Shedding Light on “The Green Lantern”

November 15 was the date of birth of Martin Nodell a.k.a Mart Dellon (1915-2006).

Who’s he when he’s at home, you wonder? Well, he’s the chap who originally cobbled together the perplexing combination of elements that make up the “Green Lantern” mythos. The Green Lantern is one of the handful of superhero characters, along with Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, who date all the way back to the earliest days of the so-called “Golden Age” of comics (1938-56). Unlike many of these characters, the Green Lantern had no radio show (that was the Green Hornet) or movie serial back in the day, but there’s something wonderfully antique and old-school about the conception I thought worth exploring.

The character was devised in 1940. Nodell was working at All-American Comics, parent company of DC, which was owned by the great Max Gaines. Basically the Green Lantern is a guy who wears a magic ring that gets its power from a mysterious green lantern that fell to earth as a meteor in Ancient China. The ring gives the wearer a variety of powers, the most memorable of which is the ability to manifest solid objects and move them around telekinetically. Obviously, Chinese folk culture is associated with lanterns, though Nodell claimed to have gotten the idea from a subway worker he saw swinging a light in the tunnel. (Nodell was living in Brooklyn at the time. He attended Pratt, and met his wife in Coney Island!) The ring idea he took from Wagner. This makes Nodell one of the first to apply the magic ring theme to a superhero. Tolkien’s The Hobbit debuted in 1937, another obvious early use in pop culture. Wagner had drawn the story element from ancient German and Norse mythology. Another notable magic ring motif of course is part of the story of Aladdin in 1,001 Nights. The source for many of the stories in that book were originally Persian, and some think may have earlier origins. Naturally, the existence of both Germanic and Indo-Iranian elements suggests an even earlier common Indo-European source. Unproven and probably unprovable, but I do like thinking that the trail that leads to such things as Underdog began thousands of years in the past.

The original Green Lantern’s alter ago was a guy named Alan Scott. In 1959 the thing was reinvented with a new character named Hal Jordan. And a whole mythos evolved with a whole heroic mystical order called the Green Lantern Corps that have existed throughout the universe for billions of years, along with a Red Lantern Corps, a Blue Lantern Corps. This makes Green Lantern one of the first cosmic superheroes as well, predating such later Marvel characters as Thor (a more obvious Norse borrowing), Doctor Strange, The Silver Surfer, and so forth.

The Green Lantern finally made it to the big screen in 2011, with Ryan Reynolds as the title character. The movie took a loss at the box office. Critics dismissed it, but that’s never prevented audiences from flocking to movies. I have to think a much more obvious factor is…name recognition? Comic book geeks know who the Green Lantern is, and Lord knows there are plenty of those, but that’s still a mere subset of potential ticket buyers. I’m not sure what the cut off point is. Everybody has heard of Superman, Spiderman, and whatever, enough to risk the cost of admission, but at a certain point don’t people just go, “What is it? The Green Lantern? I don’t think so.” Surely, the girlfriends do. Correct me if I’m wrong! (Actually don’t. Never do that).