Saturday, May 21, 2011

Green Lantern and Me

(Part 1 in a series)

GREEN LANTERN: the movie opens in four weeks. I've been waiting over 30 years for this film. When I first saw Star Wars in 1977, I thought, "Wow. If they can do that, then they can make a decent Green Lantern movie." Even though I'm going to see it with unrealistically high expectations, I don't think I'll be disappointed.

Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) and I both arrived into the world in the same month back in 1959. Almost since I could read, he's been my favorite superhero. When I was a little kid, fascinated by the all the colorful costumes and exciting super-powers, GL was unique. In a sea of bright red, blue, and yellow capes and masks, his simple, sleek green-and-black uniform made him stand out visually. And in a crowd of muscle men, rubber men, fish-men, bird-men, acrobats, gadgeteers, speedsters, archers, shapeshifters, and size-changers, his power to solidify light into any object he could imagine was different from anything else out there.

That power was a big reason that the Green Lantern concept appealed to me. I was a quiet kid. I never got into any physical fights. My fantasies never involved smashing things, or beating people up. Green Lantern's power was such that he never had to beat anyone up. He could simply restrain his opponents by imagining a big green birdcage or a puddle of green glue. His was a power that was creative and imaginative, not destructive.

Unfortunately, Green Lantern in the 1960s was drawn by Gil Kane. I say "unfortunately" ironically, since Gil Kane was one of the greatest comic book artists of that decade, arguably of all time, and one of my own personal favorites. But Kane was known for drawing dynamic fist-fight scenes, and the writers (particularly from 1966 on) chose to exploit that by coming up with whatever reasons they could to prevent Green Lantern from using his power ring, so Kane could draw as many knock-down drag-out brawls as possible. That made many of Green Lantern's solo stories particularly dull to me. Oddly, Green Lantern tended to rely on his fists way more often than Superman, the most musclebound hero of them all.

I preferred seeing Green Lantern in the Justice League of America comic book. There, among mega-powered heroes like Superman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman, he exercised his imagination to the utmost. More often than not, GL was the hero who would save the day by the story's end. That's another reason he appealed to me. While all superheroes rescue ordinary people, GL was the one who rescued other superheroes.

I've always been something of a science and science fiction geek as well as a comics fan, and Green Lantern was one of the most science-fiction oriented superhero comics of the '60s. That isn't surprising, because editor Julius Schwartz and writers John Broome and Gardner Fox all came to comics from a background in science fiction publishing. Green Lantern wasn't an independent agent like most superheroes. he was a member of a vast intergalactic police force, all armed with identical power rings. His adventures routinely took him to far-off planets and other time periods. He often teamed up with other Green Lanterns from alien races, many of which weren't even remotely humanoid. They all reported to the Guardians of the Universe, a council of benevolent, immortal, blue-skinned beings who all looked identical. (Kane, who loved to include caricatures in his work, based their features on Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. For the record, Kane based Hal Jordan's face on actor Paul Newman, and girlfriend Carol Ferris on Elizabeth Taylor.) Schwartz, recognizing that the typical Green Lantern reader was a bit more scholarly that the average comic book reader, liked to include scientific facts and trivia in the magazine, both within the stories and in separate fun-facts pages.

My first Green Lantern issue: #45 (June, 1966)
When I got a little older, I noticed something about the early stories that had gone over my head as a kid. Green Lantern's backstory was actually a slightly twisted version of the Superman legend. Superman was an alien who gained super-powers after his spaceship crashed on Earth; Green Lantern was given a power ring by an alien whose spaceship crashed on Earth. Superman was secretly Clark Kent, a meek, mild-mannered newspaper reporter; Green Lantern was secretly Hal Jordan, a fearless and sometimes reckless jet pilot. Clark Kent's young co-worker, cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, was Superman's pal, but didn't know his true identity; Hal Jordan's young co-worker, airplane mechanic Thomas Kalmaku, was Green Lantern's pal, and shared his secrets. Clark Kent's co-worker, Lois Lane, was in love with Superman; Hal Jordan's boss, Carol Ferris, was in love with Green Lantern. Superman's vulnerability was kryptonite, a relatively rare substance that made him weak and could eventually kill him; Green Lantern's vulnerability was yellow, a relatively common color that repelled his green beam, but otherwise had no effect on him.

Best of all, reporter Lois Lane believed that Clark Kent was really Superman, but all her attempts to prove it backfired on her; while reporter Sue Williams believed that Jim Jordan, Hal's younger brother, was really Green Lantern, but all his attempts to disprove it backfired on him. There were only a few Jordan Brothers stories, but they were a lot of fun. Jim and Sue eventually got married and had children, but nothing would shake Sue's conviction that she was secretly married to Green Lantern.

Many writers and artists have put their mark on Green Lantern in the past fifty years. Many of them have tried to reinvent the character to fit their own distinct ideas about what he should be. Along with the standard hero-versus-villain fights, Green Lantern has been used to tell stories of grand space adventure, Cold War-era espionage, social commentary, soap opera, religious allegory, and satire. Hal Jordan has had about a half dozen changes of career, and about a dozen different girlfriends. He's been exiled from Earth, come back, quit the Green Lantern Corps, rejoined, destroyed the Corps (twice), turned super-villain, redeemed himself, died, and come back to life. Through it all, Green Lantern (in one form or another) has survived.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series of posts on the history of Green Lantern. If you're going to see the movie but aren't too familiar with the character, you may want to drop by for a crash course. Even if you're a longtime GL fan, you may learn a fact or two that you didn't know. Stay tuned.

(Click here for the next chapter.)

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