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Grumpy Old Fan | Simon Baz recharges Green Lantern

by  in Comic News Comment

Lately I’ve been pretty complimentary of Geoff Johns and Doug Mahnke’s work on Green Lantern. Honestly, this is something of a shock. It’s not that I don’t like Johns, Mahnke, or GL — far from it — but the book has sneaked up on me, going from a nice habit to a must-read, and the new Lantern has a lot to do with it.

Green Lantern Simon Baz debuted in September’s Issue 0 as an Arab-American caught up in various schemes, who of course demonstrated the ability to overcome great fear. He wears a ring containing messages from the dead-ish Hal Jordan and Sinestro, but he carries a gun in case the ring fails him; the first fellow Lantern he encounters is B’dg, the extraterrestrial squirrel. Simon endures it all with courage and spirit, and in short order he’s kicked GL into another gear.

Simon’s introductory arc concludes this week — sort of, SPOILERS FOLLOW — with Green Lantern Corps Annual #1, the final installment of “Rise of the Third Army.” However, this just paves the way for “Wrath of the First Lantern,” which goes for the next couple of months. After that, April’s Lantern titles may not be part of an overarching story — at least, not one with a “_____ of the [Numbered] _____” title — but these plot threads apparently won’t be resolved before then, either.

Chaining together dire-consequences arcs goes back several years in Green Lantern, and frankly it had gotten wearying. After “Sinestro Corps” (2007) and “Secret Origin” (2008), the other Lantern colors were introduced, followed by 2009-10’s Blackest Night, 2010-11’s Brightest Day, and 2011’s “War of the Green Lanterns,” all before the New-52 relaunch. The Guardians of the Universe, who hadn’t been entirely trustworthy at least since 1990 (when Gerard Jones wrote ‘em), have become downright manipulative. This too goes back to their actions in “Sinestro Corps,” if not before.

(Again, SPOILERS for Green Lantern #0-16, GL Corps #16 and GL Corps Annual #1.)

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That’s part of what appeals to me about Simon Baz. His four predecessors each have a particular relationship with the Guardians, but he doesn’t. Hal Jordan used to revere the little blue guys until his various crises of conscience (which these days probably don’t include the “hard-traveling” years with Green Arrow, but still). John Stewart succeeded Hal after seeing the effect a GL career could have on one’s Earthbound life; and when he started policing Oa’s “Mosaic” community, got a good idea of what the Guardians had to go through. Guy Gardner was recruited by a more militant faction of Guardians during Crisis on Infinite Earths, and so got to see firsthand one of the rare schisms in Oan history. Of course, the last surviving Guardian recruited Kyle Rayner to be the last Green Lantern.

Now Simon comes to the Green Lantern Corps at a time when the Guardians themselves have turned against it. Considering that one of his first acts as a GL involves pushing the ring’s capabilities where they’re not supposed to go — perhaps even into territory that got Hal Jordan into trouble — he may well be the first real post-Oan GL.

Even so, it’s not that hard to question the Guardians’ authority, as it’s largely self-proclaimed, and because the Guardians are so old and so well-established, their dictates went unchallenged for millennia. DC lore holds that when the Oan named Krona dared to gaze upon the origins of the universe, his experiment ended up unleashing evil forces upon it, and from that act the Oans decided to balance the scales by setting up an intergalactic peacekeeping force. Accordingly, the Guardians’ authority was no doubt accepted largely because a) they were wise enough to be right most of the time, and b) they had the power to back up their judgments. However, they exist primarily as patrons of the Green Lantern Corps (and, before them, the android Manhunters), not as any kind of superseding government or judiciary.  As such, their function is relatively narrow, even if their jurisdiction covers the known universe.

And in the old days, that was fine, because the Guardians functioned basically as facilitators. They’d tell Hal where to go and what he needed to do when he got there, Hal would do it, and that would be the story. The Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams stories played off those roles by having Green Arrow question the Guardians’ various pronouncements, and from there the series developed in new directions. The more out-of-touch the Guardians seemed, the easier it was to make them antagonistic, until here we are — one set of Guardians wanting to destroy their erstwhile agents and eradicate free will, while a heretofore-hidden, ostensibly-benevolent faction waits like a government in exile.

Although the Guardians’ latest heel turn draws on decades of GL stories, both the Third Army and Simon Baz have simplified the plot considerably. Superficially the Third Army is reminiscent of Blackest Night’s undead horde — both nigh-unstoppable and able to “recruit” with extreme prejudice — but Blackest Night sought further to weave a whole new layer of cosmology from GL lore. While “RO3A” has its obscure bits (like a First Lantern named Volthoom, referring to the patron of Earth-3’s evil GL), generally it’s pretty straightforward. Hal and Sinestro have been “killed,” Simon has their ring, and the GL Corps as a whole is in danger from their suddenly-diabolical masters.

Considering the aforementioned string of storylines, Green Lantern needed some simplicity. While discussing the GL movie’s performance, the screenwriter Todd Alcott observed that “Green Lantern isn’t a character, it’s a job.”  Alcott explained that “without knowing who the character was,” no one would want to see “a $200 million movie called Intergalactic Beat Cop”:

In order to sell the Green Lantern concept, you have to get the audience to understand that this is not a movie about “Peter Parker, who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and thus becomes Spider-Man.” Rather, you have to get the audience to buy the idea that there is a job, out there, somewhere, called Green Lantern, and this is the story of Hal Jordan, who gets called to fill an opening in that job.

