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Geoff Johns leaves Green Lantern after changing the title forever

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Green Lantern #20. Written by Geoff Johns (Justice League, Aquaman) and drawn by Doug Mahnke (JLA, Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein), the issue is a moving finale to Johns’ nine-year run with Hal Jordan that sets up an exciting new status quo for future creative teams. Warning: spoilers ahead. 

When Geoff Johns started writing Green Lantern comics, the franchise was in disarray. As a result of the grim and gritty ’90s, former Green Lantern Hal Jordan was serving as The Spectre, a.k.a. the spirit of God’s vengeance, paying penance for his universe-shattering actions as Parallax in Zero Hour. Kyle Rayner was a fan favorite but his solo series had become stagnant, John Stewart was off somewhere in space, and Guy Gardner was undergoing constant character changes in an effort to keep him relevant (it didn’t work). Then Geoff Johns showed up, revitalized the entire property, and made Green Lantern one of DC’s bestselling books, enough so that Warner Bros. even made a movie influenced by what Johns brought to the Lantern mythos. The movie was horrible, but Johns’ Green Lantern has been one of DC’s most consistently entertaining titles for almost 10 years, with the writer expanding the mythology of the Green Lantern Corps in ways that had never been attempted before. 

Nine years after putting Hal Jordan back in the emerald uniform and turning Green Lantern into the expansive space opera it is today, Geoff Johns is leaving the title that he permanently changed for the better. Green Lantern #20 is a love letter to fans who have stuck with Johns for his entire run, providing a strong sense of closure while establishing a new status quo for the incoming Lantern teams. (Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, and Red Lanterns will also be getting new creative teams next month.) In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Johns mentions that “it just felt like the right time to go.” His time on the series had come to a natural endpoint as many long-running plots reached their climaxes at the same time. The relationship between Hal Jordan and Sinestro was completing its metamorphosis just as the corrupt Guardians began to see their past mistakes return to destroy them, and these two narratives collide in the epic Green Lantern #20, an issue that embodies everything that made Johns’ run so memorable.  

Remember DC’s prestige format books? The ones with thick cardstock covers, glossy paper, no ads, and glued binding instead of staples? They’ve sadly gone out of style, but DC revives the format for Green Lantern #20, which has 64 pages of story and replaces ads with tribute pages featuring quotes from Johns’ contemporaries congratulating him on a job well done. There’s also a retrospective from Johns at the end of the issue and a reading list for newcomers to the title. It would seem like the last issue of a nine-year run wouldn’t be the best place to jump on a book, but Johns makes this issue extremely accessible, spending the first few pages summarizing his time with Hal Jordan through the framing device of a Bookkeeper living on future Oa. As Bookkeeper Toris tells a new Green Lantern the story of Hal Jordan, Johns breaks down all of his major plotlines to show readers just how much this character and this concept have grown in less than a decade. 

While Johns’ run was strong, it did lose some steam in the past year as the Lantern titles became a never-ending stream of crossovers. The introduction of new Green Lantern, Simon Baz, was a semi-successful attempt to bring some added energy to the title, but the most recent “Wrath Of The First Lantern” crossover has felt like a rehash of past storylines Johns and company have done better in the past. Any readers that have recently left the title will want to come rushing back for Green Lantern #20, which not only delivers page after page of breathtaking superhero action, but shows a profound understanding of Hal Jordan’s character. Nearly every story element of Johns’ run comes back in this issue. And while most of those big blockbuster moments are so good it would be a shame to spoil them here, there’s one specific aspect of Johns’ final issue that elevates it to classic status: Hal’s relationship with his father.

After sacrificing himself, Hal Jordan finds that he’s still not strong enough to defeat Volthoom, the First Lantern. That is, until the spirit of his dead father gives him some help in the underworld, showing Hal where the weapon he needs is locked up. While this is happening, Volthoom has plucked a young Hal Jordan from the time stream and is using him to unravel reality (oh, comic books…), so when Hal saves the day, he is face to face with himself at his most frightened. The young Hal has just seen his father’s plane explode and is in the middle of a space battle between a bunch of brightly colored aliens, but his adult self reassures him: “I know this is scary, but it’s going to be all right. I promise.” Young Hal mistakes the man before him for his father and hugs him, telling him how lonely and afraid he’s been; the boy vanishes from existence while in the comforting embrace of his older self. It’s the ultimate moment of catharsis for a man who has been trying to deal with the loss of his father for years, and Hal realizes that he’s more than lived up to his father’s legacy in his role as Green Lantern.  

