Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In Brightest Day

The Worlds' Series

Two monthly series. Four events. Sixty-seven issues and counting. That is the slate upon which writer Geoff Johns and some very talented artists have rendered the Green Lantern mythology anew.

The story stars Hal Jordan, but features dozens of other Green Lanterns, including four other men who hail from Earth (and in fact, from the United States). It is an intricate braid of DC's post-Crisis history, Hal's Silver Age history, some evocative stories by ace writer Alan Moore, numerous retcons, and, naturally, a lot of new material. The signature devices of the Green Lantern series have been the creation of structures within which most past storylines fit neatly, and in which the broad details of future storylines are easy to anticipate. These structures combine old story elements with new ones, and have the feel of Greek tragedy, with timeless prophecies guiding the story along as though it is on rails. These prophecies of doom are in complete opposition to the norms of superhero comics, in which good must prevail, and the hero must triumph. In fact, because this new story of Hal Jordan reverses his earlier downfall, the story is a sort of anti-tragedy wearing tragic clothes. As it twists and turns new and old story elements around one another, it also winds backwards and forwards through time. Flashbacks to the past are frequent, as are prophecies of the future. Prophecies within flashbacks tie in to the present. Events are told mosaic style, being introduced briefly, then receiving elaboration later. Tiny clues to later storylines have been planted far in anticipation of their bearing fruit, leaving us to wonder how many future stories have already begun before the current plot has unfolded. There are echoes of Silver Age stories so subtle that only an aficianado can catch them.

For all this, being as complex as you could ask on a structural level, the story is easy to understand issue-by-issue, and for this, along with a shameless love of its heroes, the series has lofted Hal Jordan to among the very top selling characters in comic books. 


Green Lantern Rebirth reversed Hal Jordan's downfall and death by reimagining the earlier stories, explaining his path of destruction as a sin of weakness, not evil itself, but rather allowing an evil entity to possess him. The separation between the man and the sin is made extraordinary explicity, putting him to battle against the giant yellow space insect embodying fear, appropriating the name, Parallax, that had earlier been applied to Jordan himself. As their battles unfold, we see Jordan sometimes inside Parallax, Parallax sometimes inside Jordan, and at other times, the two of them face-to-face. When the nature of Parallax is made clear, it is identified as the sentient embodiment of the yellow impurity inside the Central Power Battery, the embodiment of fear, and therefore of evil.

More than any other element of the relaunch, this retcon of the earlier story has been derided as an overly-convenient disposal of the non-heroic end Hal Jordan underwent years earlier. It is the first time, though, that we can see the new run pile up elements of the Silver Age Green Lantern (the second Green Lantern series, following the Golden Age series starring Alan Scott). Because it is in Green Lantern Volume 2 #9 that the impurity in the battery, the color yellow, and evil are mutually associated. In that issue, we first see Sinestro's yellow power ring and learn that the impurity can be used to create a power similar to the Green Lanterns' but opposite in orientation. In abandoning the Nineties story, Johns pivots to the Sixties and finds the basis of his story there. The yellow inside the green is evil; fear is weakness; courage is strength. Johns paints a Hal Jordan who is neither as good as the Sixties made him out to be nor as bad as the Nineties did. Hal is no longer a man born without fear nor a hero turned villain. He is a man that will overcome great fear. Who gave into it, but will overcome it. His weakness is overcome and the universe forgives him, returning him to life, along with his victims and enemy.

In time, those who would have been his victims, the "Lost" Lanterns, are saved by Hal and forgive him.

Then that leaves Batman.

In Darkest Knight

Heat flows from a warm body to a cold body. So does fame. And over the last twenty years, no DC character has had the spotlight so much as the man of the shadows, Batman. Portraying Hal Jordan and Batman as erstwhile rivals is not only good politicking for the less-famous character, it's also natural character development for both of them. Green Lantern would get attention from a rivalry with Superman, but it would have to be subtle. Superman doesn't have the ego or the opposition to what Green Lantern stands for. They are both heroes of bright and colorful light.
So Johns made Batman a hurdle that Hal had to overcome, in his past as well as present incarnations. Batman has appeared on-panel in every series where Hal has starred, and their relationship is never simply that of allies. The opposition of their tactics is developed at length in GL #9 (Volume 4, which is to be presumed from here on when I don't specify 'Volume 2') and how Hal's fearlessness grates on Batman is explained by John Stewart in GL Rebirth #1. The two trade barbs, punches, and eventually begrudging respect. But even as late as Blackest Night, we see flashbacks to a simmering rivalry in the early days of the Justice League, a retconned Silver Age history that grossly violates the tone of Sixties' comics, but feels true today. It's the history that these characters had to have had, but that we couldn't see until now, when the all-smiles era of superheroes has yielded to character development (at least, in moderation).

