You know, I’m actually really impressed with how this summer’s slate of superhero-themed blockbusters are coming together. Despite fears about market saturation, I honestly think that the four big pictures this summer offer enough distinct flavour to avoid generation some superhero fatigue coming in. X-Men: First Class is a Cold War Civil Rights action adventure. Thor the story of a god, humbled. Captain America: The First Avenger is a bit of pulpy history set against a World War II backdrop. Green Lantern is an epic space opera about an intergalactic police squad. There’s enough variety there that it isn’t just wave after wave of people in silly costumes.
Still, Green Lantern holds particular interest to me. It’s been interesting to watch the buzz on-line, following the seemingly disappointed first trailer through the four minutes of footage from Wonder Con towards the well-received second and third trailers. Still, my affection for the character and the movie aren’t necessarily drawn from Warner’s publicity campaign.
You see, Green Lantern was really the character that introduced me to modern comics.
Don’t get me wrong. I was enough of a geek that I’d done the requisite reading. I’d loved Watchmen and adored Sandman. I’d even read a few of the higher-profile collected editions featuring iconic characters – things like Red Son, the ingenious tale that imagined what might have happened if Superman landed in Russia, or Batman: Year One, the definitive Batman origin. I wasn’t an avid reader, but I was familiar with the artform. So, this was the backdrop when I innocently though about trying to read some Batman comics after the success of the The Dark Knight.
As somebody relatively new to the medium, I can empathise with the argument that comic books as a medium are alienating. Trying to randomly pick up a collection and hoping that you get a good one is a very frustrating experience. Comic book readers might appreciate slavish (or even relatively small) references to continuity, but they add up to a very exclusive sort of atmosphere. It’s easy to pick up when an element (or several) of the story you’re reading clearly isn’t intended for you, but for those who “get it” or are on the inside track. I don’t mean to imply that such an atmosphere is intentional – nobody tries to alienate readers – but it does exist.
So, on a family trip to Florida, I made the choice to pick up the current Batman series. It was written by a name even me – a comic book newbie – could recognise, Grant Morrison, so I figured it should be fine enough. I was meticulous in my research, hearing horror stories about on-going story arcs, continuity and so forth. I picked up the entire collection of Morrison’s stint on the Batman comic book – from Batman & Son to Batman R.I.P. I thought those accusing Morrison of being “inaccessible” simply hadn’t bothered to pick up all of his run, simply jumping on for the big “death of Batman” story at the end. “Just read the whole story by itself and surely it will make sense,” I may have mumbled to myself. Yes, I was an idiot.
In hindsight, I can look back and appreciate those issues more, but – at the time – I felt left out. I knew the story was good and clever. Morrison is a good writer, even when devoted to continuity. But I felt as if I hadn’t been let in on whatever the big joke was. I mean, I kinda knew enough pop culture osmosis to recognise the magical imp Bat-Mite when he appeared, but what was with all these references to stories published forty-odd years ago? I’d learn they were references to Silver Age stories like Robin Dies at Dawn! or Batman: The Superman of Planet X! – but I was lost and alienated at the time. Even when I pick up the books now, with a more experienced eye, I’m still not sure what to make of them.
Thankfully, I had, somehow, picked a back-up book. Doing my research on-line, I had discovered two key facts: (a.) Warner Brothers were fast-tracking a Green Lantern movie; and (b.) there was a really good run on the Green Lantern comic book written by Geoff Johns. I should be entirely honest here: my knowledge of the character was non-existent. I obviously knew Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. My granddad used to record The Flash when it was on television, so I was even a little familiar with the Scarlet Speedster. Green Lantern? I had no idea. Best I could remember, he was a bald black guy from that cartoon when I was smaller. And the comics and movie weren’t even about that guy.
I did a little bit of research. The character was apparently a space cop. That was interesting. With a ring seemingly powered by the colour green. I’m not going to lie… that sounded hokey. Oh, and my research explained, his power was useless against the colour yellow. “Oh no!” the character shouted in a scene my imagination concocted, “I’m being pelted by lemons and am helpless!” It sounded a bit crap. But, I figured, the word on this comic book was good. As in, really good. As in, “we might end up talking about Batman, Superman and Green Lantern (instead of Wonder Woman)” good.
So I went with it. I bought a handful of books. Secret Origin. Sinestro Corps War. And I brought them with me as back-ups, in case I finished Batman too early. I read Secret Origin on the flight to Florida, after Batman gave me altitude-related headaches. And I immediately fell in love with the character and the concept. I picked up The Ultimates on my trip to Florida, and it was a great reading experience, but I think Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern is perhaps single-handedly responsible for drawing me into the medium – or at least giving me the courage to engage with monthly on-going series rather than stand-alone graphic novels.
Geoff Johns is currently DC’s Chief Creative Officer. He’s a guiding light in publicising the huge amount of characters they have – in comics, in television and in movies. He’s as big a name as it’s possible for a comic book writer to be. He’s also hugely divisive. He draws criticism from fans for his own take on continuity, or his particular style of storytelling – one centred around big and blockbuster scale rather than the finer details. These are legitimate criticisms of the writer and, to be honest, I find myself agreeing with some of the school of though which suggests the author has spread himself too thin of late. Still, Johns is a writer for whom I hold a deep affection, because his Green Lantern is perhaps one of the most accessible major comic books produced in the last decade.
