Death can often be tragic, if not inexplicable. The sixteen year old in peak physical shape who dies of a coronary on the field. A mom crossing the street, struck down by falling debris from the building overhead. Or a super-hero, risking his life to save the world.
We can’t understand death. Perhaps due to manufacturing defect, the realm of death is just a subject that alludes us. But Geoff Johns does not seem out to understand the mystery of death. His intentions are far more aggressive: to make death into a corporeal entity and have super-heroes punch it till it stops moving.
Making death physical as the villain Nekron has manifold effect. Much like in reality, people of the DCU can die at any moment. While these deaths are plot driven, deaths like Superman, Sue Dibny and Barry Allen, do carry with them that sense of tragedy. Deep loss. Part of the tragedy lies in the power of the deaths as being singular events. Each one is unique and defies characterization or understanding.
This is why, surely, no writer would undertake the task of contextualizing the past deaths of the DCU as some conspiracy plot to revive Death and destroy existence. That would be silly, right.
Geoff Johns, perhaps not in a mood for mystery, undertook Blackest Night with a singular task: clean up the deaths of the DCU. This innocuous enough idea becomes a bit of a hydra by series end. If not on purpose, Geoff Johns unwittingly unravels and recontextualizes many of the deaths in the past.
The purpose of the series is the villain Black Hand is supposed to help revive Nekron (a.k.a. Death or Nothing.) But it is revealed that Nekron has had this plan running for some time. Nekron has been allowing the deaths and resurrections of heroes and villains in the eventuality they would be zombified later. This zombie-pocalypse is then used to not only murder more heroes and transform them, but also to feed emotions from the living into manifesting Nekron / Death.
What stands as most significant in this series is the revelation that Nekron manipulated these deaths and resurrections. They did not die tragically, in a human-like manner, after all. No, they were really chess pieces being kidnapped from the board for a bit. What sounds like epic storytelling is actually an epic deflation of the power in death.
Perhaps unknowingly, Johns is reducing the murder of these characters to a kidnapping. They were not taken tragically from their worlds. Rather, they were kidnapped for a short time, always fated to come back as part of some master plan to destroy everything. This is not epic after all; this is the banalization of death. This reduces valiant deaths into a rough fight that didn’t end well, further saying that it was destined all along, behind the scenes, to be reversed.
While Hal, later on in the series, attempts mid-fight to argue that it was his will that brought him back, evidence says otherwise. As Hal put it, he was the one who “walked through the door” back into life. But neither Hal nor any of these characters brought themselves back. They were resurrected as pawns in the plot of Nekron.
While an interesting plot twist, Nekron’s return is not what Blackest Night is all about. The crossover’s main theme, if anything, could be grief counseling. When a series starts two of its eight issues with funerals, you know you’re in for a dark ride. This is one of the parts where Johns seems his most ruthless and arrogant with these characters.
Johns is making a steep case here that Barry Allen and Hal Jordan are the heart of the DCU. He does so in a seemingly arrogant way, which is to throw any actual talk of death to a expository scene between Barry and Hal. Once again, we see Johns deflating death to something that is understandable and thus perishable itself. Isn’t that why Johns spends so many pages dredging through the many deaths of the friends and foes?
This feels like a nihilistic play for emotions. Johns understands that the reader is supposed to feel something here for these characters, so throw death at them. He is relying on continuity and not good writing to make the reader feel those tugs on the heart strings.
Geoff Johns, for all his cleverness, actually changes the status of these deaths from tragic to nihilistic. Death is a — if not the — most significant event in our lives. The possibility of the removal of the people who populate our lives is, in large part, what gives them value. If we could live forever without danger, our lives would be as rudderless as Blackest Night.
Like the citizens of Coast City and the rest of the DC Universe, everyone is attempting to make sense of the deaths they have faced. But Geoff Johns claims that even death is nothing to be feared, which is where he becomes his folksiest.
Johns, much like his fellow DC creator Grant Morrison, shows through his works a push away from the more realistic tone in comic books. But much of both of their works are spent trying to turn back a tide that has come and gone.
Perhaps this is why Johns has a different way of dealing with this sea change from light to dark in the DCU. By re-contextualizing almost, if not every, death in the DCU, Johns is allowing even death to become a problem that can be solved by who can hit it the hardest. Answer: the JLA as a White Lantern corps, which should not be shocking to any reader.
In the end, not every hero was allowed to return. This could seem a good move, one that frees up the heroes to perhaps deal with the ramifications of resurrection. Instead, Johns continues this insider agent angle by having the resurrected heroes revealed to be there to help find the main White Lantern: Swamp Thing, as revealed in the following series Brightest Day. Once again, these characters deaths are robbed from them. They are simply pawns in a larger game.
In many ways it feels like Johns is batting at shadows with Blackest Night. While it was gutsy for him to take on the subject of death, he did so with an eye to the past. He reduces what could have been an interesting story about heroes dealing with death into a story about people talking about death. Instead of opening the future, Johns has re-paved the past.