Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Some Thoughts On Geoff Johns And "Blackest Night" (Part 1)


1.

Of all the members of the writerly triumvirate which currently dominates the monthly sales charts, it's Geoff Johns that appears to receive the least considered attention and the most grudging critical respect.

Grant Morrison is the post-modern counter-culturalist, beloved of the most chin-stroking of bloggers. (*1) He's the comicbook-writing alchemist creating new and playful forms out of the detail and detritus of out-there theories and pop-art four-colour traditions.

Brian Michael Bendis is the blue-collar counterweight to Morrison's arty intellectualism, the down-to-earth, outward-looking hybridiser of the superhero with the dynamism of any number of popular literary and visual forms, the lover of the spoken word and the connoisseur of the grit of noir wherever he finds it.


But Geoff Johns is, by contrast, and for all of his undoubted popular success, often seemingly perceived as being no more than that enthusiastic and competent bloke who writes about nothing more than superheroes, about lots and lots of superheroes. He's seen neither as a significant writer beyond his success in pleasing the ever-diminishing hardcore market, nor as a source of innovation who's achieved anything more noteworthy than a highly-efficient and commercial distillation of long-standing superhero traditions. At best, he's credited with bringing something of a no-waste, story-centred focus to comics learned during his time helping to make movies, but that in itself appears to carry with it little fascination or cultural cachet. At worst, he's decried as an unlikely amalgam of corporate climber and continuity-obsessed fanboy, the man with the knowledge of how bureaucracies can be conquered and comic shop devotees beguiled.


But, having spent some time in the company of "Blackest Night", and having found a great deal more at play in its pages than I ever expected, perhaps I might be forgiven for adding so belatedly a few thoughts to the babble concerning the work of Mr Johns, who's in so many ways a far more inventive and radical writer than he's commonly given credit for.

Or perhaps, I ought to say, that Mr Johns is a far more inventive and radical writer than I've ever given him credit for.

Mea culpa.


*1:- That includes me, by the way. In fact, I'm stroking my chin at this very moment.


2.

It'd be a simple-minded business to ascribe the success of "Brightest Night" to Mr Johns having the ability, if not the cold-blooded cynicism, to provide the established audience for superhero events with even more of the same, with a intellectually-freebased concentrate of every over-familiar genre trope that cape'n'muscles devotees have learned obsessively to expect and drool over. But the truth is that the explanation for his achievement in selling so very many copies of "Blackest Night" can't be one that simply reduces the book's success to a formula involving hundreds and hundreds of superheroes knocking hell out of each other interspersed by brief and sentimental heart-to-hearts. After all, those are the components which constitute, to a greater or lesser degree, just about every other superhero book today. And if commercial success is simply a question of arranging and rearranging those familiar components of costumed violence and tearful soap until a critical mass of superhero-ness is reached, there'd be far more writers with the commercial heft of Mr Johns working for DC and Marvel today.


3.

It's not that "Blackest Night" is a book that's dear to my heart, for it isn't. But it is a comic that I've come to greatly admire. In that at least, it's remarkably similar to Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's "Scarlet", a project which might appear on the surface to have little in common with "Blackest Night" at all. For both books are, in their quite different ways, concerned with tapping into the strengths of the superhero genre while seeking to capture the attention of readers unfamiliar with it. They're also both written with the intention of merging decompressed and Silver-Age storytelling techniques into new forms which preserve the capacity of a comic to provide a detailed and complex read while also delivering a requisite number of spectacular set-pieces.

But where the books are radically different, beyond the obvious matter that one is full of quite literally hundreds of thousands of super-powered characters and the other has not a single traditional costume in sight, is that "Darkest Night" is a thematically far more daring piece of work. For though it's on the surface a straight-forward and rather furrow-browed and serious-faced sequence of superhero set-to's, "Darkest Night" is


grounded in a sub-text that's unpretentiously and yet forcefully concerned with the experience of raw grief which accompanies an unexpected death. Or, to put it another way, scratch the surface of "Darkest Night" and underneath all those comic-books deaths is what appears to be something of a morality play concerning how to survive a loss which leaves everyday life at best suddenly meaningless and at worst a source of ineradicable despair.

