Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Green Lantern: the 1950s

(Part 3 in a series -- click here for Part 1.)
The comic book superheroes that were so popular in the 1940s didn’t fare as well in the fifties. By 1951, most of DC’s superheroes had been cancelled. The only ones that hung on were Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and a few minor characters that appeared as back-up features in their magazines. Captain Marvel, published by Fawcett Comics, held out till 1954, and Plastic Man, a Quality character, made it to 1956, but most of the heroes of the Golden Age vanished from the stands and faded from most people’s minds.

Other genres filled the comic book racks: Westerns, war, romance, comedy, horror, detective stories, animal stories, and so on. Since it was expensive and time-consuming to file the paperwork required by the US Postal Service to launch a new magazine, DC created a title called Showcase, in which they could test out new ideas before giving them their own series. In 1956, editor Julius Schwartz decided that enough time had passed to give superheroes another try. Schwartz thought the current crop of comic book readers were too young to remember the heroes of ten years ago. He chose to bring back the Flash, a favorite of his and a strong seller in the forties. But instead of a mere revival, he and his staff created a new Flash, with the same name and powers (super-speed) but a new, modernized costume, origin story, and secret identity.
It took a while, but after four Showcase tryouts over two years, the new Flash proved to be a hit, and got his own comic book in 1959. A few months later, Julie Schwartz tried to do the same thing again, this time with Green Lantern.
But the fifties was a decade of science and technological wonders: atomic energy, television, space rockets, computers, and automatic home appliances. Magic lamps wouldn’t cut it with the new generation. Instead of bringing back the old Green Lantern, he and writer John Broome created a new version to appeal to science fiction fans.

“SOS Green Lantern” in Showcase #22 (October 1959) told the story of Abin Sur, an alien patrolman in a vast intergalactic peacekeeping organization, whose spacecraft had been damaged in a radiation storm, forcing him to crash-land on Earth. Dying, it was his final responsibility to choose a replacement from the local population. He chose Hal Jordan, a test pilot, for his fearlessness, honesty, and strong will. He gave Hal his uniform and Power Ring, and a Power Battery which must be used to recharge the ring once every 24 hours. Abin explained that the ring’s green beam had nearly unlimited power; but due to an odd impurity in the metal that formed the Battery, it had no effect on anything colored yellow. Hal accepted the responsibility as Abin Sur breathed his last. Hal donned the uniform and, using the ring, concealed Abin’s body and spaceship underneath a mountain. Wanting to keep his identity a secret from the public, Hal added a mask and called himself Green Lantern, after the lantern-like Power Battery.

The seemingly arbitrary weakness to yellow actually had a bit of reasoning behind it. First of all, in those early days, the writers of superhero stories wanted super-powered characters to be fairly uncommon, so super-villains were not yet in vogue. Most adversaries were common criminals, gangsters, and spies with no special powers. So, to keep the stories interesting, powerful heroes had to be given some sort of Achilles’ heel to give their opponents a fighting chance. The more powerful the hero, the more mundane the weakness had to be. Second, the choice of a color as opposed to a substance (like Alan Scott’s wood limitation, or Superman’s kryptonite) was more visual, so the reader could instantly identify what objects posed a threat to GL. Third, it made a certain awkward kind of sense from a scientific standpoint, since GL’s power was light-based, and color, to a physicist, is the property of reflecting specific wavelengths of light. And fourth, it was symbolic, as Hal was chosen for his bravery, and yellow, in American culture, is traditionally associated with cowardice.

One element retained from the forties Green Lantern was the oath. The new Green Lantern spoke the same words as the earlier version when recharging his ring with the lantern:

"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!"

Schwartz insisted that each Green Lantern story include the oath. Since comics are a silent medium, Schwartz believed that the charging of the ring and the speaking of the oath served the same purpose as a musical crescendo in a movie. It let the audience know that something significant was about to happen.

Some science fiction fans have noticed parallels between Green Lantern and the Lensmen series of novels by Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith, first serialized in Amazing Stories in 1934. The Lensmen of the Galactic Patrol were a corps of humans selected by aliens from the planet Arisia to defend the galaxy against the tyrannical Eddorians. They were each equipped with a Lens, a crystal that bonded itself to the arm of the owner and provided him with telepathic abilities. Julie Schwartz was a noted longtime science fiction fan, so the inspiration seems obvious; but Schwartz and Broome insisted that they were not familiar with Lensmen when they created the new Green Lantern.

Artist Gil Kane designed a uniform for Hal that was sleeker and far less garish than the outfit worn by Alan Scott. The new design was a simple green and black suit with lines that followed the musculature of the body, and no belt or cape to break the flow. White gloves were a peculiar addition, but somehow they worked. Penciled by Kane and inked by Joe Giella, the figure of Green Lantern seemed to glide gracefully through the air more skillfully than Superman.

