Race + Comics: On Green Lantern’s Near-Death Experience

By Arturo R. García

John Stewart, the Green Lantern from Warner Brothers’ Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series.

There’s a stink surrounding DC Entertainment’s alleged intention to kill off John Stewart last week, and it sticks out when you consider this ostensibly non-related promotional item: the company is now pushing a digital-only book based on the adventures of Batman. Specifically, the Batman of 1966:

“The juxtaposition of offering a retro “Batman 66″ comic as a current and modern digital first title is fun,” said DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson.

“DC Entertainment is the most prolific producer of digital first comics and, as we work to create new and compelling content, this is a great way to also preserve the legacy of our characters.

“It’s exciting to roll out the new Batman 66 comic as part of this bigger initiative with our Warner Bros Consumer Product partners.”

DC has previously released digital-first television tie-ins based on “Arrow” and “Smallville.”

Again, there’s no direct link between the company’s digital division planning to resurrect this version of Batman and the DC Comics editors wanting to off the incarnation of Green Lantern that managed to gain mainstream acceptance without being involved in a Hindenburg of a motion picture. But what it does tell us is this: the company would rather court fans of a nearly 50-year-old television show–one synonymous with the cheesiest stereotypes about comic books as a medium and the fandom surrounding it–than the fanbase of a critically acclaimed television show that was on the air less than a decade ago.

Gee, I wonder why that could be?

And as Bleeding Cool reported, the problem surrounding Stewart was an editorial decision, one that led writer Joshua Hale Fialkov, who (one would guess) was slated to feature Stewart in Green Lantern Corps. BC’s Rich Johnston elaborated:

I understand that the editorial input for both Fialkov’s books, and fellow walker-outer Andy Diggle‘s Action Comics, were in direct contradiction of the promises made at the DC Creative Summit by Dan DiDio, backed by Diane Nelson. That once an overview of an arc had been greenlit by editorial, it wouldn’t be changed by editorial. One creator told me that the promise lasted four days.

DC has allegedly relented, or outright denied, that decision since the news first got out. But it’s not a good look for the company to draw yet more side-eye for its treatment of a character of color–particularly the company’s preeminent black character, who became so with little thanks to the comics division. While Judd Winick successfully rehabilitated Stewart during his run on Green Lantern in the early part of the 2000s as a supporting player for protagonist Kyle Rayner (himself revealed to be a biracial Latino), it was, of course, DC’s animated division and the team behind the Justice League series that wrote him to become a worthy addition–and, you would think, an asset–to the company’s array of marketable heroes.

DC Comics’ newest Green Lantern, Simon Baz, is a Muslim character. Image via Comic Vine.

Instead, both Rayner and Stewart were sidelined for the sake of editors making Hal Jordan a focal point of not only the Lantern line, but the company as a whole: suddenly, Wonder Woman was de-emphasized in favor of Jordan in the company’s promotional materials. It was Jordan, not Stewart, who was the protagonist in a Green Lantern movie that deservedly tanked. And even though a Muslim character, Simon Baz, is the Lantern of record in the comic Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns currently writes, it’s still Jordan who is promoted in DC’s video games and its more recent animated presentations, including a Cartoon Network series that was recently cancelled.

The great Son of Baldwin was nice enough to share his theory on why the company might think Jordan is a green golden goose:

Hal Jordan fulfills a very specific fantasy. He appeals to a very particular type of person, generally white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, masculine, conservative, middle-aged–but he also appeals to people from other demographics who identify with or fantasize about one or more of those traits. (John Stewart is more of a threat to that fantasy than a channel through which it can be fulfilled. That’s part of why so many Hal fans get pissed whenever you bring up how popular John is with a certain generation. It’s almost as if they feel that it’s not only their character being replaced, but that they are being replaced as well–or, at least, that they are losing their central location in the narrative. And I’m sure there are some undertones of racial panic in there as well.)

Hal doesn’t really resonate with younger people, though. This current generation of kids is rather sophisticated. So the cipher that is Hal Jordan–and make no mistake, Hal is a cypher–reads as bland and boring to a great deal of teenagers and younger kids. My nephew and I saw “Green Lantern” and he kept talking about how boring it was. When he watched the “Green Lantern” cartoon with me, he almost completely ignored Hal Jordan and was much more interested in Kilowog and the Red Lantern. Hal actually seemed to be more of an obstacle to his enjoyment than anything else. And this doesn’t just apply to my nephew. I’ve heard some creators in the industry talk about how kids at the movie were asking their parents why Green Lantern wasn’t black. And these were white kids asking the question.

Hal isn’t just white bread; he’s old newspaper. He’s a dinosaur–and not in the fascinating, let’s-go-to-see-fossils-at-the-museum kind of way.

Speaking of mundane, let’s consider the shows DC has used to branch out into digital media: Arrow? Smallville? Adam West’s Batman? Not exactly series catering to a multicultural audience. Yet Young Justice and Static Shock are not afforded the same opportunity. At a time when spending power is growing in several communities, the company’s efforts on diversity continue to lag. And while characters like Vibe and Katana are pushed slightly forward, in today’s media landscape, paper comics are the first, slowest step. Their solo titles are likely going to need years’ worth of development and supplemental promotion on multiple platforms. And a company that chooses not to invest in creations like the Super Young Team, or the vast majority of the international characters introduced in Batman, Incorporated (remember Nightrunner? Anybody?) is not doing much to engender trust.

