Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Miguel Sepulveda
Of the comics that I read regularly, Red Lanterns was not one I expected to be featuring much on Entropic Worlds. That’s not to say that it isn’t a solid and enjoyable book, and I try to refrain from using slightly denigrating terms like “guilty pleasure” to describe sincere efforts in the medium. I guess I just thought of this book as one that stands on its own, one that the average comic book reader could generally decide if it was or was not the type of book they would read. It is not a book, I had thought, that relies on subtlety or nuance; just take a look at the cover of this issue and you will know what I mean. It is a book about inhuman monsters crusading across the galaxy to wreak vengeance on those who have caused unfair pain and suffering, and who do so by spewing bloody napalm on their enemies. I expected grandiose tales of nihilistic amorality with limited character development and audacious deus ex machine resolutions revolving around increasingly bold assertions of power as Milligan continues to invent the largely unexplored mythos of the Red Lantern Corps. Of course most of this is present, but something else happened in issue #12 that is increasingly rare in the world of ongoing work-for-hire comics, especially ones of this variety: Milligan actually managed to tie together a self-contained narrative in which a full year spent building story, character, and themes come full circle and evokes a sense of genuine closure.
I didn’t see this coming, partly because the series has been fragmented, following several strands of narrative from issue to issue without a lot of internal closure, but partly because I just wasn’t looking for it. This wasn’t Scott Snyder’s Batman epic, a major franchise character in what had been promised from the start to be a completely self-contained arc. No, this was a spin-off of Green Lantern and thus subject to the direction of editors and the goings-on in the flagship Lantern book and therefore less conducive to long-term planning and independent vision. Despite working within this somewhat limiting framework Milligan managed to construct a story that holds up on its own and may appeal to readers like myself (though we’re probably rare) who aren’t reading the other titles in the Green Lantern family.
So how did he do it? In an effort to avoid the spoilers inherent in talking about the culmination of a story arc I’m going to answer this question by first looking at what he had to work with. He had the inherent theme of revenge and restitution, one that generally leads into moral grey areas – violence begetting more violence and all that. He had several recognizable members of the corps, the leader, Atrocitus, being the only one with any intellectual capacity (the other members, Bleez in particular having visual interest, but no real character potential). He also had an origin story and some general mechanics of how the corps works (destroyed home-world, burning vengeance, napalm blood, etc.) Milligan quickly got to work at taking this skeleton of a concept and turning it into a working series. First he infected the red power battery, the source of the Red Lanterns’ power (conflict – check). Then he returned sentience to a few of the corps members via a bath in Ysmault’s blood lake (character development – check). Finally he gave us the source of the Power Battery’s infection, Abysmus, his first, failed attempt at creating a red lantern (villain – check).
Even with newly intelligent Red Lanterns there is still the problem of relatability. These are very one-dimensional beings whose entire raison d’etre is literally defined by a single emotion: rage. This is fine for a villain in a different character’s series, or as a foil to the other Lantern Corps, but as the protagonists for an anti-heroic book, it won’t cut it; after all anti-heroes are typically the most nuanced and complex variety of character. Milligan tackles this challenge slowly and deliberately on several fronts. He explores Atrocitus’ relationship with Abysmus, a being originally condemned for showing empathy, now cured of this flaw after festering for thousands of years beneath the earth. With Abysmus threatening the Red Lantern Corps, Atrocitus’ own weaknesses and insecurities are exposed as he questions his ability to lead the Red Lanterns. Bleez, the Red Lantern with the most horrific origin story, is invited to join the Star Sapphires, the corps dedicated to love. The conclusion of this conflict plays out in this issue and is very skillfully done. It is hard to argue with the notion of trading hate for love, but during the pivotal scene Milligan does something clever: he takes off Bleez’s cowl. Suddenly she is humanized, we see her not as Red Lantern Bleez, but as the princess who was brutally raped and abused by Sinestro’s men. We see her as a powerful vengeful woman and we sympathise with her even if we can’t entirely condone her violence. Love and rage are both eternal truths, that’s the point. We can tell that it is painful for Bleez to deny love, but for the time being it is her destiny to fight on the side of rage.
Milligan also took the opportunity to add an important character to the corps, Rankorr, the Red Lantern of Earth. Rankorr’s origin was told over the first several issues, seemingly disconnected from the ongoing story of the corps. Over the course of this first arc he struggles to preserve his humanity as his new Red Lantern identity threatens to take over. The theme of morally justified rage versus pointless violence resonates throughout the three conflicts: Atrocitus Vs. Abysmus, Bleez vs. The Star Sapphires, and Rankorr vs. his own humanity. Each conflict is resolved in issue #12 through satisfying means that do not feel forced, the resolutions simultaneously affirming the undeniability of rage within the universe, while amplifying the ambiguities surrounding it to be explored in future arcs.
It seems worth mentioning that the point at which I really started to take this book seriously was, I think un-coincidentally, the point at which Miguel Sepulveda took over the art duties. Ed Benes was the original artist on the series and his work was quality, but had a certain frivolity to it. This story, as Milligan has constructed it, is really a solemn classical tragedy with little room for humor (with the exception of the occasional appearances of Dex-Starr, Atrocitus’ feline companion, of which there is a terrific one in issue #12), Sepulveda’s work is more detailed with strikingly precise coloring that sells the intergalactic setting superbly. He also draws a mean napalm blast. This may seem knit-picky, but one thing that never really sat well with me was the depiction of the Red Lanterns’ method of execution. Their napalm bile was always presented as a bloody, bubbling goo that spewed out in a way that made little physical sense and failed to really signify napalm. Under Sepulveda’s pencil the power manifests as a glowing cannon of relentless fire that lends a visceral urgency to the series’ visual vocabulary.
This 12 issue arc is best read in its entirety so I highly recommend picking up trades and back issues of this series so far. Readers who dropped off after a few issues may also be surprised by how neatly this seemingly fragmented series tied together. In the wake of this first epic storyline Milligan has set up promising developments for the next arc that will kick off in October after next month’s issue #0, so now is a great time to get back on the monthly issue bandwagon.