The Fight for Ferris Air Saga

(Green Lantern, 2nd series, #144-151, 1981)

Additional comment: Marv Wolfman began his run on Green Lantern with #133, so you might even argue the run from #133-151 might make a nice -- omnibus -- collection. More on that in my addendum.

Written by Marv Wolfman. Art by Joe Staton. Inks: various. Ed: various.

Private life troubles plague Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan -- Ferris Air, the company where he works, is in desperate shape after months of sabotage and attempts to discredit it. And the toll is being felt on Hal's girlfriend, Carol Ferris, who gets bumped from her long time position as head of the company by her recently returned, chauvinistic, flint-hearted father who's determined to save his company, and on Hal's old friend, Tom Kalmaku, who's sinking into depression after being demoted from chief mechanic.

A run in with old foe, the Tattooed Man, leads Hal to become aware of the attempt by another old foe, Goldface, to form a criminal cartel that would dominate the west coast. His struggles with Goldface go rather badly, and then he and fellow GL -- the then still-youthful -- Arisia head off to save an alien planet, but no sooner is that done than Hal is waylaid by the evil Weaponers of Qward (the groundwork for their appearance having been cleverly laid in the Goldface storyline). In the end, Hal is left with very little time to try and solve the problems of Ferris Air before he must begin a year long exile to the stars at the behest of the Guardians (who feel he has been neglecting his GL responsibilities). Thrown in for good measure are the Green Lantern Corps, minor villains like Black Hand, and supporting character Bruce Gordon (the good guy alter ego of villain Eclipso) and more, making for a nice encapsulation of pre-Crisis Hal Jordan/Green Lantern.

It's the unusually strong use of the supporting cast that really fires this saga: the grown up romantic relationship between Hal and Carol Ferris; Carol's conflicts with her father; Tom Kalmaku's growing depression; newly added character Rich Davis' health problems, etc. The way the semi-realistic business problems of Ferris Air have semi-realistic impact on the characters (as they worry about whether they'll even have jobs in a few weeks) is quite effective. Davis' aforementioned health problems have nothing to do with the "fantasy" -- he isn't suffering from radiation poisoning, or alien plagues; he's just getting old. I'll admit, I kind of like super hero comics that can maintain a foot in the real world -- it isn't that you want the writer to neglect the fantasy and adventure, but it's nice if not everything connects to, or can be solved by, the super powers. The high-flying super-heroics makes things fun, but the complex soap opera-y drama makes it very real.

As I fell back into comics, I became ambivalent about Wolfman's placing in the list of great writers, not always as impressed with him as some other seminal scribes from my youth, feeling even his signature runs (on things like The New Teen Titans) could suffer from thin and erratic plotting (running toward stretched out fights) and character analysis in lieu of actual characterization. But here he certainly delivers some superb scripting and crisp, clever dialogue, nuanced characterization, and an interweaving of sub-plots. A great story line is not simply when a series has various sub-plots -- it's when the writer can interweave those plotlines so that they form a whole tapestry, not just a collection of disconnected threads. And Hal Jordan has rarely been better realized as a mature, three-dimensional character, where being GL is part of his character -- not the whole of it; he's both heroic, but also flawed and fallible (what I've read of the current revival of the character by Geoff Johns is decidedly two-dimensional in comparison to this). Indeed, it's ironic that in Wolfman's canon, which ranges from his signature series like The New Teen Titans and Tomb of Dracula, to long runs on every one from Spider-Man to Batman to The Fantastic Four, his GL stint is, I think, barely even remembered -- yet I regard it as some of his best stuff!

