Road to Blackest Night: Spectrum Analysis, Part 1

Peter Tomasi Talks Blackest Night

Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.  ~ Vincent Van Gogh

This week, the power of emotions will be the driving force behind one of the most highly anticipated comic book events of the summer, DC's Blackest Night.

"The real central theme in this series is emotion," said Blackest Night writer Geoff Johns in our recent interview. "This entire series is about emotion. It's about conflicting emotion, and changing emotion, and dealing with emotion. What emotion means, what it is."

While Johns is likely referring as much to the emotions experienced by the characters in Blackest Night, the writer is also examining the actual power of emotions. Within the Green Lantern universe, Johns is exploring the actual manifestation of emotional power through a set of seven color-identified emotions, each wielded by beings that use its unique properties through a power ring.

The writer has explained frequently that each of the powers in the emotional spectrum acts much like the emotions we all experience. For example, just like hate is often uncontrollable, the power of the Red Lanterns of hate manifests itself as uncontrollable, spewing from the lanterns' bodies like a river of rage. "We've all had experience with rage," Johns said, "whether we want to admit it or not. We all experience all these emotions, and it's hard to deal with."

As Newsarama continues to examine the story of Blackest Night, we decided to take the "emotional" ideas of the story and run them by an expert to find out just how similar these cosmic powers of the colored rings are to the emotions experienced by the humans here on Earth.

Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and author of college-level psychology textbooks, is intrigued by the ideas of Green Lantern's emotional spectrum, but also has an added interest as the editor of an anthology titled, "The Psychology of Superheroes."

The psychologist, who is currently writing a book called "Superheroes and the Life Lessons They Teach Us," was first attracted to the psychology of superheroes when her children started reading the same type of comics she had enjoyed as a child.

"They were absolutely rich with examples of psychological principles and theories and research," she said. "I had written textbooks for college psychology students, and I just thought, wow, what a great way to teach the subject, through the psychology of superheroes."

The more research she did, the more she realized there were lessons within the mythos of heroes like Green Lantern that naturally emerged within comic book stories.

"They're our mythology, and like any good fiction on mythology, superhero comics are rich in the psychology of human nature," she said.

Having researched the subject of Green Lantern's current mythology (admitting, "My son is my research assistant, so he's debriefed me"), Rosenberg found a lot of similarities between the powers being used by the Lanterns of colored emotions and the powers of the emotions we all experience.

In an ongoing series looking at the emotions of Blackest Night, we first take a look at the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum in the Green Lantern universe – hate and love.

Johns on Rage of the Red Lanterns
Johns on Rage of the Red Lanterns
The actions of the Red Lanterns as they use the power of hate is based on what Johns calls a "violent reaction driven by emotional eruption."

"It's the far end of the spectrum, so this power really eats you up inside," Johns said.

In real-world psychology, Rosenberg said the emotion of hate can similarly consume a person's thoughts.

"Rage and intense anger is more of a pure emotion, as far as emotions go, so it's kind of like an emotion without a leash," she said. "It's kind of like road rage, where you say to yourself, 'How could I have done this?' Because it's often not focused. It's not channeled particularly well, and it may not line up with our long-term goals. So it's not really assertiveness for the sake of some other endeavor. It's really more unchanneled and unfocused emotion that is taken out on a specific object of hate or person."

The motivation to act upon hate is similar in real life to the comics, Dr. Rosenberg said. "Physically, with hate, you get all charged up. In the comics, they in fact get pumped up the same kind of way," she said, adding that it really becomes more action-oriented when hate turns into anger. "Anger mobilizes us."

However, Dr. Rosenberg said that sometimes this "rage" or "hate" can actually turn into an anger that benefits a person.

"Judicious use of anger can help us in certain circumstances to endure things that are hard to endure, to fight for something we might not otherwise," she explained, using Rosa Parks as an example, saying that she hated the situation so much and became angry enough to act. "It's like the line from the movie Network, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!' It's the being really mad that allows people to kind of get to a different place."

