Celebrating Green Lantern in Observance of Black History Month

on February 12, 2015

Being one of DC Comics’ first African American superheroes, Green Lantern John Stewart is a very important contribution to Black history. When we hear about such figures, they are usually of real people, like Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas, and so on. Why should this comic book superhero be seen as a luminary of Black history?

It’s because John Stewart is one of the earliest inspiring, idealized representations of a Black person in comic books and adventure stories. Black people have the same desire for escapism and wish fulfillment as other types of people, and John Stewart gives them a character they can relate to and aspire to be like without having to forsake their “Blackness.” He is not maimed or emasculated. He doesn’t have a horn coming out of his head. He is nobodies sidekick. He is not a criminal. He is a strong, fit, competent, smart, independent and steadfast hero.

A problem the Black community has faced is a lack of prominent positive role models. Outside of sports stars and musicians -who are often of dubious character, and sometimes have messages that are either questionable or easily misconstrued- Black youths don’t have many figures that resemble them to look to for inspiration. When you look into escapist fiction, the number is pathetically low. Yes, you may find Black characters there, but how are they used? What are their roles? What is the caliber of those characters? If you were to look, I think you might find that they are often in the background, being side characters, frequently used for comedic relief, and are rather rarely depicted as idealistic heroes who are front and center protagonists.

An interesting observation I once read was that there aren’t many Black geeks. Being a “geek” is just not a real big part of the culture. Why would that be? It’s not because those people are just those people, and they don’t have much capacity to be interested in such things. It’s because the overall geek entertainment and culture does not speak to those people as well as it could. When people who look like them are only given bit parts in cartoons, comics, and so on, and are often not idealized like the White characters, why would they want to escape to those worlds and partake in that entertainment? John Stewart is one of the few leading Black superheroes that allow Black people a conduit to pure, unadulterated wish fulfillment with a character that looks like them. This is no small feat. What’s more, he’s not your typical Black superhero.

John Stewart is from the ghetto, but is not bound to it. Interestingly, he is one of the leading cosmic superheroes. His adventures usually take him across the universe, and he’s had numerous alien love interests. His stories are not always about race relations. Some have been in the past, but John has since grown out of that pigeonhole. He’s transcended being a “Black superhero,” and is now a highly recognized, respected, regular superhero. This is a good thing, because Black people do not always need hamfisted reminders about how they’re weird, different, or disenfranchised. Again, Black people desire the same type of wish fulfillment as others. Sometimes they just want their heroes to be heroes like the others. Not heroes who are overly urbanized or weighed down with loads of social commentary connected to them wherever they go.

One thing that really hooked me about John Stewart from the Justice League cartoon show was that the creators essentially let him be a superhero. He would do the same types of things Batman and Superman have done countless times before. He fought evil in a colorful costume and had exciting powers. He saved the day. He got the girl. The creators did not make him asexual like so many Black characters in fiction are. They were not afraid to pair him with a woman who had the appearance of a Caucasian. In many instances, his role could have been written for a White character and nothing would change.

Yet, at the same time, John Stewart was not white washed or phony. As we can see from the opening to the famous Justice League episode “In Blackest Night,” he allowed for a perspective that had been largely unexplored by popular cartoons and that no other hero on the League could have legitimately offered.

There is a great balance with John Stewart. There is much more to his character than being a Black person, but his background is not entirely ignored. He is a wonderfully fleshed out character in amazingly well written stories, which is why he has captured the hearts of millions and millions of people, Black, White, and everything in between.

John Stewart is also important because of how far he has come against huge amounts of adversity from both fans and industry professionals.

Some people cannot easily accept a Black superhero that was initially a supporting character and meant to be a “backup” becoming a legitimate lead character even to the point of surpassing the supposed “iconic” White version. It is an ugly fact, but not one that I’m going to dance around. Such people are okay with John Stewart being around so long as he is a Beta Lantern, in that he is secondary and meant to prop up another White Green Lantern.

