comics, comics criticism, writing

Making Meaning Across Dimensions in Radiant Black #24

Some of you might remember that Urbane Turtle launched with a review of the first issue of Radiant Black, which I praised for its clear and unique POV. In the intervening two years, I’ve gotten to write about the comic a few times for CBR, speak with writer Kyle Higgins, and have featured it in my year-end list in both ‘22 and ‘23.

I continue to dig this book and its total commitment to being inventive in both its storytelling and the way that it has worked to expand the storytelling experience beyond the pages of the comics. We’ve gotten gift boxes with Radiant Bath Bombs (very relaxing, from personal experience), 2 dope black light issues, and an animated short tie-in. 

Now, Higgins and the team are asking readers to get directly involved in the story. Following one of the most shocking superhero moments of the decade, the lead character Nathan seemingly died in battle, leaving his slacker best friend Marshall to take up the mantle. It was a bold move, and recontextualized the first few months of issues into an origin story for an unexpected character. 

Radiant Black # 10 by Higgins, Costa, Carey.

Near the end of the first year, Marshall traveled into the Black Hole that provided him his Tokusatsu-like powers and discovered that Nathan’s essence was still connected to the “Radiant”. In a dramatic Black-Light adventure into “Existence,” the heart of the Radiant, Marshall was forced to face and accept difficult truths about himself in a cosmic, introspective and emotional journey the likes of which only superhero comics can provide. 

<there is only truth in existence>

Marshall was able to survive and rescue Nathan, having learned something new about himself and his own capabilities. Over the next few months, Nathan recovered and watched as Marshall took over the superhero mantle that he once believed was his second chance to make something of himself. Vocally supportive but internally resentful (despite his best efforts), Nathan was frustrated at Marshall’s inability to take the power seriously–and his occasional violent outbursts. 

We also learned that Marshall holding onto the power could potentially lead to the destruction of Earth.

Radiant Black #10 by Higgins, Costa, Carey

 But Nathan was not out of the game yet. When Marshall was overwhelmed by a team-up between his growing rogues gallery, Nathan discovered he still had access to the powers of Radiant Black. But transforming meant taking the powers from Marshall temporarily, and vice versa. The two would-be heroes now had to figure out how to operate as a unit–and learn how to respect the other ones’ approach.

Again, the series recontextualized itself. It was not Nathan or Marshall’s story. It was both of them. Two characters who, for different reasons, viewed themselves as 30-something failures, were suddenly granted superpowers and an opportunity to do something meaningful with their lives. Now they were forced to reckon with that responsibility and how to use it and reconcile their very different ideas of what heroism means. 

But Higgins, artist/cocreator Marcela Costa, editor Michael Busuttil, and the rest of the creative team have already shown they are not content to let any status quo stay too long. In the latest issue, the dual heroes were presented with a choice–and it falls to the readers to decide who will be Radiant Black.

In the final page, the giant Radiant Robot that acts as the sort of spiritual guide for Nathan and Marshall, tells them,

<you must decide>

Radiant Black #24. Written by Kyle Higgins. Art by Marcelo Costa. Colors by Igor Monti. Letters by Becca Carey.

But really, it is speaking to us–to you, the reader. Marcelo Costa’s final image of the issue is the robot staring directly forward, beckoning the reader into the narrative. The future of Nathan and Marshall’s story, perhaps the future of this world’s entire fate, rests in the hands of the readership. Readers have been invited to vote on who should get to retain the powers of the Radiant directly.

This kind of meta-interaction with readers is part of a long tradition in comics. The most obvious callback is obviously the infamous call-in vote for readers to decide whether Jason Todd, the second Robin, should live or die. While there’s no doubt about the Jason Todd influence, Radiant Black is also tapping into another superhero tradition–the breaking of the fourth wall.

Fans were asked to take part in Jason Todd and Batman’s story in that vote but the invitation was outside of the text of the book itself. Here, the invitation is explicitly a part of the narrative.  A character is reaching through the page and speaking directly to readers.

Fourth wall breaking has become a bit of a tired gimmick in some ways, particularly when used for comedic effect by characters like Deadpool and She-Hulk. In fact, calling it “Breaking the Fourth Wall” feels like a cop-out, given the specific origin of that phrase on the stage. Comics have no walls but borders and pages.

It may be more apt to call this comics tradition something like peering through dimensions. It has a proud history in superhero comics, one of the most famous being The Flash #163.

The cover is a memorable and attention-grabbing image, particularly for 1966. The bright-colored Flash, contrasted by the stark black background, stares out in horror from the page, his hand reaching out, pushing against the 2-dimensional transparent barrier between himself and the viewer. 

The Flash #163 cover by Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella

“STOP!” It says in bright, blocky capital letters. “Don’t pass up this issue! My life depends on it!”

Clever marketing, sure, but it is also a moment of creators trying to bridge the artistic divide between content and reader. Grant Morrison describes this cover as, “the first time a superhero looked out from the flat picture plane into a theoretical higher dimensional space he could not see, only intuit, to ask his readers for help.” Morrison, of course, is one of the most prominent devotees of this particular cross-dimensional rapport between reader and content.

