Green Lantern’s Burden:

Re-Evaluating the Superhero Genre’s ‘Woke’ Moment

At the turn of the new decade, as the euphoric epoch of the 1960s finally withered away, the symbols of American optimism took on new burdens and new crises. The superheroes of the 1970s, now long-detached from their social justice roots, were coming to the end of their Silver Age and, like America itself, found that pessimism was taking root. Previously optimistic, jovial characters were to forswear camp, high-concept affairs in exchange for engaging with the ‘real’ world and committing to a whole lot of brooding. Intergalactic space cop Green Lantern was one of the first, and most notable, to make this transition, in a run commencing from issue #76 of his second incarnation:

‘Those days are gone — gone forever — the days I was confident, certain . . . I was so young . . . so sure I couldn’t make a mistake! Young and cocky, that was Green Lantern. Well, I’ve changed. I’m older now . . . maybe wiser, too . . . and a lot less happy.” Green Lantern vol 2 #83

In fact Green Lantern #76 signalled such a major shift for superheroes, that certain comic book historians cite it as being responsible for ending the Silver Age of comics itself. But despite its acclaim, popularity and historical importance, the issue is harangued by those same qualities that garnered its appeal. To contextualise this, the story was written by Dennis O’Neil with pencils by Neal Adams and kickstarted a run that would go on to define both its characters and its decade. Shaking up the core series, the creative team brought the Green Arrow onto Green Lantern’s solo book (for a time running it as Green Lantern / Green Arrow), starting a storyline that has retroactively gained the name “Hard Traveling Heroes”. Stalwart authoritarian Green Lantern is joined by the anarchist Green Arrow and a disguised Guardian, one of the Green Lantern Corps elders, seeking to gain lived experience of the human condition. O’Neil’s background was not in comic books, but in journalism, previously working as the district news editor for Southeast Missourian. It was the journalistic gaze, applied to superhero comic books, that made his collaboration with Adams unique, bringing societal issues including race relations, poverty and environmentalism to the forefront.

I preface my argument with this context to make absolutely clear that the historical importance, and progressive intent, of these stories should not be disregarded. Where previous writers (notably at Marvel) had begun to mediate the ‘real’ world in their superhero storytelling, O’Neil’s approach signalled, for perhaps the first time since the early Superman stories, a new grim maturity and sobriety to the convergence of fantasy and reality. Though, societally aware as the comic book was at the time, it unsurprisingly finds itself defined by the tropes and sentiment of 1970s America. More importantly though, it was always going to be trapped in this way. This is not because of the time it was written in, so much as the approach to writing itself; that it is the “moment superhero comics got woke” belies a problem deep-rooted into its very construction. Dennis O’Neil’s journalistic approach is lauded for bringing hard-hitting, relevant contemporary topics to superhero comics, but that journalistic approach is also a voyeuristic one.

The most famous of the stories, featured in issue #76 was called, “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!”, an ironic jab of a title which knowingly hinted at Green Lantern’s (and the superhero genre at large’s) ignorance with regards to the societal evils plaguing America at the time. The Green Lantern’s lackadaisical response to racism, in particular, is at the forefront of the story’s conflict, which lead to the comic books most significant contribution to the genre and popular culture at large: a sequence where in which Green Lantern is admonished for helping out the “blue skins”, the “orange skins” and the “purple skins”, but had done nothing for the “black skins”. Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern of the time, is bereft of speech and this encounter would define the rest of the issue’s story and the character of the subsequent stories in the O’Neil / Adams run; encountering the numerous societal ills plaguing America, Green Lantern will routinely take a side against the downtrodden, feel bad about it for a while and then return to save the day. Though often following their superheroic victories with some heavy-hearted proselytising about solving symptoms and not the disease, the heroes are content to move their road-trip along. These superheroes aren’t here to save people, they’re here to see them. Their burden is to witness their suffering.

Excerpt from Green Lantern Vol 2 #76

The burden of the white man, that the white superhero now has to endure the struggles of marginalised people and can no longer live a peaceful, happy life, is perennial in these stories. The creative team were representative of the younger, alienated white people of the 70s, who in this instance were conveying their newfound anti-authority stance by writing over the bodies of those in the lower castes of society. Along with black people and the tenants of slums, Native Americans, protest groups, working-class miners were all to experience this treatment. Whilst these are visuals hitherto unseen in superhero stories, they are also exploitative. When we denounce “I Am Curious (Black)!” (released the same year as “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!”), it is not so much a condemnation of the story’s intent and more so a collective cringing at white liberal attempts to portray a “real” story. The supposed realistic event amounts to little more than poverty porn; they are a ‘reality’ by way of MTV, a simulacrum of real events and false in as much the same way as the stories about one-eyed space monsters and giant bugs were. The lived reality, of African Americans, Native Americans, of impoverished Americans, was repackaged by DC for consumption by normative audiences. The predicaments of downtrodden people are taken away from them, along with their autonomy and dignity. Instead, the white superhero plays them out above their heads, taking their suffering as a burden of his condition. For all of “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!”s accolades, the story offers no possible solution to the victims of capricious landlords- only a condemnation of tenant’s physical revolt and a promise that the superhero’s presence removes the need for direct action. That the emotional core of the stories becomes the superheroes struggle, and not the struggle of the oppressed, is testament to this.

