Green Lantern was first introduced in All-American Comics #16, where Alan Scott was the only survivor of a rail road crash due to a lucky green lantern. This was a magical lantern, and it spoke to Alan of its origin: thousands of years ago, a mystical "green flame" fell to Earth. The voice of the flame prophesied that it would act three times: once to bring death, once to bring life, and once to bring power. By 1940, after having already fulfilled the first two-thirds of this prophecy (death when it crashed, life when it healed the insanity of the person who found it), the flame had been fashioned into a metal lantern, which fell into the hands of Alan, who was a young civil engineer at the time. The flame instructs Scott in how to fashion a ring from its metal, to give him fantastic powers, which he decided to use for good, under the name of Green Lantern.
Alan went on to sew together a costume, take out the ring of saboteurs who had been responsible for the crash, and become the leading character of All-American Comics. His one weakness was wood; the green flame was linked to "green, growing things", and thus, wooden objects were unaffected by his ring. He acquired a Plucky Comic Relief Sidekick named Doiby Dickles, and had both serious adventures and light, comedic romps. He did well as long as Super Heroes were in favor with the audience, but eventually fell to none other than his own dog, with "Streak, The Wonder Dog" taking over both covers and stories.
Several years would pass until The Silver Age of Comic Books began, and with DC having success relaunching The Flash, Green Lantern was next in line for revival. In 1959, the series was relaunched, though with major changes, as the series abandoned the magic aspects of the Alan Scott Green Lantern for a science-fiction type relaunch.
Test pilot Hal Jordan was suddenly summoned to the crash site of a dying alien, Abin Sur. Abin explained to Hal that he was to become a member of the Green Lantern Corps, overseen by the Guardians of the Universe, who maintained the Central Power Battery on the planet Oa, and essentially police the universe. He also warned that yellow was the one weakness of the ring and lantern he passed on, which would be Hal's weapons.
Hal's supporting cast initially included Secret Keeper Tom Kalmaku, aka "Pieface" (as he was an Eskimo in a very un-PC time), Carol Ferris (both love interest and boss in Hal's Secret Identity), Guy Gardner (Hal Jordan's Green Lantern back-up), and his brothers, Jack and Jim Jordan. He operated mainly out of Coast City, a No Communities Were Harmed version of Los Angeles.
Hal's adventures were some of the Silver Agiest of The Silver Age of Comic Books, with tons of weird Sci-Fi plot loops and imaginative extrapolations of the core concept. Villains like Sinestro, the renegade Green Lantern with a yellow power ring acquired from the antimatter universe of Qward, or Star Sapphire, Carol Ferris' split-personality alter-ego empowered by the Zamarons, female anima to the Guardians' animus, were defeated by clever and original use of the simple yet versatile Green Lantern Ring. John Broome and Gardner Fox brought in strange plots laced with a subtle — occasionally a bit too subtle — dash of characterization. Alan Scott was even brought back, and the "green flame" was given a retconned link to the Corps.
By the beginning of The Bronze Age of Comic Books, unfortunately, the title was falling on the sales charts, so they brought in Denny O'Neil on scripts and Neal Adams on art, and turned it into the flagship "relevant" title at DC. O'Neil saw Green Lantern as the symbol of Authority and "The Man", and paired him up with Oliver "Green Arrow" Queen, a former millionaire playboy and now warrior positioned as a firebrand liberal. He sent them off on a cross-country trip to "find America", downplaying the cosmic space adventures of yesteryear and instead using them to explore the social issues of the day. The revamp climaxed with a famous storyline involving drug addiction, in which Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy admits to having a heroin addiction. The run concluded with the debut appearance of John Stewart, a black architect who was selected to become Hal Jordan's new backup after Guy Gardner was injured.
The O'Neil/Adams run was, however, cancelled with issue #89 and the character was transitioned into a back-up feature in the pages of The Flash, which dropped Green Arrow and returned to sci-fi. After four years, Green Lantern was revived as an ongoing series with Green Arrow as his partner, until issue #125 when Green Arrow left the series once and for all, allowing for Hal to headline his own book by himself again.
