Storytelling Engines: Green Lantern
(or "The First Rule Is That There Are No Rules")
It's a little surprising that I've gone through thirty-six columns in this series without discussing super-powers even once; given that I'm writing, week in and week out, about super-heroes and their amazing adventures, you'd think that I'd give more thought to the subject of why we focus on Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman instead of, say, Steve from Accounting and Larry the Bike Messenger. After all, it's pretty much just a given that super-heroes have some sort of extraordinary ability, that it sets them apart from average people, and allows them to fight crime without dying in the first few issues (which is very important to the storytelling engine. Being shot dead in issue three really hinders the number of stories you can tell about a character.)
But the specific extraordinary abilities given to said hero haven't come up much, because in a lot of ways they're all the same. Sure, one hero is faster and another is stronger and some guys can fly, but what we're really talking about in a storytelling engine is how these abilities make it easier or harder to tell stories. Each power offers some options, and closes off some others. Any character, so long as they have clearly defined, easily understood super-powers, can offer up ideas to a writer on what sorts of stories they can tell about that character.
The key point here is "clearly defined". Silver Age stories were notorious for playing fast and loose with the "rules" for their character, safe in the belief that the stories would be forgotten after a couple of years anyway. Professor Xavier used his telepathy to deflect bullets, Superman came up with "super-ventriloquism" and "super-weaving", and it all got a bit silly at times...but even by these standards, the Silver Age Green Lantern was a special case.
Because Green Lantern really could do anything he wanted to with his ring. From turning his best friend into a seagull to turning bullets to rubber, the powers of the ring went well beyond big green boxing gloves to anything Hal Jordan could focus his willpower and imagination on. This might sound like a great help to a storyteller, but it's actually a near-fatal obstacle. As important as it is to find ways to start stories, it's just as important to find ways to continue them, and a magical ring that could do most anything makes it all too easy to end stories before they begin.
Green Lantern, of course, has a legendary way around this problem: the color yellow, which Green Lantern cannot affect, becomes his Achilles heel. (Achilles had an even more legendary Achilles heel, but that's a whole different story.) In addition, the ring also ceases to function if not charged every twenty-four hours, and it relies on Hal Jordan's willpower, but the "yellow impurity" remains the most famous weakness of all Green Lanterns (and probably one of the most famous of all super-heroes, save for Kryptonite.) Just flipping through a copy of 'Showcase Presents: Green Lantern' at random produces a reference to one of these weaknesses--such as page 466 of volume one, his duel with Sinestro, where...
...where he blocks Sinestro's yellow beam with his green beam. Unfortunately, the problem with the Silver Age Green Lantern is down to the phrase "clearly defined." When in a quandry over how to continue a story, the writers were quick to use any excuse (the Shark, for example, surrounded himself with "invisible yellow radiation" to make himself immune to Green Lantern's ring), and when in a hurry to end one, they were quick to bend the rules (such as Hal's duel with Sinestro, above.) As time went by and readers became older and less willing to tolerate "cheating" on the part of the writers, Green Lantern's ring became a less powerful tool, its rules more clearly defined, and its stories better grounded in logic and less in convenience.
In fact, clearly defining and setting down the rules for the readers, and making it harder to "cheat", could be one of the key elements in the transition from the Silver Age to the Bronze. But that discussion belongs more to comics history than comics analysis. For now, let's just remember that Green Lantern's ring can't turn people into seagulls anymore.