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Dark Nights: Metal and the Sequel
Dark Nights: Metal arrived courtesy of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo in 2017. It has recently received a thematic sequel, Dark Nights: Death Metal. The appeal of both series is, well look at the title. Metal. Rocking out with superheroes.
Rock and or Roll
Think of Billy Butcher’s mixing of superheroes with rock and pop icons and imagine just how fun there is to be had. And it’s not like DC hasn’t mused on how their characters would react to rock music. Remember the execrable Batman: Fortunate Son, written by convicted paedophile Gerard Jones?
Dark Nights: Metal is a more off the leash endorsement of rocking out. The characters talk about rock. The climax involves Wonder Woman banging her bracelets together like drums sticks counting down to a rousing resolute chorus to defeat the villains. And Capullo’s art at times resembles the heights of album cover phantasmagoria – Joker Dragon anyone?
So why is Dark Nights: Metal such a disappointment?
In part, this miniseries is a product of Snyder’s own nostalgia. In his introduction to the collected Dark Nights: Metal, Snyder mentions how as a kid he went in on buying issues from DC crossovers he and his friends couldn’t afford alone. But together they would pool their pocket money. The series also hangs on this notion of the Justice League pooling their resources to defeat an impossible evil.
In this instance, it is endless hordes of twisted versions of DC superheroes from the Dark Multiverse, where failed worlds and realities too horrible to exist have been trapped. It’s a re-tread of the impossible odds from Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths but y’know. More metal.
Remember the 1980s?
In that reflection from Snyder’s past, we have the seeds of Dark Nights: Metal’s failure. It’s a backward looking, nostalgic work that rests on two pillars – expensive DC comic crossovers that readers are used to after several decades, and commercial metal. It doesn’t beg the question – why did Snyder and his childhood friends have to spend all their money to follow along?
The six issues of Dark Nights: Metal are accompanied by various spin-offs, including a series on each ‘Dark Knight’, a version of Bruce Wayne who through circumstance became a Batman with the powers of an evil Flash, or an Aquaman. The most present of these Dark Knights is The Batman Who Laughs. This version of Batman broke his only rule, he killed the Joker. In the villain’s death throes, Bruce was poisoned, driven mad, and transformed into an insane version of the Caped Crusader.
He largely resembles Brian Bolland’s Judge Death, or Iron Maiden’s Eddie (they both arrived within a month of one another, so something was in the water in the UK at the beginning of 1980).
What’s emerging here is the sense of a comic book published in 2017 that celebrates the culture of comics and metal from the early ’80s.
For the purposes of this article I thought I would compare Dark Nights: Metal and how it treats of, well, metal, to a contemporary progressive metal band, Motorpsycho and their most recent album, The All Is One.
I chose this structure and comparison – opening each paragraph with capsule reviews of tracks from The All is One – not simply out of recency bias. Motorpsycho’s record is great to rock out to. But it addresses the times we are living in now, from Donald Trump’s presidency, to the collapse of any sense of what is real in our lives.
Dark Nights: Metal evades and avoids the now, possibly for fear of offense to potential customers. And as a result, does not mean much.
The All is One
Listen on Spotify – an ornate orchestral score, with a grand unified swell of music, is accompanied by lyrics hinting at the false utopia promise of fascism. Mention is made of fake news and ‘a world made of soundbites/where the headline is all’. Key lyric ‘The public discourse is done’ and ‘You’re too busy killing yourself to think it over’
I laughed out loud when I read issue 1 of Dark Nights: Metal. I had already chosen this structure and thought it an idea to read the miniseries while listening to Motorpsycho. The opening track, taking its name from the album’s title, was playing when I got to Diana’s line in the story’s first adventure:
I know this cry. It means “come together as one”.
Wait a minute…that sounds like the name of this song!
This line gets a callback in the final issue of Dark Nights: Metal. But it also betrays the very thematic idea Snyder insists is at the heart of the story.
