This is the first in an irregular series of articles in which I attempt to argue the merits of certain characters, stories, and concepts from the most loathed period in comics’ motley history: the Dreaded Nineties.
Over the last decade and change, the nineties have developed a reputation for crass exploitation of the consumer, a focus on gimmicks over quality of content, and pandering to rampant speculation of product that led to a near-fatal industry crash that almost annihilated the medium. And yes, all of that did happen – but I believe that there are diamonds to be mined from the detritus of holofoil covers, polybagged variants, and Rob Liefeld (more on him in the future). I believe the nineties still have value to offer. Today’s example for why the nineties didn’t suck: Kyle Rayner, the new Green Lantern.
(As an aside, I’d like to point out that the original conception of this series was “101 Reasons the Nineties Didn’t Suck. My editor said, and I quote, “That’s insane. Shoot for fifty.” So my goal is fifty-one, just to be contrary.)
Kyle Rayner debuted in Green Lantern #48, which hit comic stands in 1994. He was intended to replace Hal Jordan, the primary ring wielder for most of the comic's then-forty-five year history. Jordan was considered a DC mainstay, and had a relatively small but extraordinarily vocal fanbase that went apoplectic when the character - suffering a mental breakdown at the loss of his hometown and its inhabitants - killed the majority of the Green Lantern Corps, took on the identity of the villain Parallax, and eventually died reigniting the sun in a final act of redemption. But for me, a DC novice who had only experienced the character through a couple of Neal Adams collections, Hal Jordan’s primary achievements were “defying the Guardians” and having “done considerable for the purple skins.” He was the dude in the green spandex with the Reed Richards sideburns and aerophilia. He was as much a "dad" character as people believe Superman to be, and - mental issues notwithstanding - he was boring. Kyle Rayner was different – he was a twenty-something slacker/artist who was suddenly handed the most powerful weapon in the universe.
There’s been some talk before about how Kyle was another attempt (of many) to re-create the Spider-Man formula for a new generation. And yeah, I think there’s a valid argument to be made there – he’s the superhero who could be me (if I was handed a magic wishing ring by an ancient Smurf and was already a super talented designer with a boundless imagination)! But I also think the character has a broader appeal beyond that particular pigeonhole. For one, the big change for the series wasn’t just putting a post-adolescent in the legacy hero’s super suit – with Kyle came the loss of the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians, concepts that had been mainstays of the title for almost as long as Jordan himself. Losing not just the titular hero but also the embedded support staff freed the book from decades of continuity and allowed Kyle to stand on his own, a new hero unhindered by continuity or expectation. It also gave the book stakes: for the first time in a long time, the ring-bearer of Sector 2814 didn't have years of experience with the power, the wisdom of its creators, or the back-up squadron creating a safety net. Green Lantern became a comic about Kyle and his ring - each the last of their kind - protecting the universe.
When the character did hew more closely to the traditional GL formula, it was often a playfully skewed take on the original idea - Grant Morrison famously inverted established conceits in his JLA run, putting Wally West – the contemporary Flash – at loggerheads with Kyle, in contrast to the classic friendship between Hal and former Flash Barry Allen. In fact, I'd say it was in the pages of JLA (first under Grant Morrison's pen, then Mark Waid's and even Joe Kelly's) that I believe Kyle most grew and developed as a character.
Morrison cast Kyle as the neophyte among gods, a man with tremendous power and ability who still stood in awe of those who considered him a contemporary. The League’s respect for Kyle, their trust and reliance on him, pushed him to refine and intensify his strengths and abilities, and allowed his character to grow up a little. He still had a smart mouth (especially under Kelly, whose flair for such dialogue was infamous), but his status as a hero was unparalleled. Watching Kyle mature under the tutelage of the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, and even The Flash and Aquaman was almost monomythic in scope and execution.
Of course, it wasn't all wine and roses for Kyle, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of the bigger black marks on his tenure as the Lantern. Judd Winick's rather ham-fisted inclusion of gay rights issues in Rayner's solo title rubbed a lot of readers the wrong way, and was considered pretty scandalous at the time. Myself, I...sympathized with the intent, if not the execution? I respected the message he was trying to convey. I also really dug how he brought John Stewart back into the fold as a strong supporting character, and I was impressed with how he handled the character's PTSD and psychosomatic issues. Though much like Barbara Gordon in the recent New 52 reboot, by doing so another disabled superhero was miraculously given the ability to walk again.
Kyle’s reign as Green Lantern lasted just about ten years, until Geoff Johns gained enough clout to bring Hal Jordan back in the aptly named Green Lantern: Rebirth. Kyle spent a lot of time afterwards shunted to the sidelines, occasionally “killed” during a big event for the shock value, though his deaths never stuck. Recently, he’s become host to the White Lantern, and even anchors his own book again – out of Hal Jordan’s shadow, floating on his own two feet. But for me, Kyle Rayner will always be the Green Lantern – the one with the cocky smile and smartass quip that hovers just over the thought caption expressing just how excited and terrified he was to be in the big leagues, the Last Green Lantern who had the whole universe under his protection. The legacy character in a universe where heroism and ideals are passed on, like an emerald flame.