Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Green Lanter #0. Written by Geoff Johns (Justice League, Aquaman) and drawn by Doug Mahnke (Batman, JLA), it’s the debut of a new Arab-American Green Lantern that tries hard to be provocative with mixed results.
To commemorate the first anniversary of the New 52, DC is having a month of #0 issues telling origin stories. For most titles in this first week, these #0 detours break the momentum of their title’s continuing plot, but Geoff Johns wisely chooses to introduce a new character in Green Lantern #0 rather than delve into the backstory of Hal Jordan and Sinestro, who “died” in last week’s Green Lantern Annual #1. As #0’s epilogue shows, the two former Green Lanterns aren’t deceased, they’re simply stuck in a mysterious black place so that their rings can pick a new wielder: Simon Baz, an Arab-American car thief with a heart of gold. By the end of the issue, he also has the U.S. government on his ass for driving a bomb into the abandoned car factory where he used to work. It’s an intense, quickly-paced first issue featuring crisp art from Doug Mahnke, but Baz’s introduction represents the major problem of the New 52: plot before character.
The title of this issue’s story is “The New Normal,” and if this is going to be the defining tone of the next year of New 52 stories, the DCnU is about to become an even darker place. There’s no joy in this comic, beginning with a series of scenes showing how difficult Baz and his family’s lives have become since the 9/11 attacks. After the opening page featuring a young Baz watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center, there are three panels set five years apart: 1) Baz as a child, washing graffiti off the Islamic Center of America the day after 9/11; 2) Baz fighting to protect his sister when they’re attacked on the street; 3) Baz undergoing a “routine” inspection at the airport. That last one is especially important, as one of the security guards asks the now-adult Baz, “What are you afraid of?” The idea of an Arab-American being chosen as the Green Lantern because he’s able to overcome great cultural fear is an inspired one, but the majority of sympathy for the character is condensed in two pages so that Johns can set up Baz as a suspected terrorist.
Baz is a resident of Dearborn, Michigan, home to more Arab-Americans than anywhere else in the United States and a major hub of the American automotive industry. Baz is a car thief, but he’s doing it to help his sister and her son after the death of his brother-in-law. For some reason, Baz has decided to steal an oh-so-desirable plain white van, which just so happens to have a bomb in the backseat. Upon discovering his explosive cargo, Baz calls his sister, who works in the Dearborn Office of the Secretary of State, directs her to a stash of money in a safety-deposit box, and begins to apologize for his involvement in the death of her husband. That’s when the police start ramming the vehicle from behind and Baz decides to drive it into the closed automobile factory, jumping out of the van so that he can be arrested and detained at Guantanamo Bay.
#0 is certainly successful at reinvigorating the Green Lantern title, which has been enjoyable but becomes increasingly bogged down in its own mythology: Every plot development seems deliberately geared to be provocative and Important-with-a-capital-I. It gets to be a bit much when Baz gets a bag put over his head and is brought to a room to be waterboarded, but luckily that’s when the Green Lantern ring shows up to break Baz out of prison. It’s not a bad issue, and it’s an especially nice change of pace to get back to Earth after what feels like years of primarily cosmic Green Lantern stories, but Baz isn’t so much a character as he is a series of clichés and coincidences. Granted, this book has a limited page count, but it takes a shortcut to sympathy by attaching Baz to broad cultural issues rather than spending time filling out his personal character and relationships. He needs to become a Green Lantern quickly so that he can step into the next crossover, and there’s just not enough time to show Baz with his sister and nephew. There’s a quick line addressing how he breaks the law to help her, but “show, don’t tell” is an important rule to follow when introducing new characters that readers are expected to get invested in immediately.
Compare Green Lantern #0 to the first issue of The Ray, which was a delightful, low-selling mini-series with an Asian-American lead. In The Ray, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti outlined the origin of the character’s superpowers while fleshing out his relationship with his black best friend, Indian girlfriend, and adopted parents. The book featured a diverse cast of characters including a minority lead, the best artwork in Jamal Igle’s career, and a sense of fun that can be hard to find in contemporary superhero comics, but The Ray was also a mini-series that was separate from the major happenings of the DCnU. Green Lantern and Geoff Johns are far more embedded in the overall narrative of the New 52 (whatever that may be), meaning they determine the tone for many DC titles. And based on developments in Green Lantern and Justice Lantern, there’s a sense that heroes in the New 52 can’t just be heroes.
Most of the past year of Justice League has been spent on team infighting and the personal flaws of the team’s members, and the new Green Lantern has just been declared a terrorist by Amanda Waller. It’s a very ’90s way of depicting superheroes, painting them as eternally tormented figures who are never able to enjoy a moment of happiness—and they’re dangerous, very dangerous. (As the promotional art for the new Geoff Johns-penned Justice League Of America states, “It will take more than the world’s heroes to save us! It will take the world’s most dangerous!”) Baz is part of the line-up of this new team of deadly heroes that somehow includes Stargirl and Vibe, and he’ll probably bring the ridiculous gun that he’s wielding on the cover of Green Lantern #0. Why exactly does a Green Lantern need a gun? Baz doesn’t carry a gun in this issue, so is he going to start using one once he becomes Green Lantern? It’s a cheap move to make the character seem edgy, a move that fell out of style about 15 years ago.
Doug Mahnke is one of the strongest artists in DC’s stable, drawing cinematic comics with characters that look like real people but still have a sense of superhero grandeur. His character design for Baz as Green Lantern gives the character a more menacing look than his predecessors by covering his entire face except for the mouth; although if that’s intended to keep people from recognizing him, Baz might want to consider covering up his glowing green tattoo of the Arabic word for “courage.” As the emotional highlight of the issue, the first two dialogue-less pages give Mahnke all the heavy lifting, and he succeeds at making each image significant, telling a complete story in every silent panel. It’s difficult to capture the speed and chaos of a car chase in a comic book, but Mahnke creates a tense, swift action sequence that is an exhilarating introduction to Baz’s character.
When the story switches to Guantanamo Bay for pages of talking heads, Mahnke shows his skill for reflecting the content of the dialogue through the facial expressions and body language of his characters. There are three inkers on #0, and while the transitions are nearly unnoticeable, that number doesn’t bode well for future issues. Over the past year, Mahnke has required a number of inkers on his artwork, resulting in inconsistency and sloppiness in the finished product, but time will tell if that will be the case going forward. No matter what direction Johns takes Green Lantern, it’s going to look good if Mahnke is drawing it. If Johns can develop Baz’s character to have as much depth as the artwork, he could be the next great Green Lantern, but as of now, he feels like a placeholder while Hal and Sinestro are off doing their own thing.