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.)

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