In theory, rage is a straightforward emotion. It is anger, blinding in its intensity and often violent in effect. Accordingly, the Red Lanterns, an army of ring-wielding aliens powered by their rage, have generally been portrayed as unthinking beasts, snarling and vomiting napalm blood. Yet in Red Lanterns #4, writer Peter Milligan asserts that rage is not so simple. Through an assemblage of characters, he explores the often traumatic origins of rage and its unsettling aftermath.
Although Red Lanterns is a team-centric comicbook, the central figure in Milligan’s story is the group’s leader, Atrocitus. In his prior appearances, Atrocitus raged with purpose, seeking vengeance for the genocide of his entire race. During the events of “War of the Green Lanterns”, however, the one responsible for the genocide, Krona, is killed by someone else.
Without the goal of vengeance, Atrocitus begins to unravel, but soon realizes that there is a universe full of rage to be championed and suffering to be avenged. Yet to scout the universe, Atrocitus needs assistance. The other Red Lanterns are thoughtless soldiers, consumed by their fury. And so in the previous issue, he returns sentience to Bleez, a blue-skinned Lantern whose featherless wings are a reminder of her past torture. By the end of book however, Atrocitus wonders if Bleez (now mentally revived and as cunning as ever) is planning a coup.
In “The Departed”, this month’s issue of Red Lanterns, Milligan escalates this conflict to an almost Shakespearean level of intrigue. Paranoid that there may be dissension in his ranks, Atrocitus interrogates one of his soldiers, Skallox. Through a blood transfer, Atrocitus obtains Skallox’s memory of Bleez talking with the troops. But the memory is muffled. All he can hear is Bleez mysteriously saying, “Atrocitus… kill… possible.”
As unstable as Atrocitus has become, even he realizes the potential for misunderstanding is high. So instead of condemning Bleez, he decides to toss three of the other Red Lanterns into the blood ocean, returning their sentience and, in Atrocitus’ mind, countering Bleez’s potential scheming. Bleez, of course, disagrees with this act. And through her dialogue, Milligan confers his central view of those with rage: “We’re all damaged. Traumatized. Otherwise we wouldn’t be wearing these red rings.”
Rage, it seems, more than any other emotion, is a reaction to an event, the product of trauma. And through flashbacks for the Red Lanterns, Milligan explores just how torturous the origin of rage can be.
Sinking in the blood ocean, Skallox remembers what caused his anger. He was an enforcer for a smuggler named Lancer. When the stolen goods go missing, Lancer has Skallox taken away to be tortured in a metal oven, even as he pleads his innocence and unwavering loyalty. Here, artist Ed Benes draws Lancer to resemble Atrocitus with the same stout figure and round, bulbous face. In doing so, Benes compares his lack of sympathy to Atrocitus’.
This juxtaposition is intensified when viewed in the context of Atrocitus’ actions throughout Red Lanterns. Milligan has portrayed Atrocitus as deeply compassionate to those enraged and suffering. As revenge, he destroys a temple that blinds young girls and kills a farmer who abandoned his starving family. Yet he is unconcerned about returning sentience to the Red Lanterns, even as Bleez argues, “Entering the blood ocean… it forces us to relive our trauma… You might have killed or condemned [them] to madness.” And in effect, Atrocitus may be inciting future mutiny for his callous decision.
It seems that Atrocitus’ lack of concern may stem from his feeling of isolation. He has no one to confer with, no one to trust besides, ironically, the dead body of Krona, whom he calls his “dark confidant.”
Ultimately, for a comicbook based around a single emotion, Red Lanterns bristles with feelings: loneliness, betrayal, paranoia, and compassion. Milligan pieces together these disparate emotions like glass fragments in a mosaic, ultimately crafting an image of how complex rage can be.