Weekly Geeky Question #10 – Green Lanterns of Earth

Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #10, and this week’s questions is…

Who is the best defender of Sector 2814?

Or, in more popular lingo, who is the best Green Lantern?

Green Lantern Ring

Presumably if you’re reading this you are well-familiar with Green Lantern, but just in case, you should know that the character has its origins from all the way back to 1940 with the golden age hero Alan Scott.  Alan was a train engineer who comes into contact with a mystical green energy that he controls from a ring that he himself fashioned.

But it’s in the character’s “silver age” revival from 1959 that we find the real subject of our conversation.  At that point, Green Lantern was reinvented as Hal Jordan, a test pilot who became the latest member of an galactic defense force known as the Green Lantern Corp, whose members each wielded a ring which controlled a powerful energy that would be shaped the users will-power.  As Green Lantern, Hal Jordan functioned as both a superhero on earth and as an interstellar law enforcement officer on the many planets in the space sector (Sector 2814) that he was responsible for.  Overseeing this operation were the nigh-omnipotent so-called Guardians of the Universe, who lived on Oa, a planet at the centre of all 3600 Sectors, which also contained the central battery which was the source of the Green Lantern’s power.

In the years since Hal Jordan’s debut, lots of other Green Lanterns have been introduced, including successors to the title of Green Lantern of earth.  Indeed, lots of panel time has been spent on the disproportionate number of Green Lanterns that have come from earth, as opposed to all the other planets that the galaxy seems to be filled with.

So, the question this week to identify who I think is the best such Green Lantern, specifically the best Green Lantern of Sector 2814.  I’ve been asked to use the same sort of approach that I did when talking about Star Trek‘s best Captain, giving some commentary on each of the major contenders.

Now I’m at a bit of a disadvantage with this post as opposed to the Star Trek one, simply because I’m not as thoroughly familiar with the recorded careers of all these characters.  I have read stories and issues featuring all of these people, but there are tons of gaps in my knowledge.  I’ll try to be clear about that as I go through each character.

The Namechecks:

Abin Sur

All right, for the most part, Abin Sur is a plot device, rather than a character (though there have been stories built around him.  He’s a purple alien who  the protector of 2814 until died on earth and passed his ring to the closest suitable candidate:  Hal Jordan.  Abin was flying in a spaceship when he was fatally wounded, a fact that at least two comic book stories have attempted to explain.  One of them was written by legendary scribe Alan Moore and contained enough ideas in its few pages that it fueled years of multi-issue arcs including at least one company-wide crossover…a fact that Moore himself used as evidence of the disastrous state of modern comics.

Green Lantern Abin Sur

I don’t really have any handle on Abin Sur’s character, except that he’s generally meant to have been one of the great Green Lanterns.  There was also a period after Hal Jordan had gone insane and evil where it turned out that Abin Sur was now in some sort of purgatory for his part in Hal’s sins…since Abin had selected Hal to be a Green Lantern, Abin was held partially responsible for all the evil things Hal had done.  Comics are crazy.  Also, so is that theology.

So where does that leave us with Abin Sur?  Maybe the Green Lantern of Sector 2814 most likely to confusingly die while flying a spaceship.  Or Green Lantern of Sector 2814 whose name is the most confusing to pronouce.  Or simply Green Lantern of Sector 2814 with the most purple skin.

Simon Baz / Jessica Cruz

In the last few years of DC Comics, the creators of Green Lantern have decided to respond to criticisms that there are too many ring-slingers from earth by doubling down and creating two new ones, both designed to bring a bit more diversity to earth’s representation in the Corp.  Simon Baz is a Lebanese-American guy who was suspected at times of being a terrorist, Jessica Cruz is woman who was overcome with fear and then became the victim of an evil version of the Green Lantern power ring, but later was able to redeem herself and become a hero.  I don’t know much about either character except that in a recent storyline (maybe still current?) Hal Jordan fused their batteries (which charge their ring) together so they’d be forced to work together, and deal with all their rookie mistakes as a team.  It’s theoretically an interesting concept, but not one I’m really all that eager to read about.  For me, they together earn the title of Green Lanterns that most make me sound like a grumpy old fan, wishing for the good ol’ days.

