By Ritesh Babu
What is it to say goodbye, really? What does it mean to wave farewell to not only your creations but the very form, the very medium you’ve worked with… for good? And what kind of end would you choose?
It’s a question I think about a great deal, certainly. But John Broome is the name that always comes to mind for me. The man behind the definitive tales and ideas of the Silver Age period of The Flash and Green Lantern; Broome is known, but not truly known. You’ve likely heard of him, but know little about him.
Broome’s the Jewish man who tried to start up the first union of sorts at DC, bringing together his fellow ‘60s writers to ask for better compensation and royalties. He brought folks onboard for months, but saw it go bust the second they were just given an extra dollar of pay. Broome is the gentleman who felt he never had it in him to be a ‘real’ science-fiction writer, who never felt what he wrote was much good, if at all, and whose work’s ‘science’ was always shot to hell – a fact he laughed about. He’s a writer who moved to Paris in the late ‘60s, then became an English teacher, went about Japan, and finally passed away in Thailand. He’s a man who only ever made one con appearance – and only gave one proper public interview, just months prior to his death.
Broome was an interesting figure, named by Grant Morrison as his personal favorite comics writer and the DC comics equivalent of The Beat Generation, as he once put it. His final story ever is the one you’re seeing in the cover above. And it’s one written with the full understanding in mind that it is the final story, (given the old guard were slowly getting the boot at the company, especially since a number of them did over time want more compensation, and it was easier, and cheaper, to hire new up and comers) which is what makes it utterly fascinating.
The issue is the proper reunion of the entire Silver Age Green Lantern team, with the legendary artist Gil Kane (who would go on to do more incredible comics work) and inker Joe Giella (who would also continue to ink more great work) together for one last time. One last ride. No more, no less. This is the end.
They got together so long ago, in the year of 1959. But alas, it’s no longer 1959. It’s 1970. It’s been over a decade. They’re not the front-runners anymore. They’re the old guys. And it’s time for one last hurrah, one last performance, before the team of O’Neil/Adams takes over, as the audience watches, and there’s no more.
But you’d never know it, reading it without that context. Not really. It’s not an issue that makes a big deal of it. In fact, there’s almost no indication that this comic is any different than any other that was published before, and will be published after. It’s just another day, and another story of good ol’ Green Lantern. But look closer, and there is something there that is telling, something being said that cannot go overlooked.
And once you see it, it’s impossible to unsee it.
Broome, Kane, and Giella return here, in their final moments, to their most popular contribution to the DC mythology: The Anti-Matter Universe.
That’s right, from your Wally Wests; Elongated Men; Captain Comets; and Atomic Knights, Broome wrote The Anti-Matter mythology that is now central to DC. In fact, alongside Gil Kane, he was the one to come up with ‘The Hand Of Creation’, Krona, and the whole creation myth of the DC Multiverse, which is at the heart of Crisis. The whole hand motif is a running thing through his work – with Hal’s signature constructs being hands.
But it’s also important to actually understand what it is he was actually making, and writing about. Often, it is said off-hand, this is due to the preconceived notion that the Silver Age GL is about a sci-fi cop, while Golden Age GL is about a ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ hero. And on the surface, that’s not necessarily untrue, but it isn’t quite true either. If one puts away those osmosis distinctions driven by contrast, the nature of the beast becomes clearer. Broome and Kane’s Hal Jordan/The Green Lantern wasn’t really a sci-fi cop. He was absolutely a magical/supernatural hero, an Agent Of God starring in a bizarre screwball comedy of bizarre romance, just packaged in the aesthetics of 1960s retro-futurist sci-fi.
Oa is, in essence, Heaven, while The Guardians are The Gods, with The Green Lanterns being The Angels. Sinestro, the eternal traitor, is, of course, The Devil, cast off in punishment to… you guessed it, Qward Of The Anti-Matter Universe, aka Hell. It’s why the Green Lantern Ring in this era is a literal wishing ring. It can do anything. It can create life, rewrite minds, manifest storms of steel spheres, you name it, it can do it, the imagination was the limit. Green Lantern was a hero blessed with divine cosmic power, which is also why his lamp was frequently referred to as The Mystic Lamp. The whole enterprise was magical in nature, a supernatural phenomenon, swimming in religious subtext.
It was an Agent Of God vs The Devil and Cosmic Hell. It wasn’t really the ‘cop comic’ people expect when they describe it as such. It’s wholly weird, and utterly bizarre, with horrific divine punishments, strange parables, and spoofs of the concept of love and romance. It’s a story of an absolute disaster man, who can rewrite reality and do the impossible, but is useless at relationships, and things beyond the calling of his job.
That was the thing with Broome’s heroes: they always managed the impossible, and that they could was an accepted fact never in question. They were the explorers of a Space Age, the heroes who could leap out into the unknowable, and make it. But with Hal Jordan specifically, Broome explored the question that emerged then from that ‘60s hero: ‘At what cost? At what price?’ Sure, Hal could save the universe every tuesday, but he could never get his life right. He was always a mess. The will-they-won’t-they romance of the period, in a subversive twist, is given a definitive answer after a point, as Carol moves on, just when Hal prepares to commit and propose.