Within the pages of the comic itself, The Flash discovers that his very existence is in jeopardy as he slowly fades in and out of existence as the memory of the Flash wanes. The image on the cover is repeated inside. Flash reaches out from a panel to shout at a passerby to read a pamphlet about him. Of course, just like the cover, Flash stars directly forward, his hand prominently poised outward, as if reaching for the space beyond his panel borders.

Within the story itself, the plea is a straightforward element of the plot, the implied call to the reader a fun little wink.  But by calling to the reader on that initial cover image, the creators make an intimate connection with the audience. This story’s meaning is defined by YOU. Flash might be reaching out to a passerby in the next panel, but his plea exists on its own as a single image itself. There is no denying the dual meaning. The break between images is intentional. With the cover’s desperate cry for help evoked on the page, the reader has become a part of the narrative. 

Flash #163 interiors. Written by John Broome. Art by Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella (colors not credited)

The Flash’s fate is tied to his being remembered. So long as his exploits remain in the consciousness of the public, he will never die. It’s a solution to a temporary plot complication, but it is also a statement on the nature of superhero stories and narrative as a whole. Stories live on in memory. So long as a spark of that memory lives on, they exist in perpetuity.

The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 cover by Doug Mahnke and David Baron

Grant Morrison’s oeuvre of metatextual superhero storytelling was highly influenced by this issue of The Flash, most conspicuously in their Multiversity series, which had at the center of its premise the living text ULTRA COMICS which drives its readers mad and uses their minds as a gateway to new realities to tear apart. On the cover to Ultra Comics, a mysterious hero warns readers AGAINST opening the pages of the book, intentionally refracting Flash 163. 

By reading the book, we take part in the ensuing destruction by the very act of reading itself.

There are other examples of this metatextual tradition, of course. It is a superhero trope in its own right, and has taken various forms. But speaking directly to readers is rarer, and is always done with the purposeful intent of engaging readers in the creation of the story. But they trace their roots back to the Flash, which demonstrated how effectively superhero narratives, with their broad concepts of science and reality, can bridge the gap between the real world and the imagined.

Higgins and Costa’s cross-dimensional invitation traces its lineage directly to The Flash 163 in that playful and  Morrisonian school. By staring out directly toward the reader, we are invited to take part in the meaning-making and storytelling process itself. Whatever happens next in the story, the events quite literally will be defined in part by readers.

In this way, Radiant Black continues to fulfill its promise of creative risk taking and its firmly postmodern approach to superhero storytelling–All influence is fair game, and the experience of reading the title is not limited to the issues themselves. The experience of storytelling exists not in the printing of words or images but in the magical alchemy between text and reader. Not every form of storytelling lends itself to this kind of personal outreach from the thing itself, but superhero comic books, in their niche audience and quick production turnaround, have the rare ability to speak directly and intimately to their audience. It’s exciting to see a comic take advantage of that relationship in such an intentional and creative way.

Now, you may have read this article and be left with the question: “Who will you vote for, Tim?” 

 Allow me to ask you, who would make for the more interesting story?

My vote goes to Marshall. Part of what I loved about those first few issues with Nathan was the way the character reflected my life experience and reflected the realities of being 30 in the here-and-now. Apprehension over student loans and credit card debts, the sense of dreams attempted and failed, of the return to mom and dad, embarrassed about what you hoped to accomplish and now believe you never could. Nathan viewed Radiant Black as a second chance to do something that mattered and make a difference in the world. But that is just one experience of what it means to be coming into adulthood in the 21st century.

Radiant Black #5 by Higgins, artist Eduardo Ferigato, colorist Matt Iacono, letterer Becca Carey

When Nathan was comatose, Marshall stepped into the role, full of anger and a desire for vengeance. As he took on the power, he quickly fell into a trap of selfishness and self-promotion. He’d use the power to help, sure, but also to cash in and use it to his personal advantage. Not necessarily maliciously. Life was hard for Marshall. Where Nathan had a loving mom and dad to fall back on, Marshall lived alone and his mother views him as little more than a burden. There is still so much about his backstory that we don’t know, but his home was a broken and abusive one. He never had the opportunity to take a risk and fulfill his dream. He never even had the freedom to dream about what his life could be. He never left his hometown, and saw Nathan as someone free and brave enough to pursue a different, better life. It might not have worked out, but it took bravery. Bravery that Marshall has never seen in himself.

For Marshall, Radiant Black is not a second chance. It is the only chance he’s ever had. And he’s made plenty of mistakes as he’s tried to use this power. Almost every decision he makes is the wrong one. But it makes for a compelling story. How does this lifelong slacker, who has never believed in himself or his worth, step up to being a hero, defy expectations, defy the future itself, and save the world? 

Higgins, Ferigato, Monti, and Care

Nathan has a support system that can help him make a new life for himself in the wreckage of his first attempt to live his dream. But Marshall, alone, with no family, no one to support him except his best friend, who, frankly, does not seem to consider Marshall nearly as close as Marshal considers him, has to learn what it means to be a hero, to take responsibility and put the greater good ahead of his own security. What does Marshall want? What drives him? 24 issues in, we still know so little about his interior life beyond his resentment for people who managed to make something of themselves. How he handles that resentment with superpowers, how he manages to take control of his own story, how (or if) he grows into a truly selfless hero, that’s a comic I want to read.