Superhero Makeovers: Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern
“In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil’s might beware my power…Green Lantern’s light!”
Next to the Incredible Hulk, Hal Jordan is my favorite superhero. As a kid, I liked him because he had the coolest costume and the coolest superpower. As an adult, I like him because he’s fearless and heroic but also a believably flawed character. He doesn’t have a huge defining character flaw, but is rather just kind of a hard-head and a tool sometimes. I can sympathize with a character who is kind of a jerk at times but who has a good heart and will do the right thing when the chips are down. I don’t really know of too many other characters in comics who are believably flawed like that. Arguably, there’s Guy Gardner, another Green Lantern, and over in Marvel there’s Hank Pym, who is like that but veers more toward overt mental illness at times. But overall Hal Jordan is a strong enough and believable character that he’s managed to cross over the nostalgia filter and move from my childhood hero to my second favorite superhero ever.
The journey hasn’t been easy for Hal, though. While he might not have changed powers or costumes all that much, he was victim to one of the biggest cases of character derailment in comics, and it took him a full decade to recover from it. So let’s take a look at the history of Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, as he went from hero to psychopath to hero once again.
From Golden to Silver Age:
While this rant is about Hal Jordan, it’s worth noting right off the bat that Hal has never been the only hero to carry the name Green Lantern. In modern-day continuity, the Green Lanterns are an entire corps of space police, of which Hal is only one member out of thousands. Even before that concept was introduced, the Golden Age of comics had a Green Lantern that would barely resemble later heroes to bear that name.
The original Green Lantern was a railroad engineer named Alan Scott, who found a magical emerald-colored lantern following the collapse of a railroad bridge. The strange lantern showed Alan how to forge a ring from its metal, which would give him the power to do anything he could imagine, creating green constructs and energy beams that were powered by his own thought and will. Thus Alan became the first Green Lantern in comics, with his power only limited by the fact that his ring was ineffective against objects made out of wood. Unfortunately, Alan Scott was one of many superheroes who would not make it through the interregnum between the Golden and Silver Ages, disappearing in the 1950s. He would eventually return, and he’s gone through many changes himself, but that’s the subject for another time.
By the time superheroes became a viable market again, the times had changed. With a focus on the space race and the convenient fact that DC editor Julius Schwartz was a former science fiction literary agent, the new Green Lantern had a more sci-fi feel to him than the old one. His costume, designed by Gil Kane, had a more Space-Age feel to it and also served the double purpose of making the Green Lantern look like a more graceful flyer than had previously been seen in comics – even characters like Superman usually looked bulky and less graceful in the air (although in Superman’s case, he couldn’t fly originally anyway). His ring was no longer magic but rather very advanced science, and his fights tended more towards aliens and science fiction villains than the more mainstream style of crime-fighting that Alan Scott dealt with.
Hal Jordan was introduced in Showcase Presents #22, written by John Broome and drawn by Gil Kane. Right off the bat, several things separated Hal from his other contemporaries. He didn’t have a mild-mannered alter ego, instead making a living as a test pilot. It was in fact his attitude that got him the role of Green Lantern in the first place – when the dying alien Abin-Sur crash-landed on Earth, he sent his ring to find a man without fear, picking Hal Jordan out for the heroic qualities that he possessed before he even gained super powers. Hal’s love interest, Carol Ferris, was unusually strong for a woman of the era and was actually Hal’s boss. She pined for the Green Lantern over Hal in a manner similar to the Lois-Clark-Superman quasi-love triangle, but was more direct about it, even proposing to the Green Lantern at one point. The relationship was given more of a twist when Carol herself would occasionally be possessed by an alien force and transform into the supervillainess Star Sapphire, making for plenty of moral dilemmas for Hal. Finally, Hal had a sidekick, an Eskimo named Tom Kalmaku. Tom’s nickname of “Pieface” is pretty racist in retrospect, but Tom was not a caricature himself like so many other minority sidekicks. He was pretty clever and capable of heroism himself, serving as a foil and confidant for Hal. With all these things differentiating him from other superheroes, the Green Lantern was truly unique in power, attitude, and supporting cast. Hal Jordan, the original man without fear, quickly became a Silver Age icon.
