Friday, 5 November 2010

Ensuring The Atom Feels Small: More Thoughts On Geoff Johns & "Blackest Night" (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Monday last;


6.

Thankfully, "Blackest Night" isn't a mainstream comic whose creators have confused the meaningfully obscure with the creatively meaningful. This is, after all, and as we discussed, a book designed to be as popular with a general audience as it can be while maintaining the attention of the committed superhero fan. And so, to take but one example, characters explain themselves in "Blackest Night". They explain themselves to themselves, they explain themselves to each other. "The truth is I am afraid of one thing. I'm afraid to get close to people." (8:1:1/2), Mr Johns has Hal Jordan declare to no-one but himself and we readers as the eighth and final chapter of "Blackest Night" begins, as the end of everything looms. It's one of a super-string of examples of a style of writing which has no time for any fashionable degree of ambiguity, and which displays a untypical reluctance to rely unduly on the skill of the artist to carry much if not all of the meaning of

events on the printed page. In short, Mr Johns has no time for what passes as naturalism and knowing restraint in some of today's comic books. Characters in "Blackest Night" are there to be identified, events to be precisely described, and the emotional context of each scene signed up at its beginning and summarised at its end. Nobody on his mostly-crowded pages is allowed to even appear to digress from the story at hand, and there's a strong sense that Mr Johns would rather not have his characters say anything at all than allow them to ramble away from the spine of his tale.

So fixed are Mr Johns's characters in their narrative purpose that they can often sound, to the reader not racing from page to page in pursuit of the skillfully dispersed plot revelations, rather stiff and two-dimensional. Individuals they may be, with their own personalities and agendas and even speech patterns, but Mr Johns's characters are never designed to pass as real in a sense that might satisfy a creative writing teacher on a weekend express-yourself-like-the-masters course. Instead, his women and men and sundry aliens are written to serve precise emotional purposes as well as specific plot functions; they're always placed in the service of the story and they're rarely if ever allowed to shake free of those responsibilities.

But then, the fact of the huge weight of action set-pieces and character development combined with the finite page count in "Blackest Night" mitigates against Mr Johns adopting anything but the most rigorous and in part traditional of scripting approaches. Scenes that might have been extended, and indeed scenes which might have been delayed, in a monthly book needed to be delivered in a specific form at a particular moment as "Blackest Night" was published month-by-month. In truth, there was no room for anything but brevity and clarity in the script for "Blackest Night", but a great many comic book writers have proven themselves impervious to accepting the need for such discipline in the past, and in the degree to which he serves his story rather than his ego, Mr Johns stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of his contemporaries.

Textbooks dedicated to the teaching of the business of writing fiction always, always, declare that plot and character are in truth the same essential quality seen from different perspectives, as if they were fundamental particles in a story-telling physics whose essential nature relies upon the position of the writerly observer. And if there were to be a version of Vogler or McKee which took the business of writing comic books as seriously as it ought to be taken, then Mr Johns's work would surely be the example chosen from today's mainstream books to illustrate the paradox and practise of that essential business of plot/character.

7.

Mr Johns's determination to make his scripts as reader-friendly and purposeful as possible brings to mind the work not of his fellow Triumvirs, but that of the most commercially successful of the generation of writers who came to prominence in the last half of the Seventies. The absolutely unmistakable influence of writers such as Chris Claremont and Marv Wolfman re-appears constantly throughout "Blackest Night", the shade of a comic-book writing style where every important thought and feeling was expressed with exactitude and detail, whether in speech balloon or narrative caption. It's a style adopted and adapted by Mr Johns that's most obviously marked in the scene between Kid Flash and Barry Allen at 6:11:2, where characters who know enough about each other to be getting along with the fighting in the midst of a great zombie-punchup digress into apparent irrelevancies in order to keep any unfamiliar readers up to speed with how one fast-running character relates to another;

Barry Allen : "Call me Barry, or Flash, Bart. "Grandpa" makes me feel old."

Kid Flash : "I'm your grandson from the 31st century. You are old."


There's absolutely none of the reluctance of many of today's writers to put to use such Shooterisms on display in "Blackest Night". Put simply, inclusiveness trumps self-consciousness, for Mr Johns obviously believes that his readers both need and deserve to be informed of who's on-panel and why they ought to care about them, and literary pretension comes a considerable way down his list of priorities. Indeed, it's self-evident from the pages of "Blackest Night" that Mr Johns is concerned in every scene with three simple, and yet so-often elsewhere-contravened, principles;

  1. keep the reader informed about what's happening and to whom
  2. ground action and reflection in emotion and make the emotion absolutely relevant to the plot
  3. present each scene in as visually an exciting and eye-catching form as possible.

