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Grumpy Old Fan | Alan Scott and readers through the ages

by  in Comic News Comment

My parents were born in 1942, four years too early to be baby boomers. It also means they were just the wrong age to be exposed heavily to either the Golden or the Silver age of superhero comics. By the time they would have started to read, the Golden Age was half over; and when the Silver Age started in 1956, they were too old to be interested. I confirmed this with my dad, who has vague recollections of the original superheroes, but whose comic collection included more Archies and Little Lulus. (Had I known how much 21st-century hipster cred this would have given me, I’d have pressed him harder about those ….)

Still, these days they can’t get away from the Spandex set. When Conan O’Brien asserted (rightfully) that the Hulk had been in the Fantastic Four, Dad emailed me for confirmation.  This itself was a big step up for Dad, who at one point several years ago thought Batman was in the FF. (In fact, I don’t think my folks have seen either of the Christopher Nolan movies, although they did watch a revival of the 1940s serial at the local art-house theater.  Dad especially didn’t have any interest in the Schumacher movies, because the characters just “looked like toys.”) Last year, after the Green Lantern movie had been playing for a while, Dad thought he remembered seeing it — but actually, he and Mom had enjoyed Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet. Their nerd knowledge (what there is of it) is more likely to include Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes, although lately they’re into Downton Abbey.

Regardless, when I think about the impact of outing Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, I tend to gauge it in terms of my dad. He may not be the best representative of the generation that grew up with the Justice Society, but among people I know he was in the best position to become a fan, and for whatever reason it just didn’t stick. Therefore, when I mentioned the revelation of Alan’s sexuality to Dad over the weekend, it really didn’t register one way or another.

Now, before going too much further, let’s be clear: My dad does not speak for all his peers. His “meh” doesn’t mean that all 70-year-olds shouldn’t care how a character from their collective childhood is treated decades later. What did surprise me, though, was that Dad barely remembered the Golden Age Green Lantern at all. Sure, Truman was in office since Dad last read a superhero comic of his own, and yes, I’m 28 years younger than he is, but I bet when I’m 70 I have a decent sense of major and minor pop-culture figures from when I was 6 years old. Were it not for the existence of Jerry Bails (1933-2006) and Roy Thomas (b. 1940), who’s only about 18 months older than my dad, it would make me wonder how big a deal the Golden Agers were to the kids of the time.

Of course, we know what a big deal the Golden Agers became. Julius Schwartz contended famously that kids wouldn’t remember Jay Garrick’s Flash five years after his last appearance because “kids only read comics for maybe, tops, five years.”  Nevertheless, Showcase #4’s “Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt” practically dared readers to forget the titular hero of Flash Comics. As Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs’ The Comic Book Heroes (1997 edition, p. 10) recounts,

The bit [in the new Flash’s origin] with Barry Allen reading the old Flash comic surely must have been Julie’s. As a science fiction fan, he knew how a grown man could become attached to a piece of pop culture junk from his childhood, and he knew that a few adult SF fans paid attention to comics […]. If there were grown-ups out there engaged in the solitary hunt for the old comics that mom had thrown away, glancing at newsstands to see if their heroes had ever come back, Schwartz would want to make them happy.

Obviously there were enough old and new readers, curious about the heroes of the Justice Society, to warrant their return. You know the rest: Barry met Jay in September 1961’s “Flash of Two Worlds” (The Flash #123), Alan Scott and a handful of JSAers came out of retirement in June 1963’s “Vengeance of the Immortal Villain” (#137) and the Justice League met its older counterpart just a couple of months later, in August 1963’s “Crisis On Earth-One” (Justice League of America #21). In the ‘60s, Alan was a frequent guest in Green Lantern and Justice League. In the ‘70s, the JSA had regular features in the short-lived All Star Comics revival and in Adventure Comics, and the ‘80s brought All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc. After Crisis On Infinite Earths, Alan spent several years in Limbo with the rest of the JSA, but after coming back in the early ‘90s, he’s never really gone away.

In short, readers who might not have known any Green Lanterns except the Oan kind have had almost 50 years to get acquainted with the original — but what about Alan’s original demographic? Born probably in the early to mid-1930s (like Mr. Bails), they’d be around 80 today, and despite the general graying of the superhero-comics audience, I doubt they’re keeping up via Earth 2.

