Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Green Lantern: Heart and Soul

When the Golden Age dawned with a flourish of superheroes, the Justice Society had the Green Lantern (Alan Scott) as one of its charter members. He was one of the most prominently featured members through most of JSA history -- no less so when the JSA continued into its later revivals.

When the Silver Age began, Barry Allen was the hero who started the process, but it was when a second hero notion had been revived that it was clear that there was a process. Hal Jordan debuted in Showcase and soon thereafter was one of the charter members of the Justice League -- in a reader's poll at the height of the Satellite Era, he was the runaway favorite JLA member, bar none.

Most subsequent iterations of the JLA featured one Green Lantern or another -- one of Earth's four. Even the Legion of Superheroes had a Green Lantern operating in their time, and as we've just seen in Legion of Three Worlds, a new era of the Green Lantern Corps as well. Green Lantern is and always has been the core of the DC Universe. To paraphrase Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis, Superman and Batman are the bricks, but Green Lantern (any of the six or more alluded to above) is the mortar.

And yet for all their ubiquitous presence in team titles, the Green Lanterns have had a shaky history as a solo venture. Alan Scott, the fourth DC character to have a solo title, faded away like all but five Golden Age heroes. Hal Jordan's solo title was soon on shaky legs and after a much-celebrated run teamed with Green Arrow, ended, relegating Hal to a backup spot in Flash. John Stewart's run in the endlessly creative Mosaic series vanished, too, and Kyle Rayner lives on almost as a remnant of an era of new characters that is increasingly hard to find in print. Every Green Lantern shone brightly, then grew cool and faded. The comics always said that a power ring lasted 24 hours before needing a recharge. The Green Lantern franchise seemed also to have a limited duration before needing new life.

Silver Age Hal Jordan was a sterling example of manhood for his times -- a fearless, romancing, flying spaceman even before he became a superhero. He got the amazing gift of infinite power and daily proved that he'd always deserved it. Alan Scott, like the other men who became heroes in his time, took his strange power and fought gangsters and racketeers. But Hal was immediately fighting aliens, flying to Venus, containing nuclear explosions. He stepped into this role like he'd been born for it, like a baseball hero called up to the majors to instant acclaim. And then at night, we was wining and dining the most glamorous women. He was the first superhero to operate on the West Coast. Six feet tall of California cool, dancing on air, aiming one hand forward and out-willing every problem in his way -- every problem in the universe.
Hal was so perfect as to be almost featureless, once you took superheroics for granted. He remained one of the most popular members of the Justice League up till the time that the Satellite Era JLA gave way to the Detroit League. His solo title, however, limped to a finale with #75, sharing the title with Green Arrow in a critically elebrated run. It was not entirely favorable to Hal, who as often as not played the stiff, slow-to-learn model of an old school superhero while Ollie was a bit quicker on the uptake, learning the social lessons of their day (this was the year after Woodstock and the spring of the Kent State shootings) and then lecturing the same sense into Hal.

After a decade in the limelight, Hal Jordan became the vehicle for DC to reconsider the whole superhero genre, phasing out glamorous Hal to look for something more interesting to a more mature readership. He was given flaws in a seemingly blind search for something nuanced. Green Lantern was deconstructed and Hal was more or less demolished. He lost his solo title (and even the shared title). He lost his spot on the Justice League, with Guy Gardner and John Stewart taking over. Finally, he became the villain of two prominent stories and was killed off.

But then there was the second coming. Green Lantern Rebirth, via a creatively challenged retcon, absolved Hal Jordan of his sins, brought him (oh, that small thing) back to life, and before long, his gray hair had gone the way of his former guilt. He won the confidence of a tougher judge than any of us will have to face. He was back.

This new Green Lantern run has outshone everything that's come before. Hal Jordan is not just a leading light of the JLA while his solo magazine sits on the second rack. Green Lantern, Volume 4 (the current series) has had gangbuster sales, easily beating the monthly sales of each Superman title -- though the Superman character is featured in far more titles. This is the first time in DC history that a character besides Superman or Batman has competed with the top two for attention, and has easily blown away the best of the rest, doubling Wonder Woman's sales.

Geoff Johns, who has written the latest incarnation of Green Lantern from Rebirth #1 to the present, has created a masterpiece of the genre, making every story line an Event. My next post will take a look at the timeline of Johns's incredible run on Green Lantern, tracing the careful work he put in, laying the groundwork as far back as 2005 that leads us to 2009's event, Blackest Night.


  1. I wonder if the success might be two-pronged (actually 3 if you count the fact Geoff Johns is just a good writer).
    1) DC may have finally realized GL should not be as Earth-bound as they were intent on making him. Yes there was the Corps and yes he was in space before, but now, the stories seem to be truly delve into sci-fi and really, that is what they should be doing.

    2) People were so sick of the replacements that the thought of bringing back an original (and for most people silver age is really the original as most were not around for the golden age) just amkes him popular.

    We'll see long term how much #2 played as that will wear off in a year or two.

    I think #1 is they. Good sci-fi writing will be better for GL.

  2. It's a good point you raise, Steve. One thing I think about when reading old stories is that the bar has been raised (or moved, anyway) for what "sci fi" is. Hal debuted before (just before) any human had actually flown in space. One of his first stories took place on a planet which we've since collected surface photos of (of course, showing no yellow Venusian monsters). 1960's "sci fi" was about weird, amazing adventures. A modern comic reader can take a lot of those things for granted. I don't think current GL readers think, "Wow, how weird!" when they see Salaak for the fiftieth time.

    So I agree with your overall point, but I think what the sci fi accomplishes is to build a grand mythology (of which Hal plays only a part). And Johns is building some very rigid structures: Seven Color Corp. Ten New Rules of the GLs. Whereas the aliens Hal encountered in the Sixties seemed uncountably many and weird. In a nutshell, I think Sixties sci fi in the GL comics sought to disorient the reader (in a way the reader enjoyed) whereas Johns is working very hard to paint a universe that we are getting to know assiduously... but the journey of getting to know it gradually is very much the point.

  3. I see what you are saying about not just sci-fi, but the writers' interpretations of what sci-fi is. Mine is (as is most people's probably) Star Trek and Star Wars based (as a matter of fact, until Star Wars, I don't remember a movie or show where so many alien "races" existed in one room - Cantina on Tatooine). And that they (or JOhns at least) are building a universe in which GL lives as opposed to adding new locations "on the fly" and fitting it in with GL.

    My own interpretation of GL would be something along the lines Knight Rider (actually I was trying to think of something better, but my mind is going blank - maybe MacGyver) where GL works for an agency (in this case OA) who may or may not be recognized by local governments (I doubt Earth recognizes OA and agrees to follow its rules), is sent out on missions and uses his wits and technology to solve the problem.

    This would occur on many worlds just like Knight Rider occurred in many cities.