And I say all of this as somebody who doesn’t hate the idea of Batman 66 in and of itself; I took part in the fan campaign to get Adam West a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But for it to seemingly take precedence for DC is a slap in the face to fans who, by and large, seem to want to help the company succeed. What, exactly, makes a white character from the 1960s more valuable to this company than characters of color who are relevant now?

  • aboynamedart

    Now as for which of the six Green Lantern’s (Allan, Hal, John, Guy, Kyle, & Simon) from earth that could be the center of a movie, Hal is the most recognizable.

    Go back and read the section quoting Son of Baldwin.

  • aboynamedart

    Except that the franchise had moved on multiple times – from Alan to Hal to John to Guy to Kyle – to demonstrate how the mantle of the Lantern found a bearer with which to adapt to the times. And under Winick’s watch, Alan, John and Guy had developed their own identities outside of that role without being killed off. Even Hal found his redemption in The Final Night. What Johns has engineered is a reactionary policy to appease an eroding fanbase, as illustrated in the anecdote from Son of Baldwin. And that’s just not smart, socially or economically.

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    Yes I agree with you NellieC. And to be honest I have no idea why the brought back Hal and Barry who are rather reductive and boring when John and Wally had great chemistry on the JL and JLU.
    As it has been said for many kids now who are the future for comic books. John Stewart and Wally West are the Green Lantern and the Flash that they know, understand, like and root for.

    It seems bring the two forerunners of another time back is just a desperate show for older fanboys to hold onto being relevant and in control.

  • Mars
  • http://www.facebook.com/tristan.samuels.9 Tristan Samuels

    Right on the money. I like Hal Jordan’s character, but I’ve only been exposed to him in DC animated films. Even then, he’s not as good as John Stewart in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. DC comics should have done John Stewart Green Lantern to identify with the current generation of viewers, such as myself, who are familiar with him more so than Hal Jordan. But, as you have articulated, the comic book industry fears powerful black figures…Reminds me of Dwayne McDuffie’s infamous ‘rule of three comment’. However, DC movie department seems to have a ‘rule of zero’…sadly.

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    An excellent article Mr. Garcia. Thanks for writing it!
    I am sick to my back teeth the way the DC and the NEW 52 ( or as I like to call it the NEW 50-Poo) have been giving the rough end of the stick to their supers of colour, be it John Stewart, Voodoo or Mr. Terrific ( who is an amazing character but who’s new book got NO PLAY or support) and how they have now ‘revamped’ the female supers like Wonder Woman to the point that she is a second feature player in her own title and how she is now being pushed and sadly remembered and recalled as Superman’s girlfriend ( I hate that Lois is no longer SM/Clark’s paramour or competition in the news world). DC is really doing a very poor job of it all. And it annoys me because the jank that they are pulling is so apparently motivated by a delusion of white male dominance forever being the basis of everything.
    Again thanks for writing this!

  • stilladyj

    Everyone loved the Static Shock cartoon. I went and got the comics when the New 52 came out and was Deeply disappointed. The writing was just awful. So sad.
    John Stewart has been my favorite Green Lantern since JLU. There are those who take issue with the fact that lots of people of my generation came to comics through cartoons, but they were excellent cartoons. And why can’t we share? Why does it matter what the “in” was if we ended up here, reading your comics? John Stewart had integrity. He was strong in a way that Hal Jordan never was. I picked up a few story arcs of Hal’s Green Lantern, and have no desire to pick them up again. He’s just not a compelling character. He’s whiny, selfish, and unrelatable.

    • aboynamedart

      What’s interesting about that recent Static book is, one of the initial co-creators was part of the original Milestone team, John Rozum, But he was forced out in favor of someone with no apparent history with either Milestone or Static.

  • lovelyivy

    I’ve been wondering about this decision for years, pretty much since Justice League United went off air. Bringing back Hal Jordan to a movie and/or tv audience populated by a generation of kids who don’t read comics, had never heard of Hal and who would be wondering about John Stewart- who is legitimately a big star for them- seemed tremendously short-sighted. Scandal has been a success in part because of a talented black lead and writers smart enough to know how to bring along the audience. Too bad they didn’t invest in getting that for John Stewart GL. Their animated and movie efforts are doomed to fail if they don’t feature the characters viewers (not comic book readers, who are not the mainstream, but viewers) actually care about.

    • Keith

      You mean justice league unlimited.

  • nevilleross

    Although I respect both Alan Scott & Hal Jordan, I think that a movie or TV show with John Stewart should be made, just to placate the people who’ve grown up with him since the early 2000′s. Maybe a movie with all three could be done.

    I will say this, though-I’m missing the new Green Lantern show, and I also loved the movie as well.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tristan.samuels.9 Tristan Samuels

      That is an excellent idea. A trio of Green Lanterns, in my opinion, would be easier to do than a Justice League movie – but the prestige of the Justice League prevails. But if they want to reboot Green Lantern they could do a re-telling which blends in John Stewart, Hal Jordan, and another Green Lantern.

    • aboynamedart

      I agree with you that a movie that puts emphasis on the mantle of the Lantern, on top of the Corps, could be well-done. But I can’t say your use of the word “placate” is justified here. The fact is, a generation of fans — of consumers — loved and related to a well-executed portrayal of John in the animated series (on top of the emergence of Kyle in the comic, which is what brought me to the title). That fandom is as legitimate as the one that abandoned the book when Hal was written out. And as I illustrated toward the end via links, that fandom is a more accurate representation of today’s marketplace. DC continues to ignore it at its own peril.