This was seen clearly after John Stewart had reinvigorated the name of “Green Lantern,” thanks to the acclaimed Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons. Certain people at DC Comics could not stand for that, and did everything in their power to diminish John Stewart while attempting to boost the profile of the White Green Lantern. Eventually, the 2011 Green Lantern movie was made, and when the trailer was shown, many people wondered why the character was played by a White actor, because in their minds, Green Lantern was John Stewart.

Feeling more desperate than ever, because they had not changed the public perception of Green Lantern, and the Hal Jordan projects failed, the people at DC Comics even attempted to kill John Stewart. The writer they hired to carry this out refused to do it and news of this leaked to the fans, who were vocally outraged.

What is so amazing is that after all of the efforts to diminish John Stewart, he is still relevant. He is still the Green Lantern in millions of people’s eyes, and the White one walked away a highly damaged character, despite having hundreds of millions spent on propping him up.

Ever since John Stewart’s creation, when then DC Editor in Chief, Julius Shwartz, wanted to name him “Lincoln Washington,” John has faced hardship. Yet, he has naturally managed to surpass all of it. He’s more in demand now than he’s ever been. He’s in news headlines more now than ever. Numerous multi-million dollar stars have expressed their appreciation for the character and desire to play him. His comic book series goes on being successful, and he has a hugely passionate fanbase.

One reason people feel so passionate about John Stewart is because the issues surrounding the character go beyond usual concerns fictional characters and their fans face. They’re very topical and serious. John Stewart has —in real life— faced the Black struggle. The character has been held down, had his opportunities taken from him even when he succeeded, has been denied what he’s deserved, and has been generally mistreated for no good reason (the-powers-that-be would rather back a White character). These are real life things, that real life Black people sometimes face, and John Stewart has publicly confronted them, and overcome them!

I’ve heard people –even minorities– say that these sorts of issues should be fought in courts of law, and in places where policy is made, and they shouldn’t really have a place in our superhero stories or fanbases. However, I think they should be fought in ALL arenas until they need not be fought anymore. Prejudice can rear its head anywhere, and there should be no place in our society for it.

The John Stewart character is very inspiring, but what is equally inspiring is the devotion and passion of his fans. We have stuck with John through thick and thin, but we have to continue to bring even more of that passion, because, remember, this is a struggle. By simply being a Black character, John is immediately underprivileged. By simply being a Black character, he already has something to prove. We, his fans, need to make up that difference and then some with our support for him. If we continue this ever more, then hopefully, one day it will no longer be this way.

One reason I made this site is because I realized no one else was going to do it. No one else was going to make a Green Lantern site with this perspective. I looked around at the online Green Lantern fanbase and thought it didn’t accommodate John Stewart fans that well. I knew we were out there, and if we had a place to go where we could be relaxed with our views, we would congregate. It’s a huge honor to know that GreenLantern.Co speaks to so many people and has made such a difference.

We have to stand up and make ourselves heard, because no one else is going speak for us. If you don’t like the way things are do what you can to change them. It’s not a hopeless endeavor. Your voice can make a difference. And though your voice matters, you must also put your money where your mouth is and vote with your dollars. At the end of the day, this is all a business for WB, so we have got to show them economic strength to prove that John is a viable character they should invest more in.

The fact that John Stewart refuses to go away, and that he means so much to so many people makes him a true figure in Black History worth discussing. It goes to show how far we’ve come when many White children want to see and be like John Stewart more than they do Hal Jordan. It’s not just Black people who are behind John Stewart. A character like this helps bridge gaps. The more people see an idealized Black hero, the less weird the idea becomes to them. The more they see interracial relationships in media, the more acclimatized people become to them. A character like John Stewart nurtures our society by breaking down barriers, building bridges, and giving marginalized groups a top class hero and role model they can aspire to be like.

I hope we see more of John Stewart in key leading roles. As fictional characters go, this Green Lantern has made a large impact on society.

Header image by skyvolt2000.

Oa, by the way

John Stewart, the Comic Vine Character of the Month for February 2015, is in another Character Battle of the Week over at ComicVine.Com. This time he’s up against Ronan the Accuser. The victor will be decided by vote. You know what to do, Lantern fans. Head on over to Comic Vine and go support our guy!

Battle of the Week: Green Lantern (John Stewart) vs. Ronan the Accuser