As stories went on, Hal got another oddity among Silver Age characters: a family. Hal himself was single without kids, but he often interacted with his brothers, showing relationships that extended beyond just his superhero-ing and his love interest. Although one of those brothers would eventually get killed off, the other brother remains a supporting character even today. All of the complexities of Hal’s life made for drama that unfolded serially, rather than the Silver Age norm of acting as though each issue was a reader’s first. DC still trailed behind Marvel in terms of character development and growth, but Hal Jordan was a huge step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, someone this awesome needed something super-lame to balance him out. Unlike Alan, whose weakness to wood was lame but not too lame, Hal’s ring was unable to effect the color yellow. Until this weakness was taken away many decades later, we’d get scenes of Hal being blinded by mustard or fighting against yellow missiles. But I guess there had to be something to level the playing field.
The Guardians of the Universe:
As Hal made the jump from appearing in Showcase Presents and getting his own Green Lantern #1, he became one of many Green Lanterns. Green Lantern #1 introduced the Guardians of the Universe, blue emotionless creatures that kept order in the universe from a planet called Oa. The Guardians had split the universe into 3,600 different sectors, each patrolled by a Green Lantern. Hal’s predecessor, Abin Sur, was the Green Lantern of Sector 2814. The Green Lantern ring, created by the Guardians, was programmed to seek out someone with great willpower and fearlessness upon the user’s death. It is worth noting that in the Silver Age, the Green Lantern ring was usable by anybody, whereas more modern tales have changed it so that a normal person has to really push themselves in order to create the simplest of effects, while those who can overcome great fear can use them with more ease.
While not containing a major shift in focus or costume for Hal, the Guardians of the Universe era did help crystallize the things that would make the Green Lantern popular going forward. It established Hal as sort of a cowboy cop, constantly pushing against the Guardians’ rules and regulations as he sought to do the right thing. By introducing a whole corps of Lanterns, artist Gil Kane helped really shake things up art-wise in comics. The space adventures called for more action than could be fit into a typical layout of 6 panels of equal size, causing Kane to use panels of varying sizes and shapes, creating the more dynamic page layouts that most comics use today.
Finally, the large number of Green Lanterns helped establish Hal’s evil opposite and greatest villain: Sinestro, once a member of the corps who became a tyrant on his home world of Korugar. I don’t know why the Guardians, supposedly the wisest beings in existence, would ever consider recruiting a guy named Sinestro, but they did. And surprise, surprise, Sinestro turned evil and became a major recurring villain for Hal. Making matters worse, he eventually made contact with the anti-matter universe of Qward, giving him a yellow ring that was equal in power to the Green Lanterns’ rings. Having Sinestro run around with a yellow ring would be like Superman having to fight a man made out of Kryptonite. Oh, wait…
On the Road:
I might be reaching here, but I’d say that the Green Lantern of the Silver Age was a pretty good metaphor for the Space Race. Through the 1960s, Hal remained popular and Americans looked toward the stars, trying to beat out the designated villains that we had made the Russians out to be. Science fiction and pulp entertainment flourished. Then America landed on the moon, and the Space Race ended. Then everything sort of…stopped. Not that NASA hasn’t made advances since, but Americans no longer had a goal that was both tangible and realistic, and the interest in space began to dwindle. Similarly, the Green Lantern and other science fiction heroes started to lose popularity as they approached the end of the Space Race. In 1970, Broome and Kane left the book and DC started experimenting with ways they could improve falling sales of Green Lantern. They had a space-based pulp hero in an era where people no longer had an interest in such high-flying adventures. As a result, Hal got teamed up with the Green Arrow and sent on a long, meandering road trip to get back in touch with America. (Yeah, the crap going on in Superman right now isn’t exactly groundbreaking, as it was done better about 40 years ago.)
Again, we didn’t see a shift in Hal’s costume or powers, but there was a change in his stories and personalities. Teaming up with the Green Arrow, he was taught several very heavy-handed “lessons,” such as when a black man reamed him out for helping the “orange skins” and the “purple skins” but not the “black skins.” While the issues did boost sales and were among the first to explore social issues in comics, I don’t personally think that Hal flippin’ Jordan was the best guy to use in that context. It’s not like the Green Lantern was only using his powers to help white suburban America – he was usually patrolling space and saving the world, without regard to things like race or social class. In his road trip, he basically played the role of heel, getting humbled time and time again by the socially conscious Green Arrow for laissez-faire racism and class ignorance that Hal had never shown before. Green Arrow is a good character for those kinds of stories, as he’s a rich white guy who did in fact spend a lot of his early years ignoring the poor and the needy. Putting these stories into a Green Lantern comic seems like inserting a plot into Star Wars where Lando goes on the run from the KKK – a potentially decent message, but not the right medium or character to get it across.
