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Geoff Johns’ Run on Green Lantern – Secret Origin, The Rage of the Red Lanterns, Agent Orange & Emerald Eclipse

It’s no secret that I’ve been greatly enjoying Geoff Johns’ run on the Green Lantern title (along with seemingly everybody else). After successfully resurrecting a fallen hero, reestablishing the various traits of the Green Lantern mythos and giving us a blockbuster summer event, Johns proceeds to make the final moves on the chessboard towards what is likely to be the climax of his saga. But whereas his initial set-up might have suffered slightly from the fact that it was mainly a case of getting a disruly house in order, here Johns has enough elements flowing from his previous collections to make these chapters in the story seem interesting in their own right.

It's like a rainbow of interstellar warriors...

It's like a rainbow of interstellar warriors...

Note: I am aware that Emerald Eclipse is the work of Peter Tomasi – who also worked on some of the alternating chapters of Sinestro Corps War. I would review his work on Green Lantern Corps separately, but it seems that this is the first collection of his work put out in hardcover (for shame). So I’ve bundled my thoughts on Emerald Eclipse in here. Going forward, if DC put out Green Lantern Corps in hardcover trades, I should be able to look at them separately.

The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.
Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

Here it is. It seems that the curtains are finally being drawn back on what exactly Johns has been planning for the book. Given the Earth-bound focus of much of Johns’ early work on the title, it’s interesting that things should reach so epic a scale. It is quite like Star Wars (and even noticeably borrows some of the beats, such as the revelation of Sinestro’s daughter), or perhaps Lord of the Rings with the sense of an epic confrontation looming just over the horizon. We saw quite a bit of that in the galactic nature of the threat that Sinestro posed, but here Johns gives us a whole manner of galactic powers ready to carve up the universe.

I know it has been said before by many people more articulate than myself, but the invention of the colour-themed emotional spectrum was a stroke of genius. Comic books (as a visual medium) thrive on colour and contrast, and it also allows Johns’ high concept to summed up in a singular sentence. It also gives the a more unifying theme to the universe – it gives the Green Lanterns an almost logical rogues gallery. Not bad for a hero who used to face hyper-evolved sharks or badguys with names like Sonar or Major Disaster.

Well, anger does lead to ulsers...

Well, anger does lead to ulsers...

It helps that Johns (and his team of artists) have managed to give these groups unique characters and visual identities. I will concede that the Red Lanterns aren’t portrayed as interestingly as their gimmick would have you believe (they vomit blood – how can that not look interesting?) and that Philip Tan isn’t able to bring quite the kinetic energy to Agent: Orange that the story deserves, but we very clearly aren’t dealing with a bunch of Green Lantern clones. I wouldn’t mind seeing this iteration of foes continue long into the future, but I guess we’ll all have to wait and see what Johns has in mind.

Normally after a big event like Sinestro Corps War, we are given a breather and in many ways that is what Secret Origins represents. It’s interesting that Johns doesn’t anchor this story of Hal’s first days with the ring in the present (through flashback or reflection), but the constant flashbacks that various characters have had to events detailed in this volume since the start of the run indicate that the collection is very much anchored here. It is shameless a set-up for what is to come – it retcons Atrocitus into Hal’s origin and also ties together the Black Hand and Hector Hammond to the superhero’s origin – and the simple fact is that we’ve already seen a lot of this – Hal’s father’s death, his resignation by fisticuffs, his first meeting with Sinestro. Johns just about gets away with giving us this story because he writes the characters so well.

He wants it all...

It’s also nice to see that Johns has the courage to admit that he is playing with the character’s history. He remains true to the theme and heart of the character rather than trying to be true to the literal history. It’s a smart choice, given the zany nature of some of the past adventures of Hal Jordan. By retelling the origin and adding elements relevent to his own story, Johns manages to update the character and keep his story relatively straightforward. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never picked up a book before Rebirth, Johns is welcoming you to the party anyway. One might observe that Grant Morrison would have done better to emulate this style in Batman RIP, rather than trying to reconcile everything that ever happened in the Batman comic books – condensing 70 years of storylines from different eras and styles into one incoherent jigsaw puzzle.

