Thursday, October 2, 2008

Neil Gaiman's Legend of the Green Flame

A while back, I wrote about the 1988 Green Lantern story “The List,” in which Hal Jordan seeks a morale boost from his fellow heroes but is essentially snubbed. The story spawned at least TWO sequels -- “The Crash of 88,” by Mark Verheiden, and Legend of the Green Flame, by Neil Gaiman. I’ve already written about “The Crash of ’88,” and now it’s time to take a look at Neil Gaiman’s story.

Though Legend of the Green Flame features many of the main players of Action Comics Weekly of the late 1980s, such as Phantom Stranger and the Blackhawks, it primarily covers a team-up between Hal Jordan and Superman -- a team-up that proves once again that with a friend like Hal Jordan around, Superman really doesn’t NEED any enemies.

(NOTE: The story is also one of those that’s illustrated by several artists, including Michael D. Allred, Terry Austin, Mark Buckingham, John Totleben, Matt Wagner, Jim Aparo, Kevin Knowlan, and others. So, needless to say [but I'm gonna say it anyway], the artwork throughout the story is VERY inconsistent in style.)

Legend of the Green Flame begins in Berlin, in 1949, with the Blackhawks. Janos Prohaska and Weng Chan (DON’T call him “Chop-Chop”) are exploring a bombed-out cellar due to rumors that a “German secret weapon” is hidden down there. Partly because Janos is VERY drunk (“...never go drinking with a Polish war hero!”), they don’t really find any obvious weapons, but they DO find an old green lantern (and completely ignore a broken spear propped up in one corner). Weng dusts off the lantern and carries it out of the cellar. He and Janos then wander off to resume their drinking.

The scene shifts to decades later, to the newsroom of The Daily Planet in Metropolis. A man steps off the elevator -- and thanks to his super-senses, Clark Kent recognizes the man without even having to look at him, based solely on his heartbeat and respiration. The man is Hal Jordan. “From his tread,” Clark thinks, “he’s lost a couple of pounds. I could check with the x-ray vision, but that would be cheating.”

Hal walks up to Clark’s desk (“Lost 13.2 ounces”), and Clark acts like he’s surprised to see him.

Clark invites Hal to his place for dinner. Before the two of them can leave, Lois Lane chases them down, begging Clark to attend a museum preview for a features article: “Maltese Falcons at the Metropolis Museum.”

“Maybe Gutman and Cairo are presenting it,” Hal quips -- revealing himself to be a fan of the classic movie, The Maltese Falcon.

Much to Hal’s amusement, Lois manages to talk both him AND Clark into visiting the museum. The two men are soon strolling through Metropolis’ version of Central Park as a shortcut to the museum -- and as a way to talk more privately.

Hal’s life, at this point, is a real mess. He’s been dumped by Arisia, beaten up by Captain Atom, beaten up by John Stewart, beaten up by Lord Malvolio, lost his job, lost his apartment, and lost the entire Green Lantern Corps. Not only that, most of the other heroes have been snubbing him -- including Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen. The poor guy really just needs someone to talk to -- and though Clark was originally (and unintentionally) one of the snubbers, this time he willingly lends Hal a very sympathetic ear. And now that Hal FINALLY has someone listening to him, he completely and utterly pours his heart out.

“There were 3600 of us,” he says, referring to the Green Lantern Corps, “You get a real feeling of belonging in a group like that. And there was the old JLA, great atmosphere, great guys. We had good times…” [Clark takes the time to rescue a cat from a tree while Hal is talking.] “…Then the Guardians took off, and then we accidentally destroyed the Master Power Battery on Oa when we… Well, anyway… There ISN’T any Green Lantern Corps anymore. Okay, I still have my ring, along with two other humans [John Stewart and Guy Gardner], neither of whom are speaking to me, a giant chipmunk [Ch’p], and a sort of furry accident [G’nort]. Oh, and there’s Mogo, but Mogo doesn’t socialize--"

“Hal,” says Clark, trying to interrupt, but Hal keeps going.

“I’m lonely, Clark,” Hal says rather plaintively, “and what am I doing? What’s my job? My purpose? You know…?”

Clark tries again: “Hal…”

“I’m sorry, Clark,” Hal continues, “I know I must be sounding pretty sophomoric, but I don’t have anyone to talk to and--"

“HAL,” says Clark, and he finally manages to get in more than one word: “I think we’re being MUGGED.”

Hal looks up, and sure enough, he and Clark have been surrounded by a gang of five thugs. Yeah, that’s right -- five thugs who really don’t have a prayer because unbeknownst to them, they’ve surrounded Superman and Green Lantern.

