Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
March 2011

In brightest day, in blackest night, no rhythm works cuz I am white.

Blackest Night, Blackest Night: Green Lantern (DC 2010), Peter David: Hulk Visionaries vol. 1-3 (Marvel 2010)

Lads and lasses! Blarney abounds in our green, green month of green, green comics. Best be wearing a green comic on your wee brain, or I'll pinch your wee bottom. Every. Last. One. Of ya.

He's doomed to be played by Ryan Reynolds, but Green Lantern is still a pretty cool superhero. (That movie's gonna flop like a fish; they should have paid attention to the fan-made trailers with Nathan Fillion.) There are the stupid parts -- he makes giant hammers and hands out of green energy and the color yellow can hurt him -- but he has an EPIC supporting cast.

See, the Guardians, little blue-headed dudes, organized the Green Lantern Corps to fight evil all over the galaxy. Evil is apparently a serious problem in every neighborhood.

This means that Earth has three or four Green Lanterns: Hal Jordan, sometimes Guy Gardner, Kyle Rayner and John Stewart. This also means that there are thousands of other Green Lanterns spread throughout the galaxy, with beaks and brains on the outside and every weird feature you can imagine.

The Green Lantern book has been through a lot of changes. Hal Jordan was the original Green Lantern, but in the shake-it-up-grim-n-gritty 90s, Hal went nuts after he saw his beloved Coast City destroyed. Remember, this is DC, where the heroes inhabit imaginary cities instead of Marvel, where they are all crammed into New York. (With all the hometown pride I can muster, I would like to point out that Seattle is the first town with a real life superhero, Phoenix Jones.)

Hal proceeded to slaughter the rest of the Green Lantern Corps, take their rings and blow up Oa, the homeworld of the Corps.

Yeah. DC actually took a character that had been a hero for nearly fifty years and made him a mass murderer.

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In keeping with the 90s wave, DC had changed things up in their other titles at the time. Most notably, they had killed Superman and broke Batman's back. In both cases, DC was able to put a few "new fresh" heroes into the limelight -- Superboy, mechanical genius Steel, and psycho Batkiller Azrael -- but the Hal Jordan thing was taking it too far, even if his replacement, Kyle Rayner, was a lot more interesting. Ten plus years of smoldering fan outrage eventually won out and replaced Rayner with a reborn Jordan, now with a retconned clean record -- seems he had been possessed all along by a creature named Parallax.

Being the cool, aloof dude I am, I didn't care too much either way. I liked Rayner in the mid-90s JLA series, but my favorite Lantern was John Stewart, an ex-Marine who starred in Mosaic, a cool little mid-80s book about a world full of stranded alien races at odds with each other, for whom the aforementioned Stewart played policeman and ambassador.

Stewart is a black superhero, therefore Stewart was, like most black superheroes, just a spinoff of a white guy. Mosaic and all his other series didn't last long, although he netted the defining cartoon role of GL in the Justice League cartoon. (In another ironic and telling note, Phoenix Jones appears to be black under his costume.)

I have to add that Marvel really has an upper hand when it comes to prominent black superheroes. Writer Brian Michael Bendis has steadily propelled Luke Cage to the forefront of the Marvel U and taken him from a cheap ex-con stereotype to a family man and Avenger. Step it up, DC.

I have no real reason to like the current Green Lantern other than the space opera aspect. But Blackest Night was, according to my DC-head friends, the best thing since toast. And I like toast. I couldn't take this challenge to toast lying down.

So I grabbed the massive hardcover of the main story, Blackest Night, and the hardcover of the tie-in Green Lantern chapters.

It's pretty darn epic, but it got an instant win in my book because it was a lot easier to follow than other DC crossovers like Infinite Crisis. Blackest Night is one serious slugfest, with fighty fight punchy punches coming from every corner of the DC Universe. It's got its flaws. But it is fun.

The intergalactic Lanterns have split in the Sinestro Corp War into the Rainbow Lanterns: Blue Lanterns for hope, Green Lanterns for will, Red Lanterns for rage, one selfish Orange Lantern for avarice, the yellow Sinestro Corps for fear, the busty pink ladies of the Star Sapphires for love, and the mysterious Indigo Tribe of compassion.

