Sunday, December 03, 2006

To the Writer of Green Lantern, Volume Four,

Today for the second time in a year, I reconsidered buying Green Lantern when I saw it in my pile. You must understand that, in addition to being reasonably fond of Kyle Rayner, I have been a huge Hal Jordan fan since I was a teenager. Since "Rebirth," I've been utterly obsessed with this franchise. I buy everything "Green Lantern" that DC puts out. I went through ten of the little mystery box figurines to find the Hal Jordan/Abin Sur statue. I bought every Green Lantern back issue in the Oklahoma City area, and then raided Tulsa. I read every issue that comes out and features a Green Lantern character. I feel more affection for the writers of the two spinoffs than I do for several blood relatives. I should not think twice about buying an issue of the main title. I should not even have to think about buying an issue of the main title. It should be automatic. Like breathing. I should be paying direct deposit to the comic book store, and I should be reading it in the car before I leave the parking lot in order to gain exposure to that sweet, sweet superhero space drama.

Before I get in exactly why, let's look at the character you're writing.

Hal Jordan. He has spent maybe five years (in continuity, maybe one?) as the Spectre. Prior to that, he spent maybe six years (no idea how much that is in continuity right now) as an insane cosmic crossover supervillain. During the 70s and the 80s, he was the Poster Boy for White Liberal Guilt. He has, since conception as a character, been utterly incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship with a member of the opposite sex. His first serious girlfriend, the love of his life, had her brain taken over by aliens and he was forced to fight her. She is now married to someone else. Another major girlfriend was transported to an alien world along with her entire town because Hal visited there. He is a character who has been shown, in your own series, to believe that being married with children is an ideal existence for his best friend, but engages in an endless series of one night stands; the combination of which indicates emotional instability and denial as opposed to the healthy unfettered expression of sexuality displayed by, say, Queen Hippolyta. His parents are dead, he watched his father die in front of his eyes flying a jet -- the very career field Hal entered. His older brother and his older brother's family are dead. Since you've gotten your hands on him, the insanity became ten years of intense mind control (a convenient way to remove culpability while retaining an emotional illusion of responsibility), his mother's death occurred while she was angry at him, only six people in the Green Lantern Corps trust him, everyone on Earth thinks he is a criminal, and the Guardians are using him as a "how not to behave" example.

Somehow, this was not enough misery for you to play with, so you added the POW storyline.

I am certainly not saying that there is no place for such a situation in the entire franchise. I initially, and mistakenly, thought my gut reaction was an objection to all instances of grafting historical horrors into the background of a fictional character as a sign of disrespect for the subject matter. This simply isn't true. I watched Hogan's Heroes for years and laughed my ass off. Maus was fucking brilliant and threw mice into concentration camps. I've watched that movie with Owen Wilson in Bosnia repeatedly. I've roleplayed with this in the character backstory.

No, the problem isn't the idea itself. The problem is in the execution. After five issues this does not strike me as a well-crafted way to weave real-life political themes into the overall theme of a speculative fiction storyline, and use the outer limits of the imagination to comment on the reality of the human situation. It strikes me as a quick and easy way to tug at heartstrings of your audience and create sympathy for a character that should already have the audience's sympathy. It strikes me as a way to use current events as shorthand to the very real anxieties and concerns of the very real people reading the book. You're showing flashbacks and buddies suggesting they get therapy. You quoted John McCain and set it in the real war-torn region Chechnya instead of a fictional DC construct. You used this setting to introduce a damsel in distress and drive the higher plot. It's a way to skip the work of presenting an carefully plotted, well-crafted sympathetic tragedy, the fallout of the tragedy, and the internal and external conflict involved by playing on preset reactions to the trappings of a real-life situation that most of your readers are familiar with. This way, you can introduce the subject with a few flashbacks, quotes, and angsty narrative captions to milk the emotional resonance for all its worth as you complicate the hero's life.

It's basically a cheap shock tactic, the same problem most writers have when using rape. It's dramatic shorthand and not an explorable drama on its own. A throwaway theme. It's all about Angst.

Now let me tell you, as a former teenage Goth I know a thing or two about Angst. From years of experience brooding in the back of the classroom, wearing black, playing Vampire: The Masquerade and writing gawd-awful poetry I can attest that you do not need to flirt with Reality to achieve Angst. This infatuation with real life, realism and Reality that has infected you and your peers is worrying to say the least. I know Reality is attractive, but beneath that sly smile beats the heart of a predator. I would think that anyone who reads comics would know that the true nature of Reality is that of a ravenous beast which devours the creative and idealistic soul. I can't imagine what would entice you to bring such a creature into a comic book. Is it drugs? Do you need some?

