Evergreen: Hal Jordan Turns 50

Green Lantern Hal Jordan is 50, although since he got rid of the grey hair, you can’t really tell. Embodying the welcome return of superheroes in comics, after years of western and romance titles, Hal was the first of many re-imagined DC characters that came to define the Silver Age and entice a new generation eager to be raised on a steady diet of spandex. Spurred on by the success of Barry Allen as the new Flash, editor Julius Schwartz thought the Green Lantern concept was also due a facelift. In the 1950s nothing was cooler than pilots and Elvis, but Elvis already had a costume. So, whereas Hal’s predecessor Alan Scott was the bearer of a ring made from mystical green flame, Hal was basically an intergalactic cop, charged by the Guardians of the Universe (who resembled the Smurfs’ ancestors) with the ultimate hi-tech weapon – a power ring. His creators, John Broome and Gil Kane gave pop culture a great leading man in his debut in 1959’s Showcase #22. Hal is effectively the springboard for a literal universe of engrossing concepts, like the centre of a creative brainstorming session. The Green Lantern Corps, the Lanterns of different hues, G’Nort -it’s all there, and it all started with an eager man without fear, years before a certain blind lawyer would claim the title.

I’ve always had an affinity for Hal, rather than Alan. Not surprisingly because I grew up with him as the Green Lantern. He has one of the coolest costume designs of any superhero, and he has a ring that’s powered by sheer will. The other standard tropes of flight, a secret identity and being a member of a superhero club are all just icing on the emerald cake.

Recently a nerdy associate and myself were discussing which group was cooler – the Green Lantern Corps or the Jedi. Both use willpower to combat evil, both have simple uniforms (green spandex vs robes) and strange weapons (power rings vs lightsabers) and both are effectively galaxy spanning peace keepers that have existed for millennia, embodied by a wide variety of strange alien races. I can’t deny that the Jedi are cool (which self-respecting nerd ever could?) but I must say that the GL Corps beat them hands down; not merely because they existed first, but because they are emotional beings, as opposed to the stoic Jedis. Because of their human, or alien, failings and triumphs, space and now emotion itself has become the stage for some of comics’ greatest dramas, all with Hal as the central figure, and Jordan is the poster boy for the GL Corps with good reason – he was the first human recruit and he’s the best there is at what he does (sorry Wolvie!).

Growing up in Perth, (the most isolated city on the planet) meant that I was very unfamiliar with comics as a child. However the upside was that I was safe from nuclear fallout. Scrounging any superhero distraction I could get meant hours sitting in front of the TV every Saturday morning foregoing all distractions, such as breakfast and blinking. Super Friends, and later Super Powers as cheesy as they could be, were nonetheless a revelation to my square eyes. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman I were already familiar with, but when new characters I’d never seen before appeared, such as The Atom, Aquaman and of course, Green Lantern I was mesmerised. It was a rich fantasy world that I wanted to inhabit as often as possible, and the week’s wait till the next sweet Saturday morn seemed like an eternity in The Phantom Zone. However, little was I to realise at the time that the glowing box in my living room was not indicative of the much grander vision being played out every month in Hal’s printed adventures.

Hal’s solo escapades in Green Lantern lasted twelve years after launching his titular series in 1960 and became the place for bold ideas at the time, including Hal’s boss, and love interest Carol Ferris, a rare strong female character and Tom Kalmaku, an Inuit mechanic and Hal’s best friend. John Stewart would arrive soon after. John was DC’s first African American superhero – an architect who became a ring wielder after being recruited by the Guardians as Hal’s backup protector of Sector 2814, or Earth, as we call it.

These creatively mature decisions proved to be indicators of the future direction of Green Lantern. When writer Denny O’Neill and artist Neal Adams (John Stewart’s creators) took over Hal’s next adventures in the 1970s he teamed up with Oliver Queen, AKA Green Arrow in the wisely named Green Lantern/Green Arrow, a truly ground breaking series. This team-up title has become known for its social relevance as the two similarly coloured superheroes traversed America battling more than just bad guys. O’Neill and Adams presented a realistic presentation (in both scripts and art) of the hard travelling heroes’ battles against racism and drug abuse, while simultaneously trying to rationalise the space operatics of superheroing with real world issues of their time (and ours).

Throughout the 80s Hal appeared in Action Comics Weekly as well as his own series, which has later re-named Green Lantern Corps, before being re-presented post-Crisis in the mini-series Emerald Dawn, but as Hal entered the next decade, he’d soon be facing a backlash from readers eager to keep the status quo.

Most fans would like to skim past the part of Hal’s history involving the 90s, but the decade isn’t all cringe inducing. Thanks to the momentous Death of Superman two years earlier, Hal was subjected to the same fate as his peers in 1994, when he received an extreme makeover, and a younger replacement. Truth be told, I loved Kyle Rayner and didn’t see him as a usurper at all. I still remember the excitement of the glow in the dark cover of GL #50 (Vol. 3) heralding a fresh approach to the mythos. Due to the fact that in my neck of the woods, comic shops started popping up for the first time, my perspective was not dimmed by Silver Age nostalgia. That’s why I’m fond of Kyle as GL and Wally West as Flash. They’re the characters I read about; the characters that introduced me to this life-long obsession with sequential art.

Seeing Hal become Parallax on a power trip, and then the wrath of God, after being redeemed as The Spectre didn’t initially make a lot of sense to me, but it was unlike anything I’d read or experienced at that time. These heroes were such a leap from their animated counterparts, they may as well been in a different language, and I loved it. Reading comics in the 90s (what I like to call ‘the best of times and the worst of times’ for the comics biz) in my teenage years was a true eye opener. I was knee deep in something mysterious, but something that spoke to my need for epic, unexpected stories. Hal’s transformations from do-gooder to social crusader to space explorer to obsessed madman to justice incarnate to well, wherever Geoff Johns takes him next, post-Blackest Night. It’s been a fascinating ride by anyone’s imagining, and an imagination is something we loyal fanboys and girls have a Mogo-sized helping of. I think that’s another reason why Hal has lasted 5 decades. He has the ability to imagine – just like us. I don’t think I’ve met a reader of comics who isn’t a creative type in some capacity themselves. Unlike films or TV, comic books demand more of the reader. We are an active participant, partaking in a unique give and take with the men and women behind the keyboard and the pencil. Like the Guardians giving a seemingly non-descript company man such as Hal Jordan the key to literal wish fulfilment, we as readers, are inspired to unlock the gates of our imagination. We see more than a soldier and leader behind Hal’s mask. We see a man with the means to combat fear and darkness. We see a dreamer, and that’s an idea we can grasp with both hands.