And anyone concerned with trying to make sense of how the author's books consistently hit the very top of the bestsellers chart need only to begin, I'd argue, with some reflection on how Geoff Johns always focuses in each individual sequence on these same three issues time after time after time; purpose, feeling and the presence wherever possible of the spectacular, if not at least the visually intriguing.

8.

Geoff Johns is, in truth, a practical writer unconcerned with anything beyond the best way to tell a specific story while respecting the needs and tastes of his various potential audiences. What works is what works, and that's that; he has no interest in reinventing the wheel if it won't turn more smoothly than the one he has. And so, to take but one example, his stories are as full of good old fashioned establishing shots as they are of double page Image-esque indulgences, for he's learned to ignore the fashionable theories that proclaim how modern audiences have experienced so much of the media that they don't need the broad detail of what they're experiencing explained to them. For what might seem like "obvious information" to a media theorist is the province of good manners to Mr Johns. He never assumes that his readers will recognise Gotham City and what the city signifies simply by, for example, the presence of Barbara and Jim Gordan standing by the Bat-Signal. And so Mr Johns works with Mr Reis to ensure that his audience is informed that this Gotham is a dark and threatening place where the skies are starless and low and gargoyles stud the skyline. (2:3:1/2)


So concerned is Mr Johns to speak to an audience beyond the hardcore fan-base, even as he constructs his stories from a hundred-weight of hyper-muscled superheroes, that he even commits the heresy of having his characters refer to each other by their names, or at least according to their relationship to each other, when they're first introduced to the story. It may not be an example of Eisner-esque genius to, for example, clearly show Barbara Gordon in her wheelchair or to have her refer to the old gentleman before her as "Dad", but it is an example of a welcoming attitude which must surely account for a good measure of Mr Johns's sales.

9.

There's no such thing as an unimportant sequence in "Blackest Night". Every scene is a water-cooler moment, every scene is focused and, in one fashion or another, intense, and "low-key" is a relative term that means a series of panels where no-one is actually being threatened with a terrible death quite yet. It's an approach that can become wearing and indeed exhausting if the reader attempts to tackle "Blackest Night" in a single sitting, but it's a technique that undoubtedly helps Mr Johns's work thrive in the monthly marketplace, where each relatively-expensive issue written by Mr Johns begins at a high-pitch and builds upwards from there. At its best, it's a method of turning everything up to eleven, and then eleven again, which makes each individual issue seem packed with incident and significance.

Because it is.

And with each of these watercooler moments being played out one after another according to the principles of clarity, emotion and spectacle we discussed above, there's an interesting basic grammar used to affect the pace at which each sequence is experienced by the reader. As with most comicbook scripters, Mr Johns writes to the page, ensuring that each side has a particular purpose and theme, and that both progress from the first to the last panel. And, as is of course standard-practise too, Geoff Johns often uses that final panel as a "page-turner", as an enigma of some kind to snare the reader's attention and compel them to read on. "Blackest Night" is absolutely full to bursting of such page-turners, from the zombie Ralph Digby's assault on Hawkman at 1:35:3, to the off-panel arrival of Aquaman at 2:5:5, to the reveal of the presence of the Anti-Monitor at 8:20:6. And by manipulating the degree of jeopardy and mystery at the end of most pages, Mr Johns can control to a degree how speedy the reader's experience is.

It's an approach that has its disadvantages too. When one cliffhanger follows inevitably on after enough, as occurs particularly when the later chapters of "Blackest Night" arrive, there's never a breathing space where the reader can disengage, catch their thoughts and process events. The constant charge from big deal to bigger one creates a mental breathlessness that can obscure the emotional sense of the piece as much as it exhausts the sense of occasion of each universe-changing set-piece.


But Mr Johns can also choose to use those page-closing panels in a far less typical way too. He often closes his pages in such a way as to inspire the reader to pause rather than read onwards. It's a trick that he tends to use in "Blackest Night" when he wants his audience to pay attention to a key character moment, and in particular, a character moment which emphisises the major themes of the book. And so, where the traditional final panel on a comic book page encourages the reader to move on, Mr Johns is often demanding quite the opposite. In the first chapter of “Blackest Night”, for example, page 8 closes on Damage’s admission that he “can’t face anyone”, that he’s been traumatized by the loss of his comrades in the Freedom Fighters. But Damage himself isn’t even in that closing panel, and while the scene of mournful statues may foreshadow a grim future, the art doesn’t compel the reader to turn the page at all. Instead, the audience is encouraged to stay where they are and think about what they’ve been shown, to stay in the moment as its been sublimally suggested that they do. It's a business which helps to establishes Damage as more than just one more superhero on parade, and creates a more substantial bond between reader and character through the focusing of attention on the misery that his witnessing of a mass murder has caused.