However, Rosenberg said the idea in the comic books of the red power literally spilling out of a person's body isn't that far off the mark when anger takes over a person's focus.

"Interestingly, when you talk about the rainbow spectrum being used here, there is something about these negative emotions that is very intense," she said. "Intense greed is maybe a funny one in there, but intense fear and intense anger are very real. They really do narrow your focus cognitively. Even your awareness is limited. You're focused on what's right in front of you and less on the periphery. And that's true of your visual awareness and your perception, but it also guides your thinking. You're not really thinking at all – you're feeling.

"Hate swamps your emotional system. And that's true for fear as well, typically. It's not just specific to rage. But that's true of any intense emotions. They literally become overpowering," she said.

Johns has stated that the emotional spectrum is set up in a way that puts the emotions that are least controllable toward the ends – specifically love and hate. Although Dr. Rosenberg said she would probably add fear to that list of basic emotions that can consume a person, she said it's true that love can become uncontrollable in a similar way to anger.

"When people are in love, they can become obsessed," the psychologist said. "Just like someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder can obsess over types of germs, people who are 'in love' can obsess about being in love. You could say it's pathological. I won't. I'm not going to say it's pathological. But it's extreme."

Yet Rosenberg said that just like hate sometimes having a beneficial effect on people when anger motivates them, love obviously has many benefits as well.

"We don't really 'need' love like some people believe. We desire warmth or tactile stimulation or caretaking," she said, using a baby's reactions toward loving touches by a parent as an example. "But people do survive without love, and we don't need it like we need food or water. But we sure grow a lot healthier with it, potentially at least."

Rosenberg also talked about different types of love in a similar way to how the Green Lantern stories have shown a difference between the more uncontrolled Star Sapphires in past stories and the current "Love Corps."

"There's a distinction between that rush of being in love versus an enduring kind of love. That's a healthier love," Rosenberg said. "Just like rage and fear can kind of narrow your focus, that kind of uncontrollable feeling of being 'in love' can narrow your focus and make you less logical and much more in the moment. It's one of those basic emotions, that 'in love' feeling. It can lead people to do all kinds of stupid things, which we see with teenagers frequently."

There's also a connection between love and hate in Green Lantern because the characters who have chosen to wield the power of love have often gone through some emotional loss, and the same idea applies to many who wield the power of hate.

"Violet will influence you greatly, but it does it in a different way, which we'll be getting into more," Johns said, explaining the powers to Newsarama recently. "Think of it this way: When you have a great loss – and everybody who has will relate to this in one way or another – there's something empty in your heart. And it won't ever go away. It's there. It's like a scar. And depending on the circumstances, you either feel just emptiness or a great anger.

"The line between Red Lanterns and Violet Lanterns, or Star Sapphires, is very close as well," Johns continued. "There's a line right there, and you can fall on either side really easily, because you can get really angry at that loss. And if you do, the red ring will taste it and come after you. On the other side, if you're in great sorrow or pain, and you just miss...or just feel that emptiness, the violet ring will come up and offer itself to you. And it will say I can heal that hole and make that scar go away if you want me to and you will serve the Star Sapphires."

Rosenberg said this idea of grief either causing a person to go to the side of "love" or "hate" is similar to something recognized in psychology as unresolved grief.

"In studies of bereavement, when spouses die, when there were unresolved issues that never got addressed, and then the spouse dies, people are left with unresolved grief because there was business they never got to work out," Dr. Rosenberg explained. "So their bereavement is often more conflicted. They often have love and sadness, but also anger. You can feel both. You can feel love and anger.

"It's called complicated bereavement or unresolved grief, versus a relationship where there aren't as many hidden issues," she continued. "In that case, there isn't something unresolved. In that case, the person who grieves is grateful for the time that they had. They see it as a gift. So they aren't angry, but are instead more similar to what the Green Lantern stories are saying about going toward love."

Check back this week as we explore the other emotions of the Green Lantern's "emotional spectrum" as we continue examining the upcoming story of Blackest Night.

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