And we'll come to that unexpected and touching sub-text later on this week, after we've discussed something of the text itself, and tried to perceive a glimmer of why these event books produced by Mr Johns sell to so many more readers than most of his competitors can ever dream of reaching.


4.

One of the most remarkable aspects of "Darkest Night" is how inclusive a comic it is, how welcoming it's designed to be to unfamiliar readers, despite the presence of such a mind-challengingly huge cast of costumes and a plot that's based on almost fifty years of DCU continuity. For, particularly where the first few chapters are concerned, Mr Johns has clearly set out here to inform new readers while simultaneously rewarding long-standing fans with a great mass of continuity-minded detail. It's a business that can be seen at work in the very first issue of "Blackest Night", where a two-page spread is put to use to show Green Lantern creating images of the more than 50 superheroes who've died since Crisis On Infinite Earths. It's a typical post-Image example of spectacularism on the face of things, a great mass of posing superheroes unconnected to each other and presented as if the very presence of so many muscles and capes are compelling in themselves. Yet, all those dead superheroes aren't the point of the scene at all, which is actually designed to accentuate the shock and despair that Barry Allen feels upon discovering how many of his colleagues have fallen since he himself appeared to die. Those stepped in continuity can identify the many costumes, and their enjoyment of the scene will undoubtedly be increased by the opportunity to do so, but knowing who, for example, Vibe was and how Aquaman died isn't essential when the meaning of the scene is locked around Hal's reluctance and Barry's upset. Continuity may greatly enhance the moment, but it doesn't determine it, and a curious neophyte reader might make a great deal of sense from events without needing to know anything more than what's already been explained in the book.


In essence, those who've regarded "Blackest Night" as yet another example of continuity porn have somewhat missed the point. This isn't a book that's solely obsessed with the business of superheroes, but rather a comic which, at its best, uses continuity to enrich the depiction of far more prosaic and everyday issues than whether, for example, one Flash is faster than another or not. And it's this apparently counter-intuitive faith that the superhero genre can be a vehicle for emotionally engaging tales, and that continuity can enrich rather than swamp such stories, that helps to lend the work of Mr Johns much of its individual character and its mass appeal.

In a world where Mark Millar, for example, is busy separating the figure of the superhero from long decades of comic-book continuity in order to sell the genre to a mainstream audience, Mr Johns seem convinced that another more traditional approach can yet pay dividends.


5.

If Mr Johns appears determined to retain all the trappings of the mainstream superhero genre, without permitting them to become the central, or indeed the sole, point of his superhero tales, he's also, as we mentioned above, apparently determined to put to use the decompressed storytelling styles of the 21st century without abandoning the more deliberate and data-heavy methods of the past. For it's obvious that he fully understands the audience-pleasing artistic conventions of the modern-era, of the trend for what we might call spectacularism. And so the post-Image visual status quo of sensational and frequent full-page and double-page spreads, of compsitions dominated by heroically posing superheroes, and of an absence of informing narrative options such as the much-maligned thought balloon, are all fully accepted and put to prominent and effective use in "Blackest Night". But, as we know, the opportunities for punch-throwing dynamism offered by the techniques of decompression have very often resulted in story-thin, emotion-free comics, and it might be feared that such a speedy and unsatisfying read would be on offer in the first chapter of "Blackest Night", where a full third of the content has been given over to splash pages.


But Johns and Reis have fastened to the solution to the disadvantages of decompression first offered by the likes of Bryan Hitch, whose "widescreen" pages are often composed of a mass of visual information that insists upon, and rewards, a great deal of attention. And so, no matter how intense and dramatic and saturated with superheroes the full-page designs of Mr Johns and Mr Reis are in "Blackest Night", they're rarely so lacking in detail that the eye can race on past them and the time spent reading the book reduced as a consequence to a matter of a few minutes. It's hard, for example, to quickly process all the mass of data presented by Mr Reis in his art for the two-page shot of the combined superhero and jet fighter fly-pass at 1:4/5, where the page becomes more and more crowded with the minutia of Coast City's celebrations as the eye descends downwards. At other times, such as the two-page spread over which Indigo One delivers a summary of the back-story of the different Lantern Corps (3:16/17), the rather static if beautifully-rendered art is peppered with a complicated mass of expositionary data while the piece's background reflects a variety of locales and characters from the DCU relevant to the tale. As a consequence, what might have otherwise have been represented as a rather uninteresting sequence of talking heads has been transformed into an eye-catching design that still serves as a substantial and purposeful read.