His heart broken, Hal becomes a nomadic adventurer, reflecting Broome’s own nature. Hal journeys around, taking up a series of jobs, moving further and further from the militaristic figure most now know him as. From selling insurance to toys, he did it all. And that too fit with the changing culture, and times, as the ‘60s were coming to a close, Kennedy had long died, and here was the space man, still struggling to fit in, and make sense of the world he was inhabiting. This was the price, it turned out.
It’s precisely at this juncture that we find Jordan in the issue, as he has none of the cast of characters people associate with the title. None of the colorful characters Broome had built up, alongside writer Gardner Fox, over all the years. No Carol Ferris. No Coast City. No Jordan Brothers.
No Tom Kalmaku either, who is infamous for bearing an incredibly unfortunate and deeply racist nickname, which complicates Broome’s legacy. To his credit, he wrote Tom as a surprisingly well-rounded, fleshed out, multi-faceted character, a husband, a trusted friend, a writer, mechanic, and a plethora of other things. He was a genuine delight to read purely as a character, marred solely by the abysmal nickname whenever it pops up, and is a depressing blemish.
As Jordan stands alone here, as is the nature of his lone nomadic cowboy hero archetype, Broome/Kane/Giella prep him for one last voyage, the final quest and mission. And that quest? A quest into Anti-Matter, hell itself.
This is where things get really, really interesting. Broome lays out this ancient myth at the very heart of his Anti-Matter setting: the myth of The Golden Obelisk Of Qward, after which the story is titled. It’s a towering monument, this legend built to last past generations, which is believed to contain things beyond value. Every generation, in their own turn, attempts to crack its impenetrable shell, to unveil the impossible, unspeakably awesome potential within it.
And when it is shattered, at last, after centuries of impossible efforts by all the greatest; most legendary; inspiring people who tried? It’s empty. There’s nothing in it, save for a recorded message. It confesses that the mythic monument was naught but a sturdy shell, a made-up story to last, that just shone brightly on the outside. And that the most precious gift the elders, whose end was coming, could imagine was inspiration. Had the glistening fiction not inspired generations, had it not brought out the best of billions, pushed people to go beyond, to create, innovate, to do that which they otherwise may not have?
The Golden Obelisk, the mythic monument, the made-up fiction, is, of course, a stand-in for The Green Lantern that Broome had spent so much of his time on. He didn’t believe himself to be a particularly good sci-fi writer, he didn’t think The Green Lantern he built was something brilliant. Its only value is as fiction, a monument of myth, and simply as inspiration.The power to make billions believe, which then drives them to make something. The fiction’s value, no matter how empty, how unremarkable it may be to its creators on the inside, is determined by that which it can inspire.
And for a hero entirely built around inspiration and creation? That’s not too bad.
The Green Lantern may not have been genius work to rock the world: it may not have been the masterpiece of science-fiction that Broome envisioned and dreamed of creating as a young artist. It may just be big pulpy nonsense in the long run. But that’s okay. It entertained people. It meant something to them. It will last, even if it wasn’t the opus that one dreams of, with all of its messes. And if generations looked upon this thing and thought to themselves ‘I’ve got to…’ in some fashion or another, in some form or another, surely that is a victory? Surely, it’s time well spent.?
Is that not a worthy legacy? To not just have lived, but to have inspired.
If the only monument we leave behind to our successors is that, the drive to create, to rise higher, to imagine, that Promethean spark of possibility that pushes forward an entire culture, maybe it’s not so bad.
And with that, Broome speaks the Green Lantern Oath once more, as he has a million times before, the last time he will ever do so, for the final page is inevitably here. The fire is lit. The job is done. The monument will stand. The Lantern will last.
So he goes into the silent night alone, never to return, never to write a single comic again, for this is a good ending, as good as any. The work is done, the torch is passed on.
Green Lantern #75: The Golden Obelisk of Qward!
Story: John Broome
Art: Gil Kane and Joe Giella
Ritesh Babu is a writer and critic whose work has been featured in publications including PanelXPanel, XavierFiles, and Adventures in Poor Taste. To find more from Ritesh, you can follow him on Twitter here!
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Very nicely done.I have been fascinated by John Broome’s work from the first issue of the Flash i read as a kid in the sixties.It wasn’t just the fantastic adventures he sent Barry and Hal on but,also Barry and Iris’s wonderful relationship and Barry’s mentorship of Wally along with Hal’s romantic travails. One of the best (or at least one of my favorite) aspects of Broome’s work is the great friendship between Hal and Barry.It always rang true.You know often times people do not realize when they are creating works of art.It happens all the time.As far as John Broome is concerned this must certainly be the case.The very fact that we are still discussing this “big pulpy nonsense” in 2021 is proof enough.