Tuesday, 9 November 2010

"But I Did It. And I Still Do": Last Thoughts On Geoff Johns & Matters Of Life & Death In "Blackest Night"


12.


Should anyone doubt how carefully and deliberately Geoff Johns has structured "Blackest Night", they need only turn to the opening page of the book's prologue. For in the comic's very first two panels, we're shown what appears to be a throwaway, mood-setting example of portentous superhero cosmology, a reduction of the physics of the Big Bang to a punch-up between "light" and "dark". But it's a foreshadowing, of course, of the revelation in chapter 7 concerning the game-changing existence of "The Entity", described by Ganthet at 7:21:1 as "The living light bestowed upon this Universe that triggered existence itself". And so those first two panels establish right from the off that "Blackest Night" is to be a story of a Manichean war between "light" and "darkness", life and death, while the third panel follows that information up by telling us something of the super-heroic footsoldiers who'll be fighting in the frontlines of that conflict.


But in panels four and five of that first page, it's the sub-text of "Blackest Night" that's being introduced every bit as much as it's the raising of the superheroic dead that's being augured. Because while, on its surface, "Blackest Night" will be concerned with a host of hyper-powered melees between the forces of order in the DCU and the undead armies of Nekron and his lieutenant Black Hand, underneath those events run a more subtle and moving meaning that underpins and informs all of of those big punches being thrown and ring-beams being projected. For, put simply,


"Blackest Night" is a tale that's concerned to discuss how human beings try to make sense of death just as much as it is a widescreen comicbook adventure about a war between various superfolks and several very large armies of zombies. And it's the unpretentious and down-to-earth reflections upon the harrowing business of facing up to the facts of death in the real world which ground Mr Johns tale, which lends it a measure of force and emotion that all the super-powered brawling compacted into its pages couldn't of itself generate.

And that's why the prologue's initial page ends on the blank tombstone of what the superheroes in the DCU believe to be The Batman's tombstone. For "Blackest Night" is, of course, to be a blockbuster event in which dead superheroes are raised from the grave. But it's also going to be, in its own way, a story about how none of us, fictional or otherwise, can ever understand enough about the facts of death to reduce its harrowing presence to a comforting truism on a block of stone. It's a theme that will be concluded at the end of "Blackest Night", where Barry Allen and Hal Jordan are shown gathered once again at the Wayne family's


burial plot after almost 250 pages of struggle and bafflement. And where other such "cosmic" books which have touched on so much tragedy might end on a comforting note of faith, a belief in life eternal, in good folks going to their deserved reward, and a purpose for all despite the confusion and suffering of everyday existence, Mr Johns gives his characters an untypically limited, baffled, pragmatic, secular and existential epilogue to close the story with;

"I don't know why the Earth or the sky or people exist. And the fact is I'll probably never know. But I do know one thing, Barry. When you told Black Hand we were the ones that give life purpose, you were right ..... Ganthet thinks there's a bigger picture to it all. One we'll eventually see ... I don't know." (8.39/1-2)

For though the arch-protagonist Nekron will be defeated in "Blackest Night", and a sense of order will be restored to the DCU, the superheroes who emerge alive from the war will know no more about life and death than you or I do, and in many ways, that's the whole point of the entire story. And in the place of comforting homilies and spiritual pablum, the closing meaning of "Blackest Night" is that the only way to deal with the realities of death is to refuse to allow them to define for us the meaning of our lives.


13.