But hey, what do I know? The run was critically acclaimed and did provide a boost to Hal’s sales and profile for a while. It also put the character through a long period of self-doubt and introspection, changing him from a gung-ho pilot and playboy to a more sensitive, less confident superhero. Effectively, this period was Hal growing up. This era also introduced two new Green Lanterns of Earth: Guy Gardner, who would have been chosen as a Green Lantern in Hal’s place had Hal not been closer to Abin Sur, and John Stewart, Hal’s backup and the guy attributed by many to be the first honest-to-God black superhero. To show Hal’s rank as the senior to these guys and also reflect on the growing up period that he just had, we got…
Old Man Hal:
Unlike Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, Hal didn’t get a major overhaul in terms of origin after DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot. He did get a few elements added to his origin in the Emerald Dawn storyline, which established that he had been trained by Sinestro before Sinestro went rogue, but other than that he remained mostly the same. As the 80s ended and the 90s began, as a way to show his change in character and further differentiate himself from the other superheroes of the era (not to mention the two other Earth-based Green Lanterns), Hal was given white streaks in his hair. His personality also changed slightly to fit the “veteran” archetype, sometimes noting to himself that he wasn’t as young and physically strong as he used to be. While having an older superhero could have been a good idea (not to mention the fact that I kinda like the streaks of white), the timing was not the best. Comics in the 90s were more aggressive in targeting teenagers than ever, shooting for darker and more edgy heroes. An old man who doubts himself and is trying to get his life back on track after years of travel isn’t the most relatable to younger readers. Combined with the fact that his stories ranged in quality from mediocre to downright poor, Hal continued to drop in popularity as a character. DC’s editorial decided it was time for new blood, and Hal had to get tossed by the wayside to make it happen.
Cue up the ultimate in character derailment. In the Death of Superman storyline, two of Superman’s villains destroyed Hal’s hometown of Coast City. Hal joined up with the newly-resurrected Superman and defeated the monsters responsible for the crime, showing sadness but still remaining strong as a character. Then, in his own book, in THREE issues, Hal became a psychotic killer.
The original plan was to give Hal a sendoff where he left the Green Lantern corps due to corruption in the ranks of the Guardians. Editorial, though, wanted to be sure there was no chance Hal would come back later as a hero (they failed, but it took a decade to happen). So at the last minute, Ron Marz was tapped to write a story where Hal flipped out and killed thousands. The story, Emerald Dawn, begins with Hal trying to use his ring to recreate Coast City. He is then reprimanded by the Guardians for “using his ring for personal gain.” (Yeah…restoring millions of people to life is personal gain, apparently.) The Guardians plan to drum Hal out of the corps, as his one moment of sadness apparently undoes all the times he’s saved the universe. Enraged, Hall flies off to Oa and goes on a total killing spree. He murders his way through every Green Lantern who tries to stop him. Things get so bad that the Guardians bring back Sinestro to stop him, only to have Hal break Sinestro’s neck. Then Hal steps into the central power battery on Oa, absorbs all the energy, kills all the Guardians except for one, and flies off as the supervillain Parallax – a total shift in character in three issues. Ganthet, the last remaining Guardian, then took Hal’s discarded ring to Earth and gave it literally to the first Earth-man he saw, a down on his luck artist named Kyle Rayner.
This story insulted readers’ intelligence in so many ways that it’s practically hilarious. It also showed a bad side of comic book fans, as Ron Marz received death threats from people for what he did to Hal. Come on…I hate the story, too, but death threats?! It’s just a comic book! All those threats also ignore the fact that Marz was put on the spot by editorial and told to whip this story up practically on the fly.
Truth be told, Emerald Twilight could have been a good story, had it been given a year or so to develop. But the sudden shift in three issues was too much. Making matters worse was the fact that Hal then became not just a villain, but an uber-villain, killing billions of people in a misguided attempt to remake the universe in the Zero Hour story. After years of him being a total psychopath, he was finally given a somewhat heroic sendoff in the Final Night event, when an alien parasite almost extinguished Earth’s sun and Hal sacrificed himself to save the day.
The one lasting good thing that came out of this mess was Kyle Rayner. Kyle was a pretty weak character at first, basically just the younger and more hip version of the Green Lantern. It’s pretty sad that whenever comics’ editors try to make a character young and cool, they tend to make him a socially awkward, unemployed git. I guess that’s what some of the guys in charge think of comics fans. However, through a lot of perseverance and work, Kyle eventually developed into an interesting character on his own, and still remains a part of the Green Lantern Corps today.
