Reflecting on Geoff Johns’ Epic Green Lantern Comic Run

By May 23, 2013
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When a comic book fan tries to “talk up” a run on a title that is very significant to them, it becomes very easy for them to descend into the trap of hyperbole and nonsense. So many different praising adjectives in such rapid succession usually has the opposite effect on the greatness they’re trying to convey to whomever they’re trying to convince, and it ends up doing kind of a disservice to the idea of relating the emotions you feel for stories you’re passionate about.

There’s also the question of subjectivity, since there is no such authority for determining what the great superhero comic book collaborations are, except through the passage of time, and the impact that run has on the characters being used and the fictional universe in which they take place. There are other ways to tell if a run is successful and perhaps even everlasting in a sense, and one of them is also wide cultural impact.

This week, DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer, a man named Geoff Johns, completed his run on his company’s Green Lantern title. Johns, in some way, shape, or form has been writing the character and his world in an ongoing capacity since 2004, and with great effort expended to avoid descending into that hyperbolic trap, I’m going to try to convey to you why I think it may be one of the best, most significant ongoing comic runs of at least the last 30 years. I think the best way for me to do that is to convey not a series of clashing adjectives, but the personal impact it had on me once I discovered it in-progress.

To do that, I have to wind the clocks back eight years. I was a senior in high school in a small Pacific Northwestern town, and hating every minute of it. Not only was high school simply terrible, but the world around me was becoming intolerable because of so much fear mongering. This was the age where I started to become really conscious of what the world was like beyond my town’s borders, when I started to develop my belief system, and where I really didn’t have very many role models.

The previous summer, Batman Begins inspired me to reintroduce myself to the world of ongoing comics. I’d always been kind of a “Batman guy,” though the Man of Steel certainly wasn’t very far behind in my eyes, either. I had read comics on a relatively regular basis as a kid, but like a lot of people, the mid-1990s saw me falling out with the stories and trends for a long time. I was getting every recent Batman comic I could find, reveling in what kind of storytelling comics were aiming for now. I’d heard rumblings of Green Lantern at my local comic shop, but nothing that inspired me to pick it up.

A friend of mine went into the store with me one day, and bought a pack of the first 12 issues of Green Lantern’s ongoing series written by a guy named Geoff Johns. I didn’t really think much of it at the time, since my perception of the character and his world was that it was a cool science fiction concept, but I didn’t really see how that world could connect with me in any profound way. When my friend told me how great his issues were, I decided to do some digging. It seemed that this friend’s opinions and series of positive adjectives weren’t an isolated incident: according to many, this was some of the best DC stuff in years, and perhaps the best Green Lantern series ever.

As I looked deeper, I saw that Johns’ run began in a story called Green Lantern: Rebirth. You see, DC’s main Green Lantern character, Hal Jordan, had been killed off several years before. In the 90s, in the wake of the Death of Superman, Jordan’s city was destroyed, driving him mad with grief, causing him to kill the majority of the Green Lantern Corps and take that power for himself.

He became a supervillain known as Parallax, terrorizing the DC Universe for a few years. In an event known as The Final Night, where the Earth’s sun went dark, Jordan’s “true self” had briefly shown through the villainy and he used his immense power to reignite the sun, killing him and saving billions of lives. After this, Jordan’s soul was chosen to be the host of the Spectre, God’s Spirit of Vengeance. Jordan, though, would use the Spectre to atone for the atrocities he committed as Parallax, turning him instead into a spirit of redemption.

This sounded like a very problematic and chaotic starting point for Johns’ “back-to-basics” approach for Green Lantern, so I had a heightened interest to see if it could be pulled off. I bought all six issues of Rebirth off of eBay, and found myself coming down with an “illness” the day that I knew they were going to arrive. I started the series, and I didn’t stop until I had read all six issues cover-to-cover, straight through. This was phenomenal.

While it would be very easy for some comics writers to come up with typical contrivances granted by a fantastical setting in order to bring a dead character back to life, Johns took an entirely different approach. Instead of glossing over the continuity of what happened, he embraced it. He grabbed it and molded it into very compelling devices in his narrative, all the while tying it into one central, predominant theme. One he’d drive forward for the next decade as the defining theme of the character and his entire, infinitely vast world: will is greater than fear. With a strong will, fear is something to be conquered.

I think one of the reasons so many people gravitated toward the run over its lifetime was because of that underlying message. At its beginning, with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, the fact that the United States was plunged once again into war, and the climate of fear both of those elements of society created, Johns on Green Lantern was crafting one of the only, regularly released ongoing stories that told us to reject the very thing we were being fed on an hourly basis. A message like that automatically breeds hope, and illustrates how hope led to the reformation and rebirth of the main character, and even the entire DC Universe to a degree.

Beyond the subtext and message, Johns’ first story as the shepherd of the Green Lantern Corps returned one of DC’s best, most identifiable elements to stature. When Hal Jordan went nuts and decimated the Corps, the Corps itself was abandoned as a concept and was noticeably absent from the DC Universe until Johns, editor Peter Tomasi, and fellow writer Dave Gibbons picked it up and plugged it back in. Reading those stories, it became very clear to me that Green Lantern was like a super-hybrid of several types of storytelling that I absolutely adore: there are superheroes, there is science fiction, and also imaginative fantasy all in one, and it was the guiding hand of Johns that helped me to understand how great a concept that was.