Making the Most of Moore

Just as Batman is at the pinnacle of fame among DC heroes, Alan Moore, who had a brilliant but limited tenure writing for DC, is at the pinnacle among comic book writers. Johns has built on Moore's past stories in both large ways and small. When Guy Gardner says "Mogo wants to socialize", Johns is making an in-joke by citing a former story's title, but it is worth noting that the writer of that story is the illustrious Mr. Moore. And Mogo, Moore's invention, has figured into Johns' version of the Green Lantern Corps in key ways.

The odd line aside, the nod to Moore ideas was more apparent when a pair of issues borrowed the Black Mercy that Moore had put onto Superman (and Batman) in an acclaimed story and gave Green Lantern and Green Arrow their turns with it. A one-panel glance at "For The Man Who Has Everything" appears in Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps #1, the second story of which closes with narration that quotes the 1985 story verbatim.

Another Moore invention appeared in the Green Lantern Corps Recharge mini-series, a character named Bolphunga the Unrelenting.

Still, this is small-scale use of Moore's ideas compared with the sweeping infliuence that the magnificent twelve-page story named "Tygers", which appeared in Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2 back in 1986. This story introduced a planet of demons, enemies of the Guardians of the Universe, one of whom used the gift of prophecy and an excellent poker face to become the instrument of death for Hal Jordan's predecessor, Abin Sur. This prophecy, and another depicting the end of the Green Lantern Corps, has become a defining element of much of Johns' run on Green Lantern. The demon Qull and his associates (retconned into a group of five aliens who have survived a massacre by the Guardians' Manhunter androids) have surfaced in flashbacks, with Johns building a new history around their encounter with Abin Sur, adding a return trip to their planet in Abin Sur's itinerary, leading to his death at the hands of a newly-minted associate (and murderer) of Qull named Atrocitus, whose role in the story has yet to conclude.

A more elaborate story that intertwined with the Sinestro Corps War was that the prophecy of the final end of the Green Lantern Corps seemed to start to play out. Several characters mentioned in the prophecy appeared in major roles, and the prophecy went a long way towards its conclusion until Green Lantern Corps #16 (written by Dave Gibbons, a frequent collaborator of Moore's) stopped at the brink with Sodam Yat and Mogo surviving mortal threats. Since we've since seen Sodam Yat alive in the distant future, the prophecy seems to have been invalidated.

Memory Lane

Naturally, the existing history of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern mythology (and that which came later with John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Kyle Rayner) is the backstory of this run, but with a high degree of selectivity. Black Hand is far darker than his Silver Age self. But the little details are there in the old stories: William Hand did loathe his family (GL v2 #29). The Manhunters did rebel against the Guardians (JLA v1 #141). Hal and Sinestro do go beam-to-beam and Hal always wins, starting in GL v2 #9. It was even in the books -- Carol Ferris was attracted to Hector Hammond. Look it up in GL v2 #5 if you don't believe me.

The selectivity is what makes the long backstory work, and may other comic writers pay careful attention to the mastery Johns shows here. He does some "king-making", elevating some past foes to prominence while ignoring others. But he does so to build this grander story. Which foes get the greater role here? The ones who fit in to the long, eighty-issue plan directly and logically. A talking shark? No, not in the new continuity. A guy with the color motif black? Yes, definitely -- because colors have a large role to play.

The Rainbow Connection

It's simple and nonsensical, and yet strangely compelling: Each color of the ROYGBIV spectrum is an emotion. Each color has a corps. Moreover, as the story has it, the spectrum has two kinds of structure: Benevolent emotions to the blue side, malevolent ones to the red side. And, chaotic ones to the outside of the spectrum, orderly ones to the middle.
There are rules we know (blue stops red; yellow stops green) and those we don't. This simple structure took the green and yellow from old-time Green Lantern history, added in the Star Sapphires (who began as a Jay Garrick villain before vexing Hal Jordan) as violet and gave us four more to fret over. Symmetry, but broken symmetry. The orange corps has only one living member. The red spit their power out. The blue seem weak except when they are ungodly powerful. And the indigo are still somewhat of a mystery. The emotional spectrum made it easy to understand the general context but left all of the specifics for future stories. Twenty-some issues later, we've still got more to know about them and their interactions. This device has been played so well it's almost embarrassing to consider its childish simplicity.

