Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Obvious and Mundane Origins of the Green Lantern

The Green Lantern (GL) is a comic book superhero, whose best and most famous incarnation was first published in 1959 (Showcase #22) by editor Julius Schwartz, writer John Broome, and artist Gil Kane. Although GL has never achieved the rock star status of Spider-Man, the X-Men or Iron Man, he has maintained a loyal fanbase since his creation and his comic books enjoyed robust sales during his first few years of publication.

Green Lantern was the second super-hero success of the famed Silver-Age of Comic Books. The silver-age was a period of high creativity, high quality and high sales which lasted from 1956 to about 1969, during which superheroes were predominant. 

While Green Lantern never became a household word, he is of vital importance because after Julius Schwartz and his partners successfully launched the Silver-Age with the premiere of The Flash in 1956, GL was the follow-up. GL proved that The Flash was no fluke, and shortly after GL appeared, Julie Schwartz and co. introduced the Justice League of America (1960), which turned out to be a very successful club for superheroes. GL was a founding member of the Justice League, present at their first adventure:

Julie Schwartz worked for DC Comics, who also published Superman and Batman. One of their rivals was Marvel Comics, who saw the high sales of the Justice League and Julie Schwartz's other superhero comics. Spotting a trend, Marvel Comics created Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Thor and the Avengers, all of whom have been adapted into commercially successful films in the 21st century. Indeed, it is the Flapdoodle Files' considered opinion that comic book superheroes represent the most prominent trend in Fantastique Films in the last 15 years. GL is the essential second link in a chain of events which led directly to this movement in cinema.

All comic book fans know the Green Lantern, but hopefully they will excuse a brief explanation for the benefit of the superheroically illiterate: The Green Lantern is test-pilot Hal Jordan, chosen by an advanced alien race for his moral qualities to become a kind of interplanetary policeman. His single weapon is a fantastic Power Ring, which carries him through air and space, and shoots multi-purpose ray beams which have more versatility than even a Swiss Army Knife and an Iphone combined. 

In February 2015, an astute blogger published his hypothesis that GL's 1959 creation  was inspired by an supposedly true (but later exposed as a hoax) alien contact incident involving real people:

Since the Green Lantern's creators, Julius Schwartz, John Broome, and Gil Kane are all dead, and since there is no record of any of them specifically talking about alien abduction mythology, we must admit that the claim is potentially true.  

Despite this, there are two more obvious and accessible sources for the inspiration. 

The first source is of course the famous Doc Smith Lensman scifi novel series (1948-56), concerning a an elite group of humans selected by an advanced race for service in the Galactic Patrol, and each given a special device called the Lens.  The Lens gives its wearer a variety of mental capabilities, including those needed to enforce the law on alien planets, and to bridge the communication gap between different life-forms. It can provide mind-reading and telepathic abilities. It cannot be worn by anyone other than its owner, will kill any other wearer and even a brief touch is extremely painful. Schwarz himself, a long-time scifi editor and literary agent, acknowledged that the Lensman had inspired him.

GL stands for Gray Lensman. Classic cover art. Note the titular Lens on the hero's right wrist.
No one disputes this, and the blogger in question duly credits the Lensman as well. 

It is the injection of the allegedly true 'alien contact' mythology where the Flapdoodle Files parts ways. 

The Green Lantern we all know was first published in 1959. Four years earlier, Universal Studios had released their scifi film This Island Earth (TIE). The film cost $800K to produce, and the box office was $1,700,000. Since the average ticket cost was 50 cents, we can estimate that over 30 million people saw the film. TIE was undisputedly the most opulent and spectacular scifi film of 1955.

Nowadays, TIE is probably best-known as the subject of hilarious ridicule via Mystery Science Theater 3000. While fun is fun, and while TIE is a flawed film (the script starts off promisingly, but then in the final third of the film it takes a detour to Planet Nowhere), we should not underestimate its importance. 

TIE is one of the first feature films to depict the an alien planet, complete with alien buildings. And it is the earliest Space Opera feature film, and the earliest feature film to depict any kind of space battle. By 1950's standards, it was a true cinema spectacular, comparable to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, War of the Worlds, and Forbidden Planet.

By the time of TIE's release (1955), Schwartz, Broome and Kane (along with other members of the DC bullpen) had for 5 years been turning out scifi comics by the carload to fill the pages of DC's Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space magazines. Schwartz himself had been working on scifi magazines and as a literary agent for scifi writers since the 1930's.

These creative workers, trafficking in fantastic visuals and ideas, in those days before the internet, would not have been likely to miss out on an opportunity for potential inspiration, another source from which they might borrow fantastic visuals or ideas. It would have been truly odd if none of GL's creators saw TIE.

Early in TIE, square-jawed scientist and jet jockey Rex Reason is shown flying a T-33 jet trainer which flames out and appears to be headed for doom. But then suddenly, an eerie green glow surrounds the plane and brings Our Hero and his plane safely to earth. 

