Infinity, Inc. DC Comics's announcement that Milligan would write the Red Lanterns title for the New 52 was something of a head-scratcher, as the fare would necessarily be more consistently cosmic than Milligan had written previously.
At the same time, the leading Red Lantern Atrocitus had long been a scene-stealing, morally-complex figure under Green Lantern writer Geoff Johns. Milligan's involvement perhaps portended some great exploration of the nature of rage (source of the Red Lanterns' power), why mankind is drawn to violence. and whether anger can ever be just.
Milligan approaches that in Red Lanterns: Blood and Rage, but the book is far from the crackshot study that readers might have hoped for. Instead, this first volume of Red Lanterns is strangely cautious, a slow and kind of paint-by-numbers introduction to the characters. Artist Ed Benes depicts the various alien species well, but his insistence on distorted cheesecake -- especially as pertains to the sole female protagonist of the book -- only drags Red Lanterns farther from what could have been a serious work and closer to what's essentially just another generic Green Lantern spin-off.
[Review contains spoilers]
In the end, Peter Milligan's grand statement about rage in Red Lanterns may be to point out rage's inability to ultimately cause any change. Unfortunately, if this is the intent, it is demonstrated through the inertia of Atrocitus, which makes for dull reading. With the death of Atrocitus's sworn enemy, the mad Guardian Krona, Atrocitus resolves to fight the greater injustice in the universe, vowing to become "an instrument of vengeance." At turn after turn, however, Atrocitus fails to do this in any compelling way.
Milligan's most cogent use of Atrocitus's mission is in Red Lanterns's second issue (whereas in the first issue, Milligan has Atrocitus almost stock still the entire time, recounting his origin). Here, Atrocitus lands in the middle of a war between occupiers and the occupied, meant entirely to parallel the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Milligan makes the good and bad guys crystal clear, and so Atrocitus's punishment of the soldier -- who shot children, thinking they were "hostiles" -- carries no controversy. Milligan gets points for giving the audience some basis on which they can relate to the alien conflict, but he ultimately fails to say anything besides the obvious.
Most of the rest of Blood and Rage, astoundingly, involves Atrocitus pacing the Red Lanterns' home planet of Ysmault and fretting about a potential coup within the Lanterns. The story within Blood takes place very methodically -- Atrocitus thinks about creating a companion Lantern in one issue, he throws the Lantern Bleez into the Blood Ocean to restore her intelligence in another, in a third he decides he's unhappy with Bleez so he throws some other Lanterns into the ocean, in the next issue they emerge from the ocean with their intelligence, and so on. By the end, the Red Lanterns cast is assembled, so to speak, but Atrocitus has neither grown, changed, nor accomplished much over the pages, and it seems likely most of this could have happened in fewer pages such to give Blood more content.
Simultaneous with Atrocitus's troubles, Milligan details the increasingly-worsening situation of one family on Earth -- Jack Moore's grandfather is murdered, Moore's brother sets fire to the murderer's house, the police arrest Moore's brother and then beat the brother to death, before Moore receives a Red Lantern ring. This, too, could have been a powerful meditation on anger versus pacifism, or the difference between pacifism and cowardice. Milligan, however, offers such little background on the family -- they emerge in the midst of the crisis -- and the angry brother is so unlikable and the quiet brother so weak-willed that it's hard for the reader to feel emotionally connected to their plight.
Not to mention that despite Milligan's writing prowess, the dialogue between the brothers is often awkward ("They think I tried to firebomb Baxter's house," Moore's brother says; "You did! I was there, remember?" replies Moore unnecessarily). When Moore finally has his ring, Milligan depicts him flailing around in a poor Hulk impression (he shouts at one point, ridiculously, "BAXXTEERRRR!!!"). Guest artist Diego Bernard draws the issue that features Red Lantern Moore; Bernard's style is similar to Freddie Williams's, more cartoony and less detailed than Benes's, and it makes it hard to take seriously what should be a significant moment in the book.
Blood and Rage begins to pick up only in the very last pages, after a coup among the Red Lanterns has actually taken place, strangely, off-screen. Atrocitus, alone, ventures to a part of Ysmault where he's buried failed experiments prior to his creation of the Red Lanterns and, not surprisingly, he's attacked by one of those experiments. Atrocitus faces an actual threat, finally; the Red Lantern abominations are impressively scary; and Red Lantern Moore crash-lands in the middle of it. It's a good cliffhanger, the only good one of the book, and it ought have arrived much earlier.
The next volume of Red Lanterns promises a cross-over with Stormwatch (which Milligan will write after Paul Cornell's second trade) and then Red Lanterns becomes involved in a Green Lantern event, so obviously DC Comics has this title positioned as a major player in the New 52. It makes it all the more surprising that Red Lanterns: Blood and Rage doesn't have much to recommend for it, seemingly wasting the potential of Atrocitus and his fellow Red Lanterns. If Red Lanterns is going to become a lynchpin of the larger stories in the DC Universe, hopefully its next volume will have more to show for it.
[Includes original covers]
We continue this week's look at the weird side of the DC New 52 with the Collected Editions review of Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE, coming up next.