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Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth (Review/Retrospective)

Face facts, John. The real Hal Jordan is back. And he’s bringing the past with him.

– Batman

Batman states the above as if it’s some sort of dire threat. Perhaps to him, one of the darker of the superhero community, it is. However, to writer Geoff Johns, it’s a mission statement. Let the reconstruction begin. It’s easy to balk at a relatively recent superhero comic being given DC’s prestige ‘Absolute’ format (it’s even easier when you realise it’s only six issues long for that hefty price tag), but Green Lantern: Rebirth deserves it. Not because it’s as iconic as, say, Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, because it isn’t. Nor is it because of the series’ increasingly important place in the DC canon. It deserves the treatment because of what it represents. This was the moment that the pendulum swung back in mainstream comics, a conscious rejection of the “darker and edgier” philosophy that gripped the medium in the nineties. It’s also a pretty good read.

Shine a light...

Rebirth, in case you’re unfamiliar with the basic concept, was an attempt by author Geoff Johns to bring back Hal Jordan, the Silver Age version of that particular legacy hero and one of the two characters to launch the sci-fi revolution in mainstream comics. Jordan had been in the role from the early sixties, but had suffered significantly in the grim and gritty reinvention of the medium in the nineties. As part of the fallout from The Death of Superman crossover event, his whole town was vapourised by evil aliens. As you can imagine, that had somewhat of an impact on his sanity, driving him insane, leading him to adopt the more badass name Parallax and seek to destroy the entire universe before eventually dying in a heroic sacrifice. As you do.

As you can imagine, it’s kinda hard to come back from that. Not the death (this is a comic book) so much as being an omnicidal maniac. Yet, in following Hal’s travels after his death, you get the sense that there was a strong desire on the part of later writers to keep Hal involved in the on-going DC Universe. He even spent some time as the Spectre – a pulpy spirit of vengeance who was one of the more mystical entities in the DC Universe. However, it took writer Geoff Johns to figure out how to put Hal back in green. The “real” Hal Jordan is back, as if those years in the wilderness were just a bad dream.

Something Sinestro this way comes...

The series carefully reintroduces and restores aspects of the Green Lantern mythos. Hal’s home, Coast City, seems to rise from the ashes. Guy Gardner drops his “Warrior” persona and becomes a Green Lantern again. Johns positions various Green Lantern bad guys in a way that he wants them – the Black Hand, Sinestro and Hector Hammond all make appearances here. Early in the story as he investigates the resurrected Coast City, the Flash describes the site as “a blueprint” rather than a finished product. Here Johns is laying out his own blueprint for where he wants the title to go.

Without him, it just feels like there’s something missing. Like the universe is a darker place.

– John Stewart

However, Johns isn’t entirely free to tell his own sort of story here, as he would be with later issues and arcs. He must devote a fair amount of time to the somewhat complicated set of circumstances that he’s attempting to revise. It’s mostly well handled, but it does slow the story down in parts. What’s more interesting, however, is the way that Johns consciously rewrites history in order to get what he needs. Parallax is not longer a new persona adopted by Hal Jordan, but a yellow space cockroach which possessed him – the very primal embodiment of fear. If it sounds hokey, it is – it’s a giant bug, after all – but Johns tells the story well and is helped by the fact that… well, we want to believe him. To be fair, he casts Batman as the stand-in for the dark and earnest ‘mature’ era (even wielding a gun in the proposed outline drafted by Johns, which had a very different climax to the actual miniseries). “Do you expect me to believe this?” Batman asks of the “fear bug” story, ever the cynic. The response from Hal? “Quite honestly, I don’t care.”

"That's for Batman & Robin!"

Johns is a natural storyteller. He just eats up this sort of pulp storytelling. He has a clear conception of what he wants and expects the series to be, and he’s perfectly able to bring it to life. If Superman is nostalgic fifties science-fiction, Green Lantern is a more pulpy fantasy variety, the kind drawn upon both within and from Star Wars. “Fear leads to violence. Violence leads to fear.” It’s hard not hear the echoes of Yoda in that snippet (“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate; hate… leads to suffering”). Johns even alludes to these roots in the outline included (writing of Sinestro’s battle with Kyle Rayner, “think of it like the first time Darth Vader, Sinestro, battled Luke Skywalker, Kyle”). It’s a mood which fits the story perfectly and one which Johns is beautifully able to evoke.

However, these factors alone aren’t enough to secure the story a place in the pantheon reserved for DC’s top-tier releases. An attempt to spin-off the success of this particular relaunch with Hal’s older cousin (the Flash Barry Allen), in Flash: Rebirth, met with a somewhat muted reception. There was something missing, and it wasn’t just a regular publishing schedule (zing!). Green Lantern: Rebirth was the right story in the right place at the right time. It restored more than the status of one long-lost wayward hero. It represented a fundamental shift in mainstream comics. It was a perfect storm.

