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Grumpy Old Fan | The post-racial Green Lantern?

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | The post-racial Green Lantern?

Recently I’ve been thinking about characters who come ready-made with socially-conscious points of view. Wonder Woman and Aquaman each represent “hidden civilizations” which might not be philosophically compatible with the readers, but Green Lantern John Stewart’s attitudes and background raised red flags for Hal Jordan right from the start. “Beware My Power,” the 1971 story from Green Lantern vol. 2 #87 which introduced John, is one of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ stronger stories, in part because it depends on character interaction more than outside forces. However, it occurs to me that a significant part of John’s “origin” hasn’t gone much farther than that issue.

See, when we first meet John, he’s sticking up for a couple of kids being hassled by a white police officer. This, for the uninitiated, is the O’Neil/Adams run in miniature: highlighting the excesses of authority, whether they arise out of reflexive deference or outright abuse. Fred the Bad Cop asks John if he “want[s] trouble,” and in true fearless-GL fashion, John replies, “I don’t want it … but I’m not about to run from it, either! And anyway, I kind of doubt you’re man enough to give it — even with your nightstick!”

As his partner leads him away, Fred complains “… they got no respect!” (It’s clear that for Fred, the “they” refers to anyone with John and the kids’ skin color.) The partner, who is also white, chides him: “[R]espect has to be earned! The way you acted, you didn’t earn a nickel’s worth!”

Of course, Hal Jordan has been watching all of this from the rooftop across the street. Hal’s original understudy Guy Gardner has just been severely injured, and the Guardians have picked John to be the new backup. Hal’s not impressed, asking the Guardian from HR “that’s the man you want to trust with a power ring — the finest weapon ever devised?”

“He has all due qualifications,” the Guardian responds, adding “[W]e are not interested in your petty bigotries!”

Realizing he’s stepped in it, Hal tries to finesse his objection. “Hey — that’s not what I meant! Maybe he’s brave … honest … and has the right kind of mind … but it’s obvious he also has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Rock of Gibraltar!”

With all this buildup, GL readers might reasonably wonder what kind of superhero John Stewart might make. Look at that cover — just how radical would he be? Well … Hal catches up with John in a candy store, and soon learns the new recruit is an unemployed architect.

Really? A candy store? An architect I can accept, even though it was the chosen occupation of a certain man named Brady (busy with three boys of his own), not to mention (twenty years later) the lifelong aspiration of one G. Costanza. Before the scene is over, though, Earth’s newest Green Lantern reveals — behind a milk mustache, no less — that his nickname is “Square John.” Certainly O’Neil wants readers to like John, but I get the sense that he really wants readers to feel comfortable with him.

In fact, throughout the rest of the story, we see John in much more serious moods, mainly when Hal questions his motives. Those flashes of righteous anger, when John stands up for himself, strike me as the reason why the Guardians chose him. With Hal — and, as we’ll see much later, with Guy as well — willpower comes from ego, self-confidence, even a bit of arrogance. Hal and Guy both believe unfailingly in the rightness of their actions, although Hal’s assurance comes from his willingness to follow authority figures and Guy’s comes from his own unique mindset. Indeed, when (in issue #76, the start of the O’Neil/Adams run) Hal starts to question not only his own actions but the authorities which inform them, it affects his performance as a Green Lantern. (It may even have opened the door for the Parallax entity.)

With John, though, willpower comes from his own sense of justice and fairness. He refuses to accept the American society of 1971 as it is, because he knows it can be unjust and unfair. He sees a significant portion of the public supporting a racist politician’s campaign, and works to subvert it even as he protects the politician’s life. In short, he knows when authority goes too far, because he has lived it. What’s more, he’s already learned the lessons O’Neil is trying to teach Hal. One might even say that makes him a better Green Lantern than Hal — at least potentially (and/or from Denny O’Neil’s perspective). A final caption box even promised that “John (Green Lantern) Stewart will return!”

It took just over two years, though; and it wasn’t in the pages of Green Lantern. It wasn’t even in Flash, where writer Denny O’Neil and assorted artists continued Hal’s adventures in eight-page-backup form. No, John next appeared in Justice League of America #110 (cover-dated April 1974), subbing for Hal in a story Len Wein and Dick Dillin just had to call “The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus!”

Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of JLA #110 — I know, I was shocked too — and had to turn to the Intertubes for a recap of the issue. Apparently John does indeed get to show some compassion for the little guy, rebuilding a tenement block (better than before) after the Key had destroyed it.  Ironically, commenter rab points out that Green Arrow — yes, unrepentant lefty Ollie Queen –worries about John’s actions potentially violating the Guardians’ directives. John then explains that

It’s against the Green Lantern code to give these folks new housing — so I used [the ring] to reconstruct the old buildings the instant they were destroyed — minus the roaches, rats, collapsing ceilings, and such…

Presumably the implication is that Hal wouldn’t have thought that far out of the box, so the holiday-appropriate ending is a nice way to justify John’s involvement in the story.