The Real Candidates

OK, now we’re getting into it–DC’s four main human Green Lantern characters.  These are all characters I’m more familiar with, but this brings up one of the challenges with this post, as opposed to the Star Trek one.

See, with the Star Trek guys, the actual scope of their core appearances are pretty finite.  In other words, even Captain Picard, who appeared more than any of the Star Trek captains I wrote about, is only in 7 seasons of a TV show and 4 movies (plus an appearance in one other Star Trek series).  I can–and have–watch all of those stories, as indeed most of them are easily packaged together for consistent viewing.  And for the most part–some bad writing aside–you pretty much get the same character from beginning to end:  one man with one background, and an evolving but consistent outlook on life.

That is not the case with most any long-standing comic book character.  Guy Gardner, for example, has been depicted as a bland backup to Hal Jordan, as a brain-damaged self-entitled loudmouthed jerk, as a soldier from an alien race, a senior veteran and trainer for the Green Lantern Corp, a rage-infected member of the Red Lantern Corp, and more.  How is it possible to look at a character as varied as that and decide how great a hero he is?  It’s sort of impossible, but I’m going to give it a red hot (or stoic green) bash, touching upon the four main earth Green Lanterns in what is generally my ascending order of preference:

Guy Gardner

Created 1968 by John Broome & Gil Kane

Guy started out as a fairly uninspiring guy who had the same qualifications to be a Green Lantern as Hal Jordan (fearless and honest) but was a bit further away.  The Guardians predicted originally that if he had been closer, his career would have been short as he would have died in battle.

Green Lantern Guy Gardner

His career wasn’t short, though, largely thanks to Steve Engelhart’s Green Lantern (and Green Lantern Corp) where Guy was turned into a loud-mouthed jerk, a version who became even more popular via Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatties’ Justice League International.  This variation of the character was one that some loved and others loved to hate – an arrogant, opinionated, self-aggrandizing blowhard who also showed genuine courage and fearlessness in battle, but came across as a bit of a idiotic man-child.  He was similar in Gerard Jones’ concurrent Green Lantern comic from the 1990’s, where he eventually was kicked out of the Corp and found other ways of becoming a hero, first by using classic enemy Sinestro’s yellow ring, and then by using his never-before-mentioned alien DNA to manifest weapons out of his body (!!).  Overall, this Guy Gardner was interesting simply because he was so different than any other hero in either Justice League or Green Lantern that’d read about, and he fit into Justice League‘s humorous tone.  He was fearless, reckless, and dangerous to his enemies, with a soft side that was normally buried deep inside but which occasionally came out in a potent way…but he wasn’t a character I actually liked at all.

When Geoff Johns took over Green Lantern and set about repositioning the entire franchise with Green Lantern Rebirth, Guy Gardner became more rough, tough and grizzled, rather than just annoying and full of himself.  All traces of his idiocy were well and truly gone by this point, and Guy became a respected senior member of the Green Lantern Corp, albeit with a lot of his abrasive personality intact.

Ultimately, Johns was able to take Guy Gardner, retain a lot of what made him unique, but morph him into someone who was more palatable, overtly heroic and even admirable.  He’ll never be my favorite Green Lantern, and he spent too much time erroneously boasting about being the greatest Green Lantern there is for him to ever really have that title.  But he can be easily considered to be the Green Lantern of earth most likely to beat the tar out of me for getting on his bad side.

Kyle Rayner

Created in 1994 by Ron Marz & Darryl Banks

Kyle was an ordinary cartoonist who became Green Lantern not by being qualified, but by the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time.  According to DC’s editors, Kyle was created because Hal Jordan, whilst starring in a number of good stories, was himself an uninteresting character.

