Every hero is someone’s first hero. That basic tenet is one of the foundations — or, should be — of fiction. Whatever you write, or whatever you draw, could very well be the introduction to a new world for someone who didn’t know what they were in for. It falls upon the creators, and their corporate masters, to be mindful of that fact — especially when dealing with material that is meant for kids. Like ducks, children get imprinted upon by the fiction they devour.
When I was a boy, growing up in the ’70s, “Star Wars” was the thing that I calibrated my world by. It taught me the lessons of good and evil, of heroic sacrifice, of delicious peril. And my Darth Vader must always have James Earl Jones’ voice, just as my Superman will always be Christopher Reeve, my Bond will always be Roger Moore (even though I know that Connery is far superior), and my Yankees will always have Reggie Jackson in right field. These are simply things that were woven into my DNA when I was young, when the weaving is both easy and permanent.
And so it was with kids who loved the late, great “Justice League” cartoon. Over the course of the six years that show ran (as both “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited”) more children would see episodes of that show than would ever read the comics during the same time — and for them, those were the definitive versions of DC Comics’ finest heroes. They were their first heroes and, as such, moved into a special place in their hearts.
Did “JLU” turn kids back on to comics? Probably, but not in the droves that DC might’ve liked. So not only did the “JLU” deliver unto a whole generation their first heroes, it’s entirely possible that “JLU’s” League were the only versions of those heroes they’d ever know.
The point I’m building to is this: There are going to be some shocked people when they find out that Green Lantern is a white guy. And, I’d even go so far as to say, there might even be a hint of betrayal.
Yes, if you know anything about Green Lantern’s history, you know that John Stewart was but one aberration in a long line of white dudes to rock the green ring. But if all you know of GL comes from the “Justice League” cartoons, you might think that Warner Bros. was pulling some kind of bait and switch — replacing a strong black character with a white one simply to appeal to a larger audience. You’d be wrong, but in a way that’s entirely understandable.
I don’t say this to question, in any way, the decision to use the John Stewart Lantern for the cartoon. The late Dwayne McDuffie knew what he was doing, giving black kids a face they could identify with on screen while adding some internal conflict — the lifeblood of drama — to the League’s ranks.
Nor do I think this little cultural hiccup will ultimately affect “Green Lantern’s” box office potential. If you start crunching the numbers, you’ll find that black people make up about 12 percent of America’s 300 million people. And of that 12 percent, how many watched Justice League but didn’t read comics? Not so big an audience that Warner Bros. is leaving a ton of cash on the table. (Though, I’ll bet if Will Smith — the last real movie star — had decided he wanted to play Green Lantern, Warner Bros. would’ve happily kicked Ryan Reynolds to the curb. It is all, at the end of the day, about the green, if you know what I mean.)
And yet, as we watch those few comics fans who remain whip themselves into a frenzy over DC’s decision to reboot 50-some-odd titles, zeroing out decades of continuity, it’s clear that the size of the teacup doesn’t necessarily determine the severity of the tempest.
It’s just that it’s worth examining our relationship to the gods we build — and why, for some people, they fall out of favor.