Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Blackest Night: A Post Mortem

DC just finished their massive eight-part crossover event, Blackest Night, which actually felt like it ran much longer due to all the build-up that went into it. Now that it is done, let's take a look back at what went wrong and what went right.

On the positive side, the events leading up to Blackest Night and the event itself was some of the best story-telling DC has put forth in a while. Final Crisis was supposed to be a bigger and more important event, looking back as it did at the entire history of the DC universe, but its main title was written with a different type of enjoyment in mind, that of looking back at DC history and making connections that required fairly esoteric knowledge of DC history. Between that and the disturbing pattern of having a lot of important action take place between the panels so that the reader had to guess what was going on in a lot of cases, Final Crisis was difficult and not very accessible to a casual reader. And since part of the premise of the big crossover events is to pull in the more casual readers, in some ways Final Crisis was a failure. On the other hand, Blackest Night did not really require a lot of background, and what background was needed was not very esoteric. The important beats were highlighted early in the series, such as the invention of a new spectrum of lanterns, and the rest flowed fairly easily from there.

Blackest Night also had the advantage that its primary series was written by the current Green Lantern writer, Geoff Johns, so that the build-up over time was fairly gradual. And its tie-in to the Green Lantern series and the companion book, Green Lantern Corps was tight. It's a difficult game that the publisher must play—if it's a big event, how much crossing over is required, or from the readers' perspective, how many other books will they have to buy? DC did a good job of keeping the story contained in those three titles, and it could be argued that Green Lantern Corps wasn't really necessary for the primary plot.

But these considerations are secondary to what's most important—Blackest Night was a really fun concept and made for good reading. The dead of the DC universe, good, bad, and ancillary, are rising up and devouring the hearts of every living thing they can encounter. The revenants appear to have all the memories and emotions of the former living, which makes some of them pitiful and some horribly conniving. From the revenant Terra pleading with those who loved her to kill her again to put her out of her misery to the horror of Donna Troy's infant son attacking her, there were a number of fascinating character moments. That the overall rationale for these stories was a little lacking paled when compared to the "cool factor" of seeing resurrected enemies and friends.

And the art through the major titles was particularly gorgeous. Ivan Reis did wonderful work in Blackest Night and Doug Mahnke handled the art chores in Green Lantern really well. The story flowed between cosmic and personal, and the art captured the nuances of both easily.

The negative side seems to be made of editorial decisions that I just can't fathom. The biggest blunder was a skip month after the first six issues, which seems to have been planned for by the insertion of secondary titles in the vacuum (more on them below). Blackest Night had a ton of momentum after its sixth issue—the reader has finally been introduced to the main villain and he has expressed his power by turning some of the DC heroes who had died and come back into Black Lanterns. And then nothing for two months, nothing but one-shots of cancelled series being restarted to bring back dead characters. No movement on the big plot, so that when Blackest Night restarted with issue seven, it really did feel like a restart. Momentum was gone, and the formerly fun beats felt more like audience manipulation. No doubt it will work much better in collected trade paperbacks, for those of us reading as the issues came out, it was a horrible anti-climax and made it difficult to get excited about the conclusion.

And there were a lot of tie-ins to Blackest Night: there were several mini-series, like Blackest Night: JSA that focused on a specific character or characters' response to what was happening around them. There were the restarts of cancelled series that brought back old characters so we could get their reactions to those they cared for being reborn. And there were the special Blackest Night issues of ongoing stories, usually two parts, performing much the same function as the mini-series. Most of these had very little to do with what was going on in the main story arc and felt like some sort of filler. Particularly egregious to me was the JSA mini-series, where Mr. Terrific figures out how to defeat the regenerative revenants, and in the process clears out New York City of every undead. But in nearly the last two panels he explains that the process required parts that cannot be duplicated and so the weapon cannot be rebuilt. It's a fairly standard cop-out and an example of lazy story-telling, but it does lead to the question of why, if he knew he could only make one such weapon, didn't he take it to the heart of the revenant uprising in Coast City? The tie-in stories in existing series felt like everyone marching in place, especially as they all took nearly exactly the same format: one issue to remind the reader who the revenants are and then they attack, and the second issue to find some miraculous way to overcome them, a method which was never reproduced in the main storyline. Some of them are ingenious—freezing the revenants, for example—but if the methodology is never returned to the main story, it really serves no purpose. There were some potential "oh cool" moments in the tie-ins, like for example the idea of Dick Grayson and Tim Drake meeting their respective deceased parents, who by the way want to eat their hearts. But the potential of those moments is not fulfilled, again, as they never seem to have any relation to what's happening elsewhere.

