by KC Carlson
[SPOILER WARNINGS apply for those who haven’t read Blackest Night #1 or its Prologues. If you don’t want to know what happens there, don’t read this.]
It’s time for another big DC Event?! Holy crap! I still haven’t finished reading the last one yet! (Although, truth to tell, DC hasn’t actually finished publishing the last DC Event yet, either! The final issue of Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds still hasn’t appeared, although I think it is finally shipping this week. [It is. – Roger] Actually, this is not a complaint – I’m glad they took their time on it, as it shows in the final product and it would have been a big giant mess if they had brought in other artists to finish it. That many characters?!?)
Anyway, one of the reasons that I’m still struggling through Final Crisis is that, well, I just lost interest in it. Twice. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. The particular annotation site that I was using to help my tired old brain interpret exactly what Grant Morrison was going on about also kinda petered out towards the end there. Of course, there are other annotation sites out there, but life moves on, and so did I. Did anything important happen at the end of Final Crisis?, he asked, facetiously.
Perhaps it wasn’t Morrison’s writing at all. More likely, I just succumbed to what is being debated around the comics community as Event Fatigue. Are there just too many Events? Is such a thing even possible? Or is it something else altogether?
First of all, I don’t think that writers, or any creators, ever set out to make bad stories. What would be the purpose in that? I will allow for the possibility of this happening with parody or satire. But there, awfulness is part of the fun. On occasion, I see writers trying to reach higher than their actual capabilities, often with disastrous results. But if you don’t shoot high, how will you ever get better? Or sometimes, something or somebody actually gets in the way of making good stories and inadvertently turns them into bad stories. (This could be a whole other column.) No, I think that bad stories – or the perception of bad stories (an important distinction) – most often result from outside the normal creative process, especially in the current comic book world – and in most other current media, for that matter.
And that would be what is known by dozens of other names and concepts, but basically boils down to something much better known as “a Pig in a Poke.”
A Short History Lesson
Originating hundreds of years ago, “a pig in a poke” is an idiom pertaining to the execution of a particular confidence trick (aka: a scam, a con, a scheme, a grift, a swindle, a ponzie, etc.) where someone thinks he’s buying a choice cut of meat (like a pig) in a closed bag or sack (a poke), but instead receives a dead cat (or occasionally, a rat). In today’s modern society, this is often referred to by another name – Marketing. Modern marketing (or advertising) is – when you get right down to it – trying to convince the customer that their product is the best, which, in an obviously competitive market, is not always the truth.
And this is not meant to lay blame at the feet of any particular comic book Marketing Department or person, many of whom I personally know. I acknowledge that they work incredibly hard at their jobs. It’s actually more of a comment that the selling of a comic or series has become so all-encompassing these days that it now inevitably includes publishers, licensers and licensees, consultants, representatives from bookstore chains, executive editors, plain ol’ editors, the occasional janitor and – more often than not – the actual creators themselves (often as a self-defense tactic). All of these people have been more-or-less “trained” to consider how to sell their comic story as a necessary part of the creative process, even down to the point of including certain characters in team books based on their popularity rather than how they creatively fit into the balance of a team lineup. There’s a reason why characters like Wolverine and Batman are shoved into every team possible, whether they creatively fit or not.
Because competition for your comics dollar has become so competitive and so fierce in recent years, it seems like every 6-issue story arc or mini-series or trade paperback is being marketed as some kind of event. C’mon, guys! They can’t all be events. Some of them just have to be stories! (Please?!)
It’s getting much harder to tell the actual events (the choice cut of meat) from the not-really events (the dead cat). “Event Fatigue” may just be the amount of dead cats piling up on your bookshelf or in your longboxes. That’s why you might feel like you’re “left holding the bag” when you got burned a few times too often.
