Champing at the Bit

1In 1975, a group of mutants whose comic had been long-canceled found fresh success with Giant Size X-Men. Writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum (during what comic historians call the Bronze Age) dialed back the camp and infused the concept of weird, outsider heroes with more realism.

This meant that international characters like the German Nightcrawler, or the Soviet Colossus, brought their accents into battle with them. It also meant that characters we were just getting to know might die, and their teammates would suffer the psychological aftermath (which involved hooking-up, going insane, or simply quitting the hero biz).

This Bronze Age of increasingly adult-oriented comics (from about 1970-86) has landmark stories enough to fill a library. It evolved in reaction to the merry-go-round silliness of the preceding era, the Silver Age, where the Fantastic Four routinely destroyed as much of New York as they saved (only for the city to reset between the panels for the next issue).

2Muddling this discussion is the fact that, by the mid 80s, the transition to Modern Age storytelling had begun. Readers waiting for Wolverine to kill Magneto and get on with his life (or visa versa) had Watchmen to cleanse their palate of anti-hero grittiness. But Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ masterpiece was a limited-series, populated by disposable also-rans.

How did a lucrative ongoing title–like Green Lantern perhaps–manage its growing pains? Entertainingly, of course. The first volume of issues by Wein and Gibbons, Sector 2814, is a glorious snapshot of mid-80s melodrama. I bought it mainly for the art, owning nothing by Gibbons outside of Watchmen. I also have little firsthand knowledge about the DC Universe from this era, aside from Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s outstanding Teen Titans.

For those needing a refresher (you likely skipped the D.O.A. Ryan Reynolds film), Green Lantern is an experimental jet pilot named Hal Jordan. Because of his “potential to overcome great fear” he’s been chosen by the Guardians (a race of shrunken, blue-skinned cosmic judges) to wear a ring that operates on willpower. Anything space cop Jordan can imagine (and sustain in his concentration), he can create with “hard light” constructs. Like narrative hemp, this concept is extremely versatile, though odd rules come and go: the ring can’t affect things that are yellow, and it must be charged by {ahem} chanting into an over-sized green lantern.

The first thing to say about this collection is that the color 4reproduction is miraculous. Anthony Tollin’s mild palette sings softly on every page (especially during the few scenes in space). His work perfectly emphasizes Gibbons’ self-inked art, which is Silver Age sleek, but confidently flexible in every respect.

The opening story sees Jordan earnestly petition the Guardians to let him return to Earth after a year patrolling space. “My family… my friends… they’re all a part of me!” he explains. “Their love and guidance have helped shape me into the man I am today!” The Guardians, from their home planet Oa, yield to his request. Under blue skies once more, Jordan soars in gleeful corkscrews that pack Gibbons’ detailed panels. He delights in creating a mousetrap to hold a gunman, and a giant bottle to detain a drunk-driver.

Then he faces the Javelin, a villain with trick weapons of the same name. In one of the more clever cliffhangers, a yellow spike pierces Green Lantern’s medieval shield construct, then stops halfway to spill yellow fluid on him. Our hero, high in the sky, is then coated with the stuff and rendered powerless during his fall.

5Green Lantern survives (in a scene that’s too dorky for this blog) to face The Shark, a promising sumbitch who rises from the coastline dripping blood from his jaws. Unfortunately, this version of the humanoid fish monster is much tamer than the one we saw actually eat people a few years ago (Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern 4-5). This guy calls people “meat” but really just eats minds, leaving comatose victims lying everywhere. When he gets GL, we follow Jordan to a shady realm full of disembodied citizens. Surprise, surprise: the real battle comes down to willpower.

6A different battle allows Wein and Gibbons to strut, rather than champ at the creative bit.  It involves the Demolition Team, a quintet of stereotypes who fight with yellow construction gear (and speak in cheesy regional accents). You can’t help but stifle a yawn while asking, “How will Jordan escape this one?” With the appearance of violent new vigilante The Predator, the creators answer, “He won’t have to.”

As the Demolition Team attacks Ferris Aircraft, where Jordan and his lover Carol work, the Guardians inopportunely summon GL to the cosmic boondocks. When he finds that he must stop the core of a populated planet from exploding, he realizes, “It’s precisely the same problem my friend Tomar-R3e had with the planet Krypton,” which is where Superman came from.

So while Jordan fashions gigantic cooling rods from asteroid minerals, the razor-wielding Predator carves into the bumbling Demolition Team. The enigmatic savage then murders the man who hired them, corrupt congressman Jason Bloch (because someone has to).

The final issue shows Jordan toss his power ring back at the Guardians and choose life with Carol. We’re also introduced to architect John Stewart, whom Ferris hires to redesign their demolished property. To see what happens next, don’t wait months for the second volume of this run. Watch the Cartoon Network’s Justice League (including the Unlimited series), and enjoy superheroes at full gallop.

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