Green Lantern in 2020: Is There a Future Beyond the Thin Green Line?

Hal Jordan's mission statement in GL: Earth One.

Green Lantern has had a strange time in the first 20 years of the century. The ongoing comic series rose from a perennial B-list entry to DC’s pantheon of heroes to become the biggest franchise in their stable, thanks to a wildly popular and commercially successful decade-long run from writer Geoff Johns. This revamp, during which Johns partnered with several artists including Ivan Reis and Ethan Van Sciver (now best known as the figurehead of the Comicsgate hate group), rebuilt the Green Lantern Corps into equal parts military and police force fitting of the run’s mid-2000’s America origins. A decidedly authoritarian streak ran through the various titles and gradually shifted the emerald warriors from space-faring superheroes to hard-edged soldiers in a cosmic war.

In the wake of Johns’ departure in 2014, however, the line faltered. Middling attempts to capture the para-military sci-fi infused tone of the previous era failed to attract an audience. A reliance on old mainstays like Hal Jordan kept new Lanterns such as Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz from truly carving out their own place in the mythos. As the 2010s approached their end, it became clear that a new approach was needed, and DC responded with a surprising vigor: multiple distinct explorations of what Green Lantern, as both a character and a series, needs to be in the modern-day. Or, more specifically, how a space cop can still be considered a hero in the world in which we live.

The first of these stories was 2018’s Green Lantern: Earth One, written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman with art by Hardman, colors from Jordan Boyd, and lettering by Simon Bowland. The series is a somewhat rarity for mainstream superhero titles: a standalone graphic novel set outside of the standard DC Universe continuity. Recasting Hal Jordan as a former NASA engineer in a near-future gritty, hard sci-fi setting, the series takes as much inspiration from sci-fi films such as Alien as any previous Green Lantern story. 

This direction carries through to the story’s politics, granting glimpses of Earth as a capitalist authoritarian hellscape all-too-similar to the world outside our window in 2020 America. After finding a Green Lantern ring in a long-untouched alien wreck, Hal is thrust into the galactic scene and quickly discovers that the Green Lantern Corps is long-dead. The ruthless cybernetic Manhunters have replaced them, and they control most of populated space in a stranglehold that crushes any resistance and relies on slave labor to continue its existence. 

The newly formed Green Lanterns stand together.
Green Lantern: Earth One – DC Comics, March 2018 – Bechko, Hardman, Boyd, Bowland

Eventually, Hal comes across a few other ring-wielders (including re-imagined fan favorites like Kilowog and Arisia) and learns the true fate of the original Lanterns. The Guardians, the self-appointed protectors and leadership of the galaxy, who founded the Corps grew wary of their charges’ increased defiance and rejection of authority and sought to replace them. The Manhunters did so with a ruthless efficiency but quickly overrode the safeguards placed by their creators and turned on The Guardians themselves.

After Hal and the ragtag Green Lanterns save the day and wipe out the Manhunter’s stronghold, they defy expectations. Instead of re-founding the Green Lantern Corps and bringing the setting to a more traditional status quo, they reject the Guardians’ tradition and embark on their own path. Instead of a Corps of officers and soldiers, they form a mutual support network led through votes and collective agreements. Instead of arresting criminals and fighting aliens, Hal returns to Earth with his ring and a desire to enact substantive change. The sequel, unsurprisingly titled Green Lantern: Earth One Volume 2, has not been released as of this writing, so the form that change takes has yet to be seen. Even so, the degree to which Earth One Volume 1 reshapes the pillars of Green Lantern mythology remains impressive on its own merits. Green Lanterns as a force for support and change rather than a weapon to be levied at criminals was the most refreshing spin on the formula in decades…until Far Sector’s release in November 2019.

Far Sector caught the comics world by surprise when it was announced in 2019. The title was revealed to be a 12-issue (as of this writing, six of those issues have been released) series under DC’s wild Young Animal imprint starring a new rookie Green Lantern from the minds of beloved sci-fi novelist N.K. Jemisin, heavyweight rising star artist Jamal Campbell and lettering from Deron Bennet. The talented creative team and absolutely killer design of the series’ lead Sojourner “Jo” Mullein led to a good deal of buzz ahead of its debut. The near-universal critical acclaim since that debut has proven that hype justified.

