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Grumpy Old Fan | The done-right question

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | The done-right question

Last week’s post discussed a couple of interrelated topics which I thought deserved a little more attention. One comes out of the idea that there can be a “Superman done right,” and the other deals with the development of a concept over time. Both of these are central to any fan of modern corporately-owned superhero comics, and in fact they inform much of our debates. However, they raise some thorny questions.

First off, the notion of “[character] done right” necessarily implies that the character can be “done wrong.” This is nothing new. Many fans might even say that the “wrong” examples far outnumber the “right” ones. For me, though, the problem comes when the “right” examples vary from the original conception of the character.

We can find examples of this in the various Green Lanterns. Writer John Broome, artist Gil Kane, and editor Julius Schwartz revitalized GL by making him an honest, fearless test pilot; but after a decade of straightforward adventures, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams turned that on its ear. O’Neil and Adams also created Hal’s new deputy, John Stewart, a passionate architect dedicated to social justice. Nevertheless, for his role on the “Justice League” animated series, John became a hard-edged ex-Marine. This portrayal found its way into the comics, where it superseded John’s original (and somewhat lower-key) background.

Hal’s first backup, Guy Gardner, may have gotten the biggest makeover. Created by Broome and Kane for 1968’s Green Lantern #59, Guy was the one-off star of a story which revealed that he could easily have been top dog in Sector 2814. As you probably know, O’Neil and Adams introduced John after putting Guy out of commission a few pages earlier. Several years later, after a brief stint with a power ring, Guy was left comatose, until writer Steve Englehart and artist Joe Staton revived him in time for Crisis On Infinite Earths. That cataclysm gave Englehart and Staton the opening to make Guy something of a renegade — not quite as bad as Sinestro, but not the most friendly to Hal, John, or their peers. Furthermore, once Guy joined the Justice League, writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis amped up his boorish qualities. Today, all of that has been swirled around and blended into a fairly nuanced personality, but it’s hard to say whether any of it goes back specifically to the brief glimpse readers got in 1968.

Indeed, all three Lanterns trace their roots back to the Golden Age’s Alan Scott, created by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell. Alan literally looks nothing like his descendants: blond with a red, green, and purple costume and a magic ring and battery which didn’t come from the planet Oa. (Well, not directly, and not at first.) So do we judge how faithful Hal, John, and Guy are to Alan? Can we?

It depends on how we view the character of “Green Lantern,” and it brings me to the second prong of today’s post. Although none of us superhero fans are getting any younger, I suspect there are few of us who remember Alan as the only GL. Heck, I wonder how many of us remember a time before Guy or John. It’s not a stretch to suppose that the vast majority of superhero-comics readers see “Green Lantern” as one of DC’s legacies, albeit one which allows (if not encourages) multiple Lanterns to coexist. Put another way, “Green Lantern” isn’t a single character, it’s an idea — hero with magic ring — which runs through decades’ worth of stories and several individual characters. Accordingly, we judge how faithful those characters are to the abstract idea, not necessarily the creators’ intent. Again, we do this in large part because that’s what we know. That’s all we have known. We can try to put ourselves in the place of a reader from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, whenever, but by and large that’s not our true perspective.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when talking about Star Wars, and specifically how to introduce various younger family members to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. To me, it came down to a couple of factors: the “padawan’s” age, and whether she was interested in the films as one coherent story. Basically, I figured that if a kid didn’t know about a certain big spoiler, she might as well start with Episode I and go all the way through to VI. However, I know that won’t apply in most cases; so generally, I’d start with the 1977 original (as amended, unless one doesn’t mind VHS) before going back to The Phantom Menace. Sure, you have to watch Episode IV twice, but what’s wrong with that?

The larger point, though, is that Star Wars has developed from a single game-changing blockbuster to a familiar, almost constant presence in pop culture. Like many of you, I can remember a world without Star Wars, and therefore I can remember what it was like in the beginning. When I was 8, the only way to see Star Wars was in the theater, and we had to wait a year (uphill, both ways, in the snow) for the first toys. By contrast, today’s adolescents can watch the movies (or the “Clone Wars” cartoons) on the DVD players in their parents’ cars while on their way to Target for the latest action figures and weaponry.

Wow, that sure sounds like Grandpa Simpson, huh? (Speaking of constant presences in pop culture….) I can flip it around just as easily, because those Green Lantern Archives and Showcase Presents are full of stories from before I was born. Fandom has a certain “unearned” quality which is almost unavoidable in such cases, for the simple fact that these longstanding works have become ubiquitous. It was a big deal in 1991 when Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy’s Dark Empire came out, because Return of the Jedi was eight years in the past and Marvel’s SW comic had been gone for five. Still, what does it matter in the greater scheme of things if Zahn’s novel or the Dark Horse comic were a new fan’s first glimpse at the GFFA? What if today’s fans got hooked first by Phantom Menace or this season’s “Clone Wars?” Without new converts, fandom dies, and the best the old-timers can hope for is that the newbies at least appreciate their roots.

Even so, sometimes those roots are hopelessly tangled. We can’t ignore the shoddy treatment many creators have endured after being cut out of their characters’ successes — but at the same time, we tend only to know these characters in their current forms, in some cases far removed from their first appearances. As a kid, I recognized Superman as drawn by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s stories were artifacts of the distant past. Today, I buy Superman comics because of my enduring affection for the character, although that affection comes from having discovered a version of him decades in the making. Regardless, I remain grateful to Siegel and Shuster for their creation, and I want their legacies treated properly.

Thus, I am still trying to work out how to balance my fannish desires with those moral imperatives. Some things, like the Siegel and Shuster estates’ legal rights, aren’t for me to determine. I can control my comics-buying habits, but for various reasons (including this column) I don’t see me boycotting DC anytime soon. Instead, I try to give credit where it’s due while never losing sight of my pastimes’ beginnings. Whether I was there at the start or came in late, I’m one of their historians, and that’s what comes with the job.

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