Staton's cartoony, but exceptionally well-composed and kinetic art, tells the tale well. In many ways, he is, for me, the definitive Green Lantern artist and seemed more suited for it than some other "straight" super hero comics he worked on (being often better suited to off-beat properties like Plastic Man). You could believe he liked the gig and was going that extra creative mile (whether he did, or regarded it as just another assignment -- I dunno). He had a nice feel for the quirky possibilities of the way the ring manifests objects, and despite his cartooniness, he imbues the characters with a maturity, a sense of adult characters with adult emotions. A few inkers are on display, with Staton himself the most frequent. Mike DeCarlo inks a couple, and his hard, rigid lines maybe clash a bit with the intentions of Staton's pencils, but still too nice effect (giving a more "super-heroic" feel to Staton's quirky style). Though maybe Dennis Jensen's inks on one issue is the best compromise between the two stylistic extremes.

Issue #151 was Wolfman's final full issue (though he was credited with the plot for the next story) so you can certainly perceive it as being intended as the finale.

Admittedly, the resolution leaves a few threads hanging (odd, since this presaged a "new direction" in the series in which Hal left earth -- and, therefore, the supporting characters -- for many issues) and the Ferris plotline had its genesis earlier in Wolfman's run. In fact, there's the Goldface arc, which ends with Goldface seeming untouchable, but then Wolfman himself seems to bring Goldface down a couple of issues later (in an ironically peripheral way) as though he wanted to wrap him up...but by the final issue, Goldface is back up and running!

But overall, this makes a rich, rewarding -- even emotionally mature -- read.

Ferris Air (addendum)

Reading Wolfman's entire run from 133-151 is interesting -- although I think I'll stick with my assessment that 144-151 is the strongest part of the run. Not that there isn't decent stuff earlier -- the opening three-parter with GL tackling old foe, Dr. Polaris, has its moments, particularly a mid-story sequence of a ringless GL forced to trek across the Arctic wastes, effectively (if heavy handedly) conveying the sense of GL's indomitable will; basically the old "the measure of a super hero is how he endures without his powers". And the Omega Men are introduced in 141-143 (quickly spun off into their own series). But it just feels as though Wolfman's getting a feel for the gig, introducing his sub-plots and shifting a focus to the soap opera human drama, without quite hitting his groove. And the adventures can feel a bit muddled -- long fight scenes, tenuous logic -- and the character/sub-plots seem, more typically, as just filler between the fights.

Still, it's a perfectly decent run.

What's interesting is regarding it in the context of a new writer assuming control of a series -- and seeing all the familiar cliches and trends (once you've read as many comics -- and such changing-of-the-guard -- as I have!).

There's a definite sense of a "new direction" vibe from the first issue, of Wolfman moving the furniture to suit his particular Feng Shui. Denny O'Neil had been the primary GL writer, basically for a decade (with occasional guest writers) so Wolfman isn't just a new writer...he's a NEW writer. It's also funny to realize that, though GL (Hal Jordon) is commonly identified as a test pilot, he'd actually spent much of his published adventures in other jobs. O'Neil himself had only just returned GL to being a test pilot, and returned Carol Ferris and Tom Kalmaku to the cast (after, I'm guessing, neither character being seen that regularly...and, indeed, GL having little in the way of a supporting cast other than co-stars Green Arrow and Black Canary, who had only recently left the series). So, in a way, there was a pretty clean canvas for Wolfman to paint on -- a milieu (Ferris Air) that hadn't been seen much, and a supporting cast that hadn't been developed much. As well, O'Neil tended to focus on the front and centre adventures, with only minor on going sub-plots.

So as I say: Wolfman was clearly trying to assert his own vision right from issue one. Instantly Ferris Air, and its business troubles, are made central themes, and the supporting cast are made significant players, not just there to fill up a panel or two. Indeed, the relationship between Hal and Tom Kalmaku is kind of interesting in the annals of comics, because you don't have too many characters like that -- he's a sort of sidekick, in that he knows GL's identity, and helps him peripherally with his adventures, even as he's not a super hero and isn't involved in the main stuff. Wolfman successfully creates a sense of friends -- not just a token ethnic sidekick.

