In brightest day….

When I was a kid, I collected comic books. As for many kids my age, Batman was the initial draw. Between the Adam West show (on constant reruns), the Tim Burton movie, and especially the excellent animated series, Batman was the most familiar and appealing character. And hence for me, the battle between Marvel and DC was over before it began: the one with Batman. My dad had been a Marvel fan growing up, but when pressed for DC options, he mentioned that he liked Green Lantern and Flash, especially when they teamed up. So one fine day, I picked up a copy of Green Lantern #4, an early installment in a newly relaunched title. I liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor, but what really grabbed me when I read — and repeatedly reread — this issue was a sense of history. Here was a hero who had seen enough and no longer wanted to be a hero. But despite his efforts to live as a carefree vagabond, he kept getting pulled back in — by his fellow members of the once-great Green Lantern Corps, by the last of the Guardians of the Universe, and specifically by a road trip he took many a year ago….

I was absolutely hooked. I needed to know everything. From this one issue, closely studied, I was able to discern that there was a whole corps (a new word for me, mentally pronounced “corpse”) of these Green Lanterns. Provided they charge their power rings once every 24 hours, they can do anything they can imagine — they can fly, they can shave themselves (as Hal does in the following frame), they can create a giant green fist to punch the bad guys…. Using this awesome weapon, they had once maintained order throughout the galaxy but were now reduced to three (coincidentally all human), one of whom is trying to disown his past (Hal Jordan), one of whom is tormented by guilt and loss (John Stewart), and one of whom is a braindead thug (Guy Gardner — quoting Hal Jordan’s description from issue #8). The Corps was run by the Guardians of the Galaxy, an immortal and seemingly all-wise alien race who suffered a loss of confidence and departed for another dimension. The final caretaker Guardian, nicknamed the Old Timer, had posed as a human and tagged along with Hal and his buddy Green Arrow on a journey to find America. And now he was going crazy from loneliness and using the cosmic energy that had once powered the Green Lantern Corps to abduct every city he’d ever visited across the galaxy to keep him company.

The image above depicts the first two frames of the first page of issue #4. It opens a bookend with the final page, where Hal will finally assume his destiny and recharge his ring while reciting his cheesy Green Lantern oath: “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight, let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!” The drama was effective enough for this particular ten-year-old, though even at the time it was clear it was never going to have the resonance of “Space: the final frontier…” More striking, though, was the opening where he simply counts down the time needed to charge — an immediately legible act for this young evangelical Christian, already being drilled with the dangers of simply “going through the motions.”

It’s a moment that haunts me still, for instance whenever I sit down and play piano more or less to make sure I haven’t forgotten how. There have been more and more moments like that since I’ve gotten older. During the worst part of the pandemic, there were days when it felt like there were nothing but. In Chicago at least, the shelter in place was followed and enforced, and we continued to live a very secluded existence until I returned to in-person teaching this fall. Through that long period of exile in my own home, I felt like I was simply keeping myself alive and employed, kicking the can down the road until real life began again. Has it begun again? Sadly, I don’t have any old friends engaged in intergalactic kidnapping rings, so I didn’t get quite the epiphany that Hal Jordan enjoyed. I still can’t tell.

Something within me keeps wanting to go backward rather than forward. It didn’t begin with the pandemic by any means. I’ve written before about my deep dive into my favorite games from the original Nintendo, back in the 80s. My dive back into comics started around the same time. I don’t remember what inspired me to stop into the comic book shop — maybe it was my birthday and I wanted to do something that was verifiably the very opposite of work? In any case, they had sitting on their shelf a collected edition of that first Green Lantern story arc that I jumped into the middle of. It must have been destiny — in all my visits since, I’ve never seen it again.

Though I had practically memorized issues 4-8, in which Hal learns of the Old Timer’s insane plan to kidnap the cities and teams up with his fellow Green Lanterns to stop him, I had never actually seen the first few issues or even looked for them. Though I admittedly can’t be fully objective, it still holds up for me — it’s not Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but it’s as strong a superhero story as I’ve ever read. And it set up an explosion of Green Lantern material. The old Guardians decided to relaunch the Green Lantern Corps and tasked Hal with recruiting new members. They also decided that although the Old Timer’s plan was insane, the idea of a “mosaic” planet bringing together species from all across the galaxy was worth running with and set John Stewart in charge of keeping the peace. This led to one of my favorite comics of all time, Green Lantern: Mosaic, which had much more “highbrow” ambitions — again, not Sandman, but a cut above the usual superhero fare. Perhaps due to its niche concept — and, this being the early 90s, the fact that the main character, John Stewart, is Black — it was never very successful, but I treasured every issue.

Once I had reread one of my foundational narratives, I wanted to dig back in — to find those issues of Mosaic that I missed, to continue those stories I had lost track of… and then to fill in the background (that epic road trip!)… and then to see where they took things since…. The upshot is that I have at least dipped into every era of Green Lantern’s storied history (aside from the “Golden Age” Green Lantern, who was a very different character who shared little other than the name). Even with all I’ve read, I will never run out — I doubt I’ve read even 20% of the comics that exist, even though I have a whole shelf full of graphic novels and have read dozens of other issues online.