When something is labeled up-front as an Event, there are certain elements that you expect – epic events, complex plotting, fantastic artwork, a complete story – and when you don’t get it, or some Event elements are missing, it’s a major disappointment. Wouldn’t it be much better to read a great story that wasn’t hyped to death beforehand? I think this is why so many (but ultimately not enough) fans get so attached to great (but perceived as lesser) books like Spider-Girl or Blue Beetle, simply to avoid getting overwhelmed by the hype of better-selling books or characters.
But enough of my ranting. Let’s take a look at a book that might just beat the odds and be equal to its hype. I’m extremely skeptical – DC’s recent events have not impressed me, as regular readers know – but the stars may actually align for DC’s next legitimate Event book, Blackest Night.
Prelude and Prologue
Things kick off in a big way in Green Lantern #43, the “official” prologue to Blackest Night and one of the best (and increasingly rare in this era) stand-alone issues I’ve read in a while. It’s essentially a brand-new origin for the “new” Black Hand (who absolutely needed one as this guy was one of the real non-entities of the Silver Age). Writer Geoff Johns should be commended for pumping up this once lame-o villain into a real, credible threat. It’s quite grim and twisted as well, which normally I don’t warm up to, but the approach suits this new version perfectly, as well as answering some questions from his previous appearances as written by Johns, most notably in the excellent GL Secret Origins arc. The issue is also notable for a two-page spread of the major DC characters – heroes and villains – who have died (most of them in the last couple of years) and are obviously going to be part of the major focus of Blackest Night. This is followed by a recap of the major characters who have died and have returned to life (Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Green Arrow, just to name a few). Whoever the mysterious voice that is talking to Black Hand obviously wants them dead (again) as well.
[Aside: It just now dawns on me that all of the original 7 - and many of the second wave - Justice League members are either currently dead or have been dead for an extended period before returning to life. Suddenly, I feel really old.]
GL #43 is also the first issue for new regular penciller Doug Mahnke, and he pulls out all the stops to make this one of the best artist debuts on a new series in a long time. (Former GL regular artist Ivan Reis is moving over to Blackest Night.) Trust me, people will be talking about this issue for a long time to come.
Next up, in story chronology, is Blackest Night #0 – also known as DC’s entry for last spring’s Free Comic Book Day. Here we have another prelude to BN, one that is largely recapped in BN #1. (It looks like Johns is honestly trying to make good on his attempt to make the Blackest Night mini-series a good solid stand-alone read, so if you want to read just that, you’ll get most of the story. However, the inverse is not true – if you’re already reading the GL books, you’re gonna have to get Blackest Night as well to follow all the GL action.) #0 features a pretty interesting conversation between Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, recapping the high points of DC history for the last several years, while standing over the unmarked grave of Bruce (Batman) Wayne. This is where we first hear Hal’s stunning admission to Barry: “I died a sinner. You died a saint.”
And it’s here that we first start seeing some interesting rewriting of recent DC history, including the explaining away of the brief Aquaman appearance in Final Crisis. (There is more of this kind of thing in BN #1 and in the BN tie-in Titans #15.) Guaranteed to drive continuity fans crazy – and one does wish that DC would be a little more careful in keeping these things straight, or better, planning ahead a bit more so that they don’t have to keep fixing things later – I’m actually in favor of most of these changes so far, as long as they’re more about explaining or “tweaking” confusing situations rather than crazily throwing out big chunks of previously told stories. But that’s a whole ‘nother rant, better saved for another time.
The story in BN #0 leads directly into BN #1 where we see more of what Black Hand is up to and more of Barry and Hal. Also in BN #0 are some fairly informative pin-ups on each one of the “rainbow” of various GL and GL-related groups that Johns has been setting up over the past couple of years in the Green Lantern book. This is valuable for keeping nearby while reading Blackest Night, especially since the GL franchise of books is now much more rewarding and complex than even my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes series (although I suspect that George Perez is already mentally laying-out the pages of the inevitable team-up/battle between the two groups. As if Legion of 3 Worlds wasn’t crazy enough…). These “Guides to the Corps” pages are also being presented in the current Tales of the Corps three-part mini-series, so be sure to keep them handy for reference. You can’t tell your Veon from your Dela Pharon without ‘em!