Around this time, a Tales of The Green Lantern Corps backup was added as a regular feature to focus on the alien Lanterns. Several of these stories would be written by Alan Moore, who would introduce Sodam Yat, Rot Lop Fan, Mogo, and many others. A "Tales of the Green Lantern Corps" mini-series was also released which had the entire Corps taking on Nekron for the first time and introducing Arisia, who would become Hal's love interest.
Green Lantern became Green Lantern Corps with issue #201 with Hal, John, Katmai Tui, Salaak, Kilowog, Ch'p and Arisa setting up shop on Earth when the Guardians left Oa with their female counterparts the Zamarons. The revamp though would last only two years, as DC controversially cancelled the book (and depowered all but a handful of Green Lanterns) in order to make Green Lantern the flagship character of Action Comics, which was revamped into an eighty page weekly comic anthology series. Action Comics as a weekly series failed, and Green Lantern was given a new series in 1989. To go along with this, two mini-series were launched, to retell Hal's origin for new readers: Emerald Dawn, which controversially retconned Hal as a drunk driver who murdered a man and the less controversial Emerald Dawn II, which told the untold tale of Sinestro's expulsion from the Green Lantern Corps as well as retconning in a student-mentor relationship between Hal and Sinestro.
John Stewart went through a series of terrible events, as his wife Katma was murdered by a possessed Carol Ferris and an overconfident failure to keep a planet from exploding, and leaving him contemplating suicide (only to be talked out of it by the Martian Manhunter via tough love). He eventually got his own book, Green Lantern: Mosaic, featuring his adventures in trying to lead a patchwork world made of chunks teleported from different planets. Elsewhere, Guy Gardner received a major revival, joining the Justice League and gaining a boisterous, if not sometimes obnoxious, personality.
Unfortunately, sales started to slip again and in the the era of Superman dying and Batman getting his back broken, the top brass decided a big event was necessary to pull GL back into the common eye. This was also tied into DC's decision to fight back against cynics who had condemned Superman's death and Batman being replaced as gimmicky stunts, plus DC's desperation to have a young, hip "big gun" character to appeal to fans as their version of Spider-Man. So, in the course of the controversial three-part storyline Emerald Twilight, Hal Jordan went insane from the destruction of Coast City (which took place in the aforementioned Superman's-death storyline, which occurred immediately before Emerald Twilight). Furious at the recently-returned Guardians for denying him the power to restore it, Hal went on a rampage, tearing through the ranks of the Corps, killing and taking their power, and finally landing on Oa, where he fought and seemingly killed Sinestro and Kilowog before absorbing the power of the Central Power Battery, gaining immense power and calling himself Parallax.
On Earth, the last Guardian (and only survivor of Hal's rampage) Ganthet landed in an alley outside a club, desperately looking for someone to take the last ring and battery. Just then, Kyle Rayner exited. Ganthet told him "you'll do", and Kyle and was given the power ring, becoming the new Green Lantern. Not the most auspicious start.
This resulted in a MASSIVE amount of executive meddling and overall base breaking, all in the name of making Kyle Rayner (in editorial's own words) the "One, True Green Lantern". John Stewart's series "Green Lantern Mosaic" was retconned out of continuity in Zero Hour: Crisis in Time! (the series itself had ended with the resurrection of Katma Tui and John evolving into gaining powers similar to that of the Guardians of the Universe). Stewart joined the Darkstars, a rival super-cop group and promptly had his back broken. Guy Gardner had his yellow power ring destroyed by Hal and was retooled into a shapeshifter who could turn any body part into a weapon (the 90s could be a dumb time), and Alan (having retired and given his ring to Kyle; the ring was later destroyed by Parallax) had his power return as an internal energy source and started calling himself Sentinel.
Uneven start aside, Kyle started to do pretty okay for himself. He lived up to the legacy of Hal Jordan, went to other heroes to learn from them, and generally was the best hero he could be. Green Lantern's letters to the editor section started showing more and more readers who were giving Kyle a chance. In addition, an entire generation of new Green Lantern readers arose who had never heard of Hal Jordan as a Green Lantern except in the past tense.
Elsewhere, when DC found themselves with a big crossover in 1996 coming up that no one was willing to write, they gave into writer Karl Kesel's demand that he be allowed to mercy kill Hal Jordan in exchange for writing "The Final Night". In the four-part story, Hal Jordan sacrificed his life to save Earth, restarting the dying sun as the super-hero community forgave him and gave him a big send-off, in which even Exiled from Continuity Vertigo characters Swamp Thing and John Constantine showed up to pay tribute to Hal.