Green Lantern Kyle Rayner

Regardless of whether I agree (I don’t), it’s clear when you read those early issues with Kyle that they were really trying to make him a different sort of person, with more imaginative ring-constructs, and a continuing meandering search for what it means to be a hero.  Kyle’s major storyline in those early days had to do with the death of his girlfriend Alex, who brutal murder at the hands of a supervillain continues to spark controversy all these years later.  It turned Kyle from a happy-go-lucky loser into a bit of a cosmic riff on Peter Parker–the tragedy-defined hero who was forced to confront how serious this business really was.  Even so, Kyle usually remained positive and hopeful, with a bit of a post-modern take on the genre he was in:  he could see the weaknesses of the whole superhero thing (as exemplified in Hal Jordan, who at the time had gone crazy and murderous and eventually had died) but was determined to find a way through it anyway.

Sadly, even though a lot of care was given to Kyle the character, the same couldn’t be said of the stories he was in, resulting in the opposite problem that Kyle’s editor claimed Hal Jordan had had (it seemed like if they weren’t sure what to do, they’d just kill another one of Kyle’s girlfriends).

Fortunately, Kyle got good plots in spades when he became part of Grant Morrison’s JLA revival, where the team was turned from an eclectic hodge-podge of heroes into a lineup full of DC’s biggest guns (or at least their latest iterations). The series was non-stop wide-screen epics full of huge stories with huge stakes, but it also had great characterization.  Kyle was the newest hero on the roster, often functioning as the “everyman” of the group, in awe of the legendary figures he was rubbing shoulder with.  I specifically remember a bit where he encounters some cosmic being who told him that actually Kyle had an advantage over his predecessor Hal Jordan because he understood one thing Hal never did:  fear.  It was a moment that contained a cool promise of greater things to come for Kyle’s character.

Unfortunately, that overall direction changed when Geoff Johns restructured the entire Green Lantern story in Green Lantern: Rebirth.  This was a great thing for Hal Jordan, but it was not great for Kyle, who was suddenly sidelined from his position as the “torchbearer” for the Green Lantern Corp (even if it was only then that they started calling him that) to become just one of 7199 other Lanterns, and one of 4 (at the time) from earth, and the rookie one at that.  A lot of Green Lantern ink has since been shed trying to figure out Kyle’s position in the whole thing–an ordinary Green Lantern, a guy possessed by Parallax (a fear entity), a guy possessed by Ion (a willpower entity), a member of the Green Lantern Honor Guard, a  Blue Lantern, a “White Lantern” who can harness the powers of the entire emotional spectrum, a dead guy, a secretly alive guy, Carol Ferris’ boyfriend…it goes on and on, beyond my ability to keep track of.

I liked Kyle a lot in JLA and always missed having him in that group.  But my enjoyment of him has definitely diminished the general confusion about what to do with him that came with the as a consequence to Green Lantern‘s overall return to greatness.

To sum it up, we could say that Kyle is the most imaginative Green Lantern of earth, but unfortunately he’s also the most likely one to quickly change status quo the most abruptly, also the one whose girlfriend is most likely to die.

John Stewart

Created in 1971 by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. 

Like Guy earlier, John Stewart has been around long enough to have had a lot of different approaches to his character.  Unlike Guy or anyone else on this list, he’s the only Green Lantern to have had one of his best depictions take place in media other than comics.

Green Lantern John Stewart 4

John was introduced during the famed O’Neil / Adams run when social relevance was the watchword.  He was by some accounts DC’s first black superhero (although Jack Kirby’s Black Racer precedes him…if you can count an avatar of death who flies around on skis to be a superhero!)  He started off as a bit of an “angry black man” figure who put Hal Jordan off, but he proved his integrity and resourcefulness as Hal’s new back-up Green Lantern (after Guy Gardner had been injured).  John later took over for Hal full-time as the main Green Lantern of earth for a while.  Then he began to have one tragedy after another, as his arrogance allowed a planet to die in Cosmic Odyssey, and his wife, Katma Tui, was murdered in the pages of his own comic.

