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I wonder sometimes if the critical acclaim some comics receive does more harm to the medium than good. If a comic gets lots of attention and it turns out that it’s inaccessible or badly written or just plain pedestrian yet illustrated, can that be good for a medium seeking acceptance? I sometimes wish we would stop holding up genre potboiler page-turners like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns as the highest mark of artistic merit we can achieve. Fans are so quick to show off anything that even tries to be “smart” which validates the invalid feeling among the literati that comics naturally aren’t intelligent and therefore must try to transcend themselves. And how long before the literati catch on that what we’re showing off is sub-par anyway?

Halfway through The Golden Age I thought it was “fine enough.” An interesting plot, unpredictable characters, good solid Saturday-afternoon-in-the-park reading much like The Dark Knight Returns. A few more pages in and I realized it wasn’t even that. It’s just a bad comic — amateurish writing from James Robinson that any first-year fiction workshop would whip into shape and art from a normally brilliant penciler (Paul Smith) who tries so hard to change his style that he comes up with a mix of ugly and anatomically incorrect. So why bother writing about it at all here? Because this is one of the most critically acclaimed “graphic novels” of all time, a post-modern superhero genre critique that supposedly takes apart all of the things that make it work and exposes its dark underbelly, and it’s not at all. It’s a comic that forces its characters like so many chess pieces into a strategy that resembles something like an intelligent genre critique, leaving all relatable human feeling at the door.

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We all have our essential qualities that drive us forward or trip us up, that make everything in life work or break down, but we don’t notice them because we’re too busy worrying about the price of gas or whether or not someone likes us back. It takes life starting over — something that rarely, if ever, happens — to make us look inside without the usual mundane distractions.

But when you die, return from the afterlife, save the universe a couple times, and finally come back to where you were at the start of it all — that’s a grand opportunity. Only in the funny books!

At the start of Green Lantern: No Fear, Hal Jordan has returned to his former life, but nothing is the same (the details of his previous life chapter aren’t important for the purposes of this story — ain’t that nice? — and there’s a recap at the beginning of the book if you must know). Coast City, his hometown, was destroyed by a super bad guy and is only partway through a troubled, halting reconstruction. His brothers and their families hardly know him. He has to earn his way back to the top of his former career as a test pilot. We’re reading about a rebirth, a starting back from Square One, so we get to see his essentials, and see ourselves in them as well. Of course, since this is a Green Lantern comic book, fear is the biggest player in Hal Jordan’s psyche. Writer Geoff Johns knows that this is, conveniently, the biggest player in our collective real world psyche as well.

 

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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?

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