Green Lantern is quite possibly the most fiendishly complicated of all the superheroes, surrounded by cosmic mythology, strange aliens, and convoluted backstory. But let us help you through the insanity with this beginner's guide to all things Green Lantern.
For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume you know absolutely nothing about Green Lantern - after all, that's probably true of a fair amount of people going to see Green Lantern this weekend, and even the basic premise is a little tricky. So let's tackle the simple stuff before getting into some more advanced studies.
So what, in a nutshell, is Green Lantern all about?
And right away we run into trouble. Unlike, say, Batman or Superman, there's no easy way to condense just what Green Lantern's premise is. Here's the shortish version (deep breath): Green Lantern is a superhero - usually hotshot test pilot Hal Jordan, but there have been others - who is also the member of an intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps. This corps was created by a race of immortal aliens known as the Guardians of the Universe, who live at the center of the universe on the planet Oa.
Each member of the corps has a power ring, which harnesses the willpower of the user and allows the wielder to create green energy constructs of whatever he or she can imagine. The ring also translates all known languages, gives the user interstellar flight, and provides limited invulnerability. All Green Lanterns are united in their ability to overcome great fear (although originally the requirement was people born without fear). The universe is divided into 3,600 sectors - Earth is in sector 2814 - and each sector is patrolled by either one or two Green Lanterns, depending on which comic you read.
And just who is the Green Lantern?
Depends who you ask and what book you read. There have been four main Green Lanterns over the years. As I said before, the definitive Green Lantern is generally considered to be Hal Jordan, and it's him that Ryan Reynolds portrays in the movie. He's a brash former Air Force pilot who now works as a test pilot for Ferris Aircraft, which is run by his sometime lover Carol Ferris. Jordan becomes the Green Lantern of sector 2814 when his predecessor, a purple-skinned alien named Abin Sur, crashes his spaceship on Earth, and the ring selects him as the nearest suitable candidate. When he was first introduced back in 1961, he was very much the stereotypical square-jawed, vaguely authoritarian hero, but subsequent characterizations have played up his more roguish side. That's the short version, anyway - a lot has happened to Hal over the last 50 years.
The next Green Lantern introduced was Guy Gardner in 1968. The idea behind him is kind of awesome in his simplicity: if Hal Jordan was the nearest suitable candidate to take on the responsibilities of the Green Lantern, then who was the second closest? Gardner ultimately did become a Green Lantern, serving as Hal's backup for a few years. His character was later changed drastically in the 1980s, becoming a crude, ultra-militaristic send-up of the "red-blooded American male" archetype...in other words, a huge asshole. While he was pretty much just a walking parody in the 80s and 90s, he's since been treated a bit more seriously, and nowadays he's written as a dedicated Corps member and elite warrior who's only sometimes a huge asshole.
Then there's John Stewart, who may actually be the best-known Green Lantern thanks to the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons. Stewart was one of the first major black superheroes, and his inclusion was often used for some well-intentioned if rather heavy-handed social commentary. A veteran marine turned architect, John Stewart has had a bit of a bumpy ride since his 1972 introduction: he accidentally destroyed a planet (or failed to prevent said destruction, it's a bit of a gray area), he was briefly paralyzed, and his wife and fellow Green Lantern Katma Tui was killed in cold blood. Through all that trauma, he's actually managed to emerge as perhaps the most stable and resilient of all the Lanterns.
Finally, there's Kyle Rayner, who debuted in 1994. For various reasons that we don't need to get into right now, all the Guardians and Green Lanterns were either killed or lost their power rings, and the last surviving Guardian was forced to make one last power ring, which he then gave to the first person he saw. Yes, by sheer dumb luck, struggling artist Kyle Rayner was given the last power ring, and for a good five or so years he was the only Green Lantern in the universe. Although he quite pointedly was not born without fear as the other Green Lanterns were, he proved a worthy torch-bearer during the Corps's darkest days, and he remains to this day one of the most important Lanterns in the Corps.
