It must be difficult to bring back a hero, but it must be especially difficult to bring back a hero who’d been completely replaced. And yet that was the task Geoff Johns appointed for himself when he pitched to revitalise the Green Lantern line and bring back Hal Jordan in the process.
At the time, the best Green Lantern work had been done by creators like Ron Marz on the man who replaced Jordan as the defining Green Lantern – Kyle Rayner, a young artist. Rayner was part of a movement DC tried to put into their comics several decades ago, where occasionally their main heroes would die and be replaced by new characters. The concept is known as ‘legacy characters’ – young heroes taking on the mantle of their fallen mentors, or idols.
It’s a great idea, and I think a lot of people love it about DC. The idea that there was chronological movement, an idea solidified in other titles like Judge Dredd or Astro City, is one which has a special appeal for a comics audience, who age and watch their childhood heroes stay the same age forever. By bringing in legacy heroes, DC could age their existing characters, put in real threats to their storylines, and build and grow their universe.
Didn’t last, of course. DC went too big with the idea, after successfully killing off the original Green Lantern and the original Flash. Their next moves were to take out Batman and Superman, only to find that fans were less forgiving of losing their ‘A-List’ heroes. For a long time, though, DC were making some significant headway with their legacy heroes, with Wally West proving to be more popular than Barry Allen, and Kyle Rayner taking over Hal Jordan’s role entirely.
But the Green Lantern universe is set off-Earth, and oftentimes was absent from all the ‘important’ or ‘big’ stories. One of the Justice League, Kyle was used in the rookie role more often than not, and so his importance as a character was played down, even as he remained a fan-favourite. DC, a company dominated by four properties – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League – struggled to break out any other characters.
Which is why Johns’ pitch to DC for Green Lantern: Rebirth was so surprising, really. Arguably the most successful relaunch of a property in comics history (seriously! That’s not an exaggeration – he made Green Lantern into DC’s fourth biggest character), the pitch was to undo a massively tricky and problematic story from the DC archives, and fiddle around in several different continuities at once. It was a fix job, one done on an incredibly fiddly scale.
See, Hal Jordan’s death wasn’t an easy one. He went evil, and killed several familiar Green Lantern faces in the process. He renamed himself Parallax and became a mass-murderer, before eventually being defeated and killed off. THEN he came back, again as a villain, and was killed by Green Arrow. But after a few other attempts of using him as a semi-recurrent villain, the decision was made to get rid of him properly, and heroically, and he died re-igniting the Sun (which has been ‘put out’ by villains’).
So Hal Jordan died a few times, and Kyle Rayner took charge.
But DC still weren’t done. They brought back Jordan again, from Heaven, and made him into The Spectre – a supernatural character who punishes sinners in ironic ways. And boy oh boy, were things starting to get confusing!
What I’m trying to get across is that the idea of bringing back Hal Jordan as the main Green Lantern was a fairly ridiculous idea back in the early 2000s, and many readers were opposed to the idea. There was no way of doing the storyline without killing off the popular Kyle, and bringing back Hal would mean consolidating an awful lot of wonky continuity into a single straight line.#
But here we are! With Green Lantern Rebirth, by Johns, Ethan Van Sciver, and Moose Bauman on colours.
A six-issue miniseries, Johns attempted to fix Hal Jordan, and return him to a starring role. But not just him – there were lots of other broken bits of Green Lantern history which he turned his hand towards. Guy Gardner had lost his ring and become some kind of monster-powered mutant character. The Corps were gone. The Guardians had vanished. There was no role for John Stewart, the second-longest tenured Lantern. There were a lot of things which didn’t fit alongside each other.
So that’s where we’ll start in looking at Rebirth – which, I should say, I really enjoyed. This miniseries got me into DC comics as a whole, and was my personal starting point. From here on, I read Green Lantern comics right through to the Blackest Night storyline, and kept in touch until the end of Johns’ tenure some ten years after he started. Let’s start with the reboot.
As I said, the biggest fear with Rebirth was that Johns would have to do something ridiculous to fix the franchise, and that Kyle would have to die so that Hal could live. Every other time a hero returned, the legacy characters were sidelined, killed off, or removed somehow – how was this to be any different?
And that’s the key to why Rebirth worked, I think. Because Johns didn’t kill off any of the Green Lanterns – he instead gave them all their own place within the Universe, and signalled his ultimate intent with Hal and Kyle shaking hands, ready to work together. The idea was that Jordan had been possessed by evil, rather than had turned evil himself – Parallax wasn’t a villainous codename he chose for himself, but actually a sentient creature which possessed Jordan and took control. The Spectre then descended to try and control Parallax, but the two supernatural beings got stuck to one another.
As a result, Jordan has to physically rip himself away from both his fear and his past, in order to be reborn. It’s a very clear image, depicted brilliantly by the on-form and clearly entertained Van Sciver, which forces the reader to see a separation between all the different Hals they’ve seen over the years. The evil Jordan gets pushed to one side, the Spectre gets pushed to the other – and the actual Hal Jordan forces his way through the middle, directly to the reader.
One by one, the other characters are introduced and subjected to the same treatment, reaching to whatever their core trait is, the marketable and familiar reason why they were popular to start with, and reigniting it. The best part of the story comes towards the end, I feel, where all five of the main Lanterns all use their powers at once. Johns and Van Sciver use this to illustrate the core differences which mark each character out as unique.
In doing so, the reader realises that we’re not reading this to see Hal Jordan come back – Geoff Johns is pitching us EVERYTHING. Every single one of these characters is important for their own reason, and uniting all those characters under one banner is going to make for a fascinating team. There’s a reason why the trade paperback has all the members of the Lantern Corps on the front, rather than just the rehabilitated Jordan. There’s a longer-term plan here, and it’s by dangling that proposition for the reader that Johns has managed to be so successful in comics. He knows how to reach the core trait of a forgotten character and make it something people want to follow up one and find out more about.
Through the course of the story, Johns blows up a lot of the current continuity – oftentimes literally – in order to streamline all the characters onto one course. Using a supernatural entity as the main villain means he can manipulate all the other characters at will, with only the reason of “because it’s MAGIC!” as the explanation. Guy Gardner, in particular gets blown up, loses his powers, and then regains them solely because ‘magic did it.’
Yet by the end of the book, nothing has actually been destroyed. In fact, everything has been put neatly back in the toy box, ready to be used again. Everything is flung together, creating a blur of parts and pieces. But at the end, everything has been fixed, put back together, and placed carefully back into the DC Universe. Sinestro is brought back, Carol Ferris has a new place in the Universe – even Hector Hammond gets streamlined back to one motive.
Geoff Johns spent the nineties and early millennial years making a name for himself, on books like The Flash, as a writer who could bring disparate broken parts and make them into a coherent, entertaining – and funny, he doesn’t get enough credit for his humour – story. Since this story, he’s lost that reputation a little, although his Aquaman was pretty decent. But for the time, he managed to get involved with a part of the DC Comics Universe nobody else wanted to get involved with… and he fixed it.
Green Lantern Rebirth was the first part of a grand ten-year plan which saw Johns’ storytelling reach some of his highest heights, along with a few entertaining missteps. If you want to know why Green Lantern now matters for DC – then try this book. It’s as solid a contemporary superhero story as you might hope to find.
THEN: THE SIMPING DETECTIVE