Tuesday 18 February 2014

Green Lantern: Secret Origins - Revision or Retcon?

Without a shadow of a doubt Geoff Johns is the name most famously associated with Green Lantern since Deny O'Neil and Neal Adams had their controversial run together on the title in the 1970s.  Johns is credited with producing a series that is singularly respectful of the entire mythos that came before it.  He managed to unite Lantern fans of every era, which is no small feat considering the fall out between Hal Jordan fans and supporters of his replacement, Kyle Rayner, after the Emerald Twilight saga.

Two things are clear from the outset of Johns' long relationship with Green Lantern; 1. he knew his stuff, and 2. he had a plan.  To say Johns knew his GL history is an understatement.  He references back to the Silver-Age and the very earliest appearances of Hal Jordan.  Substantial elements of the character's recounted origins can also be attributed to the Emerald Dawn (vol. 1 and 2) mini-series' penned by Keith Giffen and Gerard Jones in 1990/91.  And while Johns is clearly a Hal fan he is shown a great deal of respect by the comic book community for preserving the back story of Kyle that played out through the 90s.  Even more significantly (despite being publicly lambasted by its original creator) he hangs much of the current mythos around a short story by Alan Moore that appeared in Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2 .

Which brings me in a neat little segue to this, the chosen subject of my second contribution to the Super-Blog Team-Up.  This time round, as you'll already know if you've been reading the posts of my uber talented fellow Super-Bloggers, we have elected to tackle the subject of retroactive continuity.  The longer a comic book character exists, the more likely it is that their history will be rewritten in order to tell original, compelling stories.  How many times could you read about a rocket leaving the orbit of an exploding planet with a lone baby as it's only occupant if creators just retold the same story over and over again, panel for panel?  Yet the origin of Superman is one of the most well-known of all comic book stories. While one key point remains the same, the events leading up to the super child's launch, the manner of his journey, the nature of the very rocket he travelled in have been tweaked and successfully re-imagined many, many times.

Perhaps less well known is the story of an Earthman's induction into the intergalactic peace-keeping force that is the Green Lantern Corps.  Even so, in the 55 odd years since Hal first burst onto the scene in the pages of Showcase #22 there have been various accounts of the dying alien who bestowed his ring of power on a fearless test pilot.  Geoff Johns set out to tell the tale in unparallelled detail across a seven issue arc of Green Lantern called, somewhat unsurprisingly, Green Lantern: Secret Origins.  In this feature I consider the question, 'Is Secret Origins a retcon in the truest sense of the word? Or, given Geoff Johns fabled reverence for all that has come before, is the book instead better viewed as a revision of GL stories past?'  As I began my exploration of the title I wondered to myself if Johns deserves his reputation as the man who left history intact.

It would be very easy here to get lost in a sea of high concept BS. Does Secret Origins reflect the spirit of it's predecessors?  Does the comic maintain its integrity as an original work?  Instead I thought it would be a lot more fun to geek out on some comics!  And there is nothing a comic fan loves more than over analysing ever minute detail of their favourite publications.  In fact I have a feeling the post is going to have more in common with a child's 'Spot the Difference' puzzle than some of the quality literary dissertations on our sequential art medium.

So let's have a look at the evidence.  "Exhibit ,1 Your Honour".  In the aforementioned Showcase #22 and in Green Lantern #1 (vol. 2) released the following year, Hal's first contact with his emerald hued future took place while sitting in flight simulator cockpit.  The wingless (virtually 'planeless') machine is scooped up bodily by green energy emanating from fatally injured Abin Sur's power ring.  It's not a sexy image by any means but there is something enjoyable in the sight of a future cosmic hero being held aloft in a giant metal contraption.  Johns forgoes this original script choice for the more photogenic flying man sans bathtub.

I like to think he and artist Ivan Reis make a nod to it in the panel immediately before the ring's entrance with Jordan sitting in the wreckage of an old plane that has been well and truly grounded.  I could be clutching at straws here, of course.  VERDICT - RETCON.

Hal's heroknapping leads us swiftly to the often asked question, "What the heck was Abin doing in a spaceship in the first place?"  A Green Lantern's power ring enables its wearer to survive flights across deep space unaided.  There should be no reason for the unlucky GL to have required a craft to transport him.  For many years the comics were silent on the matter.  It took Alan Moore to come up with the definitive answer in his short story, 'Tygers'.  Moore's theory was that Abin Sur received a dark prophecy from Qull, a member of a villainous group called The Five Inversions who were held captive by the Corps on the planet Ysmault.  The prophecy claimed that Abin's power ring would fail him a a critical moment.  The ship was a backup plan, much like Simon Baz's gun is in the GL universe today.  So far, so good.  Geoff Johns lifts directly from Moore's story having the failure of the tragic alien's ring foretold by Qull.  Even the ship itself is reminiscent of the one designed by Kevin O'Neil in 'Tygers'.  If we stopped the tape here we'd be able to call this one VERDICT - REVISION.

