Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Cheery Blackest Night

Quick hit today. The only surviving book from an era when I got into Green Lantern and bought a lot of back issues on the cheap, I'm still holding on to the Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3 from 1987. Not for the Bill Willingham art, either, though it was good. It's the lead story in this series of 6 vignettes, which Willingham did pencil, but was written by Alan Moore. I've not been a big follower of the Corps over the years, but this story, entitled Blackest Night (coincidentally), has always stuck with me.

The featured Green Lantern is Katma Tui, one of the better known of the Corps. She's reporting back to the Guardians on Oa after being sent to a recently discovered region of space with intelligent life but no light. How life develops in a region with no light is beyond me, but I'm willing to go with the flow. Anyway, Katma Tui and her ring seek out a being worthy of being a Green Lantern to protect the region, and they find one. The problem is, with no light the life in this region has no sensory organs for sight and, correspondingly, no vocabulary for conveying anything to do with vision. As a result, no green, no lantern, no dark, no light, among the numerous concepts in a Green Lantern's lexicon.

The challenge, then, is to convey to this new Green Lantern what his function is and the powers of his ring. It's relatively easy to convey the idea of fighting for justice or even that the ring embodies will power, but translating the Green Lantern oath that goes with re-charging the ring is trickier, as is projecting a solid embodiment of will from the ring when that the ring's wielder cannot see. The result is an oath and a use of the ring based on sound. The new Green Lantern is actually an F-Sharp Bell, with corresponding bell logo on his uniform. Not that he can see it. There's a nice conclusion to the story wherein Katma Tui realizes about 4 days after her report that a Guardian of Oa made a double entendre joke, too.

Setting aside the fantastical premise of this lightless region that's developed life, this kind of story has always been one of my favorites. Beings trying to communicate when they either don't have a common language or have voids in their shared concepts that makes language have meaning. I've mentioned before my love of the Star Trek: The Next Generation story called "Darmok" in which Picard and an alien captain speak the same words but don't understand one another's meaning because the latter speaks in metaphors Picard doesn't know, and Picard's metaphor-less speech is equally meaningless to the alien. Similarly, when Robinson Crusoe comes upon Friday it takes a lot of time until they can communicate with one another.

It's the exploration of words and meaning that grasps my interest. We all spout words daily without thinking much about the meaning because we share concepts with our fellows, be they family, co-workers or friends, that allows us to short cut the full explanation necessary when speaking with an outsider. Take my job, for instance. In auto insurance claims there is a lot of jargon, but when I speak with someone who's had an accident they're an outsider to that jargon. I have to think about what the words my industry uses mean and translate them into an English that a person with no experience in that area will understand. I know that PIP stands for Personal Injury Protection, but even if I say the latter to the person who's had the accident, it doesn't mean anything, most times, without some explanation. I have to explain the differences between PIP and liability, the differences between liability injury and liability property damage, the differences between liability denials and coverage denials. There's a myriad of concepts in auto insurance that just don't enter the field of vision of the average person, nor should they. But if I want that person to understand me when talking to them about their claim, I have to think about what I'm saying and put it in terms that person will understand.

Moore shows how difficult it can be to communicate your ideas to someone who doesn't have the same frame of reference that you do. Willingham's art does a great job interpreting Moore's ideas, too. Katma Tui's bemusement when trying to report back to the Guardians, her bewilderment that the ring isn't translating portions of what she's saying to the new life form, and her utter frustration at initially not being able to overcome the conceptual logjam are excellently portrayed. The last panel with her hanging out topless (strategically modestly, yet), isn't too bad, either. So, that one story alone makes the issue a keeper.

The other 5 stories aren't bad, either, though the quality sort of declines as the issue progresses. Michael Carlin's and Paris Cullins's story of a Green Lantern dying in battle while his ring provides an illusory final glory is good and shows what you can do with characters if you actually let them die. Similarly, Richard Bruning and Kevin Nowlan produce a redemptive story where an angry woman whose husband has been killed takes on the burden of Green Lantern from an enemy species Green Lantern who's been killed in the same incident. The late Green Lantern has also just given birth and pleads for the new Green Lantern to raise the child, or at least not leave behind to die of exposure.

The Kurt Busiek and J L Garcia Lopez tale is also redemptive, but this time of a Green Lantern who's allowed himself to be worshipped as a god and has to re-earn the trust of the people when they learn there are many other Green Lanterns and none of them are gods.

The last two stories are the most disappointing. Joey Cavalieri and Greg Brooks do a very brief story about a Green Lantern who is killed on a planet dominated by yellow sand. This is in the yellow impurity overcoming all rings days, and apparently the ring's not bothering to seek out a replacement, either. It's trying to be a story of differing concepts like Moore's story, because a guy who finds the ring and tries to use it finds it largely useless because all the objects it creates from his will don't have any effect on all the yellow sand, plants and such. He just throws it away in the end. There's no dialog, and humor seems to be as much a goal as anything, but it just doesn't work.

Worse yet is the John Byrne finisher to the issue. A retiring Green Lantern is sent out to find his replacement. Again, a different thing than the current stories wherein the rings seek out replacements for their bearers. That's no big deal, though. It's just that the replacement turns out to be intelligent puff balls that operate as a group mind and absorb the consciousness of other beings. There doesn't seem to be any other intelligent life on this planet, but somehow the whole concept rang hollow or even anti-Green Lantern. The puff balls don't absord any intelligent life only because there's none around, not because of a choice not to do so. In fact, the retiring Green Lantern subsumes himself into the consciousness of the puff balls to transfer the Green Lantern ring and power to them. In some way it struck me as making Star Trek's Borg into Green Lanterns.

Ok, that's too much Star Trek reference, so I'll stop now. If you get a chance to pick up the Alan Moore/Bill Willingham story somewhere, I certainly recommend it.

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