Just about every character given a moment of screen time in the eight chapters of "Blackest Night" has had their personality and their behaviour distorted to a considerable degree by the way in which they think and feel about death. Hal Jordan, for example, believes at first that he doesn't fear death, that "Death is overrated" (3:18:6). But he's soon revealed to be so very scared for Carol Ferris that he's willing to race off to her defence without even considering how his colleagues on Earth, and the planet itself, will cope without him. (3:18:5) Barry Allen's so disconcerted

by the inevitability of his own mortality that he can't bring himself to slow down from his obsessive desire to help others in order to experience something of a life of his own. (3:19:4) William Hand kills himself and seeks to do the same for everyone else because he's so alienated by an existence in which "Life was an accident. It has no meaning. It has no purpose." (8:14:4) Even the Guardians, who've attained eternal life, have kept death at bay only at the cost of forgetting who they were and why they ever vowed "to guard the universe". (7:1:3) Death, it seems, can't be avoided, let alone defeated, and the consequences of trying to cheat it hardly bears the thinking of.

None of this, of course, means that "Blackest Night" isn't a grand and entertaining superhero crossover. But it's also very much a story of terribly confused and sometimes even very frightened men and women struggling to find a way to cope with the fact that, regardless of the various gods and afterlives that crowd the great beyonds of the DCU, death awaits them and everyone else too. Death is the comic-book power that they can't ever control or even truly make sense of. Nekron might be a punchable foe, but death itself in "Blackest Night" can't be understood, ignored, negotiated with, suppressed, or even embraced.

14.


It's not that "Blackest Night" is a despairing text with a hopeless meaning. If it were, Black Hand would the hero of the tale rather than it's most despicable and yet pathetic character. In truth, "Blackest Night" is a comic book whose pages are filled with great and improbable victories, long-lost lovers reunited, overwhelming adversity overcome, and thrilling hi-jinks in the face of impossible odds. What's more, it all concludes with the discovery of a glowing White Lantern, a symbol of the knowledge that's been hard-won and of a more hopeful future that lies in wait for the DCU. As Hal Jordan says at the story's end ;

"I can feel it out there ... urging us to break away from the past and the Blackest Night ... and head into tomorrow." (8:37:5/8:38:1)

But, for all of the above, "Blackest Night" is undoubtedly a comic book that's concerned with more disturbing and difficult issues than is typical where the big line-leading event books are concerned. And it's well-worth noting that Mr Johns shows no sympathy in "Blackest Night" for the typically simplistic and feel-good solutions to the problems he's discussing that are so often offered in popular entertainments. There's no simple pseudo-psychological or religious models being used to underpin the meaning of "Blackest Night", no "five stages" to acceptance or godly signposts to ease our burdens where our thoughts and experiences of death are concerned. Indeed, the conclusion of the tale is that death itself is the wrong concept to try to engage with. Even the superheroes can't make sense of it. Instead, the message of "Blackest Night", if it can be said to carry any so simplistic a meaning, is a commonsensical and pragmatic one; it's life and the business of being alive that we need to focus our attentions on, not death.


Trying to create a worthwhile existence, and attempting to be true to ourselves while striving to do our best by others, may not in any way be a unique, profound or sophisticated solution to the problem of being, but it's no less worthwhile for all of that. After all, any kind of practical reflection on how to cope with grief and the fear of death will inevitably sound simplistic, because after all these centuries, we still know nothing of death beyond the fact that life is here, and then it isn't. To many of us, that's all there is to know. (It's a point so wonderfully made by Montaigne in "Of Phisiognomy", if I may be forgiven a digression away from comics for a moment. Philosophers may encourage us to spend our lives preparing for death, he writes, but "If you know not how to die, take no care for it, Nature her selfe will fully and sufficiently teach you in the nicke, she will exactly discharge that worke for you; trouble not your selfe with it.")

And just as Mr Johns makes no attempt to demystify even comic-book death, he never lets his characters experience a Disney-moment when the blissfullness of life overwhelms and transforms them, leaving them joyful in their hearts and productive members of society. Rather, experience is won at a great cost in "Blackest Night" and the gravitational pull of despair and meaninglessness is always there. Indeed, not even all of those resurrected at the end of "Blackest Night" want to return to the harsh and vulnerable business of living. "I don't want to come back." says Boston Brand at 2:7:3, and he's no more glad to actually find himself hale and hearty in the veil of tears by the end of Chapter 8.