Before we move on, I should also point out there's one more Green Lantern, but he's a bit of a special case. His name is Alan Scott, and he was created back in 1940 during the golden age of comics. Scott was a young railway engineer who discovered a magical green flame that was housed in a lantern. The sentient flame saved him from an accident and showed him how to create a power ring from the metal of the lantern, which he then used to fight crime. His comic book was ultimately canceled, and in the early 1960s DC decided to completely reboot the character - a similar thing happened with the Flash - and so they kept the original name but otherwise started completely fresh. Alan Scott's fantastical origins were ditched in favor of something inspired more by science fiction. Alan Scott was later brought into the main DC universe and is considered an honorary Green Lantern, but he isn't as deeply enmeshed with the Green Lantern universe as the others.
But why are they called the Green Lantern? That seems sort of random.
Well, it has to be said that the whole "Green Lantern" thing was a bit more organic in the original Alan Scott version - hell, lanterns even had special resonance for Alan Scott, because they remind him of railway lanterns - but here's what it now means. Green is important because it's the color of willpower. In the DC Universe, various emotions correspond to specific colors, and these can be tapped into as a form of energy. Until recently, only two such energies were known: the green energy of willpower, and the yellow energy of fear.
As for the lantern, that's how each Green Lantern recharges his or her power ring. Although the ring requires the willpower of its user in order to work, it also draws energy from the Central Power Battery on Oa. So that Lanterns don't have to go back to Oa every time they need to recharge, they're able to remotely access the battery through a green, lantern-shaped conduit. They also need to say the Green Lantern oath.
There's an oath?
Oh, you better believe there's an oath. It's basically the nerd equivalent of the Lord's Prayer (may or may not be an accurate statement), and it goes a little something like this:
In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power...Green Lantern's light!
I really shouldn't get goosebumps every time I hear it...and yet here we are. Anyway, the oath serves both as a way of focusing the Green Lantern's willpower and simply as a morale-boosting battle cry.
Right, but where do these rings come from?
They're the creation of the Guardians of the Universe, a bunch of short, blue-skinned immortal aliens that are meant to look like 1950s Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion (no, I'm not kidding). They're one of the most ancient races in the universe, and they are sworn to maintaining order throughout the cosmos. To that end, they created a race of robots known as the Manhunters millions of years ago, but these robots lost sight of their original programming and became obsessed with hunting and kill criminals, even if the criminals in question hadn't actually committed any crimes. They rebelled and the Guardians quickly wiped most of them out.
Realizing justice could not be administered by beings of pure logic, the Guardians formed the Green Lantern Corps so that living beings would have the tools necessary to keep the peace throughout the cosmos. The Guardians created the Central Power Battery, the Lanterns that serve as conduits to the battery, and the power rings that give the Corps members their power. Each power ring is programmed to find the most suitable candidate in each sector of the universe, and it repeats the selection process whenever a Lantern retires or (more usually) dies.
As for the Guardians themselves, there's only a handful of them left, and they spend pretty much all of their time on Oa. Their history is a bit complicated - they originally come from the planet Malthus, there are a bunch of offshoot species that diverged from them, they were all male for a while but now have females again, and a few Guardians who immigrated to Earth may or may not be responsible for leprechaun legends. But really, all you need to know about them is that they're short, blue, and eternally grumpy.
You've mentioned the human Green Lanterns, but what about all the aliens? Didn't I once see a squirrel Green Lantern hanging around?
Yeah, that'd be Ch'p. And he's not a squirrel (or a chipmunk, for that matter), he's an alien from the planet H'lven in sector 1014. He's probably the most famous example of the goofier side of the Green Lantern universe, which really tries to run with the idea that aliens come in all shapes and sizes, and that anything can be a Green Lantern. That list also includes an alien fly, a superintelligent virus, a sentient mathematical equation, and Mogo, the living planet that is itself one giant Green Lantern.
