Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern Finally Buried in the Light

There’s something stirring about Hal Jordan’s speech in the opening pages of the James Robinson-scripted Justice League: Cry for Justice. “You want a League”, Green Lantern Hal Jordan confronts Superman with, “I want justice”. The tension is built up exquisitely over the first seven pages of the book. Robinson doesn’t rely on action or external threats of any kind. And he barely even acknowledges the presence of Superman or rest of the Justice League who have gathered around the all-too-familiar JLA boardroom table.

Instead, there’s a slow-build in Hal’s dialogue. There’s a righteous anger in his voice; the entire League has just seen two of their own taken from them. And Hal like a master craftsperson carves out what it means for there to even be a Justice League. It’s that slow burn in Hal’s voice that just for a moment takes you back to the early 90s, when Hal Jordan became the villain Parallax.

“Emerald Twilight” was a singular moment in the history of Hal Jordan. The character had had one, maybe two, similarly far-reaching moments over the generation prior. One when the dream team of writer Denny o’Neill and artist Neal Adams “grounded” Hal, having him contend with social inequality of the 60s and 70s. Another was arguably Hal’s origin story, masterminded by the legendary Julie Schwarz.

O’Neill and Adams would bust wide open the languid torpor that comics had become in the 50s (Superman as homemaker, Batman’s camp of the Adam West TV show). Think of how radically different a show like The Wire would be contrasted with The Andy Griffith Show, and you’d have some idea of what O’Neill and Adams achieved with Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the context of the time. Schwarz’s reboot of 40s Green Lantern Alan Scott as an Atomic Age Chuck Yeager (Hal was an impulsive test-pilot for Ferris Air), ignited the postwar comics industry in what would come to be known as the Silver Age.

“Emerald Twilight” was something entirely different, something no less momentous. This was DC taking a major hero and turning him evil. In the days and weeks leading up to the groundbreaking storyarc, in issues of other heroes’ books as much as his own, Hal Jordan grew darker and angrier. These were cataclysmic times for DC. Superman had just been killed at the hands of Doomsday, four impostors appeared all claiming to be the Man of Steel. Batman’s Bruce Wayne had his back broken, forcing him to handle the Mantle of the Bat to the sociopathic Jean Paul Valley. And Wonder Woman’s Princess Diana found her title as Ambassador to the World of Men revoked only to be replaced by the borderline Artemis.

The fallout around Superman’s death would directly affect Hal Jordan, as a Superman impostor (Cyborg Superman Hank Henshaw) would detonate a bomb that would vaporize Coast City, Jordan’s home. This was the emotional trigger that eventually drove Jordan over the edge. Why wouldn’t the Guardians of the Universe, the immortal beings who founded the Green Lantern Corps to preserve order in the universe, give Jordan the power to recreate Coast City? Years of unresolved tension between Jordan and the Guardians erupted. Driven by grief and anger, Jordan went on to enter into combat with a slew of his fellow Lanterns; his aim was to confront the Guardians directly and take all the Emerald power from the Central Battery he needed to resurrect Coast City.

This quest would end tragically. The Guardians would offer the fallen Lantern Sinestro a ring in order stop Jordan (contextually, given the history, think of Nato enlisting Stalin to stop Mao). And Jordan would not only defeat Sinestro, but kill longtime recurring Lantern Kilowog and the Guardians themselves. He would claim the Emerald power from within the Central Battery and reemerge as Parallax. The Green Lantern Corps was ended. Only one ring remained, secreted away to earth where it would be wielded by Kyle Rayner. Parallax however, would reappear in the following summer’s crossover, “Zero Hour”, as its primary villain.

But if writer James Robinson’s Green Lantern Moment at the opening of Cry for Justice recollects yesterday’s Hal Jordan so vividly, it is because the Geoff Johns-scripted Green Lantern series that began in 2005 never quite sculpted out those kinds of moments.

Johns’ run on Green Lantern is probably at its most recognizable with Blackest Night. The Green Lantern storyarc that tied in with the 2010 DC megaevent crossover of the same name, saw DC superheroes fight a psychologically-driven battle against their deceased loved ones. Empowered by the Black Rings, these resurrected loved ones feed on the emotions of the living. It was a zombie/vampire tale like no other, but as a long-prophesied Green Lantern event (Blackest Night is mention in the Green Lantern oath) “Blackest Night” failed to meet expectations.