Life is indeed hard in "Blackest Night" and then you really do die, but the whole point of Mr Johns story is that death and the inevitability of dying isn't what's important anyway.


15.

Bar a brief two-page teaser concerned with the vile William Hand and his skull-licking activities, the first chapter of "Blackest Night" begins untypically with a scene that actually illustrates the lessons that our heroes will learn by the end of chapter eight. Cleverly enough, it's not the Green Lanterns, whose heroic behaviour and sacrifices takes the forefront in these first few pages, who are used by Mr Johns to foreshadow the meaning of the end of "Blackest Night". Instead, the business of loving life and finding reasons to do so, rather than dwelling on the fear of and experience of death, is shown being put into everyday practise by tens of thousands of the citizens of Coast City during a parade and an accompanying fly-pass by jet fighters and costumed heroes to "to honor the super-beings who gave their lives protecting the world" (1:3:10).

Coast City was, of course, the site of a massacre of seven million women, men and children by the alien tyrant Mongul, and the folks who live there now have made a conscious decision to do so despite the awful history of their new home. They have, in essence, made a determined and public commitment to reject the fear inspired by the fate of those who occupied the city before in order to begin life over again in difficult circumstances. It's a declaration of purpose which the Heroes Day parade allows them to express, a collective enthusiasm for the very business of breathing, and of being privileged to do so as a member of a decent civil society. And it's that awareness that life has to be embraced, rather than the fact of death permitted to constrain their choices, that's so notably absent in the parallel scenes shown of how that day is celebrated elsewhere in the DCU. In a Smallville cemetery, in the superhero graveyard of Metropolis, and by the apparently-final resting place of Ronnie Raymond in Pittsburgh, mourners are shown gathered in a spirit of quite understandable despair, bent with the weight of the misery of their loss.

Of course, it's not that Mr Johns and Mr Reis are suggesting any lack of sympathy with those who are struggling to cope with the passing of their loved ones, anymore than we're being told that dancing in the streets is the only productive way to engage with the process of being truly alive. Rather, we're being shown that the people of Coast City have as a community faced the reality of the catastrophe that destroyed their home. With time and reflection, they've been able to commit themselves to rebuilding their city and its society, and they're conscious of how important it is for them not to bow before the awful meaning of what was done to their slaughtered families and friends and neighbours. Their wounds are less raw, their lives enriched by what they've so sadly learned, and they've grasped how to approach their days in a way that Hal Jordan clearly hasn't, as he flies above them and convinces himself that a determination not to give in to despair is a profound enough response to the suffering he's witnessed. (1.4)

For it's not that Mr Johns is proposing that we simply celebrate life and ignore death, as if lotus-eating was the best way to deal with uncertainty and pain. He's certainly not suggesting that mourning is an inappropriate and counter-productive process that a more positive perspective might best replace. Instead, he's simply counterpointing, as he does throughout "Darkest Night", one scene that shows how death can't be made sense of with another that recommends paying attention to the process of embracing the fact of being alive instead. And by chapter 8, both Hal Jordan and Barry Allen have begun to learn this lesson, the former in an appropriate and vaguely spiritual sense, as we might expect of a man who owns a magic ring, and the latter in the rational fashion that we might presume a police scientist would follow;

"We all live for different reasons, Hal. It's up to us to figure them out." (8:39:2)

Life, it seems, isn't something which the folks of the DCU can rely on to provide them with clear and inspiring reasons to be. Life has to worked at, consciously defined and redefined in an attempt to keep the meaninglessness that's symbolised by death at arm's length. It's a hard road, this business of being alive, this constant discipline of resisting despair and doubt. And yet, by not providing his characters with facile answers, the knowledge they do acquire becomes all the more inspiring. And for all that Mr Johns seems determined to constantly emphasise that there are no easy answers for how to live in the wake of an encounter with death, he's also exceptionally careful to provide examples of characters who've come through the most challenging of times and created a purpose for their own existence. The best example of this can be seen in the depiction of Barbara Gordon, the only character we're presented with who's faced up entirely and successfully to the very worst that the DCU can throw at her. She knows that death, and a great deal of the cruelties of life too, can be utterly beyond her ability to control, but she's learned to focus instead on what she can achieve with all that's been left to her;

