How entertainment doth mirror society!
Or, The future isn’t what it used to be.
Or, It’s amazing how the aliens we’ve never met have changed over the last half-century.
This past Sunday, The Sci Phi Show featured an interview with Matthew Wayne Selznick, author of the novel Brave Men Run (available in print, e-book, podcast, and MP3 CD). The principal subject of the interview was the morality of current comic books. As it happens, Selznick’s not a bad source to bring in on this subject. Not only does Brave Men Run deal with the everyday ethical questions of a young man who in the Marvel Comics universe would be X-Men material, the novel is set in an America in which comic books have been banned1 as the result of Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, which categorically condemned crime- and crimefighter-focused comics as immoral.2 (Here, the book was followed by the demise of more than one comics publishing company and, in an move by the industry to police itself, the formation of the Comics Code Authority.)
The interview brought to mind an interesting development in the evolution of my all-time favorite superhero: Green Lantern. Yes, I’m a die-hard fan of DC Comics’s “Silver Age” Green Lantern, who is also today’s primary GL. Harlan Ellison may prefer Alan Scott, the GL of the “Golden Age” — the forties and fifties — and younger whippersnappers may favor Kyle Rayner, but for me, Hal Jordan is and will always be The Man.
Green Lantern’s light
Jordan — whom one should no sooner cross than one would Jill Hennessy — is a member of the Green Lantern Corps, a 7,200-member3 interstellar police force4 assigned to the 3,600 sectors of space5 by the Guardians of the Universe, a race of immortals who reside on the planet Oa and are rarely seen (since they have now appointed one rather officious Green Lantern as their combined press, appointment, and social secretary). Each Green Lantern carries a ring, or its equivalent, which can manifest its wearer’s will in solid form. Anything the Lantern can imagine, the power ring can make real. It is the Lantern’s credential, personal information assistant, Swiss-army-knife tool, and weapon, all in one. During its periodic recharge, its owner recites an oath expressing the Corps’s commitment:6
And I shall shed my light over dark evil,
for the dark things cannot stand the light,
the light of the Green Lantern.
— oath of Tomar-Re (and Alan Scott before him)
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!
— oath of Hal Jordan and others
The question naturally arises: Since the Corps was established to fight evil in the universe, what is defined as good and as evil? In other words, what criteria govern the Lanterns’ actions? The Sci Phi Show‘s recent podcasts discussed the two Spider-Man movies with respect to consequentialist and non-consequentialist ethics. What we mean by those terms is this:
- Consequentialist, or utilitarian: systems in which the rightness of an action is determined by its consequences
- Non-consequentialist, or deontological: systems in which an action is right or wrong regardless of its consequences
Cutting across these categories is another division for each:
- Rule (as in “rule utilitarianism” or “rule deontology”): systems in which one chooses a course of action on the basis of one or more pre-set rules
- Act (“act utilitarianism” or “act deontology”): systems which hold that the range of possible situations is too broad for rules and thus evaluate each action on the basis of the situation at hand
Which variety do the Guardians, and by extension the Green Lanterns, observe?
“Brightest day” and “blackest night”
Initially things were fairly simple: we didn’t ask such questions. Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern of our space sector (number 2814, if anyone’s wondering), was simply another crimefighter, with nothing much to set him apart from others of the DC fraternity that included Superman, Batman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, and the rest. He stood on the side of law, like the others (a “rule” system, then). Which laws, we were never told; we just assumed that they were those of Earth; indeed, of America (where his home, Coast City, was located). And when Hal went into space, or through time, there was no indication of any change to his ethical environment.
The colors in between
Later, things got more complicated. Stories were written to show the diversity of the universe — and Hal had to deal with the discovery that other worlds sometimes had ethics different from those at home. For example, on one world the Green Lantern who accepted financial payment for his services was not corrupt, as Hal had assumed (and had been ready to haul that Lantern before the Guardians): in that society, gratitude and admiration were always, always expressed tangibly. In another case, a newly appointed Green Lantern by the name of Arkkis Chummuck was asked why the body of his dead predecessor, whom he had fought and defeated, was not to be found; Chummuck replied with some incredulity that, the predecessor being a worthy foe, he had eaten him, of course. (Didn’t everyone?)
The point was made. Different worlds had different ideas of right and wrong, and we dared not assume that ours was the only way of doing things. The Lanterns’ mission was not altered explicitly, but the next time I remember seeing it stated, it was to uphold the local ethical standards — or the local laws; I don’t recall which. The key word, however, was local. The Green Lanterns were governed by the current situation (suggesting that they were now in an “act” system). There was no absolute structure of right and wrong for the galaxy. Like the belief systems in America of the 1970s and ’80s, interstellar society was pluralistic.
