Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dark evidence (Green Lantern:Sleepers, Book Three)

As I tried to explain at the outset, part of my goal in putting myself through SUMMER SCHOOL is taking care of some make-up work, and today is a pretty clear-cut example of that, as I return to the verdant territory of Green Lantern Month and finally finish my reviews of the Sleepers trilogy of novels by examining Book Three. (See previous posts on Book One and Book Two.)

So I’ve come to the end of the complete three-part story that Christopher Priest set out to tell, and I just feel kind of bad. Priest has done a lot of work in the comic book industry over the years, and lots of it is really good. And, from the interviews I’ve read and behind-the-scenes knowledge I’ve gleaned, he seems like a decent enough guy. He’s a tremendously talented writer who was stand-up enough to take on various thankless editing tasks in his career as well, and who got needlessly crapped upon at various points, to boot. So who am I to dump any more on the guy, to say when it comes to being a novelist, Priest is a great comic book writer?

And for the record, though it hopefully goes without saying, I don’t mean to imply that comic books are written down to the level of not-terribly-bright children and novels are artistic expression of our highest virtues and therefore being a “good comic book writer” is a dismissive backhanded compliment. Novels can be founts of wisdom or utter dreck, and so can comics. The don’t occupy two different levels of inherent merit, but each one is its own medium, and each one can highlight different strengths and weaknesses of a writer.

Here’s an example: Priest tends toward a lot of brandname references in his writing, which is a pretty aggravating tic in prose. I actually think it can be quite an asset when writing a comic book, though. If you write in a comic book script that a character is wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, that conveys a certain amount of information, some of it potentially characterization, some of it only fleeting details of set dressing. But the only person who will read the words “Brooks Brothers” will be the artist, who then draws the character wearing the suit and has to convey the brand, not by zooming in on the label but by evoking the associations in the visuals, the lines and colors. The end result is much more subtle, less grating. When you write in a novel that a character is wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, it just seems like clunky product placement. (Unless you’re Bret Easton Ellis. But sometimes even then.)

Also, if you’re writing a comic book script and you indicate “the doors were shuddered” when you really meant “shuttered” then chances are the artist will know what you meant and draw the shuttered doors correctly and your wider audience will get the idea. Whereas if you have a crummy-to-nonexistent copy editor and your novel gets on bookshelves with the phrase “the doors were shuddered” in it, then snippy English majors like me will roll their eyes.

But style is one thing, and substance is another. The substance of Sleepers: Book Three is all about Hal Jordan, who is for all intents and purposes the main Green Lantern. He wasn’t the first, he won’t be the last, and he hasn’t always been the most interesting, but he’s the one in the Super Friends and he’s the one Ryan Reynolds played in the 2011 movie. You may have noticed in the middle of that last sentence I took a dig at Hal for being the boring Green Lantern, some of which comes down to personal preference, but some of which is genuinely embedded in the history of the character. Back in the mid-50’s all superheroes were status-quo supporting squares, and the revolutionary idea of flawed, conflicted, complicated protagonists hadn’t truly taken hold (not in comic books, at any rate). So when Hal Jordan’s adventures first started getting published, he was noble and clean cut, basically Superman but with a power ring instead of a bunch of alien powers. As the decades went by Hal was redefined and reinvented many times, in a moderately intriguing reflection of changing social customs and understandings. Hal Jordan was, from day one, a professional test pilot. In the mid-50’s, the Cold War and the Space Race, this made him a prototypical brave American essentially above reproach; by the tail end of the 20th century he was (clearly!) arrogant and cocky and possibly a bit suicidal, at the very least a man-child with tendencies to be romantically self-destructive.

And Hal Jordan’s romantic life certainly factors heavily into the plot of Book Three, as Carol Ferris plays a major role in the proceedings. Carol is to Hal as Lois Lane is to Clark Kent, although she’s also to Green Lantern as Catwoman is to Batman. Priest isn’t inventing anything out of whole cloth by delving into the fraught, soap-operatic tension between pilot Hal Jordan and his boss, Ferris Aircraft executive Carol Ferris, or between masked, ring-slinging crusader Green Lantern and his foil Star Sapphire (as Carol is known when possessed by a certain cosmic gem). But Priest does make a stab at recontextualizing Carol Ferris, and it’s not one I would consider altogether successful. When originally introduced, Carol was an exciting character simply because she was a (rare at the time) independent-minded career-oriented gal. But she generally played damsel in distress to Green Lantern. Once the Star Sapphire plots started recurring, she became a regrettable stereotype of a harridan, obsessed with defeating Green Lantern and thereby claiming him as her worthy mate. Them ladies, give them all the cosmic power in the galaxy and they still just want a husband, amirite? But those embarrassing Eisenhower-era sexual politics raise a difficult question, namely which is worse: a feminine caricature who can’t decide whether she wants to blast the hero or marry him, because that’s how girls are; OR, a character who is described by the author in one breath as dealing with the emotional damage wrought by her father when she was growing up and in another breath as “evil” as if that’s just a trait that some people develop or even embrace. I honestly don’t know which is worse, the antiquated plot device/symbol of a frighteningly strong woman, or the modern all-about-the-daddy-issues oversimplification, but I know that they’re both not good.

