Dennis O’Neil: What Would Green Lantern Do?
So do the Guardians of the Universe equip Green Lanterns with bumper stickers that read: My Space Sector, right or wrong?
This question is prompted by something that recently popped up on my screen, a political blog entry forwarded by Martha Thomases, ComicMix’s commnications director and my friend of more than 30 years. The blog was by Matthew Yglesias and it likened the current U.S. foreign policy honchos to the fictional Guardians and their interstellar group of do-bes, the Green Lantern Corps, each of whom is assigned a chunk of the galaxy. Mr. Yglesias describes the gizmos that give the Lanterns their bag of tricks as “the most powerful weapon(s) in the universe,” trinkets that “let bearer(s) generate streams of green energy… (W)hat the ring can do is limited only by the stipulation that it create green stuff and by the user’s combination of will and imagination.” Mr. Yglesias continues: “(A) lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that… we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient… force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.”
It’s hard to quarrel with Mr. Yglesias’s parallels between a patchwork, ersatz fictional universe and the patchwork, ersatz foreign policy of the Bush administration, so I won’t. The difference, of course, is that despite how seriously some fans take their hobby, comics are mostly intended to be merely amusing, and the presumption of their creators is that no one will believe the narrative in them is from real life. There was no real cataclysm when Green Lantern’s home town was destroyed, no real child was harmed when Batman’s young pal was killed, no civilization was destroyed when Krypton exploded because there never was a Krypton.
When the Bushies deploy troops, the ensuing horror is genuine.
Sorry if I just disillusioned anyone.
But, in a way, there is a kind of truth in the Green Lantern saga. It’s the same truth that’s in our mythology, our religion, and much of our popular fiction in general. These things, our make-believe, our fun-makers, often contain representations of our values — what we really feel, not what we think we ought to feel. And, that being the case, there’s always been a problem with superheroes — not only our superheroes, but all superheroes, from Gilgamesh on. They’re warriors. Which means they’re violent, and they solve problems by bashing someone. Implicit in their narratives is the notion that right makes might, and might, as manifested by physical force, is the tool of choice for problem-solving. I don’t think that’s ever been true and maybe you don’t, either. In times when nuclear, environmental, and biological holocausts are real possibilities, it’s deeply scary.
But I’m not ranting against it. I suspect our admiration for what’s euphemistically called “action” is buried inside our genome, the remnants of a survival trait. It’s City Hall, folks, and we can’t fight it.
Green Lantern’s proclivity for that ol’ action wasn’t my biggest problem with the character when I began writing monthly stories about him way, way back in the last century. We were just past the fabled Sixties, the era of peace and civil rights activism, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, love-ins, be-ins, the march on the Pentagon, the Chicago Seven…(You can add your own examples, or consult one of the remaining hippies; look for tie-dye and a grey ponytail.) The rebel-activists weren’t right about everything, far from it, but I think they were right when they advised their contemporaries not to trust anyone over 30. Translation: be wary of authority figures. I don’t know when you’re reading this, but I’ll bet your current newspaper has evidence that mistrusting authority figures is an excellent life strategy.
Which brings us to Green Lantern: here’s this guy, a human living on Earth, who takes his orders from a bunch of high-and-mighty blue extraterrestrials and is expected to act on their commands without questioning them. We might assume him to be George Bush’s idea of a hero, if we recall that Mr. Bush and cohorts discouraged questioning by keeping as much information as possible secret, and stage-managing what were supposed to be public events, but he isn’t my idea of a hero and I hope he isn’t yours. Our heroes, yours and mine, are warrior-philosophers, who make their own decisions, do their own thinking and question the hell out of everything.
We should discuss these matters further next week. Meanwhile, here’s our Recommended Reading:
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning writer of good stuff like the novel Helltown (starring The Question and Batman), and comic books like Iron Man and Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow.