To date, Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp’s run on DC’s The Green Lantern has been a lot of fun. Billed from the start as a space police procedural, its initial six issue arc has been suffused with the kind of sharpness, creativity, cleverness and borderline silliness that can justly be described as quintessential Morrison. In the hands of a lesser artist, this approach might have ended up more confusing and silly than clever and sharp, but Liam Sharp’s art is uniquely suited to the demands of Morrison’s scripts. The fecundity of his imagination and his consummate skill as an artist are on display in boldly-crafted layouts, jaw-dropping alien vistas and bold alien designs that, despite their strangeness, never lose their sense of physical presence.
Issue 7, however, is a whole other level of storytelling.
It’s safe to say that Morrison’s run of Green Lantern stories pays scant regard for the character’s recent history. From Johns’ pre-New 52 run onwards, there has existed a carefully constructed continuity that has involved line-wide events like Blackest Night and Brightest Day, new Green Lanterns in Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz, Hal Jordan re-forging his ring from sheer willpower and a significantly depleted Green Lantern Corps decamping to Mogo after the destruction of Oa. Morrison doesn’t care about any of that. That’s not to say that he doesn’t care about continuity at all – just not recent continuity.
Issue 7 takes place directly after the end of issue 6. In this issue, Hal Jordan, who has infiltrated the nefarious Blackstars, is faced with the task of defusing a bomb on the planet Rann that threatens the existence of the entire universe. While he succeeds, his success comes at great personal cost. Hal disappears as his ring, augmented by power from the central batteries on New Oa, strives to contain the blast. While his friend Adam Strange eulogises him, Hal’s ring is seen floating in space and apparently inside it – or linked to it in some way – is a strange dull green alien landscape comprised mostly of floating islands of weirdly rustic wasteland. Through this wasteland trudges an amnesiac Hal who meets someone who looks an awful lot like a Guardian, albeit a decidedly crusty one. He points Hal in the direction of a place called Emerald Sands and tells Hal to say that “Myrwhidden (sic)” sent him.
There is absolutely no reason why the name Myrwhidden should spark some kind of recognition in a casual GL reader – or, for that matter, a committed GL reader of the last ten years. First appearing in 1964’s Green Lantern 26, the character is a Gardner Fox/Gil Kane creation, a wizard originally an enemy of Abin Sur and imprisoned within Abin Sur’s power ring – the power ring that was passed on to Hal Jordan. The title of that first Myrwhydden story? “The World Within The Power Ring”. Issue 7 of the current series, then, borrows liberally from that initial story, but it would be wrong to say that it is simply an homage, pastiche or re-telling. It is very much its own thing.
The issue opens with a gorgeous splash page which sets the tone for what follows. The wizened rustic Guardian sits in silhouette on his signpost, a weak sun glowing hazily behind him. Below that image is an imposing study of the sleeping wizard Myrwhydden, his head rendered in silver, flanked by strange triangular-headed guards, six-armed, their eyes not in their heads, but held in two of their hands. Sleep, light, sight and blindness are introduced here. These motifs will recur as the story unfolds. The creative team is not at all attempting to hide that this story is set within the power ring, something this first page makes very clear with its use of the stylised ring outline as a border for the unsettling art. Complementing this art are lines of poetry, written in rhyming couplets:
“Not nine-mile hence, there stands a town
We built on ever shifting ground,
And in that town there tolls a bell,
A countdown as we ride to hell.
Together now, ‘It’s so unfair!’
Yet mention it? Well, no one dares!
For no one dares to speak aloud…
… don’t tell the truth. You’ll scare the crowd!
So heed the words of little men…
Beware the wizard Myrwhydden.”
While the rhyme appears simplistic, it actually introduces or reinforces a number of themes that pertain to the wider Green Lantern mythos and this issue in particular. The “ever shifting ground” suggests the eternal mutability of the power ring, limited only by the willpower and imagination of its user. Beams of light, jet planes, ten-ton weights, giant boxing gloves, glowing bubbles of life-saving force: the power ring is capable of producing a dizzying array of constructs, all as solid as rock and earth, all subject to oblivion once the ring-wielder’s will ceases to be exerted. ‘Shifting ground’, indeed.
Then there’s the ‘countdown as we ride to hell’. The power ring has a limited energy supply and needs to be recharged. The countdown to ‘hell’ is the unavoidable descent to zero. Zero percent of power. Zero energy. Zero life. And here we have a problem. Because, even though the denizens of the ringworld know exactly what’s going on, they cannot speak of it because Myrwhydden must not be awakened – for reasons that are not entirely clear right now, but will be soon enough. And this, too, is Lantern-related. For the ring to be recharged, a battery must be present, but also an oath must be recited. This oath is no mere linguistic trigger. It is a statement of faith – in the cause of the Lanterns, in the power of the ring itself, in the primacy of the light. To ‘not dare to speak’ is the very antithesis of what it means to be a Lantern. A Lantern must dare – at any cost – to speak. His power, his mission, his identity and very life all depend upon it. And ‘overcoming great fear’ is the heart of the Green Lantern’s experience – not just to qualify him, her or it to bear the ring, but to continue to bear it, to wield it fearlessly, to ‘dare to tell the truth’ because to do so is to affirm the wielder’s belief in the power of the light to triumph over darkness. And this leads to the last couplet. Who is it who counsels silence in the face of disaster? The “little men”. To be a Lantern is to leave one’s smallness behind, to stand tall, to be seen, to stand out from the crowd.
And all this is on the first page!