This technique is a highly-functional way of slowing down the action and compelling the reader to focus on the page’s purpose. (It also serves to break up the endless charge forward through dramatic plot-events.) It's a fairly uncommon narrative trick, for reasons which I find hard to grasp, and its effectiveness can be seen again and again in "Blackest Night"; in the shot where a tiny and emasculated Atom sits almost lost amongst the everyday minutia on his desk (1:21:5), and where Lex Luthor responds to what seems like a global apocalypse by announcing that "it's every man for himself"(. 4:9:5) Character is established in relation to theme (*3) while there's a greater variety of pace quietly added to the experience of reading the tale. A relatively minor point, it might be thought, but it illustrates the craft of Mr Johns, and the care he takes to control the sense of his work and even the speed at which it can be enjoyed.

*3:- the nature of the theme itself, and these scenes, is something we'll discuss next time in the concluding part of this piece.

10.

The same technical control of his craft can be seen in the manner by which Mr Johns approaches the structure of that over-familiar tradition of the line-wide superhero epic. On the one hand, his approach is, as we'd expect, exceptionally respectful. He's careful to constantly present his readers with the moments which any experienced mainstream comics fan would expect of a post-Crisis On Infinite Earths crossover. Each chapter of "Blackest Night", for example, contains at the very least one lovingly detailed shot of a gathering of superheroes who aren't typically seen collected together. Barely ten pages have passed before we're shown a small army of costumes gathered in Valhalla, the superhero cemetery in Metropolis, and the massed scenes of heroes and villains intensify in terms of number and spectacle until they culminate in the crowded battle between super-powered zombies and their opponents from the side of the good at 8:11/12.

It's as if Mr Johns has sat down and taken notes to ensure that there's no trope he's failed to incorporate in "Blackest Night". There are unexpected team-ups in each chapter, from that between Mera and The Atom and Indigo-1 at 3:12:1 to the presence of The Scarecrow and Lex Luthor in the team of Lanterns that assault Nekron at 7.2. There's even the recurrent motif by which heroes facing impossible odds are saved by the arrival of all manner of unexpected and super-powered cavalry, from Wally West's arrival at 5:7:1 to save Barry Allen from Nekron, to John Stewart being rescued from an undead army at 5:10:11 by the appearance of an army of, oh, just about everybody.

11.

But Geoff Johns is as keen to reinvigorate the crossover as he is to celebrate its traditions, and by doing so, to increase the immersive quality of them. For the sheer predictability of the line-wide blockbuster has led to readers knowing so much of how events will precede that even the more relatively-daring examples of the breed can seem rigid and over-familiar. In particular, the battlelines which have so often been drawn between the presence of the "good" mass of heroes over here and the bad gals'n'guys serving a very tall and menacing super-baddie over there has been playfully and quite deliberately complicated by Mr Johns. Instead of an irregular and predictable force of superheroes led by the JLA serving as a hyper-muscled battalion to save the day , "Blackest Night" sees the fight led by a small cadre of both protagonists and antagonists who've never been associated with each other in any way before. More than that, the traditional group associations of the DC Comics universe are redrawn in "Blackest Night" so that characters from both sides of the comic-book moral divide are in part allocated to one of seven different Lantern Corps. Yes, the Justice League are represented, but so are several of their opponents. It's a clever trick, for all that it threatens to so complicate matters that even some experienced readers might find the business of keeping track of events too tiresome to persevere with. Novelty is added to the conventions of the genre, and the reader is encouraged to re-draw their mental maps of how characters relate to each other, increasing their involvement with the story at hand. New costumes are presented, new identities are temporarily assumed, and new loyalties created, which creates a sense of fluidity where many years of crossovers have seemed hidebound.

That "Blackest Night" finally plays out according to the conventions of the genre is hardly the point. Short of actually allowing Nekron to destroy The Entity and wipe out all life in the DCU, victory was always going to be won by the side that had Green Lantern in their ranks and Superman in the reserve. Everyone looking like a zombie in lycra was always going to return to dust. But the journey, from Flash and Green Lantern's meeting by Batman's grave to the last-panel appearance of a white lantern, has been a less-familiar experience, its structure made far more complex and involving, and, with the reserection at the end of a dozen once-dead superheroes, the whole proceedings have led to a new status quo and a new set of enigmas for the audience to become involved with.

12.

