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Geoff Johns’ Run on Green Lantern – No Fear, Revenge of the Green Lanterns & Wanted: Hal Jordan

Talk about a turn-around in fortunes. I remember the days when the Green Lantern was a cult figure – beloved by a few core devotees and mocked ceaselessly by anyone who knew the character well enough to know that he had a weakness to the colour yellow. That’s lamer than Kryptonite and led to all manner of hackneyed set-ups and resolutions since the rebirth of the series in 1960 (the original Green Lantern had a similar weakness to wood – yes, wood). However, he’s now one of DC’s flagship properties, managed to be the one to watch even in a summer where DC ‘killed’ Batman and has a mega blockbuster movie coming out starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by the man who saved James Bond (twice). There are a variety of factors that explain this massive reversal in fortune, but I’m going to go ahead and throw a name on them: Geoff Johns.

Don't worry, he's just out of practice... He'll figure it out...

Yeah, exposition tends to really kill those big moments, doesn't it?

Note: As Green Lantern: Rebirth is receiving an Absolute Edition next year, I held off on buying the trade. So I’ll get that in 2010 and review it then. I just wish I’d held off on buying the Sinestro Corps War books – they’ll likely get the Absolute treatment too. Still, this collection actually makes a better “jumping on” point.

Anyway, so we’re here following John’s carefully paced revival of a fallen superhero. And I’m not just talking about Hal Jordan. The Green Lantern has a very jumbled publication history and has always lacked a lot of focus and clarity. Johns gives the series a focus and a goal to aim at and – in doing so – manages to give it momentum and direction as well.

In fairness to the character of Hal Jordan – who has held the Green Lantern title on and off since 1960 – he has never seemed to have found a niche. In the 1970s he travelled the world as the voice of ‘the man’ to Green Arrow’s ‘the liberal’ in a series of social commentaries that weren’t the most subtle or nuanced (it was like a left-/right-wing buddy movie), but made a few serious points. After wandering around aimless for a while, an editorial policy in the 1990s decided to spark things up by turning him into a genocidal supervillian who murdered his friends and colleagues. When this didn’t go well (whoda thunk?), he was revived as the modern-age Spectre (a fairly obscure character, to be honest) and roamed the world looking for vengeance as a member of the undead.

It’s hard to look at that history and get the impression that anybody knew what they wanted to do with him.

In brightest day...

Until Geoff Johns took the reigns. He’d previously managed the revival of The Flash, and had proven his geek credentials (he even worked with Richard Donner on the original Superman film, back in the day). Green Lantern: Rebirth brought back Hal Jordan as a Green Lantern and reintroduced the Green Lantern Corps (an intergalactic police force), representing something of a return to the status quo of a very unstable series. Having established the status quo, where did Johns want to go?

Well, the truth is that the Green Lantern isn’t as ready-made a franchise as Batman. Any writer assuming control of Batman can assume that their audience knows the setup (non-powered hero), the city (Gotham) and the gallery of unique rogues (I reckon even non-comic readers could name half-a-dozen of Batman’s trademark foes). Here it isn’t so simple. A large portion of these first three books go to reestablishing the universe which the Green Lantern inhabits, which is vast, rich and multilayered.

Oh my god, we're wearing the same colour... One of us is going to have to change...

Oh my god, we're wearing the same colour... One of us is going to have to change...

Johns also focuses on character. Indeed, his new Green Lantern is defined by character. Johns redefines Hal Jordan – he gives him layers and dimensions that we didn’t know he had. Sure, he applies a liberal amount of cliché in building the character (as with nearly every superhero ever, the death of his father figure defines his life), but he also explains what makes Jordan different. Jordan is reckless and aggressive – the downsides to the fierce willpower and the lack of fear. It’s nice that Johns doesn’t play the ‘man without fear’ angle as a simple compliment – the impact of Jordan’s arrogance is explored when his decision not to fly with his ring has serious repercussions (as outlined at the start of Revenge of the Green Lanterns and further explored in Wanted: Hal Jordan). It’s also nice to see Johns devoting entire arcs to looking at what makes Jordan unique, particularly by comparing him to both his old friend the Green Arrow (in A Perfect Life) and the similar willpower/fear-based hero Batman (in Branded). It’s an effective method of bringing us up to speed on Hal Jordan (and beyond – there’s quite a lot of new stuff in Johns’ portrayal of the character), and also the team-ups are a lot of fun, on a more shallow level.

Johns has a bit of fun with the classical mythos. The Green Lantern’s secret identity isn’t quite so secret (as it’s quite a tough secret to keep), and it’s reassuring that Johns sees that Thomas isn’t just a simple sidekick like he was in the original books (the product of a different time): he’s rising up through the ranks of Ferris air. One-by-one Johns introduces us to old and new faces, but he generally takes his time in doing so. It isn’t until the end of the final arc in these collections – Mystery of the Star Sapphire – that we are fully reacquainted with Carol Ferris. This is good, because Johns realises that this universe is a big place populated with a huge supporting cast and he doesn’t dump a huge range of characters on top of us at any one time.

What a man, what a manhunter!

That’s not to say there aren’t a fair amount of problems. Johns clearly has a huge amount of respect for the character, but that doesn’t chance the simple fact that the Green Lantern doesn’t have a very strong rogue gallery. Admittedly the books seeking to correct this in slowly drafting over more powerful and recognisable foes from other superheroes – in particular from Superman – in such a way that they make sense in the context of Hal Jordan’s return. The advent of the colour-themed adversaries and allies is a stroke of genius that slowly emerges throughout this run of issues (and obviously develops much further and deeper in Sinestro Corps and beyond). However, Johns seems to feel the need to ‘tip his hat’ to the established foes of Green Lantern in ways that don’t entirely work.

