That Time DC Comics’ First Black Superhero Kicked Hal Jordan’s Arse

That Time DC Comics’ First Black Superhero Kicked Hal Jordan’s Arse

DC Comics has a lot of Green Lanterns. Thousands of them are weird-looking aliens from extraterrestrial cultures; a decent chunk of them are from Earth. Human ring-wielders fight all the time, but Green Lantern: Mosaic #5 is a classic because of how John Stewart beat his fellow Green Lantern Hal Jordan.

The problem with John Stewart isn’t that he’s not Hal Jordan. The problem is he keeps getting compared to Jordan and judged in reference to him. To be fair, that tension was baked into the character right from the start.

John Stewart originally debuted in a 1972 story called “Beware My Power” as a back-up to Hal Jordan. Created by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, Stewart is the first well-meaning attempt at being more inclusive in DC’s superhero fiction. (Black Lightning didn’t come until years later.) John Stewart was cast in the “angry black man” mode so common for black mainstream cape comics characters.

Like Luke Cage, John initially spoke in dialogue that tried to signal a hip, with-it awareness of ghetto life. He also sported a short fuse like Cage. His first adventure presented him as an impulsive rookie out on patrol with an experienced veteran.

Green Lantern #87‘s drama revolved around the campaign of a racist presidential candidate. The plot beats seem rote and corny now but it’s worth remembering that it was published just four years after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Institutional prejudices still happened out in the open and black communities in the United States had erupted into riots and protests at the lack of hope and progress.

The most interesting thing about John Stewart’s first appearance is the glimmer of self-awareness that peeks through.

Hal treats John with paternalistic condescension for the bulk of the story and when John finally solves the mystery of the assassination plot, Hal has to admit that he was judging the new Green Lantern all wrong.

That moment can be read as a tacit admission that the white liberal creators of this new character are drawing from a reality they know nothing about. The text caption at the end of “Beware My Power” — almost certainly titled that way to reference the phrase “Black Power” — says, “Where or when, no man can say… but rest assured — John (Green Lantern) Stewart will return.” The uncertainty in that caption probably indicates that the powers-that-be were waiting for feedback on the new GL, but it also betrays a little bit of doubt, too, as to whether DC could pull this off.

In the 1980s, Hal Jordan quit being Green Lantern and John replaced him. This was a controversial choice in the fictional and real worlds.

As the years went on, John’s backstory and personality morphed. A career as an architect was added to his secret identity and he gradually came across as more mellow than in his initial appearance. As Marvel did with the Black Panther, DC editorial used Stewart in a special story about apartheid written by Jim Owsley/Christopher Priest where he was tortured in a fictional analogue for South Africa.

Over his long evolution, dismissive fans hung the Black Lantern name on Stewart, a shorthand for the idea that his raison d’etre and defining trait was being a black man. Even when he was the main Green Lantern, he was viewed as a second-best sidekick, a placeholder until Hal came back.

Green Lantern: Mosaic changed all of that. Written by Gerard Jones with art by Cully Hamner, Dan Panosian, Albert De Guzman and Steve Mattsson, Mosaic happens a few years after Stewart’s lowest point. A plot beat in DC’s Cosmic Odyssey miniseries had an uncharacteristically arrogant Stewart make a mistake which led to the destruction of an entire planet. Later appearances showed John as suicidal and full of doubt as to whether he could be a hero.

When Mosaic starts, John’s voicing is much different than in preceding characterizations.

He comes off a little loopy.

The first-person narration that tells readers about his new status quo is peppered with literary references and feels like you’re coasting along John’s stream of consciousness.

His mission to create a new co-operative society of lifeforms from all over the universe on Oa is an artifact of the 1990s when multiculturalism was a feel-good buzzword, but it gave him a unique purpose in the Green Lantern mythos.

Mosaic debuted during the height of mainstream comics’ collectible gimmick phase and the first issue shipped with a plastic ring that had a glow-in-the-dark center. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it now but I wore that damn ring out in public. Once when I was taking the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan, I shared a car with a few members of De La Soul. One of my play-cousins growing up knew them from living in Massapequa but I was too starstruck to say hello to my musical idols. Still, I’ll never forget that the eyes of Kelvin Mercer/Plug One/Posdnuos went to the hand that was wearing the ring. He saw it but had no way of knowing why I was wearing it.