But when the Green Lantern got into that ship and left Ysmault, the two histories begin to spin in very different directions.  Much like in Showcase #22, 'Tygers' sees the ship pass through a cloud of yellow radiation that neutralises both the mechanics of the vessel and it's occupants ability to wield his power ring.  The moral is that had Abin Sur put his faith in his ring alone he might have been able to test for the radiation zone before he entered.  It's not a particularity definitive conclusion if you ask me.  Geoff Johns takes things from a maybe to a definitely.  The Lantern did not leave the prison planet by himself.  Armed with the prophecy of the Blackest Night, Abin took one of the Inversions with him hoping to extract further information.  The consequences of his foolhardy decision were disastrous.  A Green Lantern's ring is powered by the strength of the wearer's own willpower.  With Abin expecting the ring to betray him at any time, the will he normally commanded had begun to ebb away.

His construct confining the Inversion, Atrocitus, was weak.   Atrocitus was able to break free of his manacles and attack his captor, causing the starship to crash in the process.  In Johns' version of events it was still yellow that ultimately brought about Abin's downfall but this time it was the yellow fear within his own soul instead of any external physical catalyst.   VERDICT - RETCON.

One of the most important relationships explored in Secret Origins is the first contact between Hal and his arch nemesis, Thaal Sinestro.  The villain was introduced as one of Green Lantern's earliest Silver-Age foes in Green Lantern #7.  His origin story was laid out in detail during that very first appearance.  He had been considered the greatest Lantern of them all before a thirst for power swayed him from the path of justice.  Hal was tasked by his masters, the Guardians of the Universe, to defeat Sinestro and this was the circumstances under which they first met.  ...So that was one version of events, one that remained in continuity for a great many years. 

Then came Emerald Dawn.  And with it a time line that saw Jordan recruited during the Korugarian's tenure as a Lantern.  In fact, Sinestro was set the task of training the newest GL of sector 2814 in law and, more importantly, order.  Geoff Johns took the opportunity to tease at this concept in more depth.  Green Lantern volume 4 was his plaything for nigh on decade and giving him plenty of opportunity to work out what makes Sinestro tick.  Under his pen the infamous Corpsman was sent to Earth for a very different reason, to investigate Abin Sur's death.  But Sinestro being Sinestro, he felt obliged to try and educate Jordan along the way.  The thought that someone as reckless as Hal should wield a power ring at all irked him immensely.  There isn't a version of the history imaginable were the veteran does not insist on schooling the impudent rookie on life as he sees it.  Not that Hal makes for a very receptive student!  VERDICT - REVISION.

Emerald Dawn is responsible for introducing another theme that has become central to Hal Jordan's character.  It is the very reason he "can overcome great fear".  As a young boy he worshipped his father, Martin Jordan, another fearless test pilot.  Witnessing his father's death in a plane crash changed his life forever.  In a situation where many would retreat from the way of life that had cruelly taken his idol the young Hal instead pushed himself to emulate the elder Jordan and confront his deepest fear head on.

In Emerald Dawn Martin's death was all too avoidable.  His plane had taken damage and his flight crew urged him to bail out.  The pilot's bravado and self-confidence pushed him to try and land the plane in one piece but it was not to be.  The same attitude can be seen as the root of Hal's own misery in ED when he landed himself in jail on drunk driving charges.  Secret Origins opens with a similar scene of devastation but in this version Geoff Johns sees fit to put a more heroic spin on events.  Martin Jordan's fighter jet again develops faults but he is urged to keep it in the air in front of observing investors.  Realising the plane will go down in any case Jordan sacrifices his own safety to guide it away from the watching crowds thus ensuring the loss of life was his alone.

As before, it is the characteristics of these final moments that are passed on to his son, fundamentally shaping the boys future.  VERDICT - REVISION.

Told across Green Lantern #5 (vol. 2) and Justice League of America #14 (vol. 1) the story of Hector Hammond is a very interesting one.  Portrayed as super-cool to the point of slimy, Hammond has wealth, power and the attentions of one Carol Ferris, sometime paramour of both Hal Jordan and Green Lantern (GL is famous for causing romantic competition for his own alter ego back in the Silver-Age).  The secret behind his success transpires to be a radioactive meteorite he had stumbled across.  He used the space rock to evolve four scientists with futuristic intellects and forced them to invent things for him and to do his bidding against their will.  When the emerald gladiator foiled his plans he turned the meteorite on himself to boost his own mental abilities far beyond that of a normal human.