So right from his first issue, you can feel this is supposed to be a different flavour GL comic. The irony is, though, that sometimes when such new brooms come in -- they end up just creating more stagnancy to come. I read a GL issue by Len Wein from more than two years after Wolfman's run (once GL had returned to earth) -- and Ferris is still being sabotaged, by the same antagonist yet!, Bruce Gordon is still working on his solar jet, Rich Davis is still having health problems but passing it off as indigestion... Instead of building on Wolfman's themes...Wein just seemed to be recycling them (though shortly after the comic would undergo some significant shake-ups...indeed, maybe the GL series coming to rely too much on a succession of "new directions" like a crutch!)

Anyway, back to Wolfman's tenure...

Wolfman dramatically disposes of the Coast City setting and relocates the cast to Los Angeles to the point where, having been familiar with this era of GL before I had read that much from other periods, I thought of GL as being set in Los Angeles the way Batman was set in Gotham -- as a signature setting of the series. When later runs nostalgically emphasized Coast City...I didn't know why! The physically moving of a cast to a new location is also not uncommon when trying to suggest a new creative vision, and specifically shifting the locale from a typical DC Comics mythical city to a real location can also be viewed as a signal of new, "grittier" style.

There's an overall "maturity" Wolfman is going for in contrast to O'Neil. I don't mean that as a dig at O'Neil -- he was writing what seemed appropriate and what the market seemed to want. But with Wolfman you instantly get the "real" city, a busier use of sub-plots and soap opera threads, and the characters even feel physically more mature, thanks to the way Staton draws them. They feel like thirty something adults (Tom is referred to as "young" at one point...but he has a wife and kids!).

But there are other cliches to Wolfman's tenure that evoke other such change-overs. As mentioned, I wasn't that familiar with GL before I read these issues -- I hadn't realized how little Ferris Air had been used since the 1960s, and I had assumed Carl Ferris, Carol's father, had been a mainstay of the series. But I think he hadn't been seen since the very earliest issues! As well, Carl here is portrayed as a bullish, somewhat unsympathetic figure which I had assumed was his personality all along. But it's part of that old "everything you thought you knew, you didn't" idea, and revealing a hitherto unknown dark secret about one of the characters that new writers so often -- and sometimes so tritely -- employ to make their mark. Wolfman returns Ferris Sr. to the cast (an erstwhile nice guy) and reveals that he had been involved in shady dealings that now come back to threaten Ferris Air! Wolfman also runs a bit too quick to bring back old foes, and using the comic as a place to guest star old characters (some with no history with GL). Sometimes to good effect, sometimes for a bit of a cliche...sometimes a bit confusing (particularly the story between GL 136-137 involving him being dragged to two different future eras, one of which he had apparently been to before, but it's not said when or what issues). And the arc with Goldface attempting to combine all the mobs, and "proving" his might by killing a one of the bigger cliches in super hero comics!

Anyway, all this musing is just because it's funny, viewed in hindsight -- thinking about what I knew about GL then, with what I knew later, and viewing Wolfman's run in the context of a writer assuming the reins of a series that had been the domain of one writer for most of a decade or more, and clearly tackling it with the mandate to re-set the status quo. Indeed, that's the other cliché when a new writer takes over -- simultaneously seeming to shake things up and change things around...even as he then, with an almost fanboy adoration, brings back and reintroduces characters and ideas that hadn't been used for ages. You can consider a lot of this in comparison to when, say, Gerard Jones took over the character in the early 1990s, or Geoff Johns in 2008. And more than a few other characters and comic book series over the years. Presumably it's such a signature of comics because, in terms of the creative chores, comics are fairly unique. A novel series is generally written by one author, over a set period. Even in cases of series where later writers add to the canon, it is generally to deliberately evoke the original. While in, say, TV, individual writers have less impact on the overall direction of a series; the status quo is usually maintained, and any alterations dictated by outside factors (an actor leaving, a slump in ratings) -- and TV series rarely run long enough to create any sense of nostalgia (whereas comics are often written by writers...who read them as kids, hence why new writers often like to resurrect half forgotten villains and themes). But in comics, when a new writer (and editor) take over an on going series, often it is accepted they will take proprietary possession of it, and reshape it a bit to suit their interests, aptitudes, and creative interests.