We’ve talked about a few superhero comics recently that have tried to treat superheroes confronting difficult, real world problems that superheroes typically avoid. Those cases dealt with animal cruelty, and Chuck Austen with the X-Men and Mark Millar with Superman both showed that the superhero ethos of protecting those who are weak and different naturally extends to animals. Here, we talk about another such problem, though this time not about animals: Green Lantern v. 2 issues 154-155, in which Judd Winick tells a story in which Green Lantern deals with a bunch of homophobes and the aftermath of their brutal attack on a young gay man, Terry.
With the Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner), Winick confronts here a fundamental problem with superheroism we’ve seen elsewhere. Given their godlike powers, given their often hyper-developed morality, given their self-conscious status as role-models, how can superheroes let such extraordinary hate and brutality so often fly beneath their radar? For Kyle this question becomes direct and personal when it affects someone he knows and loves: his assistant, David, is Terry’s boyfriend, and he was nearly assaulted too (after exiting a club, the two were chased; they split up, hoping that their assailants would just stop chasing them, but they continued to go after Terry). For much of the book Kyle, Kyle’s girlfriend, and David are left sitting around a hospital waiting room and desperately hoping that Terry will survive and awake from his coma. They have to wait in the waiting room and not at Terry’s bedside because Terry’s homophobic father blames David for the attack on Terry.
Police are working the case, and they interview Kyle, who quickly becomes frustrated with the slow wheels of justice. The police ask him about his assistant’s character and the story he told about the events leading up to the beating. Some witnesses say that Terry was hitting on the men before they attacked him. The thing is, the story Kyle’s assistant tells is fuzzy and he doesn’t remember some details, but, as Kyle tells the police, what does any of that matter? What kind of details could possibly excuse such a brutal assault? Things only get worse when Kyle overhears a policeman say that the police have caught one of the perpetrators, but he isn’t talking and probably will never talk.
Kyle is an interesting choice for a story like this. He’s different from the other Green Lanterns: Hal Jordan was in the Air Force, and John Stewart was a marine. Kyle was, and is, an artist, and even if he is now a member of an intergalactic peace keeping organization, being in law enforcement and hardening his heart can’t come easily to him. And despite – or because of, I suppose – his naivety and youth, he has been subjected to his share of brutality: most famously, his girlfriend, who had encouraged him to become a superhero once he got his power ring, was murdered by an enemy and stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find. This latest outrage pushes him to do what you or I would do, even if it means shirking idealism and the law. He breaks into the prison and tortures the attacker who is in police custody until he reveals his accomplices.
It’s an action driven by anger and a sense of impotence. What’s the point of saving everybody on earth if some of those people despise and, indeed, are direct threats to his loved ones? What’s the point of having powers if they’re only good for revenge? What’s the point of fighting white martians or Darkseid if he can’t even protect the handful of people he knows and loves? Can superheroism successfully deal with quandaries like these?
After forcing the captive attacker to spill and apprehending his accomplices, Kyle goes up to the JLA watch tower. He must have precisely questions like the above in mind, because he confronts Flash and demands that he use his cosmic treadmill to go back in time and prevent the assault. Flash refuses for obvious reasons: they can’t go back in time to stop every injustice in the past. Not only would that change the present in an unpredictable way, but injustice, cruelty, and hate are all around us right here and now. Even if they went back and time and saved Terry, such an assault could well happen again. The our world in the present is still broken.
Batman is present, too, and he calls Kyle on his newfound methods, intimidation and torture. Kyle is indignant, of course; those are Batman’s methods, too. But Batman has a ready retort: Kyle isn’t Batman. He’s not a jaded, estranged, rather damaged vigilante. By using such methods, he’s debasing himself.
We are invited here to compare the murder of Bruce’s parents with the assault on Terry. Both are violent and brutal crimes, but the former is somehow less problematic, at least for Bruce. His parents’ murder was motivated by greed and opportunity, and he has devoted his life to stopping such crimes or taking revenge for them. What really affects Kyle, though, is that the assault on Terry is only the most visible manifestation of something much more insidious – distrust and hate for the different. Even if he sinks to Batman’s level and adopts Batman’s methods of intimidation a torture, even if he captures all the perpetrators of such crimes, that hate and distrust remain. They’re there in Terry’s own father, for instance, whose homophobia is explicit and who for most of the book refuses to let David visit his son’s bed as he lies comatose in the hospital. They’re in the cops, too, who place at such a premium the question of whether Terry had been hitting on the men who later attacked him.
Kyle finds he can’t deal with or fight such hate and distrust. His superheroism has no solution for them.
His journey is like Animal Man’s, who likewise became overwhelmed with the world’s problems and became less of a superhero the more aggressively he tried to fix them.
Animal Man and Kyle find that fighting supervillains is easy; changing the world and changing people are hard. The difficulty, or perhaps impossibility, of lessening the world’s callousness and brutality and the cruelties the world inflicted on him and his family broke Animal Man and caused him to jettison his convictions and become a murderer.
Kyle admits that he’s been broken by the world and its problems, but he keeps from sinking to that low. At the end of the book, Kyle and his girlfriend leave Earth instead. Presumably righting wrongs in space among aliens will be easier and less problematic for them, and it saves him from being corrupted like Animal Man. We, of course, don’t have the luxury of leaving Earth and our problems, and just like the people in the comics, we’re left here without Kyle to help fix them. I suppose this ending make Winick sound rather pessimistic about the role of superheroism in solving problem like these, but the ending isn’t sad. Terry’s father is overcome by sorrow and fear for his son and lets David see him. While Kyle is off in space talking to the Spectre, Terry experiences a miraculous recovery, wakes from his coma, and will apparently be fine. It’s a happy ending, a typical comic book ending – and one that the Green Lantern had nothing to do with it.