on July 3, 2013
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Green Lantern John Stewart is most famous for appearing on the television programs “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited.” With the huge success of “Batman: The Animated Series,” Warner Bros. charged its producer, Bruce Timm, with the task of making other cartoons based on DC Comics properties. Thus, we were given more great shows like “Superman: The Animated Series,” “Batman Beyond,” and my personal favorite, “Justice League.” These shows existed within the same continuity and became unofficially known as the DC Animated Universe. Many lucky children grew up with these programs. Indeed, these interpretations of the heroes are often the ones people connect and identify with the most. Make no mistake, however; these cartoons are not just for children. They display the most captivating and intelligent writing and presentation to be found in any super hero cartoons, and frequently surpass the comic books they are based on.
There are certain hallmarks of the DC Animated Universe that will never be forgotten and have been adopted by the comics and other mediums. Characters, events, and portrayals that when you think of them, you think primarily of what Bruce Timm and his crew did with them. There is Roxy Rocket, the thrill seeking femme fetale who puts Batman through the wringer. Harley Quinn, the Joker’s charmingly bananas girlfriend and partner in crime. Livewire, the loud mouthed radio shock jock turned super villain out to destroy Superman and his reputation. “Smallville,” Lois Lane’s affectionate, but initially demeaning nickname for Clark Kent. And last but certainly not least; Green Lantern John Stewart.
Why John Stewart?
A lot of those other things are original characters or concepts. John had long been in DC Comics literature before “Justice League” was aired. Let’s be honest, though. “Justice League” is what really put the character’s name on the map, introducing him to untold amounts of people, and highlighting him as a major super hero. And not just John Stewart, but for many people, Green Lantern in general.
An early design of Green Lantern that did not make it to the show. Here, he’s wearing a variation of the domino mask that he wore during part of his comic book run in the ’80s.
This is not to say Green Lantern John Stewart is absolutely nothing in the comic books he originates from. He headlined “Green Lantern” in the ’80s, as well as the much beloved “Green Lantern: Mosaic” in the early ’90s. However, Bruce Timm set out to establish this character as an undeniable key player in the extremely popular universe he had a large hand in building. Timm often granted John Stewart center stage, giving him an attractive leading man role among such other characters as Superman and Batman. He was depicted as respectable and someone fans and other in-universe heroes looked up to. He had fascinating relationships with other characters that many viewers were deeply invested in. He was a legitimate great character given a lot of focus and made to be a huge, irreplaceable part of the animated universe.
And guess what? He was black!
I don’t mean to make it sound like that is all that matters, but it is really surprising, considering the landscape of things. I have not encountered a black character in super hero stories handled nearly as well as what Bruce Timm did with John Stewart. It hasn’t happened. One could make some argument for Spawn, but the very fact that the guy is all charred up kind of defeats him.
Contrary to what some people believe, it was actually Bruce Timm’s idea to use John Stewart for the role of Green Lantern on “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited.” There are those who like to think writer/producer Dwayne McDuffie was the source of that idea, because, ya’ know, the whole black thing.
Bruce Timm is unabashed about adding John Stewart for diversity reasons. He states (courtesy of toonzone.net):
“He’s the most controversial character so far from what we’ve been gathering on the Internet. When the show’s lineup was first announced, there were a lot of people saying, “Why aren’t they using Hal Jordan? No, it’s got to be Guy Gardner. No, it’s got to be Kyle Rayner.” Obviously, we picked the wrong one, but the reasons we did choose John Stewart are various—I think they’re all valid. Right off the bat, I’ll just say it: you know, we did need ethnic diversity in the Justice League. We felt that the show is going to be seen worldwide and I think having a member of the Justice League who is not just “Mr. White Bread” is a good thing.”