If you go see the Green Lantern movie, two of the main alien Green Lanterns you will meet are Tomar-Re and Kilowog. Tomar-Re sort of looks like a bipedal fish, and he's from the neighboring sector to Earth, Sector 2813. That particular sector actually once included the planet Krypton, and it was on Tomar-Re's watch that Superman's home planet exploded. For his part, Tomar-Re was a good friend of Abin Sur's and was the first Green Lantern to meet his successor, Hal Jordan, with whom he also forged a strong friendship. Sadly, Tomar-Re was killed off in the comics awhile ago.
Then there's Kilowog. He's the drill sergeant for all new Green Lantern recruits, whom he affectionately calls poozers, a term that basically means "useless rookies." Actually, he call pretty much everyone a poozer. A hulking presence, Kilowog is fierce in combat and in training but a gentle giant otherwise, and he's also a skilled geneticist and the last survivor of his home planet, Bolovax Vik.
Over the years, there have been a number of other important alien Green Lanterns - there's Arisia, Salaak, Katma Tui, Sodam Yat, and Soranik Natu, and that's just off the top of my head - but we can leave these aside for the purposes of this discussion. Really, there's only one other really crucial alien Green Lantern, but to talk about him we need to move on to the next question.
Who are Green Lantern's main villains?
That list pretty much begins and ends with Sinestro, the fallen Green Lantern, who looms large over pretty much any big Green Lantern story. Once the Green Lantern for Sector 1417, Sinestro was trained by Abin Sur and considered him his best friend. He was deeply skeptical of Hal Jordan's suitability as a replacement, but he decided to become his mentor to honor his fallen comrade. Sinestro's commitment to justice and order was absolute, and he decided the best way to maintain these on his home planet of Korugar was to conquer it and rule as an absolute dictator.
Jordan reported this abuse of power to the Guardians, who stripped Sinestro of his ring and banished him to the universe of antimatter. There he discovered Oa's antimatter counterpart Qward, whose inhabitants forged for him a yellow ring that allowed him to tap into the energy of fear. He swore vengeance against Hal Jordan, battling him several times over the years until he finally appeared to die in battle. But, as with most comic book deaths, it didn't last.
Another big villain is Hector Hammond, who also happens to be the main baddie in the movie. A gifted scientist, Hammond came into contact with a strange alien material that advanced his brain by 100,000 years, causing his skull to swell to the size of a room and granting him tremendous psychic powers. The list of human villains for Green Lantern isn't hugely long, but a couple other highlights include Doctor Polaris, who has control over magnetism and had a major role in the final season of Justice League Unlimited, and Black Hand, who built a device that drains power from Green Lantern rings and became the herald of death in the recent Blackest Night event.
The last major human adversary for Hal Jordan is actually his own (ex-)girlfriend, Carol Ferris. At various points over the years, she becomes transformed by an alien gem into Star Sapphire, who has Lantern-like powers and seeks to destroy her one true love, who of course is Green Lantern. Carol herself isn't really responsible for her actions when she falls under the gem's sway, as she's actually being controlled by the Zamarons, a race of alien warrior women. Yeah, the gender politics of old school Green Lantern was...interesting.
But what about Parallax? I heard he's in the movie too.
Ugh, you just had to go and bring up Parallax, didn't you? His story is one of the most complicated and controversial in the character's history, but here's the quick version. In the early 1990s, sales were flagging on the Green Lantern comic books, and the powers that be at DC Comics decided to write out Hal Jordan, who they felt younger readers had a hard time relating to, and replace him with a more youth-friendly character in the form of Kyle Rayner.
As part of the big Death of Superman mega-event, Hal's hometown of Coast City was obliterated, killing most of its seven million inhabitants. Tortured by grief, Hal tried to use his ring to rebuild the city and bring back its inhabitants, but he was reprimanded by the Guardians for misuse of his power. Finally, Hal had a complete mental breakdown and went on a murderous rampage, killing Green Lanterns, stealing as many power rings as he could, and ultimately destroying Oa. He renounced the name Green Lantern and became the supervillain Parallax.
