Monday, February 3, 2014
"Only there's skins you never bothered with." Green Lantern 87
Green Lantern #87 (December/January 1971)(cover by Neal Adams)
"Beware My Power"
Dennis O'Neil-Neal Adams/Dick Giordano
Doug: Welcome to our first post-vacation comic review. In the United States, February has been designated "Black History Month" -- it was first officially recognized by the federal government during our bicentennial year of 1976. The observance is also celebrated in the UK and Canada. Karen and I have never done anything specific on our blog to bring notice to this, but during our time away we had conversation about it and decided to make 2014 a bit different. With this in mind, we're going to review today's fare -- the introduction of the Green Lantern perhaps most recognized by novice superhero fans of today, John Stewart. We're going to follow it with Fantastic Four #119, an anti-apartheid story featuring the Black Panther. After that, we'll get away from our usual trend of arcs contained with a calendar month and begin a long stretch of the "Secret Empire" storyline from Captain America. Throughout these reviews, we'll do our best to not only provide the sort of commentary you've grown accustomed to but also hopefully shine a spotlight on the treatment of Black characters in these stories. The new Green Lantern, T'Challa, the Falcon and Leila -- should be enlightening and hopefully a lot of fun.
Karen: Although comics have become far more inclusive of African Americans and characters of other ethnic backgrounds over the years, it's rather sobering to realize that there's still not a major Black super-hero at the big two headlining their own title. Characters like John Stewart and the Panther, and Luke Cage, the Falcon, Storm, Cyborg, and others have become regular fixtures in titles but none have moved into that upper echelon of popularity. But then, how many characters born after the initial wave of creation at either company have gone on to become big hits? I'm pleased to see more diverse faces in books over the years, but when it comes down to it, the big names are still mostly white guys.
Doug: When last we visited the groundbreaking Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, Karen and I were left underwhelmed by the heavy-handed liberalism and compact storytelling of Dennis O'Neil. While the visuals provided by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano provided a saving grace to the four issues we reviewed, the stories themselves seemed to wear on us. I found myself not necessarily disagreeing with O'Neil's passion for social issues, but the large club he seemed to wield proved most unsavory as a means of delivery. But today's story is significant as mentioned above, and certainly merits our notice. Let's have a look.
Doug: We open with a look-in on Hal Jordan, in full GL costume and charging his power ring. Suddenly he's aware of an earthquake. Quickly he exits the room to get outside, but by the time he does the tremor has subsided. He does a survey of his surroundings and realizes the damage is slight. That is, until he reaches the outskirts of the city. There, a long bridge over a deep chasm has disintegrated, leaving a school bus and its passengers precariously perched on the edge of oblivion. As Green Lantern lands, the children explain that they were on a field trip when the quake hit. One of their classmates is at the edge of what's left of the road and their teacher, Mr. Gardner, is trying to help her back to safety. As GL looks up, the school bus moves forward and strikes Gardner squarely in the back. As Gardner and the young girl vault over the precipice, the green energy of Jordan's ring encircles them and brings them back to solid earth. Hal recognizes "Mr. Gardner" as Guy Gardner, once named the alternate Green Lantern of Earth. Gardner (this one's a faaaaaaaar cry from the Guy we knew and loved/hated during the Bwhahahaha Justice League days) tells Hal that he's pretty beat up and will need some time to heal and rehabilitate. As Jordan walks away he muses to himself that he'd been very comfortable knowing that he had a back-up should the need ever arise. Now he's not so sure.
Karen: OK, I have to get this out of my system, as someone who was born and raised in California and lived there most of my life: any earthquake that buckles walls, makes a big crack in the street and causes a car to flip over isn't "slight"! I had to read that twice. There was no reason for him to have Green Lantern saying that. It goes at odds with the pictures and it's just plain wrong. I was also kind of surprised Gardner was still conscious and talking after getting pulverized, but I'll let that one go.
Doug: So while Hal debates his future without a "first runner-up", the Guardians appear to him and tell him that he must have that alternate, and they know just who that someone will be. Jordan wonders who, so scribe Denny O'Neil is going to show us. We scene-shift to an "urban ghetto" where some Black youths sit against a store front playing dominoes. The police want them to move, using the excuse that the young men have no "games permit". Suddenly another gent in his 20s comes up and tells the police that these youngsters have done nothing wrong. This new guy stands up to the police, albeit in a very smart-alleck way. The cops are ticked, and our guy challenges them, saying they aren't man enough to give him trouble. O'Neil does strike a chord with this bit of temporally-embedded dialogue:
"Blast 'em... They got no respect!"
"Fred, respect has to be earned! The way you acted, you didn't earn a nickel's worth!"
This almost sounds like dialogue from In the Heat of the Night or some such period film. That Denny O'Neil strikes the "us vs. them" antagonism seems perfect for the urban mood found in northern cities in 1971. These were the days of busing of school children, newly-segregated schools, and racially-based fighting. But then part of me wants to know -- why'd he go with the easy stereotype of the slick-talking, anti-establishment Black man? Why not throw us for a loop and choose a smooth Sidney Poitier-type?
Karen: After reading the whole story, I would just venture a guess that O'Neil probably hadn't spent a whole lot of time around young African American men. John Stewart is a strange amalgam of traits to be sure.
