Thursday, January 12, 2012

Green Lantern Archives Vol. 1 review:

 Green Lantern Archives Vol. 1 (reprinting Showcase #22-24 and Green Lantern #1-5).
 Note about the scans: I originally wrote most of this review a few months ago when I actually had my Archive with me and intended to post this review shortly after the film came out, but stuff happened, and in the interim, I sold my Archive on Amazon. Thus, these scans are from my black and white Showcase edition. I’ve also included a few thoughts about stuff that happened since then, like the movie. Sorry for the crappy scans, but the book is huge.
 After singing my praises of the Silver Age Flash some time ago, I felt I may as well revisit the Silver Age Green Lantern. Now that I’ve finished, I...uh…really don’t know what to say.
On one hand, this should be the superior series when compared to The Flash, because it has so much more going on. Here we have an actual supporting cast, developing plot threads, genuine sexual tension between the hero and his love interest, adventures which can span across the entire galaxy rather than being stuck in one area (for the fastest man alive, Barry Allen never left Keystone city much), the villains are a little easier to take seriously than some of the Flash’s goofy adversaries (even though that’s what makes the Flash rogues so much fun) and most of all, the main character actually has something of a personality (Hal Jordan angsts even more than Peter Parker at times). I’m also a big fan of stories in older superhero comics where the hero would have to think his way out of a situation by turning the villain’s weird logic against them, often with some presumably educational pseudo-science thrown in. I was really impressed by some of those kinds of stories from Flash and even more so from Adam Strange, and I’d heard that the Silver Age Green Lantern was a real showcase for those kinds of stories.
 On the other hand, few of these elements really come together in a satisfying way.
 We have a really great set-up for the series with the introductory issue (Showcase #22), wherein Hal gains his powers, appropriates them the way he sees fit, explores the ups and downs of becoming a celebrity overnight (Green Lantern’s sudden fame is handled in a surprisingly natural manner), tries to solve the mystery behind the alien Abin Sur, and fails, despite his newfound powers, to win the thing he wants the most; his boss Carol Ferris. It’s truly amazing how much emphasis is put upon Hal’s love life, and the tone of the series is much more Marvel-esque than a lot of what DC would later be doing.
 The next few issues of GL’s Showcase try-outs are typical superhero stuff, but that’s more than made up for with the amazingly realistic progression of Carol’s infatuation with both Hal and Green Lantern; Carol is way too smart to be fooled by a simple domino mask, and in issue #24 she’s genuinely on the verge of discovering his secret identity on her own, but alas, she ends up getting knocked out in a car accident caused by a monster and forgets everything. It’s really disappointing. I mean, I shouldn’t have expected much more from a Silver Age comic, but it was progressing so well that I expected something more. By the time the first issue of GL’s solo series comes out, things aren’t really much different than any other superhero comic.
A smart heroine!!!?? In a comic book!!? *GASP*