And if I’m being honest, most of it is not very good. The original stories from the 60s largely make about as much sense as an Adam West Batman episode, except they’re not joking. The historic “road trip” with Green Arrow (get it, they’re both the same color!) addresses social issues in a super hackneyed and pedantic way. Entire decades go by where the story of Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps feels like little more than a “bloated soap opera” (as a letter to the editor once characterized it).

The only real bursts of creativity were “my” era, where Green Lantern was relaunched and rapidly expanded under the leadership of Gerard Jones, and in the mid-2000s, when Geoff Johns radically reimagined the character in a way that briefly made Green Lantern the most popular DC property. The writers are still running on Geoff Johns’ fumes, in my view, but he granted this second-tier character enough prestige and credibility that it served as a vehicle for the novelist N.K. Jemisin to try her hand at comic book writing (with the Far Sector series — highly recommended) and as comics auteur Grant Morrison’s last major project for DC (The Green Lantern: Seasons 1 and 2 — maybe less highly recommended). And my sense is that even the publication of reprint editions of old GL comics has been determined by their relevance to Geoff Johns’ stories.

What these two moments of creativity had in common was that they provided a genuinely fresh start, without discarding the past. As I’ve said before, the Gerard Jones material wove together the decline of the Corps (the last thing to happen in the mainline series), the torments of John Stewart (which had largely taken place after the original series was cancelled), and the Green Lantern/Green Arrow road trip (at the time, the most famous and prestigious GL story), to create a radically new concept — the Mosaic planet. Geoff Johns made more radical changes, drawing on stories of other characters with Green Lantern-like powers in order to claim that there was a whole spectrum of power rings powered by different emotions. He even managed to simultaneously explain and get rid of the silliest weakness in comic book history — the GL power rings’ inability to affect anything yellow in color. While the multi-color thing at first seemed self-indulgent, Johns won me over, and I ultimately read through his entire run a second time.

Sadly, though, “my” Green Lantern era has largely been a dead letter. Part of the reason may be that Gerard Jones was ultimately convicted of possession of child pornography. That happened long after he was writing the comics I loved, thankfully, and I haven’t detected any pervy or child-molesting themes in his writing — but it still makes me feel weird.

Even before that terrible event, though, the powers that be at DC made the decision to blow up everything he built. They brought in new writers who turned Hal Jordan into a villain. Driven mad by the destruction of his home town, he attacks his fellow Green Lanterns, stealing their rings as he goes, until he reaches the Guardians’ home planet of Oa and basically destroys everything. Only one Guardian survives, and gives one last ring to a seemingly random young man named Kyle Rayner, a struggling artist just trying to get by with his girlfriend. For a long time, I resisted dipping into this realm of Green Lantern, because I resented that it had overwritten everything I enjoyed as a kid — but when I finally read it, I was pleasantly surprised by the new character and especially the dynamic they set up with the girlfriend. So, of course, one day Kyle comes home to find that a villain has randomly murdered her and stuffed her in the fridge, a move so insanely gratuitous that it has become a minor pop culture trope.

Better luck next time, I guess! And for some reason, there will always be a next time, because no comic book character ever dies and no plot point is ever forgotten. This accounts for the addictive quality of comic books as well as the fatigue and even the sense that you’re being taken advantage of — that this is all just a scam to get you to buy more and more comic books until your house is crammed with nothing but comic books from floor to ceiling and even then you won’t know everything because they’re still churning out more and more every month. And I picked a relatively easy one! If I had remained a devoted Batman fan, I would have needed to devote my entire adult life to hitting even 20% of the extant stories, much less keeping up with the half-dozen or more ongoing series.

That’s what makes comic books arguably the most American of narrative artforms. At its worst, it feels like a scam, yet it provides moments of undeniable joy. Even aside from the intrinsic value of the stories — and the writing has genuinely gotten better on average over the decades — there is also the thrill of recognition when they reward your diligence by making some forgotten plot point the basis of a new story. That goes even for my problematic fave, Gerard Jones’s Mosaic, which ended with the seemingly crazy move of promoting John Stewart to be a Guardian of the Universe (i.e., basically transmuting him into a god). A few months later, Hal Jordan blew everything up, and John Stewart’s elevation was unceremoniously undone in a single page of a little-read series (Darkstars #21, for the scholars out there). In the latest issues, however, the writers have actually dug deep into the archive and made that bizarre plot point — in a forgotten series, penned by a writer who was probably spiteful about having to end his story so abruptly — newly relevant.

I won’t lie — I was thrilled to learn of this, filled with the innocent joy of a kid whose wasted allowance is finally paying off. That’s the magic of comic books: every frame is the narrow gate through which your favorite half-forgotten plot point might enter, resurrected and redeemed at last.