On one of the news blogs I follow, the resident comics nerd felt compelled to post a correction/explanation to a post by another contributor reporting that DC Comics’ character, Green Lantern, who was revealed as gay this week. The correction noted that the Green Lantern in question (Alan Scott) is not the same DC Comics Green Lantern character (Hal Jordan) portrayed in the awful movie last year starring Ryan Reynolds. At the end of the explanation, he lamented that the fact that such an explanation was needed proved comics will never be accessible to casual readers.
I think he was being too generous. As a comics nerd of many decades standing—a comics nerd who marked corrections in my copy of the excellent Facts on File Encyclopedia of Super Heroes shortly after I bought mine in 1985—let me say that superhero comics are fast becoming inaccessible to the devoted reader, as well.
It’s been a long, winding road to get to this point. The funny thing is, that while comics have often been derided as “kids stuff”, they grew out of the tradition of the pulp magazines of the nineteen-teens and -twenties, in which the often grisly tales of vigilantes detectives, cops, and gunslingers dispensed justice and rescued victims. The pulps, in turn, followed up on the illustrated magazines (including the “shilling shockers” in the UK and “penny dreadfuls” in the US). Those were being bought by at least as many adults as kids. Regardless, the comic book superhero genre was born in the late 1930s, flourished in the early 1940s, then started fading in the late ’40s and early ’50s as war, horror, and true crime stories became the new fad.
Dr Frederic Werner had been claiming since the late forties that comic books corrupted the morals of children, and compelled them to depravity. This led to U.S. Senate committee hearings, which caused the comics publishers to create a censorship board, the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code included byzantine restrictions on the portrayal of crime and criminals, insisted that heroes never act in any way that could be interpreted as disrespectful of authority, required minimal and non-graphic violence, and forbid the appearance of anything supernatural.
The Code essentially banned all the horror and true crime stories, and took most of the excitement out of the war stories, westerns, and private eye comics, as well. Some of the publishers switched to publishing romance and “teen interest” stories. Batman, which was one of the few super hero comic books that had survived in the face of all that horror and crime (possibly because his stories were sometimes just as grim and grisly as the worst of the crime stories), was toned down considerably.
A couple of the publishers decided to try bringing back some of the discontinued super hero titles, though it was more a re-invention that resurrection. The secret identities of the characters were changed, and the origin of the powers were changed. Many also got new costumes. At least part of the reasoning was that some of those 1930s origins were simply too silly for readers in the late ’50s and early ’60s to suspend disbelief.
One of those re-invented characters was the Green Lantern. The original (or Golden Age) Green Lantern had been construction engineer Alan Scott. A passenger train Alan Scott was riding had an accident, and somehow Scott was trapped in the rubble next to the lantern from the train engine. While he lay on death’s door, a spirit inside the lantern, which claimed to the “the green flame of life itself” spoke to him. The spirit offers him great power, as long as he will carry the lantern to shine the light of truth on evil. When he recovers, Scott makes a ring out of part of the lantern, designs himself a red and black costume, and starts flying around fighting crime. The ring could give him any superpower he could imagine. It’s only weakness was wood (I kid you not!).
The re-invented (or Silver Age) Green Lantern was test pilot Hal Jordan. Jordan’s experimental aircraft was drawn to the site of a UFO crash by a mysterious green light. There, the dying alien inside the ship telepathically inducts Jordan into an interstellar police force (the Green Lantern Corps) and gives him a power ring and a lantern that somehow recharges it. This ring gives Jordan the ability to fly, and to create anything he can imagine from its green force field. He gets a nifty green and black costume, and starts flying around fighting crime, repelling invasions, and so forth. The only weakness of his power ring is anything yellow-colored (again, I kid you not!).
Some of the changes seem obvious: in the ’30s trains were the fastest transportation available; by the ’50s they were quaint and old-fashioned compared to fighter planes. On the other hand, I’m not sure the telepathic alien whose super weapon can be taken out by anything yellow is any more plausible that the green flame of life itself somehow getting trapped inside a train lantern.
The re-invented character had nothing to do with the original. The new stories completely ignored the old tales. The Golden Age Green Lantern simply did not exist in any sense within the world of the Silver Age Green Lantern.
And it might have been fine if it had stayed that way. But someone got the idea to ask, “What if the Golden Age Green Lantern and the Silver Age Green Lantern could somehow meet?” You can understand why that question would arise.
Say you had been a young person reading the original Green Lantern comics in the ’40s. And by the ’60s maybe you’re an adult working as a writer or illustrator, and you manage to land a job working for the company that’s publishing a very different character with the same name as your beloved childhood hero. Wouldn’t it be fun to write just one story, or maybe two, where the new guy somehow meets the old? And if the editor objects, you can point out that there are thousands of old fans, just like you, with fond memories of the original character. They might be willing to buy a comic featuring their old hero, just for old times’ sake.
So the notion of alternate universes, where the Golden Age versions of the characters had their own adventures, was cooked up, and a sufficiently science fiction-y explanation of how characters from the Silver Age universe could cross over into the other reality was invented, and voila! The originals and the reinventions can have adventures together.
Some of the old characters had never been reinvented. Some of them had belonged to publishing companies that no longer existed. The remaining companies bought the legal rights to some of those characters, and launched new versions, which complicated things further.
And then there is the aging issue. Batman and Superman were not reinvented in the late ’50s. Their magazines had been published without interruption. If Bruce Wayne was, say, in his mid-twenties in 1939 when the first Batman comic was published, he’s going to be in his mid-fifties by 1969. It’s not inconceivable that a sufficiently obsessive physical fitness nut could still be running across the rooftops and down the dark allies of a crime-ridden city at fifty-five years of age, but by 2012, he’s going to be in his late nineties, and that just isn’t believable.
How about Spider-man—who was a new character in the ’60s, not a reinvented one? The fundamental themes of the Spider-man myth are all teen-age/young adult issues: learning to take responsibility, the passing of the torch between generations, figuring out who you are. Those themes work fine when you read Peter Parker’s adventures in the ’60s, but by the ’80s as he approaches forty years of age, he should be past all the teen angst, right?
For a long time the publishers handled this mostly by ignoring it, pretending that 10 years of comic books covered only 2-3 years of the characters’ life. The problem is that young Peter Parker was as adept with a slide rule as those web shooters in the ’60s comics, but by the ’90s he’s using word processors and no one “his age” knows what a slide rule is.
Rather than re-invent the characters again, the major publishers have found ways to reboot or refresh them. And since many readers were okay with the alternate reality explanations before, new writers and artists who come into the business with fond memories of the characters as they were depicted ten, twenty, thirty or more years ago are sometimes allowed to write alternate timeline versions of the characters.
Some alternate timelines get folded into the “official timeline.” Some are dropped once the specific story is completed. Others continue a parallel publishing existence.
For awhile a hardcore fan like myself might have been able to follow it by thinking of the Golden Age and Silver Age version of a character, with a Revived Golden Age version thrown in for fun. Now, however, I have to keep track of the differences between the House of M timeline, the Earth-2, Earth-22, Earth-616, Earth-216, and Earth-C timelines, not to mention the 1602 pocket-verse, the Ultimate Line, the Apocalypse-verse, the Zombie-verse, the Reborn-verse, the Noir-verse, Elseworlds, the New Multiverse, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Somehow, I think the story telling is getting lost in all this.
I suppose I should feel happy that DC has decided, in one of their reboots or alternates or whatever this new comic line is, to take an alternate, mostly unknown version of a character to be their token gay person. I’m supposed to feel included, now, right?