Social Relevancy in a Changing World
The Fifth in a Series Examining Green Lantern History
A Bustle in our Hedgerow
The Silver Age was an explosion of new ideas that expanded the DC Comics universe and with no Seduction of the Innocent on the horizon it seemed like the best days were in front of the comics industry. The readers of the Silver Age became the adults of the Bronze Age and, as they began to inherit the industry that they loved, new ideas and approaches began to emerge that would forever change the medium. And while the Vietnam War would evoke social discourse from the other side of the world, the changing social landscape of the nation caused a stir much closer to home.
For Green Lantern the Bronze Age was not kind as the straight forward superheroes which revived the medium in the late fifties and early sixties remained targeted at a juvenile audience and the aging reader looked elsewhere for more sophisticated storytelling about characters who were less inspirational and more identifiable. Stan Lee’s take on the superhero genre fully blossomed as Marvel gained ground on DC Comics with their real world story telling. DC found their books dropping in sales and, coupled with the drop in newsstand sales and the rise of specialty comic book stores, many titles found themselves cancelled.
In the sixties Green Lantern found himself alongside the Man of Steel, but the 1970’s were providing no “Sunshine Superman” moments for Hal Jordan as he floundered as a character needing a makeover. The job of a test pilot no longer stirred the imagination of readers for whom the romanticized notion of space travel had ebbed and the series found itself on a major decline. Julie Schwartz would once again take a major role in the history of Green Lantern, and along with it helped orchestrate mainstream attention for the character.
Hard Travelling Times, Hard Travelling Heroes
With young Silver Age comic book readers sticking with the medium it was only a matter of time before some of them entered the industry. Many comic book veterans like Mort Weisinger retired, making way for new talent and people like Marv Wolfman and Len Wein rose in the ranks. Julie Schwartz turned to emerging talent Dennis O’Neil to try to salvage the Green Lantern series. O’Neil, Wolfman and Wein represented a new generation of storytellers who weren’t satisfied with the old school method of editors managing a stable of titles that they steered in a unified narrative vision. Along with their laid back style of dressing came the need to create comics that told personal stories driven by their own sense of conscience. When Schwartz teamed O’Neil with artist Neal Adams lightning was captured in a bottle.
Given a lot of creative control over the series, O’Neil teamed Green Lantern with Green Arrow, pushing Hal a bit further to the right and Oliver Queen to the left as a way to explore opposing points of view. Placing the two men at odds with each other the heroes took to the road with Guardian Appa Ali Apsa to explore the social strains of America. The “Hard Travelling Heroes” series of books tackled social issues including overpopulation, race relations and drug use. Oliver Queen’s ward, Speedy, would famously become a drug addict in Green Lantern #85 in a story which gained national headlines and helped change the Comics Code of Authority for the first time since 1955.
The team followed the two-part drug story with another milestone by introducing readers to John Stewart, one of the few characters of color who didn’t have “Black” in their superhero name. In Green Lantern #87 Guy Gardner, Hal Jordan’s back up, was seriously injured and the Guardians called for a new ring bearer to be chosen. The duty falls to unemployed architect John Stewart who refuses to wear a mask to conceal his identity.
O’Neil and Adams’ often referenced work on Green Lantern helped to define the Bronze Age of comics, but their liberal stance on the hot societal issues of the day did more to help make headlines than sell comics. By now a bi-monthly series, Green Lantern ceased publication in 1972 after 89 issues and the last of O’Neil and Adams’ work would move to the pages of The Flash where Green Lantern would be relegated to a back up feature for four years.
In 1976 DC Comics would re-light the central power battery and re-start publication of a regular Green Lantern series. Picking up where he left off writer Denny O’Neil would team with Mike Grell on issue 90 before eventually turning the series over to Len Wein and then to Marv Wolfman.
The Bronze Age was perhaps the hardest on Guy Gardner, who had been sidelined to create a role for John Stewart. Stewart went on to co-star alongside Hal Jordan on the main title as each would take turns being “the” Green Lantern of Sector 2814 for the duration of the Bronze Age. Guy on the other hand went from bad to worse, eventually becoming trapped in the Phantom Zone, being tortured by General Zod while his girlfriend hooked up with Hal Jordan. The damage done to Gardner would leave the character brain-damaged and in a comatose state for some time.
Wolfman began to redefine Hal Jordan and wrote several stories which told the reader more about the kind of man who Abin Sur’s power ring selected. Notably Wolfman put Hal through the gauntlet, blind and alone in the arctic. At the same time he added considerable depth to the relationship between Hal and Carol that pushed them well beyond the Silver Age trope of a love triangle between a woman, a superhero and his secret identity.
John Stewart shined as he served as the series’ central figure for several years and got considerable character development which fleshed him out well beyond the racially charged characterization presented in his debut. Stewart gets hired as an architect at Ferris Aircraft which allowed the creative team to mine the established supporting cast while keeping Hal Jordan and his rogue’s gallery integral to the book as well as share adventures. The success of science fiction cinema influenced the direction of the Green Lantern series as the characters spent more time away from Earth. Notably, The Omega Men made their debut on the pages of Green Lantern #141 and Adam Strange received a revival as a backup feature in the series.
The non-human members of the Green Lantern Corps were further fleshed out more as DC introduced a Tales of the Green Lantern Corps backup feature which would provide adventures of other members of the Corps. A three-part Tales of the Green Lantern Corps limited series would be written by Mike W. Barr and published in 1981 which would prove as an inspiration for future writer Geoff Johns. The sprawling tale pitted the Corps against Krona, the Spider Guild and Nekron, the Lord of the Dead. The series would introduce readers to Arisia Rrab and help to develop Katma Tui, both of whom would go on to have romantic relationships with Hal Jordan and John Stewart.
Alan Scott would also find himself appearing sporadically throughout the Bronze Age as DC wrestled with what to do with their Golden Age heroes. The dark days to come would radically change the status quo for all the Green Lanterns when gritty storytelling and dramatic character turns would rule the comic industry.
In Living Color
Green Lantern appeared in a handful of Filmation animated shorts in the late 1960’s but with the seventies superheroes began to gain more mass market appeal outside of the printed page. The 1973 launch of the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends would define how a generation of children would identify superheroes for the next fifteen years. Changing names and redefining itself the Super Friends would air until 1986 under different incarnations. Green Lantern was included as a character for several seasons and the show was the first time that the Silver Age origin was presented to a huge audience.
What always seemed like a pipe dream came true for better or worse in 1979. Capitalizing on the huge success of the Superman motion picture Hanna-Barbera turned their Super Friends success to prime time television with Legends of the Superheroes. The two dreadfully campy ABC specials marked the first live action appearance for both Hal Jordan and Sinestro, portrayed by funny man Charlie Callas. Howard Murphy’s portrayal of Green Lantern was on par with the laugh track ridden scripts. Wonder Woman and Superman were spared the tongue in cheek treatment given their rights were tied up with their ongoing appearances on television and film. The show is notable for the on-screen reunion of Adam West and Burt Ward who anchor the specials by reviving their roles as Batman and Robin.
In 1984 merchandising would begin to emerge as a way to cash in on comic book characters. Kenner would release the Super Powers Collection which included the first Green Lantern action figure, complete with “power action ring thrust” and a miniature power battery. The Super Friends would be re-branded as Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show and soon the connection between film, television and toy sales would forever change the way superheroes were packaged for public consumption.