Clearly newer generations of fans have claimed the Golden Agers as their own, but in what way? When Alan and the rest of the JSA returned in earnest in 1963, it was after 12 years out of the public consciousness. Eventually the first-generation fans like Bails and Thomas gave way to those of us who only knew the Golden Agers from Justice League/Justice Society team-ups. I was fascinated by the contrast between Alan’s magic-based powers and the GL Corps’ super-science, and I enjoyed how it played into Hal and Alan’s chummy relationship. Time marches on, though, and today, after some 25 years of the JSA and JLA sharing a timeline, surely a significant portion of Alan’s younger fans sees him very differently than I do, or than Mr. Thomas does.

I don’t think this means that different generations of fans necessarily have a different set of responsibilities when it comes to (for lack of a better phrase) looking out for the character’s best interests. If you’re a first-generation fan of something (Star Wars, say, for us fortysomethings), you probably want some deference, although at some point you have to realize that time won’t always be on your side.

Speaking of which, Roy Thomas doesn’t seem to approve of making Alan gay, but as you can imagine, he’s not especially fond of a new Earth-2 either. In fact, Mr. Thomas had apparently suggested (in Secret Origins #20) that the original Doctor Mid-Nite was gay, and when he introduced Danette Reilly as the second Firebrand (All-Star Squadron #5), he emphasized her late brother (the original)’s status as a confirmed bachelor with a live-in bodyguard.  Neither this, nor the original Firebrand’s somewhat-flamboyant costume, was lost on later readers.

To me at least, all this is rooted in the extent to which fans honor characters’ original creators — but not everything gets the same amount of deference. I doubt seriously that Martin Nodell and Bill Finger thought one way or another about Alan Scott’s sexuality. If pressed I suppose they’d have deemed him straight, because at the time what else would he have been?

Conversely, what difference does it make to have the Alan Scott of the new Earth-2 gay? Does it lessen the chances he’ll father two super-powered kids who’ll become charter members of the JSA’s successor group? Probably. Does it mean that every Alan Scott appearance since 1940 has had him in the closet? Not the way I read it. That Alan, who fought the Axis and defied McCarthy, who teamed up with Hal Jordan and was almost Kyle Rayner’s father-in-law, has gone back into limbo.

I have no problems with the current Alan Scott being gay, and I actually think DC has handled his outing fairly well. Still, part of me is frustrated because this is another in-name-only revelation, like killing off Robin (Jason Todd) or Peter Parker (Ultimate version) or rolling out an African-American Spider-Man (Ultimate again). These are important events, to be sure, but they seem to come with asterisks. From what little we’ve seen of him so far, Earth 2’s Alan Scott looks like a fine person in a committed relationship, but he’s a reinvention, not a continuation.

Still, on one level this is all semantics. The bottom line is, DC has another high-profile gay character and only an accident of timing makes it look like much of a stunt. In fact, with the amount of liberties Earth 2 has already taken, the new Alan straddles the line between creating a new character and revising an existing one. However, as Roy Thomas pointed out in the above-linked statement, Earth 2 (as much as he apparently loathes it) has as little bearing on the merits of the Golden Age stories as his own All-Star and Infinity work did in the ‘80s. His contributions were meant to honor the old stories, not replace them.

In the same vein, the older these works get, the more we take them as they are, not necessarily relying on original intent. (Just look at the social life and fashion choices of Rod “Firebrand” Reilly.) Read too much into a particular setup and you might sound like Dr. Wertham, but for the most part the Golden Age has given fans all they wanted in terms of connecting dots and deriving backstories. That intellectual investment creates an emotional one as well, which is why the radically-new Earth 2 may take some getting used to.

By the same token, though, it should be fun watching what James Robinson and Nicola Scott do with these characters, having uprooted them from those old stories and settings. (So far I like issue #2’s Flash spotlight, including the way Scott draws Jay’s new costume.) I have to think that among Earth 2’s tens of thousands of readers, there’s someone who’s coming to the book with no preconceptions. Maybe I’ll be around in sixty years to see how they remember it.