Monday, April 2, 2012

Green Lantern: Brightest Day, Blackest Night review:

  Ah, now that my little April Fool’s joke is over with, I can get down to reviewing a comic that I've put off reviewing for a long time (because of my conflicting thoughts about it). That comic is Steven T. Seagle and John K. Snyder III’s Green Lantern Brightest Day, Blackest Night.

 To get to the bones of it: GLBDBL is a beautifully illustrated and perfectly enjoyable superhero story featuring Alan Scott and Solomon Grundy, and it’s so brief that it really isn’t worth picking apart. It’s also a retelling of “Fighters Never Quit” from All American Comics #61, and how many times are you going to see not only that, but such a story published as an exclusive direct sales paperback?
 At the same time, there really isn’t much substance to it, less so even than in the original story.
 The story begins with something we see all too rarely in modern comics: A symbolic splash page. It’s Grundy vs. Green Lantern in classic hero and villain poses, telling you all you need to know about them through their monologues. Their monologues couldn’t be more clichéd, but who cares? Boiling things down to their essentials is what symbolism is all about. We then cut to a plane flying over Slaughter Swamp, which has what appears at first to be engine trouble, but is quickly revealed to be the result of sabotage by a group of Nazis (in masks!). The Nazis are after a guy named Dr. Minehart, who attempts to swallow a cyanide pill in order to escape capture, but is stopped shortly before the plane goes down. The head Nazi contacts one of his lieutenants positioned in the swamp, only to find that guy’s men have been torn to pieces…
 Now that’s an opening. Heck, it almost makes me wish that this comic didn’t even advertise Grundy’s presence, because if it had gone that direction, it would be one of my favorite Grundy “intros” ever simply by virtue of it having taken me by surprise. The eye could use a little detail to look more menacing, and the shadows could be darker, but it works.
 We then cut to Alan Scott and Irene Miller on a train heading to Gotham. Irene is applying for a job as a broadcaster, and to make sure she gets it, has kept from fully disclosing her identity out of fear that they won’t hire a woman. Light banter ensues. I have to say that I like this little exchange, as it shows the prejudices of the time and the banter between Irene and Allan sounds pretty believable, and makes both of them come off as believable characters who you feel have known each other for a long time.
 So Irene ends up getting the job pretty much by force of will, and becomes a celebrity overnight. Her first broadcast is interrupted by a report that Slaughter Swamp has just been cordoned off by the military following the plane crash. Cutting back to Slaughter Swamp, we learn why the Nazis are after Dr. Meinhart: He has invented a “Zeta Wave” that they want desperately. Back at the city, Irene befriends cab driver Doiby Dickles (who both she and Alan are meeting for the first time) and offers him a tip if he’ll help drive her out to Slaughter Swamp to investigate, and he agrees, even volunteering to help her find her way through the swamp! Man, not that I haven’t seen cabbies do crazy things for money, but I’ve never met one who acts that loyal and helpful.
 So of course, we find out that the thing that has been killing off the Nazis is Solomon Grundy, who we fully see in *SQUEE* a direct shout out to the splash page of the original story!
 So of course, Alan becomes Green Lantern, goes off on a bizarre (and quite frankly, cliché) soliloquy about the nature of good and evil, does battle with the Nazis and Grundy, and all’s well that ends well.
 Taken as a brainless thrill fest, there’s not too much to quibble about here. Unfortunately, it seems clear that Seagle wanted, as several people have pointed out, to try and make this story the “definitive’ Alan Scott story, and quite frankly, he both tries too hard and too little to achieve that goal. Alan Scott’s "deep" ramblings are the typical comic book “angst” that got old in the 60s: Hero wants to believe in justice, but there are gray areas. Hero wants to know why he was chosen to wield the powers he does. Hero wishes he could give it all up for a civilian life, etc, etc.  It’s all here, and it’s really not all that interesting or well-played. It’s not going to make me forget “...For the dark things cannot stand the light…!” from All-Star Squadron #20 any time soon, as far as stories about Alan Scott contemplating his power and the nature of morality go.
 Another thing here that irks me is the interpretation of Doiby Dickles. One hand, I'm willing to admit that the Golden Age Doiby was annoying and unfunny as hell, just like almost every other Golden Age sidekick. However; what redeemed him was that he really loved Alan Scott as a person and, in spite of his buffoonery, could be a very scary little man to piss off, as well as a hero in his own right. A guy on Livejournal named psychopathicus_rex summed up my feelings about Doiby’s role in the original story far more eloquently than I could have:
 “it's one of the coolest Golden Age stories I've ever read, confirming that just because GA heroes could be a little goofy at times and had comedy-relief sidekicks, that didn't mean that either they or their sidekicks weren't prepared to lay their butts on the line when the time came. That sequence where Alan Scott is laid up in his apartment and Doiby Dickles, pudgy little non-powered regular guy, determines grimly that SOMEONE has to try and stop Grundy, even if it's not the main hero, and that it's time for him to go out swinging, is just tremendously powerful stuff.”
 So while the original story had Doiby marching off to battle Grundy when Green Lantern was knocked out, knowing full well that he stood no chance against the monster, here he turns tail and drives off in a boat, and accidentally collides with Grundy while fleeing!!! What the hell? Also, as far as his relationship with GL in this story, well, not only is this story their first meeting (rather than having been long-time friends), but they barely interact at all! Doiby could have been replaced by some original character here, and it wouldn’t have mattered. So much for being a "Year One" type of story exploring how they became allies. See what I mean about this story trying both too hard and too little? 

