I don’t know how to write about this, and I’m extremely nervous about trying to do so. Truthfully, I can’t deny that I’m tempted not to try.
For one thing, I feel so strongly about this that I can’t help but believe that I’ll inevitably fail to do the issue any kind of justice at all; if it matters this much, so one persistent internal monologue keeps insisting, then I’m not going to be up to the job. For another, I’m frightened that I’ll let my emotions get in the way of both my argument and the fairness that’s owed to those who I’ve been so — shall we say? — thrown by. Regardless of the fact that whatever I write here is of no importance to anyone else at all, I’d still rather try to be as even-handed and reasonable as I can, and yet, that’s unlikely to be an easy thing to achieve.
For whatever the politics of the creators and editors responsible for the unfortunately named, if admittedly ironically intended, Triumph Of The Will, they surely never set out to produce a text which is as disturbingly apathetic, selfish and irresponsible as they have. Once again, it just seems that everybody at DC who’s been given the chance to steer the ship has had better things to do than to watch out for that lighthouse, and those people, and them rocks.
I don’t suppose that too many of the folks who bought the new Green Lantern Corps title can recall experiencing the first appearance of John Stewart on the newstands. To a 9-year-old Scots boy growing up in an affluent London suburb in 1972, where the faux pas of not having being been born English was at best a sign of carelessness and at worst an excuse for a beating, the very idea of a black Green Lantern who refused to accept the racism of his self-regarding betters was as exciting as it was inspiring. The three-panel sequence above, by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, seemed to me to contain an act which was every bit as heroic as any set of frames describing alien invasions being thwarted or robot armies being destroyed. In Stewart’s refusal to accept power masquerading as authority lay, to a far younger version of your blogger, a challenge to all those tyrannies of which children are so keenly if obtusely aware; teachers and parents, peers and strangers, uniforms and regulations.
And all those later critiques of the portrayal of the man who became known for a while as Black Lantern never in their revisionism took away my gratitude to John Stewart and his creators. Because he, and of course they, helped me as I began to grasp that racism was nothing more than a despicable and pathetic form of bullying. Not the will of the majority and the blessed, not an expression of what God wants or of how things have to be, and certainly not the natural and just consequences of my own unfortunate if relatively privileged circumstances. Because at the heart of the liberal humanism of the superhero book of the time was a conviction that — of course — with great power comes great responsibility, and that the abuse of power brought with it the responsibility for its victims to fight back as best they could, because resistance was always to a lesser or greater degree possible. This even extended, it seemed, to the private life of a young Black American architect who, seeing the petty and vicious bullying of two of his fellow citizens, stepped up and said, with no little style and dignity and bravery, ”no”.
A great many years later, I came across Camus’s famous words: “What is a rebel? A man who says no.” And it still strikes me that for all their unintended sexism and racism, conservatism and carelessness, a great many of the superhero books of the Sixties and Seventies were in their own way teaching their readers to say “no.” John Stewart may have only been Earth’s second reserve as Green Lantern, and both of those in the queue before him were as white and whitebread as they could be. But as is the way of these texts, Stewart was all the more admirable because of that. Even a child could see that the Guardians of the Green Lanterns were for some reason racist, even as they provided the Earth with such valuable protection. Why they should favor white Americans above all other humans was something which the franchise never satisfactorily explained, and it still hasn’t. But for this boy, John Stewart was the man. He was educated and confrontational, able but never conformist, angry and yet as sharp and as smart as could be, individual and yet deeply committed to his community, and to all those beyond it too. When he reappeared in a Christmas issue of the Wein / Dillin Justice League, and then took the lead in the Wein / Gibbons and Englehart / Staton Green Lantern issues, I just knew that the Earth was in especially good hands.
I felt inspired. Me. I knew nothing but the vaguest facts about the black American experience, but I knew what bullying was. I was a Scots boy who’d long learned to bury his homeland’s accent, and who could never stop aching to go home even as he wished he could be just like all the English around him. And faced with John Stewart refusing to bow down before power, I felt inspired.
Nothing marks the partial and depressing retreat of the superhero book from the inclusive and inspiring humanist agenda of the Sixties and the Seventies as the first issue of the new Green Lantern Corp. (That wasn’t the sentence which I originally wrote to express that point, but I suppose that a calm and nuetral tone really is for the best here.) In it, we see the triumph over all other issues of the fanboy superhero narrative, of the I’m-Special-Me values of the entitlement generation. Damn race, damn sacrifice, damn responsibility, damn any consideration of anything that’s not concerned with how awesome it is to be a superhero. For here we have a John Stewart who is so unengaged with anything beyond his own self-regarding interests that, as you can see in the scan above, he can’t even bring himself to lift a finger to help his fellow women and men in any way beyond the excitement of wearing the skintight jammies and pointing the magical ring. As unbelievable as it seems, as entirely immoral as it undoubtedly is, this John Stewart responds to the corruption of a group of businessmen and politicians by leaving them alone to get on with financing substandard buildings.
