John Stewart has his roots in socially relevant comics of the 1970s.
It’s official: Warner Bros.’ Green Lantern Corps movie will feature not one, but two, human Lanterns in lead roles: Hal Jordan and John Stewart. Hal is familiar to anyone who saw the 2011 Green Lantern movie — he’s a reckless, cocky test pilot who’s learned responsibility through becoming an intergalactic space cop — but John…? His story isn’t just more obscure, it’s also arguably more interesting — and provides clues as to what he could bring to the DC Extended Universe.
Stewart’s debut came in 1971’s Green Lantern No. 87, twelve years after the introduction of both Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps mythology. His introduction was part of a cycle of stories by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams in which Jordan (along with Green Arrow and Black Canary) traveled America and became more socially aware, and the character’s creation was an explicit attempt to address the racial imbalance in DC’s superhero line-up.
Stewart’s role had actually been set up in an earlier story; 1968’s Green Lantern No. 59 established that the Guardians of the Universe — essentially Hal Jordan’s space cop bosses — had installed a “back-up” Green Lantern on Earth in case Hal ever became unable to do his job. At the opening of GL No. 87, this man (a schoolteacher called Guy Gardner, who would also later become a Green Lantern in his own right) is injured in an accident, forcing the Guardians to replace him as back-up. Enter John Stewart — a military veteran whose social activism makes Jordan nervous. “I don’t want it,” Stewart tells a racist policeman at one point in the issue, “but I’m not about to run from it, either! And anyway, I kind of doubt you’re man enough to give it — even with your nightstick!” (“Frankly, I think you’re making a mistake!” Jordan tells his Guardian mentor, afterwards.)
For years after that introduction, Stewart was mostly left on the shelf. Things changed in 1984’s Green Lantern No. 182, when Jordan quit as Green Lantern, and Stewart was activated as his replacement. By this point, Stewart was less of a social activist — and less likely to speak in a manner his white comic book writers conceived of how an African-American activist should talk, meaning fewer words like “whitey’s” being thrown around the page — and more dedicated to being a superhero. He’d stay in the role for years after, even when Hal Jordan returned as Green Lantern in the 200th issue of the comic in 1986, with the two co-existing (along with other Lanterns, including Guy Gardner and their own alien Lantern romantic partners) until the series’ cancelation in 1988.
And then things got weird. Following the murder of his wife, Stewart would appear in the 1988 mini-series Cosmic Odyssey, where he would fail to save an entire planet, pushing the character into an understandably melancholic phase he wouldn’t come out of for years. After helping launch a new Green Lantern comic series in 1990, he’d go on to anchor a spin-off title two years later. Green Lantern: Mosaic was a superhero comic unlike most, more interested in pop culture and the suggestion that Stewart was having a nervous breakdown than fighting threats to the galaxy. Despite critical acclaim, the title sold poorly and was canceled within 18 months. By the final issue, it was revealed that Stewart had evolved beyond being a Green Lantern, and had indeed become a Guardian of the Universe himself, granted near-godlike power. Within a year, the development was undone.
Between 1994 and 2004, Stewart’s comic book profile was minimal. He’d show up as a powerless guest-star in the Green Lantern series — events having depowered all but one Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner; Hal Jordan having turned evil and destroyed the Corps in a sales-grabbing storyline — or in other series, briefly, but for the most part, he wasn’t really a presence. Elsewhere, however, just the opposite was true: the Green Lantern in Cartoon Network’s fan-favorite Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated shows was Stewart, rather than the comic book-contemporary Kyle Rayner or classic Hal Jordan, meaning that Stewart would be many fans’ first exposure to the entire Green Lantern concept.
The animated John Stewart bore little resemblance to the comic book character, in terms of personality; playing up the military background, he was more uptight and dismissive of others around him when they suggested breaking rules, and saw things in simpler terms than the (at times, overly-complicated comic book original. This would feed into the source material; when Stewart returned to duty as a Green Lantern in the comics, he would be played as more restrained, more controlled and more of a drill sergeant to the reborn Green Lantern Corps, which returned to comics in the 2004 Green Lantern: Rebirth series.
In recent years, Stewart’s role in the Green Lantern franchise has grown. Currently, he’s the leader of the entire Corps in the Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps comic book, having outgrown his earlier melancholy and reactionary tendencies. He’s become a voice of reason (especially when interacting with the still-reckless, cocky Hal Jordan, who nonetheless gets his name in the series’ title), and a reliable hand guiding the franchise forward… as well as an all-too-rare example of a prominent character of color in the still-too-white superhero universes of DC and Marvel’s fictional worlds.
As to what role he’ll play on the big screen? We’ll have to wait to find out, but given his exclusion from the last attempt to bring the franchise to movies, at least comfort can be taken in his presence this time around.