The origins of Green Lantern

With Green Lantern out this Friday, James provides a handy guide to the DC superhero’s history...

“…and I shall shed my light over dark evil.

For the dark things cannot stand the light,

The light of the Green Lantern!”

Alan Scott

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It’s unlikely you’ll hear the above version of the classic Green Lantern oath in this summer’s upcoming movie, but like all characters that eventually make it to the silver screen, DC’s outerspace cop didn’t arrive in this world fully formed. 

In contrast to his DC stablemates, Superman and Batman, Green Lantern‘s publication history has been far bumpier, taking in multiple series cancellations and the replacement of its nearly decade-long lead character, before the title’s recent ‘rebirth’ as one of DC’s premier franchises.

Originally created in 1940 by artist Martin Nodell (and scripted by legendary comic book writer, Bill Finger) and appearing in All-American Comics No.1, the original Green Lantern was Alan Scott, a young engineer who discovered a magical green railway lantern. Speaking to him in the form of a mystical green flame, the lantern urged Scott to create a ring from the lantern’s metal.

Duly obliging, and with the ring on his finger acting as a conduit for the green flame’s power, Scott dressed himself in a colourful outfit of green, red and purple (replete with flowing high-collared cape!) and became the Green Lantern, fighting evil wherever it reared its ugly head.

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Like many of the second wave of DC heroes who emerged in the wake of Superman and Batman, this version of Green Lantern was an extremely straightforward character with a simplistic status quo, and a backstory which had more in common with a child’s fairy tale .

However, despite being famous as a member of that inaugural superhero team, the Justice Society of America, the Alan Scott Green Lantern, like most superheroes post-World War II, found it difficult to adapt to the changing moods and tastes of peacetime audiences.

The decline of the superhero in this period was rapid and, as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, only Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman remained in regular publication, while the rest, Green Lantern included, slinked further and further towards obscurity and cancellation.

“In brightest day, in blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight Let those who worship evil’s might, Beware my power… Green Lantern’s light!” – Oath of the Green Lantern Corps

But tastes are cyclical, and after a decade that saw the medium taken over by the pulpy crime, horror and sci-fi stories of publishers such as EC Comics, the chill wind of a newly enshrined self-censorship body, the Comics Code Authority, meant that less salacious material would be required to keep the comics business alive.

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Still publishing Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, DC decided that the superhero genre was worth a try once more and so, guided by long-time editor, Julius Schwartz, the company set about reviving some of its pre-existing properties from the 1940s.

First out of the gate was a rather radical overhaul of the 1940s super-speed character, The Flash. Steered by Schwartz’s deep love of sci-fi and a desire to make the characters more contemporary, this new take on Flash ditched everything from the previous version, other than the superhero name and his powers.  The revived series was a resounding hit and, as a result, the next character earmarked for the Schwartz makeover was to be Green Lantern.

Debuting in ‘Showcase’ issue 22 in October 1959 (in a story written by John Broome and illustrated by Gil Kane), the revived and redesigned Green Lantern was stripped of any and all mystical connotations, and instead was given a backstory that was deeply embedded in traditional sci-fi.

This Green Lantern was Harold ‘Hal’ Jordan, a swashbuckling test pilot for Ferris Aircraft, who was chosen by the sentient power ring of the dying alien, Abin Sur, to take on the mantle of the Green Lantern of space sector 2814.

Riffing heavily on E.E. Smith’s Lensman series of sci-fi stories from the 30s and 40s, Schwartz took the bold step of making Jordan’s Green Lantern not just a single superhero, fighting the good fight on his own, but instead had him be part of an intergalactic police force, the Green Lantern Corps, which patrolled the various different ‘sectors’ of space.

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Founded by a race of ethereal and seemingly immortal blue-skinned midgets known only as the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Green Lantern Corps operated from the planet of Oa, which resided at the centre of the universe. 

Deigning to divide the universe into 3,600 different space sectors, the Guardians decreed that each sector would be assigned a single Green Lantern, drawn from the native population of that particular sector of the galaxy, who would act as the official intergalactic peacekeeper in that region.

Mainlining power from the central battery on Oa, the power rings that the Guardians created gave each Green Lantern a whole raft of powers (including flight, life support and universal translation), chief of which was the ability to manipulate and create solid constructs of green energy via the wearer’s own willpower and imagination. 

A literal ‘wishing ring’, these weapons of seemingly unlimited potential had two major flaws. The first of these related to the rings need to be charged with a fresh supply of energy every twenty-four hours. The second, and perhaps more fatal flaw, was the ring’s susceptibility to the colour yellow.

This colour-coded Achilles heel originates back in the hidden depths of Guardian history to a time when they fought a powerful, yellow-hued parasite known only as Parallax. 

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A creature who lived only to breed fear and then feast on the ensuing terror it brought, Parallax was eventually defeated by the Guardians and imprisoned within the central power battery on OA.  However, despite his imprisonment, the echo of Parallax’s influence resonated throughout the Green Lantern Corps, becoming known simply as ‘the yellow impurity’.

More recently, Parallax’s existence has been openly acknowledged as the parasite has, at various times, managed to extend its influence outside of the power battery and, on occasion, even break free from the battery itself.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! And besides, stories are always better read than described.

So, with that in mind, next time we’ll take a look at some of the key storylines, some famous, some not so famous, some modern, some not so modern, that any fan of Green Lantern owes it to themselves to check out.

More of our Green Lantern stories are found here.

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