Review: Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, August 06, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

In brightest day, in blackest night, what Green Lantern stories are greatest in the editors' sight?

For better or for worse, the spectre (pun intended) of Geoff Johns looms large over Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Maybe it's because he gets the last word with "Flight," maybe it's because many of the stories in here have been retconned or reappropriated by him, or maybe it's just because this volume might as well have been called Hal Jordan: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Indeed, while all the other major Earth-based Lanterns appear, Hal is the undisputed star (hey, it's his mug -- courtesy of Alex Ross -- that adorns the cover). Already on this cursory preview, we have a major flaw in the volume, but let's hold our opinions until we've bent the spine.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"S.O.S. Green Lantern" (Showcase #22, September/October 1959): After we saw a fresh take on Wonder Woman's origin, we're back to the obligatory original origin story to open up our look at Green Lantern, and there's not much to say about this story except the usual: iconic, classic, holds up well, hasn't changed much (although a plethora of retcons surround the essential Hal-meets-Abin scene). In fact, thanks to a whole host of writers since, one can't help but ask why Abin Sur needed that spaceship anyway. But while I always long for Alex Ross, I can't complain about one more exposure to the original "first" story, especially when it's this good.

"The Planet of Doomed Men" (Green Lantern #1, July/August 1960): Here I'm confused. The first half of Green Lantern's first outing in his own title is essentially a retelling of "S.O.S. Green Lantern." So why reprint both stories here? This story does introduce the Guardians, but the almost word-for-word origin scenario presented in this story doesn't work as well as the original did, nor is the main GL mission -- in which Hal ring-slings against a 60-foot gorilla-like beast on an alien world -- as compelling. I really like Gil Kane's art here and elsewhere in the volume, but an odd detail: the alien people GL helps are yellow, yet it's not a plot point for a guy whose one weakness at the time was the color yellow? Perhaps if this story didn't double up on the origin, it'd feel stronger, but it's a detriment to the collection to retell the same story twice, only once not as well.

"Power Rings for Sale" (Green Lantern #31, September 1964): This is another mostly forgettable story. It's the requisite "brainwash" story that seems to be a recurring feature in the "Greatest Stories" series, but it's not a particularly strong one, especially once we find out that (spoiler warning) Hal was faking it the whole time. The idea of multiplying rings is a great one (one that Geoff Johns has used again and again, in Blackest Night and in the New 52's Sinestro), but it doesn't get used particularly here. It's a story with potential, but somehow the "evil Hal" we get here seems unsettling, particularly considering the fate we all know Hal finds after Coast City's destruction.

"Lost in Space" (Green Lantern #74, January 1970): Here we get our first major rogues story, with a team-up between Sinestro and Star Sapphire. These characters are very different from the ones we know today, and this story being here makes me wish we'd instead gotten the first time Hal learns that Sinestro has turned Korugar into a fascist dictatorship. Not to sound like a broken record as far as this series goes, but the story's biggest weakness is that Green Lantern doesn't do terribly much here. The dynamic between Sinestro and Star Sapphire is fascinating, especially in light of the relationship they've acquired under the aegis of Geoff Johns, but Green Lantern spends most of the story struggling to maintain consciousness while crawling to his battery. Gil Kane's pencils are great, especially on Sinestro (although the earring is a little distracting).

"Beware My Power" (Green Lantern #87, January 1972): The introduction of John Stewart into the GL continuity, courtesy of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams (mercifully unretouched), truly is one of the greatest Green Lantern stories ever told. After Guy Gardner's only selfless act ever benches him as Hal's alternate, the Guardians induct John Stewart, whose African American heritage leads to an ideological clash with Hal. Coming about a year and a half after the landmark O'Neil/Adams "skins you never bothered with" confrontation, DC's treatment of race relations in the seventies comes off as a bit dated, but what's more surprising is how forcefully Hal comes off as arrogant and ignorant. (There's also a great moment where John asks to be called "Black Lantern" -- a claim I doubt he'll revisit any time since Nekron's visit.) The story remains compelling, the art is effective and stylish,

"Judgment Day" (Green Lantern #172, January 1984): "Judgment Day" is a mostly forgettable story in which Hal overestimates his own importance and rushes to the conclusion that he, the apparent center of Carol Ferris's world, has been betrayed by her after the Guardians exile him from Earth for a year. While Green Lantern's first heroic exploits on Earth are exciting and classic, the rest of Len Wein's script is overwrought with entirely too much emotion and an ending that doesn't quite ring true with the earlier scene it attempts to whitewash over. The Dave Gibbons art is a treat as always, but it's an inconsistent story about an entirely unlikeable Hal Jordan. Usually I can tell what makes a story "great" in an editor's eyes (even if the story isn't especially to my liking), but on this one I'm stumped.

"Sound and Fury" (Green Lantern #3, August 1990): Take the controversial Straczynski story Superman: Grounded, add two Green Lanterns, cross-breed with Deliverance, and toss in a dash of Grant Morrison's "settle the moral argument by beating him into the ground" (posited in Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina), and you'll get this lackluster story in which Hal and Guy brawl and promptly have their rings stolen by two joylessly-stereotyped Southern mountain men.

In this story by Gerard Jones (who's done better work on the nonfiction side of comics), Guy is the classic crewcut dimbulb, but Hal is at the apex of his smugness (although the graying temples suggest that his attitude and his willingness to fistfight might just be -- Geoff Johns retcon alert! -- the fear entity Parallax talking). While his willpower is in top form, the venue for its exercise isn't entirely sterling. Also, the '90s-style dot-matrix coloring has not aged well and does not look great in this reprint.

