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SEPTEMBER, 1958. Coast City, California. The noble alien Abin Sur, protector of sector 2814 of our galaxy, crash-lands on Earth. Buried beneath the rubble of his spacecraft, he uses his last flicker of energy to summon test pilot Hal Jordan and offers him the fabled Ring of Power, a weapon created by the Guardians of Oa. With his dying breath Abin Sur asks, "Will you be my successor, Hal Jordan? Will you swear to use this ring to uphold justice throughout the universe?"
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"I swear it," Jordan promises. He slips the ring onto his finger, and takes the Guardians' Oath:
In brightest day, in blackest night
For nearly four decades Hal Jordan will save the universe on countless occasions as the Green Lantern, establishing himself as one of Earth's greatest champions. But in the 1990s, just years from the new millennium, his intentions and heroism become questionable. By 1994 he has turned on the Guardians and become the most powerful villain in the galaxy. The question remains: Did the Green Lantern die a villain or a hero? This question has stumped historians in recent years. This essay will retrace the history of the Green Lantern, and conclude once and for
LACK ink gashes my paper when Brandon DeStefano swipes it from beneath the point of my pen. "May I?" he asks. His eyes rush side to side over my words. "Listen to this crazy shit," he tells Tenzil Jones, his best friend. Brandon reads my paper to Tenzil in what is supposed to be my voice, adding an accent that isn't mine. Then he looks up at me, shaking his head in disapproval. "It's supposed to be about a real person in history, freak. What's wrong with you?"
"Hey," Tenzil whispers from behind me, "maybe I'll do mine on the Tooth Fairy."
I don't waste my time with talk. I put my hand out for the paper's return. Brandon makes sure that Mr. Cosgrove isn't looking and then crumples my paper, hurling it at me like a grenade. It hits my face and falls dead to the ground. "Ka-pow!" Brandon says, pointing his finger at me like a gun. "Why didn't you use your power ring to stop it?" Tenzil holds up his palm, and the two high-five each other, as if they've accomplished some great feat of teamwork.
"You are no Dynamic Duo," I tell them.
"What?" Brandon asks.
"You are" -- I lean into him, aligning my eyes with his -- "no Dynamic Duo." I say each word slowly, every syllable getting equal time. It's not my place to make terrible truths easier to hear; all I do is reveal them.
Suddenly Tenzil's finger flicks my ear, fast and hard. My neck jerks, my back stiffens. I feel the heat just below my right temple. "You're whacked, man," he says.
I know better than to tell Mr. Cosgrove. Not because I'm afraid; I just prefer another kind of justice.
I pick up my essay from the floor, pulling at opposite corners to undo the crumpled mass. It's wrinkled, like old skin, so I rub it between my hands, up and down until my palms burn from friction. When the page is smooth, I continue to write, even after the bell rings and the classroom has emptied. Only when Mr. Cosgrove starts locking up windows and shutting mini-blinds do I stop.
"Mr. Cosgrove?" He can't hear me above his whistling, so I say his name again.
"What? Oh, sorry." He turns to me. "Didn't realize you were still here."
"I know." I start erasing the chalkboard for him. "I just wanted to tell you that I'm excited about this assignment. I think I'll learn a lot from this."
He nods. "I'm sure you will."
"I used to hate your class, this subject."
"History changes," he says, smiling.
"And I used to hate you."
For four seconds Mr. Cosgrove is silent. Then he says, "I guess we change too, depending on how you look at things." He looks me in the eyes, smiling, and I think he means it.
"Right." I wipe chalk dust from my shirt and offer to help him with the windows, but he says they've been done, and explains that he needs to get home soon. I grab my backpack from my chair, and before I leave, I tell him that his class is my favorite, the only one that's useful in the real world.
ONG before the heckling from classmates and neighborhood children, the questioning stares from old churchwomen, and long, long before I knew the true story of my father, I was aware of the strange mutant abilities that my body possesses: though my skin is fair, I never burn in the sun, can barely manage a midsummer tan. When seasons change, so does the color of my hair, back and forth from brown to black. Despite my roundish face I have a unique bone structure that captures both shadow and light in just the right places, so that in the proper lighting my face can be startling. And my eyes -- somewhere between slanted gashes and perfect ovals -- are of two colors: the right is as brown as wet earth, and the left is jet black, a perfect obsidian orb. I keep them behind slightly tinted eyeglasses.
Fifteen years ago, at the moment of my spawning, no one could have guessed the potency of my hybridity.
"What are you goofing about now?" Luc asks me. He is quick to interrupt my meditations, dismissing them as daydreams. He shoots a rubber band at me from across the table. It bounces off my right lens. When I tell him to quit, to stop or I will kill him, I am shushed by the librarian, who frowns at me like an archenemy whose plans I have just foiled. "You're zoning out again," Luc says, sliding his grammar book over to me. "You said you would help me, so help." Though Luc is the most intelligent and perceptive student in the ninth grade (and the only other person I've ever known who is able to comprehend the theories of an anti-matter universe), his counselor insists that he take ESL classes. His English, standardized testing says, is not up to speed. In grade school they said the same thing about me. I knew the words -- I had a tenth-grade vocabulary by the time I was eight. I just chose not to speak.
