Dennis O’Neil: Heroes and Villains
When writer John Broome, artist Gil Kane, and the real villain, editor Julius Schwartz, reinvented the Green Lantern in 1959, they were corrupting the youth of America, or at least the comics reading segment thereof, by promoting authoritarian attitudes and glorifying barely disguised fascism.
I mean, didn’t we agree, in last week’s installment of this feature, that Green Lantern was changed from a guy with magical powers derived from a lantern and a ring, a bit of a loner, not unlike Aladdin, into a guy with superscientific gimmickry who gave unquestioning obedience to his masters, the self-styled Guardians of the Galaxy? A member of a uniformed corps?
Well, maybe not.
I knew Gil Kane a little, and Julie Schwartz pretty well, and though neither, in my presence, ever discussed realpolitik, I have the notion that they were both sort of liberal, though it could be that Julie was more apolitical than anything else. They certainly weren’t fascists. They would probably have answered to a call for “good Americans.” That’s what they were, as were my father, my uncles, the men in the neighborhood… everyone I knew as a young boy, male and female: Good Americans.
I’ll happily stretch that “everyone I knew” to include comic book heroes.
Julie, Gil and John were of my father’s generation, which had taken a one-two punch. First, the Great Depression. Then, World War II. Toward the end of one, and the beginning of the other, comic book publishing became viable and this newish form found its best content in what are now called superheroes.
So superheroes grew up in a time of real national danger — I’m not big on the concept of “justifiable war,” but if ever there was one, it was WW2 — and most Americans believed that righteous violence was a necessity and that authority figures had to be both trusted and trustworthy. Hadn’t they ended the Depression? And the War? That was the conventional wisdom that came with being born in those times, and people generally don’t question such wisdom until there’s a good reason to, generally a reason that gores one’s own ox.
The result was, I think, that neither comic book guys nor much of anyone else had reason to doubt that right makes might and that obedience to panjandrums was a pretty doggone good plan. That was reflected in the pop culture of the day, including comics.
I once heard Garrison Keillor ask, forlornly, whatever happened to the old men in brown suits who knew what to do. The answer is, they never existed. But people thought they did.
The sad part is that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some people still do.
To Julie’s credit, when I wanted to cancel the Guardian’s omniscience, he had absolutely no objection. Which indicates that Green Lantern’s blue-skinned bosses were nothing more, to him, than a plot device that could be discarded as the series evolved.
Have we beaten this topic to death? I can’t decide… we may return to it. Or we may not.
Meanwhile, here’s our Recommended Reading:
Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man and Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, all kinds of novels (such as his most recent, Helltown), stories and articles. He also teaches and is unavoidably a mentor.