Elsewhere, a far more traditional style of tale-telling is pursued. Pages are often deliberately packed together into short and focused sequences heavy with captions and dialogue in order to compensate for the decompression elsewhere. It's a process which creates a staccato rhythm to the business of reading, where intense and traditionally text-heavy sections break up the progression of attention-focusing splash pages. (*2) Used with care, it's a method which provides each chapter with a variety of reading experiences. Even in Chapter 6, by which time the narrative is becoming rather cramped with one action-based dramatic climax after another, almost 40% of the pages are invested in relatively wordy scenes where the fighting, if it appears at all, is an element in the background rather than the central concern of events.


As a consequence of this deliberate merging of two separate storytelling traditions, the speed at which each chapter is read can be manipulated by the fact of where Mr Johns places the single and double-page spreads as his tale progresses; there's a notable tendency, for example, for two-page shots to be used with greater frequency as each chapter nears its end, increasing the pace of reading as the reader approaches closer and closer to each issue's main cliffhanging climax.

It's a skill which too many writers have failed to pay nearly enough attention to. For the choice faced by creators isn't that between a decompressed style and an old-school one, but rather one about how the two styles can be fused and put to their different and complimentary purposes. And in such a way does Mr Johns ensure, in collaboration with the estimable Ivan Reis, that "Blackest Night" retains that characteristic "widescreen" dynamism of modern comics while making sure that his scripts are as rich in information as the books he himself grew up reading.

To be continued;

*2:- It's a business that Maleev and Bendis pull off to a conspicuous degree of success in "Scarlet" too.


Next time out, and for the conclusion of this piece, we'll take a look at some rather less obvious - and indeed on occasion exceptionally subtle and rather emotionally dark - aspects of Mr Johns work on "Blackest Night", and then, after that, "All-Star Superman". It'd be heartening if you might consider dropping in if you've a moment or two around that time. And, of course, I wish you a splendid day!

.

6 comments:

  1. Excellent work as always.

    The facile dismissiveness of Geoff Johns has always bothered me. That is doubly true in that derision is generally contrasted with breathless devotion. It appears (on-line at least) that no one has a moderate, or reasoned, response to his work.

    "Blackest Night" pulled me back into monthly comics after a period of exclusively reading trades. An old college friend asked the fateful question of whether I had been following the latest developments with the Green Lantern. In my scramble to catch up, I read a lot of work by Johns after having never read him at all.

    My impression is consistent with yours.

    Geoff Johns works extremely hard to pull all the disparate threads of post-Silver Age mainstream comics together. He is plainly influenced by post-code horror, Image Comics spectacle, the high concept deconstructionism of Alan Moore and the rest of '80s British Invasion, the continuity weaving of the fan wave of creators and big budget action movies. It is a bundle of influences that are not easily digested together, but when they come together it is great fun.

    In that way, Johns seems to me to be a bridge figure between the last era of comics and the next. In that way, I found "Blackest Night" exciting. Johns used a bundle of superhero tropes and formal innovations to tell what was ultimately a personal story about grief and loss. It very much seemed to point the way forward in that regard.

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  2. Hello Dean, and thank you for the kind words. Our impressions really do seem to run the same channels, and that's heartening.

    I always enjoy trying to make sense of a writer's work when I've not been paying enough attention to the detail of what they're doing. The first thing that happens is that I nearly always find a great deal to admire, and most any preconceptions prove to be quite wrong. I can only agree with all you're saying about the admirable craft on display in Mr Johns work; I always knew he was a writer worthy of respect, but, as always, there's so much of value to note in his work.

    It's not that I'm a huge fan of his work, but I am convinced he's a hugely important writer.

