Green Lantern #81, the sixth issue of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams’ classic “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” run, represented a couple of “firsts” for the series. For one, the superheroine Black Canary, who’d previously appeared in issues #78 and #79, was cover-billed as a guest-star for the first time. For another, this was the first installment that overtly heralded the major social issue dramatized within the book’s pages with a cover blurb, i.e., the “Population Explosion!”
Along with these firsts, however, issue #81 almost had the added distinction of being the last issue drawn by Neal Adams. As the artist would later tell interviewer Arlen Schumer (in Comic Book Marketplace #40 [Oct., 1996]), “I thought we started to run out of ideas when we ran the overpopulation story… Politically, I had a problem with the book.”
We’ll get into Adams’ specific concerns a bit further on in the post; but first, a bit of background on “the population explosion” for anyone out there who may be too young to remember this phrase, which first entered the popular lexicon in the 1960s. Of course, concerns over whether the Earth could forever sustain an ever-growing human population had been around well before that, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that some scientists and other experts began to express the idea that a worldwide crisis was imminent. Driven by the undeniable fact of the dramatic growth in global population in recent decades — in 1960, the world’s population reached 3 billion (a milestone commemorated by the cover of the January 11, 1960 issue of Time magazine shown at left), having passed the 2 billion mark a mere 35 years previously — both academic and popular writers raised the specters of mass starvation, the exhaustion of critical nonrenewable resources, and ultimately, economic and social collapse. By the mid-Sixties,such concerns had begun to generate some classic science fiction, such as Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! (later the basis for the 1973 film Soylent Green).
Still, as of the waning months of 1970, nothing had yet rung the alarm bell in the popular imagination quite like The Population Bomb, a book by biologist Paul Ehrlich and his wife Amy (though only credited to Paul) which began with the statement: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” The Ehrlichs’ book was published in 1968, but it didn’t really take off until February, 1970, when Dr. Paul made the first of multiple appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Soon, The Population Bomb was soaring up the best-seller charts, and the dire predictions of the Ehrlichs were all over the media.
Such would have been the cultural environment in which Denny O’Neil sat down to write his script for Green Lantern #81’s “Death Be My Destiny!” — a story which begins (for no readily apparent reason) with an evocation of James Montgomery Flagg’s famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” World War I recruitment poster:
Our story picks up directly from Green Lantern #80, which we discussed here on the blog a couple of months ago. As regular readers will recall, in that issue the Guardian of the Universe whom our two emerald-clad crusaders call the “Old-Timer” faced a choice between saving the life of Green Lantern and preventing toxic waste from being dumped off a burning cargo ship. The Old-Timer chose to help his friend, and was charged by his fellow Guardians with criminal negligence. Their attempt to have him tried on the planet Gallo having not worked out very well, they’ve now brought him to their home planet of Oa to judge him themselves.
Speaking in their friend’s defense are not only Green Lantern and Green Arrow, but also Black Canary — who, as already noted, had previously shown up in issues #78-79, and whose presence in “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” seems very natural, considering that O’Neil had begun developing a romantic relationship between the Canary and GA in the pages of another title he was writing, Justice League of America, before beginning his Green Lantern run.
On page 4, Neal Adams treats us to one of the dazzlingly innovative page layouts he seemed to toss off almost effortlessly during this period in his career — a composition well-served by the embellishments of inker Dick Giordano, as is the art throughout the rest of the book:
“…an ancient, nearly-forgotten civilization — from which sprang the immortal Guardians of Oa, more than ten billion years ago!” My thirteen-year-old self considered himself to be fairly well-versed in the backstory of the Guardians; after all, my very first issue of Green Lantern, back in 1965, had featured “The Secret Origin of the Guardians!” But I’d never heard of this “Maltus“. And, as it turned out, neither had anyone else — since Denny O’Neil had just made the planet up for this story.
And as with virtually every other alien planet invented by O’Neil during this era, the name “Maltus” was no random coinage. Rather, it referenced the English cleric and economist Thomas Robert Malthus, whose best-known work, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), postulated that that human population tends to increase at a faster rate than its means of subsistence, and that unless it is checked — either by disaster (e.g., disease, famine, or war) or by the control of reproduction through “moral restraint” (i.e., sexual abstinence) — dire consequences are sure to result. This doctrine would become known, naturally enough, as Malthusianism; a later variant, associated with Dr. Ehrlich and others, advocated for taking stronger measures (such as contraception) to achieve population control, and would be called neo-Malthusianism.
