DC Comics unveiled the newest addition to the Green Lantern Corp. in the beginning of September in it’s #0 issue of the popular series, and their brand new character has been getting a lot of attention. In keeping with the continued campaign to diversify and include representations of different races and religions in mainstream comic books, a young Muslim-American man is the latest human to wear the lantern ring of power.
But is his representation in the comic books a successful example of diversification or a good attempt gone wrong? Let’s take a closer look at our newest Green Lantern, Simon Baz.
Simon Baz is a Muslim-American with some problems in his past. He’d been making his living as a car thief, a situation which has landed him in trouble with the law. Baz picks a job that lands him in a van filled with explosives, which is way more than he signed on for, and he tries to save lives by ditching the bomb at an abandoned construction site. This backfires, since Baz is then painted as a terrorist, and he’s captured and interrogated by the FBI. Luckily, a Green Lantern ring swoops in to save the day, and Baz escapes to begin his hero’s journey while the government is presented with their nightmare: a young Muslim man they’ve labeled as a terrorist out there with the power of a Green Lantern.
Writer Geoff Johns obviously sets out to paint Baz as a heroic, emotionally complex character, and he succeeds. He takes time to point to the intolerance that Muslim-Americans have endured in post-September 11 America as a major factor shaping Baz’s life, going so far as to actually show Baz and his family watching the events of 9-11 unfolding on television. Johns also goes to great lengths to show Baz as more than just a cookie-cutter religious stereotype. Instead, he’s a man who breaks the laws of his religion by being a thief, but also by getting a tattoo (which is considered haraam by Muslim religious law) that says “courage” in Arabic. He is a car thief with his own set of morals who will steal a van but would never allow a bomb to hurt innocent people. This sets him up as the perfect sort of person to overcome fear and become a new Green Lantern.
Yet some of the choices made by Johns in his attempt to create a culturally sensitive, complex character sometimes seem to go into questionable territory. For example, Baz is depicted on the front cover of Green Lantern #0 with a gun, a bizarrely anti-heroic choice for a Green Lantern, along with being kind of conceptually redundant. A Green Lantern can create anything he can imagine out of energy generated from his pure will and the man is carrying a gun? It makes me wonder... who thought it was a good idea to represent a Muslim-American Green Lantern as a gun-wielding superhero?
More to the point, Baz’s backstory of facing intolerance, mostly represented by an interrogation scene with racist FBI agents, felt like a ham-fisted way to reinforce Baz’s Muslim-American status, adhering as it does to a well-trod 24-esque story about a man wrongly accused of being a terrorist. I was left wondering if there aren’t more positive ways to introduce Baz’s heritage and its impact on his life rather than painting him as an angry man facing down institutionalized cultural insensitivity. Though this battle against discrimination summons up the courage recognized by the lantern ring and leads to Baz becoming the Green Lantern, I couldn’t help feel that it was, in its own way, a stereotypical choice for a Muslim-American character. I also question the choice of giving Baz a criminal background—in the effort to depict Baz as someone who would never be a terrorist, he’s portrayed instead as just another kind of criminal, and a gun-toting one at that.
The comic does the character no favors by spending so much time on the battle over racial intolerance with the FBI, either. At the end of the issue I had nearly forgotten that I was reading a Green Lantern origin story and felt instead that I was watching a modern political thriller. I also felt that very little of the discourse gave us any insight into Baz as a character, and was left wondering if character-related issues hadn’t been mistaken in this case for actual character depth. Moments of genuine interest—like the discussion of Baz’s decision to get his tattoo and references to his family relationships—were overshadowed by the hovering framework of the story, which kept us focused on the “not a terrorist!” issue rather than on Baz himself. I came out of the comic feeling bludgeoned by the attempt to avoid being politically insensitive, and while balancing a hot-button issue involving cultural representation is difficult, the entire comic might as well have just been labeled “A Very Special Episode,” in place of a well-developed origin story.
The character of Simon Baz isn’t the first Muslim superhero character introduced by the Big Two in their books. DC also has Nightrunner, a Muslim character from Algiers who has teamed with Batman in the past, while Marvel has the more prominent Dust, an Afghani woman, as part of the X-Men line-up. Yet this is the first time that a Muslim-American character has stepped into a headlining role in one of the biggest properties owned by DC Comics. It comes on the heels of DC’s revelation regarding the sexual preference of Earth 2’s Alan Scott, which followed on the heels of the announcement of the first gay marriage in Marvel Comics between Northstar and his long-time partner. The name of the game seems to be finding new ways to diversify existing line-ups in an effort to change the previous super-universes, and I genuinely applaud the attempts at shaking up these previously homogeneous line-ups.
Still, Green Lantern #0 seems to have missed the mark by trying so hard to get away from bad stereotypes that it just lands smack in the middle of another one. Baz becomes a counter-type, the anti-terrorist Muslim who is instead labeled a terrorist anyway, and that trope dominates and becomes his entire story throughout the first issue. The character of Simon Baz has the potential to be such a wonderful addition to the Green Lantern line-up that it would be a shame to see him turned into a one-dimensional “issue” character. Whether or not he’ll be given the opportunity to grow past this stumbling start is up to DC and the GL writers, but I hope serious reconsideration is given to how he’ll be represented in the future.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.