Maintaining the attention and involvement of his readers is so very obviously a process that Mr Johns gives a substantial amount of thought to. Each of the first five chapters of "Blackest Night", for example, contains an obvious intensification of jeopardy, from the betrayal of the Guardians in chapter one to Nekron's reclaiming of the reborn superheroes in chapter 5. It's an obvious and necessary business, of course, but it's a job well done. And yet by the end of chapter 5, it seems as if Mr Johns has somewhat painted himself into a corner. After all, short of allowing the superheroes now commanded by Nekron to commit some terrible acts of mass murder, what could be more challenging to the equilibrium of the DCU than what Mr Johns has just done to its marquee-headlining characters?

It's actually worth a round of applause from even the most cynical of observers to note Mr Johns's solution, which is to fundamentally change the rules underpinning his own story in the last three chapters of "Blackest Night". That this involves a certain measure of narrative cheating is undeniable, for secrets which have been unforeshadowed are suddenly revealed and used to ramp up the drama another few cosmic notches. But for all the dei ex machina, Mr Johns not only very effectively increases the level of threat again and again, chapter upon chapter, but he also changes the very nature of the fictional world that longstanding readers have been immersed in; again, the audience is forced to engage and re-engage with the material in order to incorporate the new

information with the old comic book paradigm. In chapter 6, the audience is suddenly informed that Ganthet is a power-ring factory (6:13:5), capable of creating new ring-powered superheroes to change the balance of the showdown with Nekron. Chapter 7 brings with it the knowledge of The Entity (7:18) and a completely new and far more disturbing cosmological history for the DCU, and at 8:13:3, the reader is presented with the fact of Nekron's reliance on Black Hand in addition to the mysterious reappearance of a host of reborn superheroes.

And so, it's not simply that the level of jeopardy in "Blackest Night" keeps increasing. It's also that the playing field itself is continually being changed, made more impossibly difficult and challenging for the characters in play and, in being so altered, it's transformed without warning into a quite different arena than the one it appeared to be at the start of the story. For where most crossovers are concerned to generally return a publisher's products more or less back to the point where they were when the fighting began, albeit with a few changes to the status quo on display,"Blackest Night" is, at heart, a far more radical, and involving, business.

To be concluded;

.

10 comments:

  1. Wow, you've made me think twice about Geoff Johns...which is more than Johns has ever made me do! This is some REALLY GOOD devil's advocate.

    I do find his comics infuriating, and while I could accuse him of any number of sins, all my favorite superhero writers have been guilty of them at one time or another as well. I hope I've never said in a fit of pique that I think Johns is a poor craftsman or even a "bad writer" (although I probably have). Ultimately, I think it comes down to what he write about superheroes is very different than what I want to read about superheroes. I can admit that he's a very able writer, but at the same time I'm thoroughly uninterested in what he's capable of doing.

    Very much looking forward to Part 3.

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  2. Hello Justin:- you're right, I am assumming the role of the Devil's Advocate! I'd not realised it, and now I'm laughing at how right you are. It's a position I've benefitted greatly from while blogging. Writing about work and craftfolks which I've not had a fierce liking for and which I've not really understood has nearly always left me left me impressed by the creators concerned. I am, for example, a huge John Forte admirer now, whereas before I was almost exactly the opposite, and while I might not ever take Blackest Night down off the shelf for a long time after reading it so many times for this, I know I'll have such an increased measure of respect for what's going on within its pages and its creators.

    I wonder if adopting the role of Devils Advocate is actually the thing I should be consciously doing here and far more often? Considering what you've pointed out in your comment above, I realise I've learned far more from taking on that role than I have any other.

    Thank you, Justin. You've left me with a severe and productive case of first-thing-in-the-morning-wondering!

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  3. Well, I'd hate to make you self-conscious about it -- I know how bad that can be for writing -- and the devil's advocate part of it might even be more from my perspective than yours. But this isn't the first time I've felt that way reading this blog; you are, in fact, writing a book I plan to purchase about a comic book writer who I've often found easy to dismiss.

    Much of comics blogging, I think, IS about preaching to the choir or whatever. And that's not necessarily a bad thing -- good blogging is good blogging, and when we read a comic that seems terrible to us, it's reassuring to know that someone out there agrees, that we're not just cranky fans shaking our canes at the kids on our lawns. But it's also easy to get a little too comfortable reading nothing but things I already think, and so it's enriching to read something that's not just contrarian for the sake of it, but is reasoned enough to make me slow down and actually CONSIDER what someone like Johns is doing with his work, even if I'm probably never going to buy my own copy of Blackest Night.