In the other two stories in that Showcase issue, “Secret of the Flaming Spear” and “Menace of the Runaway Missile,” Hal thwarted saboteurs’ attacks on Ferris Aircraft, the manufacturer for which he tested jets. We met his girlfriend, Carol Ferris, the boss’s daughter. But when Carl Ferris announced that he was taking a two-year around-the-world vacation and leaving Carol in charge of the company, her relationship with Hal became strictly business – at least, until Carol met and fell for the mysterious, masked Green Lantern.

In Showcase #23, the science fiction element was more pronounced, as Green Lantern had his first offworld adventure. A mysterious telepathic voice from the Power Battery ordered him to the planet Venus, where he rescued a primitive tribe of humanoids threatened by pterodactyl-like creatures. Here Hal learned of another of his ring’s functions: the ability to translate languages. In the second story, Green Lantern was challenged by the Invisible Destroyer, an evil being of pure energy that sprang from the subconscious imagination of a famous atomic scientist.

The third and last Green Lantern Showcase issue contained “The Secret of the Black Museum,” another tale of spies and espionage, and “The Creature That Couldn’t Die,” a typical 1950s SF movie plot about a giant monster on a rampage, but with a twist ending.

At the end of that story, a note from the editor asked the readers to write in and tell him if they wanted to see more of Green Lantern. But while Julie waited for the reader responses to come in, he didn’t take the chance that GL would fade from their memories. Two months after Showcase #24 came out, its companion magazine, The Brave and the Bold, followed up with a three-issue tryout for the Justice League of America, a team consisting of all of DC’s superhero characters. Green Lantern joined forces with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter in B&B #28–30, to combat Starro the Conqueror (a giant starfish from space, inspired by a pulp science fiction story entitled Tyranno the Conqueror), Xotar the Weapons Master, and Amazo, an android with the combined powers of all the Justice Leaguers. Sales on all the tryouts must have been good, because in the summer of 1960, both Green Lantern and the Justice League of America were starring in their own magazines.

(Click here for the next chapter.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Green Lantern: the 1940s

(Part 2 in a series -- click here for Part 1.)
 Martin Nodell came to New York City from Philadelphia in the late 1930s with hopes of becoming an actor. He soon found out that his calling was not in the theatrical arts, but in graphic art. He got freelance work with comic book publishers, and hoped to eventually move into the more lucrative field of advertising.

In 1939, after doing a few humor-strip assignments for All-American (later DC) Comics, he asked editor Sheldon Mayer if he could get more steady work. Superman had debuted a year earlier in Action Comics, and had been a surprise hit. Mayer told Nodell that if he could come up with an original superhero character to rival Superman, then he could have a regular job drawing it.

On his commute home to Brooklyn, Nodell gave the matter much consideration. He was familiar with classical myths and legends, and wondered if he could use them as the basis for a modern-day hero. As he waited on the subway platform for his delayed train, he observed a worker on the tracks waving a red lantern, signaling to the conductor of the approaching train that there was some sort of obstruction on the tracks. After the problem was resolved, the worker waved a green lantern to indicate that all is safe.

The green lantern -- a sign that all is safe. The green lantern. Nodell liked the sound of those words. It brought to mind the story of Aladdin from 1,001 Arabian Nights -- the boy who had a magic lamp and a magic ring which put powerful genies at his command. The more he thought about it, the more he liked it.

Nodell wrote an origin story for his new character, and drew up some sample pages that he brought to Mayer. Mayer found the artwork a little rough, but thought the concept was a powerful one. He partnered Nodell with Batman writer Bill Finger, and together they reworked the story. Nodell, inspired by Aladdin, had named his hero "Alan Ladd." Finger thought this sounded too contrived, and changed the last name to "Scott." Neither of them realized at the time that there was a character actor named Alan Ladd who would become a big name in Hollywood in a couple of years.

The story told of Alan Scott, a young engineer who was the only survivor of a train crash when a bridge built by Alan's construction company collapsed. Alan was certain that the accident was an act of sabotage by a rival company, but had no proof. Absent-mindedly clutching a green train lantern, Alan felt faint and passed out, as the lantern began to glow brightly.

Alan then had a dream of a meteorite that crashed in ancient China and burned with a green flame, and a voice that spoke a prophecy of bringing death, life, and power. When the meteorite cooled, an old lamp maker forged an oil lamp from its metal. An angry mob, frightened that the lamp contained an evil power, killed the lamp maker and wrecked his shop. But the lamp glowed with a bright green flame, killing the mob and enacting first part of the prophecy.

The lamp passed through many hands, until it was found in a junk heap near a mental hospital. It was given to one of the patients, who had suffered a nervous breakdown and enjoyed doing metalwork as therapy. He reshaped the beaten old lamp into a modern railroad lantern. When he finished, the lantern flamed green once again, restoring the patient's sanity and giving him a new life. The second part of the prophecy had been fulfilled.

Now, a voice from the lantern told Alan, it was time for the third and final part of the prophecy to be realized. The lantern told Alan to make a ring from part of its metal. By touching the ring to the lantern once every 24 hours, he would have the power that was promised centuries ago. Alan did as he was told. With his newfound power ring, he forced a confession from the saboteurs, who thought him to be a ghost.