I am somewhat surprised that we still haven’t seen that crucial moment in the Jordan/Sinestro relationship where the pupil arrests his master through Johns’ eyes. Johns writes the pair well and has given his lead a fantastic archnemisis. He is clearly willing to play around with history that we’ve seen before under other writers – most notably Emerald Dawn – so it makes little sense that the most we’ve seen of this key moment is a single panel in Tales of the Sinestro Corps.

To Hal and back...

I suspect that there is a reason for this – much like there is a reason for the difference between the slightly arrogant Sinestro of the origin tale and the modern megalomania who has sparked most of this current crisis. Is it possible that the fear which corrupted Abin Sur also infected Sinestro? Can Jordan reach his old mentor? Given one of the strongest themes running through his work on the title is the corrupting power of fear (and what it can do to society) and also the suggestion that the leaders of each Corps is ‘infected’ by their own emotion as well as harnessing it, I can see this fitting logically with what Johns is writing, but I’m possibly way off.

Speaking of fear changing society, it’s nice to see Johns wasn’t simply offering soundbytes when he said that he intended to spark discussion over the new licence to kill. It’s nice to see an entire arc devoted to how that kind of power impacts on the Green Lantern Corps (and how it resonates with Sinestro’s criticism that many of them fear that kind of power) – the internal division in the Corps at the end of Emerald Eclipse perfectly reflects the shattered power battery (which itself is a fantastic omen). We also see Hal himself struggling to come to terms with this changing world. It’s somewhat fitting that Hal finds himself wearing both a read and blue ring – it symbolises the divide within the man over the issue. Rage and anger support the execution of Sinestro, but hope believes that even he is not beyond redemption. These notions are made somewhat literal over the volume, and it’ll be interesting to see things play out.

I'm enjoying the explosion of colour-themed Corps...

Sinestro himself continues to be written as a suitable foil – a good guy gone bad. Indeed he is shown to have a somewhat skewed affection for Jordan (despite promising his death would be slow, he does save his former pupil’s life by killing Laira – another example of Sinestro assuming that he is the only one who can make correct decisions, and that Jordan would have died but for him). I am relieved to hear that the character remains important, as he’s one of the best reinventions of Johns’ run. Rather than simply being a red devil with a dodgy mustache, Sinestro is a compelling character who believes that he is doing the universe a favour. The emergence of the Red Lanterns only validate his concerns and it’s hard to argue he doesn’t have a point about the Green Lanterns needing to be more forceful and proactive. Of course, his actions define him as a villain, but the Blue Lanterns suggest that there may be hope for him yet. I’m interested in that idea. It’s almost as cool as watching Patrick Gleason illustrate him in the style of Hitler during Emerald Eclipse.

What’s also interesting about the narrative structure that Johns has constructed is that – once we’re out of Secret Origins – all the stories bleed into each other. Like the chilling heartbeat of a Red Lantern, the story beats get closer and closer together, overlapping – Liaka ties together Alpha Lanterns and Rage of the Red Lanterns and the Controllers’ search for power ties together Rage of the Red Lanterns and Agent Orange. It becomes difficult to tell where one story ends and another begins, as Johns seems to be creating the impression that the rate of change is accelerating. It’s an effective storytelling device that amps up the tension and lets us know that the finalé is closing in.

Good kitty...

It’s odd to note that Johns ascribes to hope the strongest of powers (albeit mainly in aspiration). With the Green Lanterns, hope can literally reignite a dying star – it can set the clock back. It can make things as they once were. On the other hand, fear has shaped the current state of the universe more than any other emotion. Fear killed Abin Sur and gave Hal his ring – it also set Atrocitus in motion. Fear forced the Guardians to change their fundamental rules. Hope is powerless without willpower, but I do hope that Johns ultimately uses that combination of hope willpower to do more than simply reset the status quo – as Jordan pointed out Green Lanterns don’t live without fear, they simply learn to live with it. They learn to hope for tomorrow – a sincere aspiration recognised by the ring.

