Part one here
For a comparison to the dissonant storytelling style Geoff Johns has pioneered, we have to look outside comics, to the work of Henry Darger. Darger, probably the best-known and most influential “outsider artist” in modern history, spent his life creating well over 15,000 pages of a near-comics work in words and pictures, The Story of the Vivian Girls in the Realms of the Unreal. In Darger, childlike innocence and whimsy is placed next to scenes of terrifying death and torture, from which resurrections are common and daring escapes via epic battles downright commonplace. Various alien races interact in relative harmony, quasi-religious mysticism is a constant presence, and the general effect is one of a highly unusual adult mind attempting to recreate something of childhood’s pure, unfettered imagination after having seen far too much of life’s cruel reality go by. Darger-influenced comics are a relatively recent phenomenon: despite being featured in the groundbreaking avant-comics anthology Raw, his work has only really been absorbed by the cartoonists of the past 10 years or so, typically in visually-driven, confrontational art-comix by cartoonists like Mat Brinkman or Christopher “CF” Forgues.
As far as Dargeresque superhero comics are concerned, it’s Johns and Johns alone. The overriding sense in both men’s work is one of complete dislocation from reality as we know it: human forms still converse and conflict and move through space, but that’s about it. The rules of the game, the governing principles of reality, are completely alien, the province of an entirely imagined logic. In Johns’ Green Lantern universe it often seems that nothing is random, that the laws of inertia and physics have been replaced by the ministrations of various cosmic deities representing the spectrum of human emotion. It’s a vastly compelling idea: though he has never been one to flinch away from showing the most degrading, disturbing things allowed in mainstream comics (and at times actively expanded the parameters of how far into the meat grinder things can go), in Johns the very presence of death and evil is firmly explicable, the fault of “bad” entities who merely require defeat at the hands of the “good” ones.
Johns’ cosmology occasionally approaches the grand terms morality play operates on, but there’s no actual morality involved in these stories. All the blood explosions and breaking skeletons and planed-open bodies and the forces that govern them are conceived as pure entertainment, with no greater message whatsoever to communicate. Though the presence of “good” and “evil” imply some higher relevance, there is no reflection on right and wrong action, no lessons to be learned or messages to take away. The actions that drive the plot of a Johns comic are literally impossible for humans to take in the real world, and all that is shown of their effects is the influence they have on other, similarly abstract entities. Good and evil cease to matter when it’s impossible to practice either one. For all their near-divine grandeur, these comics are literally meaningless when considered as anything but the actuality of what their panels depict.
The actuality of Green Lantern #43, then, is that of a prologue issue to the dizzyingly complicated, stupefyingly violent, and incredibly successful multi-issue saga “Blackest Night”. It’s also one of the most unremittingly bleak and violent issues of a superhero comic ever published without the caveat of a mature readers label or an out-of-continuity disclaimer. As far as the “DCU” is concerned, this is all real, and the lack of any excuses is one of the most striking things about it. This is nothing but a mainstream superhero comic, pitched to the most general of audiences the medium commands, and it is absolutely horrifying. The issue chronicles the transformation of also-ran villain Black Hand into the first member of the undead Black Lantern Corps. Composed mainly of flashbacks, the present moments it depicts are almost blinding in their stylistic conviction and the certainty with which they’re executed. As Black Hand recalls the path that brought him from the cradle into the bondage-stud festooned black latex costume he wears today, he rises from the skeleton-scattered grave he sleeps in, walks to the old family home, murders his family member by member, sits down at the table, and shoots himself in the head. Such narratives aren’t completely foreign to the blackest corners of crime fiction or horror film, but to see it in a superhero comic is uncommon to say the least. Johns doesn’t stop at a mere four-color pastiche of exploitation media, either: two bloodsoaked pages after Black Hand’s death comes his comic book-appropriate resurrection as a vein-popping, dessicated Black Lantern, hi jinx to follow in many issues to come.
The story, drawn by Doug Mahnke with great skill and a tremendous sense of dedication to the material, follows a near art-comix logic, letting the impact of the images drive the story, with the words little more than tonal additions, amplifiers for the impact of the showcase pictures rather than reasons for them or even really a string for them to hang together on. The black-on-white of the word balloons and the white-on-black of the narrative captions become part of the pictures themselves, their place in the panel compositions as essential to the images as any ink line or spotted black. It’s a highly unusual way for superhero comics to operate, this surrender to the total power of pictures, especially when the images are as dark as the ones Mahnke summons up. As the issue begins with Black Hand lying in his rain-soaked grave, transported with bliss and locked in an embrace with a dirt-smeared skeleton, the captions read in bold capital letters. MY HEART IS FILLED WITH DEATH, they declare over Mahnke’s digitally-colored canvas. AND I AM HAPPY. From here, the issue rolls like thunder.
Black Hand thinks back, showing us the defining moments of his life in what we don’t yet know is to be his last. The first memory is of a small child, barely able to walk, finding his mortician father at work. Splattered blood covers the man’s hands. A young female corpse lies black-lipped on a metal table in a pool of dark red. PRETTY, a word balloon tells us.
A wan, sickly-looking boy gestures at a shady glen in the corner of the graveyard he and his father stand in. In the foreground we see another man chest-deep in the hole he digs with a battered spade. The boy smiles as his father looks off into the glen. THAT’S WHERE I WANT MY GRAVE, the words hanging over him say.
