Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Summer of Green Lantern, 2: Geoff Johns' comic book

Posted By on Wed, Jul 15, 2009 at 8:05 PM

click to enlarge Ask your doctor if Sinestro is right for you
  • Ask your doctor if Sinestro is right for you

Friday's casting of Ryan Reynolds as pilot Hal Jordan, better known as the alter ego of DC Comics' Green Lantern, moves Martin Campbell's film much, much closer to reality. The big movie deal should renew interest in the Green Lantern comic books -- which is convenient, because the Green Lantern title is probably more interesting now than it's ever been in the history of the character.

Green Lantern's resurgence dates to 2004, when prolific comics writer Geoff Johns took over the character. Johns, who began his career as an assistant to Richard Donner (director of the first two Superman films), isn't as "literary" a genre comic book writer as Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman in their heyday, so readers not disposed super-powered characters in odd outfits probably won't be converted by Green Lantern. Nevertheless, it's a wildly imaginative work of escapist entertainment that pushes a venerable character in delirious directions.

For the uninitiated seeking a "Green Lantern 101," start with Secret Origins (available in a hardback collection), Johns' recent, six-part retelling of how test pilot Hal Jordan came to be selected as the ring-bearing representative of the Green Lantern Corps for "Space Sector 2814" (which includes Earth). Though slow to start, the volume revisits essential elements of Green Lantern lore, including Jordan's initial friendship with Sinestro, "the greatest of the Green Lanterns," who would later wield a yellow power right as the Corps' nemesis.

The Earthbound stories tend to combine the swaggering flyboy cliches of The Right Stuff or Top Gun with the "Area 51"-type mysteries of "The X-Files." The interstellar plotlines, however, offer a better example of what makes Green Lantern the most spectacular space opera in comics.

Johns started revealing his ambitions for the title in 2007 with a spectacular 11-issue story arc called The Sinestro Corps Wars, in which the arch-villain established a fascist, fear-mongering counterpart to the Green Lanterns. Two of Sinestro Corps Wars collections were published in paperback last month, and overall, it's spectacular, satisfying stuff -- probably the closest thing I've ever seen in comics to the cliffhangers, lavish set pieces and interplanetary battles of the original Star Wars trilogy. There's even a battle between two intelligent planets.

According to Wizard Magazine, the Sinestro Corps Wars made Green Lantern into one of DC's most profitable titles, but it was, in a way, only the overture to an even more outlandish notion called "the Emotional Spectrum." (Warning! Geeky content ahead.) Johns' cosmology establishes a different deep space super-group for the major colors of the spectrum, each of which corresponds to a different emotional state. So the Green Lantern Corps represents willpower (not technically an emotion, but you know what he means), and the yellow-ringed Sinestro Corps embodies fear.

To that Johns has added factions that include: the feral, bloodthirsty Red Lanterns, representing rage; the peaceable Blue Lanterns, representing hope; and the avaracious Agent Orange, who represents greed, and so on. Not only do some of the groups have homicidal rivalries, but they're also defined by the relationships between emotions, which can become fascinatingly convoluted. The Blue Lanterns, for instance, can only unleash their full power when a Green Lantern's around, because "Hope is nothing without willpower to enact it."

Honestly, I can't even decide if Johns' emotional spectrum is utterly ridiculous or a stroke of pop-culture genius. When I think about how genre comics, at their essence, involve splashy artwork and heightened, emblematic emotions, Green Lanterns' current means of putting primary colors into explosive conflict with each other, seems like a distillation of the very stuff that makes the art form exciting. And it's difficult to imagine these stories proving as effective in other visual narrative media.

On top of that, the emotional spectrum stories are just the window-dressing to Johns' Blackest Night, DC Comics' huge, Green Lantern-centered publishing event that begins this week. To be continued...

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