On comic books and hope; or, To be a Lantern


Beware. Crazy amounts of geekitude ahead. You have been warned.

These days, I'm a comic book guy. Not, like, the Comic Book Guy. That's this guy. And I don't think I could pull that look off. I mean, I could never make myself grow my hair out long enough to have a ponytail.

No, I'm just a comic book guy, lower case. I like comic books. I can't remember exactly how I started getting into them. I think it was a combination of friends, websites, and my inner nerd wanting another way to manifest itself and finding a likely conduit in that corner of Barnes and Noble I would visit on my lunch breaks, scouring the shelves for a likely trade paperback, crouching on my haunches as I leafed through each volume, basking in the creative glow of each page and causing my legs almost unbearable soreness. (I read the entire run of Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead this way. True story.)

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I like different books for different reasons. Sometimes it's the art (Kingdom Come), sometimes the storytelling (Watchmen), sometimes both (Fables), sometimes a certain je ne sais quoi (Ultimate Spider-Man). I like the variety the medium affords. I like racing through an issue or trade for the first time, being absorbed in the story, even though it takes a relatively short time to finish (unless it's by Alan Moore, whose work commands a slower pace). I like studying the art the second time through, admiring the productions of those whose skills I could never have. (I can't even draw proper stick figures. My lack of visual artistic talent strains human credulity.) I like both the immediacy and the complexity.

Mostly, I just appreciate the medium for its uniqueness. Comic book storytelling is unlike any other kind of writing, and takes an economy of word, a focus on dialogue (and inner monologue), and a marriage of script and art that cannot be duplicated. (I appreciate the efforts of people like Zack Snyder, Robert Rodriguez and Darren Aronofsky, but there is little doubt in my mind that the graphic novel versions of their works are by far the superior products. And let's not even talk about The Spirit.) It's a special kind of creativity, picture books for grown-ups, and my heart loves it.

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Recently I've been following, in tiny chunks, the DC Universe crossover event known as Blackest Night. Now, zombie fiction isn't exactly my thing, despite its annoying ubiquity. (Although, I did read the aforementioned Walking Dead, and earlier today I caught a matinee showing of "Zombieland," which I enjoyed, and I've read World War Z, and seen "28 Days/Weeks Later," so I suppose I have my finger on the undead, flesh-craving pulse of pop culture as much as anyone.)

Anyway, Blackest Night seems, at its core, to be yet another zombie cash-in: dead superheroes come back to life as undead, bloodthirsty evil dudes bent on taking the good guys to their emotional peak and then devouring their hearts and turning them into Black Lanterns themselves. But I'm far more interested in the concept of the "emotional spectrum" the series invents to combat the Black Lanterns. Now, as all the world knows, the power rings wielded by Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps are fueled by the willpower of the wearer. But surely there are other equally strong emotions -- anger, fear, love, hope -- that could also be harnessed?

This series makes it so, and in the process, creates some of the coolest character and power set designs I've seen. (The symbols of each respective Corps alone are fantastic.) And as I've been reading, I've tried to decide which kind of Lantern I would be.

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It's kind of a dumb question at first. It's sort of like asking which Hogwarts house you'd be sorted into, an oversimplification, a stereotype -- the cool kids into Gryffindor, the geeks into Ravenclaw, the dummies into Hufflepuff, the jerks into Slytherin. Obviously, no one wants to be in Slytherin. Similarly, it would seem obvious that no one would actually want to be a Red Lantern (rage), Orange (greed) or Yellow/Sinestro Corps (fear). These are necessary to provide conflict, but aren't realistic as a means of self-identification. (However, the series does give some interesting context as to how characters allow themselves to be overcome by these "negative" emotions, while not being altogether negative themselves. Sinestro, Green Lantern's nemesis, is a good example of someone who believes the ends justify the means, no matter the cost -- Lawful Evil in D&D parlance.) So I looked at the four "positive" emotions on the Blackest Night spectrum: Green (will), Blue (hope), Indigo (compassion), and Violet (love).

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For me, Green is right out. I can barely get myself together to crawl out of bed before noon some days. (In my defense, I do work until 2am most nights.) I'm way too non-confrontational when faced with a hard decision. Plus, put a bag of Doritos in front of me, and it's going to get eaten. It is a mathematical certainty. It is simply the natural order of things. No way could I power a ring based on my willpower.

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Violet could be the answer. I have lots of love. (Most days I have more love than I know what to do with. Wait, that came out wrong.) But in the Blackest Night sense, the "love" referred to is less the gentle caring kind (that comes with Indigo and compassion) and more the passionate, though not necessarily erotic, love that drives people to wild and often irrational action. That's not me.

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So, to Indigo. I'm a pretty compassionate person. I always try to understand what others are feeling rather than place my emotions above theirs. I definitely have a need to be needed by others. Compassion makes some sense. But I don't know that I'm quite selfless enough to be purely compassionate. I mean, I've just taken two hours to write this lengthy, nerdy and needlessly self-indulgent examination into how I might pigeonhole my psyche into one of seven arbitrary emotions based on a superhero comic book series. Compassion would probably be saving all of you from reading this. But since I'm writing it, I clearly want someone to read it, no matter how narcissistic or abstruse it may be.

(Also, I like using big words to show off. That's just mean. Not compassionate at all.)

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The Blue Lantern Corps' guiding emotion is hope. I've thought a lot about hope. "Hope," Andy Dufresne once said before he crawled through a Shawshank Prison sewage pipe and came out clean on the other side, "is a good thing -- maybe the best of things -- and no good thing ever dies." Hope can drive a person to continue when there is no reason present for doing so. Hope is fundamental, I think, to human existence, whatever your conception of that existence may be. If one does not hope that tomorrow will be, or can be, better than today, through personal efforts or the assistance of loved ones, then one would cease to be, for being would lose its purpose.

There is a strong undercurrent, even in the comic series at hand, of belief, of faith, and of spirituality, in the concept of hope. Even the members of the Blue Lantern Corps are called by terms with religious connotations: Saint Walker, Brother Warth, Sister Sercy. Note, also, the customary oath recited as the Blue Lanterns recharge their rings:

In fearful day, in raging night,
With strong hearts full, our souls ignite,
When all seems lost in the War of Light,
Look to the stars-- For hope burns bright!


As Robert Frost once said of stars, hope asks of us a certain height, of a steadfast and unwavering belief in the goodness of all and for all, to stay our minds on and be staid.

I believe that tomorrow will be better, even when it isn't. I feel that the best is always yet to come, and I mean that in both an earthly and a celestial sense. And I know that I want to do all in my power to make that feeling a reality.

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I'm a Blue Lantern. I hope.

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