"Lightspeed" (Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold #2, November 1999): If the Green Lantern/Flash bromance is to be rekindled in the New 52, this Mark Waid/Tom Peyer story might be the place to look for inspiration. "Lightspeed," riding the wave of one-off Silver Age nostalgia tales that rolled in during the late '90s [kind of -- this is a so-so sequel to the truly stellar JLA: Year One by Waid. -- ed], pits Hal and Barry Allen against a non-Scottish Mirror Master and a cliche-spouting (and decidedly not undead) Black Hand.

While there's no great mystery to be unraveled or continuity trails to be blazed, Waid and Peyer do a great job keeping the focus on the relationships between Hal, Barry, and Wally West, inflecting the story with a Silver Age flavor but never losing sight of the story's central thrust. Moreover, this story might well have been called "Whatever Happened to Barry Kitson?" because I'm reminded how much I really enjoy his artwork here [ditto, again, JLA: Year One -- ed] -- crisp and dignified, yet fun like Kevin Maguire by way of a thinner-inked J. Bone. A late contender for "Best in Volume," "Lightspeed" might not be an immediately apparent choice, but it's a welcome one.

"Tomorrow's Hero" (DC First: Green Lantern/Green Lantern, July 2002): This is a curious inclusion because it at first feels like it's about to be an anthology story -- Alan Scott tells Kyle Rayner about the time he teamed up with Hal Jordan to fight Krona -- but writer Benjamin Webb leaves it there, and poor Kyle Rayner gets extremely short shrift (he's only in costume for three pages in this entire volume, and then not even here) when he's relegated to jokes about his sex life with Alan's daughter Jade.

The main story, though, is good on a surface level, with Pete Woods and Jamal Igle delivering artwork which looks a bit more DCAU than their recent work on New Krypton. The story isn't particularly groundbreaking, and it seems to have been included solely to get Alan Scott into the volume for the sake of the completists. While the story nods toward continuity at every turn (reminding us who Jade's mother is, noting Hal was The Spectre for a time, retelling the origin of the Guardians and of Krona, etc), it's ultimately not terribly memorable and perhaps even a bit unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

"Flight" (Green Lantern Secret Files and Origins 2005, June 2005): We close the volume with a non-spandex tale by Geoff Johns and Darwyn Cooke, arguably the men most responsible for the Hal Jordan revival of the mid-2000s. In this story we get a look at who Hal Jordan is when he's not ring-slinging, but mercifully he doesn't resort to the "Hal as jerk" stereotype. Not to say that Hal's a paragon of integrity; the story is full of little character moments as when Hal asks to borrow $10 from Carol or the shy brave front young Hal puts up when he admits to his father, "I'm scared." Some have complained that Johns's writing is heavy-handed, and while I agree on some counts, "Flight" is one that shows but doesn't tell -- triggering emotions without the Johnsian narration that some have come to deplore. And I've yet to meet a comics fan who didn't love Darwyn Cooke's revisionist-retro pencils, and so my only complaint about "Flight" is that it's one of the most collected and reprinted GL stories around.

In summary, Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told is one of the more disappointing entries in this series, dominated by stories that do not do justice to the long legacy of the character. The emphasis on Hal Jordan results in poor selection choices that cast the character as overly self-absorbed and grouchy -- that is, in the stories when he's actually doing something and not lying around unconscious. There are a few good stories in here -- the origin, the introduction of John Stewart, the Waid/Peyer "Lightspeed" -- but fans of Green Lantern might be better off sticking to individual collections of creators they know and trust, particularly if they're looking for more than just Hal Jordan.

While Hal is certainly the mainstream Green Lantern, John Stewart's role in Justice League Unlimited more than earned him his fair share of fans, and perhaps a generational approach might have been better here -- a "best of" tale or two for each Lantern rather than the fairly limited scope we get here. Additionally, how you do a Green Lantern anthology and not include anything by Alan Moore is beyond me; "Mogo Doesn't Socialize," anyone?

Up next, we'll dart on over to Central City and peek in on Hal's brave-and-bold buddy in my review if Flash: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Stay tuned!

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Collected Editions 2014 Comic Book Gift Guide
Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!

2 comments:

  1. Spot on review. I skipped this collection after skimming it in the bookstore even if I'm a big Green Lantern fan. Too much Hal and not enough epic stories for my tastes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sandor_Clegane8/16/2012 07:15:00 PM

    I agree with the general tone of the review, in that few of these stories would make my best-ever GL list.

    On the other hand, the complaint about "too much Hal" strikes me as strange; for most of the last 50+ years, he's been Earth's Green Lantern...so of course most of the stories will be about the main version of the character.

    Or in some cases, the legend surrounding him; there've been a lot of stories built around his memory even when he wasn't around. (In that sense, the Alan / Kyle-related story is a perfect summary of the late 90s / early 00s DC - still heavily engaged to its past, but partly pretending *not* to be.)

    I do think they'd be better served doing these series by eras. The classic GL stories of the Silver Age blow away their modern counterparts in the inventiveness / importance category, despite being written for little kids of the 60s.

    It's just hard for contemporary writers to make the same kind of impact in a 6-page story as they did back then, and of course you can't include a story like GL Rebirth or Sinestro Corps in its entirety, given the length of modern books. When it comes down to it, the "first appearance of Sinestro!" is a lot more important, historically, than "the latest retcon to Sinestro's evil turn!" ever could be.

    ReplyDelete