This is one of my favorite characters, and its been too long since I’ve done a post on him. Now, I’m going to take a detour here and fan identification is still very heavy in my mind, but trust me this one ties into the theme of this column.
To be entirely honest, John Stewart didn’t used to be among my favorite characters. I started reading Green Lantern during the Kyle years. My second attachment was to Hal, during the Emerald Knights storyline, and I got to enjoy Guy Gardner through back issues. John however, was such a background character I found him largely forgettable and needed to be reminded who he was when he showed up in the background. He was inactive in the comics. During most of the JLU series I didn’t have access to cable television, and didn’t watch much television of any kind. I grew attached to Katma Tui (a character killed off before I’d even heard of Green Lantern) before I found my reason to like John. I was familiar enough with him, even read an issue or two of Green Lantern: Mosaic but I didn’t like or understand the character until I specifically sought out his first appearance.
I can’t remember exactly what brought my curiosity about, but it had to do with a series of conversations where I discovered that almost no fan thought John had a personality, and most people wrote him off as some 70s Token stunt. Others called him a stereotype of the “angry black man” and said that he didn’t have much substance because they’d stopped emphasizing the anger. Around the time I’d scouring Oklahoma City for Green Lantern back issues, and came across a beaten copy of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87. I didn’t buy it the first time I saw it. I’d heard that the O’Neil/Adams run was heavy-handed and melodramatic, and I’d had enough lecturing from Winick’s run. I didn’t buy it the second time I saw it either. After watching a particularly bad flamewar on the direction John’s character had taken, and a sudden shift of characterization in the comics (a “return to his roots” is what it was called), I finally picked the issue up.
The first part of the first story was about how Guy was taken out of action by a bus accident, and a new backup Lantern needed to be trained. The second part of the first story (barely a third of the book itself) was John’s first adventure. It started on the streets of what I believe was Detroit, with two cops and two people playing dominos. One of the policemen was trying to get the players to move off the street, even though there was plenty of room to walk around them. We first meet John interrupting the policeman. He makes a mildly sarcastic joke and then puts his hand on the policeman’s shoulder.
I’m not sure if anyone reading will find that as notable as I do. My father is a policeman. You do not approach him like that. You do not talk to him like that. You do not come up behind him and put your hand on his shoulder while he’s carrying a gun.
In two panels here you can get a better sense of courage from John than in the last ten years.
The situation heated up, and the policeman’s partner diffused the situation. Up on a rooftop overlooking the street, Hal was griping to a Guardian about the chip on John’s shoulder.
I reread the page. It reminded me of something.
Its something we always do with superhero comics. We take the little things in our lives, the manageable pieces of our day and relate them to the unreal scale of superhero stories. Most of us struggle through traffic, deal with our bosses, our families, and the little inconveniences of our lives. Some of us may have dangerous jobs, but most of our existences is routine and small scale. We fight little battles every day, and sometimes we do a little good. I won’t be able to prevent two nations from military action, but I can step in and prevent a war between two coworkers. There is nothing in my reality like facing down the Scarecrow, but I can shove my acrophobia aside and climb the rickety temporary maintenance stand that’s the only way to get on the jet. Circling the globe is absurd, but I can run the entire track without giving up. I can say something when an idiot at work makes a racist or sexist joke. The worst they’ll do is ignore me.
What John is doing here, that is possible in my reality. Its also incredibly brave. Standing up to an authority figure is very difficult. In this case, John runs the risk of violence. This is a big thing.
It reminded me of a very little thing. When I read that page I remembered a moment when I was in elementary school and got in front of the entire class at recess and ranted at them. Very loudly and dramatically. Someone had been rude to one of my friends, I don’t remember how or why. I just remember stepping between her and him, and saying something angry without thinking the statement through. I think it ultimately made no sense, and still ranks among one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, but I was a little kid. I also couldn’t stop myself. Everyone in the class got really quiet and stared at me for a while. My cheeks felt warm and they still feel warm when I remember it. I think the teacher was angry at me for making a scene.
Those two panels? They depict a huge amount of courage for a grown person, but I can relate them to a little bit of courage in a little girl.
Yes, that last line is immodest. But come on. We’re superhero fans. We may as well step up and admit we compare our little battles to their big ones and drop the pretend cool.
Anyway, a week or two ago I asked on my own blog if people would describe John Stewart. I got some wonderful answers that mostly centered on how stable and strong he was. He’s dependable. He’s solid. He’s the intelligent one who actually thinks. The friend you want to have. All of the comments rang true, but none of them described the spark of life captured in his first appearance. The character trait that Geoff Johns tried to capture in Green Lantern: Rebirth when he told Batman off. His reaction to injustice. He perceives the root of the problem and addresses it immediately and decisively. This is a wonderful trait that can push solid, dependable John out of the Hero Support category and into the spotlight when used correctly. But rather than grasp onto this part of John’s personality and use it to make a good story, most writers have relegated him to the background.
I’ve come to believe that writers are just shy to use him because he’s strongest and works best when addressing social injustice, but they don’t want to bring the only black Green Lantern off the shelf to just write a “Very Special Issue” about racism. And they don’t think of using him to address other issues other than racism, or injustice that’s not related to a social issue (the exception being Rebirth, where he went off on Batman for being unfair to his friend Hal). Instead, they put him in a support role for one of the white Lanterns, and the character gets some panel time but never enough panel time to gain a real fanbase, and never the placement needed to showcase the most heroic aspect of the character.
When you add that precise sort of squeamishness to the general squeamishness that a lot of writers treat any character that’s a different race, orientation or gender (“They’ll get offended and I’ll get YELLED at!”), you end up with poor John getting screwed for panel time, again and again and again over the past 35 years.
That’s not fair.
I’m still nervous about John’s fate. John is an extremely admirable character for a politically minded person (I much prefer him to Green Arrow, since John picks his battles and makes them count), but the moments that make him such a wonderful character have been used sparingly over the past few decades. I know Dwayne McDuffie likes John from his interviews and from his using him in JLU. But I’m not familiar with JLU and I don’t know what McDuffie figures is the strongest character trait of John Stewart, so I’m a little worried about if I’ll recognize the character in September.
And beyond McDuffie, I’m worried if the next writer will bother to give John any panel time, or if they’ll trade him in for a Lantern they know better.