In this column I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. Today we are looking at the introduction of Green Lantern John Stewart.
John Stewart is THE Green Lantern in the current Justice League run, and has gained popularity from the successful Justice League cartoon (of the early to mid 2000s). He is typically shown as a straight talking marine and architect. However, his original introduction deviates from this a bit. When Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams created him he was an unemployed architect. His first panels show him pushing back against the police and their unfair treatment of the black community. Even though he is highly educated he explains that the reason he can’t get a job is because of his skin color. Essentially John Stewart was created as a political comic book character that explained to the reader the plight of the black community. When he gets the Green Lantern ring he immediately refuses to hide his identity and is clearly going to become a different kind of superhero. While this origin story occurs during O’Neil and Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow tenure John Stewart provides the foil to Hal Jordan’s more right leaning attitudes. This story just works better as it is no longer two rich white men of privilege arguing over politics, when they stand to stay in power regardless of the outcome. John Stewart has a real connection to the fight here that Oliver Queen just cannot match.
Hal Jordan is tasked with training John Stewart as his backup Green Lantern. Guy Gardner (original back up Green Lantern and VASTLY different in this comic than his modern day characterization as well. Here he is played by a plain white American dude with the personality of bread) is injured and can no longer fulfill his duties, therefore the Guardians appoint John Stewart as the next worthy candidate. When Stewart gets the ring his first mission is to protect a politician on tour. This person is clearly racist and even has a racist rant in the middle of the comic. Therefore, John is not really keen on keeping him safe. Hal thinks everyone deserves their free speech and is trying to teach Stewart a lesson in remaining impartial. Luckily, John’s intuition is correct and stops an attempted false flag that the politician was coordinating in order to start a race war. He hired a fake assassin to fire blanks at him while someone else would kill the police officers outside, placing the blame on the black community. Stewart figures this out and ignores the assassin while stopping the mass murder outside. It ends much like all of the O’Neil and Adams Green Lantern comics, with Hal learning that his conservative attitudes are in the wrong and the progressive stance has a lot more truth to it.
The thrust of John Stewart’s issue with the politician is that he is trying to get into the White House. Often comics today are taken to task for being critical of Trump and the overtly racist attitudes of the Republican party. Yet here we have a classic comic that could stand on the rack today and would still be relevant. John’s refusal to stand up for a politician because of his racist views would be seen as an attack on Trump today. Hal being a free speech absolutist here is only one small step from the “debate me” attitude of far right personalities assuming their opinion deserves a platform regardless of content. Thankfully, Hal is still a hero and can understand the error in his previous thinking unlike many moderate white Democrats and Republicans looking for a magical middle ground. When it comes to racism, bigotry and xenophobia we have to be like John Stewart and refuse to trust those who profess those ideals.