Hal's death, though written pretty well, didn't quite stop fans from being furious with his character derailment and death, so DC decided to call their bluff and did a six part storyline in Green Lantern (vol. 3) #101-107 where a rookie version of Hal Jordan was teleported into the present for a series of adventures with Kyle Rayner. The storyline produced the highest sales of the Ron Marz era, leading to DC green-lighting a then-newcoming Geoff Johns to make Hal Jordan the new Spectre in the 1999 DC crossover Day of Judgement. Hal was given a new series, The Spectre, which sold well but lasted two years before Hal was left making guest appearances in other books.
Good things don't last forever. Marz was in the process of bringing the Corps back when his contract expired. Judd Winick took over and... wasn't as good. He wasn't bad, but his plots had a tendency to be Anvilicious, especially when it came to newly-created character Terry Berg, Kyle's gay friend who was gay and liked boys because he was gay. Did we mention he was gay? Because Winick sure did. Taking over for Winick was Ben Raab, who wrote poorly and had a very poor grasp on the characters. Sales plummeted.
In 2004, DC launched Green Lantern: Rebirth. Written by Geoff Johns, it was launched with the stated goal of bringing back Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. It did that. Along the way, it also brought back Guy Gardner, John Stewart, and Sinestro. Kyle got validated by Hal and came out looking pretty good (fans, of course, still complained). To bring back Hal Jordan took some impressive retconning, of course. Johns was up to the task.
Parallax, an ancient, parasitic insect-shaped Anthropomorphic Personification of fear, was the yellow impurity inside the Great Power Battery. The Guardians had sealed him up in there at the dawn of time and then forgotten about him, which is why they were clueless when their Corpsmen turned out to be vulnerable to yellow all those millenia later. (Or so they said, at least.) When Hal Jordan, at the end of the original Green Lantern/Green Lantern Corps series, entered the Power Battery to fight Sinestro, Parallax merged with Hal and used the destruction of Coast City to seize control over him body and soul. The lack of a yellow weakness in Kyle's ring was thus explained as Parallax being out of the battery, and the Spectre's choice to merge with Hal was in order to secretly remove Parallax from Jordan's soul. Where the Spectre failed, Kyle Rayner succeeded. Hal Jordan was reborn and Parallax was put back into the Central Power Battery. Rookies would still be vulnerable to the yellow weakness, but once a Green Lantern learned to overcome fear, it was gone. And yes, it turned out Fear was yellow. This was actually a big plot point, but nobody knew it at the time.
Rebirth was a massive sales success. Green Lantern was relaunched with Johns writing. Another miniseries, Green Lantern Corps: Recharge was created to chronicle the rebirth of the Green Lantern Corps. It was a sales success too, and a Green Lantern Corps sister series was launched following its conclusion. With Hal on Green Lantern, Kyle and Guy on Green Lantern Corps, John on JLA, and Alan Scott on JSA, each Green Lantern had finally found his own place in The DCU.
As Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps went on, eagle-eyed readers with a knowledge of continuity started picking up on something. Sodam Yat appeared as an otherwise unremarkable new recruit. The Lanterns fought the Children of the White Lobe. Ranx, the Sentient City, appeared. These were all characters given passing mention in a short story Alan Moore had written for the "Tales of the Green Lantern Corps" backup, long ago. The story was called "Tyger, Tyger", and when those characters were mentioned in it, it was in a prophecy foretelling how the Green Lantern Corps would be destroyed. Something big was up.
That something turned out to be the Sinestro Corps War. Sinestro had gone and made a Corps of his own, only they wielded the yellow light of fear. Breaking Parallax out of the Central Power Battery, Sinestro then ripped Ion out of Kyle. Ion was revealed to be the Anthropomorphic Personification of willpower, and was left without a host. Kyle was forced to be the new host for Parallax. With that done, Sinestro revealed that he had also recruited Cyborg Superman, Superboy-Prime, and the Anti-Monitor to his side. Any one of these Big Bads was a big enough threat on his own to warrant a Crisis Crossover, and indeed all five had done so in the past. Together, they seemed unstoppable.
