Emanata: Blackest Night, Into the White

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The final issue of Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis’s Blackest Night came out this week, and it’s a profoundly reactionary comic book–a story that doesn’t just roll back a chunk of its fictional setting to the way it was decades ago, but argues that actual change isn’t meaningful or possible.

Blackest Night was deftly put together in a lot of ways: plot threads seeded for years in Green Lantern and elsewhere, a tricky multi-series timeline that actually pretty much clicks into place (the main body of the story seems to happen over the course of five or six hours), a release schedule that ended up being reasonably close to the one originally announced. It had all the spectacle anyone could ask for, and then some. It had a slew of elements that are mighty toyetic. (I bought a Star Sapphire shirt, because I am full of love.)

For all of Blackest Night‘s cant about the emotional spectrum and life’s meaning, though, this issue makes it clear that it was mostly just a setup for the big scene in which Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Superman, Superboy, Wonder Woman, the Flash and a bunch of other formerly dead characters abruptly turn into glowing-white gods, because they are so awesome. Then their glowing white light brings a dozen other dead characters back to life, because… actually, yeah, it brings those characters back to life, don’t ask questions, okay?

Contemporary superhero comic books are basically event comics plus the stuff that happens between them–game-changers and what follows in their wake. So one way to assess a series like Blackest Night is to ask: does this story open up more possibilities for interesting stories than it closes off? By that metric, Civil War worked nicely, and so did the end of Secret Invasion, and arguably Final Crisis–even though almost none of Final Crisis‘s prompts have been followed up.

At a first glance, Blackest Night ends with pointers toward a whole lot of stories. The final pages lead directly into that Brightest Day miniseries that Johns is co-writing, there’s going to be that Justice League: Generation Lost biweekly, there are new Flash and Birds of Prey and Green Arrow relaunches under the “Brightest Day” banner, the villains that the Flash and Wonder Woman killed are alive again so they didn’t really do anything wrong after all, Captain Boomerang is the one from the old Flash and Suicide Squad stories, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter are just like they were when comics were about fun, they can all go out and have adventures again the way they used to…

But there’s the problem. One of the things that’s kind of cool about the DC Universe as a storytelling framework is that a lot of its big franchises are actually roles: sometimes people leave them or die, and then other people take them over. There’s always a Green Lantern or an Atom or a Flash, but who that is changes and evolves over time. The world moves on. To revert every change to where it used to be in the good old days, for some value of “good old days,” is to undermine part of what makes the massive, ongoing DC superstory engaging.

And absent-mindedly hammering the resurrection button cheapens that universe’s usefulness as a setting for adventure stories. “I think dead is dead from here on out,” goes a throwaway line near the end of Blackest Night. It isn’t, and it never was in superhero comics. (Blackest Night has already made a point of noting that plenty of major DCU heroes have already died and returned.) Trademarks need to be serviced; fans who long for the buzz of the earliest comics they read insist that they want more of what they used to have.

Still, there was a point to the sequence that appeared dozens of times in nearly identical form in Blackest Night and its various tie-ins. Hero is confronted with Black Lanternized zombie versions of dead people from his or her past, saying the most hurtful things they can; hero experiences something that’s helpfully annotated as rage, love, will, etc.; hero whups Black Lanterns. The subtext was: you, the reader, think you want this character back, because if you’ve lost even a fictional character, you long to see that person again, just one more time–but that’s the past, and rotted now. That got tiresome through repetition, but it was a clever take on fans’ nostalgic desires and what they mean.

The implication of this final chapter, on the other hand, is that heroes can bring themselves back from death by force of will: “If anyone’s a part of a White Lantern Corps, it’s us!” It’s even more of a cheat to say that if you’re a really really awesome person, and you really really want somebody else who was really really awesome to come back from the dead, then sure, they can come back. Undoing this many dramatically potent deaths in a single moment of handwaving makes for a big moment–a moment so big that all moments after it have to be small. It emphasizes that drama and tragedy count for nothing in the world of these stories, that no struggle or sacrifice can have meaning, because they can and will be magically undone, as surely as day follows night.