Far Sector defies the standard Green Lantern formula from the very first issue. Traditionally, Lanterns are charged with policing an entire “sector” of space, regardless of whether the inhabitants of that sector consent to this protection. Jo, however, was invited to her post within The City Enduring and brought in to be an impartial third party and peacemaker amongst the city’s rival factions. Jemisin’s background in sci-fi writing pays dividends within the series as The City’s inhabitants and distinct cultures feel more fleshed out and alive than most dives into alien societies in Green Lantern history.

This nuance becomes vital as the story progresses when the clash of cultures within The City and Jo’s role as a complete outsider becomes a primary focus. The City Enduring has survived for thousands of years due to a mandatory policy known as the Emotional Exploit. This modification dulls the emotional capabilities of all citizens to curb conflict and foster easily controlled behavior. A rising outcry against the practice among citizens, partially fueled by a new drug flooding the streets that temporarily overrides the Exploit, eventually boils over into mass protest. Civilians with poster board signs and a fire in their hearts stare down a wall of the City’s Peace Officers, armed to the teeth, in a scene that feels, sadly, very familiar.

Jo Mullein argues with a Peace Officer Captain over lethal force.
Far Sector #3 – DC Comics: Young Animal, January 22, 2020 – Jemisin, Campbell, Bennet

Despite coming out months before the recent swell of protests across the U.S., Far Sector feels as timely as any comic has ever been. This feat is almost certainly due to Jemisin and Campbell being Black Americans and all-too-aware of the USA’s long history with police violence and abuse. Their perspectives provide authenticity and weight to Jo’s story that even well-regarded stories (for its time) such as Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow lack. Rather than drape any stories confronting racism and the fascist tendencies found in police forces across the world in allegory or half-heartedly gesturing at these issues, Far Sector faces them head-on and forces the reader to consider them in all their pain and horror.

Before arriving in The City Enduring and picking up a power ring, Jo was a cop. After ending a post-9/11 tour in the Army, she joined the force with the intent to help and protect, making the world a better place. That dream shattered the night Jo watched her partner beat a man half to death. Of course, she reported her partner but quickly found herself on the wrong side of the thin blue line and was (after a hasty excuse revolving around being tagged in a Black Lives Matter Facebook post) quickly fired. While furious over her ousting, Jo is equally guilt-wracked over her silence when witnessing the beating, an accomplice through inaction. 

Jo’s righteous fury over assaults on protestors and fear of unwittingly stepping on a cultural landmine when dealing with The City’s complex and alien cultures and escalating volatile situations cut to the question at the heart of Far Sector. Can there be a good cop? Does a police officer, in any form, have any place in a healthy society? The question remains open half-way through the series. The third title in this wave of attempted relaunches, in contrast, is more than happy to provide an emphatic answer.

Before diving into that series, however, it is worth mentioning a title that doesn’t quite fit the purview of this piece but should be acknowledged. Green Lantern: Legacy released in early 2020 as an entry into DC’s growing line of Young Adult graphic novels. The book, written by Minh Lê with art by Andie Tong, colors from Sarah Stern and Ariana Maher‘s lettering, follows 13-year old Vietnamese-American Green Lantern Tai Tran. The OGN does very little to address the Lanterns’ role as a police force (referring to them as “space cops” several times with no pushback) but does place an emphasis on community and history that is unique for the franchise. It is not a perfect story, but it provides a voice to a culture severely under-represented in superhero comics and showcases how superheroes, even Green Lanterns, can be more than just glorified warriors.

The Green Lantern, the most recent attempt to re-vitalize the mainline DC ongoing series, debuted in late 2018 with the high-profile creative team of Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp with Steve Orliff on colors and Tom Orzechowski lettering. Morrison’s decades-spanning career needs little introduction, his role as one of comics’ most widely beloved and respected storytellers having long since established itself. Sharp, on the other hand, had fallen out of view for most American comic fans for some time until a return to DC in 2016 brought him back under the spotlight. The duo promised their run The Green Lantern would return a central focus to Hal Jordan as an “intergalactic lawman”, balancing both the high concept imaginative plots Morrison had become famous for with a police procedural formula. The results, unfortunately, have left much to be desired.