The boy has grown. A towering demonic creature shatters his window at night, leaves him a strange golden weapon, and is carried off by glowing green angels. The boy, terrified, uses the weapon to reduce a squirrel to a cluster of tiny bones. He lies, for the first time, in an open grave. I COULD SEE HIS RING GLOWING LIKE A NIGHT LIGHT THAT WAS TOO BRIGHT, go the words scrolling alongside the fetal-positioned boy. I NEEDED TO SHUT IT OFF.
The boy is making himself a new set of clothes. BODY BAG is superimposed over a panel that shows him stroking a sheet of shiny black fabric. He cuts it up with silver scissors. He wants to wear clothes, he thinks, that remind him of something SPECIAL. He holds a freshly cut black domino mask over his face. Veiny eyes pop out through the shadow it casts. Something that reminds him, he thinks, OF MY FIRST KISS.
Back in the present day Black Hand crawls out of his grave. The grass sizzles and turns black beneath his touch. Hunched, he walks through the family cemetery once again. Arriving at the door of his ancestral home, he turns his weapon’s green light on his brothers. They explode, faces fixed in rictuses of pain, skeletons bared, explosions of blood hovering around them like black mist. Huddling behind the grue-sprayed dinner table, Black Hand’s father watches his son’s weapon perforate his mother’s chest cavity with an uninterrupted emerald beam. Ribs clatter to the floor. Black Hand turns to his father. Now two green skeletons lie on the floor, which is turning red beneath them.
Black Hand sits down and points the weapon at his own head. YES, we read. ONE MORE. A wordless full-page panel gives a diagrammatic reading of his suicide: eyes popping inhumanly wide, teeth gritted, cheeks sucked in, a drop of blood from the nose, a small hole in the right temple and another one, spewing wet, in the left. Black hand falls. Computerized blood droplets fill the panels. It appears to be raining red. His eyes, still open, fill with blood.
A tiny man appears, hovering over the black-clad corpse. He vomits a pure black liquid onto it. Black Hand rises, his facial skin seemingly planed away, black tendons and blood vessels spread across it. I WILL FINALLY EXTINGUISH THE LIGHT, the final line of the comic reads.
There’s a linear story beneath the chilling string of imagery Green Lantern #43 presents, but it simply doesn’t feel as important as the sense of utter hopelessness that Johns and Mahnke create: if any Johns comic goes beyond its own complexity and into the realm of successful exploitation work, it’s this one. The point of the comic feels utterly abstract, the creation of something monstrous more urgent for a moment than the epic saga it’s supposed to be leading into. The closest thing to it that exists in comics is Al Columbia’s deconstructed graphic novel Pim and Francie, which presents a disconnected suite of horrifying images that share a great deal of the gothy, unrelenting tone that Johns and Mahnke pull off so convincingly. Both comics overwhelm, their content secondary to the way in which it’s presented, the total seriousness and malicious intent. As drawn by Mahnke, every bit of the issue carries an overwhelming sense of bad vibes, creeping evil. Men wear black suits. Women sit stiffly. Children’s eyes appear edged with mascara, standing out eerily from pale skin. The most familiar objects -- a table, a lawn, a picture in a frame -- are rendered as hideous, frightening things. Real life is a threat, one shot through with a crushing sense of the macabre, one with a single possible ending.
But the real darkness of Johns’ work takes insider knowledge to access. From Columbia to Jim Woodring to Gary Panter, comics from the opposite side of the alt-mainstream divide have been going dark and atavistic for decades, and from Rick Veitch to Josh Simmons to Garth Ennis, that darkness has been brought to the edges of the superhero mainstream for almost as long. It’s an uncomfortable thing when it happens. When superheroes win we see them as amplifications of the human spirit, elaborately drawn symbols for the idea that though the world may often seem an evil place and humanity all too assailable, day by day we remain alive, and sometimes that alone is a victory. When hero comics give way to this thick a darkness, though, the sense is one of total hopelessness. That downbeat sense doesn’t invalidate the art propelling it -- the list of great works ending on a note of defeat is vast and includes plenty of comics -- but it begs the question of why superheroes are a part of the story at all. They exist to triumph, and when they don’t the poignancy of hopelessness itself is lost, set adrift by a failure to highlight the fragility of the human condition. Johns’ darkness is real darkness, the dark of malice but also of vacancy: comics as pure, vapid spectacle, the aesthetic potential of the ideas being worked with left behind.
Where this darkness has rarely if ever been allowed to go is right to the core, into the top-selling, most recognizable titles and their associated action figure sets and marketing campaigns and appearances on bestseller lists. Green Lantern #43, and all the rest that share its frenzied bloodlust, its meaningless gospel and sense that there is no way out, are fully intended as commercial objects: they are, in fact, the most wildly popular things American comics have to offer at the moment. What that says about the medium’s audience is open to interpretation, but I’m afraid I can’t see a way that it says anything good. And what it says about the superhero comics themselves, these stories of inhuman beings fighting for a simpler, lighter world, seems all too obvious. Though they win the battles like they always do, when it’s happening in Johns' comics they’ve already lost the war.
THE END. We've been here for a while.