Crashed Saucers and Contactees: UFOs and the Secret Origin of the Green Lantern
From Roswell to Aztec to Oa. The secret origin of Green Lantern, DC's science fiction superhero, is found among the crashed saucers and contactees of the 1950's UFO movement.
It was 1958 and comicbook superheroes were a thing of the past. Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman were still around, but just barely. Their stories were, for the most part, tired and unimaginative. Costumed heroes were just no longer needed after the hard work of the war was over, after the men and women in uniform became the men and women in business suits and cocktail dresses.
But that was changing and changing fast.
In 1956, DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz led writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino in the revitalization of the old second-string superhero, the Flash. Today we would call what they did a reboot. The 1940's Jay Garrick/Flash in the Mercury-style helmet was replaced by Barry Allen/Flash in a sleek red track suit and mask. Battles with two-bit mobsters were out and science fiction adventure was in.
It was a hit. The Silver Age of comicbooks had dawned.
In 1958, Schwartz, along with writer John Broome and artist Gil Kane, turned their attention to another old-fashioned hero from the past, the Green Lantern. The original character, Alan Scott, had a ridiculous costume–all red and yellow and green and purple. He was, when he premiered in 1940, an updated version of Aladdin, his magic railroad lantern replacing Aladdin's mystical oil lamp.
Schwartz wanted something different for the new character. He wanted a hero, not steeped in the classic tales of old but built out of something new and modern. Like the Flash, the Green Lantern would have a new origin constructed from the DNA of science fiction. His powers would not come from ancient magic but from outer space, the new horizon, the final frontier.
In turning Green Lantern from a mystical hero of the past into a galactic hero for the future, Schwartz was clearly returning the character to the roots of the superhero. After all, the first and most popular superhero, Superman, was the last survivor of a dying world, a strange visitor from another planet. But Schwartz wasn’t just thinking about making Green Lantern more like Superman; he was thinking about making Green Lantern more relevant for the present at a time when the space race was underway and people everywhere were looking to the stars.
It’s clear that science fiction was something that Schwartz knew very well. Way back in the 30's he co-founded one of the very first science fiction fanzines. He went on to be the literary agent for a wealth of accomplished science fiction writers. He knew the genre, loved the genre, helped to build the genre; he believed that the future of publishing was in publishing the future.
Much has been made about the fact that Green Lantern and the Green Lantern Corps bear a striking resemblance to the pulp science fiction stories of E.E. "Doc" Smith. His Lensman series featured a Galactic Patrol of heroes who worked wonders with powerful lenses activated by the psychic- and will-powers of their wearers. Originally published serially beginning in the 30's, the stories were republished in book form in the 50's. Clearly, much of Lensman DNA found its way into the new Green Lantern. (And, for that matter, into both Star Trek and Star Wars.)
It has always seemed to me that Schwartz, Broome and Kane were drawing upon other sources for their new hero, however, namely sources more closely associated with the UFO movement than with the literary genre of science fiction. Schwartz must have been as intimately familiar with the UFO scene as he was with science fiction. After all, he was both the business associate and friend of Ray Palmer, the man who introduced the world to the Shaver Mystery, itself a precursor to the flying saucer phenomenon, and who went on to publish Fate Magazine, an early popularizer of flying saucer sightings. As a matter of fact, when Schwartz turned his attention to rebooting another Golden Age hero, he named the new character after his old friend. Ray Palmer was the secret identity of the new Atom.
(Green Lantern was not the first attempt to attempt to capitalize on flying saucers in an effort to revivify superheroes. That distinction probably belongs to Atlas Comics who included a traditional flying disc on the cover of the first issue of Marvel Boy back in 1950. Marvel Boy was clearly an attempt, though mostly unsuccessful, to add more science fiction and flying saucers to the Superman formula.)
The origin story of the Silver Age Green Lantern looks remarkably like the kind of accounts that UFO believers were reporting. Indeed, the origin of the Green Lantern includes two of the most popular tropes of UFO folklore: the story of the flying saucer crash and the story of contact with a representative of an interplanetary civilization.
When we think of UFO crash stories today, we, of course, think first of Roswell. The Roswell story was just a flash in the pan, however, in 1947. The story broke about the discovery of some unknown materials on a farm in New Mexico, a plausible and mundane explanation was offered, and people moved on. The Roswell story didn’t come to life until the 80's and 90's when the bare bones of the original tale were padded with stories of real wreckage and alien bodies and government conspiracies.