Think about the Future

Qull's prophecy, and many others inside and outside of Johns' stories (think also of Booster Gold's time travel and JSA's last-page flashforwards), have provided a sort of in medias res device where flashbacks, prophecy, time travel, patterns that run across multiple story elements, and hints from the creators have wound the past and present into a braid that is easier to glimpse in parts than as a whole.

As a result, when seven issues coming well into the series tell the "Secret Origin" of Hal Jordan, it's not a digression from the larger story, but a way of inserting convenient details into the past so they can come to fruition right now. One issue after Secret Origin ended, a character introduced in it attacked our heroes. When we see Sinestro destroy Hal's plane in Rebirth #5, the event lacks context until Secret Origin's fourth issue. Piecemeal we get the story. This makes it worth of study. Otherwise, you might miss details like that the Indigo Lanterns' mission to spread goodwill was explained way back in GL #25. You might miss that Johns is bowing not just to Moore's excellence but also to his own extensions to the mythology when he reminds us years after the original panel of Kyle's ring-powered archery practice on Sinestro's back and the line, "Green Arrow says 'hi'."

By mixing the past, present, and future selectively, Johns' run has maximized interest and suspense. It is easy to tell that something is going to happen. It is hard to know what. When we were told that John Stewart would see his dead love Katma Tui again, we might not have imagined it would be with her as the Black Lantern zombie who rose in Blackest Night #1. Although it was possible to guess: The foretelling of their reunion came after the foretelling of Blackest Night. Clues have been embedded so deeply in the earliest parts of this run: The Emotional Spectrum and Blackest Night were first mentioned in Green Lantern #6. The individual colors were first listed by Cyborg Superman and a Guardian in Sinestro Corps War Special. Knowing that details can be so pregnant with meaning, we have to wonder about gremlins and the death of Martin Jordan. We have to look twice at Green Lantern Rebirth #2's line that hoping is what Superman does best.

We have predictions that Sinestro "Sinestro will be the greatest Green Lantern again" (Sinestro Corps War Special) and that he will oppose the Five Inversions' revenge. We know tht if the universe is to survive, willpower and fear must come together (GL #25) and that Sinestro will tell Hal Jordan "I can't do this without you" (GL #42).

Looking almost certainly further into the future, we have a prophecy that Hal will become renegade once more (GL #37) after the Guardians take away his greatest love. And -- don't miss this -- the universe will divide.

Top of the Charts

With layer upon layer of narrative masterstroke, Johns has put the Green Lantern series, more of an ensemble deal than the relentlessly Hal-driven covers would suggest, into the top tier of the DC Universe. Certainly where sales are concerned. Green Lantern is outselling any single title starring Superman or Spider-Man, and has been for some time. And it's not because Johns has given Hal a Betty to go with his "Veronica" (GL #20). It's not because he showed us the Anti-Monitor, Sinestro, Cyborg Superman, Parallax, and Superboy Prime in one panel. It's because he's using a richly intertwined narrative of Homeric proportions. This run has transcended the genre while stooping (the Emotional Spectrum) to its guiltiest pleasures of simplicity and Jack Kirby's art of always topping himself. Before Sinestro Corps War was over, we already saw the bigger thing coming, and now, with Blackest Night upon us, the next bigger thing yet is taking shape. You don't need to be Qull of the Five Inversions to see that Green Lantern is going to be successful well past this year.


  1. Awesome overview! I especially appreciate the delving into Moore's concepts beyond "Tygers". Geoff has done a brilliant job incorporating so many different parts of the GL and DCU mythos into his ongoing epic. Terrific job with crystalizing the essentials elements of the run so far!

  2. Mike, thanks for the kind words. I suppose one of the things that hits me is how effective the approaches are that Johns has taken. Fans have their favorite writers and less favorite writers, but it's also a matter of the gambit the writer takes in the first place. Johns has worked off a very long-term plan (longer than most writers get the chance to carry out) and it's been brilliantly successful. DC has put him on the Flash to repeat the success, and I look forward to reading it as it moves along. But also, I hope other writers and editors pay attention to this run and incorporate some of these virtues elsewhere. I think there are some ingredients for success here that writers who aren't Geoff Johns can also follow.