Naturally, they weren't. The Green Lanterns triumphed. Parallax was contained again, this time being split four ways and kept inside Hal, Kyle, John, and Guy's batteries. Conversely, the Guardians introduced a new rule into the book of Oa (the codex that defines all green lantern conduct): Green lanterns are now permitted to kill against corps enemies. Incidentally, this was one of the goals Sinestro had going into the war, making it quite the Xanatos Gambit on his part. Meanwhile Ganthet and Sayd (a female Guardian who had taken a name and Ganthet's lover) were exiled from the Guardians for the crime of feeling emotions. Before they left, they revealed that there was an entire emotional spectrum: Red for anger, Orange for greed, Yellow for fear, Green for willpower, Blue for hope, Indigo for compassion, and Violet for love. They shared a prophecy — the prophecy of Blackest Night — which stated that all seven Corps would be created, would war with each other, and then be overwhelmed by the black of death.
In the issues that followed, that's exactly what happened. Corps after Corps was formed (or discovered), and they began to fight with each other, often with rapidly shifting allegiances. The skirmishes escalated towards all-out war, until suddenly, from a dead sector of space, came black rings without number. The black rings attached themselves to the dead, rising them up as superpowered, ring-slinging zombies intent on devouring the hearts (and emotions) of all that lived. The Blackest Night had come.
Upon the rise of these "black lanterns", the 7 warring corps immediately formed an Enemy Mine, reasoning that this was far beyond anything they'd faced. The war against the black lanterns lead to the revamping of former Joke Character Black Hand, and introduced Nekron, the embodiment of lifelessness, who planned on ending all life so to end all emotion. Naturally, the corps fought back, and utilizing the white light of pure emotion, banished Nekron and turned Black Hand over to the Indigos.
Blackest Night concluded, and a third title was added, named Emerald Warriors. This short-lived title was cancelled along with "Green Lantern" and "Green Lantern Corps" with the advent of Flashpoint. Following Flashpoint and the start of the New 52, Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps resumed publication with new first issues, while Kyle Rayner became the main character in Green Lantern: New Guardians.
Coincidentally, as Green Lantern was doing so well in sales at the time, the story of the old continuity was permitted to continue. This lead to the Wham Episode of Geoff Johns's run on the title: War of the Green Lanterns. The aftermath of Blackest Night did not bring peace between the various Lantern corps as hoped, but then, the mad Guardian Krona, who rebelled against the guardians before and turned the manhunters (the guardian's first army) into indiscriminate killers returned. Stealing the emotion entities, and gaining the attention of all 7 corps, the leaders (and Hal Jordan) pursued Krona hoping to retrieve the emotion entities (and in the red lantern leader's case, kill Krona for causing the manhunters to massacre his sector). However, Krona then took control of the green lanterns with the entities, enslaving the entire corps outside of Hal, Guy, Kyle, John and Kilowog (briefly). Teaming up with Ganthet, the earth lanterns were forced into impossible decisions, but ultimately killed Krona and saved the corps at a terrible cost.
In the aftermath of the war, the green lanterns are still trying to rebuild, and some unique developments are still happening, the biggest of which being the guardians of the universe (sans Sayd who was a prisoner of the orange lanterns at the time, and Ganthet who was brainwashed by the other Guardians) deciding to eliminate the Green Lantern Corps and replace it with a new "Third Army".
Here are a more in-depth, but still brief synopsis of the main six humans who currently call themselves a Green Lantern. (See the Character sheet for details and alien Lanterns):
- Alan Scott: The original, Golden Age Green Lantern. Not a member of the Corps; he instead acquired a mystical lantern made of green metal, out of which he carved a ring. His only weakness is wood, and he's been a member of every incarnation of the Justice Society of America. Nowadays, a grandpa.
- Harold "Hal" Jordan: The updated, Silver Age Green Lantern. Replacing magic with Sci-Fi, he was given the Power Battery and Power Ring of the Green Lantern Corps by a dying alien, Abin Sur. His weakness, along with the rest of the Corps, was the color yellow. He's been a perennial member of the Justice League of America. He was deposed as Green Lantern in 1994, as a result of the controversial "Emerald Twilight" storyline in which Hal went insane and killed a lot of people, an event that saw the Green Lantern franchise break in half. Kicked around as a Big Bad for a while, died, did a stint as the Spectre, and was finally restored to life and Green Lantern-hood in 2004. Due to having the longest tenure as Green Lantern, he's the flagship character of the franchise, and is the main focus of Green Lantern.