See the story opens with the Justice League already trapped by alien villain Mongul on a new Warworld…
Readers unfamiliar with any of these concepts, buckle up. It gets worse.
Forced to fight in gladiatorial combat against Mechas designed to resemble each of them, the League launch into pre-prepared battle tactics. Batman, though, discovers the weakness of the Mechs and insists the others follow his lead. They win the battle, but it is interesting that the idea of unity or democratic process is immediately discarded. It’s not through combining their efforts that the Justice League win, it’s through the direction and command of Batman that they succeed.
What does Motorpsycho have to say about that?
I just can’t believe in that/
Because you’re just a dick
The Same Old Rock (One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy)
Listen on Spotify – Motorpsycho’s tribute to Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, a discussion of suicide and what makes life meaningful. A low-key guitar strum opens the track, introducing the plaintive lyrical opening ‘One more day/ I’ll try to fake it just for you’. Key lyric ‘One more night of pointless speculation/ Of endlessly debating what to do.’
The Justice League return to Earth and discover Gotham has been eclipsed by Challenger’s Mountain, which has appeared outside the city, warping the landscape and causing immense destruction. Instead of mounting a rescue effort to save the lives of Gothamites, the League are commandeered by Lady Blackhawk.
This version of the character is Kendra Saunders, the latest incarnation of the eternally resurrected Hawkgirl. We learn that her paramour Hawkman, and the Challengers of the Unknown, have vanished into the Dark Multiverse. Kendra explains this concept of reality to the League by flipping the map from Grant Morrison’s Multiverse series on its back. Fans of Stranger Things might recognize this concept, with Eleven flipping a DnD board to explain the nature of the Upside Down.
But it turns out this exposition on the nature of the threat they are facing is just a ruse to trap Batman. Kendra believes he is being manipulated by the entity known as Barbatos, a cosmic dragon who rebelled against his role as a devourer of failed worlds in the Dark Multiverse. Now Barbatos is coming and Batman is the key to his arrival.
It’s heady stuff. But Batman knew that Kendra was aware that he has been exposed to the various rituals designed to make him a portal to the Dark Multiverse – he prepared for this and has stolen from Kendra the one thing he needed to prevent this from happening. All without telling the team what he planned of course.
It’s a bit like that amazing dialogue from Cliff Robertson as Shame in Batman ’66 – I knew he’d think I’d think he’d think I’d think he’d come back here.
Listen on Spotify – Hints of prog rock, in particular Emerson Lake and Palmer’s concept album Tarkus in the opening of this driving track with a jazzy drum sequence. Key lyric ‘The magpie sounds a warning/ And leaves without a trace’.
Batman’s insistence on doing things his way, the danger of a strongman leader once again, causes him to walk into a trap set by the Court of Owls. They have manipulated him into discovering a hidden journal by Hawkman, Carter Hall. He follows coordinates the Court planted to a fake Egyptian tomb and, moments after being confronted by Superman and Wonder Woman, is captured by agents of the Court of Owls. Treated with the last of the five divine metals – which, god bless Snyder, is called Batmanium – Batman becomes the portal. The Dark Knights and Barbatos invade and Superman and Wonder Woman are trapped.
Oh, also Batman had brought along an infant Darkseid, much like Cosmic Ghostrider and infant Thanos, or The Boys television show, when Butcher used a child with laser eyes as a weapon. But nothing happens with it, it’s just there as a bit of a goof.
Delusion (The Reign of Humbug)
Listen on Spotify – The title is clear on this song’s aim, the impossibility of any political consensus in the era of Trump. A sad rock lullaby, for a form of politics being smothered in the crib. Key lyric ‘Discourse just felt insane’.
Issue 3 opens with a cruel delusion, Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman in their civilian identities, hanging out with Lois Lane in Smallville. They have beaten Barbatos. All is well. And they are being treated to a performance by Jon Kent and Damian Wayne’s garage rock band.