Our heroes repel the Maltusans’ initial (and peculiarly misogynistic) physical assault without much trouble; still, they decide their best option for now is to retreat to a less crowded area:
Green Lantern cuts through the door of the archival vault, allowing his three companions to enter while he concentrates on keeping the enormously heavy object aloft:
The archived account of how Maltus has arrived at its present point of crisis may work OK in science fiction terms (though the business about how the “new people” show up randomly all over Maltus, with no one ever catching on to their status, is a bit much to swallow), but as an allegory of our own Earth’s population issues, it falls well short of the mark. Not only is there nothing remotely Malthusian (neo- or otherwise) in O’Neil’s notion of a society overcompensating for temporary sterility by abusing a cloning process; there’s nothing in that scenario that’s analogous, or even particularly (dare I say it) relevant to any real-world human problems, either.
Having learned all they can from the archive, Green Arrow, Black Canary, and the Old-Timer now rejoin Green Lantern. GA and the Canary are both ready to go put the kibosh on Mother Juna’s operation right away. (Presumably, the name of the Maltusan “savior” is derived from Juno, the Roman queen of the gods as well as the goddess of marriage and childbirth.) However, the more cautious GL suggests that they first “take a tour of this world and see the effects of population explosion first-hand!” And so they do…
The travails being suffered by the Maltusans seem pretty much in line with the nightmare scenarios of human overpopulation outlined by Paul Ehrlich and company, with the possible exception of the hostility displayed towards mothers (and women in general), which O’Neil had already touched on back on page 5.
Perhaps the most serious flaw in O’Neil’s plotting is the fact that the people of Maltus know that Mother Juna is the source of their suffering, and even know exactly where she is, but haven’t risen up themselves to stop her. I mean, they do have the numbers in their favor, right?
GL does indeed get immediately clobbered by the big yellow guy, and GA fares just as poorly when it’s his turn. Luckily, there’s an actual trained hand-to-hand fighter on the scene:
“They must have found your tunnel!” In other words, if the Maltusans had only thought of tunneling under the dome themselves, this could have all been over a long time ago. Sheeesh.
As the angry mob begins to demolish Mother Juna’s lab, our heroes take her into custody:
The preceding scene comes as close as O’Neil’s script ever does to providing a cause for Maltus’ overpopulation crisis that could be considered applicable to the situation on Earth circa 1970, and it’s… a societal norm that makes childbearing the apotheosis of womanhood? Again, I don’t claim to be an expert on neo-Malthusianism, but this seems off the mark in terms of how its adherents saw (or see) the root causes of human overpopulation.
On the other hand, the population control advocates of the era did encourage Americans (of both sexes) to be more conscious about the business of having children; to not bring multiple kids into the world just because it was the “natural” thing to do. This encouragement, which went as far as the promotion of voluntary sterilization, appears to have been the primary cause of Neal Adams’ unhappiness with Green Lantern #81’s subject matter. As the artist would put it to author John Wells in Back Issue #45 (Nov., 2010):
It was a very stupid time in America. Americans were having vasectomies, and having their tubes tied, by the thousands, in a mindless liberal sacrifice play, to solve the overpopulation problem. When, in fact, Americans and Europeans contributed little or nothing to the overpopulation problem, which was a problem of lack of birth control in third-world countries. A problem that still continues to this day. The overpopulation issue was a bit of a joke in my opinion.
The Population Bomb did call for population control efforts within the United States, but this was at least in part so that the U.S. could claim the moral high ground when calling for such efforts in other countries, especially those of the developing world. “We want our propaganda based on ‘do as we do'”, wrote the Ehrlichs, “not ‘do as we say’.” The book also advocated for drastic measures internationally, including the elimination of American food aid to countries “so far behind in the population-food game that there is no hope that our food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency” (we should let them starve, in other words), and the support of government-run coerced sterilization programs in nations such as India. And, in fact, a number of countries (including India) did implement such policies during the 1970s.
