So here’s Secret Origin. I’ve been wanting to cover this one for a while, as far back as 2011 in fact, but the words just didn’t seem to come to me until now. It’s a story which got a lot of acclaim from some and was clearly the main influence on the film in regards to story structure, Hals’ initial arrival on Oa and his training, the bar fight, tying in Hector Hammond’s origin to Abin Sur and a few other things. Some printings have introductions by Ryan Reynolds, and a few even have photos of him on the cover. But while some loved it, others really hate it and see it simply as Geoff Johns’ attempt to make the GL property his own and to make certain big events look like part of some grand design.
I have mixed feelings about Geoff Johns. On one hand, I like the way he manages to throw so many completely superfluous elements into his stories (Does a retelling of Hal Jordan’s origin really need Atrocitus, Black Hand, Hector Hammond, The Empire of Tears and Sinestro in it?) without them ever seeming intrusive or overly fanboy-ish (like some of Roy Thomas’s lesser work); just a writer showing off his love for the vast universe he’s playing with. He also writes dialogue you can imagine real people speaking rather than always trying to get in clever one-liners (and he’s no slouch in that department).
On the other hand, he might just be the worst violator of the “show don’t tell” rule in comics. Granted, most stories he writes attempt to have an epic quality with lots of subplots and foreshadowing going on, so that is to be expected now and then. That said, the disconnect from what we’re being told by Hal’s narration and what we’ve seen for ourselves can be pretty jarring at times.
For example, a key plot point in this version is that Hal needs to overcome his anger and resentfulness. However, except for a few scenes scattered about here and there such as a bar fight (which comes about from him attempting to save a woman from being raped), Hal comes off more like he has a longing to be free than anything else. I’m not saying that recklessness and anger are mutually exclusive, but it gets sort of funny when Sinestro, of all people, brings up Hal being rude and resentful, when at that point, all of the rudeness Hal has shown toward him has stemmed from Sinestro nearly killing him in mid-flight!
What’s even funnier is how all of this gets chalked up to Hal losing his father in a test flight accident, even though we see Hal acting just as reckless and impulsive when his father was alive by skipping school and sneaking onto landing strips. (And I don’t even want to get into how glossed over the death (and life) of Hal’s father is, one minute we have a big tragic scene of papa’s plane going up in flames, next thing you know, it’s Hal’s teenage hi-jinks). Even though fandom tends to dislike the whole drunk driving bit from the Emerald Dawn books, the whole theme of an irresponsible Hal growing up was handled much better there.
No, I didn't cut out some crucial context. These pages really did appear in sequence like this. Dead dad one page, next page wacky hi-jinks!
Another pretty funny bit involves Hal describing Sinestro as the first person to truly connect with and understand him, when at that point in the story, Sinestro has done nothing but berate, misinterpret and look down upon him, more so than anyone else! Not until the very end of the story does Sinestro seem to warm to him any, and we all know how long that’s going to last. Frankly, I much prefer the way Sinestro was portrayed in Emerald Dawn II, where he was no more likeable, but where his downfall carried a lot more weight to it and actually came off as sort of tragic. Here, even though he still remains a good guy by story’s end, you can’t wait to see him become evil just so he can be smacked around.
There’s also a subplot about Hal going to confront Carl Ferris, his father’s former friend and who Hal apparently blames for his dad’s death, and the build-up to that scene implies that Hal hates him a lot, possibly enough to kill him, even with his daughter Carol in the house. It’s supposed to be an intense, character-driven scene with us worried about what Hal might do. However, except for one bit earlier where he snaps at Carol, this is first mention of Hal having anything against Ferris; completely ruining what Johns obviously intended to be a powerful and emotionally resonant climax.
To be fair though, there’s a narrative twist at the end which does sort of justify some of the more disjointed aspects of the story, but since it’s one of the parts of the book I absolutely loved, I really don’t want to spoil it.
One criticism I often see of John’s GL work is that he makes Hal too perfect and makes anyone who dislikes him look like a bad guy to prop him up. That’s not really the case here, thankfully. Most of the people who get pissed off at Hal in this story (like his older brother Jack) are shown to have legitimate reasons to be and aren’t really depicted in a negative or unfair light. Pretty much the only time Hal is shown in an overly ‘saintly’ mode is when he defends buddy Tom Kalmaku from being called the racist nickname “Pieface”, which of course, was what Hal (and everyone) used to call him all the time back in the Silver and Bronze Age. Doing away with offensive or dated elements is fine, but why be so smug about it?
Writing aside, the real star of SO is Ivan Reis’s art. It does a good job combining realism with a 1980’s sci-fi paperbacks aesthetic. Some of the moodier scenes, like the subplots involving Atrocitus and Black Hand, or Hal first finding Abin Sur, have an almost Gene Colan vibe to them, and the depiction of Hal’s arrival on Oa just might be my all-time favorite. He’s just as good with earthbound scenes too, like Hal first applying for the Air Force, which looking at it, you’d never think came from a superhero comic, but one of those ‘biographical’ comics written to win awards.
The only real problem I have with Reis’s art is how he seems to fall back on clichés for how some characters should look as if we wouldn’t recognize them or their function in the story otherwise. He gives Carol freckles as a child that she has no trace of as an adult, just so we know, hey, she’s a little girl. He gives Sinestro perhaps the most stereotypically old fashioned villain mustache imaginable, even though at this point he’s not supposed to be evil. Sinestro’s mustache and how it makes him look like a Snidely Whiplash/Simon Legree character is probably the most joked about aspect of the villain, but even in the Silver Age it was more subdued.
Which one looks more "Nyaaa! Foiled again!" to you?
Also (and boy is this scraping the bottom of the barrel for things to complain about) why does Hammond drool in this? It’s become common since the 90s to depict the villain drooling, and I always assumed it was a side-effect of him being paralyzed and no longer being in control of his nerves and muscles. Some writers have had him paralyzed because of the meteor’s radiation, others because his huge head snapped his spine. Either way, it made sense as something that would happen to him as a long term side effect. Here, he starts slobbering almost the instant he gains his powers, still with a normal-sized head and full mobility.
To be fair, most people I know who claim to be mind-readers seem like the types to drool on themselves.
Speaking of oozing bodily fluids (I just love beginning a sentence with words like that), man do some parts of the book get gory. When the movie came out with a full-on marketing blitz, I remember seeing a Scholastic edition of this at a Borders, and although I didn’t look through it, it looked roughly as thick as the regular editions. Did they censor any of this out of that edition? Even without the gore, the bits with Black Hand trying to make sexy time with corpses and Hammond being told his mustache makes him look like a pedo must have made for awkward reading time for parents who got this for their kids.
Each panel could pass for an Image cover
Green Lantern: Secret Origin isn’t quite the definitive take it wants to be, it often feels rushed and probably won’t make many new Green Lantern fans, but as a superhero adventure with lots of action, monsters and sci-fi, it’s a great way to kill 50 minutes. 3/5.