Against my better judgment, I recently bought a copy of Green Lantern: No Fear. It’s a collection of the current monthly Green Lantern comic book series, and the chuckle you just allowed yourself at my expense is exactly why I at first thought it would be a waste of my time. It just sounds geeky and useless.

This isn’t an unfair assumption when you consider the state of superhero comics these days. Comics as an overall art form is very healthy — graphic novels, newspaper strips, and self-published comics ‘zines are all doing well commercially and critically. But those monthly superhero tales are such awful loads of crap. And this is coming from a die-hard superhero fan.

My overall complaint is simple: truly great literature is universal, and there is nothing universal about this stuff. Superhero comic book publishers cater to a relatively small group of fans who are thrilled by the fact that their beloved characters are treated respectfully and seriously. It’s apparently enough for these readers to read periodic updates on the ups and downs of each hero’s love life or drug addiction or family situation. Superhero comics today are, for the most part, akin to soap operas or reality shows; there to excite readers who have an encyclopedic knowledge of each character’s history with references and in-jokes. That’s not a literary experience but a feeling of clubhouse belonging.

Green Lantern might be the comics outsider’s easiest example of this. Other superheroes have successfully nestled themselves in the greater public consciousness. Batman has his dark, brooding cool factor. Superman’s sense of moral certainty and optimism has always resonated far outside the comics community. Spider-Man is the everyman outsider – an outcast with a heart of gold. Wonder Woman appeals to a mainstream American mindset of feminism and the strength of the individual.

But Green Lantern? Isn’t he the guy with the magic ring?

Because Green Lantern seems like extraordinarily geeky sci-fi at its worst, the character has become more of a punch line than a legitimate part of our popular culture. Because of this, I assumed that his current incarnation in this “trivia-as-literature” superhero milieu would be particularly horrendous.

But when I looked at the cover of the book, with the classically handsome Hal Jordan and his assured smile hurtling through the sky with a line of green energy trailing behind him, it struck something inside. I remembered that I used to really like this one, mainly because Green Lantern could do anything he wanted (anything he willed, to be precise) and that made for some amazing adventure. There are many appealing things about superheroes; otherwise they wouldn’t so persistently survive through all the various media throughout all these many years. In the case of Green Lantern it has always been this exhilarating sense of possibility and victory and fun. His righteous (but by no means perfect) way of living brought him into contact with the highly evolved beings that granted him his power. Because of his character they entrusted him with something that was both a responsibility and a reward. And because of his character he used it wisely and well. His was a story of fear and how it affects us, and how it can help or hinder our attempts to live the fullest lives we can.

I’m halfway through No Fear at the moment and it’s clear that writer Geoff Johns is tapping into this stuff that has made the character relevant to all of us over the years. That must be more interesting to him than soap opera, and I’m glad to be reminded why stories like this are important. Literature lasts when it offers up themes and questions that are universal and important, or when it provides a really knock-out page-turner of a story, or both. Superheroes are so firmly imprinted on our imaginations and our way of life because the best ones fall into that first category. No one outside of superhero fandom will ever remember the plot details of any of the thousands of comics published since 1938, but the characters themselves last because of what they signify.

I’m looking forward to writing my thoughts about this one this week. And since I’m almost done, I may even go back to those original stories from the 1960s next week. It’ll be fun, after all, to explore what comics historian Gerard Jones calls, “all this glorious garbage.” Often, the best way to get through a rough day is to be reminded that a man can fly.