This is interesting as it’s the first appearance of rock music in the series named ‘Metal’. And it comes around again at the end of the miniseries, with Alfred Pennyworth joining the boys on drums.
It is fascinating to see a comic, featuring teenage boys playing in a band. They even seem to think the era of grunge is still going.
Again, who is this aimed at? Is this the book that teenagers want to read on their phones or iPads? Or is it 40-somethings like yours truly.
…I’m pretty jealous that Irish kids today can listen to Fontaines D.C. When I was a boyo we had a choice between U2 or exile.
Anyway, the whole Smallville fantasy is interrupted by Barbatos gloating at Clark and Diana, and they come to in a world being overrun by the Dark Nights with countless deaths and people being converted into batteries to drag the world down into the Dark Multiverse. Moving on.
N.O.X. I: Circles Around the Sun Pt.1
Listen on Spotify – N.O.X. is an album within an album, Motorpsycho’s Russian Doll of a concept album that explores more moods and riffs than a straight series of interlinked narrative hooks. A space-age digitised opening, with hints of 2001 or Jean Michel-Jarre. A violin cuts through, imitating a driving guitar line. The timbre of string contrasts with the digital syncopation, and then guitars and drums arrive in a sweep.
From issue 4, Dark Nights: Metal enters a strange phase of debates and exposition.
Superman has mistaken a musical signal sent by Batman back from his place of captivity in the Multiverse. Perhaps in a nod to the confused Latin call for help in Event Horizon, Superman learns too late that Batman was telling him to stay away. Now he is trapped. His body is being used as an energy battery, and with this increase of power Barbatos is dragging Earth down into the cosmic underside of the Dark Multiverse.
What follows is a series of exchanges between Batman and Superman where they try to support one another. It’s almost charming, but the emotional sincerity is forced. It also affords the apparently weak, aged and broken Bruce Wayne one last badass moment: what he calls, the ‘five finger death punch’.
Stolen from a murderous armoured Superman, this gauntlet has shards of Kryptonite that, as Batman explains “has every color kryptonite from gold to periwinkle”. It also bears a striking resemblance to Marvel’s the Infinity Gauntlet.
Batman then taunts the aggressive Supermen with:
“So I guess the question is, how super are you feeling today farm boys?”
Dirty Harry will always be a timely reference it appears.
N.O.X. II: Ouroboros (Strange Loop)
Listen on Spotify – a transitional riff leads to a guitar countdown. This is fast and moody – the atmospherics eventually bleed into Brian Eno territory.
The most confusing interlude is Kendra, Wonder Woman and Doctor Fate’s journey to the Rock of Eternity. Kendra continues to exposit on events that took place before Dark Nights: Metal involving Carter Hall and the Challengers. There is a frustrating sense that what she is describing is much more interesting than the story we are reading.
It’s also a new take on Hawkman. Here he is, off panel, a leader of adventurers into the weird history of the multiverse. As an immortal being, he is more familiar with the multiverse than most.
But Kendra – once more – has an agenda of her own. Through the machinations of Vandal Savage and the Immortals, she reveals that she has the brain of the Anti-Monitor and intends to use it as a bomb to destroy the Dark Multiverse. Wonder Woman protests that this would mean Carter Hall would be killed, as well as Superman and Batman. Then Kendra has a seizure and her body graphically transforms into the armoured, and winged, Lady Blackhawk.
Bryan Hitch and Robert Venditti’s Hawkman is worth a read by the by, but it largely ignores Snyder’s idea that Carter is fully aware of his cosmic role in the multiverse.
N.O.X. III: Ascension
Listen on Spotify – If you dig the idea of jazz fusion metal, Motorpsycho have you covered.
The choice to make Daniel Lord of the Dreaming, the new Sandman, into Basil Exposition from Austin Powers is baffling. Neil Gaiman positioned Daniel’s father/sire/predecessor Morpheus as someone who did act, although his motives and actions were inscrutable. He abided by a personal (myopic) code of conduct that he maintained was necessary, even if it meant hurting others, and ultimately it led to his own annihilation. Daniel here is a passive observer…does Scott Snyder just want to write a Marvel crossover? This is the Watcher. That’s what this sequence feels like.