This would seem to open Timm up for criticism on the charge of slighting other characters just to be PC. Others can argue, and have argued, that Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner were more deserving of the role, and that the only reason John was chosen was to add some color to the League. However, Timm goes on to say…
“Another reason why we chose him: literally, out of all the Green Lanterns we could have chosen, we all kind of liked the John Stewart character from the comics, especially the Denny O’Neil / Neal Adams version. When they first introduced him, he was like the angry young black guy…you know, in 1969 and 1970. Even though that’s not really relevant today—like the whole Black Power movement and everything—we still wanted to keep that kind of edge and attitude with him.
And so, just in banging around ideas of what to do with him, going back to the original idea of the Green Lantern Corps—where they’re basically Lensmen [the pulp characters created by E.E. “Doc” Smith]—they’re space cops, they’re space marines. We’re like, “Okay, he’s a military guy.” And then somebody said, “Louis Gossett Jr.—An Officer and a Gentlemen.” I said, “Yeah,” and I went, “Wait a minute—Samuel L. Jackson,” and everyone went, “Yeah!” So that’s kind of who he is. He’s a real rugged, no-nonsense, barking orders kind of Green Lantern—and we love him to pieces. We love him so much [that] he’s like in almost every episode. I predict that you guys are going to love him, too.”
Likely knowing what sort of accusations he would be up against, Bruce Timm worked very hard to make John Stewart more than a mere token. The character was extremely well written, very developed, and as mentioned before, given strong bonds with other characters, which served to further deepen his own character. John had a brotherly relationship with The Flash and was a great friend of Metamorpho. He also had many interesting moments with Batman, as the Caped Crusader was privy to certain goings on of John’s personal life. Speaking of which, his most enthralling relationship was certainly with Hawkgirl.
An image and character that countless people have come to associate the Green Lantern with thanks to Bruce Timm.
The romance between Green Lantern and Hawkgirl is the most spellbinding super hero romance in the annals of super heroes. Just the fact that it was even there was rather groundbreaking, and not just for a cartoon, but for television in general. But it wasn’t just the fact that it happened. What really enthralled viewers was the completely organic build up and the dynamic between the two characters. It’s things like that which elevate John Stewart so highly.
What is really sad is that a lot of the work Timm and crew did for John wasn’t exploited properly in the main DC Universe. As a matter of fact, the editors and writers went completely the opposite direction, opting to vigorously promote Hal Jordan while relegating John to the far back of the bus (har har har!). It somewhat seemed like a retaliatory action against our favorite Lantern, to be frank.
I personally feel that was an incredibly stupid move, as the way was paved for the comic creators to do really great things with a strong character who is a minority, and who also had an incredibly influential television presence. However, instead of being progressive and doing the common sense thing, they opted to resurrect the long dead 1959 Green Lantern through use of a convoluted and silly retcon. They put all their muscle behind this Green Lantern, while virtually ignoring John, who was already there, alive, and an active Green Lantern who many, many people thought of as the Green Lantern.
Talk about not going with the flow!
Mainstream super hero comics really make me scratch my head sometimes. I think one of the downfalls of the industry is its conservatism, which leads to them having a small niche audience, many of whom are, frankly, the same adult white men who have been reading for who knows how long. Fans are fans, and all of them are greatly valued, but what about attracting new people? Other forms of media, which thrive much better, aren’t nearly as stringent in regards to certain forms of conservatism, and that’s how we wound up with John appearing on “Justice League” to begin with, and it was a huge success! On the upside, it looks like John Stewart is finally getting some of the treatment he deserves, and if you look back far enough, we have Bruce Timm to thank for it.
Bruce Timm deserves all kinds of credit for all kinds of things. He’s raised generations of people on his legendary, timeless super hero cartoons. He’s created enduring characters like Harley Quinn. He’s introduced many non-comic reading people to the mythologies of the DC Universe. And he took a character out of comic book obscurity, polished him up, made him his own, put him through unforgettable adventures with unforgettable characters, and made him the most alluring Green Lantern to many people.
Thank you, Mr. Timm. You are the very definition of a living legend.