I don’t envy Peter Milligan. One of my all-time favorite writers, his output in recent years has been a mixed bag — while he’s got an ongoing gig doing Hellblazer and other Vertigo work of some pedigree (Greek Street, The Bronx Kill), a lot of it has been minor Marvel Comics titles and video game tie-ins where you can kinda tell his heart’s not in it. After so many prematurely cancelled ongoings and for-hire work, I fear that the American comics industry is in the process of chewing Peter Milligan and spitting him out.
Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. Milligan’s got two ongoings going on in the New 52: September 28th’s Justice League Dark and this one, Red Lanterns. The former makes sense — it’s got all sorts of Vertigoey characters like John Constantine and his own Shade the Changing Man (well, adopted from Steve Ditko) — while the latter… look, I’m no hardcore Green Lantern fanboy, so I have no idea if the Red Lanterns are a thing people wanted to read about in their very own solo title. To me, any character has potential when handled properly.
What I do know is that Peter Milligan is a 2000 AD vet, having written sci-fi fare for them like Bad Company, so seeing Red Lanterns #1 open with blue reptilian alien torturing a scrawny alien Gollum thing in torn purple Banner pants is a good sign as far as I’m concerned — until page two, the first half of a two-page spread of Dex-Starr (a housecat that got so mad it became a Red Lantern — no joke) attacking in space, rendered completely undynamic and uncosmic by Ed Benes.
Yeah, it kind of looks like what a cat should look like. At least, the basic parts are there. Ears, mouth, nose, tail (with a Red Lantern ring on it, natch). Going outside the kitty, you’ve got weird nebulas and stars and space rocks floating around. But it’s all drawn without any sort of flair. It’s exactly what it is — a cat puking blood in space — but are we supposed to think it’s awesome or hilarious? It’s unclear. Oh, and it gets worse as Benes continues to draw the cat with an increasingly nonsensical sense of anatomy.
I’ve read a lot of Grant Morrison comics, and even that guy can sometimes barely overcome bad interior art — or, shall we say, art that doesn’t service the script. I mean, people enjoy Marc Silvestri, but seeing him pencil New X-Men‘s “Here Comes Tomorrow” in his Image ’90s style results in some serious cognitive dissonance with Morrison’s freaky far-flung future finale. And I guarantee the infamous Batman Incorporated #8 would have benefitted from some Chris Burnham art instead of the sub-Digital Justice mess that went to print. In Red Lanterns, Ed Benes’ grimacing, sinewy style is a sensible fit for a comic where the heroes are the ones puking blood all over the place, but the word balloons feel like they’re drowning in the oppressive, unsubtle art.
There’s a glimmer of hope in Milligan’s script, however. Seemingly aware that he’s been given shit to work with (hint: the Red Lanterns reside in Space Sector 666) and his main protagonists are angry, violent characters whose only mode is angry and violent, Milligan tries to embrace the basic DNA of the thing, giving us some Green Lantern mythology (Krona! Manhunters!) while depicting the Red Lantern Corps pretty much as they’re depicted in every iteration I’ve ever seen them with. Apparently, when they’re hanging out on their home planet Ysmault, all they do is brawl. That’s hilarious.
And I don’t think that hilarity is lost on the writer. I never considered Milligan as a guy who’d go meta with his comics (unlike his aforementioned contemporary), but there’s a sense that Milligan is using Atrocitus as a fictionsuit here. The basic setup for this series seems to be about Atrocitus, no longer getting his jollies being very perturbed in space, finding more of a purpose in being a Red Lantern (a glimmer of personality!). This involves wrangling the rest of the Corps, who are more famous for posing and puking than having any sort of reason to exist. Meanwhile, Milligan is dealing with an undeveloped, one-dimensional concept whilst saddled with substandard artist who seems to see the need to give the Morrigan-like female Red Lantern an ass-shot (she’s puking blood, of course).
There’s a way the Red Lantern Corps can work, and Milligan figures it out using the basic backstory of the concept — while the Green Lantern Corps enlist awesome dudes to protect the universe, the red ones can enlist people who seek vengeance to right the universe’s many wrongs. There’s a Spectre-like sense of metaphysical justice that I really like in that, and Milligan sets the Corps up to have its own Hal Jordan in the form of one of two British brothers whose grandfather just got beaten to death by some punk in an alley. I’m really hoping Milligan puts a twist on this and has the level-headed bespectacled guy become the Red Lantern and not the obvious candidate.
The more I think about it, the more I like Red Lanterns, but not as an enjoyable sci-fi comic book. Not yet, at least. To me, it’s setting up to be more of a case study. I’m finding myself fascinated with the idea of Milligan trying to take the Red Lanterns’ goofy, sophomoric comic millieu and work it into something with a sense of purpose. Only future issues will show whether his efforts will work out, but I’ll be glad to stay on until Milligan quits or the book is prematurely cancelled — we’re all aware that four Green Lantern-related comics is too many, right?
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter as @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his newest comic, “Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men,” over at Champion City Comics.