I lived in Morocco in the mid-‘90s, when the Internet was barely pulsing and online entertainment was nonexistent. English-language bookshops were rare in Rabat and Casablanca, and I didn’t have a TV, so for entertainment my wife and I would stroll to the local movie house for the latest releases. Independence Day, 12 Monkeys, From Dusk Till Dawn, Heat, Mars Attacks!—we saw them all. In French.
Alas, my French isn’t very good, especially when delivered at a rapidfire clip from Bruce Willis in La Cinquieme Element, so oftentimes, I was lost. Surprisingly, though, there were plenty of times when I wasn’t lost at all. Movies being a visual medium, I was able to keep up with the story pretty well, especially the action-packed blockbusters. Character-driven pieces like The English Patient were a good deal tougher to follow, though.
I was reminded of this experience recently when reading DC Comics’ latest blockbuster, Blackest Night. The pictures are great, the story on the surface is easy enough to follow (hint: zombies fight superheroes), but the nuances were pretty much lost on me. It’s not that the characters are speaking French; they’re speaking continuity.
Comics is a medium I’ve loved since buying my first issue of Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth in 1976. I’ll confess, however, that I am not a continuity junkie. My comics reading is spotty, tilting heavily toward Vertigo titles and some independents, and my high-school days were spent almost exclusively as a Marvel zombie. I have a nodding acquaintance with the DC universe of Super-, Bat- and Aquaman, Wonder Woman and the Flash, Green Arrow and Lantern. I’m not immersed in the DC universe, but I’d hoped that a nodding acquaintance would be enough to see me through this volume. Was I right? Mmm—not quite.
This is a gorgeous hardcover with stunning art. It’s a pleasure to hold and leaf through. The blacks are inky, the colors are vibrant, the perspectives varied, the panel work consistently top notch. There are two-page spreads that will take your breath away and gory moments that will make you squirm. There are zombies aplenty and various acts of heroism and sacrifice. Mood drips from these pages, and a pleasingly sinister undertone informs the whole thing—it’s about death, after all. Will you understand what the hell is going on, though?
Here’s a quick litmus test: did you know that Batman is dead? If your answer is “Yes,” then you’re probably at the bare-minimum knowledge of continuity to keep up with the story. If you answered “No,” then I’m afraid you’ve been reading too much Proust, again.
Another complicating factor is that Blackest Night is just one of many volumes in writer Geoff Johns’ rehabilitation of the Green Lantern character; this storyline is the culmination of a series that has tied into DC titles as diverse as Green Lantern, Teen Titans and Doom Patrol. None of these crossover issues are included in this volume, and the companion trade edition Green Lantern: Blackest Night is necessary to have a full appreciation of what’s happening. Other trade volumes, such as Blackest Night: Green Lantern Corps are also useful in filling out the background, which in this volume is more or less all action.
To use another analogy, reading this volume solo is something like reading the last third of The Return of the King. You’ll see Frodo dump the ring while Sauron goes down in flames, but you won’t understand the significance of these events—or what’s up with Sam.
At least this book is gorgeous. Penciller Ivan Reis has a penchant for whopping two-page spreads crammed with dozens of characters, and one’s eye lingers lovingly on the dynamic layouts. Oclair Albert slathers on the ink capably enough, no easy task when many of the panels are thickly layered with black and yet still packed full of detail. The colors by Alex Sinclair are vibrant and lend vitality without being garish.
The story itself is fairly basic stuff: a nefarious power raises the dead corpses of all the characters who have died in the DC universe over the years—who knew there were so many? A big fight ensues, followed by another big fight, which leads to another big fight… As storytelling goes, the setup-and-confrontation pattern is adhered to faithfully, but author Johns varies his venues and enjoys a galaxy-wide perspective. There are battles in outer space, under the sea, in the cities, just about anyplace you can think of. There are power rings in a rainbow of colors, hearts ripped from chests, skulls and bones galore. It’s tough to imagine a DC character who doesn’t make an appearance, as does God, more or less. Top that.
Ultimately, the book is hugely enjoyable in a watch-everybody-hit-everybody-else kind of way. Your mileage may vary, but if you enjoy this kind of crossover spectacle, the terrific art alone makes Blackest Night worth a look.