"When I was in physical therapy, there was a sign on the gym wall. It read, "No matter how dark the night gets, the sun still rises in the morning." Every day, I'd wake up two hours before dawn. Back then it'd take me that long to get into my chair, clean up and go outside to watch the sunrise. But I did it. And I still do. I love life, Dad. I love it every single day." (2:3:4)



And she shows how well adapted she is even down to the commonplace minutia of her everyday affairs by letting her father know she's brought enough coffee for the both of them "to last until sunrise" (2:3:5). She's created for herself a life constructed from hard-won knowledge that extends down to the tiny but not irrelevant details of her everyday existence. Barbara Gordon is the one character in "Blackest Night" who's faced up to death and learned without reservation to "love every single day", to concentrate her energies solely on the things that she can control rather than being distressed by the circumstances she can't.

16.

There are moments in "Blackest Night" when all the grief and unhappiness that's been buried in the sub-text escapes into the story itself, and events start to feel truly disturbing and even somewhat distressing. The deaths of the Hawks and Gehenna, for example, are slow, protracted affairs, cruel and hurtful, and reading them can feel as if we're being asked to focus on the spectacle of their deaths rather than the meaning of them (1:38/9 + 3:24). And yet, there's no mistaking, with a touch of reflection, that the intentions of Mr Johns are, if I might put it so, honourable rather than prurient. Each of the scenes which put to use the familiar and on-occasion upsetting conventions of horror also carry with them undeniable echoes of how the real-world grief and fear inspired by death can affect those who've come into contact with it. Hawkman and Hawkwoman's murder, for example, illustrates how death so often occurs before we can say all that we wanted to, with Kendra expressing her love for Hawkman only when it's too late for the two of them to act on such honesty. And Carter Hall's rage at Kendra's death reflects those paroxysms of despair and ire that a lack of closure caused by a cruelly unexpected death can so often inspire. The undead superheroes themselves speak with the kind of unyielding brutality that guilt and regret do, as everyone who's lost a loved one can surely recognise. It's that characteristic and awful mixture of apparently trivial and yet overwhelming shame, such as when the undead Ralph Dibny


reminds Hal Jordan of his "scoping out Sue when she was wearing a skirt" (3:10:3), and of the more fundamental and impossible longings, expressed by the undead Aquaman when he tells his wife that they can be together if she'll just let herself be killed (2:20:2). And running throughout "Blackest Night" is the sense of that terrible and yet impossible-to-resist aching to see lost loved ones alive once again, the utterly crushing disappointment caused by which can be seen on Barry Allen's face at 8:35:2, when he realises that Ralph and Sue Dibny haven't been resurrected.

"Blackest Night" is in so many ways a terribly, terribly sad book, as much as it's also an unmistakable superhero romp. There's little that's in any way unambigiously joyous in its pages before the resurrections of chapter 8. It's a book saturated with an unavoidable sadness, the capriciousness of fate, and the memories of loved ones who'll never be met again.

17.

The solutions that Mr Johns suggests in "Brightest Night" aren't intended to be read as a philosophical treatise. Nor is he constructing any kind of survivors manual, and it'd be doing him a considerable disservice to suggest that "Blackest Night" is anything of the kind. But for all of that, what's notable and admirable about the tale's sub-text is not simply its pragmatic and - it's hard not to think - hard-won conclusions, but also Mr Johns refusal to indulge in spiritual pap. There are no easy answers here, no attempt to sell comforting untruths, and that's something that's never been represented in this way and to this degree in a mainstream superhero comic before.

