Friday, October 2, 2009

RISE: The Blackest Night! Part I - Zombie Make-Out Party!!

Large-scale comic book events (are there any other kind?) inevitably spawn a number of off-shoot books meant to broaden the scope of the initial event, as well as to pump up sales, as the hope is that people who are closely following the main event will buy these ancillary titles out of the fear of missing a crucial story beat or simply out of completist impulse. Inevitably, many of these books turn out to be disappointing and rarely add to the enjoyment of the central event, and usually end up contributing more to so-called 'event fatigue'. The latest and greatest event to hit the shelves this summer is Blackest Night, an 8-issue mini-series that has been in the works for over two years, and that borrows on Green Lantern continuity going back even further. It, like Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, and Countdown before it, has now birthed it's own set of step-children.

Blackest Night is brought to you from the fine folks responsible for the Green Lantern Universe over the past few years, namely, writers Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi, and artists Ivan Reis, Ethan Van Sciver, Doug Mahnke, and Patrick Gleason. Other contributors have been involved, not to mention some truly great inkers, but those named above have been the main architects of the Green Lantern world for some time now, with Johns and Reis serving as the dynamic duo on the main event book itself. The conceit is that the dead of the DCU will rise in zombie-fied form and wreak havoc on the living, seeking their revenge on those who have cheated death. The spark of all this undead rising is a war of light between the various Lantern Corps that dot the universe. So, an event born out of GL lore bleeds out into the greater DCU, seemingly necessitating more than one series to show the effects of all this mayhem. On paper, sounds good. If some is good, more is better, right? Not so much.

The main conceit of the dead rising and confronting their still living loved ones is a powerful idea, one that plays off the very long personal histories many of these characters share. All heroes and villains of the DCU have lost someone close to them or been responsible for the death of someone, directly or indirectly, so having them come face to face with their checkered pasts embodied in the scarred and mauled remains of the victims of their actions is an intense dramatic device. The troublesome aspect of this device, however, is how quickly its power can become diluted through repetition. The series runs the risk of collapsing into just an endless succession of zombie uprisings, angry and confused confrontations, and fistfights, diminishing in emotional return with each repetition. The story needs to be more than just this in order to both sustain the status of being a major event and also sustain reader interest beyond the initial reveal. Luckily, Johns is no slouch, and the careful planning and long gestation of this story shows very quickly with each of the first 3 issues. It is very clear from these early story beats that this event will be about more than just zombies.

The same can not be said, however, of the ancillary titles that have launched alongside the main event. Already sitting on shelves in your local comic shop will be Blackest Night: Superman, Blackest Night: Batman, and Blackest Night: Titans, each one dealing with how the events of the rising dead are affecting these specific corners of the DCU and the heroes who reside in them. While all of these books have their own unique positives to speak of, they unfortunately all suffer from the exact same problem, namely the diminishing returns brought on by the exhaustive parroting of the same formula. The characters featured may be different, their foils specific to them, but the scenarios, and how and where they play out, are unsurprisingly the same.

Each mini-series is three issues long and, with the release this week of Blackest Night: Titans #2, each has now reached their second issue. Each series has followed this basic template: issue one introduces us to the main characters at play, namely, the heroes of the title, as well as the setting of the series. This leads to scenes of Black Lantern rings flying into town, penetrating graves and coffins in cemeteries, tombs, and memorials; this leading to inevitable panels of outstretched gnarled hands punching out of said graves, tombs, and coffins accompanied by the word "RISE". Scenes of townsfolk being mutilated by these newly arisen zombies follows this, along with the "shocking" confrontation of these undead zombies with the heroes and assorted loved ones of the piece. These confrontations all have the Black Lantern-ized former dead spouting off extreme vitriol at our heroes all to elicit intense emotional reactions out of them, as well as out of readers. Cue cliffhanger splash page consisting of the reveal of some other new Black Lanterns and issue number one is in the books. Issue two breaks down into action set pieces involving our heroes attempting to fight the seemingly invincible Black Lanterns, all while suffering through more emotionally wrenching and savage diatribes. Insert Superman, Batman, and the Titans, and pair them with their own specific emotional counterparts, shake and serve.

When read in whole and taken together as part of the larger event, the formulaic delivery embodied in these books is too striking to ignore. However, these three titles demonstrate how a simple formula can serve as just a springboard, and that when played with in the hands of different writers and artists, it need not all lead down the same path. To do them justice, let's examine each series separately.

Blackest Night: Superman is by far the weakest of the three. The scenes in the opening pages of the first issue are trite and the people of Smallville are central-casting-clichés of simple mid-western townsfolk. The dialogue consists of discussions of grain silos and dismemberments caused by farm equipment. It feels like a city-slickers attempt at capturing the romanticized view of small-town America, but it just comes across as insulting. ("My trick knee I got during Korea is acting up again. Must mean Black Lanterns is on the way, Ma.") These opening scenes do nothing to move the story forward and if their purpose is to set the scene then they do so lazily. Mid-Western farmers talk about more than farm accidents and grain prices, and a stronger writer would explore this more, instead of just pulling out standard cliffs notes dust-bowl era dialogue. If panels aren't serving the story, they're just taking up space, and that is a unforgivable crime when your issue allotment is only three.