The story that would have been most familiar to Schwartz in 1958 was not the story of a crashed saucer in Roswell, New Mexico but the story of a crash near the New Mexico town of Aztec. The Aztec story was first told in 1950 by writer Frank Scully, whose name would later serve as the inspiration for one of the main characters on TV's The X-Files. Scully's book, Behind the Flying Saucers, contained all the elements that would later be associated with the Roswell story.
Scully's account of the Aztec crash is based on a story told to him by a man identified under the pseudonym of "Dr. Gee." Dr. Gee described a disabled craft, a broken porthole, strange technology, government scientists who break everything apart and box it up for shipment to some unknown location, and the bodies of 16 dead extraterrestrials. Scully described everything in breathless prose. The actions of the scientists who were investigating the crash read more like the antics of amateurs than of highly trained specialists. It is all very odd.
The whole story was shown to be a hoax in the September 1952 issues of True. Dr. Gee was identified, not as a scientist, but as a hardware store owner who was later convicted of selling bogus oil-finding equipment that he claimed was based on technology acquired from the crashed spaceship. Phony story or not, however, the elements of the tale would live on in flying saucer lore, being repeated time and again in a variety of forms until finally coming to be associated with that other New Mexico town.
I suspect that the creators of the new Green Lantern were drawing upon this folklore when they constructed the origin story for their hero. In the character's first adventure, in Showcase Presents #22, the story opens upon the wreckage of an alien craft and its dying pilot, the extraterrestrial Abin Sur. The location is only identified as "a desolate spot in the southwest U.S.A." Later, in the first issue of the hero's own comic, the story is retold and the location of the craft is described as "in the arid southwest."
In the original Green Lantern story, the new hero follows Abin Sur's orders and disposes of all the evidence of the crash, so the military and its scientists have no chance to examine the spaceship, poke around its control panels, and box it up for shipment to some secret military base. But the other elements of the story are clearly there: a spaceship crashes in the desert of the American southwest; the extraterrestrial pilot is killed in the accident; strange and powerful technology falls into the hands of a human. In the case of Aztec this technology took the form of a device that used "magnetic lines of force" to locate underground oil deposits; in the comicbook story it was the powerful battery and its companion ring.
The Green Lantern story also seems to share some commonalities with the testimonies of a group of people that are usually called UFO contactees, namely those people who claimed to be contacted by extraterrestrials, often because they had been identified as special or unique. George Adamski was arguably the first, and probably the most influential, contactee. His 1953 book, Flying Saucers Have Landed told the tale of Adamski's encounter with the Venusian known as Orthon. Orthon, and later visitors from other planets, introduced Adamski to a solar system-wide confederacy of planets bent on doing good. Worried about the development of atomic power, these visitors from the planets were beginning to visit the Earth with more frequency. Adamski's mission was to share the good news of the space brothers with the citizens of his home world.
Adamski's contact opened the floodgates. Space brothers, and their contactees, were suddenly everywhere. If they were all to be believed, then the Earth was under the watchful eyes of dozens of galactic federations, space police and extraterrestrial guardians. They were all mobilized to save the Earth from nuclear destruction and often needed the help of the contactees to be their voices on the planet, to take their message to the world, to do their work on the Earth.
It makes sense then to consider Hal Jordan to be a kind of contactee, coming as he did in the heyday of the contactee movement. Abin-Sur, representative of the Galactic Guardians and a member of an interstellar police force, crash lands on Earth. Realizing that he is soon to die, he seeks out the person on the planet who knows no fear: test pilot Hal Jordan, a fictionalized Chuck Yeager. Hal is transported from his airbase to the site of the spaceship crash, in New Mexico perhaps, and accepts the commission from Abin Sur to don the uniform, carry the lantern, wear the ring.
And the Green Lantern is born.
Clearly the Silver Age Green Lantern was a science fiction hero, rooted in the marvelous science fiction pulps and updated for the atomic age, for the space age. But the pulps produced more than science fiction, they were also the breeding ground for the Shaver Mystery and the UFO phenomenon. Science fiction influenced real world claims and folklore and real world claims and folklore influenced science fiction.
Green lantern has a lot of science fiction in his DNA, but he has a lot of flying saucer lore as well.
He is a little bit Superman. A little bit Lensman. A little bit George Adamski.
Cosmic cop. Member of the Green Lantern Corps and the Justice League. Ring Slinger. Man without fear. Science fiction champion. Superhero.
(You can read more on the interesting back-and-forth relationship between the UFO movement and science fiction in my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction. For more about UFO crashes and the contactee movement, see my UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture.)