Superhero comics are all about mythology, and Geoff Johns came to Green Lantern with bold ideas that would allow him to turn the title into one of the most immersive superhero books on the stands. His concept of the Emotional Spectrum is perfectly hokey in a Silver Age way, associating emotions with colors of the rainbow to make certain abstract ideas into physical constructs that can hurt or help a person depending on how they live their life. Sinestro’s Yellow Lantern was the first to threaten the Green Lantern Corps, building an army by sending rings out to those who could instill great fears in others. Succumbing to rage is the qualification for a Red Lantern ring, which gives its wearer the power to destroy by vomiting blood. Individuals who embrace hope might find themselves with a Blue Lantern ring, which is immensely powerful when combined with the willpower of the Green Lantern ring but is otherwise fairly weak. Each emotion has its own unique power, and it’s fitting that the entire rainbow would come together for an issue that is both emotional and thrilling. 

DC understood that they had something magical in Johns’ Green Lantern, and they paired him with A-list artists for his entire run. Ethan Van Sciver, Carlos Pacheco, Ivan Reis, and Doug Mahnke all had extended stints on the book, and creators like Shane Davis, Simone Bianchi, Daniel Acuña, Mike McKone, Dave Gibbons, and Darwyn Cooke contributed to shorter stories. Mahnke has been Johns’ main collaborator on Green Lantern since 2009, bringing a sense of realistic grit to the spectacular sci-fi imagery that kept the story grounded as Johns began to explore more fantastic narratives. Even with inconsistent inking (this issue has seven inkers including Mahkne himself), Mahnke’s designs and layouts made Green Lantern one of the most visually dynamic books at DC. Mahnke’s work combines the detail of George Perez with the atmosphere of Mike Mignola, and this issue spotlights the artist’s uncanny ability to balance emotional storytelling with stunning widescreen visuals. 

There are multiple splash pages in this book that could be sold as posters (including an epic four-page gatefold by Ethan Van Sciver that concludes the issue), but it’s the quieter moments that bring depth to the story. Johns and Mahnke are joined by guest artists Patrick Gleason, Cully Hamner, Aaron Kuder, Jerry Ordway, Ivan Reis, and Van Sciver for a series of epilogues showing how the stories of the individual Green Lanterns of Earth end. Johns understands the importance of endings in order to give stories weight, and showing these glimpses of Hal, John, Guy, Kyle, and Simon in the future is the perfect way to give this issue a sense of finality even though there will be a Green Lantern #21 on the stands next month. Incoming writer Robert Venditti has been doing great work on Valiant’s sci-fi superhero title X-O Manowar, and with a new status quo that positions Hal Jordan at the head of the Green Lantern Corps, there’s a wealth of storytelling opportunities for Venditti to pursue. 

There’s a connection between what Geoff Johns has been doing in Green Lantern and a story that ran in this week’s other “Man Without Fear” book: Daredevil #26. While the main plot finally reveals the man who has been manipulating Matt Murdock since the start of Mark Waid’s run, the back-up story shows Foggy Nelson in the hospital before his first chemotherapy treatment, visiting the children’s cancer ward as they prepare for a visit from Iron Man. It’s a moving tale about the power of superhero stories as the kids create a comic book about the Avengers fighting a dinosaur with a “super cancer” that makes it hurt people, but Foggy worries about their expectations for the real Iron Man when their comic-book version heals the dinosaur with a “special anti-cancer beam.” 

Foggy tells the children that superheroes can do a lot but they can’t cure cancer, to which they reply with blank stares before one says, “Duh. It’s a comic book.” Their doctor tells Foggy that these kids look to these heroes for inspiration and strength, that these heroes give them hope that their sickness can be cured, even if it’s with an imagined hero’s fists. As Foggy thinks about his own trials ahead, he imagines Daredevil punching out a lumpy green monster with a smile on his face and a big yellow “POW” above his head, and he finds himself with courage that he didn’t have before he walked into that room. Waid’s story makes decisions like a Philadelphia preschool’s ban on superhero play even more ludicious; sure, superheroes are violent, but they also help children develop a moral code in a world of bad influences. 

Superheroes teach the world about power and responsibility, how to cope with tragedy, how to embrace being different, and, in Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, the ways that emotions can give people power that can be both beneficial and destructive to others. Hal Jordan’s story was one about willpower overcoming fear, but the saga of Geoff Johns was one about imagination. He came to a floundering franchise and gave it a new sense of direction, one that was consistently expanding to introduce exciting ideas to a decades-old concept. The final line of Johns’ last issue is in reference to Hal Jordan, but it could easily be about the writer: “He was the spark… that started the everlasting fire.” May the Lanterns burn on and on.