Johns’ influence on that section of the DCU wouldn’t stop there, though. As the story progressed, he began to build up a long-form plan that would culminate in larger stories down the line. Sinestro, Hal Jordan’s greatest enemy, could be construed as rather silly before Johns got his hands on him. My first exposure to Sinestro was in the Superman animated series of the 90s, and he seemed to be a rather one-note, forgettable supervillain. When Johns reintroduced him in Rebirth, my perspective changed to one more akin to how I saw the Joker or Lex Luthor: one of DC’s greatest, most interesting characters.

Johns would culminate his first couple of years of stories into an event called the Sinestro Corps War, where an entirely equal and opposing force, led by Sinestro, would be powered by the emotion that was the antithesis of the Green Lanterns: fear. Sinestro himself was described as utterly alien, with his voice described as “cold” and “hollow,” and every word that came out of his mouth was covered in a thick coat of disdain and arrogance. Sinestro would use his inherent belief in his own superiority as a means to create a corps of his own, powered by fear, in an attempt to destroy the Green Lanterns, and Hal Jordan, once and for all.

I remember picking up the Sinestro Corps Special, the “opening shot” of the war, in the summer of 2007. That reading experience still stands as one of my most treasured ones, because for the first time since I was a child my immersion in the world was at an apex. My common sense that told me that the heroes will always win was nowhere to be found, and by the final page of that oversized special I was left truly not knowing how the heroes would ever overcome the odds that Johns just placed against them.

The battle of willpower versus fear was truly epic in scope, with artists Ethan Van Sciver and Ivan Reis pulling out all of the stops in order to show that a universal scale is really beyond imagination. With some of the double-page spreads and vastness depicted, the story also showed the inherent strength of the comic book medium itself: if this were prose work, these images would take several pages to describe in similar detail. Instead, showing off the efficiency of comic book storytelling, your mind is sufficiently blown by taking in the utter vastness and dynamism present in the artwork.

From there, the next year was building toward an event called Blackest Night, featuring the new and terrifying revenant Black Lanterns, and the popularity of that event was astonishing. When I went to Comic Con International in San Diego during the summer of 2009, it was all about Blackest Night. Johns had crafted an entirely new world in building up to it, further establishing an “emotional spectrum” of power derived from various concentrated emotions all sentient beings feel throughout the universe. Now, not only were there green and yellow corps fueled by will and fear, but there was a Red Lantern Corps fueled by the blind power of rage, the Indigo Tribe powered by compassion, the violet Star Sapphires by love, and the enigmatic Blue Lanterns powered by hope.

Since Blackest Night, the run hasn’t quite hit the mass popularity it’d had in the past, but it’s still been consistently and reliably good. After having an all-out chaotic War of the Green Lanterns, the Johns run on Green Lantern moved into the realm of DC’s New 52, which saw former enemy Sinestro become star of the series as a new member of the Corps. From that point, the series has been racing toward its conclusion, which sees Johns deposit Hal Jordan back into the lead of the franchise as he leaves it to his successor.

I mentioned that time removed and impact had on the medium as two prerequisites for judging the strength of a comic book run. Johns’ near-decade long tenure on the title has not only seen Green Lantern become one of DC’s most popular franchises, it’s popularity has also had far-reaching impact outside of comics. The success of Green Lantern has launched Johns’ career as the company’s Chief Creative Officer, which is code for “coolest job on the planet.” Johns oversees the implementation of DC characters across the entire spectrum of media, from film, to television, video games, and beyond.

But for the Green Lantern franchise itself, Johns has helped to turn it into a far-reaching beast as well. The multi-colored Lantern Corps t-shirts are still extremely popular, and have even seen characters in “The Big Bang Theory” sport them on a weekly basis. While the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern film should’ve definitely been better, it was both the creative and commercial strength of Johns’ comic book run that got that film made in the first place.

He’s not just a goofy character that is overly reliant on jewelry. He never was, and that was what Geoff Johns helped so many people to realize. The run also came to me at a pivotal moment in my life where I learned that I didn’t have to buy into the climate of fear that is so rampant in the media and in the world. Through Green Lantern, Geoff Johns taught me many things. Fear is something to be overcome, hope is useless without the will to enact it, and you can conjure anything in your imagination if you believe in it strongly enough.

Johns created multiple characters (where now it’d be hard to imagine the DCU without them), reinvigorated what was thought to be a dead concept, blew our minds with dynamic and emotional storytelling, and brought light to a world that can get a little too dark sometimes. I really believe that Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern, along with incredible artistic collaborators like Ethan Van Sciver, Carlos Pacheco, Daniel Acuna, Ivan Reis, and Doug Mahnke, will truly stand the test of time for generations to come, and will be regarded as one of the great DC runs of this generation.

This is the kind of run that happens once in a lifetime, and that roller coaster took us from the depths of blackest night to the soaring heights of the brightest day, and beyond. This is my tribute to the Geoff Johns Green Lantern run. If I could thank Mr. Johns a few more times I absolutely would, because in many ways he showed me, and millions of other fans, that our own brightest days are out there. All they need to ignite in our lives is a little willpower.

“In Brightest Day, in Blackest Night.

No Evil Shall Escape My Sight.

Let Those Who Worship Evil’s Might.

Beware My Power…

GREEN LANTERN’S LIGHT.”

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.