    You're absolutely right, of course, to mention how deliberate Mr Johns is in how he applies his knowledge of scripting to his comics, in the process of productively putting to work a whole host of influences. The triumvirate aren't selling all those comics by chance.

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  3. Good on you, Colin. Far too much griping goes on about Geoff Johns and it's unmistakeably fan whinging about how 'their' characters are treated rather than any consistent argument about story quality - although obviously every opportunity must be taken to wag a finger at his "the hole represents the hole in my identity" rationale for Power Girl's booby window.
    Bad Geoff. BAD.

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  4. Hello Mr Brigonos - I must say I appreciate your comment. You're right that so much comment seems to focus on whether a character's depcition matches a fan's preferences rather than the business of whether someone has a particular set of skills and an undeniable list of achievements. As nearly always occurs when I really give some time to reading the work of a particular creator, I find my respect deepening. Mr Johns is so obviously a very able craftsman that I've found myself laughing out loud at some of things he can do without ever thinking to draw attention to them. Good on him. No wonder he's done so very well.

    But yes, there are problems, and I fear that your reporting of that one does point to a decision that will lower his batting average. Mind you, pretty good batting average all the same, ah?

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  5. Hi Colin. I have to admire your determination to highlight the strengths of Johns' writing. I too have been fascinated by how incredibly popular he is, so I thought I owed it to myself, as a serious comics fan (if such a thing there be!) to try to understand what was going on in his comics that everyone was warming to.

    Thanks to my local library, I have now read the whole run up to the end of Blackest Night. It would seem I'm not as serious as yourself, and admittedly not as good at putting WHAT a writer is saying to one side in order to look at HOW he is saying it. I have to marvel at how you did this in these 3 posts.

    Reading his GL, I realised quite quickly that I find a lot of Johns' philosophy and 'politics' as presented in the series, objectionable.

    I won't go into them here, as they aren't the focus of your posts. Still, I was dismayed when I began to realise that the very stuff that put me off was precisely what his fans were enjoying, consciously or not. I must assume I've grown so far apart from general fandom since those great Avengers comics of the late 70's that sucked me in.

    At least your posts mitigate my dismay somewhat by holding out the possibility that the fans are also reacting to what you call Johns' thoughtful and courteous methods of telling his tales, as well as his clever pacing etc.

    (Hope you don't mind my digging up this old thread. I've been meaning to catch up on your backlog for a while and Johns' GL has been on my mind - as the link shows.)

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  6. Hello Figserello:- thank you for noting that I was trying to seperate what's said from how it's said. I certainly couldn't possibly object to you popping in to this older piece. It's one of the most heartening aspects of blogging, and one of those that I think I'll miss when I move on, to realise that someone has killed five minutes or so with some words written a long time ago. I'll have to give some thought to why that should be, but I think it feels like receiving a long-delayed but very welcome letter which has been held up in the post. As long as no harm has been done by the hold-up, the arrival feels very welcome.

    There are aspects of Mr Johns writing, as indeed anyone's writing, that I have problems with. I wrote, for example, about his habit of presenting Earth as the centre of the universe, history, spirituality and just about everything else too earlier last year; I don't think the human race needs any more literature making it feel special, and there a lack of perspective there that worries me. But I do believe that he's a decent egg whose work is, as you put so it effectively, "thoughtful and courteous" to his readers. Whether I like it seems quite unimportant in the midst of all the opinion on the net. But, for all the undoubted flaws in my look at his work, I did want to take a look at how he achieves what he does, a topic less often discussed, I suspect.

    I've stalled on Brightest Day, I must admit. The style has intensified even further, which is of course appropriate to the publishing schedule, but I think I need to make the time to just down and work out exactly how he's adapted his style further. He is a highly technical writer, and it's so easy to mistake the superhero "madness" of his work's surface with the structure underneath.

    It's heartening to swap words with you and realise that we're both seperating how a thing is made from what is says and our emotional responses to it. All those aspects of how we regard a writer's work are equally important, of course, but I do worry that "I like because I like" has become the standard way of responding to work on the 'net.

    I hope the day is treating you kindly. Thanks for the generous words :)

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