His Silver-Age personality is  painstakingly recreated in Secret Origins.  As the reader we are left with no doubt that this is the same character as appeared in the original comics.  He even has a brief liaison with Carol before she thinks better off it.  It is only the circumstances of his latest incarnation that have changed.  Hector is now a aeronautics consultant called in to examine the remnants of Abin Sur's ill-fated vessel.  As a result of his own arrogance he is exposed to the fuel source of ship which is, of course, a radioactive meteor and he immediately develops telepathic abilities.  In both retellings an unfortunate side effect of his exposure comes in the form of a grotesquely enlarged cranium.  On the back of how faithful Geoff Johns' take on Hector's character was to his Silver-Age introduction I would love to mark this one up as a revision but the actual narrative is so wildly different that I have to admit there can be only one possible outcome.  VERDICT - RETCON.

The last story element of Green Lantern: Secret Origins that I want to look at in some detail is the introduction of Black Hand.  Readers of my Black Hand pictorial blog will be aware that the Silver-Age depiction of William Hand was that of a clever crook with a love of knowledge, planning, inventions and, for some unknown reason, proverbs.  He created a device that could absorb Green Lantern's power and use it against him.  Another little referenced but very interesting point in the context of our discussion is that he was the odd one out in an otherwise honest, upstanding family.  In later years, particularly the 80s and 90s, Black Hand became a pastiche of himself.  A figure to be derided.  A villain who was destined to be defeated by the hero of the hour.  Given that William Hand became the single greatest threat to the Green Lantern Corps' existence during the Geoff Johns run it is a safe bet to call this one in advance as VERDICT - RETCON.

In SO Hand is the youngest son of a funeral home director.  He is once again at odds with the rest of his family but not because of criminal leanings.  This William Hand has a morbid fascination with death that is just plain creepy.  He is central to the prophecy that Abin Sur learnt from Qull concerning Blackest Night for he contains within him "the doorway to absolute darkness".  The device that Silver-Age Black Hand built to absorb the Green Lantern ring power has been retconned into a creation designed by Atrocitus to pull the Black energy out of William.  It only fell into the boy's possession during a scuffle between the Inversion and his GL opponents.  That Black Hand would later turn the device against the Lanterns was an unforeseen consequence.  As I've said already, VERDICT - RETCON.

All in all, the results have been wonderfully inclusive.  Secret Origins is a bridge of sorts between old and new.  It was, of course, written as a vehicle to further develop Johns' Green Lantern saga.  In this sense it is a prequel to the DC universe crossover event Blackest Night.  It is as much about the origins of Black Hand and Atrocitus as anything else, explaining how their past fits into the big picture.  But it is so much more than that.  The book is Geoff Johns' love letter to the past.  It has a timeless quality that feels like 50 years of continuity have been carefully preserved for future generations.  Most retroactive storytelling stamps all over the past with big hob nail boots.  Forget what you thought you knew because it didn't happen.  Green Lantern: Secret Origins has a unique trick of gently implanting on your memory, just for a moment,  a feeling that the history of the characters we encounter within its pages has always been this way.


So now you’ve read issue #2 of this spectacular SUPER-BLOG TEAM-UP crossover event, go check out these other amazing blogs to learn some more about the real stories behind the retcon...

Links (going live throughout Wed, 19 Feb):

#3 Longbox Graveyard: Retcon: Roy Thomas And Earth-2

#4 Between The Pages: Good Cowboys Always Shoot First

#5 Bronze Age Babies: Was The Vision Really Carrying A Torch?

#7 Superhero Satellite: RETCON: Crisis on Continuity Earths


  1. Fine and thoughtful work, Flodo. I've always liked Green Lantern, but never loved him ... but every time I visit your site, and feel the passion you have for this character, it causes me to reassess. Convention season approaches and I will be on the hunt for GL trade editions. I hope you are happy with yourself!

    1. Sounds like "Mission Accomplished" to me. Beware our power!

  2. A very thorough look at GL's history! Like Longbox, I will be seeking out a few TPB's.

    1. If you are just dipping into Green Lantern then Secret Origins is a great one to pick up. As I mentioned in the post, the book continues to develop the long running Geoff Johns saga but you will enjoy it just as much even if you do not have prior experience with GL.