John experienced a renaissance of a sorts along with the whole Green Lantern franchise, when a new series by Gerard Jones and a variety of artists began to focus on the three Green Lantern’s of earth:  John, Guy and Hal.  During this time (which is the main period I’m familiar with), John was shown to be brave and resourceful, as all Green Lanterns should be, but also measured and considerate.  In some ways he had characteristics similar to Kyle Rayner later on:  he could see past the blistering sort of self confidence of Hal Jordan to look at things from other points of view.  This was essential in what became his greatest challenge, which was being the caretaker of the Mosaic.

The Mosaic was a patchwork community of cities that had been gathered together on Oa by a mad Guardian, but allowed to remain as a cosmic experiment by all the others  afterwards. John thus had a job similar to that of Ben Sisko (Star Trek‘s African American Captain), which was to not just go out on missions, but stick around in one place and find a way to help a whole bunch of disparate cultures and worlds to communicate and ultimately get along.  Often his background as an architect was brought into this.

What followed was one of the loopiest mainstream superhero comics you’ll ever read, Green Lantern Mosaic, by Gerard Jones and Cully Hamner (originally).

Green Lantern John Stewart 2

It was ostensibly the story of humans and far-out alien cultures trying to make sense of existence with one another, in a range of stories that were sometimes tragic, sometimes comical, sometimes semi-allegorical–kind of like a comic book version of The Prisoner.

But mostly, it became the odyssey of John Stewart himself.  We learned that John had a lot going on in his mind that he wasn’t aware of.  He had absorbed the essence of Sinestro into his head; he could somehow bring manifestations of other dead characters back to life as well and interact with them, including his wife; and that actually he himself had unconsciously created the Mosaic world in the first place.

This was really the only time in my comic book reading history that I was fully invested in John as a character.  The book went out of its way to present him as a layered character full of internal contradictions (he likes jazz and Streisand for example), and showing that these complexities were necessary for him to manage something as explosive as the Mosaic.  All this was contrasted by the more “one note” Hal Jordan.  Memorably, the two get into a mental fight with one another which John wins ultimately by being a more complex guy.

Green Lantern John Stewart 3

If talking about John Stewart meant only talking about the Mosaic John Stewart, he’d be a strong contender for be my favorite Green Lantern character.

At the book’s conclusion, John had come to terms with his identity, had largely succeeded in calling the Mosaic together as cohesive society, and was elevated to the position of being a human Guardian of the Universe.  It really felt like they were doing something with the character that you didn’t normally see in comics, and I would have loved to have read more more if the book hadn’t been cancelled (not because of low sales, apparently, but because someone in DC editorial didn’t feel the book fit the company’s vision…which I think is fancy talk for “didn’t like it.”)

The fact that Mosaic had it’s own internal conclusion was good, though, because it wasn’t long then before Green Lantern had an abrupt change of creative talent and story direction, and decided to wipe out the Guardians and most of the corp and ultimately Oa itself.  We later found out somewhere that all this happened while John was asleep on the other side of the planet, but that he’d fortunately been able evacuate all the Mosaic cities before it was too late.

Green Lantern John Stewart 1

After that, John was crippled, became the leader of the Darkstars (another galactic peace-keeping force), and eventually returned to the Green Lantern fold when everyone else did, with Rebirth.  In the meantime, he had been one of the founding members of the animated Justice League series, where he had a gruff no-nonsense personality that emphasized his new background as a Marine, more than his training as an architect. I liked John on the TV show, but I find it hard to feel that it’s actually the same character.

Incidentally, John easily wins the award for Green Lantern the writers are likely to put in a morally questionable situation, as his stories have including letting the planet Xanshi get destroyed, purposely destroying the planet Mogo, purposely killing Green Lantern who was about to crack under interrogation, unconsciously killing and resurrecting various Green Lantern characters in Mosaic, and who knows what else!

Hal Jordan

Created in 1959 by John Broome and Gil Kane.

