(W) Peter Milligan  (A) Ed Benes

You Should Read Red Lanterns

Six months into DC's New 52 initiative, its creative direction is crystallizing Narrative arcs are beginning to climax and conclude.  While some of these books are proving to be meaty and unpredictable, none have quite the same appeal as Peter Milligan and Ed Benes's Red Lanterns.  Too many of the new titles have been afraid to stray too far outside of the box, regurgitating origin stories and recycling style.  Red Lanterns is about ten feet away from the box.  Instead of being a frantic action comic, it junks superhero conventions in favor of moody observations on consequence and violence. Couple this tone with a bizarre sense of humor, and it has swiftly become one of the most unique titles on the racks, DC or otherwise.

The scenario closely resembles one of Milligan's earliest sagas, Bad Company, which is also about a group of mercenaries led by tragic monsters through hostile alien vistas.  Here, that monster is Atrocitus, leader of a planet of Red Lanterns, a corps of mindless, raging warrior-creatures.  Atrocitus decides that the rage fueling him demands worthy satisfaction and resolves to avenge atrocities across the universe aided by a few of his Lanterns, including the scheming fatale Bleez.  Meanwhile, Milligan's signature interest in the self's capacity to transform finds a strong voice in the story of an Earthling and his murdered grandfather, which crescendos to the climactic snap of a spine on the first page of issue six.

This may sound like a bloody sci-fi epic, but it's more like a brooding space opera.  The narration glides over time, through characters, and across galaxies, giving each conflict a cosmic context.  Unlike many comics, this one sees violence as a non-solution, though it also does not shy away from exploring the therapeutic power of revenge. Like when a soldier in issue two kills innocent children mistaking them for armed hostiles, Atrocitus considers the cyclical nature of vengeance in the same panel that depicts him showering the soldier with napalm blood puke.  Also noteworthy is the book's recurring reflection on the moment where pain becomes rage, wonderfully illustrated in issue five when the pain of a character's betrayal mutates into a powerful fury as his skin is burnt from his face. Red Lanterns is interested in the consequential, which makes it a rare comic indeed. 

Duke of Demonic Cheesecake, Ed Benes's pencils are oddly fitting for the book.  At first, the focus on the scantily-clad Bleez's butt seems hilariously random.  By issue three, when Atrocitus growls at her "I'm not interested in your subtleties!" as she walks away giving the reader an eyeful, the gratuity is thoroughly meshed with the book's twisted sense of humor. And while Benes may indulge in his usual hurricane of hatch lines and uncomfortably posed figures, his layouts expressively stage Milligan's operatic vision.  Tension builds as the extreme illustrations highlight the script's poetic beats, emphasizing both the inward and outward manifestations of wrath.

The most glaring shortcoming of the New 52 has been the absence of any major surprises.  It's been a lot of solid books by a lot of solid talent, which also describes the Old 52.  With Red Lanterns, Benes and Milligan's mutual brands of insanity fuse to create a genuinely different DC comic that I can't recommend enough.

4.5 OUT OF 5 Z'S