- Guy Gardner: Introduced as Abin Sur's other choice (Hal was closer to where he crashed). Pretty much a plot device up until the late Bronze Age, he was taken out by a bus so John Stewart could become the backup Green Lantern, brought back with brain damage as an adversary for the other Lanterns, and became a member of the Green Lantern Corps as an Anti-Hero. He rose to fame as a member of the Justice League International (getting the job in large part because Hal Jordan was helming his own team book) with a new Jerkass characterization, Retconned as being due to the brain damage sustained in previous stories. When the Green Lanterns kicked him out, he was given a yellow power ring and spun off into his own book during the early 90s. When Executive Meddling required him to lose the ring, he gained shapeshifting powers and went around calling himself Warrior. When Hal Jordan came back, so did Guy. Superpowers gone and ring restored, he mellowed out considerably, and was stationed on Oa (with Kyle Rayner) as an Honor Guard member of the GLC. Guy is generally written as The Determinator of the series. Used to appear in Green Lantern Corps, but has been given his own book with Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors. Following the New 52 reboot, he is currently featured in Red Lanterns as of issue #21, he's now the leader of the RED Lantern Corps.
- John Stewart: The first black man to bear the mantle of Green Lantern, John was introduced in The Bronze Age of Comic Books at the very end of the famous O'Neil/Adams Green Lantern run. An architect (since retconned to also be a marine sharpshooter), he married fellow Green Lantern Katma Tui and headlined the book from 1983-1985 (the latter year, during the Crisis on Infinite Earths). Sadly, Katma was killed and John Stewart spiraled downward due to the events of "Cosmic Odyssey", which had Jim Starlin write Stewart out of character as being a cocky jerk-ass whose refusal to take any help from Martian Manhunter led to an entire planet exploding. Got his own book in the early 90s called Green Lantern: Mosaic, which was sadly retconned out by Emerald Twilight. He gained a great deal of popularity due to his exposure as the primary Green Lantern of the DCAU Justice League. Currently stars in Green Lantern Corps. Due to the fact that all the other Lanterns have their own books (and the DCAU exposure), he tends to be the Green Lantern picked for team memberships.
- Kyle Rayner: Introduced in the 90s as the younger, more hip, replacement to Hal Jordan, for which he got lots of hate in the beginning. Executive Meddling established him from the start as the "One, True Green Lantern", which caused John and Guy to lose their rings (and, of course, contributed to the hate since they had fans too). As the star of the title for nearly ten years, Kyle earned his own share of fans and was accepted as "One True Green Lantern" by an entire generation of Green Lantern fans who couldn't care less about Hal Jordan. Kyle was the first GL not to have the yellow weakness in his ring, and is distinguished from other Lanterns by his creativity and imagination. He is also the first Green Lantern to become Ion, and the man responsible for the rebirth of the Guardians and, through them, the refounding of the Green Lantern Corps. Honored with the title Torchbearer (for keeping the Green light alive in the darkness), he now serves on Oa as an Honor Guard Lantern. Kyle currently stars in "Green Lantern: New Guardians as of the New 52.
- Simon Baz: Growing up in a post 9/11 America, Simon & his family and friends faced osterization due to their Arab-Muslim heritage. Following a car race in which his brother-in-law & best friend was hospitalized in a persistant vegetative state with no real hope of recovery, Simon started a minor career in stealing cars to help pay for his sister & nephew. When one of the vans he stole turned out to have a bomb inside, Simon attempted to let it explode near a building which seemed abandoned, but wound up being labeled a terrorist. However, when a Green Lantern Ring composed of a fused model of Hal Jordan & Sinestro's rings came to him, Simon took it and became a new Green Lantern. With a senior Lantern, the squirrel like B'dg, to help him, Simon was able to clear his name and revive his comatose brother-in-law despite the Ring not being programmed to do so. After helping to save the Corps & the Universe from the First Lantern, Volthoom, Simon joined up with the Justice League of America (2013).