OK, I may as well get this out of the way, Hal Jordan is the best Green Lantern.  Indeed, he’s one of my favorite DC characters of all time, with really only Wally West as the Flash outdistancing him.  When Hal was introduced, he was a rugged and cocky test pilot who became a rugged and cocky superhero.  He was interested in Carol Ferris, who was also the daughter of his boss (and indeed, also his boss), but was determined to win her as himself and not as Green Lantern, even though that would have been way easier.

Green Lantern Hal Jordan 1

As a character, Green Lantern has always been about will-power, and no one has exemplified this more than Hal.  Basically, if he wants to do it, he can do it.  This can be seen especially in the fact that the near-constant challenge that writers have put him through has been to undermine his confidence, to sap his will-power, and to erode his sense of purpose and identity.  Maybe the most famous example of this came in the celebrated run by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, about Hal realizing that justice was more complex and grayer than he thought, but there are lots of others as well.  Sometimes this was well done, sometimes not.  In the late 1980’s, Gerard Jones did his level best to bring him back to that place of certainty in his heroic purpose, but never quite got there.  This led to Hal’s greatest downfall, which is the narrative debacle that is Emerald Twilight.

Green Lantern Hal Jordan 4

In this travesty of a story, Hal is suddenly overwhelmed with guilt and grief at the loss of his home Coast City, which had been destroyed in the Superman resurrection story, Reign of the Supermen.  When the Guardians refuse to give him the power he needs to bring everyone back from the dead, he goes crazy, flies off to Oa, fights and possibly kills lots of Green Lanterns that he’d been training, fights and definitely kills his friend Kilowog and his enemy Sinestro, kills all the Guardians, and then absorbs the Central Power Battery in an effort to turn himself into a god. (Incidentally, I call the story a “travesty” not mainly because of the undesirable things that happen in it, but more because it’s terribly written).

This leads to some big spikes in sales, at least one company-wide crossover (Zero  Hour), and lots of angst as heroes are forced to fight their old friend. It also leads to lots of narrative retroactive characterization, as Hal regularly showed up in flashback stories in Justice League and other places, and everyone felt they had to include seeds for the hubris and character flaws that led to his downfall, as if they had been there all along.

Green Lantern Hal Jordan 2

If we were to believe all of this, Hal was always on the verging of cracking and being willing to kill everyone to achieve his own insane though noble purposes, it was just luck that kept it from happening earlier.  As Geoff Johns later  inserted as a metatextual comment in Green Lantern Rebirth, the question became not “How did Hal ever lose it?” but “Did Hal ever have it in the first place?”

Fortunately for Hal Jordan fans (like myself) but unfortunately for Kyle Rayner fans (like myself), Geoff Johns got to answer that question in the same series that he posed it, and Rebirth became the ultimate reconstruction of the character.  Hal’s crimes in Emerald Twilight were downgraded from “betraying everything he stood for and killing his colleagues” to “allowing himself to be possessed by a fear entity”, which allowed him to be a hero and a leader but still carry a level of guilt and regret about his past.  The Green Lantern quality of fearlessness, which Hal had always embodied, was redesigned to be an ability to feel fear and overcome it, which frankly makes a lot more sense.  Hal had his self-confidence back, but it existed alongside a deep awareness of his potential for failure, which represented fantastic character growth.

Green Lantern Hal Jordan 5

So Johns was able to create sort of the quintessential version of Hal Jordan with this series.  He tried to do the same with the other Lanterns on this list, but the thing is that all of them needed a lot of adjustment to get there, and none of them really look like the guys they were originally introduced as.  With Hal, it was more like Johns was turning him back into the guy that he had started off being, but a modern-writer’s maturity and understanding of the genre.  This is what makes Hal Jordan the best Green Lantern:  not only is he, in terms of the story, the most celebrated and the most effective at his job.  He also is and continues to be the template for the whole concept for what a “Green Lantern” is in the first place:  fearless, honest, heroic, and able to face off with the DCU’s biggest threats and still have the will-power to keep fighting.

 

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