I think, ultimately, my main frustration with Priest’s Sleepers novels is the way that he continually attempts to make grand sweeping statements about life and humanity and the nature of the universe which I assume he thinks are profound (and posisbly even the sublime expression of truth which novels can carry off but mere comic books can’t) but which really come off as oversimplifications and pointless generalizations. He describes various characters, from minor bit parts to major players like Carol Ferris, with a kind of winking, nudging, “come on, you know the type I’m talking about” as if to make himself seem worldly and wise. But reducing people to types is kind of the opposite of wisdom, as far as I’m concerned, so it all falls pretty flat.

And then, crowning the whole hot mess, is the fact that (as I referenced in my earlier reviews) this Green Lantern story, which saves the part about Hal Jordan for last, is set at a time when Hal was not serving as a Green Lantern. He was the Spectre (a concept I have dissected before), and so he is in the Book Three novel. He is an agent of God, although the book is written in first person from Hal’s perspective and he too-coyly refers to God as “the Boss”. (If this had turned out to be Bruce Springsteen all along I would have deemed Sleepers: Book Three my favorite book of all time, but alas, no.) Or at least, he starts out as an agent of God, running around extracting severe vengeance in poetically warped ways on those who commit evil, until he steps out of line one too many times and is stripped of his divine mission, which leads to him slipping on a Green Lantern ring once again. And then by the end of the book the only way for Hal to save all of Creation is to become the Spectre once again, and he does.

OK, two insurmountable problems with using this technically-canonical-circa-dawn-of-millennium Hal Jordan:

1. I find genre-action stories in which the existence of an omnipotent and interventionist God is posited to be excruciatingly boring. If God is on the good guys’ side, they literally cannot lose, which in turn sucks all the life out of the story for me. Yeah, I know that nobody reads Superman comics because this might be the time Superman loses, that it’s inherent to the superhero formula for them to be invincible, but invoking literal G-O-D? Too far.

2. The novel inevitably becomes a tract on theodicy, but it’s a nonsensical, self-contradictory, meaningless one when all is said and done. The upshot of Book Three, if I read it right (and I concede maybe I didn’t), is “Why does evil exist? It just does. It’s all part of the plan. Don’t worry about it. In fact, don’t even think about it at all. You’ll feel better if you just accept it without question.” Which is a lousy bit of philosophy on the face of it, but as the backbone of a novel about superheroes? Are you kidding me? Superheroes fight bad guys. They don’t accept the existence of evil with a shrug, they engage in a never-ending struggle against it. They don’t look for salvation in the next world, they protect life and promote justice in this world. Many, many attempts have been made over the years to reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God with a universe full of superheroes, throwing in holy warriors and avenging angels and all that, but it rarely works, because there’s a fundamental disconnect in there somewhere.

(And ha ha, you probably thought I was all done forever talking about Man of Steel! But this is another one of the things I thought was completely wrongheaded about it, the whole Kal-El = Jesus theme that they drove into the ground. Yeah, yeah, their fathers sent them from the heavens and they are destined to save the world … but no. No, no, no. Superman is NOT Jesus. For one thing, Jerry and Joe were Jewish, so if anything, Superman is Moses. And for another, the story does not go that Jor-El was angry at humanity and was going to wipe us all out unless his son arrived on Earth, made a few good points about love and compassion, and then died self-sacrificially. That is Jesus’s story. Christianity assumes that people need salvation from an external, heavenly source. Superman does not atone for our sins, and in fact comes to Earth with no agenda at all from his father other than to live. It’s his Earth-parents, the Kents, who give him the gift of human spirit and with that, Superman becomes not a redeemer making up for what we can’t do ourselves but an exemplar of what we can do. I’m not saying one of those stories is intrinsically better than the other. I’m just saying they're not the same, and hammering on Clark Kent being 33 years old on a Kryptonian crucifix … ugh.)

But where was I? Oh right, Sleepers. Christopher Priest wrote a trilogy about three different Green Lanterns working together across time and space to fight three interconnected villains, and the convoluted master plot makes approximate sense by the time all the final pieces are revealed in the final volume, but that’s largely overshadowed by the insanely misguided attempts at mashing up superhero tradition, modern psychology, spirituality and assorted other quasi-deep pretensions. And I feel bad viciously laying into Priest like that, because I’m sure he’s a solid dude and nobody forced me to read the books at gunpoint! But there you have it.

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