There’s also an exhausting sense of negativity to the proceedings of Dark Nights: Metal. By issue 5 simply it all becomes too much. Eugene Thacker, a philosopher with a specialisation in horror, comments in his book In The Dust of This Planet on Norwegian black metal and its mordant themes. He cites “a Cosmic Pessimism, with its dark metaphysics of negation, nothingness, and the non-human” as a feature of the music.
Dark Nights: Metal feels like a series that wants to sketch that notion of cosmic pessimism. Bands identified by Thacker like Darkthrone, Emperor, Gorgoroth, Ulver and Ildjarn do touch on this in different ways. But the story instead wallows in bloody violence, countering it with feckless and sentimental hope.
In the case of Bruce, tortured for what he experienced as thirty years of utter hell, it is just the thought of his son Damian Wayne that brings him back to himself. For all the good intentions and thematic ambition here, this is a trite approach to combating nihilism.
N.O.X. IV: Night of Pan
Listen on Spotify – This penultimate track sounds like a movie score to a desert-set Erik Red film (Near Dark). Leitmotifs to Circles Around the Sun mutter under the dissonance. It’s wasteland music. Key lyric “All of these faces/All of these empty souls”.
Action beats aside, such as Hal Jordan’s stated obsession with kicking ass, any ass, it’s the appearance of Starro the Conqueror that threatens to pull Dark Nights: Metal out of its skid.
Appearing on panel to the accompaniment of an editorial footnote flummoxed by his survival, which earns another footnote from Snyder and Capullo with the devil’s horns, the alien telepath is given the dialogue of a shitty teenager.
There’s again a disjunct here, the idea of something that is outrageous – a bratty alien with an attitude – and the execution; he’s just a brat. Like Baby Darkseid, this begs the question – what’s the point of it?
N.O.X. V: Circles Around the Sun Pt.2
Listen on Spotify – N.O.X. ends in a clashing apocalyptic cacophony.
The final issues do give Capullo the chance to rock out artistically. There’s the opening to issue 5 with Barbatos wrapped around his signal tower to drag the Earth down into the void.
There’s also the fate of Carter Hall, transformed into a giant ‘dragon’ of Barbatos, his replacement as a world devourer. It’s Metal AF. The story becomes a race to bring Carter back to the light by the heroes.
It also, again, raises the possibility that this shouldn’t have been a Batman story. Batman is connected to all the elements within the story. Dark Nights: Metal does serve as a sequel of sorts to the themes of Final Crisis and Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne.
But given the story’s concern with ancient gods, time travel, cosmic threats and a multiverse of evil – Dark Nights: Metal just feels like the kind of opportunity that would catapult Hawkman himself to the forefront.
Batman is the most popular DC character. This is understood. Commercially it makes sense to hang a miniseries on him, and Snyder and Capullo’s collaboration on the character.
Still there is a void conceptually, thematically, at the heart of this series. And it could easily be filled by Hawkman.
Anyway, he’s a giant bird demon now.
A Little Light
Listen on Spotify – With a folky opening, an electronic chord breaks through, establishing a Vangelis-like soundscape.
Where Dark Nights: Metal truly feels unbalanced is through its citing of old stories from 20, 30, 40 years back, contrasted with the sheer amount of violence and gore on show.
There is nothing postmodern at work here. This is a restaging of a conservative vision for the DC universe, one where heroes created almost a century ago give or take a decade are still the standard bearers for both the company, and the fictional world.
Consider Jon Kent and Damian Wayne rocking out anachronistically. In the recent Bill and Ted Face the Music, the titular pair have failed to craft a rock song that will save humanity. However, their daughters Thea and Billie represent a new generation, that samples, reimagines, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all kinds of music. It’s a charming and clever way to show how the younger generation has moved forward, more J-Dilla than Jim Morrison.