John next appeared three years later, flying a deathly-ill Hal to Oa in the Denny O’Neil-written (and Mike Grell-pencilled) Green Lantern #s 94-95 (April-May and June-July 1977). Because the story takes John into space, where he first must evade a neutron star and then watch over a hospitalized Hal, there’s no real opportunity for him to stand out. John gets the call (over, presumably, Superman or another Green Lantern) because, as Hal’s alternate, he’s the first person Green Arrow thinks of after Hal collapses. However, John’s character bits are limited to typical understudy material, even including a moment where John wonders if he’ll ever be as good as Hal. He doesn’t seem like the same brash rookie anymore, perhaps because he’s seen so little action that he’s started to wonder whether he’d ever suit up again.

Aside from a cameo in the 1981 Tales of the Green Lantern Corps miniseries, John’s next full appearance was in 1983’s Green Lantern #165 (after showing up in the last panel of #164). There, thanks to the regular GL team of Mike W. Barr and Keith Pollard, he teamed up with Green Arrow to stop a crystalline menace from assimilating Star City. Because the Guardians have exiled Hal from Earth for a year, a Guardian personally brings John and Ollie together, specifically directing Ollie to use his experience working with Hal to “guide” John if necessary. That’s not so much a slight against John as it is an excuse to get Green Arrow more involved, but it still doesn’t reflect well on the alternate GL. Not surprisingly, John’s social consciousness is once again neglected in favor of routine superheroics.

Following another adventure with the JLA (1983’s Justice League of America Annual #1), John became Sector 2814’s full-time Green Lantern when Hal quit the Corps in 1984’s Green Lantern #181. This raised his profile considerably, as you might expect, such that he stayed with the book until its final issue (1988’s #224) and was a significant part of 1990’s Green Lantern relaunch. He’s been fairly visible in DC’s superhero line ever since.

However, I’m not sure that he’s ever regained the social consciousness he demonstrated ‘way back in 1971. Part of this, I’m sure, is due to changing perceptions of race relations. We wouldn’t expect a Green Lantern to be hassled by the Man, and likewise we don’t expect John to be hassled when he’s out of uniform. Moreover, although John certainly had a fire in his belly in GL #87, it’s not like he was Luke Cage with a power ring. John was written right from the start as a more mellow character, fiercely devoted to his principles and with no patience for bigotry, but otherwise not meant to scare any of Green Lantern’s regular readers. Today we might suspect the heavy hand of editorial interference, but forty years ago the creative team may have wanted John to have some nuance, so that readers wouldn’t mind getting to know him. At the time, it was probably shocking enough to have an African-American Green Lantern, let alone one who was Hal’s new backup.

Regardless, John’s relative lack of exposure from 1971-84 still surprises me. Clearly he was created as a continuing character, not some one-off token existing only to prove a point. In any event, though, I don’t suppose John would have had much opportunity to exercise his social consciousness once he became a full-time GL. It’s been a while since I read all those Green Lanterns from 1984-88, but I daresay that when John took center stage, writers Len Wein and Steve Englehart were more interested in fighting Eclipso, the Predator, and Star Sapphire than solving the inner city’s problems. (At least from 1984-86 — and I am not entirely kidding about this — such concerns were probably more the province of Justice League Detroit.)

One significant exception was 1988’s Green Lantern Special #1 (by Jim Owsley and Tod Smith), in which a misunderstanding involving Hal ends up with John wrongly imprisoned by “South Nambia,” an apartheid-ruled African country. To put it mildly, these circumstances are not good for John, who’s without his power ring. I’m about ready to wrap up, and besides I can’t find my copy of the Special, but it seems like the story had to go pretty far to put John in conflict with sadistic racists. Again, the spirit of GL #87 may have shown up elsewhere in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but a) that’s not my memory; and b) it’s probably best left to a better-researched follow-up post. (Incidentally, such a post would definitely include the Green Lantern:  Mosaic series, which I am now re-reading.)

Besides, the larger question is whether the John Stewart of 2010 should act like the John of 1971. The overall message of “Beware My Power” seems to be simply that it’s OK for a black man to be a Green Lantern. Just because John is a particular color doesn’t mean he has to be a full-time activist. He’s been through plenty already, including his wife’s murder, the loss of his legs, and his failure to prevent the planet Xanshi’s destruction.  His educational and military backgrounds have made him fairly well-rounded apart from all the tragedies. In short, I bet plenty of today’s readers liked John Stewart fine even without reading his introductory story.  Arguably, “Square John” has gone from being a post-Civil Rights Act character to a post-racial character.

And yet, every time I read “Beware My Power” I see the potential for John to examine how far we in America have come with regard to this incredibly divisive subject. Maybe today’s John first gained the ring when Bill Clinton was President, but that doesn’t retcon away the facts or message of “Beware My Power.” John is an important figure in DC’s superhero history, and all of his own history should be explored.

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