Green Lantern rings the changes

You might not have heard of Green Lantern before but, as our reporter finds, there's a lot of history to catch up on

• Ryan Reynolds is Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern of Earth in the new film

THAT the Warner Brothers summer blockbuster is another superhero film is hardly surprising. That they have chosen to adapt Green Lantern is perhaps a less obvious decision.

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To date, most big budget superhero films have featured characters with a degree of recognition in the wider public beyond the comic-book fans. You don't need to be queuing outside Forbidden Planet every Wednesday to know who Superman or Batman or Spider-Man or The Hulk is – they have, almost by a process of osmosis, seeped into popular culture. More than just visibility, the prospective film audience would have more than an inking of the mythology about the character; in part because those stories have been relatively consistent across the 50-odd years they've existed as comic books.

First published in All-American Comics in July 1940, the original Green Lantern was a railroad engineer, Alan Scott, who discovered a magic lamp.

Created by Martin Nodell and Bill Finger, it was a variation on the Aladdin myth (the character was originally called Alan Ladd). The hero battled the usual mix of mobsters and Nazis. In the wake of the Second World War, DC comics re-imagined many of its characters: so Green Lantern became cocky test-pilot Hal Jordan, who gets the lantern and accompanying power ring – which allows him to channel his willpower through it to create just about anything he can imagine – from a dying alien and is inducted into an intergalactic police force, the Green Lantern Corps.

Written by John Broome and drawn by Gil Kane, the story was altered to chime with the new vogue for science fiction. Audiences for the film who have read the "Silver Age" version will no doubt recognise a great deal: the villain Hector Hammond, the blue Guardians of the Universe, the on-off relationship with Carol Ferris, the array of alien allies and even the Inuit sidekick Thomas Kalmaku (although the unfortunate nickname "Pieface" is probably best left in the 1960s).

But between the 1960s and the present day, the franchise underwent a dizzying range of alterations, narrative developments and changes of influence and emphasis; resulting in "canon spaghetti".

In the 1970s, under Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, it was the flagship "social conscience" comic. Hal Jordan was paired with a modern-day Robin Hood, Green Arrow. In their first outing, issue #76, Jordan steps in to prevent a man being harassed, only for the crowd to turn on him. The man, it transpires, is a slum landlord. In a famous panel, an elderly African-American berates him saying, "I been readin' about you… how you work for the blue skins… and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins… and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there's skins you never bothered with – the black skins!"

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Even more controversially, in "Snowbird's Don't Fly", Green Arrow's sidekick, Speedy, became a heroin addict. This aspect of the franchise was revisited in the 1990s when the new Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, tackled hate crimes, especially homophobia. Jordan resigned as Green Lantern, allowing a succession of new characters to take on the role. During the 1993 Death of Superman story, Jordan's home city was destroyed, and, in his resulting madness, he took on a new identity as the supervillain Parallax. He was eventually redeemed, sacrificing himself in Final Night – only to come back as the human host for The Spectre, a DC character who represents God's spirit of vengeance.

The transition from comic book to movie owes most to the work of Geoff Johns, now the new chief creative officer at DC Comics. In 2004 he attempted to untangle the contradictory and problematic storylines with Green Lantern: Rebirth. This was, in comics parlance, a "retcon", a "retroactive continuity" that explained away past stories. The successful relaunch returned Green Lantern to the centre of DC comics, with two epics, Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night and a new version of the 1960s origin story, Green Lantern: Secret Origin.

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It may not have been Johns' ostensible intention to make Green Lantern "fit for purpose" in an age where comics segue with films and games, but it has been the result. DC has two valuable properties in Batman and Superman (although Superman is still under various copyright disputes) and their other recognisable character, Wonder Woman, has been stranded in production limbo, under the long shadow of camp and uncertainly of how to play out a character who risks looking like a gender stereotype in the 21st century. As Green Lantern goes to the big screen, in the comics world Geoff Johns is doing very similar work on another lesser character, The Flash, and is about to relaunch all the DC titles in August this year.

Marvel has been teasing and hinting at the forthcoming Avengers movie – a crossover with Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor. It can't be far from the minds of Warner Brothers' executives that a Justice League movie – with Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and others – could be on the horizon.

• Green Lantern is in cinemas from 17 June.