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Digging into the Silver Age to explore GL's headier subtext.

Comic Books

Green Lantern and the paradigm of superheroism

Digging into the Silver Age to explore GL’s headier subtext.

When people think of Green Lantern — be it Hal Jordan, Kyle Rayner, John Stewart, or whoever have you — few would picture the character as a planetary space dictator in the future. But just that could be found in a recurring Silver Age plot.

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John Broome’s Green Lantern was one of the pivotal comics of the Silver Age, one of a new trend — including contemporaries in Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino’s Flash, and Gardner Fox and Joe Kubert’s relaunch of Hawkman — that resurrected the superhero genre in the early sixties.

As our own Ritesh Babu has demonstrated, among the important changes in that relaunch was a reframing of the role of the superhero: where once superheroes were often anti-authority, the Silver Age iterations were elements of the authority. Hawkman, Green Lantern, and the Flash were policemen, even if their police departments fought purple men with tiny moustaches, giant gorillas, and aliens from the planet Thanagar. But Broome’s Green Lantern was more complex than that overview would make it out to be, and contained, in one of its recurring subplots, a before-its-time critique of that very paradigm of superheroism.

Digging into the Silver Age to explore GL's headier subtext.

Early in his run, in Green Lantern #8¸ Broome introduces the far-flung future of the year 5700, and the High Council of Solar Delegates in Star City. The Solar Delegates are representatives of the human colonies throughout the solar system, and are meeting to choose the new Solar Director — effectively, the dictator of humanity. “The all powerful Solar Director . . . wields more authority over the people of Earth then any individual who ever lived,” proclaims Broome’s narrator. Finding that no one in their own time is up for the task, the Solar Delegates use their timescope to snatch Hal Jordan from the past. In the course of doing so, they erase his mind, and install a new personality while he is in 5700. Jordan believes that he is actually Pol Manning, a deep-space explorer, and that he is in a relationship with the secretary of the Solar Delegates, a young woman named Iona Vane.

The Iona Vane, 58th century stories are about a sort of proto-Stormwatch, proto-Ultimates type of superhero. Where the traditional archetype of Silver Age superheroics is the superhero as the agent of the state, and the enforcer of the law, Broome used the Iona Vane stories to invert and critique that paradigm. In those, Green Lantern is, rather, the head of state, and the creator of the law. The superhero was framed not just as an enforcer of the state – as a lawman – but as the state in and of itself. The acts of the superhero were acts of the state, and the crises that the superhero responded to were crises of the state’s legitimacy. A fight against the superhero, essentially, was a revolt against the state.

Digging into the Silver Age to explore GL's headier subtext.

The Iona Vane stories can be broadly divided into three categories, each making its own critique. Issue #8, along with introducing the concept, offers a critique of colonialism, effectively. Jordan-as-Pol-Manning is sent to fight off the invasion of the Zegors; mutated and evolved Gila Monster lizards. The Zegor invasion is not, like many Silver Age stories, a single rogue monster. Rather, it’s framed as a military attack. The issue shows soldiers defeated and armies pushed back. It’s state action, with the Zegors acting as a threat to the integrity of the state, rather than simply property damage. But the Zegors are noted to predate the Solar Directorate, and the method for defeating them requires a counter-invasion of their own home, to depower and devolve them. Where the Zegors are just incapacitating the soldiers of the Solar Director, Jordan’s soldiers are shooting to kill. The colonial rule of the Solar Director is not only infringing on the Zegors’ territory, they’re fighting in a brutal method that their foes do not.

Issue #51 — by Broome and Gil Kane — presents a similar critique. In it, Hal Jordan has, by accident, made his fictitious alter ego of Pol Manning come to life with his power ring. (The power ring in the Silver Age did that a lot, making the fodder for many a wacky scenario.) Manning is out for revenge against Hal, but does so by attacking the state — he is seeking to “depose” him, and become the new Solar Director. When Green Lantern stops his duplicate, Manning is not put on trial for murder, but for treason — and only narrowly avoids execution for treason when he is freed by a group of devolved super-strong humans that he has created. Manning avoids death from the state’s action only by relying on a type of human that, at least in the junk science of a Silver Age comic book, predates the state itself. Again, we see this idea that the attack on the superhero is not just an attack on an individual, but an attack on the very legitimacy of the state itself.

Broome also uses the Iona Vane stories as an avenue for discussion of the role of the military in society. Issue #12 sees Jordan — still in his Pol Manning guise — facing down an evil hypnotist. This is nothing new for Silver Age comics: It sometimes seems like evil hypnotists were about half their supervillains. But what is interesting is the actual method this evil hypnotist adopts. He hypnotizes the ‘Earth generals’ into forming a junta — the book specifically uses that word — and launching a military coup against the Solar Director’s government. (One has to wonder how much hypnotism was needed for that: it’s not like anyone voted for Hal Jordan, after all.) Green Lantern, while he does face down and defeat the hypnotist, spends most of the issue fighting the soldiers, and putting down the revolt. We see Green Lantern, the superhero, embroiled in a fight against a threat to the state, rather than simply stopping crime — and we see a commentary on the role of the military, too, as Broome presents them as easy dupes of the hypnotist.

Digging into the Silver Age to explore GL's headier subtext.

Similarly, issue #47 offers another critique along those lines. It sees Green Lantern once again summoned to the future to stop the Red Virus, a disease that turns the afflicted bright red, gives them horns, and makes them evil. It’s not particularly subtle. The Red Virus infects the future military of the Solar Directorate, and makes them revolt against Hal Jordan’s rule. Fighting ensues, and not surprisingly, the emerald gladiator prevails. But these same themes that recur in all these Iona Vane stories are present here, too. The foes are not a threat just to Hal’s safety, or trying to commit a crime: they’re an existential threat to the specific form of the state that the 5700s has. And we see, just like in issue 12, the military as the easily duped pawns of another, greater, threat.

Finally, in the last story with Iona Vane that Broome would write, he offers up a critique of this role of superhero as a servant of the state. Green Lantern finds himself fighting an evil computer that he set up to rule the future while he is in the past. But the actions that this computer had been doing doesn’t actually seem to be evil — the faux-villainy that the antagonist of the story has is only due its role in opposition to Hal Jordan, rather than any evil in and of itself. It had been keeping law and order, and transformed the 5700s into a post-scarcity society, where all work was done by machines. The only thing that it did was provide a threat to Jordan’s rule — and Jordan destroys it, sending everyone back to work. The Silver Age role of superhero as a mindless protector of the status quo is being critiqued long before Alan Moore would do the same in Miracleman and more, decades later.

John Broome’s Green Lantern, for the most part, was a fairly milquetoast part of the greater paradigm that the Silver Age heroes were operating in. But he does, through the method of the Green Lantern stories set in the 58th century, offer an implicit critique thereof, and set forth a type of superhero that wouldn’t be seen again until the Stormwatch/Ultimates days of the late ’90s and early 2000s.

It’s easy to perceive the Silver Age as an era of trite, simplistic story-telling, with messages aimed for the lowest common denominator. But a bit of in-depth critical analysis reveals a wealth of deep, meaningful messages to find.

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