This was the great crisis that led to Kyle Rayner becoming the last Green Lantern. A few years later, Hal managed to partially redeem himself during the Final Night event, in which he sacrificed himself in order to reignite Earth's Sun. He was then dead for a few years, although he did get a partial reprieve when he became the new host for the Spectre, the nearly omnipotent Spirit of Vengeance. It was kind of an odd time for him, all things considered.
Anyway, whatever the logic was behind replacing Hal Jordan with Kyle Rayner - itself not an inherently terrible move - the decision to write out Hal by turning him into a genocidal monster was, to put it mildly, a bit controversial. In 2004, Geoff Johns began one of the most massive (and, arguably, most successful) retcons in comic books history with Green Lantern: Rebirth, which brought both Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps back from the dead.
Rebirth revealed that Hal Jordan was not acting under his own free will during his time as Parallax. Instead, he had become the unwitting host for the living embodiment of fear, a billion-year-old entity known only as - you guessed it - Parallax. The Guardians had kept Parallax imprisoned in the Central Power Battery for eons, where the concentrated willpower energy could keep him in check. Sinestro made contact with Parallax when he was also imprisoned in the battery, and he directed Parallax towards his archenemy Hal Jordan, who would serve as a grimly ironic vessel for Parallax and Sinestro's revenge against the Guardians and the Green Lantern Corps.
The Parallax entity had been slowly chipping away at Hal's resolve for years, causing some of his angst in the 1970s and 1980s and making his temples go prematurely gray from stress. This didn't undo what Hal had done - and there are plenty of Green Lanterns (not to mention Batman) who still don't really trust him - but it gave him a chance to be a hero again without having to completely discard his now substantial baggage.
I've heard there are other color corps beyond the Green Lanterns. What are they and what does each signify?
The revelation of Parallax's true identity was just the start of Johns's expansion of the Green Lantern universe. He explained that the green energy of willpower and the yellow energy of fear were just two aspects of a larger "emotional electromagnetic spectrum", in which various colors were associated with different emotions, and each could be harnessed for power.
The colors are the same as those in the rainbow, and the whole thing is basically the old Roy G. Biv acronym on a cosmic scale: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Green lies at the center of the spectrum and is the most stable, meaning people can tap into that energy without being personally affected. To the left of green are the three negative emotions, and the further from the center you go the harder they are to control.
Red is the color of rage, and those who wield are turned into mindless killers driven only by bloodlust. Orange is the color of avarice, and fittingly it's the sole domain of a single alien, a billion-year-old thief who uses the orange light to steal the identities of those he has killed. Yellow, of course, is the color of fear, and Sinestro and Parallax forged a Yellow Power Battery in the aftermath of Green Lantern: Rebirth so that they could form a new, fear-driven Sinestro Corps.
On the other side of the spectrum, blue is the color of hope, and it's arguably the most powerful of all, although it can only indirectly affect the power levels of other Lantern Corps. The Blue Lantern Corps was formed by a pair of dissident Guardians who disagreed with the increasingly militaristic approach of their counterparts, and only the purest souls can become Blue Lanterns (the inaugural corps member was actually called Saint Walker). The mysterious Indigo Tribe wields the powers of compassion, which gives them great ability to heal the wounded and sick, and also to temporarily emulate the powers of other corps.
Then there's violet, which is the color of love. Here, Johns retconned Star Sapphire somewhat. While it was already known that the Zamarons were the female counterparts of the all-male Guardians, we now learned that the Zamarons had left Oa eons ago when the Guardians rejected all emotion, and it was during their self-imposed exile that they discovered the gem that would, among other things, turn Carol Ferris into Star Sapphire. Their activities have not always been benevolent - for a long stretch they decided the best way to spread love throughout the cosmos was to trap entire planets inside giant crystals, which is at best some pretty shaky logic. Anyway, in recent years, they founded a Star Sapphire Corps - of which Carol Ferris was now a willing member - in a somewhat more well-intentioned effort to spread love throughout the universe.
