A Fiery Tale
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer Scott Braden gives us his latest in a regular series about comic series that never were. Today it’s the turn of Neil Gaiman’s The Flame Is Green…
Neil Gaiman’s The Flame Is Green
“People ask me all the time, ‘Don’t you ever wish you could write Superman or Batman or even Blackhawk,’” award-winning writer Neil Gaiman recalled in 1996. “Well, actually I did. It’s just that nobody ever got the opportunity to see it.”
Before the movie and television deals, the best-selling novels, and even one of his most successful ventures to date (DC Comics/Vertigo’s acclaimed comic book series, Sandman), Gaiman was a freelance writer whose work could be found in the pages of Fleetway’s 2000 A.D., as well as the Original Universe’s Hellblazer, Secret Origins, and Swamp Thing. But for a comic book creator who was known for his mythical dreamscapes and unforgettable characters, his work with super-heroes – the traditional four-color mainstay – was few and far between. So, when offered a chance to work on a super-hero project that had the makings of a genuine comic book event, it was an opportunity too good for Gaiman to refuse.
“There was a time in the mid-to-late ‘80s when Action Comics, traditionally a monthly title, went weekly,” Gaiman explained. “It became an anthology comic that featured Superman, Green Lantern, the Demon, Catwoman, Blackhawk, Deadman – all these characters rotating in one series. Mark Waid – who has since gone on to fame and glory as a writer – was the editor on the book, and he phoned me up and said, ‘We’re thinking about doing this giant, 38-page special with all the characters that have been in the current run of the title, and we’d like you to do this last issue of Action Comics Weekly before we change it back to a monthly Superman title. Will you write it?’ It didn’t take me long to say, ‘Yes.’”
Having the beginnings of a story in mind, Gaiman looked amongst the extensive list of characters he had to work with in finding the one link that would tie his ideas together. After considering his options, he found his answer – and it was green. Playing up the relationship between Clark (Superman) Kent and Hal Jordan – the intergalactic policeman known as Green Lantern – Gaiman also utilized some of the mythos behind Hal’s Golden Age counterpart, Alan Scott. Unlike Hal, the source of Alan Scott’s power was supernatural in origin; a theme that’s found throughout Gaiman’s comic book work. Still, the author is adamant that he had only one thing in mind when plotting out “The Flame is Green.”
“The story I basically wanted to tell was about two close friends spending some time together,” Gaiman explained, “but with a different spin.”
Beginning his “Lost Tale” in 1949, Gaiman reintroduces readers to a very drunk Blackhawk, the renowned World War II flying ace, and his associate, Weng Chen – better known to most comics fans as Chop-Chop. According to Gaiman, the two intoxicated war heroes are searching out an abandoned Nazi bunker for a “German secret weapon.” But instead, they found what may be the remains of the legendary mystery men, the Justice Society of America – as well as what Weng Chen describes as a “glowing magic lantern.” Intrigued by the lamp, the heroes pick it up, give up the search, and head back to the bar.
Gaiman then brings the reader back to the present, where we find Hal Jordan making an unexpected visit to his good friend, Clark Kent. According to the author, Hal has had some rough times of late, so when Clark offers to bring him along on a reporting assignment involving an exhibition at the Metropolis Museum, as well as offer some quality time in the interest of friendship, Hal’s all for it.
Later that night, at the exhibition, the two come across Catwoman (who, as Selina Kyle, is staking out the place) as well as the same mysterious artifact that Weng Chen found years earlier. Having discovered the object, Hal turns to Clark and explains how he should return the lamp to its rightful owner. But, before moving the lamp, Hal first attempts to charge his power ring with Clark in attendance – and that’s when things go bad.
Gaiman explained that Hal, whose power is science-based, and the magically vulnerable Superman, have unknowingly come across Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott’s lamp, which as explained earlier, is mystical by nature. And, with Hal trying to recharge his ring using an oath based on cold science, ends up killing Clark and himself.
