Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why I Hate Green Lantern


So I got an interesting question recently: why don’t I ever write about Green Lantern here on the Dork Forty? It’s not an unreasonable thing to wonder about. Green Lantern is a truly significant book in the super hero genre, one of the most popular comics on the stands today, and considered by many to be the brightest jewel in DC Comics’ 21st Century publishing crown. And yet, I’m not sure I’ve ever even mentioned it here. Why is that? Well…

The first answer to that question is the simplest: I don’t like it. And while I’m not averse to writing negative reviews, I’m also not going to spend money on comics I know I don’t like. If I was getting paid to do this, I’d read and review all kinds of stuff. But in the absence of that, I’m quite happy with my amateur status. It does, however, put certain limits on the things I’m going to write about.

My second answer is a bit more complicated: I prefer to use the Dork Forty to accentuate the positive. As it says in the masthead, this place is part of my own personal nerd farm. It’s a place I come to share my thoughts on the dorky-ass stuff I like, the strange and obscure corners of popular culture that I dig the most. It’s as much about publicly enthusing about things as it is anything else. And while I’m always happy to state my opinion if somebody asks, I also don’t like to use this platform to go out of my way to crap all over stuff that other people really like.

But…

The question that inevitably follows my statement that I don’t like Green Lantern is almost always an incredulous, “How can you not like Green Lantern?!” Which means that… Well… Somebody asked… So I guess it’s time to go negative…

"What the--?!"
First off, I should clarify that I like Green Lantern, the character, just fine. He’s one of my favorite super hero concepts, in fact. Space cop with magic alien ring? Of course I love that!

"Well, alright then!"
I just don’t like the current direction of the Green Lantern comics series. Or, more specifically, I don’t care for the writing of Geoff Johns, who’s been guiding the character’s adventures for quite some time now.

And at this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that, while I’ve read enough Johns to know that I don’t like his work, I haven’t read him since the earliest days of his Green Lantern run, and no longer own any of the Johns comics I have read. So I can’t give you much in the way of specific examples of the things I’m going to complain about, and any specific Green Lantern plot elements I do discuss are things I’ve gleaned by talking to people who have read the stories, and of course by hitting the Wikipedia in preparation for writing this. So, yeah. Just FYI. If you think that disqualifies me from expressing opinions on Johns’ work (a feeling I can certainly understand), just stop reading now. You probably won’t like what I have to say, anyway...

Still here? Alright then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. On a purely technical level, I don’t like Johns’ work because his writing seems very surface, very obvious, to me. He’s of the “want all story now” school (to quote the Venture Brothers’ Jackson Publick). Each plot element and character motivation is carefully spelled out and explained as you go. You’re never allowed to figure out plot or character motivations on your own, and even when you do there‘s always a laborious explanation anyway. Just in case you didn’t get it. It’s writing to the lowest common denominator, and it insults my intelligence. And since it leaves me with no work to do as a reader, it bores the crap out of me to boot.

Johns‘ work also bores me because it feels like a retread. Not so much in terms of plot (which I’ll commence to eviscerating in a minute), but more in tone and theme. He writes very much in the super hero soap opera tradition, like he’s the 21st Century’s answer to Roy Thomas. His work’s very po-faced and melodramatic, and concerned more than perhaps it ought to be with the heroic nature of heroism. I loved that kind of crap when I was a kid, but at this point, it’s kind of old hat. I’ve been there and I’ve done that, and I’d like to see something a little different now.

Johns’ Green Lantern work also has quite a bit of that “everything you know is a lie” stuff you often got following what Alan Moore did to Marvelman and Swamp Thing. But while I’m comfortable comparing Johns to Roy Thomas, he’s just not in Moore’s league. Moore’s revisionist super hero work was about bringing his characters into the modern world, and introducing adult storytelling to a field that was, at the time, still written primarily for children and teenagers. It was transgressive and different, and moved the industry forward in ways nothing else before it had been able to do. Johns’ revisionism, meanwhile, seems to be more about muddying up simple character concepts.

