Review: Red Lanterns Vol. 5: Atrocities trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Under Geoff Johns, the Red Lantern Atrocitus was a righteous, complex character with strong beliefs about right and wrong and  justice and vengeance, one of the best parts of Johns's Green Lantern run. I awaited the Red Lanterns series with much anticipation, but unfortunately other writers turned the Red Lanterns into caricatures, fire-belching monsters who navel-gazed about rage and undercut one another to wield most power in their insular group.

Writer Charles Soule admirably turned things around with Red Lanterns's fourth volume, and the next, Red Lanterns Vol. 5: Atrocities, only builds on that success; without qualifications, I can say Atrocities is great and everyone should read it. Readers have been lucky for almost ten years now to have a great series of thoughtful, nuanced Guy Gardner stories under Peter Tomasi in Green Lantern Corps and the like, and Soule continues this trend with Guy's new role in Red Lanterns, an evolution that feels perfectly logical and natural.

There's fine art by Alessandro Vitti and Miguel Sepulveda here, but it seems almost not a coincidence that J. Calafiore should also be present; moments in this book evoke Calafiore's work with Gail Simone on Secret Six, and that's high praise indeed.

[Review contains spoilers]

Atrocities runs parallel to the events of Supergirl Vol. 5: Red Daughter of Krypton, involving the coming and going of Kara Zor-El as a Red Lantern. "Red Daughter" is ostensibly Supergirl's story, though in the meat of it Atrocities only lacks one Supergirl issue that mainly deals with events in that title, not this one. And there's a three-part crossover late in this book (two parts Red Lantern, one part Supergirl), for which this book reprints the whole thing and Supergirl only its own part (which makes for troubled reading over there). So, for a number of reasons, someone only mildly interested in the event or interested only in the Red Lanterns aspect can get away with just reading this volume, even aside from the fact that it's a masterful book and well worth reading anyway.

Atrocities is an epic story, ending with a pitched battle across Earth involving both Red Lanterns and DC Universe heroes, itself worthy of its own crossover event. But, maybe incongruous for a book about rage-fueled space warriors (though not so surprising to true Guy Gardner fans), Soule's strongest parts of this book are the conversations.

Guy Gardner has worked best, from writer Beau Smith to the present, as a regular blue-collar guy, fiercely loyal to his friends, who knows he's quick to anger but tries to do the best he can. Atrocities is at its most gripping when Guy tries (poorly) to convince Ice the two should be together, or when he hashes out with Hal Jordan on an alien beach who controls Sector 2814, or when he sits down for a beer with John Stewart and discusses the relative health benefits of a fistfight. When written right, Guy is most appealing to the audience both because of his heroism and his willingness to live and let live -- a philosophy that translates to his Red Lantern team -- and so these conversations between troubled friends resonate because Soule makes the audience care about Guy and the others involved.

Foremost among these is an entire issue devoted to Guy confronting Superman about Supergirl's new Red Lantern status. Some of the "new" has worn off the New 52, such that I was surprised that Soule actually makes this Superman and Guy's first-ever meeting in this continuity. Again, it's a matter of Soule's Guy confronting Superman in his respectful but brusque manner, and an equally self-assured Superman replying in turn. Soule also does strong work in the confrontation between Superman and Supergirl, allowing for some frank honesty that other writers might not have dared.

In all, again, the issue put me in mind of Beau Smith's Warrior run, in which Guy -- no longer the whining butt of every joke -- makes friends with Superman and has interesting things to say to him in Guy's unpretentious manner. I hoped, to bring things full circle, that Superman might appear again during the climactic mega-battle; he does not, though Guy getting a nod from Batman served a similar purpose.

Soule fills Atrocities with quandaries of the kind not so easily untied and not found as often in other mainstream comics, be it Guy trying to apprehend Shadow Thief without using violence to appease Ice, or having to choose to abandon their teammate Rankorr for the greater good (the book's most Secret Six-esque moment), or the series of crosses and double-crosses that mark the book's end. And Soule's Red Lanterns is funny, not the least being the ongoing gag about sphere-shaped Red Lantern Zilius Zox and the word "testicle." Which makes it all the more tragic and moving when Soule has more than one Red Lantern die or sacrifice themselves in battle.

The only weak spot in Soule's Atrocities, perhaps inherited, is Atrocitus himself. As the book's hero in earlier volumes, Atrocitus was written ineffectual and directionless; now as the book's villain under Soule, Atrocitus's motivations are no better defined. Atrocitus is exiled from the Red Lanterns and wants to regain his power, but it's never clear to what end. To continue to bring harsh justice to the universe? To wreak general badness? The audience doesn't know, and it's a shame for this character that once was the best part of the Red Lantern concept; Soule might have achieved even more nuance if the audience had even a partial reason to root for Atrocitus here as well. (Also that Soule, like Tony Bedard in Supergirl, seems to entirely disregard the given rules for how one starts and stops being a Red Lantern in Guy's takedown of Atrocitus and his pet Dex-Starr in the end.)

But that's a minor difficulty in a book whose protagonists are so strong, it's almost incidental what the villains are doing. Red Lanterns Vol. 5: Atrocities ends on such a grand finale -- again, of the type that might otherwise be a Green Lantern-title crossover -- that one almost expects it to be the end, and it's pleasing to find Soule's got a couple more issues in the sixth and actual-final collection. Among DC Comics's new New 52 writers, Charles Soule's work has been a joy and it's a shame he's gone over to Marvel, though this makes me curious about his Lando and Obi-Wan and Anakin series when I otherwise might not have been. This book comes highly recommended.

[Includes original covers, character sketches]
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  1. Yeah I was super sad to hear Soule leave for Marvel, I thought DC had finally had a real staple and sort of "heir" to the Geoff Johns legacy....

  2. This was a really strong finish to the war between Guy's and Atrocitus's factions. Soule could have very well ended his run right here, but instead he chose to take part in the disappointing Godhead crossover, and the least said about the final arc by Landry Walker, the better. In fact, the one reason I'd recommend people to check out the final Red Lanterns trade is the great Futures End issue by Soule, which would have been a poignant epilogue to this volume.

    1. Agreed. I thought that the Futures End issue was the perfect closure for the run ending at #34, and wish they had just included that in the fifth volume.

  3. Soule's Lando is indeed brilliant.

  4. This was such a good run. It reminds me of what Red Hood and the Outlaws could have been under a more competent writer. A nuanced main character who's rough around the edges, and well aware of that, a group of ragtag anti-heroes having their own adventures, some genuinely heartwarming moments, and great character banter all around. This was essentially a story about a cosmic motorcycle gang.

  5. Glad to find other love out there for this volume and Soule's run; it was very impressive. Too bad I've been hearing the next book isn't as strong but I'll be anticipating that Futures End issue.