In short, the same Green Lantern who finished his first starring appearance in the Justice League by rebuilding a mass of previously-life threatening slum houses is now a man who couldn’t really care less about who builds what and who gets hurt therein. He’s so sickened by the whole despicable business of American government, you see, that he can’t bear to get involved with the protection of innocent citizens.
Because in Green Lantern Corps # 1, we discover that Stewart has inadvertently been designing buildings for a group of shady characters who are happy to finance unsafe skyscrapers in order to make a considerable profit. Stewart’s response is to terrify them by putting them through the ordeal of what it would be like to experience a lift falling from hundreds of stories up, and then, having effectively tortured them, the Green Lantern turns away, appalled at the civic corruption which he assumes has cooperated in this scam, while declaring:
Thanks for helping me learn a valuable lesson today. Even a GL can’t fight city hall.
It seems that Stewart has taken the word of those who he already believes to be entirely depraved where the probity and irresponsibility of the ”city’s engineer” and ”Mayor’s Office” are concerned. Having been told that ”City Hall” approved the plans for inadequately constructed skyscrapers, Stewart immediately jumps to the conclusion that everyone involved must have been bribed.
And then, astonishingly, he gives up. He flies away. He simply abandons all responsibility for the situation. And there’s no ambiguity about this in the text. Stewart has, we’re told, learned that power can’t be challenged. The character who once risked a savage beating and subsequent trumped-up charges by a bull-necked racist policeman in 1972 has now become in 2011 so impossibly self-involved and irresponsible that he believes that the response to such evil is to walk away. Apparently, he’s done all he needs to. He’s made a few folks rather scared, he’s vented his anger, and the whole business has left John Stewart feeling rather alienated and disillusioned. After all, if this “City Hall” wants people to be put at life-threatening risk in a landscape-dominating skyscraper, then what can a world-famous, fantastically powerfully, highly-educated intergalactic policeman with a keen sense of politics and civic duty do but fly away in a huff, and without preventing any injustice occurring at all.
In a time when the myths of those who’d love to see democracy partially or even entirely discredited are continuing to spread with a terrifying speed and to a pernicious effect, comic books really do need to decide which side they’re on. Not in the terms of any left / right divide, of the endless squabbling between liberals and conservatives, but in the sense of whether they’re going to stand with the powerful or the powerless. Because here, John Stewart wipes his hands of everybody who will enter that skyscraper when it’s built. His own feelings, his own immediate emotional welfare, his own prejudices, are so important to him that his sense of responsibility and duty has been completely wiped. And because he believes that the political system is entirely corrupt, he feels absolutely justified in flying away and letting everyone else go hang. Where once he stood against corruption, now he effectively bows before it because, let’s face, nothing will ever change and the powerful can’t ever be challenged. He has, as he tells Guy Gardner in just a few pages’ time, more satisfying things that he needs to do. He doesn’t, it appears, consider himself be part of the unsuper-heroic community anymore, for he never wanted ”to blend in… [but rather] to stand out.” And a ”normal life” is something which he finds it impossible to ”unplug” or ”relax”into. It seems that he’s ”always waiting for the next mission or something to go wrong so (he) can power up.”
Or to put it another way: me, me, me, me, me, me, and me.
What astonishing and despicable self-obsession. What a loathsome egoist. For that ”something” that he longs to happen had already ”gone wrong” before his very eyes, and he flew away in a haughty disdain, because it was simply a matter of everyday human suffering rather than some universal crisis. In doing so, he wasn’t just turning his back on a few crooked capitalists and apparatchiks. He was turning his back on all of us. Because you can fight city hall. City hall only gets away with it if people don’t fight. All human endeavors are marked by weakness, corruption and dubious compromise. That’s what human beings do when they join together in any organisation. If we’re incredibly fortunate, we inherit and maintain a system which contains the possibility of challenging power, of standing with the powerless and using the rule of law and the freedoms it brings with it in order to shift the balance back for awhile towards the good. Now, how is it that a massively powerful and influential individual such as John Stewart ”can’t fight city hall?” Compared to the likes of you and I, he’s in a position of incredible advantage. He can’t be physically threatened. he can’t loose his economic resources, he can’t have his freedoms taken from him. In truth, he’s astonishingly well-positioned to fight.
