Green Lantern: 75 Years of Reflecting Society

greenlanternGreen Lantern: A Celebration of 75 Years is, like Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years, as much about our own history as it is about the history of the various men who have worn the Green Lantern uniform. The book, which came out in October, focuses mostly on Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Lantern and the current, pre-eminent Lantern. While that is to be expected given Hal’s lengthy time as a Lantern, there’s much more to explore.

The story of Green Lantern started with the Golden Age pulp-inspired Alan Scott, who obtained a magic ring after a near-death experience and used it to fight a corrupt businessman. The collection includes three of his stories, including his origin by Bill Finger (the co-creator of Batman) and another tale written by science fiction legend Alfred Bester. They’re great examples of the stories of the time, and it’s no accident that Scott began by fighting the establishment. But Alan vanished after the Golden Age.

Then came the Silver Age, and DC’s revitalization/updating of its superheroes beyond Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Gone was the mystical Scott. In his place was Hal Jordan, ace test pilot, a hero perfect for a country obsessed with the astronaut program. Six early stories, beginning with his origin in 1959 and stretching to a glimpse at a possible future in 1968, all concentrate on the need to explore and push boundaries beyond what we know.

Green Lantern Green Arrow skins lectureThen, the world changed—and so did Green Lantern/Hal Jordan. Under the creative team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, Green Lantern was accused of only caring about the “blue skins,” and not the injustice and racism prevalent on Earth. It’s one of the most famous comic panels of all time, and the full story is included here. O’Neil and Adams often paired the more conservative Hal Jordan with the liberal Green Arrow/Oliver Queen. Hal definitely comes out on the short end of this deal. In fact, he’s kind of a jerk.

Hal comes across as even worse in the first appearance of future Green Lantern/then back-up John Stewart in 1972. Stewart, an African-American, is a veteran and out-of-work architect. When he’s chosen as his “back-up,” Hal is uncertain, especially when Stewart, in the course of saving a racist politician from an assassination, spills oil on his face as a sign of contempt. In a tone-deaf speech, Hal berates Stewart and assigns him to guard the candidate as punishment. The story and its creators, however, are on Stewart’s side. He ends up out-thinking Hal and saving the day.

Alas, John only gets one other story in the collection, from 1985, set during his temporary takeover of Green Lantern duties while Hal is “retired.” There are no stories from the ambitious Green Lantern: Mosiac or from the comic version of the Justice League animated universe, which heavily featured Stewart. How well-known is Stewart outside the comic book world? So well known that when my kids walked past a poster for the recent Green Lantern movie, my kids asked, “Mom, how come Green Lantern is a white dude now?”

Instead, the collection’s spotlight moves firmly back to Hal, showcasing the (still controversial) story where Hal went nuts and murdered the rest of the Green Lantern Corps in an attempt to resurrect the destroyed Coast City.  In the meantime, there are two stories featuring Guy Gardner, who is basically the person who would happen if Hal’s macho-nature taken to the nth degree. Guy mostly comes across as a comic foil, he works well in that role, and I like him more than I should, perhaps because the story clearly knows he’s a jerk.

Hal’s descent into the realm of villain led to the creation of Kyle Rayner, who was Green Lantern for much of the 1990s. Kyle is a down-on-his-luck feckless artist who is basically chosen by chance, while his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, is a successful photo-journalist. She comes across as the more interesting character in Kyle’s origin story.

Alas, we’d see little of Alex. She was destined to be the prototypical “women in refrigerator,” as she was literally killed and stuffed in a fridge in a tale that led to the naming of that trope.  The story with her murder isn’t included, and I’m not surprised, given its infamy. However, a story with an alternate universe version of Alex as a Green Lantern teaming up with Kyle is included, which made me happy until I read up on the end of the story and found out this Alex turned out to be a figment of Kyle’s imagination. Bummer.

So, yes, if you add Alex’s murder, the dated and sexist story of the first appearance of Star Sapphire, aka Carol Ferris (included here), and the fact that Jade, Alan’s daughter and his successor, isn’t even mentioned, and it’s clear the franchise has had its issues with women.

That doesn’t mean Kyle’s a bad character. He was the more sensitive Lantern, and he was later revealed to be biracial, though that fact isn’t much touched on anymore. Neither is the tale that created a deal of controversy at the time, one in which Kyle’s friend, a gay man, was beaten nearly to death by bigots.

In any case, Kyle soon took a backseat, like Alan, Guy, and John, as DC decided that Hal was their definitive Green Lantern. He was brought back to life, revealed to have been possessed by a big yellow fear monster, and made heroic once again. Hal’s returns serves as a good metaphor for the stop-and-start progressiveness of the whole Green Lantern property.

There’s a terrific black Green Lantern; he’s sidelined, and his girlfriend, one of the few female Green Lanterns, is murdered. Kyle, who is mixed-race, is pushed out of the headlining role by Hal. At one point in 2013, apparently oblivious to John’s popularity, DC planned to kill off Stewart, leading to an announced writer’s departure from the book. (Stewart wasn’t killed off.) DC even introduced new Lantern in 2012, Muslim-American Simon Baz. Sadly, Simon has been sparingly used.

Hal does have his positives, as showcased in the best story in the anthology, perhaps the definitive Hal story: “Flight,” by Geoff Johns and Darwyn Cooke. Green Lantern: A Celebration of 75 Years is a strong encapsulation of one of comics’ longest-running superheroes as much for what is included as what isn’t, and what that says about how society has changed over the years (or hasn’t, as the case may be). The universe offers much more to explore.

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