Death! Death! Death! (like Marsha! Marsha! Marsha! Only Death-ier!)
Blackest Night #1 picks up directly where #0 left off, with Black Hand digging up the corpse of Bruce Wayne (or whoever is buried there, he said, covering his bases) and snogging Bruce’s skull. Eww, didn’t need to see that!
Later, we discover that Earth now has an annual day of remembrance for the super-beings who gave their lives to protect Earth, as well as the innocent citizens (such as the population of Coast City) that the heroes failed to save. Notably, it’s on the day that everybody thought Superman died while battling Doomsday. At the Coast City Memorial, Hal also stops to remember all of the friends and family that the Earth-based GLs have lost over the years. It’s a pretty long list – Hal’s dad, Abin Sur, John Stewart’s wife GL Katma Tui (who I think will be a major part of BN), Kyle’s girlfriend Alex (poster girl for Women in Refrigerators), Jade (Alan Scott’s daughter and another of Kyle’s girlfriends), and the entire populations of the planet Xanshi (destroyed by John Stewart in Cosmic Odyssey) and Coast City (innocent bystanders in Hal’s rampage after being taken over by Parallax). The only bright spot in this parade of death is Guy Gardner’s girlfriend Ice, once though dead but recently returned.
But the roll call of the dead is not over. For the next several pages, we bounce around the DCU to see many more remembrances of fallen heroes and villains by their loved ones. I think these scenes are meant as respect for the fallen, but for a lot of readers like me, it will be a grim reminder of just how depressing and heinous the DC Universe has been to read for the last several years. “Look how many people we lost,” says GL Alan Scott. He speaks for us all.
Next up is one of the grimmest, yet silliest, revelations of them all: the JLA has a morgue in a sub-basement of the JLA HQ in Washington, DC, where they are holding the remains of over two dozen of their more notorious foes, including Max Lord, Dr. Light, the Psycho-Pirate, and Alex Luthor (of Earth-2). The Flash Rogues are not included, because they apparently have their own graveyard in Central City. (The Rogues must have incredible health – and death – benefits!) As Hal explains to Barry, “The plan was to bring over the remains of our friends, too, but we didn’t want to rob the families of paying their respects.” Apparently this small kindness was not extended to the (probably) innocent families of the villains. Yikes! This is all a little too controlling and Big Brother-y for me, not to mention the trampling of basic civil – and human – rights. Hal justifies it by referring to a body snatching and harvesting operation uncovered by Dick Grayson that was putting super-powered body parts on the black market for re-use. The story also rams the point home by the theft of Bruce Wayne’s corpse by Black Hand. Still, not something I want to think about too deeply.
Finally, to wrap up the grim recapping of recent DC history, the just-back-from-the-dead-himself Barry Allen demands to know how many have died since he died in the original Crisis, and Hal grimly but obligingly “rings-up” a display of dead DC heroes. It takes up two pages. And still is not complete. After all this recap, the book finally gets to some new stuff, and we find Hawkman (Carter Hall) at odds with his best friend the Atom (Ray Palmer) over attending a memorial for Jean Loring, Ray’s ex-wife and the murderer of Sue Dibny, the wife of Elongated Man Ralph Dibny, now deceased himself.
Elsewhere, the Guardians of the Universe announce that The War of Light (building in the GL books over the past couple of years) has finally erupted, and Scar, the renegade Guardian of Death, betrays and apparently kills several of the other Guardians. Simultaneously, thousands of Black Rings fly through the universe and smash into the GL Corps crypt, empowering thousands of dead GL Black Lanterns who “rise” like zombies in an awesome two-page spread by Reis. Elsewhere, other Black Rings are flying to the previously recapped DC dead heroes and villains who also rise.