Doug: GL watches the scene from a rooftop, with the astral projection of one of the Guardians, and asks if this is really the guy they want to recruit. Jordan is assured that he is, in spite of his "petty bigotries". I remarked to Karen in an email as we were preparing this that I wonder if there's ever been another comic book where the star of the mag plays straight man to everyone else -- it seems Hal Jordan always has a lesson to learn and usually learns it by being put firmly in his place. So we cut moments ahead to a candy store, where GL (in full costume) is sitting down with our new protagonist and enjoying a milk shake. Yup -- full costume, milk shake... you read that right. We learn that our prospective Green Lantern is an unemployed architect named John Stewart -- "Square John" to his friends. Shortly, the two men are on a rooftop where Hal begins his protege's instruction.
Karen: Yes, getting back to our off-line conversation, one of the things that really bothered me about the GL/GA stories was the fact that GL was constantly being taught some lesson -the poor guy was always made out to be a tool. It was just so heavy-handed. Whether I agreed with O'Neil's political leanings all the time or not, it just grew more grating over time. Back to our story now -they meet in a candy shop? What? Couldn't two grown men like this at least have coffee?
Doug: Hal uses his ring to encompass Stewart's body in the full garb of the Green Lantern Corps. Stewart remarks that these aren't exactly threads like James Brown would wear, and then declares that he will not wear a mask. John Stewart is a Black man who "lets it all hang out! I've got nothing to hide!" Jordan's again left standing, and bewildered. The next lesson is on flight, which Stewart quickly masters; he remarks that flying is much easier than staying ahead of the muggers on the way back to his apartment after dark. And here's where I think I grow tired of O'Neil's writing. His soap boxing is a constant drum beat. I don't care if we're reading this as 40-year old history or if we were readers fully in the moment. The Black/white social dichotomy was no secret and had not been for quite some time. Is this a socially-aware story? Yes, sure it is. But why couldn't it just stand on those merits? Everything seems to become cliche', and delivered with a hammer blow. My take, I suppose.
Karen: Well, you already know how I feel about it! I try to figure out how this went over back when it first came out, but I can't help but think it would be perceived largely the same way -John Stewart is a caricature, but an oddly uneven one.
Doug: Our heroes arrive to the airport as a large crowd has gathered adjacent to the tarmac to welcome a particular plane. But suddenly, a fuel truck hits an oil slick and careens out of control. Stewart actually gives the order for the dual maneuver that will save everyone and Jordan responds. As Hal spirits the spectators away, Stewart uses his own imagination to craft a shape that will right the tipping, sliding truck. But as he does, oil spurts from the rig, some landing on Senator Jeremiah Clutcher, the man the crowd had come to see. Clutcher's face is covered in the crude and Stewart flies right up to him and makes a racist comment himself. Moments later, Hal gives John Stewart a stern chewing-out. Stewart responds angrily, saying the Clutcher is a racist who wants to be President; he calls Hal "whitey" during the argument. Incensed, Hal reminds Stewart who the teacher is and assigns the novice Green Lantern to guard Senator Clutcher.
Karen: One thing I notice with these O'Neil GL/GA stories is I always feel like they're more sketches of stories -like they're missing text or something. We get no introduction to the senator, the Lanterns are just suddenly there and blammo. I guess I'm used to reading longer-winded Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway stories from that time period.
Doug: I'm not going to give O'Neil and Adams a pass, but for whatever reason Green Lantern and Green Arrow do not appear together in this book -- rather, there are two separate stories (Black Canary is also in the GA story). So O'Neil was dealing with smaller page counts for his stories. Still, we've certainly reviewed our fair share of short stories through the years -- make it work.
Karen: Another interesting thing here is how Jordan stresses to Stewart that he's not there to make judgments on people. Understandable to a degree, but don't superheroes tend to put themselves in that position by default?
Doug: Later, Clutcher makes a speech filled with racist epithets and innuendo. The Green Lanterns stand nearby listening, both men disturbed by what they hear. Suddenly a Black man emerges on the left side of the stage and fires a shot at the Senator. Hal leaps to action, but Stewart says he's leaving! Hal catches the shooter and lays him out. Stewart, on the other hand, finds a white man in the parking lot with a machine gun set on a cop. Stewart rescues the cop, subdues the gunman, and is reunited with Jordan. Hal again lights into Stewart and calls him a disgrace. Stewart tells Jordan to get his hands off and follow him to the police station. There John Stewart explains details he'd seen earlier in the day that led him to believe the attempted assassination was a frame-up; he tells Jordan to empty the confiscated revolver. Blanks. The machine gun handler, on the other hand, was the real shooter and the set-up was to make it look like Clutcher was attacked by Blacks but would end up a hero in the end. This was Clutcher's plan to generate positive propaganda for himself, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Jordan again looks like a dope.
Karen: Stewart's explanation still seems a bit weak. In fact, the whole thing is like a wisp of a plot.
Karen: I feel like O'Neil wanted to create a Black hero who would be a titillating "angry young Black man" type but not too 'scary' for DC's mostly white readers. Because of this, he comes off as an unconvincing character, kind of a jerk really, and Hal comes off as a dope, as you say. It's an inauspicious beginning for DC's first Black costumed hero.
Doug: I agree, and I'm left wondering -- would I buy a comic featuring either of these characters? The established superhero who never seems to star in his own magazine, and the angry black man with a power ring. Hmph.