Jerk Lantern is the Best Lantern

Posted in Screening Room by - September 28, 2016

Guy Gardner is a superhero. Guy Gardner is also a huge jerk. These two traits feel like they should be at odds, but in a lot of ways, they make Guy a more interesting, compelling character. It helps get him to stand out from the other Green Lanterns (of which there are many), it contains commentary on what makes the Green Lantern’s abilities work, and I would argue it makes him an invaluable lesson for us on how to deal with people.

But first you have to know what kind of a jerk he is exactly, and why.

“Beware My Power”

Guy Gardner was created in 1968. The idea was that the Guardians of the Universe, who oversee the Green Lantern Corps, wanted a backup Green Lantern chosen in advance just in case something ever happened to Hal Jordan. Guy Gardner was that guy, and at first, he was just a relatively normal, good hearted, standard hero. He didn’t get his ring, as he was just waiting in the wings to sub in should Hal need him. As a result, he wasn’t that important, or fleshed out of character. This was evident by the fact that when the Green Lantern creative team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams wanted to introduce a different backup for Hal Jordan (John Stewart, one of the comics’ first black superheroes) in 1971 (a mere three years later), they only put Guy Gardner in an indefinite coma, forcing the Guardians to choose a new backup. He would eventually come out of the coma during Crisis on Infinite Earths, and after a few adventures sometimes fighting for and sometimes against the Green Lantern Corps, he would eventually join the Justice League International.

And this is where his story gets interesting. After awakening from the coma, the creative team of Steve Englehart and Joe Staton would begin to turn his character into the jerk we know and love. The idea behind this had to do with the Green Lantern ring’s method for choosing a replacement; the ring looked for people who were worthy of the power due to their fearlessness (or ability to overcome fear, in Hal Jordan’s case), and while that had typically resulted in good and morally upright heroes who were brave enough to fight overwhelming odds, that wasn’t exactly a guarantee. Guy Gardner was meant to be the answer to the question, “What if someone was strong willed and unafraid but wasn’t exactly the nicest guy around?”.

As a result, Guy Gardner is confident to the point of arrogance; he’s courageous sometimes to the point of foolhardiness; he’s jingoistic and selfish and competitively macho and consistently bucks authority. He’s also a valuable member of the superhero community.

Keith Giffen, JM DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire, the creative team behind the Justice League International and probably the people who’ve done the best stories with Guy Gardner, took the time in their JLI run to tell a rather interesting story with Guy; what happens when Guy loses all the traits that make him a jerk? In true cartoon fashion, he suffers a conk on the head and his personality shifts for a few issues. His normal cockiness is replaced with a timid, sweet, courteous personality, which is ultimately used to demonstrate how useless Guy would be in a fight without the character traits that make him who he is. Just as his more prickly characteristics represent unchecked determination, that determination is also exactly what makes him a good superhero, warts and all. Which is why, in general, the Justice League International was such a good place for him; it was a team built around deeply flawed, very human people that also formed one of the world’s most famous and most necessary superhero taskforces. What worked as a concept for this League worked particularly well in developing Guy’s character, and that concept was…

The Power of Personality

In comics, and in a lot of fiction really, there’s a little misunderstanding about how people work that tends to get used and abused far too often: that backstory is the same as personality. Personality and character are the motivations and thought processes in a person’s mind that make them think and behave the way they do. Fiction frequently wants to explain those processes using dramatic origin stories, usually based on some trauma that causes this otherwise simple, average person to behave in extraordinary ways for the rest of their life. Real people are much more complicated than that, and the formative events that make up a person’s youth and inform their future actions cannot be deciphered so quickly into one single event from which everything else stems. In addition to a number of different, smaller events are typically coalescing into a number of different motivations; basic personality plays just as important a role in how a person behaves. The Justice League International was one of the comics that recognized this the most and featured a slew of characters of varying and at-odds personalities, working together for the greater good.

It also recognized the usefulness of each of these personalities. Everyone on the team had their moments to shine and points of usefulness, whether it was gentle camaraderie that resolved conflict or pig-headed strength of will that kept fighting until the battle was won. After a brief period of being the timid, mousey version of Guy Gardner, he eventually gets his personality swapped back to his usual, brash self. He does this just in time to save the day in the way that only he can. At the same time, the series did not undervalue the sweet and innocent, considering Ice, Captain Marvel, and later Mary Marvel are all three among the sweetest and innocent characters in DC Comics lore, and yet were also among the most influential members of the Justice League International. Understanding the value of human variety was a major part of the JLI. Part of this is because different kinds of strength are needed for a variety of situations, and also because people are different and if a group is going to be successful in its endeavors, its members need to be able to deal with each other’s differences professionally. Or at least pass for it.