A spectre looms over Jordan...

At the turn of the decade, comics weren’t in a happy place. Traditional, family-friendly happy-go-lucky heroes just weren’t seen as successful. Instead, it was the era of the anti-hero (think of Wolverine’s success, or the Punisher’s). Everything was so dark you really wished that somebody would just turn a light on. Johns (and several other writers, to be fair) peg Batman as an example of this rise of darkness. Here, artist Van Sciver casts the Dark Knight almost entirely in shadow, and Johns suggests that he is the guiding influence in the DC Universe, the one calling the shots. It’s somewhat fitting that one of the first things that Hal does on returning to Earth is to shrug off Batman, as if to say that this era of pointless brooding and darkness are over.

Don’t get me wrong, just because Johns eschews the “darkness for the sake of darkness” approach doesn’t mean it’s necessarily light and fluffy. He goes to great pains to illustrate that he has room for the “all or nothing stakes” and some fairly dark content (at one point he removes the hand of a villain and turns one of his heroes inside-out), but stresses that such content should not come at the expense of the fun that should be part of the medium. The little character moments or the “out there” ideas which could be cynically described as “hokey”. It isn’t about turning back the clock, but more about balancing these conceptions within the world of comic books. In many ways it’s about finding peace with these warring concepts, the internal discord within comics (much as there’s internal discord within Hal himself).

We need a positive Ion...

Rebirth isn’t the first vaguely nostalgic look at the old days of comics, rejecting this “darker and edgier” notion that snuck into the medium with Watchmen. Alan Moore himself has spent many of his later years attempting to piece the classical happy-go-lucky stylings of the superhero back together in various independent published works. However, Geoff Johns single-handedly brought the idea to the mainstream. And I don’t think it’s unfair to place credit for the increasingly widespread move towards balancing the inherent goofiness of superheroes with the more recent attempt to add shades to the world. For example, the reconstructions of the DC and Marvel Universes in Brightest Day and The Heroic Age would not be possible without this little series.

So this collection is perhaps more important for what it represents than for what it is. That isn’t to say the story isn’t good – I’m a big fan of Johns. His writing here suffers from the unavoidable fact that he has to tie up a lot of loose ends as well as set his own particular story in motion. Still, there’s a wonderful feeling epic sweep to the story. Johns makes it feel like his fictional universe is shifting as much as the more meta-fictional universe is. It reads well and feels right, though – from a storytelling perspective – it’s hard not to get the feeling that the best is yet to come. His wonderful character work (which would come to the fore in later collections) is sidelined here just due to the sheer volume of plot he has to fit in. There’s little time to stop and smell the roses (though there is tonnes of foreshadowing fit in here, including snippets of scenes later incorporated into the Secret Origin arc).

Hal is torn...

Ethan Van Sciver’s art is beautiful and compliments Johns’ work on the series near-perfectly. In particular, I’m a little bit awed by his work on the Sinestro-Jordan confrontation that runs from the moon to the asteroid belt. It’s exactly as epic as it sounds, as well.

I am somewhat less impressed, however, with the Absolute Edition itself. Although the oversized layout compliments Van Sciver’s art (it is beautiful), the other major selling points for these sorts of overpriced collections is that they should be definitive (hence ‘Absolute’). This does not feel definitive. In terms of extras, we have a few pages from some other Green Lantern work by Johns and an outline for the series. There’s no interview, no commentary and no real discussion of what the series means in a grander context. It’s quite disappointing. There seems to be no additional original input from Johns himself, which is a shame since this is the first of his work to be collected in this format. You expect a bit more, to be honest.

It just grabbed me...

All in all, it’s a solid story that perhaps reads better as a meta-fictional analysis of the state of the comic book industry and as a manifesto (or blueprint) for Johns’ plans for DC comics and his own runs. His run on Green Lantern, spanning Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night, is already legend – and deservedly so – but this is arguably bigger than that. However, even if you’re simply looking at this as the start of his Green Lantern tenure, it’s still impressive.

… I suppose this universe needs a little bit more light anyway.

– Batman

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

4 Responses

  1. Love the analysis you give to graphic novels Darren. Especially Green Lantern, one of the underrated ones.

    • Thanks, Fitz. It’s one of my nerdy little past times. I figure I may as well specialise in an area that hasn’t really been fully embraced by the mainstream, but is still important. It’s also nice to be able to place all these comic book movies in context.

  2. I’m a wee bit late to reply but this was a great retrospective, I really enjoyed the series and was surprised to see Johns not completely sideline Kyle Rayner buy preserve his status as not the greatest green lantern but arguably the most important in terms of keeping the corps alive (although he would also further the case that he doesn’t earn anything but is “chosen” (given) his opportunities (the last green lantern, torch bearer, white lantern etc…).

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