After They Were Famous: Denny O'Neil's "Green Lantern"


It's been a little over a month since I talked about Spider-Man's post-Ditko debut, so that means it's time for another can't-be-missed installment of AFTER THEY WERE FAMOUS, where I look at the issue of a comic series that came out immediately after a super-famous run. Like the issue after Alan-Moore "Swamp Thing," or the one following Grant Morrison's  "Animal Man," or that time Roger Stern and Mike Mignola followed John Byrne's "Superman" with a ghost story involving kilts.

This week, I'm talking "Green Lantern." Because once upon a time, "Green Lantern" was an influential and vital comic book, and it was written by Denny O'Neil, and Green Arrow was in it, too, and the emerald colleagues fought racism and little mutant girls who looked like Richard Nixon.

But as famous as Denny O'Neil's Green Lantern/Green Arrow run would become -- reprinted more than a few times in more than a few formats -- it's not really Denny O'Neil that made the difference.

How do I know?

Because Denny O'Neil wrote "Green Lantern" before Neal Adams joined the series and he wrote even more issues after Neal Adams left, and those issues aren't anything like the ones that have been reprinted so often. In those collections called "Green Lantern/Green Arrow," you never see the Mike Grell-drawn issues. Or Alex Saviuk. Or any of the comics not drawn by Neal Adams.

So this AFTER THEY WERE FAMOUS installment focuses on the very first post-Neal Adams issue of "Green Lantern." Denny O'Neil was still writing, bringing the comic back after a multi-year hiatus. And the title still said the words "Green Lantern" and "Green Arrow" right there on the cover. But everything was different. Even if the series tried to be sort of like it once was.

The original "Green Lantern" series actually ended with issue #89, in the spring of 1972. You'll note that it was never actually officially titled "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" even though most people refer to the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams run that way, and the reprints use that title. Nope, it was just "Green Lantern," officially, and the series begun by John Broome and Gil Kane had given way to something a bit different by the time Denny O'Neil came along, but it became REALLY different when Neal Adams joined the team. Things got real.

You've all read the O'Neil/Adams run -- or you've heard of it, or you don't care about it, or both -- so I won't go into a lot of summary about what they did, but there's little doubt that Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, working collaboratively, solidified the era of the "relevant" Bronze Age comic. Some argue that their collaboration on Green Lantern/Green Arrow was the birth of the Bronze Age, signaling a shift from sci-fi superhero melodrama into a period where characters became more in touch with the world around them. There was more grit. We saw more gray areas.

But their run was still sci-fi centric, for the most part, it just happened to feature a heroin-addicted former sidekick and lots of social commentary and the unforgettable Neal Adams style, where characters gained a kind of stylized realism that was never seen in superhero comics before.

The issue that ended the initial run, "Green Lantern" #89, spotlighted a Jesus analogue right on the cover, with an interior story about a nature-loving hippy willing to die to protect the environment from industrial abuses. The story climaxes with both Green Lantern and Green Arrow crucified on the tails of passenger planes, and though they survive, their hippy pal (well, Green Arrow's hippy pal) does not. And an angry Green Lantern lashes out at corporate America, smashing the enormous planes in an act of symbolic rebellion. Hal Jordan was no longer the uptight space policeman who worked for corporate interests and protected the status quo. He was Hal Jordan, angry guy who was pissed off at corporate interests and the status quo.

And that was it for the series. As legendary as it was.

"Green Lantern" returned with issue #90 (renumbering and relaunching didn't happen in those days), after a four-year absence. The summer of 1976 brought Denny O'Neil back to the series, and he was joined not by Neal Adams but by guy-who-sort-of-draws-vaguely-like-Neal-Adams Mike Grell. Grell was then the penciler of "Superboy" which was all about the Legion of Super-Heroes at that point in its publishing history, and he was known for the funky disco costumes he would draw for those futuristic fashion phenoms.

If "Green Lantern" #90 was trying to recapture the magic, it was a pretty dismal failure.

If it was trying to rebrand the series as something new, it was also a failure.

If it was trying to say, "these two green characters still exist, DC fans, and here are some pages in which they do things!" then it was, and is, an unqualified success.

As much as you, or I, or anyone who reads the O'Neil/Adams run may have a problem with the stilted, after-school-special approach to social issues or the crazy emoting and bombastic melodrama of those still-hugely-influential issues, they are still not only historically important but actually entertaining to read. They are clumsy and too-on-the-nose, yes. But they are also pretty damned sincere and unafraid to say something bold.

"Green Lantern" #90, on the other hand, reaches for a social statement -- something like "don't judge a book by its cover," which is more of a homily than a condemnation of social forces -- but it's mostly just a story where the two heroes do really dumb things and then realize their doing dumb things and then try to fix the dumb things they did and then realize that the Green Lantern Corps has this vast history they never knew about. And this is important: it's a history of the Green Lantern Corps that has never been mentioned since.

Maybe I'm wrong about that last part. Maybe it has been mentioned. But even Geoff Johns, weaver of disparate continuity threads, never brought back the purple-and-blue-clad Green Lanterns who supposedly predated the current crop. Not as far as I know, anyway. But that's what this issue reveals: that the previous version of the Green Lanterns were actually bald blue aliens (human sized) who wore pretty much the same costumes as the original X-Men, but with blue and purple instead of black and yellow. And these proto-Lanterns used rayguns and strappy thigh holsters. And zoomed around in space ships.

I guess when the Manhunters were retconned into Green Lantern history, these blue and purple and bald guys were ignored. But that's for the best. This story isn't one you'd want to reference.

Because here's what happens in the issue: Green Lantern and Green Arrow are just hanging out, drinking soda pop at a table under an umbrella in the middle of a desert. And this particular desert has a piece of a space ship in it, recently uncovered by an atomic bomb test. (A great and safe place to drink soda, clearly.) And then the spaceship hatch opens and out comes an alien crying for help -- telepathically, of course -- so the green guardians of goodness whack his attackers and help him get away. The alien does what aliens do, which is to shrink down in size and jump inside Hal Jordan's ring to hide.

Green Arrow continues to provide cover for the escaping alien and Green Lantern (who is now flying off into outer space all of a sudden), and then Green Lantern takes the alien to one of Jupiter's moons where they can hang out and get caught up on what's what. The alien unshrinks himself. They explore caves in outer space while they chat.

This is a story written by the same guy who wrote critically-acclaimed and influential stories, just remember that.

Anyway, it turns out this alien is...wait for it...evil. And he was on the run from Johnny law. He was a fugitive, not a victim. Green Lantern and Green Arrow were suckers.

The alien whacks Green Lantern on the head, steals his power battery and somehow gets back to Earth, where Green Arrow has already learned that (a) he's an idiot, (b) these other guys are proto-Green-Lanterns wearing clothes that are not at all green, because the uniform does not make the man, but, seriously, they are supposed to be Green Lanterns or something like that, and (c) the alien the heroes saved is super-evil.

Oh man, this is a really bad comic, all around. Mike Grell draws the issue as if he's seen Neal Adams comics but doesn't understand anatomy or page layout or how panel borders work. And, in the end, Green Lantern flies all the way back to Earth with his hands tied behind his back (literally) and then punches out the evil alien with two green fists from his ring.

And movie-producer-to-be Michael Uslan appears on the letters page to review an advance copy of "Green Lantern" #90 and he gives it a resounding, "While not a classic, the plot and art were most enjoyable."

Where have you gone, Neal Adams? Green Lantern and Green Arrow miss you.

Oh. It's okay, Neal Adams. We'll always have the memories.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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