Realizing that he could do much good, he made himself a costume "so bizarre that once I am seen I will never be forgotten" and spoke a solemn vow: “And I shall shed my light over dark evil, for the dark things cannot stand the light… the light of the Green Lantern!”

Bizarre certainly was the word for Alan’s costume: a red puffy-sleeved shirt with a green-and-yellow lantern insignia on the chest, green tights, red boots, a wide brown leather belt, purple mask, and a high-collared purple cape with a light green lining. Clearly, fashion sense was not one of his powers.

But the powers he did have were many and varied. The green beam of the power ring enabled Green Lantern to fly, pass through walls, hypnotize people, melt steel, transmute matter (like turning guns into glass, or bullets into candy), and made him immune to metals. This last power was a clever addition on Finger’s part. It allowed Green Lantern to shrug off bullets and knives, but still made it possible for him to engage in down-and-dirty brawls. A wooden chair or ceramic vase could still knock him for a loop. Over the next several years, the “immunity to metals” gradually changed, so that by the mid-forties, his power beam had no effect on anything made of wood. His powers also evolved, and after the first few years, Alan had learned to use his power ring to form objects out of solid light, which responded to his will.

The first Green Lantern story appeared in All-American Comics #16, with the date of July 1940 on the cover. He appeared every month in All-American Comics, and proved popular enough to become a regular feature in Comics Cavalcade and as a member of the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics. He soon earned his own magazine, Green Lantern Quarterly, the fourth of only five DC superheroes in the 1940s to have a self-titled comic book. With issue #19 in 1946, the Green Lantern magazine changed from quarterly to bimonthly.

Alan Scott became an engineer for Apex Broadcasting in All-American #20, and was so charismatic that the station owner made him a radio announcer in Green Lantern Quarterly #2. He lived in Gotham City, just like Batman, though he never did cross paths with the Caped Crusader or any of his colorful villains. Green Lantern had his own rogues gallery, though, including the Sportsmaster; the Gambler; the immortal Vandal Savage; the Icicle; swamp monster Solomon Grundy, whose plant-like nature made him immune to the power ring; and the Harlequin, a woman who never actually committed any crimes, but built up a criminal reputation to attract the attention of the Green Lantern, the only man she considered her equal.

Green Lantern also picked up a sidekick: Doiby Dickles, a tough but dimwitted cab driver with a thick “Joisey” accent. Doiby (don’t call him “Derby” unless you want a black eye), who accidentally discovered Alan’s secret identity and helped him protect it, was based on character actor Ed Brophy. Doiby, with his beloved taxi, Goitrude (originally Esmeralda) was Alan Scott's unofficial chauffeur, and carried a green flare pistol to summon Green Lantern when an emergency arose.

Originally, Alan recharged his ring either silently or while reciting the oath mentioned above. In 1942, there must have been a communication breakdown among the writers, because during that year Alan spoke no fewer than six different oaths in various stories:

"Let the light of the lantern penetrate the dark places of ignorance and wrong,
setting all minds right and overthrowing all servants of evil!"

"I shed my light upon the darkness!
Evil has no place to hide itself!
Green Lantern goes forth to conquer!"

"My rays strike the darkest corner,
Banishing all wickedness!"

"Let all power and triumph be mine in whatever right I do!"

"The light of the Green Lantern pierces darkness and mystery,
And its radiance will strike at the heart of evil!"

"As the green rays strike forth into darkness,
So may all black evil be exposed and driven away!"

In the fall of 1943, when noted science fiction author Alfred Bester became the regular writer of the Green Lantern series, the oath took the form that has lasted practically unchanged to the present day:

"In brightest day, in darkest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power,
Green Lantern's light!"

This oath first appeared in Comic Cavalcade #4, All-American #53, and Green Lantern #9, all of which came out about the same month, making it hard to determine which was first. A few months later, the word “darkest” was changed to “blackest.” Though Bester is usually credited with creating this oath, he stated in an interview at the 1979 World Science Fiction Convention that it was already being used before he began writing Green Lantern.

The new writers were also apparently unfamiliar with Green Lantern’s origin story, too, or else they assumed that the readers of the early issues had forgotten it. All-American #70 and 74 told of Owen Cooley, a leprechaun from Ireland who caused much trouble for Green Lantern and Doiby. According to these stories, the magical green lamp and ring were given to Alan Scott by leprechauns, which we all now know wasn’t true.

By the late forties, the popularity of superheroes had waned. Readers were turning toward Western, war comics, horror, science fiction, and, notably, animal stories. Green Lantern acquired a pet: Streak the Wonder Dog, who soon became the star of the stories. Streak even upstaged his master on several covers shortly before the series was cancelled. This was not the end of Green Lantern, though, as we’ll see in the next chapter.

And what of Green Lantern’s creator Martin Nodell? In 1947, he left DC to work for Timely Comics on features including Captain America and the Human Torch. Not long after that, he left comic books for the advertising field, and in the 1960s created another iconic character which for many years was even more famous than GL: Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Nodell passed away in December, 2006, at the age of 91.

(Click here for the next chapter.)