The Power and the Glory of Comics: A Review of “Green Lantern: 80th Anniversary”

Cover by Liam Sharp ©2020 DC Comics (used for review purposes only)

A Comics Column

by Patrick R. Burger

Comics are the very real inheritors of the pulp fiction legacy, and the first appearance of the original Green Lantern in 1940, four years after pulp fiction master Robert E. Howard’s death, owes a lot to the pulp fiction heritage in general and, I believe, to Howard’s signal success in creating larger-than-life super-heroic characters (essentially proto-super-heroes).  It seems self-evident that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (creators of Superman), Bob Kane (creator of Batman) and Martin Nodell, the creator of the original Green Lantern, were influenced by the pulps.  The supernatural-weird fiction pulp influence was apparent in the 1940 Green Lantern’s magical powers, as was the detective-crime fiction pulp heritage in the flavour of the stories.  With the 1959 re-boot of Green Lantern we were introduced to Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, but wooden art and a 10-year-old reading level, and the whites-only world that existed at that time in DC comics1 resisted the emotional resonance of the revolution in comics storytelling that was going on at Marvel at the same time.  But DC, and Green Lantern in particular, made up for lost time with the classic Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ game-changing relevance stories of the early seventies, especially with this classic sequence:

Green Lantern by Neal Adams ©1970 DC Comics (used for review purposes only)

Since then, Green Lantern comics have twinned a social conscience with the hallmark of the pulps and the comics that succeeded them — epic adventure and action.

Before dipping into the stories, a comment about the character2 and his (her and its) longevity is in order.  The interesting thing about the Green Lanterns, particularly Hal Jordan, is that their super-power is essentially willpower.  The Green Lantern power rings channel the willpower, but without willpower the rings can do little on their own.  While it is a trope of super-heroes (and the pulp fiction heroes they descend from) that their willpower allows them to overcome great obstacles, this is even more significant in Green Lantern stories.  Just as Robert E.Howard’s pulp heroes exhibit a Nietzschean will to power, the Green Lantern concept is essentially founded on that philosophy.

The 80th Anniversary celebration edition opens with a tale of the original Green Lantern from the 1940s, engineer Alan Scott, who survives a sabotage-induced rail disaster thanks to a mysterious green lantern.  The story requires knowledge of the original Green Lantern’s origin going in, as it is a sparse human-interest moment about Scott visiting the mother of the crash victim who pointed out the mysterious lantern to Scott before dying.  The mother’s speech — wherein she resents Scott for surviving while her son had to die — reveals, in perhaps a metaphoric way, that her dying son was the source of the light that saved Scott.  James Tynion IV’s writing is a bit abrupt, and Gary Frank’s art is somewhat static — but this nod to the original Green Lantern has dignity and gravitas.

“Last Will” (featuring Hal Jordan — for many of us the ‘real’ Green Lantern) is a powerful and dramatic piece where Green Lantern crash lands on a planet and his malfunctioning power ring cannot tell him where the desolate moon-scape-like place he has landed is.  To make matters worse, the ring only has enough energy to send three SOS messages.  Heartfelt calls to the Green Lantern Corps, Batman (who Green Lantern reveals is a role model to him) and to Jordan’s long-time love interest, Carol Ferris, precede the moment where his ring fails and can no longer protect him from the atmosphere.  …Which he discovers he can breathe!  It turns out he’s been in the Nevada desert all along and his Justice League of America buddies end up having a laugh at his expense.  Although the joke ending is a bit of a let-down, you totally buy the emotional lead-up to the joke-reveal — and only then do you start thinking of logical problems: the existence of some vegetation should have tipped Hal off, and an experienced space explorer should have been able to recognize the constellations as being what you’d see from Earth.  But writer Geoff Johns’ effort is still commendable while Ivan Reis’ art is the best in the whole collection, with his flawless anatomy and great perspectives.

Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) by Ivan Reis ©2020 DC Comics (used for review purposes only).

Of course, no Green Lantern anniversary issue could be without Green Lantern’s greatest enemy, and “The Meaning of Fear” captures Sinestro’s brilliance, cowardice and cruelty.  As he speaks to a dying Green Lantern about fear and willpower, Sinestro’s explanation about how his willpower is fuelled by his fear has a tragic logic that explains much in our world.  When the dying Green Lantern refuses to feel fear, Sinestro kills him, and here writer Cullen Bunn brilliantly uses a trope of Green Lantern stories: how the power ring of a dying Green Lantern will find the nearest worthy recipient.  The story ends with Sinestro taking off into space after the ring and we understand now that he has been killing every rookie recipient of that ring before they can amass the experience needed to defeat someone like Sinestro.  Doug Mahnke’s feathery art style leads to some beautiful panels but his anatomy does not have the perfection and robustness of Reis’ — although his layouts are quite powerful.

The next story was a treat for those of us who bought Green Lantern comics in the 70s, for it teamed the legendary writer Denny O’Neil with another DC great, artist Mike Grell.  Touted as O’Neil’s last story for DC, “Time Alone” revisits the early 70s Green Lantern and Green Arrow on their on-the-road discovering of America.  For a time in the mid-70s it looked like Grell would be the artistic inheritor of Neal Adams: despite occasional issues with anatomy and perspective, his art was dynamic, sexy and often hit the bullseye.  O’Neil’s farewell story captures the hippie flavour of the early 70s Green Lantern stories by foregrounding Green Lantern’s reading of Walden by Thoreau, while Grell provides some nice layouts (and a tribute to the 1969 Mercury Cougar), but anatomy issues make one cringe from time to time (especially in comparison to Reis and Mahnke).