But some colors are dark
This version logically could not stand, however. The Guardians act as guardians, after all, because the misdeeds of one of their own race originally brought evil into the universe.7 Evil, therefore, is something they recognize as such, and moreover it would be evil no matter where in space one happened to be. To some degree, then, it could not differ from world to world but must be absolute. The Lanterns must act locally, but they must somehow think galactically.
One can see how this would reflect the ambivalence within the postmodern reader. We want there to be a “right” and a “wrong”; after all, we read stories about superheroes or detectives because we want some assurance that there is a “right.” Even though postmoderns reject the idea of absolute truth — there is only personal truth, not to be forced upon others — we can somehow sense that this perspective, taken to extremes, is self-defeating. At the very least, it would wipe out the Green Lanterns’ raison d’être. Still, we find ourselves reluctant to adopt a strict ethical code — a biblical one for example — because we know that eventually it will turn and condemn us. The result is an amorphous cloud of good intentions, which we are hoping will find its way into some kind of shape, but we shun to make that process go any faster.
The limits of power
Thus we have the current situation as set forth in the series Green Lantern Corps: Recharge. There the recruit (who is as likely to be drafted as to volunteer, such is the need for new Lanterns) is told by his/her/its power ring, “I am programmed to execute your mental commands, providing they do not conflict with the code of the Guardians.”8 What “the code of the Guardians” is has not yet been revealed — and we may never know. We are back on a rule system, however, and there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. But pending further unrevealed restrictions, within the perimeter of that code a Lantern apparently has carte blanche to take whatever action is needed — and the assumed differences between worlds assure that there will be some variety in what that is.
So at first the people of other worlds had the same understanding of right and wrong, for all we knew. Then, their systems were different — and the Green Lanterns had to respect them. Now, the Lanterns have leeway, but only within the absolute system of the Guardians.
Right and wrong, which is which, and an insistence on cosmic plurality. Ain’t it grand?
- Apparently those who have created comics in our world became public figures in that one: a running in-joke has streets and parks, and at least one police officer, named after them. [return ↩ ]
- I remember reading the book in my high-school years, after seeing it mentioned in Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. Much of what Wertham complained about was pretty dreadful indeed, considerably more so than today’s output. Dwight Decker has written an engaging article about the book’s virtues, its considerable shortcomings, and what Wertham really thought he was doing, whatever came of it. [return ↩ ]
- The increase from 3,600 members to 7,200 is a recent change. Just as the television show CHiPs broke with California Highway Patrol procedure by putting two motorcycle patrolmen on the same route, the Corps now has two Green Lanterns per sector of space. And DC likely did this for the same reason, namely, that peer interaction is sometimes more interesting and fun to watch then the activities of a loner. [return ↩ ]
- While I honestly doubt that the late Julius Schwartz deliberately modeled the Corps after E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Galactic Patrol and its Lensmen, one cannot deny that the Lensmen have had a considerable influence on the body of Green Lantern stories. Since they too were a structured law-enforcement organization whose members each carried a personal, superscientific device that served as identification, tool, and weapon, the influence was inevitable. One could also suggest the Texas Rangers as a model — and wouldn’t that be interesting. [return ↩ ]
- From the Guardians’ adopted title, I take this to be the entire inhabited universe. While space may be infinite — and there’s a debate on that point — let’s hope its contents aren’t. Seventy-two hundred officers seems a sparse enough roster to deal with our own spiral galaxy, let alone any larger territory. And ∞ ÷ 7200 = ∞. [return ↩ ]
- The most … interesting … oath — and certainly a change of pace — came from a Lantern assigned exclusively to a world where things routinely got, well, a bit rough. This from Jack T. Chance (via author John Ostrander):
You who are wicked, evil, and mean,
I’m the nastiest creep you’ve ever seen!
Come one, come all; put up a fight;
I’ll pound your butts with Green Lantern’s light.
And for the sake of completeness, let’s not forget the one improvised by the well-meaning but out-of-his-depth Duck Dodgers as “The Green Loontern,” charging Hal Jordan’s ring amid a host of other Lanterns:
In blackest day or brightest night …
Watermelon, cantaloupe, yadda-e-yadda …
Erm … superstitious and cowardly lot …
With liberty and justice for all!
[return ↩ ]
- My fellow believers will ask me how I can reconcile this with Genesis 3 and Romans 5, which make it clear that we humans did that. My response is the same I give to similar questions about the Harry Potter novels and their subgenre — an answer I promise to give in a later article. [return ↩ ]
- Yes, I know, it should be “provided.” Imagine the alternative: the ring itself would alter those commands, thus “providing” that they never violate the Guardians’ code. Shades of Romans 8:26–27. [return ↩ ]