Ask Chris #321: Legacy And Distinction In The Green Lantern Corps
Q: Dick was the acrobat, Tim the detective, Jason the slugger. Max had dexterity, Jay remembered what he read at superspeed, Barry could travel through time unaided, etc. Should the Green Lanterns have that same kind of differentiation? I mean something other than "Hal is the greatest of all time;" "Nuh-uh, Kyle is." They took a step toward it with Kyle's cartoonist visual imagination, but it never went much further. What should differentiate the Green Lanterns as Green Lanterns? — @jtlevy
A: As you might expect from the fact that it took four tweets to get the whole thing out, there's a lot going on in this question. It plays to a lot of my interests, too, in discussing how legacy works, and how different iterations of the same idea have to be made distinct and interesting on their own, which feeds into the very specific kind of nostalgia that the DC Universe engineers in its fans by tossing everything into a fire every decade or so to see if it can find something else that works better.
But what's really interesting to me is that you're using the Green Lanterns as your example, because when it comes to building in distinct traits that differentiate their heroes, that's kind of the only franchise that's doing that job from the start.
Everyone else tends to either add all of those distinguishing features well after the characters are established, or build them in direct opposition to their immediate predecessors, and the two other legacies that you brought up, the Robins and the Flashes, are pretty solid examples.
Jason Todd, for instance, is someone that we think of as being a brawler with anger issues because he's been that way for so long as the Red Hood, and was characterized that way in the run-up to A Death In the Family. Don't get me wrong, it's definitely there, and it's definitely there on purpose, to the point where the story in Batman #424, the first comic I ever loved, is built entirely on the idea of establishing it for later use. The whole point of that story is to show that Jason's anger can result in unintended consequences --- which we know because the next issue is literally called "Unintended Consequences" --- to set the stage for him to run away and get murdered. And that, in turn, becomes his defining trait, because it's the biggest possible story you can do with a character.
The thing is, Jason Todd didn't just spring into existence in 1988 and walk straight into a crowbar. He was around for five years at that point, and for most of that time, he was just Robin, The Boy Wonder, a carbon copy of Dick Grayson designed to restore the original dynamic of that particular duo. Even once he got his new street level origin, stealing the tires off the Batmobile, he was still written more as "Robin" than as "Jason." Even in some of the best stories of the '80s --- stories like "Fear For Sale" --- he doesn't have the traits that we think of as being his definitive characteristics.
Tim, on the other hand, was created with that very specific idea of being the kid who figured out who Batman was, but I'd even go as far as saying that Dick Grayson didn't even get his defining characteristic --- the fact that he's friendly and pretty much universally beloved by the rest of the universe --- until, what, New Teen Titans, after he had been around for like thirty years? And part of that came about because Batman got progressively grumpier, allowing Dick to flourish as a contrast.
The other big family that you bring up, the Flashes, are also pretty interesting, because they've been made distinct not just in terms of personality, but in powers, too. The personality stuff is always there as the driving characteristic --- Wally's desire to live up to his uncle's legacy, Bart's quite literal impulsiveness, Barry's... Barry's... listen, I'll have to get back to you on that one --- but the way their powers work tend to manifest themselves in ways that reflect and compound those ideas.
At heart, I suspect that this is because the Flash family all have a power that, at heart, is incredibly simple (they can run real real fast), but that is also rooted in a broader category (super-speed) that can pretty much just be whatever you want it to be, even before you get to years of John Broome or whoever deciding that "vibrating molecules" was an acceptable reason for literally anything. But those ideas can also come together in really interesting ways.
It's always worth noting that immediately post-Crisis, Wally West's powers were reduced from their Silver Age heights. The same thing happened to Superman, too, but the difference here was that there was still a canonical measuring stick --- Barry Allen --- for Wally to be held against, meaning that his fantastic ability to run at the speed of sound always seemed like a disadvantage, until it was later revealed to just be a psychological problem rooted in Wally not wanting to surpass Barry's legacy.
All of which is to say that with legacy characters, a lot of the contrasts evolve over time from the simple idea of just being the New Version. But Green Lantern is different.
Ever since the dawn of the Silver Age, Green Lantern has by its very nature not been a singular identity. I mean, the first thing that happens to Hal Jordan is that he gets his job from the guy who was Green Lantern before him, which establishes from the start that there are a lot of people out there with these same powers and that codename. It's not as much a legacy as it is a team, it just happens to be a team where we're usually only following one member.
I think that might be part of the reason why Kyle Rayner had to suffer through such a bad reaction when he took the name in the '90s. He didn't just replace Hal Jordan --- although in all fairness, Hal got the Worst Possible Ending for a superhero, one that trashed his character so badly that they had to blame it on a giant yellow space termite fifteen years later --- he replaced an entire concept by reducing it down to that singular identity. It's a shift in the fundamental workings underneath the legacy as much as a shift in how the character works himself.
And that's important to remember, because when you get right down to it, Green Lantern had been doing distinct characters with that identity for years.
Even though Green Lantern has never really been my jam, I always liked the idea that the only two requirements for being selected as a member of the corps were that you had to be totally honest and totally fearless, because those two traits can combine to make a vast range of personalities.
It gives you Hal Jordan, who's brave and direct but kind of a doofus, and it gives you Guy Gardner, the jerk who's completely unafraid to tell you what he really thinks, and it also gives you John Stewart, the guy who doesn't want to wear a mask because he needs to stand up for what he believes in, who doesn't wear gloves because he's ready to get his hands dirty, but who also likes to relax with a fancy coffee and a Barbara Streisand record.
And those are just the main characters --- honesty and courage can take a lot of different forms that can serve as a guide, and characters defined by those traits can still react to the same situations in completely different ways.
But when the idea behind Green Lantern shifted, courtesy of Geoff Johns, from being fearless to being based on the ability to overcome fear, that also opened the door for plenty of interesting possibilities. Asking the question of what this person fears can be just as illuminating as asking what they want --- the desires might give you the endpoint, but the fears often reveal how they're going to go about getting there.
That's one of the things that the current Green Lanterns series from Sam Humphries, Robson Rocha, Tom Derenick, Ronan Cliquet and co., is doing so well with Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz. They're characters that you'd never mistake for any other members of the Green Lantern Corps, because they're rooted in different motivations, with flaws that stand in stark contrast to the rest of the cast.
Jessica's the agoraphobe who didn't leave her apartment for three years, who accidentally became a supervillain and even more accidentally became a superhero. Simon is the Green Lantern who decided to carry a handgun in addition to his power ring, which is sort of like duct-taping a pocket knife to a A-bomb --- but casting that in the context of his fear, mistrust, and insecurity makes it an interesting aspect of his character that I initially hated.
That's what differentiates the Green Lanterns, and what allows them to populate an entire corner of the universe and still tell interesting stories.