NEW 52: Red Lanterns

Though it had little to do with Final Crisis, a single-issue tie-in called Rage of the Red Lanterns was released alongside Grant Morrison’s clever, challenging, bloated, meandering mess of an epic miniseries in 2008. Continued in Green Lantern #36, #37, and #38, the “Rage of the Red Lanterns” storyline was more of a lead-up to Blackest Night than anything else.

Rage of the Red Lanterns introduced an army of angry, unintelligible, acid-vomiting monsters who didn’t need hearts anymore since rage was pumping blood through their malicious veins (and out their mouths). The group was led by Atrocitus, who’d been retroactively inserted into Hal Jordan’s origin story to act as the catalyst for Abin Sur’s spaceship crash. Also in the group: Laira, a disgraced former Green Lantern, and Dex-Starr, an adorable, hateful cat who became immensely popular after being drawn into this group shot as a joke by artist Shane Davis:

The Red Lanterns were easily the coolest of the new Lanterns introduced in the build-up to Blackest Night. They vomited blood! And they were pissed. They were also invulnerable to Black Lantern attacks, due to the whole no-heart-necessary thing.

I’ve written before about Peter Milligan’s early-’90s work on Batman and Detective Comics, in which he knocked the ball out of the park on a regular basis. Later scripting duties (“The Bat and the Beast” storyline from Batman Confidential and his contribution to the “Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul” arc in Batman Annual #26) were decent efforts but nothing spectacular.

When the New 52 titles were announced, Milligan’s name was attached to Justice League Dark and one of the most highly-anticipated titles: Red Lanterns. A left-field concept like a hateful, blood-spewing army of space aliens seemed like it’d be right up Milligan’s alley.

Now that we’re six months in, it’s safe to ask: are the misadventures of ‘Troci and the gang any good? They’re certainly not bad, but I wish Milligan had free reign to write the self-contained, oddball, single-issue stories he excelled at 20 years ago.

Worthwhile multi-issue arcs aren’t impossible (Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin comes to mind), but Red Lanterns, half a year into its run, spends way too much time on origin stories of characters we have yet to care about, and the origins are pretty mundane and repetitive to boot. Someone despicable is wronged and then becomes a Red Lantern. Repeat.

Green Lantern #48 showed a glimpse of Atrocitus’s back story and it worked amazingly well because it showed the character as the exact opposite of what readers had come to expect. Geoff Johns wisely scripted it to be a brief and graceful respite from all the Blackest Night juggernaut as opposed to shining a giant spotlight on it:

Whereas the typical origin sequence in Red Lanterns goes something like this:

There were a couple pages in the previous issue leading up to Ratchet getting his ring, but that’s pretty much the gist. He suffered a great injustice and his simmering anger led to his induction to the Red Lantern Corps. Skallox and Bleez’s origins are equally dull.

The worst offender is Earth-born John Moore, also known as Rankorr. His back story is presented in snippets that run through the first four issues, culminating in this sequence from Red Lanterns #5:

If you’d never read a comic book before, you might not have anticipated Moore’s transformation into a Red Lantern from the moment he first appeared, but to everyone else it was pretty obvious. Again, his story isn’t that compelling: weak-willed law-abiding coward protects society’s interests rather than that of his own family, a decision he regrets once he watches his brother get killed by the police. The “after twenty-two years” bit is strange, too, since Moore looks and acts less like a college student and more like a man in his early forties.

Almost the entire issue of Red Lanterns #6 is devoted to Moore going on a rampage with his newfound evil-fueled superpowers, and, man, does nobody give a rip. Why? Because we’re not invested in his story. We don’t care about John Moore because there’s nothing ingratiating about him as a character, so seeing him turn to the dark side, even if we hadn’t seen it coming from day one, is a huge shrug of a plot point.

You know what would’ve worked? If it had been a character we’d known and cared about. Two in particular would’ve made ideal candidates: Cassandra Cain and Linda Danvers. Both have frighteningly loyal fan bases. Both have issues controlling their tempers. And both have been waiting to be rescued from comic book purgatory for quite some time now. Atrocitus (and Laira right before Sinestro killed her) seems fairly invested in the idea of redemption, so either character could eventually work her way back to the forces of good. Think about it, DC.

Red Lanterns has shown some flashes of greatness. The way in which the Lanterns recall their origins is pretty original: being thrown into an ocean of blood. Here’s Bleez enjoying a leisurely swim:

Krona’s time spent as Atrocitus’s cadaverous confidante is equal parts funny and horrifying, and the later disappearance of Krona’s body is intriguing. The moment where Atrocitus tenderly rejects the opportunity to recruit a child onto his team suggests Milligan might have more in store for this book than originally anticipated:

The good news is that Red Lanterns survived the initial round of New 52 cancellations, which means it’s either selling well or DC has some faith in the title. It also means we’ll get to see if Milligan can make this series live up to its potential. Now that Hawk and Dove is toast, maybe Hank Hall could make an appearance?

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