And as a private individual, as a highly educated graduate and professional, he must be aware of the law and of his responsibility not to walk away from those everyday and entirely innocent folks who will suffer if he does. (The character always used to be.) For this isn’t a question of whether the ethics of the GLC will allow him to use the ring to combat such malfeasance. As shocking a thought as it may be to the Rump and those who serve them with these ill-thought-through confections, a superhero can be a responsible citizen too, and a ringless John Stewart could achieve a great deal even if he’s not playing at being a hyper-person. Why, he could even take his concerns to this city hall itself, and do so without blasting open its walls and making a fists-on-hips appearance. Are we really supposed to believe that all the local, state and federal institutions relevant to this matter are entirely corrupt? Are we supposed to buy into this ignorant populism that says all of those working for the state as well as all of those who are engaged in making money are worthless and entirely untrustworthy? Are we intended to imagine that none of the media, new or old, would be interested in such a story, or that the courts wouldn’t respond to the issue if the slightest relevant evidence was passed their way?
But then, it’s worth remembering that John Stewart is a superhero of considerable standing in the DCU’s Earth, and we shouldn’t forget that such a position would bring with significant and obvious political advantages. He could use his fame and the respect he’s earned to engage various campaigning organizations concerned with unearthing and combating corruption. He could even — shockingly — organize his own campaigns and speak out against such abuses of privilege. And given that he knows a whole host of costumed detectives, he could even seek out his friends in the cape-’n'-chest-insignia brigade and ask for their help in tracking down proof of wrongdoing. A few phonecalls, a couple of public appearances, and that building’s construction becomes the hottest of scathingly-hot political potatoes. If the worst came to the worst, he could simply picket that site himself, for the word would soon get around, and there’d be no danger of a future in which a skyscraper collapses and thousands die because John Stewart couldn’t be bothered to ensure that the public will be protected.
Certainly, such a programme of action would have been immediately embarked upon by the first incarnation of Stewart, who knew his Martin Luther King and his James Brown, who was delighted to say it loud that he was Black and he was proud, and whose every action was informed by a sense of civic responsibility matched with a knowledge of the civil rights movement. It is simply inconceivable that that John Stewart would fly away and leave everyone to their fate simply simply because he felt disgusted at the state even in the absence of proof of any wrongdoing on the part of its employees. No, the original John Stewart fought City Hall and he did so despite having a lifetime of proofs that the state was corrupt at its core. That’s why he fought.
Of course, this scene allows writer Peter J. Tomasi to portray America as such a rat-hole that Stewart’s justified in abandoning it and its people for the stars. But aren’t superheroes supposed to stay where folks need help rather than running away because they don’t think they can win, because they believe that, sigh, city hall can’t be fought?
No, I don’t believe that John Stewart would turn his back on his fellow human beings in this way. Indeed, I don’t believe that he’d do so under any circumstances. If he believed in this corruption, then he’d fight it. If the law was wrong in having too many loopholes through which cowboy builders can pass, he’d challenge that in the public arena. If he felt unsafe properties were being built because of back-handers and other favours given, then he’d work with the law to expose it. And the fact that he’s shown giving up and running away in the context of an argument about the safety of a building, of a skyscraper in a nation in which those terribly raw and painful memories of 9/11 still haunt its citizens, just makes the whole matter more ignorant, more stupidly careless. Did nobody realise that John Stewart wasn’t just a man who sometimes designed buildings, but that he was an architect? That his identity was absolutely and indivisibly associated with his creative and professional life, and that his job expressed his ethics every bit as much as his skintight copper’s costume does?
Similarly, did nobody recognise the unfortunate irony of having a former representative of civil rights issues in the DCU suddenly assuming the politics of the know-nothings and the don’t-cares? Even in a DC where the editorial staff can’t catch Aquaman being petty to the police or disdainful to a waitress, this John Stewart stands out as a self-righteous narcissist of the highest order whose presence shames a careless company and its staff. For here’s a character who was once designed to speak for the people, and who’s now become a symbol of callousness, of ignorance, of selfishness, of apathy, and a representative of all those who choose to believe that you can’t fight city hall, when of course, you can. After all, the Freedom Riders did. It was unbelievably tough, and the costs were impossibly high, and the battles have, in truth, hardly begun. Yet not fighting city hall could never have been the option. Never.
And John Stewart would know that.
For any superhero beyond the dregs of the breed to behave as Stewart does in Green Lantern Corps # 1 is a surely wretched business. But for it to be John Stewart that’s being shown doing the threatening and the torturing, and then the flying away in a snit while declaring that there’s nothing he can do, is a thoroughly depressing business. It really is. And that scene marks yet another triumph of the belief that whatever moves a superhero from point A to point B in the plot is of no true importance at all. What counts, it seems, is the sentimental meaning of the story rather than the facts of what’s actually shown on the page. And so, a writer who wants to show how John Stewart’s quite justified in not engaging in everyday affairs on Earth simply has to present a scene stating effectively that (1) America’s so corrupt that (2) protecting her citizens is a worthless business.
Oh well. It’s just a comic book, isn’t it? And who could possibly have their thoughts and feelings, their ethics and ideals, influenced and even actively inspired by the contents of a comic book?
(I still hope to be.)
This review originally appeared on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.