The first handful of issues of The Green Lantern are rife with police procedural tropes. Good Cop/Bad Cop interrogations, threatening suspects and ignoring their request for a lawyer, casual bigotry among officers, to name a few. These quickly come to a head with the end of The Green Lantern #3, when Hal Jordan executes a suspect while in custody and asks his fellow Lanterns to say it was self-defense. He is quickly thrown out of the Corps (given messages of support and solidarity from his fellow officers on the way out) before joining a rival, more outright fascist, cosmic police force in the form of the Blackstars. In a not-so-surprising turn, Hal’s ousting is later revealed to be a ruse by the Guardians to have a man on the inside of the Blackstars. His rash behavior and attempts to cover up what he did? All an act. The murder? That happened. But it’s okay, because the Guardians authorized him to use lethal force.

Hal Jordan murders a suspect in custody in The Green Lantern #3.
The Green Lantern #3 – DC Comics, January 2019 – Morrison, Sharp, Orliff, Orzechowski

This reveal is where The Green Lantern falls apart. The Blackstars are outright fascist monsters, seeking to control every inch of the universe under their leadership. Yet, the Green Lanterns are more than happy to deal in dirty policing and outright murder but are painted as the noble heroes of the tale. Hal Jordan will intimidate suspects, wield an all-powerful weapon as a threat and ignore fundamental civil rights, but the series doesn’t take issue with this behavior because he’s The Good Cop. The waters become even more muddied when the Blackstars’ tactics include redistributing wealth and property among their conquered worlds. It is presented as a tool by which they manipulate the populace but leaves a sour taste in my mouth, given our current economic inequality and the millions of people in poverty. 

These occurrences, presenting real-world problems and difficulties, in either misguided or outright irresponsible lights, continue throughout the series up through its current issue. Green Lanterns pledging to serve the law above all else, galactic law enforcement conferences played as acceptable and full of sight gags and cameos, women routinely drawn as walking sex objects with visible ribs and gravity-defying breasts. The entire run is permeated with a sense that the (middle-aged, white male) creators have long since lost the pulse of the cultural conversation, which is only exacerbated by these hard-edged real-world issues being blended in with gonzo Morrison adventures leading to a comic that feels painfully unaware and confused at a time when its audience is more aware than ever. The Green Lantern is still ongoing, with a handful of issues left before its run ends, so the chance remains that Morrison and Sharp could address the glaring mistakes, but with the most recent stories going further into wacky silver age infused antics, it seems very unlikely.

I can’t say whether these titles represent the potential future of Green Lantern, as a franchise. Two of them aren’t yet finished, and the third has a sequel on the horizon that could quickly knock down the achievements its predecessor built. Whitebread smiling space cop Hal Jordan could be the face of the character for another 20 years. Or, radical, young heroes like Jo Mullein or Jessica Cruz could explore how to be a Green Lantern when you know modern policing, as many have learned this year, is an inherently broken system. The fact the question has been raised at all, after 15 years of DC embracing the oo-rah excessive force happy Lantern Corps of the Johns era, is a sign that something in the air has changed, and that’s a feat readers should consider worth paying attention to.

Jo executes a show of force to intimidate Peace Officers.
Far Sector #4 – DC Comics: Young Animal, February 26, 2020 – Jemisin, Campbell, Bennet
Zoe Tunnell

Zoe Tunnell

Zoe is a 29-year-old trans woman who has been reading far too many comics for most of her adult life and can't stop now.

2 thoughts on “Green Lantern in 2020: Is There a Future Beyond the Thin Green Line?

  1. Pretty comprehensive article. It’s interesting how Far Sector set out to tell a story that just so happened to be super topical in a great way, compared to The Green Lantern does the same thing, but in the complete opposite direction.

    Some great Green Lantern stories in the past 30 years have come from the interpersonal relationships the Lanterns have, with friends, families and communities. That has been noticeably absent in recent years, with the exception of Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz, whom as you point out, were not given a great chance to carve out their own legacy.

    1. I do genuinely like both Simon and Jess, but somehow despite sharing an ongoing and being featured as members of the JL, neither one ever felt like the Primary Green Lantern. It didn’t help that they were consistently treated like the designated Heroes in Training by their peers.

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