comics, comics criticism, dc comics, Perspectives, writing

The Final Night and the Forgotten Legacy of the DC Universe

One thing my recent Nightwing project accomplished was reigniting my love for DC Comics–particularly the stories and universe of the 90s, which, ironically, I have ready very little of. While I initially planned to cancel my DCU Infinite subscription once I finished that Nightwing read, I instead decided to dive into the stories I was always intrigued by but never had the opportunity to read.

As a kid I spent countless hours online following the stories of DC characters I had never heard of before, written by fans who chronicled the various adventures in compelling narratives. The DC Universe was boundless; there were always new characters and new stories to discover. In particular the fall of Hal Jordan seemed especially captivating. Reading about his sacrifice in The Final Night was such a moving memory even in the form of synopsis that when I found the story on DC Infinite those heady days of research came flooding back. Imagine my surprise to find that an event series from the mid 90s, an era that has a reputation for excess and convoluted plots, was in fact one of the most compelling, reserved, and moving superhero stories I’ve ever read.

The Final Night was a 4-issue, weekly event series written by Karl Kesel with art by Stuart Immonen, inks by Jose Marzan Jr. and colors by Patricia Mulvihill. It begins with the death of a world, as a mysterious power extinguishes the planet Tamaran’s sun. The alien Dusk, a messenger from another world, races from the dying Tamaran to warn the next planet of the coming of the Sun Eater, as she has done countless times before. The Sun Eater is coming to Earth, and there is no hope. Her goal is not that the next planet will defeat the Sun Eater but that they somehow save a few from certain death.

As Dusk arrives on Earth, she encounters Superman and the time-displaced Legion of Superheroes. The heroes of Earth are determined to stop the Sun Eater, despite her warnings of the impossibility of victory. As the series goes on, each plan fails and they begin to accept that there might be no saving the day. The sun disappears into darkness and the Earth falls into a perpetual cold night. The heroes turn their attention to trying to make small differences in peoples’ lives before the end, to save individuals, and maintain a measure of calm.

The night draws on and Hal Jordan, the former Green Lantern, who was driven to the brink of madness after the destruction of his home city and tried to rewrite time itself as Parallax, returns in an attempt to do one final act of good. Hal flies into the heart of the Sun Eater, destroying it and reigniting Earth’s sun safely.

There are many things to admire about Final Night, but of particular note is its somber tone. Comic book readers are accustomed to expect a straightforward formula for large company crossover events, but this one eschews all of them. The story is not about punching bad guys or fighting one another, or even facing a physical threat, but rather the Sun Eater represents a natural disaster of global proportions. The threat is so severe that even Lex Luthor joins with Superman and the rest. The odds are impossible, but the heroes never give up, never stop hoping that together they can overcome. Even as Superman is losing his powers due to the sun’s disappearance, he does all that he can to serve others.

One of the series’ most touching moments finds The Ray, a young superhero with light-based powers, traveling to a South America town after saving an elderly woman from a fire in Metropolis. She begs him to take her to her home village so that she can be with her family at the end. Once he brings the woman home he finds the town starving, freezing, falling apart. Horrified by his own inability to make a meaningful impact by fighting anything, he blazes into a radiant burst of light to warm the town. He nearly dies trying to give them even one more day. Ray’s blazing sunlight is intersected panel-by-panel with Dusk being jumped by a mob of frightened and angry men who blame her for bringing this doom. The worst of humanity is tragically juxtaposed against its very best.

When The Ray comes-to in the village, he is greeted by Zatanna, who breaks the news to him that there are only a few hours left before the destruction of the sun ends life on Earth. Together with Firestorm, they light the night sky, bringing a few brief moments of beauty and solace, contenting themselves with what difference they can make in the final hours.

These heroes come together to inspire others to find the light in the unending gloom, even to the end. As they realize they might not be able to stop the Sun Eater, the questions become, how do we survive together, and how do we find joy and hope as the world falls apart? 

When Dusk tries to flee in order to warn the next planet of their imminent doom, she is stopped by the Phantom Stranger. He shows her the unfailing hope and commitment of Earth’s superheroes, their refusal to stand back and accept that extinction is the only option. They never stop trying to save others, to keep the world calm. 

It is a moving tableau that reminds us of the simple and most powerful element of these silly superhero stories: the optimistic hope that good is a thing worth fighting for and that the world can be a place for sacrifice and selflessness. Final Night doesn’t position the superheroes as outsiders who solve all of the world problems, or the single strong man who brings divine justice, but as a part of our communities and society, a group of diverse people that band together to inspire the world to act. These heroes inspire others to find the light.

