According to the Grand Comics Database, this comic book was published exactly 50 years ago today, on August 26, 1965. The fact that it came out pretty late in the month may be significant, as it seems very likely to me that I bought it only after buying Justice League of America #40, which doesn’t have a specific date of release given in the GCD, but does have a later cover date of November, 1965. That’s because I didn’t have a clue who Green Lantern was before I started buying comics, and it seems logical that I took a chance on the Emerald Crusader’s solo book only after first encountering him as a member of the JLA. This book could well have been on the stands for a week or two after JLA #40’s release. But since I don’t really know if any of that is actually true, I’m going to go ahead and honor the cover dates, and post about GL #40 ahead of the Justice League book.
I think I must have been aware that this was a special issue before I even cracked open the cover. After all, the cover featured not just one, but two heroes sharing the name of Green Lantern — Hal Jordan, the book’s regular headliner and “modern day” version who also appeared in JLA, and Alan Scott, billed here as the “original” Lantern. In addition, the cover promised that the story within would reveal “The Secret Origin of the Guardians!” I didn’t actually know who the Guardians were, of course, though I guessed (correctly) they were probably these little bald-headed blue guys who were setting the two heroes against each other.
And indeed, the issue did fill me in on the Guardians, who were incredibly powerful but essentially benign (if rather rigid and humorless) aliens who’d taken it on themselves long ages ago to restore order throughout the cosmos after one of their number, a scientist named Krona, accidentally unleashed evil upon the universe while probing the secret origin of all reality. The Guardians had responded to this disaster by developing an interplanetary police force, the Green Lantern Corps, made up of sentient beings from across the universe whom the Guardians armed with “power rings”, able to make anything their wearers imagined become real through the exercise of willpower. Hal Jordan, “our” Green Lantern, was only one of thousands of law enforcement officers sharing the same name — a concept which seemed really cool at the time (especially thanks to penciller Gil Kane‘s imaginatively designed extraterrestrial Lanterns), and still does, five decades on.
As for Alan Scott, the “original” Green Lantern — well, writer John Broome didn’t offer any real details as to how he’d come by his power ring, though it didn’t seem to have any connection with the Guardians; also, it was powerless against wood, while Hal’s ring was vulnerable to the color yellow. (These arbitrary weaknesses, similar to Superman’s susceptibility to Kryptonite, were a common convention of DC’s storytelling which I quickly came to accept early on in my comics-reading days) I did learn right away that this “original” Lantern lived in Gotham City, though not the same one that Batman called home — because Alan Scott lived on Earth-Two, while Hal Jordan (along with Batman, Superman, and the other members of the Justice League of America) lived on Earth-One. This was a grand conceit that editor Julie Schwartz had concocted with his writers some four years earlier: that the stories the company now known as DC had published in the ’30’s and ’40’s, featuring versions of Green Lantern, the Flash, and other heroes different from the ones currently appearing, had taken place on a parallel earth in another dimension. It was a classic science-fiction concept that I’d never encountered before, although (as I recall) my eight-year-old self had no trouble at all grasping it — nor would I have any difficulties with the additional parallel earths DC would introduce over the years. As far as I know, this was a common experience for most fans of my generation. Nevertheless, a couple of decades after this story was published, the people in charge at DC would decide that their fictional multiverse was too complicated and confusing, and thus off-putting to potential new readers; therefore, in a 1985 miniseries and crossover event called “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, DC’s continuity would be reset so that going forward there was only one Earth that was home to all of DC’s heroes — past, present, and future. As it turned out, that “one universe” concept would prove too limiting, and parallel earths of one sort or another would come creeping back into DC storylines before much time had passed; eventually, in 2005, DC’s “Infinite Crisis” event would reveal a re-made multiverse of some 52 different realities. This “new” multiverse was overhauled in its turn in 2011, in a reboot that DC called “The New 52”. (An unnecessary and ill-advised reboot, in my opinion, but that’s a rant for another day.) And just in the last year, yet another miniseries, The Multiversity, ultimately hinted that the DC Multiverse currently on view in its comics might be only one of many.
All of which has more to do with this single 50-year-old comic book then you might expect. In Green Lantern #40, the calamity precipitated by Krona’s act of hubris in probing reality’s origins (as shown here) was portrayed as having led only to the release of evil into his own universe, a la Pandora’s Box — essentially a myth of the Fall:
However, in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (whose cover date, October, 1985, followed that of GL #40 by exactly twenty years), readers discovered that this event was also the point at which a single universe was split into an infinite multiverse. Here’s that issue’s depiction of the same pivotal scene, as adapted by writer Marv Wolfman and penciller George Perez:
The hand seen at the beginning of all creation went on to play a role in the epochal climax of the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event, and it has continued ever since to represent the greatest mysteries remaining behind the foundations of DC Comics’ 77-year-old fictional mythology, appearing most recently in the aforementioned miniseries The Multiversity. Here we see it as depicted by writer Grant Morrison and artist Paulo Siqueira in the mind-melting (and unabashedly meta) The Multiversity Guidebook (March, 2015):
Yes, a story published in a single issue of a monthly comic book 50 years ago continues to resonate with and influence some of today’s most innovative comics creators. And so, yes, I was pretty lucky to pick this up as my third (or fourth) purchased comic book. Twelve cents well spent.
Really, though — my dime and two pennies would have been appropriately expended even without this book’s ultimate historical significance. I’m not doing detailed plot synopses on this blog, but trust me when I say this was a swell superhero adventure story involving Krona’s scheme to escape from his eons-long exile (during which he’d been traveling through the cosmos as a disembodied ball of energy) by visiting Earth-Two and secretly infiltrating and manipulating Alan Scott’s power ring. (How Krona managed to travel to the parallel universe of Earth-Two wasn’t ever explained, but it didn’t seem to matter much.) In the course of the story, Krona mentally overcomes the Guardians and even almost recreates the conditions of his earlier, catastrophic experiment before the two Green Lanterns are able to defeat him with clever teamwork. Good stuff.
After re-reading the story for the first time in decades, however, I’ve just now realized that its title, “The Secret Origin of the Guardians!”, was a bit of a tease. Yes, readers did learn more about the background of the little blue guys from the planet Oa, especially concerning why they founded the Green Lantern Corps in the first place. And if DC had called the story “The Secret Origin of the Green Lantern Corps!”, they would have been spot on. But a close reading clearly reveals that the Guardians’ own secret origin is exactly the knowledge that Krona seeks, and ultimately fails, to discover. As a nameless Oan tells Krona (in flashback) on page 6, “there is a legend of timeless age among us… that if we ever learned the truth about our secret origins, we and our universe would be instantly destroyed.” This statement is echoed and paraphrased at various other points in the narrative. Indeed, the whole point of the two Green Lanterns’ struggle against Krona in this issue is to prevent him learning the secret origin of the Guardians, and thereby destroying the universe. So you could say that while Green Lantern #40 succeeded in providing my eight-year-old self with a thrilling adventure tale that also gave me my first glimpse into the vast scales of space and time open to the imaginations of science fiction storytellers, it nevertheless failed to live up to the implied promise of its title. I didn’t learn the secret origin of the Guardians of the Universe in 1965, and to this day, I still don’t know it.
And you know what? I’m OK with that.