There's no eternal reward on offer that can relied upon by our heroines and heroes in "Blackest Night", just a better way by which they might begin to learn to cope with the things that they most fear.

It's a business that's been unpretentiously done, buried underneath a text that's all the better for its presence, and, all in all, "Blackest Night" is a damn sight braver and more ambitious comic book than I think Mr Johns is often recognised for.


18.

Having spent far more time with "Blackest Night" than I ever expected to, I find that I've learned to admire Geoff Johns's obvious love for the superhero genre and his conviction that it doesn't need to be fundamentally changed to appeal to a mass audience. What it needs, he seems to believe, is simply to be made explicable and meaningful. The costumes don't need to be dropped, the powers don't need to be simplified, the code-names don't need to be replaced or even ignored. Instead, Mr Johns appears convinced, in his "Smallville" scripts as well as his comic-book work, that a wider audience already exists for superheroes in their classic form, with all of the depth and detail of their continuity, with all of the traditions of costumes and secret bases and odd aliases and so on. The key, it seems, lies simply in giving the reader the basic information of who's before them and what their purpose in the story is, while ensuring that, no matter what the surface of things might say, there are elements of real life being discussed that are somewhat more weighty than the question of, for example, who's faster, Superman or The Flash? And armed with those convictions, it seems that Mr Johns has faith that even the most complicated of superhero narratives can be navigated and enjoyed by readers with none of a fanboy's commitment or knowledge of continuity.

It will be fascinating to see whether he's right in that belief or not.


A little later this week, there'll be a look at the new "Earth-One" Superman by JMS and at the Grant Morrison take on the character in "All-Star" too up here on TooBusy. And then, the latest Secret Six graphic novel by Gail Simone, and the Walking Dead too, and of course our weekly visit to the world of 2000 ad. You'd be very welcome to pop in for any of those, I assure you. And, of course, as absolutely always, my best wishes to you; may you have a splendid day!

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4 comments:

  1. "But I do know one thing, Barry. When you told Black Hand we were the ones that give life purpose, you were right ..... Ganthet thinks there's a bigger picture to it all. One we'll eventually see ... I don't know."

    This is one of the problems with trying to insert real world philosophies into these shared superhero universes: How could Hal possibly doubt there's a "bigger picture" when he and his comrades have seen the things they've seen? Everything from Superman's recent ascent into the "Platonic" realm of the Monitors, to the team-ups with the New Gods, to Hal's own time as the literal embodiment of the Wrath of God should keep anyone in the DCU, but especially the superheroes, from questioning the existence of a "bigger picture." Usually I'd chalk this sort of thing up to a writer ignoring the shared universe conceit in order to make a point about the real world, but Blackest Night itself gives us a being who is the avatar of the Creator of the physical universe. Elements of Johns' own story conflict with Hal's commentary. Grief is one thing, willful ignorance another.

    I understand that Johns has used his storytelling to work out his own experience with death, particularly the death of his younger sister (I believe some of his JSA stories are especially keen on these themes). It just seems odd to me that he would try to make a metaphysical point—at least I assume that's what he's attempting—in a story that directly contradicts that point. Maybe Hal's comment that "we [are] the ones that give life purpose" works if they are rebelling against the hordes of gods and imps that live above their world—i.e., as an act of willful hubris—but not as a passing observation.

    Also of passing interest is Johns' old JSA storyline "Princes of Darkness," because the characters there make a trip into the realms of Darkness and talk about how it preexisted the Light of creation. I assume this was Johns taking his ideas in Blackest Night for an early test drive. There's also a thematic tie to Moore's "American Gothic," although Johns undoes the truce between Darkness and Light for his own story.