And that’s a part of why Guy Gardner is such a necessary part of the team and a useful example for the real world; there are jerks who we have to deal with, and when avoiding them is impossible we need to be able to work alongside them amicably, or as close to it as we can. Beyond just that, it’s also worth noting that as off-putting as these personality traits can be; it’s in everyone’s best interest not to demonize the people we simply don’t get along with, as they can also have areas where they are useful. Confidence, independence, and defiance are all wonderful traits to have when properly balanced, and while a little too much can be annoying, there’s a difference between difficult to work with and actively harmful. On that subject…

The Balanced Jerk

Another major part of why Guy Gardner works so well is because he comes with a built-in the sense of nuance. Gardner is a Green Lantern, which means there are many others with similar strengths of personality. Most of those are perhaps more balanced and kindlier, but one of the most famous examples is someone who is much, much worse: Sinestro. Hal Jordan’s nemesis and enemy to the whole Green Lantern Corps, Sinestro was once a Green Lantern himself. But he used his powers wrong, choosing to enslave his entire planet and eventually gaining a yellow ring and creating his own Corps in opposition to the Green Lanterns. While he was once a fine Green Lantern, he proved to have a personality too focused on self and the pursuit of power. He’s a big and obvious cautionary tale about the kind of person who shouldn’t have this sort of power because he can’t handle it without going too far; and yet Guy Gardner is not that person.

For all his faults and antagonistic tendencies, Guy has proven to have a heart beneath that jerkish bravado. Despite wielding near unlimited power, Guy has never gone mad with it, in the same way, others, like Sinestro, have. Despite being at times jingoistic, he’s not xenophobic, having taken on a protective older brother relationship to Jaime Reyes, the Hispanic Blue Beetle. Despite his everyday egocentricity, he’s been a loyal friend and teammate, literally journeying to Hell itself to rescue the JLI without much thought for himself (or for Power Girl who he dragged along with him). And perhaps no act or good deed says quite so much about Gardner’s good side than his relationship with his JLI teammate Ice.

Tora Olafsdotter, Ice, was once described in comic as “without question the sweetest, kindest heroine I’d ever met” (this was Oracle speaking, who at one point practically ran the Justice League and had a Rolodex full of superheroes, so she’s met a lot of people), and while with the Justice League International, she sparks up a romance with none other than Guy Gardner. It’s a rather strange pairing, and one might expect a terribly lopsided power dynamic in the relationship given Guy’s normal behavior. But he proves himself to be a near perfect gentleman, owing to the fact that he honestly loves, and respects, her as a person. They’re together until she dies, and when she comes back to life years later (because of comics), he respects her need for time and space despite desperately wanting to be back together. When they decide that they can’t have a relationship at that moment because of each having too many responsibilities in the superhero community, the decision is made amicably, and both want to be there for the other when their situations make it more possible. But perhaps one of Guy’s greatest moments was while Ice was still dead, and the JLI was trapped in Hell.

Finding a passage out, the JLI are surprised to find Ice in Hell (there by mistake), and attempt to bring her with as they escape. They’re given the Orpheus and Eurydice option; Ice will walk in silence behind them on their pathway out. If neither Guy Gardner nor Ice’s best friend Fire turns to look back, she will make it with them. As could be predicted, one of them cracks. Fire looks behind and Ice is lost to them forever (for a few more years). The brilliant facial expressions of artist Kevin Maguire show both characters’ anguish on full display, but it’s Guy whose emotions are the most evocative: a moment of potential anger that immediately gives way to a heartfelt, sympathetic cry. Devastated over the loss, there’s nothing that anger can do in this situation; the only thing Guy and Fire, who’ve always had a strained relationship, can do is to console each other in their grief.

Ultimately, this is what makes Guy, and any statement his existence as a character can make work. Too often, complicated issues of dealing with problematic people are boiled down too simply; whether advice is to cut all problematic people from your life (which is an impossible task), or to forgive all problematic people for everything, whether they feel remorse or understand the damage of their actions or not (which is a foolhardy task). Guy Gardner is a character written from a more nuanced point of view; the idea that maybe people can’t easily fall into categories. In some ways, he defies the traditional fantasy versions of heroes and villains. Instead, he’s more realistic; a flawed hero with traits that make him unlikeable at times but whose actions and admittedly flexible moral code place him ultimately on the side of the angels. He might have problems, but he’s not actively harmful. He’s but a single piece in the vast mosaic of the human personality; and if we can dislike some of his behavior but also appreciate his good attributes, if we can understand that maybe he’s a jerk, but he’s also worthy of a Green Lantern power ring, perhaps we find it in ourselves to look for the people who might be difficult to get along with at first, but who are also worth getting to know a little better.

This post was written by
He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn't paying attention.
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