Dead Like Hal:
Final Night marked Hal Jordan’s death, but as we all know, death rarely sticks in comic books. Hal came back when the Spectre, an embodiment of God’s vengeance, lost his mortal host and became a danger to the world. The Justice League found Hal in purgatory and gave him a shot at real redemption, becoming host to the Spectre and literally doing God’s work. However, Hal’s interpretation of righteousness was a little too New Testament for the old school fire and brimstone-style Spectre, resulting in a clash of personality as Hal tried to serve as a spirit of redemption while the Spectre sought vengeance against the unholy. Hal got a short-lived Spectre series that didn’t enjoy very good sales mainly because it focused on existentialist philosophy and other matters that didn’t cater too well to fans of action-packed comic book slugfests. Hal’s time as the Spectre did get him to the 2000s, though, which is an era marked with sentimentality for the Silver Age. As a result of Hal’s growing popularity, it was only a matter of time before he returned as the Green Lantern.
In 2004, a decade after Hal had gone nuts and become Parallax, Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Scriver provided fans with Green Lantern: Rebirth, which explained almost everything about Hal’s behavior and the Green Lantern mythos in general while remaining more or less consistent with continuity. The six-issue miniseries established that the DC Universe has an emotional electromagnetic spectrum, with different lights representing different types of emotional energy. Green is the energy of willpower, while yellow is the energy of fear. Parallax was an ancient embodiment of fear, imprisoned in the Central Power Battery by the Guardians at the dawn of time – thus explaining the Green Lanterns’ weakness against yellow. Thousands of years later, Sinestro made contact with Parallax when he too was imprisoned in the Central Power Battery. The awakened Parallax then possessed Hal Jordan shortly after the destruction of Coast City. Hal, being a man without fear, didn’t recognize that he suddenly became terrified and irrational in his weakest moment. The Spectre later chose Hal as his host in hopes of burning out Parallax and ridding the world of the fear-entity.
Rebirth saw Hal return to life as the young, confident, and arrogant man he used to be. His gray hair disappeared, explained away as an effect of Parallax aging him prematurely. Sinestro returned as a villain, revealing that his death had been staged as a way of breaking Hal’s will. The Guardians of the Galaxy, resurrected by Kyle in a separate adventure, began reconstructing the corps, putting two Green Lanterns in each sector. The traditional weakness against yellow remained but was changed – if a Green Lantern recognized fear, he could overcome it.
Most importantly, Hal’s rebirth helped mend a rift between fans who wanted Hal’s return versus fans who like Kyle as Earth’s Green Lantern. Rather than choosing one side or another, Johns had Hal show a lot of respect for Kyle and vice-versa. Kyle served as instrumental to Hal’s return to life, and Hal took special offense to Sinestro calling Kyle an “alley rat,” rightly pointing out that there would have been no corps at all without Kyle carrying the torch. Finally, Hal and Kyle shook hands and then took off to save the universe against Parallax. Since then, each Green Lantern of Earth has had a place in the mythos. Hal and John are partners in sector 2814 while Kyle and Guy were given a role as members of the corps’ honor guard on Oa. The Green Lanterns as a whole earned a lot of popularity as a result of the miniseries, with Hal’s adventures continuing in a rebooted Green Lantern while Kyle and Guy became central characters in a new Green Lantern Corps book, with John appearing in both books at different times.
Hal Jordan Today:
Since getting his mitts on Hal Jordan in 2004, Geoff Johns hasn’t let the character go. Be it a desire by the public to return to fun space-faring stories or just Johns’ solid writing combined with his meticulous planning of storylines years in advance, Green Lantern has landed a consistent place at the top of sales charts. Hal has also enjoyed being at the center of storylines such as The Sinestro Corps War, Black Night, and now Brightest Day.
With the revelation of the emotional energy spectrum, Johns also brought in other Lantern Corps, one for each part of the spectrum. We’ve got red for rage, orange for greed, yellow for fear (led by Sinestro, of course), blue for hope, violet for love (which is a reworking of the Star Sapphires, led by Carol Ferris), and indigo for compassion. Additionally, Blackest Night introduced the Black Lanterns, who are essentially zombies who feed on emotion. Brightest Day has provided us with white energy, but its secrets have yet to be revealed. The many Lantern Corps seem like a bad idea at first, but it’s worked pretty well due to the fact that each corps has a cast of members with a lot of detail, ranging from the tragedy of rage kitty to the humor of Larfleeze the Orange Lantern as he tries to steal Christmas. Due to so many different rings out there, Hal has had his share of costume changes, wielding yellow, red, blue, orange, black, and white rings at various points in recent history. These changes have all been temporary, though, and Hal has remained a Green Lantern through and through. Coast City has rebuilt and is now known as “The City Without Fear,” and the future for Hal Jordan, Green Lantern looks bright indeed.