We muddle through the textbook examples of passive voice, and I even devise my own exercises, in comic-book format. "Superman has been killed mercilessly by me," proclaimed Doomsday. But today I am in no mood to be a champion of standard written English. "Later," I promise. Luc shrugs his shoulders, thinking that I have given up, that surrendering is a possibility. So I rescue the moment by suggesting "Dystopia?," and his frown morphs into a smile. In a flash we cram books into our backpacks, slip on our raincoats, and pull hoods over our heads. As we exit the library, the words "psychos," "faggots," and "losers" reach us from behind study carrels. Luc and I stop to face our accusers, giving them looks that we will substantiate when the time is right. Then we are out the library door, off the campus, and under the afternoon drizzle. We stand at the bus stop, two secret heroes on the fringes of winter, waiting for the sun, any source of rejuvenation, just one outbound bus away from here and into the city.
YSTOPIA Comics is the only all-used-comic-book store in Daly City. Most stores file their back issues away in neat alphabetized rows, each one sealed in a plastic bag with rigid backing. But Dystopia lives up to its name. Comics are stuffed into shoddy cardboard boxes, and Luc and I spend hours rummaging through bin after bin. We always win in the end: in the past half hour Luc has found issues of Justice League and Sandman, even a water-damaged issue of The Watchmen, and I've started a small stack of old issues of Green Lantern, precisely what I need for my research. I sometimes think that Luc and I possess an extra sense, an instinct for finding small treasures among the slightly torn and the discarded.
"Closing time," a husky voice mutters from behind and above me. I do a quick one-eighty, fists clenched and ready. I face the cashier, who stands just inches away from me. His globular, fleshy belly is even closer, oozing over the elastic waistband of his Bermuda shorts. "If you're going to read it, then buy it."
I give Luc the signal and then shift my eyes back to the cashier. "Pardon me, sir," I say, "but your volume is infringing upon my space."
He blinks. "My what?"
"The amount of space your cubic units are occupying."
He blinks again. "So?" Already I've confused him, thrown him off, and all he can do is point to the clock. "Just hurry it up, all right?"
My eye catches the exposed belly once more. With the proper serrated edge I could carve into the flesh, cut a tunnel right through it.
I smile at the mass before me. "Let's go, Luc."
We walk out the door and turn the corner into a narrow alley. We crouch down to the ground, shielded between Dumpsters, and Luc unzips his backpack. From between textbooks and folders he pulls out our stack of comics and gives me my half. "Distract him longer next time," he says. "He almost turned around too soon."
"No backtalk from the sidekick." I tuck my comics away in the secret pocket of my backpack.
The rain has stopped, but we don our hoods anyway. We proceed into the street, outside the crosswalk lines, defying the blinking red hand before us. "Nice work," I tell Luc. "See you tomorrow, oh seven hundred hours."
"Oh seven hundred hours," he confirms.
N sad nights my mother listens to her 45 rpm of "Johnny Angel" over and over again until she passes out. Tonight is going to be one of those nights. Before I can even lock the door behind me, she starts screaming, asking where I've been. "Nowhere," I tell her. "Just out."
"And what should I do if something happened to you out there?" she asks, one hand on her hip, the other tugging at the neckline of her Las Vegas sweatshirt. "What should I do then?" She takes heavy, staggered breaths and begins to empty out the kitchen cupboards, throwing food we need over the fire escape, weeping, uttering profanities about men and why they are the way they are.
I give her five quick shots of Johnny Walker and put her to bed. I take off her shoes, pull the sheets over her, and press replay on her turntable. She puts her arms around my neck and pulls my face to hers, telling me what a good boy I've been. "Don't you change," she whispers. I can feel the tears on her lips wetting my ear.
"Go to sleep, Mom," I whisper. I pull down the shades, shutting out the last bits of daylight.
She got left again. I knew my mother was feeling hopeful this time around. This guy lasted almost four weeks.
When I warn her, she tells me I'm crazy, so this time I kept quiet. But I saw it coming. Her strategy was faulty: she had been making domestic offerings -- a home-cooked meal of lumpia and pinakbet, Filipino delicacies she calls her love potions. But they lack any magical properties. Her men always see the food as alien and weird, a little too far from home. So they take what they want and then vanish. "Ride a rocket to the moon, that's fine," she once slurred to some guy on the phone, "but baby, baby, won't you please come back?" It was my twelfth birthday party, but I wasn't the one who wanted him there. I took the receiver from her hands. "Accidents happen, bastard," I warned, "so watch your back." She grabbed the phone, hit me with it, and then apologized for my rudeness. But he'd already hung up.
Mom's messed-up universe started with one bad star: a nine-month marriage to the man who was my father. He brought her to the States, a living knickknack from his military days. Their union, brief as it was, spawned me and all my biological peculiarities. "You're like Aquaman," Luc said when I told him the story -- "cool." But Aquaman's mother was a mermaid, his father a human being. Nothing is human within the man who was my father. He disappeared from her life just hours before I was born. What I imagine, what I've even dreamed, is that he is a sinister breed of assassin, with white hair, white skin, and white eyes, invading alien streets, sent to find and fuck my mother and then finish her off. When she is drunk, she talks about my origin, sticking the sick story in my head, panel after panel after panel.
And then she'll break in half, Johnny Angel and Johnny Walker to the rescue. But I forgive her. Like all heroes, she needs her Fortress of Solitude, her Paradise Island, any place tucked away from the evil in the world. Not to worry: I keep a lookout.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.