Interpassive stories like this, feel-good features that serve to alleviate our guilt regarding rampant societal ills, exist in the quagmire that many of the progressive superhero stories find themselves in. Seeking to distinguish themselves from their liberal counterparts (represented in this story by a crypto-fascist Green Lantern), progressive minded storytellers took to documenting the real world injustice’s ignored by the popular power fantasies, but in doing so they often betrayed the imaginative potential of speculative fiction to offer potential solutions and possible escapes from the problems plaguing society. For petty criminality, the superhero genre never wants for futurist stories and characters attempting to resolve the issue. In fact, many such stories read as a fantastical interim state between our current society and a future of transhuman, totalitarian law enforcement. What the O’Neil / Adams run draws attention to is how there is no such equivalent futurist fantasy regarding other, more pressing concerns. The superhero has the same generic potential to offer up fantastical solutions to homelessness, inequality and corruption, they just seem evermore lax to do so. When characters like Batman and Iron Man offer increasingly elaborate solutions to lapses of law and order, where are we imagining alternative heroes?

I’d say that such a limited imagination is as much rooted in the nostalgic framing of these stories as it is in the status of the superhero as a defender of the socioeconomic status quo. In the epilogue to “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!”, which kicks off the aforementioned road-trip, Green Arrow identifies a “moral cancer” that is destroying American society. That cancer is the 70s, the decade itself. The road-trip to find America is a nostalgic search for the values of yesteryear in the contemporary, which becomes a dejecting, sorrowful affair when those values are never found. It is the zenith point of the alienation felt in the 70s, when Americans started to find that the world promised to them consisted of lies and fallacy. In a way it is a long-form story on prognostalgia, a fond remembrance of yesterday’s tomorrow and the utopian futures that previously seemed possible. Similar to how many prominent figures in the Anglo-American political Left today are limited to reiterating post-war, Keynesian economics, the journalistic, documentarian approach of a nostalgic counter-culture imagined not a future for the 70s, but remained fixated on the futures of the 50s and 60s.

Such storytelling elucidates the privileged, detached nature of O’Neil’s approach: it suggests that America itself is inherently good (as opposed to neutral) and if American society seems in some way defiled by moral degradation then this is something that has happened to the country, rather than something that has emerged from within.

Excerpt from Green Lantern Vol 2 #76

Liberal sentiments like this abound even today, wherein which contemporary events are seen as wayward, not the logical consequences and continuations of Western practice and ideology. O’Neil never intends for us to wholly agree with the series’ heroes, who are often caught in seemingly unsolvable moral quandaries, but he does situate their stories above the stories of the actual marginalised people depicted in these comics.

It’s here where I find so much similarity between the struggles of O’Neil’s heroes and the notion of a White Man’s Burden. This particular strand of racial supremacy is the elephant in the room for the majority of the run, until O’Neil and Adams introduce DC’s first black superhero (John Stewart) in issue #87 of the run. The story reads as a parable on affirmative action programs, in which the black John Stewart is chosen to stand in place of previous Green Lantern, the white Guy Gardner, much to Hal Jordan’s chagrin. Stewart eventually proves himself worthy of the mantle in the eyes of Jordan, but once again this is a story focused on the struggle of the white man: it is less concerned with Stewart’s heroism, so much as it is interested with Jordan’s journey to renounce his feelings of racial superiority. The story also continues to develop the series’ view on race: that race is a material reality and there are both rational and irrational perceptions with regards to it. In issue #87, we see one such irrationality, when a politician invokes physiognomy and biological race realism to assert black people’s “limited intelligence” as scientific fact. The series clearly decries this, casting such racist politician as the story’s villain, but race realism also plays into Green Lantern’s character who, despite his liberal sentiment, perceives substantial material difference between races. Between the white and Native American race, this comes with shame. The earlier issue #78 of the run features a story that echoes the Manson family, albeit with prejudice against indigenous Americans substituted for African-Americans, in it Green Lantern is confronted with the treatment of the Native population by the white American majority, “I guess you have to learn… the things I’m ashamed of about my race” (That all indigenous Americans are lumped together in one categorisation, and are exclusively called ‘Indians’, should be of little surprise, but is worth noting regardless).

Cover for Green Lantern Vol 2 #87

Like the rest of the series, this story is primarily concerned with alleviating Green Lantern’s white guilt, and demonstrates O’Neil’s preferred, rational view of race: race is real, but there are no inherently violent races and there are no races particularly better than others. That he depicts Manson-esque cult lynchings and populist, racist politicising as irrational, intolerant views on race shouldn’t disguise how race is no material reality, only a discursive one. The depiction of race with inherent qualities and universal shared experiences is certainly not as bad as suggesting that certain races are inferior / superior to others. But it’s not particularly good either. It’s retrograde and insulting, particularly when we consider that this is when comic books supposedly got ‘woke’.

When academic Jesse T. Moore wrote on this Green Lantern run in 2003, he set out that O’Neil’s great accomplishment was utilising his journalistic experience to move superhero comic books into a place of social protest. The O’Neil / Adams collaboration looked to the future through the lens of 1960s prognostalgia, limiting their view of possible, potential futures. For a genre obsessed with futurism, it is telling that this run could never tell stories that could chart the way out of societal problems, instead it settles for merely reflecting on them. This, in turn, highlights the torrid nature of representation: what right do those relatively well off, relatively privileged, people have to tell the stories of the marginalised, regardless of how positive their intent may be? In this case, the result was a tonal ‘realism’ and a voyeuristic social justice, but not one that I think we can argue sufficiently transformed the superhero comic book into an extension of social protest.

Moore, J.T. (2003). The Education of Green Lantern: Culture and Ideology. Journal of American Culture, 26(2): 263–278.

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Dan Guy is a freelance writer and recent graduate of Coventry University, where he earned both his BA and MA in Communication, Culture and Media. He has written primarily on ideology in superhero genre fiction and spends most of his free time arguing about whether Magneto was right or not.

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