The Power Ring and the Comic Book (Part 4)

In part 1 of this series I wrote:

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.

To demonstrate this growing complexity, I provided an issue-by-issue summation of the stories that established the mythology of the Silver Age Green Lantern, encompassing the character’s three tryout appearances in Showcase and the first 38 issues of the character’s own feature. A careful scrutiny of the summaries should make evident that the creators of the Green Lantern feature began to regularly explore three major themes: (1) the suppression of underclasses by organized tyrannies, (2) miraculous powers attributed to evolutionary forces, and (3) the many-faceted nature of the psyche.

Admittedly, many stories in that corpus are not especially complex, particularly—though not exclusively—tales devoted to “comedy relief.”  To state this is not to condemn these stories.  Many of them are exactly what they aspired to be: enjoyable light entertainment.

However, many modern comics-critics have been known to presume that the “light” aspect of commercial comic books precludes anything “heavy.”  I’m as amused as anyone by the many strenuous stratagems utilized by Silver Age comic-book producers in order to sell comics to children and young teens: stratagems ranging from talking purple gorillas to wild red kryptonite transformations. But the purple gorillas don’t tell the whole story.  To partially contradict McLuhan, the medium is not the whole message.

In part 1 of this essay-series I compared the comics-stories of the Golden Age to folktales, and argued that certain stories of the Silver Age were among the first American comic books to advance toward the quality of myth.  Of course no modern narrative is precisely like either a myth or folktale, but there is a parallel of narrative strategies that remains important in our culture.

What is the salient difference between the two?  In her philosophical tome Philosophy in a New Key, Susanne Langer states a crucial distinction, though she uses the term “fairy stories” rather than “folktales:”

“No matter how closely the Prince Charming of Snow White’s story resembles the gentleman who wakens Sleeping Beauty, the two characters do not become identified… Fairy stories bear no relation to each other.  Myths, on the other hand, become more and more closely woven into one fabric, they form cycles; their dramatis personae tend to be intimately connected if not identified.”

Arguably some comic-strip features aspired to the form of myth-narrative, for one can find similar elaborated connections in long-running features like Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner. But prior to the 1960s, few American comic books in any genre attempted anything but the straightforward “done-in-one” form. Indeed, even the creators of the celebrated EC Comics did not attempt to create any linkages between their stories.  They too aimed at drawing in casual readers and so did not attempt to weave any of their stories into a greater “fabric.”  Prior to the Silver Age, it might be argued that Carl Barks’ Duck stories moved somewhat away from the folktale-strategy and toward the myth-strategy.  Most of Barks’ stories had no connections with one another, but there was some effort, akin to comic-strip authors like Al Capp and Chester Gould, to build up an interconnected “universe” of dramatis personae.

No matter how elitist critics might dislike the fact, the superhero genre was the first in comic books to fully embrace the more ambitious aspects of mythic narrative.  It was, to be sure, a slow embrace, for as one sees Green Lantern many simple, done-in-one stories, even as several of the covers feature the hero being put in some peculiar situation, like getting attacked by a giant puppet.  But the same issue whose cover sells itself with the image of an evil puppet is also the first to introduce the Guardians of the Universe.  These particular dramatis personae become a foundational influence not only upon the mythos of Green Lantern but also upon the overall mythology of the “DC Universe.”  Further, it may be asserted that the relative seriousness with which Broome portrays the Guardians—as opposed, say, to the intermingling of the serious and the silly in the Superman titles—encouraged later comics-creators to adopt a Broome-ean attitude toward the building of fictional worlds.

The treatment of Sinestro provides an example of a simple idea given increasing sophistication.  Villains who resembled devils were nothing new in comic books, but Sinestro is more than just Satan rewritten as an alien schemer.  When the Guardians empower an agent who has courage but not moral compass, and then consign him to reign in a Qwardian hell, Broome’s story reproduces a mythic motif one might term “the mistake that shapes how the universe turns out.” For two examples, the Book of Genesis condemns man to death and suffering via an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, while an African myth posits two animals holding a race in which the one bearing “death” wins out over the one bearing “eternal life.” To be sure, there are assorted Sinestro comics-stories that don’t use him as anything but a standard super-villain.  Still, a later world-building effort, such as Steve Englehart’s Green Lantern Corps, exploits the myth of Sinestro-as-devil to full effect.

Inevitably, because the wellsprings of human inspiration are not infinite (at least in practice), world-building has had its downside as well. If the preponderance of “done-in-one” stories limited what genre-tales could attempt in the Golden Age of Comics, today the tendency to weave all fictional worlds into a great “fabric” often leads to the patchwork affairs we call “mega-crossovers.” But bad iterations of genres, or genre-concepts, don’t invalidate the good ones.

For whatever reason, the story of Green Lantern didn’t manage to sell itself to the film-audience of the summer of 2011. But in the Silver Age that narrative proved vital to the evolution of mythmaking in the comic-book medium.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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