In the beginning of Blackest Night, the villain Black Hand receives a Black Lantern ring that can raise the dead, a gift from a mysterious universal power. After a twisted meeting with his family, in which he kills all of them and then blows his own brains out in sickly detail, Black Hand is reanimated as the first Black Lantern by this dark force, which turns out to be Nekron, DC's incarnation of Death.

(Not to be confused with DC's other two incarnations of death. Oh, confusing comics continuity.)

The dark force is also controlling one of the Guardians, making him into an especially swollen blue-headed dude with a large varicose vein problem. This means that Black Lantern rings are also cropping up out in space, raising whole dead worlds.

All this malarkey serves as the background for an opening scene that starts with the newly reborn Barry Allen Flash and Hal Jordan, also recently reborn, at the grave of Batman, also recently dead. The two of them are reminiscing about having been dead, and all the people they know who were once dead, and how none of them seem to stay dead.

Writer Geoff Johns is trying to hang a lantern (oh! See that?) on a big feature of superhero comics: the inability of characters to actually stay dead. Barry Allen and Hal Jordan discuss whether or not Batman is really dead and when he might be back. The whole business of having died and been reborn turns out to be quite crucial to the business of Blackest Night, since the Black Lantern rings reanimated all the dead of the DC Universe, and take over the bodies of those who have died and come back.

It's an interesting try, but it doesn't quite work. Barry and Hal's conversations just reminded me of some of the most ridiculous aspects of comics.

There's a reason why people complain that no one stays dead in comics. Some comic deaths are just stunts like the death of Superman and the upcoming death of Spider-Man, with a built-in resurrection.

But in Barry Allen's case, death was part of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, where Barry died to save the omniverse from collapse. It was a rather powerful and defining moment.

Recently, DC killed off Martian Manhunter to up the stakes in their Final Crisis event. Without giving too much away, he shows back up in Blackest Night, along with lots of other dead characters.

It just feels a little cheap. And pointing it out emphasizes the cheapness.

The rest is fun, though, as the various Rainbow Lanterns choose from among the denizens of the DC Universe to join their ranks. Lex Luthor becomes the second Orange Lantern, while the deceased Aquaman's wife Mera becomes a Red Lantern to express her pent-up rage over her husband's death. The Atom joins the mysterious Indigo Tribe, a race of aliens whose inborn gift for compassion can overcome the zombie properties of the Black Lantern rings.

The ending is ramped up to an epic space opera, as millions of Black Lanterns attack from space and Hal Jordan must face his old parasite Parallax again.

I can't decide whether or not Blackest Night's major flaws overcame its strengths. It's admirable to see how Geoff Johns tries to deal with cheap comic-book deaths, although it doesn't quite work. And in the end, when numerous characters really are resurrected as part of the upcoming Brightest Day crossover, again the illusion was shattered and I just thought of all the other deaths in comics that haven't lasted.

Artists Ivan Reis, on the main GL title, and Doug Mahnke on the Blackest Night series, pull off a magnificent slugfest. Mahnke's figures are big, dynamic, and sprawl across the page in magnificent fistfights. I like Reis more, though, for the careful detail he puts into every page, so that even when it's an army of Black Lanterns descended on Earth from space, we can see the evil lines of their evil faces and the evil shadows around their evil eyes.

The most distracting part of Blackest Night is the relentless, graphic violence. I had to look away when I read the opening chapters of Blackest Night: Green Lantern, in which Black Hand returns home and blows holes through each member of his family. In the end of the horrific sequence, he kills himself, and Reis is not shy about showing every bit of the gore.

The ferocious zombie Black Lanterns can bring back the dead, but they can also turn the living into Black Lanterns -- as long as they rip the living hearts right out. Which they do, an awful lot, on just about every page for a while.

I would expect this sort of thing if I were reading Preacher. From a mainstream DC book, which usually keeps a mild PG-13, I was pretty shocked.

How does this stuff get past the top? Who said, "It's okay to show someone blowing his own mother's head off in full detail in Green Lantern?" If Carol Ferris, superheroine Star Sapphire and Hal Jordan's lady love, were to yank off what little clothing she does wear and fight comfortably nude, you can bet that this comic wouldn't make it out the door of DC.

But people get their hearts torn from their chest while living on each page.

Some things have to be violent. There is no PG version of Platoon and there shouldn't be. But there is no reason why Green Lantern has to be soaked in gore. It's freaking Green Lantern.