And then something very bad happens.
Despite some of my above misgivings, I thought that Blackest Night #1 was one of the best beginnings to any recent DC Event. I’m not taking the “zombie” storyline too seriously, as “heroes vs. their dead loved ones” is a hoary old storytelling convention and usually enjoyable in its execution. Heck, I even edited one in the pages of Legion of Super-Heroes way back in 1993. Remember this cover?
We had great fun coming up with a list of dead DC characters we wanted to use as background characters, and we were very surprised when Denny let us use Jason Todd Robin! We even played by the rules, only using characters that were actually shown as being dead at that time (in 20th century continuity) even though we probably could have just used practically anybody, extrapolating that they’d probably be dead a thousand years in their future. I know that artists Stuart Immonen and Ron Boyd had a ball drawing zombie versions of all those dead Legion and DCU characters.
I also really like the two-pronged structure of Blackest Night: the ongoing War of Light around the various Corps of characters in the Green Lantern neck of the DCU, which promises lots of epic sci-fi and cosmic storytelling, and the specific story of the Black Lanterns and their devastating personal conflicts among both the GL Corps and the larger DC Universe. I think this latter story arc will be getting most of the attention and scrutiny from fans, so it is excellent planning in having the ongoing War of Light act as the spine of the story. This is also the major argument against those who are dismissing BN as “just another zombie story.”
Wishing and Hoping
The other interesting thing in Blackest Night #0 is the personal message from Geoff Johns where he discusses all his plans and goals for Blackest Night, indicating that these are concepts and storylines he has been working towards since he first re-launched Hal Jordan as Green Lantern four years ago. He’s also quite frank about the inherent problems with Event books, including how they frequently “disappoint” on many different levels, and he specifically mentions “the frustration of delays and accessibility” and how the GL team is working to overcome these problems.
I sincerely believe that, barring catastrophic artist meltdown (which you really can’t plan for) or the Powers That Be at DC changing their mind about something at the last minute (this is the one that scares me), that Johns is going to pull this off. I have been hearing more and more that Johns will have unprecedented access (for a creator) to all BN materials as they move through the DC offices and production. He’s already currently creative-controlling big giant chunks of the puzzle (writing both THE book and the main tie-in book Green Lantern), and Johns is a close friend and collaborator with the other key writer of the event, former GL editor and currently one of DC’s best, and most underrated writers, Pete Tomasi (Green Lantern Corps, Blackest Night: Batman). Johns is working closely with the other creators of Blackest Night tie-ins – the best evidence of which is the recent Titans #15. (The best issue of this series to date, which is kinda scary when you consider it doesn’t have all that much to do with the Titans – except one inactive one – at all.)
Further, I suspect that Johns – if not DC itself – is aware that a lot is riding on Blackest Night. Several of DC’s biggest, and most marketed, events have been met with wildly varying critical or fan comment (but still big sales). Final Crisis had many delays and behind-the-scenes problems as well as a polarizing response from fans – Morrison fans loved it, others went “huh?” (not unlike the initial response to Kirby’s Fourth World all those years ago, now that I think about it) – and a big bummer of an ending with Batman dying and all (sad!). Countdown was so ineptly executed (but on time!), it was a miracle that it didn’t completely kill off the concept of weekly comics forever. Instead of highlighting the lesser-knowns of the DCU, it kinda actually ruined some of them instead (*cough* Mary Marvel, Karate Kid, and Duo Damsel). And even the Johns-written Infinite Crisis was riddled with artist problems and delays (yet beautiful on arrival) and was at first perceived as yet another DC death-fest, with lots of seemingly pointless mini-deaths and two Super-deaths, with some of Johns’ bigger themes lost in the mix. While disappointing while it was being published, and weighed down with so many tie-ins, in retrospect IC is one of the better modern Events and the core book itself is much better read as a whole, rather than in is serialized beginnings, something that can also be said of many other modern Events.