Dreams of Fancy
Listen on Spotify – The land of milk and honey, Bruegel’s land of plenty, Cockaigne, Big Rock Candy Mountain – all promised destinations for a people disenfranchised and oppressed. Again here is a song teasing the danger of fascism’s appeal, its promise of a reward in the future. Key lyric “I am not stranger to this state of mind/I am no stranger to this game”; “A new and promising land/A hopeful place to start”; “A safe haven worlds apart”
Cyborg arrives with a ship of heroes from across the multiverse: there’s a Pirate version of Detective Chimp and various Batmen, Red Son Batman, Vampire Batman and Dark Knight Returns Batman. It’s the exact same appeal to emotion attempted by the arrival of the volunteer fleet in Rise of Skywalker. It’s also equal in its squandering of sentiment.
Cyborg’s adventure takes place in one of the associated miniseries, written by Grant Morrison (revisiting some of his ideas from Final Crisis: Superman Beyond).
But the arrival of Cyborg is intended as a sop to the previous issue’s reveal, that the Dark Knights once again manipulated the heroes into gathering all the remain artifacts they needed to destroy the multiverse. Just as the cavalry charge is unearned – the villain’s coup is also a cheap threat. Was there any sense that a betrayal was coming or a twist? No. The Dark Knights simply arrived at each point to steal what they needed and capture the heroes. For some reason, despite outnumbering the Justice League members, they do not kill them. It’s all very Goldfinger ‘no Mister Bond I expect you to die’, after this elaborate death trap completes its function of course.
Listen on Spotify – A mournful song about the worth of resistance and idealism. Key lyric “Please tell me that it mattered/That it somehow felt more real/My illusions are all shattered/And I don’t know what to feel”
And in the end, as with Final Crisis, it is music – or the warcry of an Amazon leading her fellow warriors to battle – that rouses all of humanity and discharges a force of goodwill and love that defeats Barbatos. As J.M. Barrie once wrote “I do believe in Fairies. I do! I do!”
This is like that. But in Final Crisis you get the sense that Morrison is fully committed to his vision of the DC universe as a source of hope and inspiration. He appeared to see Final Crisis as narrative medicine, a leeching of infected blood from the DC corpus. Dark Nights: Metal does not rest on that, frankly odd, but absolutely sincere sense of belief in its story.
Instead with its positioning of the Dark Multiverse as this Satanic plane of reality that can only be defeated when the heroes come together to pray as one….is this Christian metal?
The source of evil in Dark Nights: Metal is ‘out there’, external to the lived world of the heroes. Motorpsycho’s The All is One locates the evil of fascism in the everyday, humdrum Real of our lives. The album’s denunciation of evil is more efficiently impactful as a result. Whereas the morality of Snyder and Capullo’s vision is suspended in mid-air, a weightless, unreal conflict.
Listen on Spotify – a blistering conclusion, urging transformation and becoming at all costs. Key lyric “No one knows/Where to go”
The final chapter of Dark Nights: Metal is a dinner party hosted by Bruce for his friends.
This is also the venue for Jon Kent and Damian Wayne to rock out for their adult mentors in tuxes, accompanied by manservant Alfred Pennyworth on drums.
Ever been to a British private school social? Bit like that. “Metal.”
Bruce’s dinner speech smacks of a religious sermon – good has triumphed, a new messianic ‘Forger of worlds’ will come, and the evil Barbatos is chained below. Bruce warns of the massing threats that will follow on from Dark Nights: Metal. As it happens, this serves as a series of trailers for what DC as a company had in mind. I do not recognise any of the new characters featured, so I assume that the miniseries was not the successful launching pad it was intended to be.
And that’s how this paean to heavy metal and rocking out ends, with an advertisement. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. What about a radical, outrageous and rockin’ DC maxiseries about punching Nazis in the face?
Oh, and if you haven’t had the pleasure, check out Motorpsycho’s discography. They’re great.