Johns continues to work well with character in general and his protagonist in particular. While the “learning to hope” aspect of Agent Orange is more than a little flakey, it does give us an idea of the kind of emotional rollercoaster Hal has found himself on since he came back. The best parts of Secret Origin flesh out the character before he came in contact with the ring. His indecision over the execution of Sinestro is interesting, since he rarely confronts issue like that. He typically makes rash judgements in tight situations, where there is little or no time to second-guess. Here all he has is time. Johns nails the doubt and uncertainty in a character who defines himself so much by his self-confidence. The power to take a life is a big one and one that bears serious reflection and contemplation if one isn’t going to be overwhelmed by emotion.

Blue and green should never be seen...

Blue and green should never be seen...

That’s what works so well in this collection: the reflective elements. We know that Hal and the Corps are simply in the eye of the storm (albeit a reasonably violent eye). As such, it is time to stop for breath before the next big cataclysmic event hits us. It is time to look back at the decisions that we’ve made in the past in tight corners and how they define us. It’s little coincidence that both of the new adversaries – Larfleez and Atrocitus – both of long histories with the Guardians and are borne of compromise (Atrocitus was captured, but not killed as capital punishment was illegal; Larfleez was granted dominion over his own realm). These decisions and the past come back to haunt us, so we must confront them – much as Sodam Yat must go home to his own people.

It helps that Johns has a skill for writing Hal Jordan’s internal monologue. The moment – in the midst of battle – when he identifies which muppet Larfleeze (a fantastic creation in his own right) reminds him of is genius. It’s a moment we’ve all experienced to a lesser degree when we’ve wondered something only to forget about it only to come up with an answer at the strangest time. It makes Hal human. In the midst of all this, he remains human. And that’s no small feat on the part of the writer to add a human dimension to this epic space saga. Tomasi is equally adept at handling the Rayner/Gardner dynamic (and the wonderfully touching opening of Emerald Eclipse as the Lanterns decide to properly eulogise their dead through a mural, as opposed the horrific bonfires of Daxam or the bloodlust of Korugar or even the later death squads of Oa).

Can Hal pin all this on Sinestro?

Johns has let it be known that Blackest Night will be – in a manner – his treatise on the phenomenon of comic book death. An attempt to restore some of the value of death as a currency in the DC universe. If that is the case then I think we are witnessing here his response to the wave of nineties anti-heroes. Those comic book characters who traded in death so casually and so easily, because it was funky and easy and cool. Here Johns makes the point that death is never any of those things, and anyone who thinks it is doesn’t deserve to be a hero. Death has consequences and ripples. It isn’t a tool to be used as a bookend – as the mobs on Daxam or Korugar would suggest – nothing but a note of closure to a long saga.

It’s also interesting to watch the fracturing of the Sinestro Corps after the capture of their leader. I’ve read the handling of this group as a commentary on the War on Terror (and Amon Sur even adopts explicit terrorist tactics at the start of the Alpha Lanternsarc), and it’s interesting to watch the group fall into a minor civil war after the removal of their leadership – like Iraq after the dethroning of Saddam Hussein. It’s nice to see the group is still being handled with a great deal of care, even after their apparent moment in the sun, and it’s good to see that these new dynamics might not be discarded after they’ve fulfilled their basic function. It also give the Sinestro character a chance to grow and develop beyond what we’d normally see – he’s a character who thrives on the notion of order, but can’t even keep his own group in order. Though what did he expect in putting together a crack time of sociopaths and psychopaths and lowlives?

Something Sinestro this way comes...

It’s interesting to see how Johns presents a society under terrorist threat – the blackened and corrupted Guardian Scar even remarks that “we don’t  negotiate with terrorists”, a position which is ironically reversed at the end of the volume (and arguably undermined by the historic arrangement with Larfleeze). That the presence of ‘hope’ as a force for good coincides with the election of Barack Obama is no coincidence, as is the increasing moral ambiguity of the existing Guardian regime (which led to the splintering in the first place).

So, what we have here is a pause. A lull. A calm before the storm. But it’s a calm filled with plot and character. It’s a story that works in its own right and only heightens the sense of coming dread. Johns continues to given us a story heading at fill speed towards its conclusion. I only hope that its conclusion lives up to what has come before.

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

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