It’s been no surprise to my readers (hey everyone!) that I’ve been on something of an animation jones, something fierce. Well, with Young Justice successfully binged on, Netflix suggested I check out a little known show… Justice League. Bruce Timm’s multi-parter masterpiece was the first time the significant seven (pre New52, Flashpoint, Final Crisis, but post Crisis, ya dig?) were assembled to face off against the biggest baddies of the DCU. Mongul, Despero, Faust and Hades, Gorilla Grodd, and yes: Ocean Master (sorta). To be clear: I’ve seen the show. Often. But something has always troubled me about it. That trouble? John Stewart… the milquetoast affirmative action Green Lantern.
Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and their well-crafted production staff assembled an amazing septuplet. The holy trinity: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. The best B-Listers money can buy: Green Lantern and the Flash. And for clean up… Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl. On paper, it all makes sense. Deuces are wild; Supes and J’Onn are the aliens adopting Earth, Diana and Shayera rep all of lady kind, Flash is choas to GL’s order, and Batman is Batman. I’m only going to focus on our representative Lantern for the sake of clarity.
I fully acknowledge, welcome, and love that Timm “went to the bench” to recruit Stewart. Hal Jordan is, was, and will likely always be the poster child of the corps. But in addition to not being another white hero, John Stewart as depicted in the animated series was inherently the anti-Jordan. Where Hal is a known hot-headed cocky flying codpiece, Stewart is a level-headed jarhead who fills out the ranks of the League to make plans and execute them. It’s fun to denote that our Flash in this series is also Wally West. Fitting then that Timm and team flips the script on the original Brave and the Bold. Where Hal was the cocky to Barry Allen’s careful, Wally is clearly the team’s impulsive recruit. But I digress.
What pains me to no end are the continual choices made throughout the show in regards to John Stewart’s character, both in and out of the space pajamas. We’re given no intro to him. He merely shows up, starts barking orders, and firing bubbles and beams (which I’ll be dedicating a whole block of prose to momentarily). With apparently less personality than anyone else on the team, the post-pilot reintroduction of the ring slinger offers us up a civilian Stewart: in a three-quarter length leather trenchcoat, walking through an urban neighborhood, while light funk/jazz twinkles away in the background score. You can practically hear the honkies checking off each box on the black character checklist. The episode in question (“In Blackest Night”) riffs on the destruction of Xanshi from 1988’s Cosmic Odyssey, but swaps Stewart’s pulpy pride for a soldier’s guilt for wanton destruction. Spoiler alert: it was all a plot by the Manhanters. Big robot fight. The day is saved when John recites the oath of the Green Lanterns really heroically. Guilt? Gone.
From here, Stewart was an also-ran. Aside from the now-quippy Caped Crusader, Stewart was often relegated to wet-blanket status. Torn between constant chiding of Wally, or hitting on Shayera. Late in the series, Stewart will have dated Vixen (because, black people, natch), but ultimately land Hawkgirl as his bae. They fight a lot. But, you know. They make a cool mixed-race Hawk-kid in the Batman Beyond universe. All this lovey-dovey stuff? It’s what they passed for dynamic character development. Whereas every other original Leaguer would eventually get a truly deep and amazing moment (Batman with Ace on the swings, Superman vs. Anti-Life Darkseid, Shayera’s betrayal, et al) John’s mostly left to knock boots and make bubbles.
And what of those bubbles?! For the life of me, I’ll never understand if Timm and company had budget issues or something. Because John Stewart, in ownership of the most powerful weapon in the universe, would only muster beams and bubbles to serve his purpose. In the comic, Stewart ring slings with the best of them – with Hal once describing his constructs being literally built from their interior structures out due to Stewart’s civilian life as an architect. But in his animated life, John is relegated to clearly the simplest solution, always. They even make a latent potshot at it during Unlimited where a de-aged Stewart (donning Kyle Rayner’s crabmask) builds intricate and cool constructs to battle bravely with. Obviously in the future, he loses his imagination. It’s a low-down dirty shame, kiddos, I tell you what.
Ultimately, this is one of the nittiest picks I could have droned on about, but it was on my mind. The opportunity to break the mold came and went with John Stewart in Justice League. It’s a shame that over the course of five seasons, they simply couldn’t aspire to do more than the absolute basics. And now, with a new League being formed for film… I can’t help but be worried.
In brightest day, or blackest night,
I expected more from John Stewart’s light.
Let those who disagree flame me bright…
Beware my comments, Marc Fishman’s right!