To be sure, when Hal debuted in 1959, it was probably enough to feature “the job,” i.e., the thrill of superheroics. After that, “the job” became a known quantity, at least for casual readers. At first John Stewart and Guy Gardner were both supporting characters, so they had to be distinctly different from Hal; and this allowed their characterizations to take precedence over their GL-hood. I don’t know if the same applies to Kyle Rayner, who was pretty much thrown into GL-dom with almost no preliminaries; but again, casual readers would have known about Green Lantern generally, and would have known further that Things Were Different.

In that respect Simon’s introduction went further than any of his predecessors’. September’s GL #0 spent almost the whole issue laying out Simon’s various personal entanglements, such that he got the ring only near the end of the issue and the costume early in the next one (Issue 13). Apart from a fight with the Justice League in issue #14, his adventures with B’dg in Issue 16, and his role in Green Lantern Corps #16, those personal problems — mainly allegations of terrorism and guilt over his brother-in-law’s fate — have predominated. This hasn’t exactly pushed the Third Army into the background, but it has made Simon a better protagonist. There is a hint of Mary-Sue-ism in #16 (and in GLC Annual #1), when Simon pushes the ring past its stated capabilities, but generally Simon’s story has more to do with him than with the fate of the universe.

And it’s a pretty compelling story too, inviting comparisons to John Stewart’s debut. Like John did back in the early ‘70s, Simon has to deal with petty prejudice; but unlike John, Simon has made some bad choices.  Those, plus his recent unemployment, turn him into a car thief — and when he steals a bomb-laden van, a suspected terrorist. Given the summary disposition of the terrorism subplot in issue #15, and Simon’s future in the government-sponsored Justice League of America, you have to think those charges will simply become part of his backstory. Agent Franklin Fed, the Sam Gerard to Simon’s Richard Kimble, is still somewhat two-dimensional — family killed on 9/11, regrets having to waterboard — but presumably we’ll get to know him better once the Third Army is taken care of.

(That also reminds me — early in Johns’ GL tenure, Hal rejoined the Air Force under a commanding officer knew he was a Green Lantern. To me this was a potential conflict of interest, but that group of characters pretty much went away after “Sinestro Corps.” However, a similar storyline might arise through Simon’s new government connections.)

I was expecting a little more Simon in “Rise of the First Lantern,” the story in GL Corps Annual #1 which bridges “Rise of the Third Army” and “Wrath of the First Lantern.” However, it’s more about wrapping up subplots from the other GL titles. Guy helps his fellow Lanterns fight back, John watches Mogo’s reconstruction, Kyle and the other “rainbow Lanterns” join the fight on Oa, and the Red Lanterns sic the Manhunters on the Guardians. Simon and B’dg are in the Annual long enough to enter the Book of the Black to try and rescue Hal and Sinestro, which presumably will continue in next month’s Green Lantern #17.

Before that, though, Guy emphasizes to Simon that yes, the fate of the entire universe is at stake, since the Third Army will assimilate everyone in just 27 days if left unchecked. Clearly this puts Simon’s personal subplots on hold. Still, you have to think that Johns has invested in them sufficiently over the past few months not to forget about them while the Guardians are on the rampage. Mahnke’s work has especially brought Simon and his family to life, in part by drawing Simon and his sister Sira as somewhat wide-eyed and innocent. (Indeed, the very first panel of GL #0 shows the Baz family agape at the events of 9/11, with the last panel of that page showing the blazing Twin Towers reflected in young Simon’s eye.) At times they practically tiptoe through delicate situations, like when Sira reports for work at the State Department the day after Simon has become a terror suspect. These are melodramatic situations, but after establishing that post-9/11 context Johns and Mahnke neither exploit nor elide them. Instead, each piling on the last, almost at arm’s length, until Sira is suspended from her work but reunited with her husband, and the feds aren’t after Simon but Black Hand is.

The next few months will show how Simon Baz functions as a rookie Green Lantern, both in GL and in JLA. Meanwhile, though, the clock is ticking for Hal and Sinestro to return, perhaps sooner than we think. Naturally I’m curious about that subplot, and the rest of the ongoing Guardians/Third Army/First Lantern scrum, but now I’m hoping for more with the Baz family and Agent Fed.

Of course, this is the classic Green Lantern dramatic tension of “Earth attachments vs. space-sector responsibilities” which caused Hal so much trouble back in the day. Here, though, Simon has more pressing concerns than the fortunes of his girlfriend’s aircraft company. By navigating Simon through those troubles, and keeping the focus on him, Johns and Mahnke have made Green Lantern a book to look forward to. If they can maintain a good balance between the cosmic and the (relatively) mundane, this run of GL will be one to remember.

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Green Lantern vol. 5 nos. 0, 13-16 (November 2012-March 2013) were written by Geoff Johns; pencilled by Doug Mahnke; inked by Christian Alamy, Keith Champagne, Mark Irwin, Marc Deering, Tom Nguyen, and Doug Mahnke; colored by Tony Avina and Alex Sinclair; and lettered by Dave Sharpe, Dezi Sienty, and Steve Wands.

Green Lantern Corps vol. 3 #16 (March 2013) was written by Peter J. Tomasi, pencilled by Fernando Pasarin, inked by Scott Hanna, colored by Gabe Eltaeb, and lettered by Dave Sharpe.

Green Lantern Corps Annual vol. 2 #1 (March 2013) was written by Peter J. Tomasi, pencilled by Chriscross, inked by Scott Hanna and Marlo Alquiza, colored by Wil Quintana, and lettered by Steve Wands.

All issues were edited by Matt Idelson, with Wil Moss as associate editor.