The best event that DC has published in the last few years has been, hands-down, the little Event that no one expected – the Sinestro Corps War, written by none other than Geoff Johns, lending even more weight to my feelings about Blackest Night. Also, his contributions to Final Crisis (Rogues’ Revenge, Rage of the Red Lanterns, and Legion of Three Worlds) were arguably some of the strongest elements of that Event.
Granted, wanton death and destruction has been part and parcel of DC Mega-Events since the very first one, Crisis On Infinite Earths. But a lot of DC fans besides me are getting a little tired of constantly being punched in the gut with all the death and destruction and are really holding out hope that there might actually be a couple of happy endings in store for us in Blackest Night. Or any ending at all. A lot of the recent events don’t seem to actually end – they’re just the set-up the next mega-storyline. This, I think, is the real Event Fatigue. Not so much that there are so many of them , but that there never seems to be any sort of real conclusion or wrap-up or time to reflect on what has happened or even time for potty breaks or showers or laundry. (Eww. Don’t really want to go there.) Unless we’re witnessing a new and different type of storytelling: Relentless storytelling.
Although I can see how this might be really appealing to many comic fans. Many comic books over the past couple of decades have been too touchy-feely and talky. I remember very clearly many years ago then-Executive Editor Mike Carlin exploding all over us at the weekly DC Editorial Meeting: “C’mon guys! They can’t all be ‘A Day in the Life’ stories! Somebody’s gotta punch somebody sometime!” He was right, of course. Conflict is the key ingredient of any good superhero story. At some point, Batman must punch out the Joker’s lights (or the Joker must seemingly fall to his death). The Thing must go at least a couple of rounds with the Hulk, and Wolverine doesn’t defeat Sabretooth because he’s a better poker player. But conflict isn’t just punching and hitting and shooting. That’s a video game. Conflict needs to be mental as well as physical. Psychological vs. Shaolinquan. Jailhouse Rock vs. don’t rock the boat. Drama vs. shoot ‘em up!
In Blackest Night #0, Geoff Johns says “Blackest Night will recharge the DC Universe as Green Lantern: Rebirth recharged the Green Lantern Corps.” I’d go for that – just as long as the charge lasts more than 24 hours.
NEXT TIME ON KC’s COLUMN: KC rants and raves about Events over at the good ol’ Marvel U. Including the event that isn’t an event, but a way of life (Dark Reign) as well as Utopia and Captain America: Rebirth. Look for it next Monday!
P.S. Please be careful with those promotional Blackest Night rings that DC has made available! After slipping my ring on (yay for DC for remembering to make the rings adult-sized, something they’ve occasionally forgotten for previous ring promotions), I idly started thinking about my long-gone childhood dog Duffy and now I’ve got this zombie-schnauzer shambling around the house, trying to kill me! Down, Dark Duffy! Down! Good boy!
[One last aside: My proofreader drones (Hi Honey! Hi Roger!) have informed me that I had a devil of a time keeping the exact title of the Event straight, as I repeatedly kept calling it Darkest Night. (I think we caught them all.) Curious as to why I kept doing that (beyond the obvious reason - plain and simple stupidity), I did a little research and discovered (or remembered) that I wasn’t completely crazy and that - for a time and as perhaps an overly PC decision - DC did indeed change the Green Lantern Oath from “... in blackest night” to “... in darkest night” to avoid possible racist connotations. Apparently, I memorized the oath during the “darkest” period, and continue to think of it that way. Obviously, it’s now been changed back to the original “blackest night.” Any mega-researchers or super-brains out there who recall exactly when these changes took place? Just curious...]
KC CARLSON has been poked by pigs all his life. Now it’s time for… revenge. Dark revenge…
Green Lantern #45
Green Lantern #46
The cover for Legion of Super-Heroes #47 came from the Grand Comic Book Database.