One thing that struck me about these stories is how minor the role of the guardians and the other members of the Lantern “Corps” are. I actually like this, because it creates a real aura of mystery about just what the hell is the source for Hal’s powers. In the first story it’s clear that Abin Sur the alien is part of some kind of interplanetary police force, but he never actually says he’s part of one called “The Green Lantern Corps”, and since he doesn’t wear a mask the way Hal does, it suggests that Hal is unique in the ways that he appropriates the costume and powers Abin Sur gives him. As early as the second issue, Hal is being contacted by some higher power and going off assisting needy planets, but the fact that we never see who is contacting him is what makes it all work. Frankly, I’d have preferred seeing Hal fool around with his powers without any real intervention from aliens.
 Nowadays, all of the emphasis in Green Lantern comics is on the aliens and the fact that the various human Green Lanterns are just a cog in a huge machine (Some fans hold contests on GL Message Boards where they pride themselves on listing as many non-human or minor members of the corps as their favorites). While we would get to see more of the other Green Lanterns during the Silver Age, it didn’t really take off as a concept that dominated the GL series until around when Star Wars came out, and then the fans begged for more appearances of the other GLs and for limited series etc. Not that this was the wrong way to go, but this has always smacked to me as less of a natural progression and more as a bunch of nerds trying to turn the Green Lantern series into something it really wasn’t, which was a Star Wars/Trek kind of thing. I mean, although the stories are terribly dated, I think it should be pointed out that the most well-regarded (among “serious” comics fans) GL stories ever written remain the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams stories that took place on earth. When was the last time a Green Lantern storyline was as acclaimed since the Corps became the #1 emphasis? (And I don’t count those stupid company crossovers.)
 Just sayin’.
 Anyway, around the time GL enters his own title, there’s a drop-off in quality, and, well, the people who bash Stan Lee for being overly descriptive and expository need to read these comics. In almost every damn story, we are reminded that Hal has to recharge his ring every 24 hours and that his powers can’t affect the color yellow. I mean, I could see it being necessary to do this once an issue for new readers, but why do it once a story? I should point out that almost all of these issues feature two stories, thus, repeating this information again is pointless. This is far more frustrating than you’d think, and the way the writers constantly play with the rules of how GL’s ring affects yellow is hilariously bad.
 Also, while I appreciate Gil Kane’s fine lined art, it’s so thin that eventually it just starts to look bland, and an increasing reliance on negative space doesn’t help. His designs for aliens are also pretty banal (all of them have large heads and staring eyes but look human otherwise), almost on the same level as how Bernard Baily draws ghosts. I’ll take Kane’s later Spider-Man work over this any day.
 I do have to give props to the writers for their unabashed love of sci-fi and horror that shines through, though. The very titles of these stories could easily adorn a 50’s B-movie poster or a pulp magazine cover: “Secret of the Flaming Spear”, “Summons from Space”, “The Invisible Destroyer”, “Secret of the Black Museum”, “The Creature That Couldn’t Die”. You get the picture.
 As for the stories themselves, well, most of them are battles with commies and aliens like the Weaponers of Qward (Hal’s only recurring foes in this volume). There isn’t really much emphasis on the kinds of “strategy and bizarre logic” stories I mentioned earlier, but there are some standout stories besides the origin. “Summons from Space” is good, with its Joe Kubert-inked artwork. “Secret of Green Lantern’s Mask” is a charmingly humorous romp at a costume ball that milks the tired “villain dresses as the hero” trope for some well-timed laughs. My personal favorites include:
 The Invisible Destroyer: This features a pleasingly surreal menace (obviously based off of The Gentleman Ghost) with a fascinating explanation for why he appears the way he does; he’s the projection of the evil side of a good scientist’s personality, but since the professor is so good and couldn’t see himself doing the acts the Destroyer commits, the Destroyer himself is invisible. It’s a fascinating variation on Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. It is never explained why the professor has such subconsciously evil thoughts, or why the Destroyer even exists (or why he wears the costume he does), but that adds to the effectiveness of the story. The scene where GL probes the scientist’s brain for the Destroyer is wonderfully surreal. It’s easy to see why so many fans remember the villain so fondly (every group picture of Green Lantern villains I've ever seen includes him), even though this story, his first appearance, was also his last (although he has appeared extensively in flashbacks, as illusions created by other villains, and in a time-travel story).
The Creature That Couldn’t Die: I mainly like the subplot about Carol catching on to Hal’s secret, but the main story itself, with a rampaging microbe grown to giant size, is quite fun. The microbe generates some Frankenstein-like pathos, and Hal’s means of disposing of the creature is nicely ironic.
 The Power Ring that Vanished: Easily the best story in the book, mainly because it’s the first full-length one. This features the debut of Hector Hammond, who would be second only to Sinestro for the rest of the 60’s as Green Lantern’s ultimate villain, although he’s sadly come to be neglected since. Hammond here is as far a cry as possible from the creepy, immobile, large-headed boogeyman he has become, and even more so from Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of him in the film as a creepy nerd (although I found him far more likeable than any other character in the film). Hammond here is a suave and handsome industrialist; clearly modeled after a young Howard Hughes. Hector could give Tony Stark a run for his money when it comes to being a smug snake that shows off his inventions and makes time with the ladies. He sweeps Carol Ferris off her feet, and soon has her contemplating marriage.
  Hammond’s surface charm though conceals a dark secret, first, he isn’t really named Hector Hammond, it’s an alias he uses because he’s really a gangster on the run. Second, in an amusing sci-fi variation on “The Elves and the Shoemaker”, Hammond himself is not really responsible for his fantastic inventions, but a group of scientists he has kidnapped are. Hammond has exposed them to a meteor he discovered in the woods while hiding out. This meteor can control evolution, and has evolved the scientists into large-headed dwarves (it also apparently evolves their clothing into futuristic jumpsuits). Hammond has forced them to use their genius to build weapons for him. Naturally, Green Lantern brings Hammond's scheme crumbling down.

 There are plot holes galore, like how Hammond managed to get his hands on the meteor without being exposed to it himself, or how he has used it to sap the scientists’ will, or why the scientists just don’t rebel against him. That said, there’s some real suspense, there’s some of that goofy pseudo-science I love, and the expanded page count adds room for the story to be developed more. You also gotta love the creepy subtext of how Carol falls for Hammond, who looks almost exactly like a younger, thinner version of her father (the resemblance increases when you read these in the black and white reprints). Keep in mind that Carol’s entire reason for ignoring Hal is because she wants to prove to her father that she’s as smart as any man and has no need for romance. Remember what psychologists said about women who basically end up marrying their fathers? Considering how screwed up Carol would later turn out to be, partly because of her desire to prove herself to her father, a retelling of this story that explores those themes could have potential. Too bad modern writers mainly use Hector these days solely as a boogeyman, because he’s far more interesting in this story than he has been ever since.
Enjoy it while you can, buddy.

 Ultimately, Green Lantern doesn’t have much over The Flash in entertainment value despite being a more well-rounded series in many ways, and none of the elements really mesh together very well. Still, these stories are a must-read for all comics fans interested in the building blocks of the Silver Age. I give it a solid 3.5/5.

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