Obviously, the apocalyptic scenarios described by Dr. Ehrlich — who, in 1970, declared to CBS News: “Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come — and by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.” — haven’t come to pass. The reasons for his predictions being so far off are complex, but the single most important appears to have been the success of the “Green Revolution” in agriculture, a set of technological innovations, that, implemented on a global scale beginning in the 1960s, vastly increased agricultural production around the world. Unfortunately, the indisputable reality of the “population bomb” turning out to be a dud seems to have encouraged some people to use Ehrlich’s failure to accurately predict the future as a reason to denigrate all forecasts made by scientists, especially in the area of climate change, as bogus. This ignores a couple of important points: one, that Ehrlich and co. appear to have had their naysayers from the start, in contrast to the near-universal consensus among climate scientists concerning global warming; another, that overpopulation and climate change, while related to each other as environmental issues, are, like, y’know, different things. Not to mention the fact that plenty of scientists still do consider overpopulation to be one of the most pressing problems facing humanity (per this 2017 “warning” statement).
But this subject is admittedly a large and complex one (whatever Thanos might think), a full exploration and discussion of which is somewhat beyond the remit of our little ol’ comics blog. Besides which, we still have the final panels of “Death Be My Destiny” left to cover…
The previous issue of Green Lantern, #80, had ended with out heroes saying goodbye to the Old-Timer as well — this time, however, the farewell seemed to take, at least for the next eleven years. When the former immortal next turned up, it would be in Brave and the Bold #174 (May, 1981), when Green Lantern returned to Maltus (with Batman in tow, this time). There, courtesy of writer Gerry Conway and artist Jim Aparo, GL found that though the planet’s overpopulation problem remained serious, the Old-Timer was still keeping the faith, and doing what he could to make things better.
Another five years passed prior to the O-T’s return during writer Steve Englehart’s run on Green Lantern; by that time, the Crisis on Infinite Earths had occurred, and the Guardians decided to take their leave of the Universe for awhile, leaving behind the Old-Timer — who finally got a real name, Appa Ali Apsa, courtesy of Englehart — to serve as a mentor to the Green Lantern Corps. Unfortunately, some later creators decided to have Appa go crazy evil, and he was ultimately put down by the Guardians (yes, they came back), in Green Lantern (1990 series) #8 (Jan., 1991). But, as I mentioned in my GL #80 post, I’d just as soon forget that ever happened. And since the last issue of Doomsday Clock recently revealed that Earth-One remains out there in the Multiverse somewhere, somehow, I can do just that, and imagine instead that the Old-Timer is still living his last years out peacefully on Maltus, if I’ve a mind to.*
In contrast to the Old-Timer, Mother Juna never made another appearance after GL #81 — at least, not until a few short months ago, when Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp featured her in The Green Lantern – Season Two #1 (Apr., 2020). Here we find the scientist still creating synthetic life — apparently at the behest of the Guardians themselves. “We run sink conditions here,” she explains, “utopian collectives, totalitarian nightmares. Runaway overpopulation and anti-natalist initiatives. Successive artificial generations are born on Maltus so the Guardians can study how societies prosper — and dwindle.” Of course, this story takes place within within DC’s current post-Rebirth continuity, so (just as with the current iteration of Appa Ali Apsa), it’s not entirely clear whether the fifty-year-old events of GL #81 are to be considered part of this Mother Juna’s (and this Green Lantern’s) history. Given Grant Morrison’s penchant for taking an “everything happened” approach to DC Universe continuity, however, it seems likely that they are. If that’s so, then the clear implication is that virtually everything that happened in O’Neil and Adams’ story should now be understood as having been a sort of lab experiment run by the Guardians — a fascinating, if rather unsettling, idea.
And with that observation, we conclude our look back at — oh, wait, there are still two panels left, aren’t there?
“Thus, the journey is done!” O’Neil’s closing captions frame this final scene as the conclusion of not just issue #81’s tale, or even the two-part “fate of the Old-Timer” storyline begun in issue #80, but the entire six-issue sequence that he and Adams began in their first issue as a team, #76. That wouldn’t be an unusual approach in the current era, in which story arcs of six or so issues are routinely collected into trade editions; but it’s rather odd to see in a 1970 comic book — unless, of course, the writer knew, or at least believed, that this was going to be the last issue of the stories. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I can’t help but wonder if O’Neil had been informed that his and Adams’ new, “relevant” direction for Green Lantern would be given six issues to see if the book’s sales improved, and then a decision would be made regarding the title’s future. If that’s true, then it would lend a certain irony to Adams’ later assertions that issue #81 was almost his last issue, since it actually might almost have been everyone’s last issue.