While reminding the reader that last issue’s amnesiac Hal, cloaked and hooded, approaches, the next few pages introduce us to this issue’s heroine, Pengowirr. Sharp presents her determinedly striding through a bizarre landscape comprised mostly of disembodied hands. She possesses a fey, elf-like beauty and sports ring silhouette tattoos. Again, the narration is exemplary. I’ve said elsewhere that I miss the old school third person narration in comics, although I fully understand why writers eschew it in favour of first-person narration which enables them to do away with cumbersome thought bubbles and an intrusive narrative voice in one fell swoop. This issue’s narration, however, is different. Always intelligent, at times it borders on the sublime.
Take, for example, the opening phrase – “Down streets made of green glass and rhyme” – which foregrounds the importance of poetry (Myrwhydden is a rhyming wizard) and the power ring (“green glass” – a substance that is both strong and vulnerable, associated with clarity and light) in the construction of this alien world. Mywhydden’s “sinister Ministers” (a neat bit of rhyming in itself) have whispers that sound “like antique radios with the batteries running down”, a powerful image that not only evokes the sense of decay and desolation already highlighted by “derelict avenues and haunted plazas”, but also reinforces the idea of power depleting – which is, of course, what is happening to the ring throughout the story.
Just as important as fading colour and the slow descent into nothingness, however, are the notions of change and ossified ritual. The resort of Emerald Sands was “once filled with purpose” but now its Sorcerers “replay familiar gestures over and over” and its guards are locked into “increasingly elaborate… patrol loops”. The notion of movement without purpose, of sterile repetition, is opposed to the determined journey of Hal, which Pengowirr feels as “footsteps sounding down her spine”. And when Hal arrives, he brings not only change but the end to Pengowirr’s fear of sound and the likelihood of it drawing the attention of Myrwhydden’s ministers.
Hal’s intervention is bold and dramatic. Not only does he dispatch the ministers himself, but he gives Pengowirr the courage to act too and, perhaps unsurprisingly, she is no slouch when it comes to combat Although he is initially acting on instinct, it isn’t long before, prompted by a map of Emerald Sands, whose ring-shaped layout is unmistakable, Hal regains his memory and realises just how dire his – and the ring’s – predicament is. The ring is dying and, after the U-Bomb explosion, it could be anywhere in the galaxy. He also works out that Pengowirr – the only other aspect of this strange world that is not derived from the sleeping wizard’s power – is the ring’s Artificial Intelligence . With them stranded in the vastness of space, their only chance is to do what Pengowirr has been avoiding doing for years – wake up Myrwhydden. This they do and Sharp presents the wizard as a floating silver head angrily screaming that he doesn’t want to face the reality of their predicament and that he cannot die. Through sheer force of will and a bald statement of the truth of the situation, Hal persuades him to relinquish the meagre power that has been sustaining this world and siphon it back to the ring to boost its power. Hal holds Pengowirr close as the world Myrwhydden has constructed crumbles around them; out in the ‘real world’, the ring powers up and begins to initiate “interspace acceleration”.
But it’s not enough. At the end of the day (and issue), it is down to Hal to get the power ring home – as, indeed, it was always going to be. Given extra impetus by Hal’s belief in their ability to survive, the ring emerges into normal space and into the path of two Green Lanterns who quickly take it back to (New) Oa. A lesser writer may have ended things there with Hal being extracted from the ring and the ring re-powered to full strength. Grant Morrison is not a lesser writer.
In the space between Hal’s extraction from the ring and the ring’s re-charging, there is room for one last dose of tension. While, outside, Hal desperately rushes the ring to the battery, inside Pengowirr is alone and frightened, watching the landscape dissolve around her and hearing the fatalistic taunting rhyme of Myrwhydden – the wizard whose vaunted magic was, in the end, not enough to save his world. That doom-laden rhyme, however, is answered by one that is its antithesis: the Green Lantern oath.
How many times have I heard or read that oath? How many times has it been used as a reaffirmation of the character’s core beliefs and values, a restatement of what the character stands for?
Here it functions as the crowning moment of an already remarkable issue. Not a trite or unearned moment of vainglorious bravado, but an entirely satisfying and appropriate ending to a tale that has, through the fantastical device of the world inside the ring and some consummate storytelling from writer and artist, unearthed some of the core concepts that make the Green Lantern who he is, held them up to the light and found them not only good but vital and enriching. The final page is as perfect an ending to a comic book as I’ve seen in a long time. Hal’s desperation to save the ring is clear – as is his relief and appreciation once it’s recharged. His kissing of the just-recharged ring is respectful and heartfelt and entirely in keeping with the way his relationship with Pengowirr has developed over the course of the story. The end result is a conclusion that rounds off the issue and leaves this reader at least with a big old smile on his face. Bravo, Messrs Morrison and Sharp! Bravo!
This is not to say that the issue will appeal to everyone. I’ve seen a fair amount of comment from people who are unhappy with the way the series has departed from the Johns-established Green Lantern lore and would much prefer their GL tales less whimsical and more tightly tied into continuity. I understand that complaint and think it’s a pretty valid one. The only thing I can offer by way of reply is just to point out that, of all Morrison’s issues so far, this is the one that shows his love for the character of Hal Jordan most clearly. In an odd way, it’s also his most tightly focused. While the change in narrative form and the use of the world within the ring device are radical, there are no random throwaway concepts like virus Lanterns or Venturan luck dials or hive-mind aliens allergic to guacamole (all found in issue 1!) to send the reader for a loop. There’s just a clever, emotionally resonant homage to the character and an exploration of his relationship with the item on which, so many times, his life depends.
As only an intermittent reader of the Green Lantern books, I must say it works for me.