In a time when it seems like the world and its future are indeed doomed, it is a nice thing to hope that this kind of communal sacrifice is possible.

It is that same deep sense of community, a shared history and knowledge of one another and the world they inhabit, that helps to make The Final Night achieve its emotional impact. Over the last two decades DC has written and rewritten its history, removed characters and their development, erased legacies and generations of characters that has caused all of its characters to seem unfamiliar and distant. They are symbols more than people.

Final Night presents an expansive community of characters who have been through world shattering events, who know one another, and have grown and changed. The forgotten  legacy of the DC Universe is on full display here which makes the story emotionally rich and resonant. With the world and its people firmly established, the emotional stakes as it faces it potential end are earned.

Part of the appeal of these crossover events is seeing different heroes come together, and few pack as many in as this book. For me, what I love about the DCU has been that sprawling history and the rich legacy of characters, each representing a different piece of the publisher’s history. Catching glimpses of a C-Lister doing something cool in the background or the specific status quo of a given time period sparks the imagination and makes the world feel lived in. Guy Gardner, now with strange alien DNA powers, owns a superhero-themed bar that acts as a gathering space for the heroes. These are the kind of details that inform characters and their relationships and make for successful stories.

The most significant example of that history in this series is Hal Jordan’s sacrifice, entering the dark heart of the Sun Eater to reignite the sun. In Parallax: Emerald Night (written by Ron Marz with art by Mike McKone, included in the collected edition of the series) we get a sense of Hal’s interior struggle as he takes his revenge on the Cyborg Superman who destroyed Coast City. Rather than finding solace, he is left empty, with nothing left but the ghosts of those he killed in his rage and fear. When Kyle Rayner, his young and idealistic successor as Green Lantern, appeals to the man he once was, Parallax realizes that his vengeance has cost him everything, and there might be one good thing left for him to do with his existence. 

The selflessness of the other heroes, his old friends, and their refusal to give up reminds him of his humanity. When Parallax arrives and tells the collected superheroes he will save them, it is not a fully welcome return. He does not give a dramatic speech about the opportunity to right his misdeeds, or the need for redemption. He simply tells them that he can save them all, and he will, even if it means there is no coming back.

In the depths of the Sun Eater, Parallax reflects on his horrors, and finds the hero inside that he and others believed long dead. It is a deeply moving sequence. Even with the retcon that the actions of Parallax were not truly Hal Jordan, this willingness to give up his life for the Earth is a heartbreaking reminder of the humanity at the depth of the character. 

As a climax, Parallax arriving in the final issue seems sudden but it perfectly underlines what is so effective about the miniseries. Ultimately, this broken man’s sacrifice is directly informed by the preceding history of the DC Universe and inspired by the coming together of the others in the face of death. The collective efforts of the many inspires even the dimmed lantern to find the light inside of them. Hal’s sacrifice is redemptive but not all-forgiving. The journey goes on.

Stuart Immonen’s art is the perfect choice to bring this story to life, balancing the emotion and drama with heroic action and the ability to render a large cast as individuals. Above all, Final Night deals with character, eschewing the fights and explosions of traditional crossover events. Making sure those characters appear as truly realized people is critical. The fear and tension are amped up by Immonen’s exceptional drafting. The small moments of victory and solace in the darkness are all the more impactful  because of the subtle detail the artist is able to impart. Immonen’s impact is critical in making Hal’s death an emotional moment, the pain and sadness evident to the very end.

Marzan’s inks bathe the pages in deep shadow that leaves a gloomy pall over the entire series, but makes the moments where the light breaks through all the more powerful. Mulvihill’s cool colors are a constant reminder of the frigid weather bitterly reminding the heroes of the warmth they have lost. The introduction of warm colors reserved for moments of significance. The superheroes are presented as beings of pure wonder, silhouetted in shadow, bathed in light. They inspire. 

The Final Night is a wholly unique series, a massive event that deals with the struggle for survival and explores the capacity for humanity at its best, if only the structures holding us apart could be overcome. What greatness could we accomplish together, if we could reach deep and sacrifice for one another even when we are weak and frightened? A collective effort to kindness and selflessness can spark the light in even those thought lost.

What a source of hope these stories can be, with their rich histories. Hope that after the darkest night might still come the brightest day.

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