The past two weeks have seen the release of the Blackest Night tie-in books Blackest Night: Batman and Blackest Night: Superman, as the army of undead Black Lanterns attack DC's two flagship franchises. But are the books actually worth buying?
On some level, these tie-ins are taking place at precisely the wrong time for their respective characters, considering all the upheaval both franchises have undergone in recent months. Superman is currently off-planet, serving as Commander El of New Krypton in James Robinson and Greg Rucka's epic New Krypton event, which itself is currently starting up its Codename: Patriot arc. This means Clark Kent has to somewhat clumsily explain in Blackest Night: Superman why he's back in Smallville with his mother and the recently resurrected Superboy.
And, of course, Bruce Wayne may well miss this event entirely, what with him either being dead (he isn't) or lost in prehistoric times (he is). As such, there's a weird feeling that these miniseries are catching the characters at rather odd moments in their histories, and I couldn't help but wish the Black Lanterns were going up against slightly more "iconic" incarnations of the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight. (In fact, there's a moment in Blackest Night: Batman where Damian Wayne voices almost this exact sentiment. Dick Grayson basically tells him to shut up. I think I just got owned by a comic book character.)
But my biggest reservation with these two books is how much of them felt like setup. Between Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, the main Blackest Night book, and now these two issues, I feel like I've read the same basic scenario five times over. Black Lanterns are rising and coming for our heroes, and all the heroes know is that something is very, very wrong. Considering these particular miniseries are only set to last three issues, expending so much time on what most readers already know is going on is probably a miscalculation. At a certain point, I really just want to watch Batman and Superman beat the snot out of some Black Lanterns. At least the second half of Blackest Night: Superman provides just that, but I'm apparently going to have to wait another few weeks to see Dick Grayson face his undead adversaries.
Thankfully, the first issue of Peter J. Tomasi's Blackest Night: Batman does have other virtues to make up for the fact that not a lot really happens. When Batman and Robin discover the desecrated graves of Bruce Wayne and his parents, new Robin Damian Wayne has one of his most human moments, unable to handle the horrific way in which he finally meets his grandparents. I've been pleasantly surprised by how well Damian has worked as the new Robin, and it's in this moment that Tomasi reminds us he really is Damian Wayne. There's clearly at least one person who dreads the prospect of Black Lanterns Thomas and Martha Wayne.
Probably the best part of Blackest Night: Batman is the introduction of Boston Brand, better known as Deadman. DC's resident ghostly superhero tries to stop his body from rising as a Black Lantern, going so far as to jump into his own undead body. When this fails, he seeks out his old ally Batman, only to find out the man now wearing the cowl isn't who he used to be. Deadman's perspective on something like Blackest Night is unique, to say the least, and I'm glad he's along for the ride. In fact, this might be one way in which it's better that Dick Grayson is the new Batman. Between Boston Brand, Dick Grayson, and his newly undead parents John and Mary, there's suddenly a motif of circus performers all over Blackest Night: Batman. Is it too much to hope for some kind of crazy undead circus?
But back to the Black Lanterns John and Mary Grayson. Much as they might feel like poor substitutes for Thomas and Martha (and that goes double for Tim Drake's revived parents Jack and Janet Drake), they represent what I find the most interesting take on this whole Blackest Night idea. It's one thing for Batman and Robin to fight a bunch of undead supervillains - and there is a scene where a bunch of dead D-list villains get their Black Lantern rings, which is all a bit underwhelming apart from the awesome absurdity of a Black Lantern Scarface puppet - but it's quite another for them to have to fight their beloved parents.
As for James Robinson's Blackest Night: Superman, the first seven pages play out like the opening of a fifties monster movie, with lots of foreboding, Midwesterners talking about the weather, a sheriff falling through a giant hole in his office for no apparent reason, and eerie happenings at the diner and the drive-in movie theater (which is even showing Friday the 13th, just in case you missed the horror vibe). I don't mean to sound churlish, but I just don't see what any of that has to do with Superman and Superboy fighting a Black Lantern Kal-L (who, in case you forgot, is the Golden Age Superman from the pre-Crisis Earth-2). Not unlike Robinson's other side-project, Cry for Justice, the story is just a bit too leisurely for its own good, and all the moody buildup verges on the ridiculous after a while.
The big fight itself also feels less epic than it should. This might be because Superman, Superboy, and Kal-L all have pretty much the same powers, and even then all any of them use is super-strength. Compare that to the big fight in Blackest Night between Martian Manhunter, the Flash, and Green Lantern, which featured at least half a dozen distinct superpowers. There's also the fact that Kal-L is, thus far, a rather boring antagonist. With the possible exception of the Black Lantern Martian Manhunter (and maybe Aquaman), the Black Lanterns we've seen so far haven't really done much beyond talk about how great death is and just generally act like huge assholes.
Part of what made Infinite Crisis interesting was that the modern Superman and his Golden Age counterpart have legitimately different interpretations on what being a superhero is all about. I understand that Kal-L has to be the villain here, but I wish he wasn't enjoying being evil quite as much. It robs Blackest Night: Superman of some of its power when Kal-L is really just another cartoonish villain.
Even so, I'm not giving up on Blackest Night: Superman. James Robinson has a lifetime benefit of the doubt from me because of Starman, and the fact that he's integrating his excellent New Krypton arc into the miniseries in the form of a Black Lantern Zor-El is encouraging. It's possible that the horror movie tone he set up here will pay off later, and the Smallville setting could prove to be a real asset. And there's always the possibility of Black Lantern Pa Kent, not to mention a return appearance from Superman's other father. Robinson also makes a lot of interesting use of Geoff Johns's conceit of showing which of the seven emotions characters are feeling at a given moment, with the yellow emotion of fear being rather understandably the most common. At one point, Superman is ascribed fear, will, rage, hope, and love simultaneously. It makes sense that Superman is without avarice, but what about compassion? If anything, I'd argue that's his defining emotion.
In any event, neither Blackest Night: Batman nor Blackest Night: Superman quite lived up to my expectations, but there's a ton of potential here, particularly in the Batman book. I feel like the entire Blackest Night event has spent the last month revving up, and now it's time for them to shift into high gear. (You know, I should probably leave the car metaphors to Jalopnik.) Time will tell whether they actually manage to do that, but I'm optimistic.
The first issues of Blackest Night: Batman and Blackest Night: Superman are both available now.