Here’s the thing that really drew me to his version of the Green Lantern mythos. It was his own story. A lot of the criticism I read of him take issue with the way that Johns will rewrite or ignore or rework what came before in order to tell the story he wants to tell. That’s entirely correct – he does that. And that, to be entirely honest, is great. I was new to comics. I picked up the book. I didn’t want to feel like I needed to read sixty years of back story in order to “fit in.” I didn’t want the biggest events of the books I’m reading to depend entirely on one’s knowledge of an obscure back-up feature printed decades before. Sure, Hal Jordan existed before Johns started writing him, and his adventures were there for me to investigate at my leisure, but I wasn’t going to be left out because I hadn’t read books published before I was born.
This was a new story, starting from scratch. This was Geoff Johns’ version of Green Lantern. I would find out, on googling and researching years later, that Johns had tinkered significantly with established pieces of the lore. He’d made up some very important characters. He’d taken some of the stuff other writers had written and then just ignored it. He had, admittedly, also taken some smaller concepts (like Alan Moore’s Blackest Night) and them bigger and bolder, but none of this felt like a joke I wasn’t quite in on.
I got the sense that I would know everything I needed to know about Johns’ Green Lantern in the pages of Johns’ Green Lantern. A lot of the major players from the run – the Red Lantern Corps, Larfleeze, the various other light corps and entities – were created by Johns to serve his story. Even the established characters returning – Hal Jordan, Sinestro, Black Hand, Hector Hammond – were effectively reintroduced by Johns, so that it felt like you could be meeting them for the first time. This wonderful way of writing assumed the reader knew next to nothing of the character and the world, and just explained it from there – it was a trait, for example, that Johns had put to great use during his Flash run, giving us profile issues for classic foes, and introducing tonnes of new ones.
There’s even the lovely small touch Johns had of introducing Hal Jordan at the start of almost every issue. “My name is Hal Jordan and…” was something of a typical Johns caption box. Sure, it gets corny after a few hundred issues (as Johns is fond of the technique), but I never get tired of the idea it represents. The notion that everyissue could be somebody’s first comic book. That, despite the geekiness that pervades comic book culture and the insular nature of the companies’ methods of distribution, some random issue could find its way into the hands of someone who doesn’t know who the Green Lantern is. More comic books should be written with that philosophy, rather than with the aim of pleasing fans who have every issue of every series ever stored away in a vault somewhere. It’s something that I note in a lot of older comic books, but don’t see anymore. Every comic book these days seems to assume you know exactly what they are talking about. It’s written for the collector who has every back issue, rather than the new guy picking up his first comic book.
I get the sense that when I read Geoff Johns’ run after he’s stepped aside to do whatever else interests him, it’ll read like a complete story – with a beginning, a middle and an end. it will be markedly different from what came before and what followed. Well, at least a little different. The author following Johns will want to tell their own story, and will rewrite the history to suit their ends, to highlight what they want to write about. Some of Johns’ constructs and ideas will be ignored, discarded, or even seriously reworked. And, despite my affection for what Johns does, I really hope his predecessor has the courage to rework the mythos to tell their story. Rather, I hope so precisely because of my affection for Johns’ work.
Because, despite the skill with which Johns has crafted his story, it’s the idea that it’s his story which makes it such a fun read. I might prefer what he did with the characters, but comic books are – at their best – a series of core myths reworked and reinvented. There is no perfect state of equilibrium for them to reach, it’s just their nature to perpetually change form. I might like one version more than the other, but that doesn’t mean that change is a bad thing. I might prefer my Lex Luthor, for example, as a suave business man – but that would discount Paul Cornell’s astoundingly fun Action Comics run with Lex as a supergenius android-building supervillain. I might think Batman works best as a noir vigilante as seen in Batman Begins, but sticking to that approach would cast away the superbly gothic Batman Returns.
I’ve discovered other runs of other comic books that I love. I think Daredevil was the most consistent book Marvel was publishing in the last decade. Brian K. Vaughan wowwed me with both Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. Grant Morrison wrote the most essential Superman in All-Star Superman. However, Green Lantern will always hold a special place in my affections – because it was the first on-going comic book I really bought into. It convinced me that a story could span more than a handful of hardcovers and be worth my time.
So there’s a lot of affection there. And I think that’s why I really want Martin Campbell’s upcoming adaptation to be good. Because the character has really earned it, as has the author who shepherded him from relative obscurity to become one of the guiding lights of the fictional DC Universe. The character essentially supports his own line of books at the moment. In the current DC publishing line, he’s second only to Batman, really. That’s really something, there. A character resurrected five years ago is now on par with one of the most iconic and beloved comic book creations of all time. Well done, Mr. Johns.
That is why I anticipate the movie. Just don’t mess it up.