Johns had described a secret power in the DC Universe called the Emotional Spectrum. Green Energy that allowed the Green Lanterns to use their will to manifest their thoughts was just one kind of energy on this spectrum. All colors of the rainbow could manifest constructs, but each color was powered by a different emotion. To harness Blue, you had to wield hope, Orange manifested by avarice, Red by rage and the need for vengeance.

The Emotional Spectrum had been a revamp of a much older idea. It dated back to Sinestro’s fall from grace and his adopting of the Yellow Ring. In 2007 during the “Sinestro Corps War” storyarc, Sinestro would begin founding his own Corps, one powered by fear rather than the Green Lanterns’ will. Parallax, it would be discovered was not an evil, super-powered version of Hal Jordan, but the Fear Entity that powered the Yellow Rings. Jordan would be exonerated, he had simply been possessed by an evil spirit and was in no way responsible for the damage he had done as Parallax.

Over time Lanterns Kyle Rayner, John Stewart, Guy Gardner, the resurrected Kilowog and even Barry Allen’s the Flash would eventually be possessed by Parallax. Flooded by dramatic events, a reinvention of the Green Lantern high concept and unexpected plot twists, it seemed that Johns lost the core of Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. Not just because the work done in Johns’ series had diminished the singular moment of the 1990s (there was a way to reclaim Hal Jordan without reducing Parallax to nothing more than a head cold), but because earlier this year you and everything you know saw J. J. Abrams’ Super 8. And because that reminded you of why Steven Spielberg’s early movies like Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E. T. worked the magic they did.

Super 8 was a beautiful marriage between the staunch impulse to survive the craziness of the 70s with the crazy, Cold War paranoia of 50s Red Scare movies. But more than that, it was an essay in what made those early Spielbergs so powerful; the idea that there was something worth protecting. The real power of Close Encounters lies in Richard Dreyfuss being propelled by the frustrated middle class aspirations of his home life. Just as the real beauty in Super 8 lies with Joe Lamb pleaded for the safety of his hometown by reminding the alien that you can live on even after great sorrow. It was not that single moment, but every minute that came before that made Super 8 so powerful. The entire movie up until that point had been poem to the strange and powerful bonds that sometimes liberated, sometimes hurt but always held together the residents of Lillian, Ohio.

Just for the briefest moment there, back in 2005, Green Lantern held the promise of that same kind of magic. Hal had returned to Coast City, to the Air Force, to Earth and the Green Lantern Corps itself had returned. The Air Force’s Hangar 44 experiments on aliens and alien technology pointed to a longstanding entwining of human and alien, and Hal it seemed was just riding the crest of the most recent wave of this phenomenon.

In those early issues Hal fought against otherworldly death robots, alien bio-engineers intent on super-evolving humans to sell as instruments for interstellar terror, extraterrestrial love-goddesses who equated love with crystalline torpor. Back then Hal Jordan, and Green Lantern made the most beautiful kind of sense it had, arguably ever in its history in print.

In light of those stories, the series’ later focus on the goings-on of the Rainbow League seems a bitter pill to have to swallow. It’s hard not to think of how those stories could have been evolved and not think of Paul Auster’s comments in an interview with Brooklyn Rail. “It’s about the individual”, Auster says to critically acclaimed writer John Reed, “about the dignity and the importance of the individual. Once you start dealing in ideas that art too large or too abstract, you can’t make art that will touch anyone, and then it’s valueless… I believe my job as a writer is to stick to my guns and keep writing my little stories”.

The closing chapter of the Johns-run Green Lantern, Aftermath of the War of the Green Lanterns ends on an ambiguous image. An honor guard of Green Lanterns forms to bury fallen Lantern Mogo (a sentient planet that was the soul of the Green Lantern Corps) in the sun above Green Lantern homeworld Oa. As Mogo is given a viking funeral, a Green Lantern emblem forms at the center of the solar mass. Ironically, the green light is drowned out by the full spectrum of white light the sun is emitting.