As a matter of necessity, I would advise avoiding Reality at all costs. Reality is no good for you. Reality plies you with alcohol. Reality makes you pick up the check. Reality does not pay for gas or the hotel room. Reality does not call back the next morning. Reality is cruel. Reality is vindictive. Reality is jealous and clingy, but expects to be able to run around at all hours of the night with heaven-knows-who. I know, I've flirted with Reality myself (Reality's bisexual, by the way) and it was nothing but too much trouble for not even a quality heartbreak. Surely, there's a better way to achieve Angst than by associating yourself with Reality.

But I digress (all the time, now that I think about it, and no one seems to mind). My point is that there are ways of getting a reaction out of your reader, and they define the quality of your writing. I am not the only reader paying for cheap thrills, an emotional roller-coaster to ride every month. But there are cheap thrills to make a story engaging and fun, and there are cheap shocks to get a quick gut reaction from your audience. Cheap thrills pretend to be nothing other than that. Cheap shocks feign the sort of in-depth literary writing that garners praise for creating emotion reactions when they are actually just playing on emotional reactions that the majority of readers would have. Cheap thrills can be low or high quality writing, and they can be intensely imaginative. Cheap shocks are always low quality writing, and they betray a lack of imagination. The Green Lantern franchise, with a massively long history, and a massively large, weird cosmic background is fertile ground for the imagination. The test of a writer's skill is the same as in all speculative fiction, by how they draw the reader into temporarily believing an outrageous situation. The writer can focus on applying plausibility to the basic personality of the main character, and use that plausibility as anchor to a wonderful, imaginative and insightful story, or they can fake imagination and insight by throwing a few realistic elements on the surface, leading to a regularly mediocre, often infuriating, and sometimes offensive story.

A fan who will be re-reading back issues.


  1. Reading the descriptions of the plot, it makes me think how action movies frame pain for the male heroes as emblazoning - the shots of them bloodied, even the scars, almost become iconic. Like Die Hard's John McClaine or Rambo.

    If you'll forgive me for potentially ruining the thread with my dead horse: The same things infuriated me about Red Star when he was covered in Teen Titans #38. The writer also cheaply references a real-world event, and has Red Star now working under the Russian government killing terrorist militia members. The only time he ever mentions his dead family members is once in the whole issue, and it's just a picture and their names. It's really just lumped into Red Star's whole rant about how massive a failure the Titans are. It's exactly that feigning and shortcutting. The writer has Red Star just say the screwed-over members have been abandoned and screwed-over, instead of showing that in flashbacks or something. And he says just their names, no specifics. No flashbacks as to why Red Star feels Pantha and WB and the Titans are all family, or why he's gone so darkly. Just angst, and a cheap shock already built on cheap shocks.

  2. Boy, you really don't like that POW storyline, do you? :)

    But seriously, I actually don't mind it so much, but I'm easily manipulated. :) You bring up some excellent points and one that will make me think as I read GL in the future. I, too, was bothered by the fact that they quoted John McCain because, in a world where the President is named Horne, would they have the same members of Congress?

    Anyway, another great entry that makes me rethink the way I read something.

  3. Does this writer have a name?

    I can't remember who's writing what any more from month to month, so it does help to have a name. You know, in the interest of encouraging fans to treat real people as slightly more important than fictional characters. :)

  4. At the conclusion (if we ever get there) of the present story arc, all I can see is Hal curled into a fetal position on some stray asteroid mumbling "Serenity Now!" to himself over and over and over...well, you get my drift.

    As you know, I am also very fond of Hal, when I don't want to kick him, and I love Geoff Johns, but he DOES seem to be dogpiling a whole passel of threats on our hapless hero at the moment. Terrorists, the Global Guardians, the bounty hunters, the JLA AND the Rocket Reds, and I am assuming, the Hamburgler lurking in the woods.

    I was pissed because Guy had to do Prime duty for a month,but compared to what Hal is going through, it doesn't seem so bad now. Heh heh.

  5. It seems like this is the classic "how can it get any worse" scenario. The writer is leading up to a major story (likely the invasion of the Sinestro Corps) by piling one thing on top of another for our hero. At the end of the penultimate part to the Sinestro Corps storyline, the hero will be beaten and bloodied and rejected by all but his closest friends (and maybe even them, too), and will undergo a crisis of faith, after which his resolve will strengthen, and he will gain a second wind. He will then proceed to single-handedly demolish the ranks of the Sinestro Corps, rescuing the other Green Lanterns, redeeming himself in their eyes, making the Global Guardians look like fools, and coming to some major epiphany about his personal life. And because of all that has recently gone on to the hero, this redemptive and reinvigorating act will look that much more stunning and morally superior to the audience.

    I think it's technically called "The Spider-Man Structure."

    This goes back to what Geoff said when he was starting this series: that he wants Hal to be a shining happy bright light in the DCU again. Unfortunately, with the rest of the DCU lightening up a bit after Crisis, Hal's light doesn't seem so shiny. So, let's dim the lights around Hal while everyone else, from Black Adam to Batman, has a good time of things.

