Fear of Fear Itself: Green Lantern: Rebirth

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.

  • lilacsigil

    I read one issue of this mini and put it down in horror, though I couldn’t really articulate *why* I immediately disliked Hal so much. I like what little I’ve read of John Stewart, Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner. And I suppose this is a logical place to go for a hero whose power is quite literally his will (though Kyle’s seems to be more imagination? Not sure.) Doubt, for Hal, is impotence. And never doubting your cause or yourself is a sure path to harm and evil.

  • Caroline

    I agree there’s a troubling implication to this, though I’m not so quick to equate lack of fear with lack of doubt or hesitation. I don’t think that’s the text of the story. I think being without fear is following your gut about what you believe is right, rather than being paralyzed by indecision (possibly I relate to being paralyzed with indecision). That doesn’t automatically mean that you never change course or never admit you’re wrong. Though I may be reading a lot of the ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ era Hal into this.

    Still, I think it’s just as possible to make bad decisions out of fear. Arguably, that’s exactly what Tony does in ‘Civil War.’

    In any case, this is a thought provoking article (though I don’t agree with it :)).

  • Caia

    Yeah, that’s–well, you’re a lot grander and more philosophical, and less fannish, but I had a bunch of the same problems with Rebirth and post-Rebirth Hal. The Hal *I* love is the 70s through early 90s Hal–the Hal who, ever since Green Lantern/Green Arrow, has been having to deal with doubt and uncertainty and the world not being the way he thought it was back in the sixties. And not, always, dealing with it very well. Having that *all*, to a certain extent, attributed to a yellow bug of fear was unpleasant, to say the least!

  • Caroline

    @Caia I think that’s a fair assessment. Maybe it just doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers you guys because I don’t take the cosmic McGuffins very seriously.

  • Caroline

    And just to babble a bit more, I see ‘fearlessness’ in this story less as a moral mandate and more as a job qualification. A dubious qualification, at that, considering it was set by the Guardians, whose judgment is definitely questionable.

  • Margot

    My biggest problem with the yellow space bug retcon is that it made his really freaking heroic sacrifice in Final Night absolutely worthless.

    And the later arc in Green Lantern Corps where Hal is sulking that everyone is mean to him and doesn’t see him as the best lantern ever… well. *sigh*

    Geoff Johns loves Hal a whole lot, is really the moral of the story.

    Excellent analysis, Jen!

  • Caroline

    @Margot & Caia — I’m curious, how would you have handled the retcon? (Or would you just have left him dead?)

  • Anika

    I have not read this so I cannot give an educated comment. However: now I want to.

    @Margot — that is my issue with The Flash and Colossus and even going back to Jean Grey. Sacrifice makes a great story and a great story ending and then they come back and it loses something. (Of course, I still want Jean to come back)

  • Chilly

    “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

    “Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow.” – Dan Rather

    “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne

    “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Yeah. I agree.

  • But is it so hard to imagine that Hal Jordan might use abuse his power in an equivalent way?

    I don’t have to imagine it; that’s what drove Hal during the original Parallax arc. I actually found the whole Parallax meltdown really in-character, because my first exposure to Hal was GL v3, and the first 40-odd issues introduced me to a character who was firmly and eternally convinced of his own rightness and his own entitlement. In fact, the opening arc was Hal saying, essentially, “I’ve doubted myself, but I’m not going to do that ever again.”

    So when things all went horribly wrong and Coast City was destroyed, of course Hal would decide on a course of action and stick to it forever. And that course of action consisted of rebuilding Coast City with Lantern power, and it didn’t matter if he had to kill other Lanterns to get their rings, because when he remade the world as it *should* be, as Hal *knew* it should be because Hal was always *right*, he’d just make them alive again.

    I always say you can believe or not believe that Hal would ever go crazy and evil, but if he were going to, that is how he would do it.

    So your post, aside from the other interesting points it raises, points out that what Johns presents as the solution to Hal’s problem is exactly what the problem was in the first place. Which doesn’t surprise me one bit, being familiar with the man’s body of work, but man…tracing the motif of doubt in Hal’s canon must mostly be a case of writers yelling at each other, huh?

  • Margot

    @Caroline I think my answer would probably be ‘The Spectre.’ I mean, he mostly exists as a Deus Ex Machina, so why not?

    I had no real problem with Hal going all crazy, because as much as the storyline had some flaws, it honestly fit with some of his character.

    So I guess have him fully accept and take responsibility for what he had done, move past it and grow as a character instead of taking a step backwards, which is what it seems like he did.

  • Caia

    @Caroline Well, short answer: I’m okay with Emerald Twilight being retconned as Not Hal’s Fault. I wish the storyline had been better executed, and v3 Hal was clearly leading up to some sort of wacky insanity, but the fact was that it wasn’t, very, and there’s not been all that much canon since that’s done much better by it.

    (There are a few things I adore with Parallax Hal and Spectre Hal–Final Night, which Margot mentions, and Quiver. But I love them more for character porn than for anything else.)

    So–It Was A Yellow Bug Of Fear, whatever, let’s go on with our lives. Like you, I’m not actually inclined to look too closely at big cosmic handwaves, unless there’s something else about them that bugs me. But some of the other aspects of the retcon I could have done without: the grey hair being evil. Hal’s character development in v3 and even v2 having been on account of the Bug of Fear rather than, you know, on account of Hal meeting reality post GL/GA and not getting on with it very well. I like my heroes middle aged!

    …there were a bunch of other things I was working on in terms of having Hal back, though. Like having the Spectre just plain kick him out, in a fit of pique. Or, post-Rebirth, the idea that the whole plotline was a giant, half-conscious realityfuck on Hal’s part: using his Parallax powers and his Spectre powers to create the Yellow Fear Bug to turn it all into something he could fight. Which, honestly, seems like rather the sort of thing Hal would do, if he lost his mind.

  • Carrie

    @Margot & Caia — Thank you!

    Those are really interesting answers; I don’t know enough GL history to say a lot more about it, but I really appreciate your perspectives.

    Caia, I think ‘Rebirth’ is definitely susceptible to its own retcons; that may be why the Yellow Space Bug doesn’t bother me so much, even though I intellectually understand the criticisms (and they’re not dissimilar to my own Phoenix issues in Marvel). There’s potential to come along and pick this narrative apart. Maybe Johns won’t do it but someone else might.

  • Caroline

    Hmm, somehow I’m logged in wrong here, but the above answer is me :).

  • Jesse Post

    Really thought-provoking post, and interesting to me as I also recently picked up a Geoff Johns GL book after probably 15 years of absence. It was the volume following the one you reviewed and though I can’t vouch for how nuanced the themes may have become I did have a different take on them.

    Fear can be helpful when used properly, just like any “negative” emotion (like anger, jealousy, etc.). Using fear to keep yourself safe and making sane, rational decisions is wise. Basing all decisions in a gut-reaction fear instinct, however, is a sure way to fail and I think that’s more what the story is about. For example, you may be afraid of apologizing or of quitting a bad job or getting out of a bad relationship, but those are all fear instincts that must be overcome because they aren’t helping you.

    Here’s my post on the book if you’re interested!