(Later on in the picture, Rex Reason is again using his pilot's license, this time in a small prop plane, when he, his passenger, and his craft are abducted into an alien spaceship by means of another powerful green beam!)

A powerless jet-trainer, then a small prop plane, both carried by green alien ray beam.

Now let's look at a couple pages from the classic Kane/Broome origin story:

The splash page clearly shows a jet-jockey in the cockpit of a flightless trainer, carried through the air by a green energy beam. This is the image that the creators chose for the first page of the story, designed to be interesting and exciting so as to compel a comic book reader to buy the magazine.

Now let's look at a page from the interior of the story:

So the actual story also shows the green ray scooping up the trainer and the jet jockey. The square-jawed jet-jockey, whom we see in the lower right-hand panel wearing the brown fight coveralls is test pilot Hal Jordan.  As all comic book fans know, Hal was destined to become the Green Lantern of Space Sector 2814, which happens to be the sector where Earth is located.

Now let's take a look at TIE's square-jawed jet-jockey, Rex Reason, shown here on the left sporting a flight suit:

The brown flight suit here is similar to Hal Jordan's. But below is a still, from another film, which is a better representation of Reason's square-jawed aviator machismo: 

Even though this is not from the actual movie in question, this pic does show that Rex Reason makes a swell jet-jockey, as he did in TIE.

Rex Reason's character in TIE is named Dr. Cal Meacham. Besides the fact that he is a square-jawed jet-jockey, Meacham has personal and intellectual qualities desired by race of alien beings for a special project of great importance. The alien race test Cal's fitness for this project by sending him the parts for a super-advanced telecommunications device and ray weapon called the Interociter...when Cal is able to properly assemble the device, it means he has passed the aliens' test.

Like Dr. Meacham, Hal Jordan is also selected by an advanced alien intelligence for project of great importance. But in GL's story, he is tested by the fantastic power of the lantern (and passes!) instantly:

Another connection between TIE and the Green Lantern is that both feature Aliens With Big Heads. In TIE, these are embodied by the inhabitants of the planet Metaluna. It is this advanced alien race which determined the fitness of square-jawed jet-jockey Rex Reason for the Metalunans' cosmic scheme. Here we see a few of the Metalunans, enjoying the company of TIE's female lead, the lovely Faith Domerique:

Although not shown in the first appearance of our hero, the Green Lantern continuity also established an advanced race of Aliens With Big Heads (premiering in Green Lantern #1, 1960). This group lived on the distant planet Oa, and they had in ancient times established themselves as The Guardians of the Universe (not to be confused with Marvel Comics' Guardians of the Galaxy, which came a decade later):

Of course, TIE is not the first appearance of Aliens With Big Heads. By the end of the 1930's, pulp magazine illustrations had already featured some Aliens With Big Heads and 1939's Wizard of Oz (as he appeared in hologram form) also fit the description.

A year prior to the Wizard of Oz, by the way, Orson Wells' famous radio drama of War of the Worlds was (by design) mistaken by thousands of listeners to be a newscast of a real alien invasion. This is one of the major milestones in the creation of the widespread 20th century belief that Creatures from Another Planet would visit Earth. 

Speaking of Orson Wells, the radio/film auteur guest-starred in a 1950 Superman story about hostile Martians. This tale also featured Aliens With Big Heads:

Aliens With Big Heads figure prominently into the UFO Contactee and Alien Abduction mythologies. I mention that because it is the considered opinion of the Flapdoodle Files that most if not all elements of alien visitor mythologies have precursors in the realm of fiction, be it literature, comic books, scifi films, radio dramas, etc. This of course also applies to the whole idea of alien visitation in general.

Like big-headed aliens, a desert setting is also found in many UFO contactee/abduction stories. Blogger Gregory L. Reece, to whom I referred earlier in this article, makes much of the fact that the hoax UFO contact incident which he connects with the origins of GL took place in the deserts of the American Southwest. For indeed, Hal Jordan's fateful encounter with the space-wrecked alien and the power ring did take place in an isolated desert setting.

But beginning with the Manhattan Project of WW2, and the Roswell Incident of 1947, the deserts of the Southwest have been a hotbed of folklore regarding secret weapons and legends of paranormal activity. Andrews Airbase, White Sands, Area 51. The southwest was the natural habitat of test pilots and the preferred place for UFO's to land or crash.

Square-jawed jet jockey Peter Graves gets an unpleasant medical exam in Killers From Space (1954).
(for more on this fascinating film, see..
Killers From Space and Alien Abductions )
A plethora of 1950's scifi films such as Radar Men from the Moon (1952), Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), Robot Monster (1953),  Killers From Space (1954), It Conquered the World (1956), Kronos (1957), and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958) all feature alien contact incidents which transpire in the desert. By 1959, an alien space ship in the American desert was a bona fide trope.