“Legacy”, a story featuring Kyle Rayner, the fourth human to be given a Green Lantern power ring, is a solid, bit run-of-the-mill story with a teamwork message.  The script by Ron Marz reminds Green Lantern fans of Kyle Rayner’s pivotal role in upholding justice when the Green Lantern Corps temporarily disbanded, and Darryl Banks’ art is capable, with dynamic lay-outs, but with some stiffness in characters’ bodies and faces.  The teamwork message is undercut by the fact that Rayner wills his ring to duplicate the other human Green Lanterns to help him overcome his foe.  While this is revealing of Rayner’s thoughts on teamwork, there is, in fact, no real teamwork, so the story falters on that level.

“Heart of the Corps” is a story that features the rough-housing, wise-cracking Guy Gardner — the third human to receive a power ring — and a Green Lantern Corps favourite, Kilowog.  This Peter J. Tomasi tale is a classic DC birthday surprise story, with the kicker being that — after Guy Gardner has led the morose Kilowog through some Dionysian fighting — Kilowog’s birthday is the same day that his planet was destroyed.  The cheesiness of a birthday story is overcome by the magnitude of the gesture and its healing intention, and Fernando Pasarin’s art is cosmic and impressive.

Of all the Lanterns, John Stewart — the black Green Lantern created by Denny O’Neil as a corrective to the whites-only DC world up until the late 60s — gets the shortest shrift by being featured (alongside Hawk Girl) in a story by hip comic creators Charlotte (Fullerton) McDuffie and Chriscross.  The stylized retro-kind of art seems very cool at first glance, but the story is also retro to the 10 year-old-aimed, wooden story-telling of the early 60s.  Sparse, corny and stilted dialogue mars the story, as does an artistic lapse at the climax where the reader doesn’t really get what is happening.  The least impressive story of the collection.

The next story, “Four” is one of the most powerful of the collection as it flash-forwards to Hal Jordan, John Stewart and Kyle Rayner meeting up as old men to joke and reminisce, especially about Guy Gardner and his self-sacrificing style of heroism.  Dialogue between the ex-Lanterns and the waitress make the reader think that Guy Gardner is simply late, like every year, but the final panel has the three gathered before Gardner’s tombstone.  It is a nice homage to the Guy Gardner character, written by Robert Venditti, and Rafa Sandoval’s art varies between impressive and basic.

The next story features the sixth human Green Lantern, Jessica Cruz.  The story begins with Cruz battling an anxiety attack, thus addressing a real concern of modern life.  Cruz reveals the horrific origin of her anxiety and — as befitting the great tradition of the Green Lanterns — she is able to call on her willpower to overcome her anxiety and her monstrous foe.  She helps, and is helped by, her partner Green Lantern, the fifth human with a power ring, Simon Baz.  Writer Mariko Tamaki does a fine job humanizing the cosmic willpower theme at the core of Green Lantern stories, while artist Mirka Andolfo shines in depicting Cruz as both athletic and waif-like.

Green Lantern (Jessica Cruz) by Mirka Adolfo
© 2020 DC Comics (used for review purposes

The final story, “Homegrown Hero”, features the afore-mentioned Simon Baz.  This Muslim character’s very existence shows DC addressing the social reality of American (and North American) life, and writer Sina Grace makes sure we see him interacting with with his hijab-wearing aunt and sister in the normalcy of day-to-day life.  DC walks an interesting line with this character as he is frequently partnered with Jessica Cruz, whose skin-tight Lantern garb expresses the inherent sexiness of costumed female super-heroes (which aesthetic has for decades now been worn by women throughout the western world).  That Baz can accept and co-exist with both liberal western and orthodox Muslim social conventions is a positive signal that DC is emitting with this character.  Ramon Villalobos’ art is capable and has a bit of a European-Heavy Metal feel and it brings across the seediness of the terrorist attempts by white supremacists to shoot up a Muslim art exhibit and a mosque.  Baz’ speech to one of the terrorists is reminiscent of the game-changing speech of the black man in the early 70s Green Lantern cited above: “This ring is a lot like my faith.  I fight for compassion.  It doesn’t make me the judge — that’s HIS job.  Being a Lantern, a Muslim — it’s about oneness.”

Just as the pulps before them, comics embody an important social function.  Just as Robert E. Howard’s characters and stories pushed against societal norms — whether it was Solomon Kane allying himself with an African shaman, or Conan accepting the authority of the female pirate captain Bêlit — we see that same socially-progressive agenda in the Green Lantern comics.  Each of the stories in this Green Lantern: 80th Anniversary special carries this tradition forward.  The highlighting of willpower in the concept behind the Green Lantern characters is a message about how human will can make change for the better.  In a world where nature is being destroyed at a catastrophic rate due to human will, it will take an enormous act of willpower to change course and protect the planet instead of destroying it.

Finally, this collection has something for everyone.  For the Green Lantern newbie, this is a perfect introduction to the universe of characters and stories that have emerged from the 80 year tradition of Green Lantern.  For the current up-to-date reader, this is a celebration of all that is Lantern in comics today.  And for the older reader who grew up with Green Lantern in the 60s, 70s and 80s, it is a wonderful refresher on what has gone before and where the concept is going today.

1In street scenes in Gotham City, Metropolis or Central City all the citizens were depicted as white; in other words, black Americans simply did not exist in the DC comics world.

2Green Lantern is a misleading term, as there are 7,500 Green Lanterns in the universe and no less than six on Earth!

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