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  2. Hello J:- I think you've put your finger on the problem of the afterlife in superhero universes. The possibility of doubt disappears and characters cease to share one of the major problems with living in a partly-secular "modern" world, the fear of death and lack of clear and imposed purpose in life. I'm going to have give what you say even more thought, but I think that Mr Johns may have found a way to square this particular circle. It's not, I think, that he's denying the existence of an afterlife of sorts, but he's destroyed the possibility of seeing what our heroes have experienced as the be all and end all. After all, Swamp Thing found Alec Holland and Linda in Heaven, and Green Arrow met the Flash there, but Heaven obviously isn't what they understood it to be. Nekron had control over who visited there and who got to leave, meaning that the afterworlds of the DCU are part of a much wider mystery. Even The Entity is a vague principle. There's no definitive spiritual cosmology being sketched out, but rather the opposite. What this does is allow Heaven, Hell and all the other realms to remain, but their nature and purpose is no longer clear. And that means that the likes of Hal and Barry are now in as much doubt as you and I are, and forced back to making sense of their lives rather than accepting some pseudo-divine plan.

    I do hope that Mr Johns doesn't try to make matters any clearer, and I hope his influence at DC means that others don't either. One of the problems, I think, about superhero comics has been, and has been for a long time, a lack of anxiety, a lack of any existential crisis, in the characters which bounce around them. And without that anxiety, there's no morality in a modern sense. I think there's a case for arguing that Johns has returned doubt as a fundamental principle to the DCU, and so made the certainty of spiritual survival and purpose that existed at least from Superman's return into something far less comforting.

    And that's why I'd side with your lovely comment about "gods and imps that live above their world". (I love that phrase.) I quite agree. And I think that Johns has been exceptionally clever in doing this. I may find it difficult to always warm to his work, simply as a matter of taste, but I admire alot of what he does, as I guess is obvious, and I'm very much an admirer of how he works so seriously in what seems like a remarkably typical take on the superhero.

    Thank you for the link to the article on the Great Darkness. It's such a good example of what happens when creators try to create a spiritual coherence out of symbols which are perhaps better used to express the unknown in an unsystematic way.

    Of course, if the coming months see one cosmic certainty in the DCU replaced by another, I will make a point of throwing up my hands and noting that you were there discussing this very process in these comments. I’d like to believe that Blackest Night is one conceptual patch that'll stick.

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  3. There does seem to be a perpetual rotation between certainty and uncertainty in the DCU, doesn't there? At least since the Anti-Monitor destroyed a thousand realms and rewrote the rules of time travel, the superheroes have vacillated between grave uncertainty (epitomized perhaps by the Superman of Earth-2 staring bleakly into the void) and banal certainty (Johns' own Day of Judgment comes to mind). Johns' recent retooling of the DC cosmos into something uncanny and undecipherable could bear some fruit, but I guess time will tell.

    And without that anxiety, there's no morality in a modern sense.

    What a pregnant sentence. We must discuss this at greater length some day.

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  4. Hello J:- as always, you raise some excellent points. I'd quite forgotten, for example, about Day Of Judgement. Perhaps we might see Mr Johns's work in introducing so deliberately this uncertainty back into the DCU as a mark of his continuing maturity as a writer, with his approach embracing the need for uncertainty more as he learns his craft in greater and greater depth. Again, I say that not as a fan, but because his work in Blackest Night is so rigorous and morally consistent that uncertainty must have been part of his intent. Your example of the Earth-2 Superman staring into the void is another piece of evidence, perhaps, of a writer trying to bring the shadows of the DCU into view without in any way compromising the sheer superhero-ness of it all. Those are fascinating examples. Ah, for the chance to ask Mr Johns a few questions about the matter, especially now you've mention what you have.

    Thank you for the kind words about the point concerning anxiety. It was something which really struck me when first trying to get to grips with the Lee/Ritko Spider-Man. Of course, anxiety is a commonplace concept in historical and literary analysis, but it does no harm to transfer the concept to the world of comic books!

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