Posted by Jennifer
As I confess in my bio, I’m not much of a DC reader. I’ve learned quite a bit about the DC Universe through various conversations with friends, and I’ve never had anything in particular against the company, but nothing ever compelled me to try it out. Finally, I decided it was about time I dipped my toes in. I read Darwyn Cooke’s wonderful New Frontier, and found myself intrigued by the character of Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), a known favorite of Caroline’s. So, on a trip to a local library, I snatched a Green Lantern book off the shelf on a whim, and brought it home. That book was Green Lantern: Rebirth.
On a technical level, this is a great miniseries. I can appreciate that. Ethan Van Sciver’s art (which I’d already adored in his issues of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men) is stunning, bold, and intricate, and my eyes were drawn to every page. And Geoff Johns’ writing is technically good, too. The pacing works, the story flows clearly and naturally, with a solid arc and an engaging climax, and the moments between characters feel, for the most part, real and moving. I didn’t know much about Hal Jordan, or his relationships with Oliver Queen and Carol Ferris and the various other Lanterns, but I was affected by their scenes all the same. Even as an outsider to the universe, I knew I was reading good stuff.
But the philosophical underpinnings of the book are so antithetical to what I believe that I couldn’t, in good conscience, enjoy it.
Hal Jordan is the Man Without Fear. It’s a common enough phrase. Marvel has one of those, too. Hal is brave and reckless and gets the job done. And all of these are fine, and frequently fascinating, character traits. But in Rebirth, Johns takes the idea to the extreme. As a retconned explanation for his past episodes of crazy destruction, Johns makes the claim that Hal was infected by fear – by the alien entity Parallax, the yellow embodiment of fear itself – and that it was this fear, this self-doubt and worry, that caused him to go “evil” before his death.
By the end of Rebirth, what we are led to believe – what Johns is essentially saying, by valorizing Hal’s fearlessness and demonizing (literally) his moment of self-doubt – is that a hero can only be heroic if he is constantly confident. Heroism, in the moral world of Rebirth, is uncompromising, unquestioned action and self-righteousness, and moments of thought and questioning and uncertainty are not merely dangerous, but downright evil. And while some might argue that this moral logic applies only to Hal, one particular special snowflake, the presence of this new Parallax – the source and result of all fear in this universe, enemy of all – extends it beyond Hal to the entire DCU.
This astounds me. Why should we want our heroes to be so certain? Why shouldn’t they take the time to think about their actions? Superheroes – and Green Lanterns in particular — are beings with unimaginable power, and Geoff Johns expects us to believe that they should never question how they’re using that power? That, because they are anointed by these rings, because they are pure and good heroes, they should never have to question themselves? That’s the kind of “we know we’re right, and we don’t have to listen to anyone else” logic that got the United States into the current quagmire in Iraq.
I don’t necessarily want to get political, and I in no way want to claim that Hal Jordan, or Geoff Johns, is the moral equivalent of the current administration. But there are also comparisons within the superhero genre. Over on the Marvel side of things, for instance, is Tony Stark (Iron Man), a character who has been vilified by many writers and most fans for the better part of two years for doing exactly the thing for which Hal Jordan is celebrated: believing he’s right against all opposition, and using his power to do those “right” things. In Tony Stark’s case, those things included locking his friends in prison without a trial. But is it so hard to imagine that Hal Jordan might use abuse his power in an equivalent way?
If this was the only issue at hand, I might have been able to cope. Americans have always been taught that “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” But Johns doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t simply vilify Hal’s fears, in the form of Parallax. Instead, he expands upon his idea by making Parallax an agent of fear – a being that achieves its goals by spreading fear in those infected by it. That’s why, in a climactic scene, Batman, a hero who has spent decades fighting crime by striking fear into the hearts of his opponents, is the only hero that Parallax is able to infect. Parallax is drawn to Batman, not because Batman is afraid, but because Batman uses fear to do his work. Batman, consequently, is treated as Hal Jordan’s natural foil, his opposite. Batman uses fear, and Hal is fearless.
But that isn’t a natural comparison. The opposite of fearlessness isn’t using fear; it’s being afraid. That’s what we’re taught about Hal’s villainous past; that’s what any logical, thinking person would say. But by positioning Batman as the opposite of Hal’s purity, Johns succeeds in conflating the two things – having fear, and using fear – to such an extent that it’s impossible to tell the difference. In the end, we are led to believe that being afraid is just as bad as spreading fear; that questioning yourself, questioning your righteousness, is not just problematic – it’s the moral equivalent of terrorism. And that’s a moral foundation I simply can’t respect, even in a fictional universe very different from my own.
The miniseries tries to temper these extreme ideas with the inclusion of Kyle Rayner, the “only Green Lantern who has known fear.” But in the end, Kyle saves the world with the other Lanterns by fighting against fear. And fearless, reckless Hal – his body restored to the state it was in before he knew Parallax – is the ultimate hero of the story, “the greatest of the Green Lanterns,” beloved by every character (except his already-demonized opposite, Batman) and celebrated most of all by Kyle himself. Kyle’s presence as a fearful Green Lantern simply feels like an afterthought, a bone thrown to anyone who might not think complete fearlessness is the world’s greatest thing.
The fact is, I don’t want my heroes to be fearless. Fearlessness isn’t courage; it’s reckless stupidity. Courage is weighing your options, being afraid, and trying to do the best you can anyway, not assuming your first, untried idea is automatically right. I don’t want my heroes to be brooding, self-doubting messes all of the time — no one wants another Sentry – but I do expect a level of thought and self-analysis. I want Cyclops, with his crises of confidence; I want Captain America, with his crises of faith. And if heroes are naturally reckless and thoughtless, I want to see that explored with a level of skepticism about its value. Those personality types can often be useful, and quite interesting, in fiction – I love Tony Stark, after all – but when they’re held up as paragons of virtue and honor for that behavior, as Hal Jordan is in Rebirth, I find myself hitting a wall.
Rebirth was published several years ago. I haven’t read any other Green Lantern titles. I don’t know how this story continued. If this philosophy of fearlessness became more nuanced over time, I’ll be glad to hear it. But Rebirth, as a story unto itself, presents a moral universe so unappealing that I’m not sure I can move past it, and I’m not sure I want to get to know Geoff Johns’ Hal Jordan, however interesting the character may otherwise be.
Comments expressed here are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect on the rest of the Fantastic Fangirls. Counter-argument is both welcomed and encouraged.