There were also some strange moments that remain inexplicable to me. For instance, the highlight of the first issue of Blackest Night is the resurrection of Martian Manhunter and Ralph and Sue Dibny. In fact, their undead appearance was perhaps the most scary (after Donna Troy's dead son) and showed the potential of what the revenants could do. But after their splash page appearance in that first issue, we never see them again. And also in that first appearance, Hawkman and Hawkgirl are killed and then made undead, but we never see them again either. In several of the tie-ins, we discover that heroes that are light-based are better able to deal with the revenants, but that information doesn't seem to make it over to the main story.

And somehow, despite having eight issues and numerous tie-ins, the last bits of the story still felt particularly rushed. I'm still not terribly sure what the main villain's plan actually was and how it involved his allowing dead heroes to be resurrected in the past few years. I have no idea why there was a White Lantern Corps that lasted for all of an eye-pleasing panel before the story swept past them and those members were returned to their normal costumes. And the biggest mystery of all, why twelve formerly deceased characters were resurrected, is not even told in Blackest Night but left as a cliffhanger to be resolved in the ubiquitous follow-up series, Brightest Day.

Finally, there were some unfortunate pile-ups in the editorial office as far as scheduling went, as different aspects of the many series collided with each other. For instance, in Blackest Night #4, the hero Damage is gruesomely killed and his heart ripped from his body. And yet in his "home" title, JSA, life goes on and Damage fights alongside his teammates, even taking part in the splitting of the JSA team and appearing in the new title JSA All-Stars. Every other title in the DC universe is in the crossover, but apparently the JSA titles are not…and there is no indication anywhere on the pages that they aren't. Such a complaint may seem nit-picky, but it was (And still is) a stumbling block and impairs the impact of killing the character elsewhere if he still goes on in his own title. Worse was two other big DC events that collided with Blackest Night blunting their impacts a well. For a long while, DC had been building up the return of the most famous Flash of all, Barry Allen, in Flash: Rebirth. In that series, the newly reborn Flash deals with perhaps his worst arch-nemesis, Reverse-Flash, who has somehow returned from the dead. Supposedly, this was going to be a nice lead-in to Blackest Night, except that the Flash series got bogged down and didn't finish before Blackest Night. So in one series, Flash is wandering about trying to understand how his dead nemesis could possibly have come back, and in another series, coming out at the same time, he has no such concerns about lots of dead people coming back.

Similarly, some fairly ground-breaking things happened in another mini-series, Justice League: Cry for Justice, where there was some interesting contemplation of how justice works in the comics world. But its conclusion ran smack dab into the conclusion of Blackest Night, and its somewhat powerful conclusion, which opens the door to all sorts of interesting and thought-provoking questions, is muted by the return of twelve characters from the dead and the death of many many others in the pages of Blackest Night.

The result is that Blackest Night shows the potential of a thoughtfully planned event at DC. The story generally was good and fun to read, and I am excited by the return of a few characters. At the same time, however, it shows the weakness of such an event, dealing as it does with a lot of working parts that all have to remain in synch for the best, most dramatic impact. There were some hiccups that served as momentary distractions from what DC hoped to accomplish with Blackest Night, and that's unfortunate. Blackest Night really is the best event that they have had in some time and should serve as a signpost for how to do similar things in the future. Only, let's not do them too near in the future—event fatigue has set in and I'd like to see time spent on the repercussions of all that just happened.

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