Mar 10, 2011

Why Green Lantern Isn't As Important As You Might Think He Is

Welcome to a new installment of Reclaiming History, an ongoing series where the Comics Cube! tries to balance out what the history books say and what actually happened! Click here for the archive!

So there's been a lot of talk lately about Green Lantern, mainly because Ryan Reynolds is playing him in a movie. Green Lantern is also the hottest character in comics right now, being the central character in the last big DC event, BLACKEST NIGHT. And of course, since he's GREEN LANTERN, he sounds like a very important character. What you may not realize is that he's not as important as you probably think he is.

To be clear, we're talking about Hal Jordan and not any other Green Lantern:

Hal Jordan is arguably the most popular Green Lantern, and after the movie with Ryan Reynolds comes out this year, he will inarguably be the most popular Green Lantern.

For the uninitiated, Hal Jordan was created in October 1959, the beginning of the Silver Age of Comics. He was part of the resurgence of superheroes of that time, was made a founding and central member of the Justice League. He also starred in some of the most historically important stories in comics, like this one by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams:

Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, is a cultural icon. But how big is he as a cultural icon?

One of the important things to remember is that Hal Jordan was not the first Green Lantern. That would have to be my man, Alan Scott, created by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell, from the Golden Age of Comics.

Hal Jordan was created to utilize the name "Green Lantern" at a time when Alan Scott as a character was no longer being published. They were doing this because four years before he even debuted, DC relaunched a new character based on the original Flash:

And they gave us Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, the character who would be credited as being the one who ushered in the Silver Age of Comics. In fact, this cover is known across many comics historians' circles as the one that launched the Silver Age:

So in that sense, Hal Jordan was not a trailblazer by any means.

He would then be a founding member of the Justice League of America! Truly an honored collection of superheroes. A cursory glance at them would say that, truly, being a founding member of the Justice League places you in the elite. But that's where history plays with you. We say that now, in hindsight. But can we look at the members of the Justice League when it was founded?

Not only are Superman and Batman SO downplayed so as to emphasize the less popular characters that they don't even appear on the cover, but there are two characters in this cover who never even had a comic of their own until AFTER they were longtime members of the JLA. In fact, both Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter were back-up features for different magazines prior to this, and this is actually Aquaman's FIRST COVER APPEARANCE EVER in what was then almost twenty years of existence. Historically speaking, Green Lantern is the third most important character on this cover (anyone who tries to downplay Wonder Woman's significance in history is a sexist). Factor in the other two founders, and he's bumped down to number 5. And the only thing he has over the other two? The fact that he had his own magazine. Nothing of historical note or importance. He just had his own magazine.

And that magazine was not even considered all that successful, because over ten years and 75 issues later, sales on GREEN LANTERN were dropping, that it was given a whole new "socially relevant" direction by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams:

In this series, Green Lantern was given the personality of an obedient cop, while Green Arrow is the liberal, socially-minded hippie who questions every order. And in fact, in these stories, it's Green Arrow who is the driving force behind the story. I hesitate to say it, because I can't stand Oliver Queen as a character, but the guy who really carried these stories in terms of instigating action and reaction was Green Arrow.

The Green Lantern name did play into something historically important and socially relevant during the O'Neil/Adams era: the introduction of John Stewart, the first prominent black superhero without the word "black" in his name (the Black Panther was the first prominent black superhero), and the first prominent African-American superhero, period:

In fact, it could be easily argued that in terms of social relevance, John Stewart far outweighs Hal Jordan — but we'll get to that.

The O'Neil/Adams run was critically acclaimed but was still not financially successful. And pretty soon, Hal Jordan was a back-up feature in — you guessed it — THE FLASH. He would come back years later with another magazine, still at first featuring Green Arrow then switching to focusing on the Green Lantern Corps — meaning that sometimes Hal Jordan wouldn't even show up — and was one of the superheroes on the SUPER FRIENDS, which surely means that Green Lantern is one of the most important cultural icons ever, what with its membership being composed of Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and other icons.

On second thought, with some of those "icons" being Black Vulcan, Apache Chief, Samurai, and the Wonder Twins, this logic might not work. I would even argue that the fifth biggest star on this show was Aquaman, and only because he pretty much became a joke due to this show.

When DC Comics hit its 50th Anniversary in 1986, they decided to do a big companywide event. You may have heard of it. It's called CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. It was, among other things, a celebration of DC's history, and it had a lot of the characters from DC's catalog, from Anthro, the first boy, to Kamandi, the last. The most prominent guy not in it? Hal Jordan.