“This is your city,” Hal says to Clark. “You want to handle it?”

“Be my guest,” Clark replies.

“No, no, after YOU,” says Hal.

Hal and Clark finally agree to take care of the thugs as a team -- with Clark insisting that they have to be fast and discreet about it. In a matter of seconds -- maybe even less -- the thugs are rounded up and imprisoned in a big green bird cage, complete with big green flashing neon sign that says, “Police! Stop here for muggers!”

“There you go,” says Hal. “That was discreet.”

“Uh-huh,” Clark replies, “except for the flashing green neon sign.”

Our two heroes finally arrive at the museum, which is VERY crowded with exhibit guests there to see a large collection of objects with a “mysterious past.” While Clark is busy asking a waiter for orange juice, Hal hits on a dark-haired woman who (unbeknownst to him) just happens to be the alter-ego of Catwoman -- Selina Kyle. Hal may be a smooth mover with the ladies, but he isn’t exactly Selina’s type (not rich and grouchy enough), and she promptly ditches him.

“Sydney Greenstreet, right?” asks Clark.

“Nope. That was my Peter Lorre,” Hal replies -- proving that not only is he a fan of The Maltese Falcon, he’s also lousy at impressions.

Clark and Hal enter an exhibit hall that’s being ignored by the other guests. In one glass case, much to Hal’s astonishment, is an old green lantern -- the same one discovered by the Blackhawks at the beginning of this tale. Hal’s actually a bit upset to see it, since almost all Green Lantern power batteries (lanterns) were destroyed when the Central Battery on Oa was blown up.

Hal does wonder, briefly, if the lantern belonged to the Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott, whose power (as all Green Lantern fans know) is based on magic, rather than on the Oan science of Hal's power. However, during the time of this story, the Justice Society (including Alan) is trapped with the Norse Gods and no one has seen them in a while. Besides, Hal concludes, Alan already had his lantern at the time this one was found.

Determined to figure out the nature of the lantern, Hal uses his ring to set up a “mental block” against anyone else entering the exhibit hall. THEN he changes into his Green Lantern uniform.

Clark has every right to look worried. Hal has decided he’s going to try charging his ring with the old lantern, just to see what will happen. (Have I mentioned that Hal has a very long history of being a reckless bastard?) Hal presses his ring to the lantern and recites his oath:

“In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night--"


Next thing they know, Green Lantern and Superman are lying on the ground on a bare, foggy plane, and there’s a dead guy hovering over them -- or, rather, a DeadMAN.

Deadman introduces himself to Superman and Hal, and informs them that they're probably dead. Hal and Superman refuse to believe that they’re dead, but they DO deduce that if they really ARE dead, it must be due to magic, since that’s one of the few things that could potentially kill Superman. Deadman assures them that they’re really only “probably” dead, because they haven’t yet gone “into the light.”

Hal tells Superman he can try using his power ring to get their souls back into their bodies.

“Fine, Hal,” says Superman. “Try it. Things can’t get any worse.”

“Famous last words, kiddo.” says Deadman. “Mine were: ‘Gee, from up here it almost looks like that guy with the hook’s got a rifle!’”

Hal uses his ring, and -- WHOOMF!

The scene shifts to a room occupied by the Phantom Stranger. The Stranger is having a conversation with some disembodied voices -- the Stranger wants to leave, and the voices want him to stay. The Stranger grabs his hat and cloak, bids the voices adieu, and vanishes.

Meanwhile: Remember when Superman said, “Things can’t get any worse”? Well, guess what?

Yeah, I’d call that worse.

Somehow, Hal and Supes have ended up in Hell -- or what appears to be Hell ("the Abyss"). Superman is having a particularly tough time of it. His super-senses are being assaulted by all of the sounds, smells, visions, and general horrors around him, and the poor guy has been rendered catatonic by it all. All he can do is hover in midair in shock, with Hal hanging onto him for dear life. Hal doesn’t dare use his ring again, because something even WORSE might happen. But what could be worse?

Well, how 'bout potentially becoming dinner for a bunch of hungry demons? Ooooh, time to start panicking!

Superman snaps out of it, all right, when a demon decides to chomp into him. Now, remember, demons are magical in nature -- so, YES, Superman definitely feels that chomp:

Hal, dropping like a stone, decides that, gee, maybe this would be a good time to use his power ring DESPITE potential, disastrous repercussions. Right when Hal orders his ring to get him and Superman outta there, though, the demons decide they'd better hook Hal so they don't lose their dinner:


Meanwhile, back at the museum, Phantom Stranger has arrived. He's the only person who notices the green "mental block" netting (the one that Hal set up to keep people from entering the exhibit hall containing the old green lantern). The Stranger heads for the hall just as Hal and Superman materialize, unconscious, in what appears to be the INTERIOR of the old green lantern.