Finally, outside the color spectrum, there are the Black and White Lights. Black is the color of death, and anyone who has ever died (including those who came back) can become a Black Lantern. That's pretty much an inexhaustible army, as you might imagine, and it created some near apocalyptic problems for the DC universe in the recent Blackest Night event. White, on the other hand, is the color of life, and the short-lived White Lantern Corps was instrumental in defeating the forces of death.
Incidentally, if some or all of this sounds a bit ridiculous, I should point out that this all tends to read better on the page. But you don't need to take my word for it, as we come to our final question...
What are some of the best Green Lantern books to read?
If you're looking for a quick overview of Green Lantern's fifty-year history, a decent place to start is Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. It's not a perfect collection, but it includes stories featuring all four of the main Green Lanterns, and it gives you a chance to see early Green Lantern in all its goofy, Silver Age glory. If you're looking for a more modern take on how Hal Jordan took flight, check out Geoff Johns's Green Lantern: Secret Origin, which also serves as a prequel for a lot of the recent big events he's orchestrated in the Green Lantern universe.
Speaking of which, I think the first Green Lantern book I ever read was actually Green Lantern: Rebirth. For all its reliance on previous continuity (most of which I've covered here), the book itself is a ton of fun and a good introduction to the various Lanterns, offering some nice insights into Hal Jordan, Kyle Rayner, John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Kilowog. As for the subsequent parts of Johns's trilogy, Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night, neither is high art, even by comic book standards, but they both work well as space operas and as big action stories. I'd especially recommend checking out Sinestro Corps War, which is probably my pick for the most enjoyable of any of the recent big comic book events by either DC or Marvel.
For a very different take on what a Green Lantern story is, check out Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams's seminal run in the early 1970s. A marked departure from the cosmic goofiness of Green Lantern (and DC Comics in general) in the 1960s, these issues teamed Green Lantern with liberal firebrand Green Arrow, as the two traveled America and confronted more realistic social issues (including the infamous story "Snowbirds Don't Fly", in which Green Arrow discovers his sidekick Speedy is a heroin addict).
Their run began in Green Lantern #76, in which an elderly black man asks Hal why he's done so much for blue-skinned and orange-skinned and purple-skinned people, but almost nothing for black-skinned people here on Earth. Hal doesn't have a good answer to the question of why he doesn't use his powers to help Earth's oppressed and downtrodden people, and honestly I don't think superhero comics have ever really come up with a satisfactory way of dealing with this. Whether this social commentary now reads as hopelessly dated and simplistic is, I'd argue, beside the point, as Green Lantern/Green Arrow still represents one of the most crucial turning points in comics history, and is well worth checking out for its historical value alone.
And, finally, there's Alan Moore. DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore features three absolutely crucial Green Lantern stories: "Mogo Doesn't Socialize", which introduced everyone's favorite sentient planet; "In Blackest Night", which finds Katma Tui trying to explain what a Green Lantern is to a creature with absolutely no concept of sight; and "Tygers", which shows Hal Jordan's predecessor Abin Sur confronting some Lovecraftian horrors and offers an alternative explanation for the circumstances of his eventual death on Earth. ("Tygers" also was a key piece of the foundation for Johns's recent work with Green Lantern.)
None of these feature any human characters, and they represent the Green Lantern mythos at its most awesomely cosmic, not to mention Alan Moore at the height of his creative powers. They're all stories that are so wonderfully out there and imaginative that it's impossible to imagine how they could ever take place in, say, a Batman or even a Superman story. And that, I would argue, is what makes Green Lantern special - more than any other superhero, Green Lantern really can go absolutely anywhere...and often does.