Look, here's the cover of the Absolute Edition. (I have this on my wall.) It has every character who starred in Crisis. It's by George Perez and Alex Ross. You'll find a ton of Green Lanterns in there — including John Stewart and Alan Scott. But you won't find Hal Jordan.

Be warned. This is huge. Click to embiggen.

I should point out that the big climax for this story is the death of Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash. The symbolism is that this is a new beginning for DC, as we kill off the symbol of the Silver Age. Barry Allen gets that kind of focus, as he is that important a symbol, and Hal Jordan doesn't get a single appearance — nor once is even mentioned by name. (He's referred to indirectly in a conversation between Alan Scott and John Stewart.)

In the 90s, Hal Jordan was brought back again, and they tried making him relevant, by giving him — GASP — graying temples! I'm unsure of the philosophy behind that boneheaded move, but when that didn't work, they turned him into the EVIL PARALLAX!

The Green Lantern ring was then given to a new character, artist Kyle Rayner, who more fit the Spider-Man template of a relatable, down-to-earth superhero than anything DC was more known for.

Around this time, Hal Jordan was responsible for the closest thing you could say was historically important. A fan club called "Hal's Emerald Advancement Team" or HEAT was formed, all for the sole reason of reinstating Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. While this may seem like the ultimate act of desperate fanboyism that has given comic books its stigma, HEAT did do some good things, such as offer a scholarship in the name of Gil Kane. But still, so far, this is as close as it gets to Hal Jordan actually being relevant to comics history in a major way.

In fact, let's look at the way a couple of generations just view the DC Universe: via the Paul Dini/Bruce Timm/Alan Burnett animated series. In the SUPERMAN show, one Green Lantern shows up. That Green Lantern has a similar origin to Hal and has brown hair like Hal, but he's an artist, and his name? Kyle Rayner.

More significantly, in the JUSTICE LEAGUE/JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED series, Green Lantern had a very very prominent role, being a key figure in many key episodes. That Green Lantern, however? John Stewart.

This is actually how an entire generation views the Green Lantern. Google "Isn't Green Lantern black" and you'll see a bunch of discussions from people who are confused as to why a white guy is playing Green Lantern. Like I said, it could easily be argued that in terms of history and relevance, John Stewart is more important than Hal Jordan.

Hal Jordan was killed, revived, then turned good again by Geoff Johns in 2005. Since then, his profile's constantly risen, and he's been the central figure of the DC Universe, most notably in BLACKEST NIGHT.

Given all that and with a new movie coming out, this is the most historically important Hal Jordan has ever been.

Of course, when you look at the fact that Hal's latest movie is just the latest in a trend and just how many people are actually reading comics today (not a lot, if there is still a good amount of the population wondering why Green Lantern isn't black), I think "the most historically important Hal Jordan has ever been" still amounts to maybe a page in the unwritten book of complete comics history.

These Hal Jordan stories are really good, though:


Matthew said...

While I am a huge GL fan, I can fully agreed that Hal was not that important to the history of DC comics. The Justice League was originally created to feature heroes who did not headline their own books (hence the reduced role for Batman and Superman), so Hal was picked because he wasn't popular. I do remember when reading Crisis that off hand reference to Hal off patrolling space or something.

That being said, he has become important only recently. However, I would like to de-emphasize him after Brightest Day is over so we can go back to good stories instead of event after event after event.

Duy Tano said...

Yep, I think it's important that people distinguish "historically important" from "actually good." I can just imagine how many GL fans will brand me as a hater upon reading this article.

In CRISIS, he was "retired." He unretired shortly after, debuting his graying temples and all.

I like Hal a lot and I'm happy he has a more prominent role these days. I would, like you, like anyone with a prominent role these days to have not-so-prominent roles in the future and we can get back to actual stories.

El Lass said...

My favorite of the GL books was Green Lantern: Mosaic. John Stewart was well written in that role.
No way Hal Jordan could pull that off.
I grew up with Hal Jordan, but always preferred Alan Scott.
I was very disappointed when I found out it wasn't John Stewart in the film version. As bad as the movie was, maybe that was a good thing. A reboot/apology film with Stewart would be nice.

Bob Buethe said...

"The Justice League was originally created to feature heroes who did not headline their own books (hence the reduced role for Batman and Superman)"

Not quite true. The purpose of the Justice Society was to feature heroes who did not have their own titles, and those who subsequently gained their own books (Flash and Green Lantern) left the JSA. Julie Schwartz has stated in several interviews that his intent with the JLA was to include all the superheroes that DC was publishing at the time. He played down Superman and Batman at the request of their editors (Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff) who were afraid that too much exposure for those characters would cut into sales of their own magazines; but the publisher soon overruled them. Schwartz also forgot about Green Arrow, but rectified that by having GA join in JLA #4.

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