So the Green Lantern ring’s weakness against the color yellow is no longer (vaguely but satisfyingly) explained away by a “necessary impurity” in the metal. Oh, no! Turns out the Guardians have been lying all these years, and that in reality there’s a yellow “fear demon” trapped in the central power battery on Oa (the home planet of the Green Lantern Corps). Because yellow is the color of fear (as anyone who ever heard Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County” knows). And because green… is the color of willpower… And that’s… why the rings… don’t work on yellow… Except now they will… if you can conquer your fear…

Hrm.

Johns engineered all this crap to explain away the 90s stories in which Hal Jordan, the second (and most popular) Green Lantern, went insane and became a super villain. So now, instead of going crazy, he was really just possessed by a demon. It’s medieval psychology in sci-fi drag! Which is all well and good, I suppose. It sold well to the hardcore fanboy audience, anyway. But it’s also the point where the fantasy of a man with a magic alien ring ceases to be idiotically charming, and turns into something convoluted.

And it only gets moreso, with a whole Rainbow Coalition of Lanterns. Now, understand that I don’t really dislike the Rainbow Lanterns as a concept. It’s kind of a natural idea, honestly, and I’m surprised it took so long for somebody to come up with it. I just don’t like the way it’s been executed. Going back to the whole “yellow is the color of fear, green is the color of willpower” mess, Johns based the various Rainbow Lanterns on different emotions. So yellow = fear, green = willpower, purple = love, red = rage, and etc.

Except that Sinestro’s yellow power ring never had anything to do with fear.

I mean, are you even remotely scared of this guy?
And the power of Star Sapphire’s purple gem (also retroactively part of the Rainbow Coalition) never really had anything to do with love, either.

I guess it depends on your definition of love...
And “willpower” isn’t an emotion, exactly. And neither is “death,” which is the “emotion” behind the black rings.

Maybe he meant "emo" instead?
It might have been better to say that the rings are all powered by archetypal concepts common to all sentient life, but that’s not as catchy. So Johns went with “emotions.” And because he did that, the whole thing’s a thematic mess, tied up tightly in the very continuity that it seeks to up-end.

Which is my other big problem with Johns’ corporate spandex work: it’s dizzyingly self-referential. He tends to do call-backs to stories from a quarter-century ago, and does it in such a way that it’s hard to understand the new stories without an ass-load of exposition re-telling the old stories. But at the same time, Johns is relying on his core audience’s love of the kind of continuity minutia he’s drawing on to build excitement. So he’s writing to an audience that already knows the old stuff, and then hedging his bets by (once again) explaining it all in excruciating expository detail for the readers who don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. And that drives me insane.

But back to Johns’ reliance on continuity itself. Continuity is simultaneously serial comics’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It allows characters and concepts to be developed slowly over time. Whole fictional universes can be shaped into complex and fascinating places that should be really exciting to both old readers and new. Granted, it’s a tough trick. You have to maintain some kind of status quo on these long-running franchise properties so they don’t become unrecognizable, but still keep them fresh and up-to-date somehow.

Johns meets that challenge by creating a feeling of forward motion through the Rainbow Lanterns and such, and it’s certainly not hurting sales. People like stories that feel important, stories that speak to the very heart of the characters they love. And this constant reinvention of the backstory gives readers that feeling. It’s a storytelling strategy that made the X-Men the most popular comic on Earth in the 90s. Those guys were having their pasts re-written on what seemed like a monthly basis back then, and Johns has tapped into that energy, in spades.

I didn't like it then, either, but even I have to admit that Johns is doing a better job of it than they ever did. I don’t like his work as an adult reader, but I’m sure I would have loved it as a kid. And while I don’t think he’s in the same league as Alan Moore, I’m entirely comfortable enshrining him alongside guys like Roy Thomas or Chris Claremont. That’s pretty good company, historically speaking. So I’m not entirely crapping on the guy. His work isn’t to my personal taste, and I think there are some pretty serious flaws in it. But if you like old-school super hero soap opera, you’re not going to find too many writers who do it better than Geoff Johns. Not that I’ll be reading anything by him in the foreseeable future, mind you. But I'm sure the Green Lantern franchise will roll on just fine without me...

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