The second arc in this collection – concerning the Gremlins  and their experiments on various Green Lantern foes – provides a nice way to tie various aspects together, but seems an unnecessary pre-occupation with the past. The Shark was (unfortunately) never really a great Green Lantern foe and (though they have improved his portrayal here), he still doesn’t really fit in. The depictions of Hector Hammond and The Black Hand are relatively strong (and their new looks are a huge improvement over what came before), but placing all these foes together in a small arc seems cramped and confined, as opposed to the more graceful pace of everything else. The presence of the Tattooed Man (although another iteration of the character) is also somewhat conspicuous in the team-up with Batman. Despite giving the arc its title (Branded, because he brands sins on to his victims’ skins), the character has nothing to do but seem like a plot device and a shout-out. But these are small complaints and – given their small returns later down the line – I have no doubt that Hammond and the Black Hand (at least) will go on to be important, but here they seem out-of-place.

Check out the brain on Hector!

Check out the brain on Hector!

Still, some of Johns reinventions really work – his focus on Amon Sur is great, as his revision of the Manhunters. It’s also nice to see a focus on Coast City and to show the city itself coming to terms with a tragedy (in a way that bears a significant resemblance to the way that New York was built back together after September 11th). Admittedly all of these elements will pay off further down the line, but the set-up is interesting and compelling of itself. The revitalised Manhunters foreshadow the rise of a rival intergalactic force (okay, six), but also underscore the roots of the franchise: what is it to be a peacekeeper or a policeman?

It is interesting to read these issues alongside Grant Morrison’s recent work on Batman. Both Johns and Morrison are attempting the reconstruction of a silver age superhero, but they adopt very different approaches. For Morrison it’s about fidelity. Everything you’ve read in the past fifty years happened to Batman, even if he has to invent some crazy mind-game to explain it. Look, it’s Aunt Agatha for a panel! It’s Batmite! Let’s put my pieces into that giant 70-year-old jigsaw, even though they don’t fit.

Give the man a hand!

Johns tries something more generic. Here are the foes from the sixties, but let’s mess around with them and their origins quite a bit. Let’s return to the three Jordan brother dynamic of the 1960s, but let’s explore them as a realistic family. It’s more about creating a new big picture that sits well alongside the old one, rather than necessarily being actually incorporated into it. He writes in such a way that these old elements – where used – fit the story, rather than causing the narrative to distort around them.

It’s also interesting to see the politics at play in Johns’ work here. I won’t dare pretend that the book has as much to say as The Dark Knight or Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but it’s hard not to see political undercurrents in Hal Jordan’s continued flouting of the Freedom of Power treaty – designed to restrict the international activities of super-powered individuals. As one of the most powerful of these individuals, Hal sees it as hindrance in his pursuit of various villians annd evil-doers – it doesn’t help that he clearly lacks faith in other nations’ protectors. It’s hard not see Hal as an overt metaphor for US foreign policy (he is even a member of the armed forces), but Johns gets points for shrowding the issue in ambiguity.

Yellow doesn't really work with Batman...

Hal’s arrogance is at play as much as his altruism, but sometime he is the only person who can deal with these problems. The use of the Green Lantern as a twisted mirror to explore the War on Terror is a somewhat interesting one – given their position as universal peacekeepers – and it’s one that Johns will continue to (subtly) explore over his run. Yes, the application of force has consequences – and it creates a thin line for the righteous man to walk between liberator and oppressor – but there are times when it is necessary.

The artwork trots the line from good to great. Notably the new looks for the Green Lantern’s classic foes – which seem to be the only reason for the second arc. Hammond looks creepy (he’s helped by a script that actually makes him creepy) and the Shark looks almost threatening (it’s a huge improvement, trust us). There’s a wide range of styles and artists at play over this selection of issues, which is occassionally distracting, but nothing too odd or out there appears.

... but green doesn't suit him that much better...

It’s a good run – not a fantastic one. It flirts the line with greatness several times and shows the Johns is truly the man to piece this shattered universe back together. The storylines here work well of themselves, but they work much better in retrospect. It’s stating the obvious to state that this whole run was clearly outlined from the start – there are too many echoes and subtly hinted-at themes heading towards fruition in later issues. But that isn’t the real reason to pick up these books.

The real reason is that Johns understands Hal Jordan. He gets Hal Jordan. Hal Jordan isn’t Superman, he isn’t Batman. He’s a man who lives life on the line, who is reckless and thirsty for life. He’s a man who has to have absolute faith in himself to do what he does, even if those around him don’t fully believe in him. Johns doesn’t force the painful history of Hal Jordan down our throats – the death of his father and the loss of his mother, the murder of his friends by his own hand – he lets it sit there. He shows us a boy who is still learning to be a man. It’s no coincidence that he was warned before (by Sinestro of all people) about flying without a ring, but did it anyway. Jordan is flawed, but he is also heroic and energetic. He lives. He sucks every moment out of life because he knows how valuable it is. He doesn’t think twice because he doesn’t think he has the time.

No match for Manhunter manpower...

No match for Manhunter manpower...

That’s where Johns’ strength lies in this collection and it is the reason to pick it up. There are much better storylines coming down the pipeline and there’s a lot of pay-off on what we’ve just read, but here Johns gets to grips with the character. Unlike most authors he gets that the Silver Age didn’t succeed because of the wackiness or the stupid plot devices or the zany logic, it worked because it was fun (and that’s why we tolerated the wackiness). And, here, Johns gives us some of that fun.

Geoff Johns is the real hero of the piece.

Check out our reviews of Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern

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