I’ve been reading The Silver Age Green Lantern Volume One, which has the earliest adventures of Hal Jordan – including his appearances across Showcase issues 22-24, before he got his own comic. Given that Hal is still with us all these decades later, it’s interesting to take a close look and see exactly what it was that made this character stick.
These old stories are more or less what you’d expect from a superhero launch of 1959. We have the origin story, with Hal inheriting his ring from the dying Abin Sur and trying out his newfound powers. We have the love interest , Carol Ferris, who pines for the superhero but disdains his civilian identity (although, in a novel twist, she comes to dislike both of Hal’s identities by the end of the first issue).
Although the Green Lantern mythos would come to include a whole spectrum of alien worlds, this aspect is almost negligible in the early issues. Abin Sur briefly mentions “selected space-patrolmen in the super-galactic system” but beyond this, the origin story never dwells on the idea that there might be other Green Lanterns – indeed, the name “Green Lantern” is presented as something that Hal comes up with himself on the spur of the moment.
While Abin Sur presumably had his adventures in space, Hal is content to spend his first issue on terra firma, tackling the kinds of earthbound threats that any other costumed hero would deal with on a regular basis. In the second story the villains are aircraft saboteurs; in the third, Hal confronts an evil inventor.
The origin story establishes one of the most infamous parts of the mythos: the fact that Hal’s powers don’t work on yellow things. This weakness is on show throughout the rest of the issue: the saboteurs lob a yellow lamp at Hal before trying to escape in a yellow car, while the evil inventor tries to blow up a building with a yellow missile; Hal must therefore look for weak spots of different colours (the car’s black tyres, the missile’s red tip). Now, every superhero needs some sort of Achilles’ heel — and Hal’s aversion to yellow stuff is arguably no sillier than the Golden Age Green Lantern’s weakness to wood – but clearly, even in the first issue, this was a plot element with the potential to get old fast.
The first story is the only time in Green Lantern’s early Showcase appearances where he is cast as a spacefaring hero, with counterparts implied to exist elsewhere in the cosmos. The tale begins with Hal getting a message from his lantern, referring to him as “the possessor of the power lamp in sector 2814” and calling him to a mission that involves using his green powers to protect a race of blue cavemen from yellow pterodactyls against the magenta sky of Venus. The second story has Hal facing his first costumed supervillain, the Phantom Destroyer; in a variation on the Jekyll and Hyde theme, it turns out that this ghostly figure is the subconscious product of a benevolent scientist named Dr. Phillips, and is shown literally emerging from his head.
Over his first two issues Hal uses his powers to lift large objects (including an entire cliff), fly through walls, make a beam of radiation visible, apprehend criminals with lasso-like rays, transform a metal object into water, shrink an explosion, and interfere with the mind of Dr. Phillips. A pretty versatile set of abilities, but somehow, not the most interesting visually. For the most part, the Green Lantern’s powers are rendered simply as jagged green lightning bolts.
But we see a couple of inklings of things to come when Hal puts his powers to more creative use. When thwarting the yellow missile, he creates a net from his beam. Then, pushing the boat out still further, he ends his Venus mission by creating the image of a giant green hawk, which scares the pterodactyls into a cave.
Then comes Showcase #24 and, even though the same team of Gil Kane and Joe Giella are still handling the artwork, Hal’s powers are now framed in terms of solid objects rather than simple zap effects. In the issue’s first story alone the Green Lantern conjures up a pair of tongs to save a drowning man, a fist to grab a runaway roller-coaster car, a pair of springs to catch the same car when the fist fails, a cage to apprehend crooks and – most elaborate of all – a set of fully-functional microphones which he uses to eavesdrop on the villains.
And if that’s not enough, the other story of the issue has Hal trap a giant rampaging monster with a massive green tube.
All of this makes Hal seem a little like a Looney Tunes character, capable of producing all manner of wacky implements from thin air. But at the same time, it’s hard to miss the simple charm of the childlike sense of invention on play. Reading the Green Lantern’s early adventures is a little like watching a kid play with toys, grabbing whatever household odds-and-ends: a roller-coaster car has run off the tracks, you say? Quick, fetch a pair of massive springs!
In the space of one issue, the Green Lantern comics had switched from a series about zapping things to a series about using creativity to solve problems. And that, I would conclude, is what allowed this hero to capture the imaginations of young readers: in the pantheon of superheroes, he is the one who best exhibited the sort of hands-on creativity that kids could relate to.