The story then cuts to a mysterious man in black who Gaiman describes as being held captive (“ . . . in an apartment, in all places . . .”) by arcane forces. Putting on a his hat and coat, the dark figure summons strange, magical forces, and then vanishes without a trace.
“That’s the Phantom Stranger,” Gaiman said. “In an earlier mini-series, DC had given him – one of their most mysterious and powerful characters – an apartment. You don’t do that.”
Bringing the story back, has us catch up with Clark and Hal (now wearing their respective costumes) in the Afterlife, just as they run into one of DC’s most bizarre characters – Boston Brand, the Deadman.
“Deadman is a character that always appealed to me,” Gaiman admitted. “In fact, I was so fond of the line I was going to use in this story about famous last words, ‘Mine were: Hey, from up here it looks like that guy with the hook has a gun,’ that I ended up using it when I sat down to write The Books of Magic.”
Here, Gaiman also had Superman and Green Lantern mistakenly venture into the outlands of Hell. Meeting up with various nightmare creatures beyond imagining, the two heroes come across one infernal threat after another , until they meet up with a vaguely familiar rhyming demon by the name of Gintear . . . who happens to want them for dinner. But just as they are about ot be devoured, Green Lantern – the bravest man on Earth – pleads to his ring for help. And, in a flash of green, they are gone.
As both Superman and Green Lantern would soon find out, the lamp they had come across in the museum had housed an energy being that was concentrated high magic given form. This “Green Flame” – the true power behind the Golden Age Green Lantern’s ring – had essentially brought the heroes back to life, casting them into what Gaiman described as “the very heart of magic itself.” Here in a place where both Superman and Green Lantern were most vulnerable, the Green Flame intended to enslave them forever.
Enter the Phantom Stranger.
Having monitored what transpired as only he could, the Stranger arrives just in time to tell Green Lantern that the only chance for escape is to recite his Golden Age counterpart’s oath. By saying those magic words, Hal Jordan frees the power ring of the Green Flame’s influence, and transports both Superman and himself back to the museum. With the Green Flame once again imprisoned in the lamp, Gaimen then has Clark and Hal say their goodbyes, with real-life writers (then DC editors) Waid and Brian Augustyn sipping champagne in the background. Gaiman also had some fun by showing Superman flying over a theatre billboard for the popular movie, Fatal Attraction – with only the letters A-C-T-I-O-N left standing.
Having finished the story, Gaiman sent it right off to DC. “I put together a story very much in the continuity DC had that particular week. But, by the time it went off, I had lost Etrigan the Demon – so I had rewritten him as Gintear, which is a bad anagram for Etrigan. I then sent it off again. Unfortunately, this time, somebody decided that too many people knew who the Man of Tomorrow really was, so the Powers that Be made a rule that nobody except Ma and Pa Kent knew Superman’s secret identity. Despite working well within John Byrne’s revamped Superman continuity, this was a new and sudden rule that had been decided – end of story. I then got a bunch of calls, asking, ‘Can you rewrite the story so that Hal Jordan doesn’t know that Superman is Clark Kent?’ To that, I said, ‘You know what? This is a story about two old friends meeting in civvies. One of them has problems, and the other one doesn’t. It may not be the greatest story ever written, but at least it has a reason for being there. If I rewrote it so that they bumped into each other in costume during a bank robbery, the story would have no point. Right now, stuff happen, and one of them cheers up a bit in the end. And, that’s the last Action Comics Weekly as we hand the title back to Superman.’
“After some thought, [DC] finally said, ‘How about we pay you off and do a kill fee on it, and get Gerry Conway or Eliot S. Maggin to write it?’ I agreed. Then, they asked if they could use my ‘Fatal Attraction coming off the marquee gag’ at the end of the story, which was fine by me, except nobody told the letterer – which is why he put a word balloon over the ACTION sign, preventing DC from using it in the way I originally intended.”
That’s not the end of the tale, though. In the year 2000, DC finally released the story as a standalone one-shot, Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame. How that project came to be is another story for another time.
“That was my little outing with super-heroes,” Gaiman laughed. “Strange, wasn’t it?”
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