Issue #2 of BL: Superman curiously opens in a similar manner, with a montage sequence of panels introducing the reader to various other townsfolk around Smallville, and it, too, contains equally derisible dialogue. Making matters worse, penciller Eddy Barrows draws the people in these panels with such ridiculously wide grins, they come across as Stepford Wives crossed with Joker laughing gas victims. There is very little story to speak of in this issue, it is dominated by splash pages and large panels, seemingly to add weight to the feeble plot. Supergirl makes an appearance, but is drawn with awkward proportions, more muscular and stout than suits the age of her character, and her uniform is sloppily ill-fitting. The issue is essentially one drawn out fistfight between Superman and undead Superman of Earth-2, and yet, it's disturbing how much of a reactionary and ineffectual bystander Superman comes across. Writer James Robinson pulls off the unnerving feat of re-enforcing the misguided perception that Superman is boring.

Blackest Night: Batman follows the formula, substituting Gotham for Smallville, but Batman comes across as much more proactive. It may be Richard Grayson under the cowl now, but he studied at the school of Bruce Wayne, and none was better at taking a leadership role in a crisis. This mini-series is stronger than BL: Superman and it works much better, in part because the dark, intense, and ghoulish themes of Blackest Night play out better in the dense urban gothic cathedral of Batman's Gotham City. The characters of the Batman Universe are steeped in death and tragedy; all of the major players, Wayne, Grayson, and former Robin, Tim Drake, losing their parents in their youth due to violent crime. Commissioner James Gordon has lost a wife and had his daughter paralyzed by the criminally insane, and newest recruit Damien, biological son to the dearly departed Mr. Wayne, was born of an odd eugenics experiment and raised surrounded by death by international assassins. Zombies are supposed to scare this lot? I think not.

This series also tries to break out of the molds where it can. When the bodies of criminals are being transported from Gotham to Washington on a military transport airplane, the plane is overrun by the flesh-seeking Black rings. The emerging Black Lanterns rise out from the exploding mid-air wreckage, saving the readers from more panels of hands bursting from the ground than is absolutely necessary, and providing a far more exciting scene than if they had just emerged from a morgue or grave.

Bruce Wayne, though dead, is a central figure in the Blackest Night narrative, and it has been alluded to in several story beats that he will factor greatly into the main event as it unfolds. It is his desecrated gravesite that serves as the jumping off point for the series, and his skull that the Black Hand uses to unleash the Black Lantern rings. All of this lends some weight to this particular mini-series missing from BL: Superman. It also greatly helps that BL: Batman is penned by Peter Tomasi, the long-standing writer on Green Lantern Corps and one of the aforementioned main architects of the GL Universe. Tomasi seems to have a solid understanding for how this series will fit into the greater narrative, and it translates into a greater command of character and story. Tomasi also makes room for quiet moments, as when Dick and Damien discuss their feelings on death whilst speeding in the Batmobile, or when Deadman humorously goads Dick on his choice of Damien as his Robin. His Batman and Robin are proactive and strong, as are his Jim and Barbara Gordon. Despite the formulaic template of the first two issues, BL: Batman is an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Of the three books released so far, the one that breaks furthest from the mold is Blackest Night: Titans written by J.T. Krul with pencils by Ed Benes. It again follows the formula, substituting San Francisco for Smallville and Gotham, but there are a few change-ups that add a bit more drama to the first issue. First, there are no scenes of zombie hands punching up through graves; in fact, no scenes at all of the Black Lanterns rising. In BL: Superman and BL: Batman the Black Lanterns are shown tearing into town, indiscriminately ripping into the populace with unbridled bloodlust. Here, instead, the Black Lanterns are introduced in ways that are unique to their targeted victim, and this device shows they are capable of strategy and cunning, not just outright mutilation and terror. Each of the Titans are approached in very cruel ways; Omen and Terra team up to fool Beast Boy into believing his long dead love has returned to him (which leads to a disturbingly hot zombie make-out session) and Donna Troy is awoken by the squeaking wheels of the pram of her long dead child - killed along with her husband in an auto accident - as it slowly wobbles into her bedroom.

The second issue takes up exactly where the first leaves off, and as with the second issues of the other two series', it is the "fight" issue. Hawk and undead Hawk double up on Dove; Cyborg, Starfire and Beast Boy battle Terra and Omen; and in the most striking scene, Donna Troy is bitten, Dracula-style, by her own zombie-fied child; the Titans Tower, located on a small isle off the San Francisco Bay, is once again leveled to the ground; and the final splash page consists of a scene now typical for all Blackest Night related issues, that of a group of Black Lanterns arriving menacingly on scene, ready to lay waste to all. It is quite entertaining, but again, striking how it all fits neatly into the same template.

One's decision to purchase these ancillary books will undoubtably come down to their attachment to the characters involved. Titans fans are more likely to purchase a series involving these characters than a more casual reader who is only following the main event. This here is what ultimately proves to be the great achilles heel of most spin-off books; no matter how entertaining they may end up being, they can never be allowed to be of any real consequence. Any major story beats, any truly important plot points to the overall event will always be presented as part of the main story. Editors are well aware that many readers will stay away from ancillary books for any number of reasons, from simple disinterest to economic thrift. If readers are going to purchase only one title a month, they are going to choose the main book, so that is where the true story needs to be.

Ultimately, too, Blackest Night is Geoff John's story. He has orchestrated and built this monster for years now and everything else revolves around it. He is the Sun in this solar system, and all other titles simply rocks that spin off his gravity. Where Johns goes, they go, and so, too, do readers. Considering this, writing the spin-off must be one of the more thankless tasks in comic-dom. However, some creators, like those pesky Black Lanterns, "RISE" to the occasion. Others just fall dead.
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Next in PART II: "Our Story So Far..."

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