Space aliens meeting with humans in the desert. Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952)
Regarding alien contact with humans, one of the first scifi writers to fully exploit this concept was HP Lovecraft. Late in his life, Lovecraft was represented by the Solar Sales Service literary agency. Solar Sales was founded by Julie Schwartz, in partnership with another future DC editor, Mort Weisinger. Solar Sales also represented Alfred Bester, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and other scifi writers.

Speaking of Ray Bradbury, it was he who wrote the original story treatment for the seminal scifi classic It Came From Outer Space (1953). The plot of this film concerns an alien whose spaceship has crashed in the Arizona desert and involves multiple instances of 'contact' with local humans.

Alien craft, marooned in the Arizona desert: It Came From Outer Space
The point being is that by 1959, Schwartz had been immersed in scifi for 25 years, and I suspect he would have been hard-pressed to name one specific alien contact 'incident' or story idea to have inspired the creation of the Green Lantern. 

The modern era of UFO's, which began with Kenneth Arnold's sighting of flying discs over the Cascade Mountains in 1947, came 25 or so years after scifi became popularized by pulp magazines, and 11 years after the first Flash Gordon movie serial. It seems likely that scifi concepts influenced the way people perceived blurry images in the sky and other ambiguous experiences, creating a whole new mythology.

But as soon as alleged first hand 'true' accounts of UFO's and then, later, contact with aliens, were published, scifi writers cribbed from them, creating a continuous feedback loop. By 1959, sorting out whether a scifi story was influenced by other scifi, or by a dubious 'true' alien contact story, is every bit a chicken-or-the-egg enigma.

Regarding cross-cultural influences, we now switch from Alien Invasion to the British Invasion. No scholarly discussion of the Green Lantern should omit a reference to Donovan, whose 1966 hit song 'Sunshine Superman" includes the following immortal couplet: 
"Superman or Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me
I can make like a turtle and dive for pearls in the sea..."

Many years later, the psychedelic troubadour would explain his Green Lantern reference in this way:

'...As for the title, “Sunshine” was a tag describing acid. LSD was legal and pure then. We were experimenting with it, as were poets, scientists and philosophers. I was relating “Superman” to Nietzsche, about this idea of the Superman of the future who would be totally enlightened and using the full potential of his brain and heart and soul. But I also love comic books, so that’s why I sang about the Green Lantern, too. Comic books are mythological. The superhero in my song is everybody. We can all become the superhero of ourselves.'
(emphasis courtesy of the Flapdoodle Files)

Like Cal Meacham or Hal Jordan, anyone is eligible to be carried away by the powerful alien energy of an unexpected adventure. This also is the attraction of the UFO-contactee hoax/delusion...that at any moment, an ordinary person might unexpectedly be selected by advanced alien intelligence to play some special part in the human drama, and an ordinary life might be transformed. 

For our money, we prefer the fantasies peddled by the likes of Julie Schwartz, John Broome, Ray Bradbury, Donovan, etc. Fantasy is a conscious exercise of the creative imagination, and as long as it is not out of one's own control, it can be liberating and empowering. Whereas the imagination subverted by the lies of charlatan or hobbled by delusion is anything but liberated.


There is one possible connection to the Green Lantern that remains an unsolved mystery to the researchers of the Flapdoodle Files. 

In 1957, the Japanese studio Shintoho released the first of several kiddie scifi films to feature the  superhero Super Giant, whose adventures would be eventually exported to the USA under the name Star Man. Super Giant possessed a super-wristwatch kind of device which allowed him to fly through space and do other amazing things, and it was given to him by the advanced alien beings of The Emerald Planet:

The high council of the Emerald Planet resembles one of the recurrent features of the Green Lantern comics, which is the vast host of interplanetary beings employed as space patrol members by the Green Lantern Corps.

High Council of Emerald Warriors

And of course, Super Giant/Starman comes from The Emerald Planet. Emerald, as in Green (GL himself is frequently referred to as 'the Emerald Warrior'). 

High Council of the Emerald Planet

These similarities should not be coincidental. Yet, in fact, they may be. Super Giant/Star Man was not imported to the US until the mid-1960's, well after GL and the vast corps of alien Green Lanterns had been established. And as a low-budget, kiddie flick, it is not likely to have gotten any attention in the US prior to distribution on US TV. 

But perhaps the answer lies in going back a step. Everyone agrees that Schwartz and Broome were influenced by Doc Smith's Lensman novels, published from 1948-54. Super Giant/Star Man might simply be another galactic patrolman patterned after one of Doc Smith's Lensman, with certain images being coincidental resemblances.  

Super Giant/Star Man himself, while being a kind of galactic patrolman similar to GL, looks nothing like GL. 

And so far as the Flapdoodle Files research goes, no claims of a link between Super Giant and UFO contactees have been discovered. At least, so far...

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