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  4. You've most likely explicated the various reasons why so many comic readers fall sway to Geoff Johns' writing, but I think you've also listed the very reasons why I just can't warm up to any of his work. Everyone speaks in blatant, stilted dialogue, for one thing, with more bolded words per speech balloon than unbolded. I agree that he has either inherited or ingested the legacy of writers like Wolfman and Claremont, in that he writes every comic like it's still 1980, only updating the stories in terms of graphic violence and amount of issues per tale. Then again, one might say he writes like early Jim Shooter, which is to say, a 13 year old with a 13 year old's ideas and the exuberance and attitude of the current generation. You're right that there's no time for subtlety, naturalism, or any sort of minimalist attitude. He holds the reader's hand in one paw, and a fistful of candy in the other.

    I'm getting off track and into rant territory, here. But let it be known that I do find using the last panel of the page as a reflective moment, rather than a propulsive one, as a nice idea, and not something I've paid particular mind to in the past. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  5. Hello Justin:- thank you for the kind words. You may have made me think about what I'm doing, but I must say that it's been a really productive business. And I think you're right that the net is saturated with opinion, which is absolutely fine and dandy, but it's wearing at times because it's hard to respect anyones work if all it is is material for somebody else to shout about. And I must admit, nothing ever shows me how little I know about comics and the craft of making them as trying to make sense of a writer or artist that I don't understand or warm too. I'm trying to work out a way of writing about the new JMS take on Superman, the free-from-continuity version, and for days I've been aware that I just don't know enough about how he's constructed the book to grasp why it's affected me in the way it has. And given that the net is full of folks shouting about JMS, I guess I ought to find another way of dealing with the fact that I found that book .... challenging.

    Yep, I appreciate very much what've you've said. I know it won't make this blog any more popular in the world of statcounter, but maybe there's a place for such attempts to engage with material that we might not actually enjoy on a personal level at first. And there are times when I really try to make sense of material and discover that I've got a great deal of affection for it. Gail Simone's work, for example, might have quite passed me by if I hadn't had the chance to write about it in this blog. And now she's one of the mainstream writers of the present day whose work I both like and respect.

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  6. Hello Bill:- "He holds the reader's hand in one paw, and a fistful of candy in the other." - I really do like that. I'm gradually learning that I'm better off sticking to the more analytical pieces because I'm just not very good at the type of genuinely amusing writing you use there. I can't compete, Bill, so I'm going to applaud and try to remember not to try to be funny.

    I do know what you mean about that Eighties style of writing. I respect Mr Johns for how controlled and able his writing is, but I do prefer a less directing and more ambiguous style myself. And yet I also believe that for all that folks might find that almost-paternalistic form to his writing overbearing, much of it is, as I know I said, "good manners", especially where new readers are concerned. I think there's a huge amount that a great many writers might learn about how to show concern and care for readers in the work of Mr Johns; they might not copy his solutions, but they ought to consider whether they're attending to the areas which help to make his work so successful. There have been comics I've picked up recently which, yes, took 3 minutes to read and I understood hardly anything of what was going on. It's not an "either"/"or" situation; I'm not saying that it's either Claremont or narrative-free illustrated screenplays. But the middle ground between the two needs more thinking about, I suspect.

    And if nothing else, Mr Johns has quite a few technical skills which aren't in common play at all. I appreciate what you say about his use of those page-closing panels. It's a clever innovation of his, or at the very least a clever adaption of the technique, and that alone marks him out as someone worth a touch more serious attention; of course, there's alot more there than just that one example of storytelling skill.

    It's always good to hear from you, Bill. I do hope you're well.

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  7. You make a remarkably good point about the use of final panel by Mr. Johns.

    You also cut to the heart of the fair-minded critiques of his work: Geoff Johns seems almost allergic to naturalism in any form. His characters talk unlike any human beings that you might encounter outside a comic book message board. They are pre-occupied with subjects that no living person has ever encountered. They are fantasy figures who relate exclusively with other fantasy figures in a highly unrealistic world.

    It is a testament to Mr. Johns craft as a comic writer that his stories function as well as they do.

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  8. Hello Dean:- thank you for the kind words.

    Reading your comment, I have a great temptation to prempt the piece I'm going to publish tomorrow to close this run on the work of Mr Johns. I don't know if you'll be of a mind to pop over for that, but I will be discussing the very matters you quite understandably raise therein. And reading what you've said reminds me to be very careful with how I express the thoughts I have, because Blackest Night both confirmed and quite refuted my expectations about Mr Johns's work.

    To be, I guess, continued!

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  9. Thank you. Dean. You've always been a good egg to this blog.

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