Of course, as most of this blog’s readers will already know, #81 wasn’t the last issue of “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”. Though the series’ publication frequency would be reduced immediately following this installment (from eight-times-a-year to bi-monthly), Green Lantern #82 would hit the stands in December, 1970, with both Green Arrow and Black Canary — and Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams — all still on board. In December, 2020, we’ll be back to take a look at that issue, on this very blog. I hope to see you then.
*For the sake of completeness, I should note that there is an Appa Ali Apsa in DC’s current post-Rebirth continuity, introduced by Brian Michael Bendis in Man of Steel #1 (Jul., 2018). This Appa is a presently-deceased Guardian of the Universe who, many years ago, was part of a shady interplanetary group called “the Circle”, which was indirectly responsible for the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton. I suspect that Bendis does mean for us to see this character as the same Appa Ali Apsa who appeared in earlier DC comics, but since none of the “new” Appa’s appearances to date have referenced any events from the “old” Appa’s biography (at least not as far as I know), I think it remains an open question as to whether he has to be considered the same guy.
Another insightful post, Alan!
Denny O’Neil did acknowledge on numerous occasions that he was much more comfortable writing characters & situations which were closely grounded in reality. The conceptual and plotting flaws of this issue that you point out do seem indicative of his difficulties in handling science fiction material.
On the other hand, there does seem to be a certain feminist subtext to this story, although I do not think it is adequately explored or articulated:
The idea of the Maltusans demonizing and attacking women out of fears that they will bear children feels like it can be seen on a commentary on the idea that men often forego any personal responsibility in preventing unwanted children by refusing to take a sensible actions like using a condom or enabling women easy access to affordable birth control, and afterwards when women do get pregnant placing all the blame on them for the pregnancy, branding them “sluts” and “whores.”
Additionally, Juna’s speech explaining why she obsessively began cloning people, because she “was always taught that a woman was NOTHING if she wasn’t a mother” feels like a commentary on traditional, repressive male ideas of a woman’s role in society, i.e. the “correct” and “proper” position of women is to we wives and mothers, and how, when a woman is unable or unwilling to conform to that role they are made to suffer and feel guilty.
So there’s a lot going on in this story. I just do not think O’Neil addresses these ideas in a particularly coherent manner.
On the lighter side of things, I agree, page four is beautiful. Neal Adams was definitely firing on all cylinders. Dick Giordano was probably the best inker he had during his entire career.
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Ben, I appreciate your insights regarding the possible feminist subtext in this story,. I probably didn’t explore that aspect as much as I should have, focused as I was on looking for evidence of neo-Malthusian thinking on O’Neil’s part.
Along the same line, I’ll be looking forward to your reactions to my post on GL #82 — the so-called “Women’s Lib” issue — which will be coming up in December. 🙂
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Boy, do I have a lot of catching up to do! Another intriguing and informative post Alan. I remember reading this one in 1970 and thinking, wow, how relevant the story was to today (1970). Of course, you are correct that this particular story has no credible link at all to Earth’s because of the artificial creation of the problem on Maltus and the gaping logic hole that the Maltusians had a very simple way of halting the problem at a single point and likely long before it got as bad as it did. However, I wasn’t thinking logically in those days at the age of nine. Also, the hostility to women on the planet makes no sense because it wasn’t as if this situation was caused by women continually getting pregnant and have multiple babies each time.
In any event, a much, much better take on the population explosion problem was in the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon” from January 1969 in which Captain Kirk is abducted by the leaders of an over-populated planet and is unwittingly used to introduce a deadly virus into the population which is seeking such a disease as their immune systems are effective against all known diseases (thus they cannot get sick and die). This episode raises a number of moral issues and, to me, is noteworthy in that Kirk gets past the (earthly NBC) censors by asking the planet leaders why they don’t use birth control. To me, that’s almost as impressive as the first interracial kiss on television.
Another classic quote of the subject: “If he is going to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population growth!” Ebeneezer Scrooge.
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