This is an interesting (and debatable) one as this “should have been” is really a has been and even an is (and that’s how you do an opening sentence).
Guy Gardner is headlining (or co-headlining) his own well-selling series, Green Lantern Corps, and for the past few years before that was doing the same either in its predecessor or Emerald Warriors. He was perhaps the most popular member of the late 80’s/early 90’s Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis Justice League and is always at least a cult favorite when that group shuffles its line-up (he’s technically on Justice League International right now, I guess, but he hasn’t been on the main team since just after Doomsday though a vocal segment always wants to see him there; his last dalliance in being recruited by the big guns was as a bit of a running joke during Grant Morrison’s run over a decade ago).
He had a respectably long-running—and underrated—solo series in the 90’s, he crossed over to animation with Batman: Brave and the Bold, and is generally a character held in high regard. Save for a period right after his introduction—he was in a coma—and the first few years of this century—he was in a weird limbo after sort of dying during Our Worlds at War before coming back via Joe Kelly’s Action Comics and getting rebooted as a Green Lantern by Geoff Johns—Guy Gardner has always more or less been a high B-lister verging on the A-list of DC Comics heroes.
And yet it feels like he had the potential to be more.
Guy Gardner is the most interesting of the human Green Lanterns. Kyle Rayner is more relatable, but Guy has more to him. He’s got more range than golden boy Hal Jordan and more depth than the shifting tabula rasa that is John Stewart. Don’t get me wrong, all of those characters are great (except for Hal Jordan), but while Kyle is likable, John has potential and Hal is a douche bag, Guy’s got layers.
He’s a genuinely heroic man trapped in the façade of a jerk by circumstance. Guy overcame a difficult childhood to become a social worker and later a teacher, working to better the community and world around him even as he kept his own aggression in check. He was judged equally worthy to be Earth’s Green Lantern by Abin Sur, with Hal Jordan only getting the nod because he was geographically closer. Guy eventually became Jordan’s back-up and friend, but suffered one tragic setback after another, getting hit by a bus saving one of his students, getting trapped in the Phantom Zone, and eventually lapsing into a coma (also, Hal Jordan romanced his girlfriend when he was out of commission one time; yes they both thought Guy was dead, but come on!).
All this piled up to create the Guy Gardner the DC Universe—and readers—are most familiar with: an arrogant, brash, hot-tempered loose cannon who also happens to be a noble and dedicated champion for justice (even if it’s not always evident). Part of this persona is written off in-universe as the result of his brain damage and whatnot, but the more interesting story to me is that of a man who had the potential to be a hero or a jerk, did his best to be the former, got knocked on his ass at every junction, naturally fell toward his darker nature, and now struggles to balance the two; that’s a character whose life and adventures I want to follow.
Unfortunately, as has long been the problem with a lot of characters who came to prominence in the Giffen/DeMatteis JLI, more often than not the deeper complexities of Guy Gardner have been ignored in favor of just writing a loudmouth who is obnoxious because he’s an obnoxious loudmouth. Giffen and DeMatteis were (and are) geniuses when it comes to working in subtleties, so that their parody is strong but when they’re being serious and giving their characters deep moments, it has extra added value; a lot writers who followed them only got the surface level stuff.
One writer who understood how to make Guy Gardner more than a cliché was Beau Smith, who penned Guy Gardner: Warrior during the mid-90’s. Smith explored the character’s past, the roots of his insecurities and why he had such a desperate need to fly in the face of authority. But Warrior wasn’t just funny book psychology; it could be as funny as JLI and Guy remained the bare-knuckled bad ass Smith loves to write, but with stakes that made you care about him. Your mileage may vary on Guy’s altered look and powers during his Warrior days, but that series was a revealing glimpse at the character beneath the gimmicks and how much potential he truly had.
As with so many of these Should Have Beens, unfortunate timing has been Guy Gardner’s enemy. His popularity and visibility peaked while he was on a team, so while Giffen and DeMatteis did wonders with him, they still had a half dozen other characters to juggle. His solo series was launched at the height of 90’s excess and didn’t quite find its way under Smith until the market was a more volatile place that couldn’t sustain unproven commodities. By the time Guy became viable again, much of his development had been forgotten and his chief function was gag cameos. Even now, since being reborn under Geoff Johns and shepherded along by the talented Peter Tomasi—who obviously cares about what makes the character tick beyond the obvious—Guy has to tie for third fiddle at best in the Green Lantern franchise behind the resurgent Hal Jordan and tenacious Kyle Rayner.
Guy Gardner has never had a chance to truly shine. He’s been a replacement, a team player, a joke and a co-headliner, but never gotten that top spot. Again, Tomasi does a great job with him in GLC, and I have every confidence he’ll continue to do so, but honestly, wouldn’t you love to see a movie about a wise ass who’s quick to throw the first punch because he’s fighting back against the bum circumstances life has dealt a good man who happens to have the most powerful weapon in the universe on his ring finger?
I sure as hell would.