    You're absolutely right; it's cheap, and it really seems like Johns is phoning it in these days. I understand that the demands of 52 and JSA are pretty big, but why do both your other major comics have to have basically the same plot (piled-on emotional gravitas leading to an inevitable major confrontation)?

  6. know, Geoff has message boards you can complain on. Maybe he'll be more likely to listen (

  7. Without even getting into the GL stuff -- easy for me to avoid, because I haven't read the current series at all -- your comments on Reality are so very true. In this context, what makes Reality a cheap thrill is the sheer laziness it demonstrates. Rather than building a story and persuading your readers of its subjective small-r "reality" you can just slide in something that people already know from the outside world and accept as Real, and ride piggyback on their acceptance and their preexisting views.

    Many years ago, Marvel published a story about the cyborg character Deathlok called "The Souls of Machine Folk" which tried to borrow some profundity and portentiousness by heavily quoting passages from The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most important books of the civil rights movement. I could never get over my overwhelming "ick" factor at the idea of a comics writer using quotes from DuBois to lend the aura of importance to a comic book story about Deathlok and Machine Man. Since then we've seen the same thing done to death in Civil War. These writers aren't using their superhero stories to illuminate or explain events in the real world: they're trying to make us think their stories are as deep as Reality. They've got it all backwards.

  8. One bit of this I do have to take issue with, apart from the idea of Cowgirl as a Damsel in Distress given that we saw her doing quite well on her own in the last issue.

    It's a way to skip the work of presenting an carefully plotted, well-crafted sympathetic tragedy, the fallout of the tragedy, and the internal and external conflict involved by playing on preset reactions to the trappings of a real-life situation that most of your readers are familiar with.

    Sadly, I think you're a little overly hopeful that most comic readers ARE familar with the situation in Chechnya. Hell, I doubt most people in America could find it on a map.

  9. in addition to being reasonably fond of Kyle Rayner

    ... or at least parts of him.


    Thanks, everybody! I'll be here all week!

  10. Elayne -- Yeah, sorry, it was "Geoff Johns"

    Starman -- You'd think that, except I knew "Chechnya" even though I never bothered to watch the news back when GL#10 came out. I'd seen it idly somewhere and knew there was a dispute there.

    And the jury's still out on Cowgirl's taking care of herself since Hal's current mission is "save the girl" and she is pretty far in over her head with the aliens running around.

    I love Lois Lane, and she is awesome and can protect herself from most random mortal thugs, but when her journalistic instincts take her into the path of General Zod, she is still classified as a "damsel in distress."

  11. Yeah.

    It's a cheap writer's trick. See? We can say stuff like that in five words. We don't need endless reminiscing about being the nerdy goth chick in the back playing Vampire: The Pretension and all that. We can just say "Hey, you're cheating" and we can let it go.

    Mind you, when I say 'we don't need', I in no way mean to imply we don't WANT that stuff, because it's colorful and fun and, okay, I think Vampire is a lousy game but who am I? I play Magic: the Gathering. So, you know, while we don't need the endless background exposition and colorful detail, still, it's entertaining and well written and you do indeed digress all the time so fine, there it is and we're moving on. Where was I?

    Oh, yeah. We should just say "It's a cheap trick" and let it go.

    Why should we let it go? Well, three reasons, the first of which is, admittedly, bullshit -- none of this is anywhere near as bad as any single caption or thought balloon or word balloon Chris Claremont has ever written. And yes, I like my straw men very much, thank you.

    Second and third reasons are more valid -- this is still Geoff Johns writing, and even when he's doing the cheap shot thing, he's still the best writer currently working in da spandex funnybook genre. I mean, I likes me some Gail Simone, and I likes me some Greg Rucka, and... uh... ::stumble:: well-yeah-Neil-Gaiman-but ::hem hem:: he-won't-write-anything-REGULAR-so-fukkem ::hemmm:: anyway, there are other writers I like, but, you know, Johns is just the best we have right now.

    Massively overworked, yes he is, and, yeah, okay, I'm not wild about the POW storyline, and in fact, don't think GL should be in the military, and can't stand Cowgirl anyway, but, still... it's Geoff Johns. Here's some slack. Please cut off a piece and apply liberally. Thank you.

    Third, it's Hal Jordan. In the Green Lantern title again. AS GREEN LANTERN. Not the Spectre. Not Parallax. Not Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Not being written by Gerard Jones or Ron Marz. I mean... ohmygod just gibbering on my knees rocking back and forth in eternal gratitude thankyew thankyew thankyew THEREISAGOD weeping! WEEPING!!!! Tears of joy. Oh. Oh. Oh.

    So, yeah, you're right, but, hello? Hal is Green Lantern again, our best writer is doing his monthly title, could it be better, sure, but, my god, my god, my god, it could also be by Frank Miller, know-whut-I'm-sayin'?

    I think you do. I think... you DO.

    Oh, and, one more point -- Ch'p is still dead. I mean, what more do you WANT, woman?