Healed by a mysterious force, Hal and Superman wake up. Superman is a bit disoriented, and starts babbling ("The...people, Hal...All those people...I didn't know how to...HELP them...") -- but Hal is just pissed.

"Where are we THIS time?" Superman asks.

"To be honest, Clark," says Hal, "I'm not sure that I CARE anymore."

Poor Superman ...

Hal and Superman find themselves staring at a large green flame, which starts speaking to them: "...One apologizes for your earlier problems..."

The flame identifies itself as the "heart of magic," created 40 million years ago when the Guardians of Oa created the Green Lantern Corps and banished magic. The flame achieved sentience and ended up on Earth, where the old green lantern was fashioned by Kai Lung in China and then eventually ended up in the hands of Alan Scott.

The flame insists that Alan was a "slave" of the lantern and a good servant, and it chastises Hal for trying to charge his "Oan ring" with the old lantern: "It might have killed you. In a manner of speaking it DID."

Finally, the flame tells Hal and Superman that the reason they've been brought into the lantern is because it wants Hal to get rid of his Oan ring and become the old lantern's new servant: "Time to leave science and embrace magic...the TRUE power."

"No way," Hal snarls.

"You do not understand," says the flame. "That was not a request, Hal Jordan. That was an order."

Suddenly the Phantom Stranger appears within the flame itself:

"Do not listen to him, Hal Jordan!" the flame yells, but Hal's already figured out how to tame the green flame. It has everything to do with the oath Alan Scott uttered while recharging HIS ring.

FINALLY, it's all over. Hal and Superman are returned to their bodies, undamaged, and Phantom Stranger takes possession of the old green lantern to keep it out of trouble. Hal and Superman then leave the museum ("I need some AIR...") and camp out on the roof of a building to mull over what happened to them.

Yeah, even Hal admits that, suddenly, his personal problems seem lame compared to what he and Supes just went through. Hal wonders exactly what Superman experienced when they were trapped in Hell, but he doesn't ask. Superman tells Hal to call him if he needs "someone to talk to," and then the two shake hands and go their separate ways.

Legend of the Green Flame (dedicated to Gil Kane) has had an interesting publication history. Originally, it was supposed to appear in Action Comics Weekly #642 (1989), as a story intended to wrap up the weekly, all-star format prior to Action Comics returning to being primarily a monthly Superman comic. For various reasons, it was set aside, and an Elliot S. Maggin story, “Where There is a Will,” was published in its place. (Sad to say, “Where There is a Will” has gone down in comic book history as one of the most maligned Green Lantern stories of all time. More about that in a later post.)

Neil Gaiman’s draft of “Legend of the Green Flame” was actually lost for a time. It resurfaced at a perfect time to allow DC to capitalize on Gaiman’s popularity as the author of Sandman. “Legend of the Green Flame” was finally illustrated and published in 2000, in prestige format as Green Lantern–Superman: Legend of the Green Flame. The comic itself contains an interesting and detailed account of its own publication history. Anyone who’s interested in learning more should pick up a copy.


SallyP said...

This is...really good. The art jumps from style to style, but what the heck, there are some truly lovely panels.

I particularly like the Phantom Stranger referring to Hal as the "Oan Pawn". Of course, Hal gets HIS back later when he disses the stranger as the Spectre.

I love Hal, even when he drives me nuts, but yeah, he was having a pretty tough time of it for a while there. Possibly, because he always EXPECTS things to go well...just because...well, he's Hal Jordan, and things ALWAYS go well for him. When he does run into adversity, he has trouble dealing with it. Probably why Parallax was able to slither in.

Sea_of_Green said...

It really is astounding how many times Hal has been bailed out of trouble by the Phantom Stranger -- I can think of at least four instances off the top of my head, including one while Hal was the Spectre. It's almost like Hal (or his writers) is so capable of digging himself into complete and utter doo-doo that the only person who even has a PRAYER of rescuing him is Phantom Stranger -- simply because no one understands the Stranger's powers, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hal teams up with the Phantom Stranger {again} (and Green Arrow, issue 21) in Brave & Bold #19-22 (which may or may not have anything to do with the upcoming DCU BLACKEST NIGHT stories.)

K. Kinnison