians never deigned to invite a human to the Green Lantern Corps until Hal became one by accident, instead humans are so important that the Guardians kept them -- kept us, Johns implies -- out of the Corps to preserve our safety. To have read DC Comics before Blackest Night was to experience some humility -- whereas humans often exude some "pluck" when placed in sticky situations, most of the universe would sooner have a Coluan or Thanagarian come to their aid than a human (letting alone that our greatest savior is an immigrant Kryptonian). Now, we learn instead that not only are we the linchpin of fifty-two parallel Earths, but also that all life -- everything else in the entire universe -- stemmed from us. The nationalism contained within this is rather staggering.
The later years of Star Trek, in comparison, established Earth as a world adopted into the Federation only after many years of eternal strife, and every time Spock raised his eyebrow at Kirk, one gets the sense the Federation still isn't so sure about us. As with much other science-fiction, there's a warning present against cultural relativism, and a sense that our might doesn't always make right; there's always greater forces that know better than we do. Johns's shift may be more uplifting -- you, a human reading this comic book, are special -- but I'm not sure our egos really need that additional stroking.
Contained within Blackest Night are sentiments essentially biblical -- that there was darkness in the form of the death-entity Nekron, and there was the white light of the Earth Entity, and that from their ongoing battle came the splintered multi-color Corps, including the Green Lanterns. Even as Hal and Barry fight Nekron, it's well-established in the book that Nekron was there first, and the white Entity is "trespasser" or "invader." I don't believe Johns intends this, but combined with the nationalist sentiment, it's hard not to see Blackest Night as an imperialist text -- we are here, we are the best, and we're staying whether this land is ours or not. Within the Blackest Night hardcover proper, Native American DC hero Apache Chief makes only a brief appearance, but I wonder if he wouldn't have something to say about all this.
Death Becomes Us
Johns's Infinite Crisis didn't contain the same amount of subtext, but still I rank it just before the main Blackest Night mini-series itself. Though Blackest Night raises some excellent stakes -- a literal battle between the white hats and the black hats, or life versus death -- it lacks much of Infinite Crisis's moral instability; the Big Three have an actual arc in Infinite Crisis, whereas Hal and Barry's "rightness" here is never in doubt, and a great part of the story is just a sequence of fight scenes.
Where Blackest Night works is at its most awkward, or at its most emotional. The resurrected Black Lantern zombies become a tired trick after a while, but when the dead bring up sticky situations, like former Aqualad Tempest stealing Aquaman's girlfriend Dolphin, the reader enjoys the nostalgia of those old stories. By far the most terrifying and moving scene of the story is when current Firestorm Jason Rusch can only watch as the former Firestorm kills Jason's girlfriend; the horror here is not the resurrected dead but the irreversibility of death itself, that Jason is helpless to prevent losing something -- someone -- he can't get back. The idea of death is often lost in all the overwrought superheroic doings of Blackest Night, but in that moment (that some might find gratuitous), Johns gets it right.
I also appreciated the throughfare in Blackest Night where Barry mourns the death of Elongated Man Ralph Dibney and his wife Sue, and is disappointed at the end not to find them resurrected. Blackest Night has moments which are too easy (the plot turns twice on Deadman offering a deus ex machina solution out of the ether) but smartly ends on the idea not that miracles are always around the corner, but that life isn't fair -- that good people sometimes die while bad people go on living. Johns expresses the frustration of a person, as he says in the end notes, who's experienced loss himself, and the expression of that frustration is more grown-up than a happy ending would be.
Yes, But How Does it Read?
Blackest Night isn't a book I'd give to someone unfamiliar with the DC Universe or recent goings-on in Green Lantern; the book makes no attempt to explain, for instance, the identity of the Black Lantern Guardian Scar beyond just showing her on the page.
As a volume on its own, I was never lost, though to be sure the Blackest Night hardcover has some large holes in it, the most significant being when Hal disappears and then returns some chapters later in an unexplained partnership with the six members of the other Lantern spectrums (letting alone how his former girlfriend Carol Ferris became a Star Sapphire). The story's conclusion lacks a bit of emotional depth, too, in that the reader is supposed to appreciate the actions of the Guardian Ganthet and former Green Lantern Sinestro, but since they just magically appear mid-story, there's not as much built up behind them as behind the Flash or Firestorm.
Still, I would say I was less lost than I thought I would be. It will take a reading of the Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps volumes to see if those stories suffer from their exclusion from here, but I don't think Blackest Night proper is too derailed by their absence.
What Happens Next
I am a long-time DC Comics fan. I've seen Hal Jordan replaced with Kyle Rayner, and Green Arrow Oliver Queen replaced with Connor Hawke. I've seen DC's New Earth after Infinite Crisis, where Batman no longer caught his parents' killer and Wonder Woman (re-)helped form the Justice League. I don't want to overstate, but even as Blackest Night wasn't the strongest or most moving DC Comics crossover I've read, I think the general direction it establishes for the DC Universe with Hal and Barry could be the most sweeping change DC has seen in decades. We already know that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman can support the DC Universe; I'm cautiously optimistic to see if Geoff Johns can continue to prove that Green Lantern and the Flash can do the same (continuing into Flashpoint, DC's next, Flash-centric crossover); hopefully it'll result in a stronger and more viable DC Universe overall.
Coming up on Collected Editions, we'll detail the next six Blackest Night hardcovers, considering how they tie in to these points or raise questions of their own. Hope you'll come along as we look at this significant story in the DC Universe. Thanks!