And, yeah, my running buddies at the time made fun of me then. But, the reason I sported that chintzy tchotchke was because the John Stewart in Green Lantern: Mosaic #1 felt kindred to me. He quoted Walt Whitman, meandered along existential tangents and wondered at his own sense of self. Whitman quotations excluded, I did most of those things, too. This wasn’t the quasi-militant ghetto dude from two decades prior; his brain was messier and a lot more neurotic and that was presented as being perfectly ok.

I was a fan of Jones’ work from his creator-owned indie cult fave title The Trouble With Girls, a spy-spoof mid-century Americana pastiche filled with riffs on Leave It to Beaver and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But this book showed depths I didn’t know he could reach. Mosaic found vigour by leaning hard into the differences separating Hal and John. Hal was a cocky fighter pilot who liked to buck authority and John was an architect, a creator interested in structures and design. John’s newly inscribed individuality brought tension with it, though. Green Lantern: Mosaic #5 had Hal Jordan show up and begins with a sequence that stunned me, an interior monologue where John admits to sometimes wishing he was Hal.

Here, Hal was the one playing the authority figure, trying to get John’s girlfriend — a woman they were both connected to — away from the polyglot patchwork planet and back on Earth. After Rose screams about the brawl destroying her house, the Lanterns move the fight inside John’s head, where Hal is met by different permutations of John.

John ultimately wins by confusing and overwhelming Hal with harsh truths about how different their life experiences are.

Victory aside, John knows that comparisons to Hal aren’t ever going to end. But, by the end of the issue, it seems like John is happy being his own self.

When this issue came out, I was in Montreal visiting cousins. I missed the weekly Wednesday new comic-book day ritual and called my friends to see what they’d gotten. They raved about John kicking Hal’s butt and I knew I had to get it. (This was way before mobile phone ubiquity and I got yelled by my mum at for making a long-distance call.) I thought I’d be embarrassed going back to this issue after so long. Mind you, there’s an overwrought earnestness in evidence here, undergirded by a feeling of voyeuristic tourism of black culture. But I wasn’t mad at that then and still am not. John Stewart only exists because white comics creators saw that they were making fictional universes that excluded a wealth of different experiences. Awkwardness is part of the character’s conceptual DNA. The story’s title is “The Child-Man and the Great White Hero” and it’s just one way of acknowledging the representational divide it tries to address. This is an attempt to push the ball forward, even a little bit.

I’ve always loved the core conceit of the Green Lantern concept, the idea that people can will whatever they imagine into being. Looking back at it, Green Lantern: Mosaic #5 communicates an understanding that black people in America and around the world have been doing exactly that — willing their hopes and dreams into being — in opposition of a stifling paternalism. And I recognise that interpretation is one I have willed into existence.

This issue is a hallmark for me because it showed how John Stewart might use willpower differently than Hal. Yes, it was wobbly and clunky in spots but it was exciting to read white creators who had any inkling that there was multiplicity in black American life. When John pulls from a subconscious reservoir of identities to stymie Hal’s attempts to shut him down, it was like nothing I’d read in comics at the time. That tacit admission — “hey, there’s a lot more to black people than we’ve been showing” — was thrilling to me. It was self-aware and even a little self-loathing. “We’re trying,” it said.

John Stewart’s entire publishing history is dotted with stories that only succeed if you read them in good faith, where the creators land on clunky beats in the effort to achieve some sort of greater narrative ambition. When John Stewart was the Green Lantern included in the much-beloved Justice League cartoon almost a decade after Mosaic, none of this baggage was in evidence. Black creators were shaping this version of the character; things had changed. Green Lantern: Mosaic #5 could it have been better in a myriad of ways. But this story, with all its flaws, was the best that one predominantly white creative team could do at the time. They could’ve done nothing and ignored the elephant in the room. I’m glad they didn’t.