 The original characters in this story aren’t anything special either, mostly just disposable fodder for Grundy. Regarding Dr. Minehart, well, whose side is he on anyway? The story can't decide. Even worse, Seagle has him go through a crisis of conscience where he begins ranting and raving about how God is “punishing” him for building the Zeta wave, and it’s very forced and embarrassing to read (not to mention that it comes out of nowhere). And just what does the Zeta Wave do? Apparently it renders things invisible, but several scenes imply a greater destructive power. The Nazis themselves are your typical  generic bad guys, except dumber than usual, and who come up with an incredibly stupid excuse to explain their attire that I’ll just let you read for yourself:
 I really, really hope that was meant to be funny, the ellipses imply so.
 Then there’s Grundy himself. Here, although he brings up the rhyme multiple times, and we’re led to assume it’s from his memories as Cyrus Gold, we never get the great scene of him being named by the hobos after the rhyme, which you know, was the entire point of him being called “Solomon Grundy”. It’s also left ambiguous as to just what Grundy is, with a bizarre series of thought captions suggesting multiple origins. To be fair, I like the idea behind this, since it reinforces Grundy’s position as a walking archetype; a boogeyman that no one knows anything about, like an urban legend or a folktale character.
 Sadly, any mystery and atmosphere created by this is eroded once Grundy starts rambling about a “secret society” which never is explained either, and it becomes frustrating because it's never expanded upon, instead of being tantalizingly mysterious like any ambiguous origin should be. I do like how Grundy is portrayed as simply trying to defend his swamp though. I’ve got to say I like the idea of Grundy portrayed as an anti-hero, like another comic book swamp monster; Man Thing, who has no knowledge of good and evil and simply defends his territory. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see Grundy’s fury unleashed on a bunch of Nazis?
 Unfortunately, the story doesn’t go in this direction, Grundy is clearly acting in (admittedly, often misguided) self-defense, but the story, both through symbolism (like the splash page) and the weird, psycho-babble argument that Alan and Grundy get in (yes, GL and Grundy get into an ideological debate!), seems set to portray him as a grand figure of evil. This becomes particularly funny, because although Alan is supposedly acting to protect a bunch of Nazis from Grundy because he values all life, he still tricks Grundy into getting brutally killed by a speeding train! (Although of course, this is a shout out to the original story’s ending) What Measure is a Non-Human? indeed! To be fair, there’s some more of Alan Scott’s “philosophical” narration to point this out, but it leads nowhere. Grundy was still far more interesting as the obliviously homicidal, oddly child-like creature that he was in his debut, and substituting the vengeful lower classes with Nazis in the role of secondary villains just robs the story of the great class warfare subtext of the original. Also, Green Lantern’s vulnerability to wood, which made for some genuinely suspenseful scenes in the original, is barely addressed here.
 Oh, and did I mention that the Justice Society gets involved in all this, too?
 Problematic as the story is, I do have to admit that it is well paced and never boring, the speeding train which destroys Grundy is a well-used deus ex machina, and it’s hard to fault Seagle’s script for being rushed and undeveloped when it was intended for a simple 48 page story (then again, the original ran for far less!).
 The real star here, however, is John K. Snyder’s artwork. Like, the writing, it’s similarly rushed in spots, with some characters looking like little more than rough sketches or appearing far too manga-esque for their own good. The layouts are also nothing groundbreaking. On the whole however, it’s lovely work, with some sequences using a graffiti style not often seen in comics. The scenes in the city and on the train have a wonderful art-deco feel. Snyder also clearly studied the original story, and draws Grundy the way the monster should be drawn, making him terrifying in a way that he hadn’t really been since the 40s. The conical head, ape-like jaws, jagged jutting teeth, it’s all here. One almost wishes the back cover of the book didn’t show the full-page image of Grundy from later in the book, because it’s an awesomely creepy image. I’d be truly afraid to run into this Grundy. If the story itself had boasted more substance (or at least, humor or crazy moments) that image alone might have made my top 9 Grundy moments list.
 I also just love these two images of Alan Scott:
 Is his costume silly? Yes, and it always has been, but moments like this make it feel so pure, so heroic. I far prefer it to whatever the hell that thing is they’re going to have him wear now, although I suppose I should be thankful that Alan is even being used in the new DCU.
 All in all, Green Lantern: Brightest Day, Blackest Night isn’t an essential read, and doesn’t improve on anything from the original 1944 story, but it’s worth looking for in the back issue bin if you’re curious enough. I give it a 3.3 out 5.

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