Whenever a critic speaks of any popular work as possessing a “mythology”—a term often applied to serial, fictional narratives—the most common objection is that popular fiction is too “low”—as in, “created for the lowest common denominator”—to be regarded as myth. By contrast, archaic mythology is allied to “high” culture in terms of being associated with the foundations of literature and religion. Often those who don’t like applying myth-criticism to poplit haven’t studied myth as such. They just don’t like seeing a “low” form validated as something “high.”
However, though archaic myth as we have it takes complex forms, often it starts with humble ideas or impulses and elaborates their symbolic properties, rather than starting out as a complex conception. Long literary elaborations of myth — Homer’s Iliad, the Gilgamesh Epic—show evidence of having been compounded out of many simpler stories, more like “folktales” more than what we moderns deem to be “myths.”
For the first twenty years of American comic books, the majority of stories had the simple “beginning-middle-end” structure of folktales. On occasion this or that story might advance a richer complexity than the average, but the complexity was never maintained. For example, the Golden Age Green Lantern had a level of fantasy-symbolism comparative to what one might find in an old folktale. But once the character’s background was established, that Green Lantern’s serial adventures did not build on the symbolism within the fantasy, in the manner that I contend that mythic narratives did elaborate the subject matter of their folktale predecessors. Instead, that Green Lantern simply settled into a routine of fighting one criminal menace after another. Whether the villains were “super” or not, the same simple story-structure prevailed.
The early years of the Silver Age were not an immediate disavowal of this pattern. When DC Comics issued their refurbished versions of such characters as the Flash and Green Lantern, the heroes still fought assorted “done-in-one-story” menaces while the narratives remained as simple as possible. However, over time a progression was seen, in which Silver Age serial characters took on greater complexity of symbol and theme.
In modern days, the mythos of the Green Lantern comic has become one of the foundations of DC’s continuity, engaging with such myth-concepts as the beginnings of the universe. But as I perused the contents of DC’s first two “Showcase Presents” collections of Lantern reprints, it was evident that only after many years did the feature’s creators—largely though not exclusively writer John Broome and artist Gil Kane– begin to pursue greater symbolism of both concepts and characterizations.
Showcase #22 leads off with the story of how Earthman Hal Jordan is selected to join the power-ring-wielding cop-squad known as the Green Lanterns. The story possesses both the elegant simplicity and lurking inconsistencies of a pleasant wish-dream. Within a few years, however, certain inconsistencies were addressed in a “retcon” tale; certainly one of the first seen in American comics—a type of revision rarely if ever seen during the Golden Age. The issue’s other two short tales pit the new hero against, respectively, a group of spies and a garden-variety mad scientist named “Doctor Parris,” who is technically GL’s first super-villain, albeit his most forgettable. These two stories are more noteworthy for establishing a “romantic triangle” relationship between Hal Jordan, his gorgeous boss Carol Ferris, and Hal’s heroic alter ego—a triangle that looks to have been swiped from Superman, even though the GL feature took the idea in new directions.
Showcase #23 begins to explore more science-fictional themes. In the first tale, GL gets his first assignment from the Guardians who formed the corps, though he does not actually meet them at this point. The Guardians send GL to Venus, where a tribe of blue-skinned humanoids need protection from yellow pterodactyls—the first of many stories featuring the hero as a champion of (sometimes political) intervention. The second story gives GL his first costumed villain—the Invisible Destroyer, who looks like a Buck Rogers-like uniform with no head beneath its helmet. Broome’s concept for this one-shot villain—that he was created from the evil side of an eminent scientist’s personality—was fairly sophisticated, arguing that the Destroyer has no face because the “good part” of the scientist’s mind “refuses to acknowledge the Destroyer’s existence.” This roughly Freudian concept of disavowal would see use again in two other GL foes: Doctor Polaris and Star Sapphire.
The last Showcase outing, issue #24, follows the same pattern as #22: one battle against foreign spies, one battle against a creation of mad science. The latter story involves a creature “born in a test tube—and it died in a test tube,” as GL puts it, but both stories focus more energy on the romantic interplay of Hal and his hot-and-cold honey.
The first issue of Green Lantern’s book isn’t especially overwhelming. The cover-featured story pits the hero against another forgettable villain, the Puppet Master, while the lead story is essentially a reprise of the Venus tale from Showcase #23, though this time the hero saves some alien cavemen from a giant gorilla-man. The issue’s greatest significance is that it finally introduces the readers to the blue-skinned Guardians. The Guardians summon an “energy duplicate” of Hal to the planet Oa, while his body remains back on Earth. They ask Hal to retell the story of his origins (for the benefit of new readers, of course). Strangely, when the Guardians finish debriefing their new convert, and send back his “other self,” Hal-on-Earth remembers nothing of his encounter with his alien bosses. Another “disavowal” of an unacknowledged truth, perhaps?
GL #2 builds two new aspects of the mythology, one cosmic and one mundane. The first story introduces GL to the anti-matter dimensional universe of Qward, where society is oriented around principles of evil rather than good. In time Qward will assume the narrative status of a “hell” to counterpoint the righteous “heaven” of Oa’s Guardians. A Qwardian escapes to Earth hoping to live life by the principles of goodness, but though he dies, GL learns of an underclass of do-gooders in the anti-matter world. This is the first of several tales showing GL battling political tyrannies on the behalf of underdogs. The second story is insignificant in terms of the hero’s adversaries—a gang of Alaskan thieves—but significant in terms of adding a new character, the Eskimo sidekick Pieface, to the feature. Along with Carol Ferris, Pieface will remain the only other regular support-cast member during John Broome’s run on the title.
More mythology to come…