To recap: it's fun, it's epic, but far too violent for a mainstream comic. In contrast, toast is crisp on the outside, warm and fluffy on the inside, and you can put just about anything on it. You decide.

Peter David got famous for writing the Hulk, for all that he had written some good Spider-Man stories already by the time he got the book in the 80s. The difference is, as he tells us in the first volume of Hulk Visionaries, that nobody wanted towrite The Hulk. Editor Bob Harras couldn't give the gig away.

I can understand. What is the appeal in writing about a tiny dude who wanders around the desert occasionally turning into a monosyllabic green monster?

The Hulk is a tough character to pull off, which is why we comics geeks still remember and treasure Peter David's twelve-year run on this comic, in which David, the best writer in comics then and now, created a Hulk who could be genuinely explored as a character and who had depth and passion outside of the Banner personality.

In this case, it was thanks to a coloring error. David's Hulk is not green. Now you have to pinch him. Good luck.

He is proudly gray, a color that Marvel trivia nuts will note as the Hulk's original shade, chosen by Stan Lee because he wanted something ethnicity-neutral. Colorist Stan Goldberg, though, had trouble with the gray in those shiny days of the early 60s, and switched to bright green in issue #2.

For years Marvel ignored the gray/green disparity as the coloring error it was, until David and previous writer Bill Mantlo had some fun with it. Seems there is more than one Hulk buried in Bruce Banner's subconscious. The green Hulk personality, freakishly strong and monosyllabic, is the incarnation of Bruce's abused childhood.

The gray Hulk is the buried adult fetishes of Banner, quashed under Banner's scientific professionalism. He's a sneaky bastard with a taste for redheads and nice suits. At one point, he acquires the moniker "Joe Fixit" and becomes a Vegas enforcer.

He's not as strong or as big as the green Hulk. When he faces off against the Thing in Visionaries volume 3, he gets his butt kicked, but he is able to outsmart the Thing and use his brains to lure the Thing into a trap, which the green Hulk could never do.

Previous to Peter David's run, writer Bill Mantlo subjected a Hulk-less Bruce Banner to even more radiation that brought out the gray persona. He shows up every time it gets dark, due to a strange interplay of the gamma radiation that made the Hulk and the sunlight.

The gray Hulk, with his brutish brains, is constantly trying to outsmart Bruce Banner and find a way to not change with the dawn. At one point he shuts himself into a cave so that Banner will be trapped for the day. After another dose of radiation from yet another gamma bomb (gamma bombs are more common than you think), the Hulk manages to stay in Hulk form even during the day, although the sunlight burns him.

My favorite moment was when Betty Banner, Bruce's wife, has a conversation with the gray Hulk and tries to evoke whatever Banner-inspired part of her personality cares for Banner's wife.

"I can't get rid of Bruce," Betty says, defining their somewhat dysfunctional relationship. "Any more than you can."

"That's where you and I are different," Hulk says. "I'll never stop wanting to get rid of Banner."

But when Betty breaks down and tells the Hulk she is pregnant, he breaks as well and embraces her. The interplay between Banner's personality and the Hulks in his subconscious eventually becomes the ground for David's most famous stories, as Bruce Banner and the Hulks get on the couch with Leonard Samson, Marvel's resident shrink to the supers.

Another great moment was one of David's famous one-liners, as the Hulk fought the Absorbing Man. The A.M. turns to whatever he's touching. He turns to concrete in desperation, and the Hulk, well able to punch through concrete, cracks him with his punches. "It's not fair!" the Absorbing Man says. "I was ahead."

"Wrong. You had a head," the Hulk says as he knocks said head right off.

Most of the art here is done by industry legend Todd McFarlane, still finding his artistic style. He starts out generic and awkward, but soon adopts the dynamic yet hyper-detailed style that was to make him a billionaire on Spider-Man and Spawn. Jeff Purves, who takes McFarlane's place, has an unenviable job, but he makes the most of it with his funky style.

The real detriment is the coloring. Petra Scotese sadly follows the 80s convention of coloring only the main characters, while the backgrounds, not matter how details, get one giant wash, generally of a pastel color more suited to a doctor's office.

I still wouldn't trade toast for it. But I read it while eating toast, and that was all right.

Next issue: We begin a grand celebration of the big bad God of Thunder, in preparation for his long-awaited movie. I long-awaited it, at least. Prepare thyself for lightning, Elizabethan speech, and flowing golden locks.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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