Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Left Turn on Green Arrow


I was just in time to be too late.

That’s what it felt like, anyway.  I had just started buying a fascinating superhero comic-book title, only to discover that the first issue I bought was also the last issue: the title, as the magazine itself announced, was being discontinued.  This bit of information aggravated me no end because it was, to me, the best comic book I had ever read up to that time — and it remains one of the best today.

The year was 1972, and I was 12-years old.  Before then, I had bought comic books sporadically, but I never really collected them in any serious fashion.  I grew up with superhero comics and never remember them not being around me.  I guess any kid would be intrigued by the idea of a superhero: we were learning how to get along in a world that we barely had any control over, while these costumed crime fighters could bend that world to their own demands (via their super powers) and were often praised for it in the end. 

I was also drawn to comics because I drew myself — drew pictures on paper, that is.  In these three-color ink-and-paper stories, I saw the kind of rendering of the world that I wanted to achieve in my own drawings.  In fact, my first ambition as a kid was to become a professional comic-book artist.  So, by the time I turned 12, I had decided to collect comics in earnest — I decided to collect comics with an eye towards studying them as a means of eventually entering the profession myself.  (Like today, the two major companies in superhero comics back then were Marvel and D.C.)  And one of the first comics I bought with this new purpose in mind was the D.C. publication Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89. 

The cover of ‘Green Lantern’ #9 (1961)
I was already familiar with the superhero Green Lantern.  An intergalactic green-masked, leotard-clad do-gooder, Green Lantern fought science-fiction nemeses who endangered the Earth, and he did so with a “power ring” that could … well … that could do anything.  One reason why Green Lantern was never my favorite title before then was because, with only a few paltry exceptions, there wasn’t anything that his ring couldn’t do.  The usual Green Lantern adventure had the hero fighting some equally super-powered foe, and it was only a matter of time (i.e., by the end of the story) before G.L. would have his power ring shoot a green beam of light that could take absolutely any form and use it as a way to defeat his adversary.  The stories didn’t contain much suspense because the all-powerful abilities of the power ring could, in the end, do whatever was needed to vanquish the super-powered foe. 
 
‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #89 (1972)
But Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89 was different.  This was the twelfth issue that D.C. had paired G.L. with Green Arrow, a mortal superhero whose only “power” was his skill as an archer shooting scientifically equipped arrows (in other words, Green Arrow was Batman with a quiver full of gadgety shafts instead of a utility belt).  So, the idea of teaming the near-omnipotent Green Lantern with a partner sans superpowers appealed to me: Green Arrow’s governance by the known physical laws of the universe leavened the contrivance of Green Lantern’s power ring. 

With a story titled “…And Through Him Save a World,” this comic book was unlike any other I had ever read up to that time.  The featured heroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, were both costumed crime fighters, but they didn’t fight some similarly powerful super villain.  Instead, the antagonist of the story was a human vandal with a radical environmental agenda, an injudicious but well-meaning activist whose anti-industrial mischief angered the blue-collar workers whose jobs he imperiled.  The story evoked the pressing real-life issue of environmental pollution, making the flawed activist/vandal a sympathetic character.  To put it mildly, this wasn’t your average superhero adventure.  Woven into this story was an obvious but intriguing allegory of the biblical crucifixion story, comparing the vandal’s tribulations with the passion of Jesus Christ — and equating the need to save ourselves by reversing our pollution of the environment to the Christian idea of “saving” ourselves via the forgiveness of sin. 


The concluding pages of ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #89
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89 was an eye-opener, a compelling sample of a comic-book title definitely worth collecting.  However, it was also, it turned out, the last issue of the title to be published for some time.   The adventures of Green Lantern and Green Arrow were to continue as a back feature in the comic The Flash, a back feature that ended up running for only three issues. 

In other words, I had just missed out on an incredible string of superhero stories.  For the previous eleven issues (#76-87, not counting a reprint), Green Lantern/Green Arrow, starting in 1970, had taken Green Lantern, a costumed hero known for his otherworldly exploits, and immersed him in the dilemmas of this world.  And the stories would usually raise some current social problem seldom encountered in superhero stories.  For the first time in superhero comic books, a title made a sustained effort to be relevant regarding current events of the day, to evoke social dilemmas faced by us non-superheroes in the here and now. 

Denny O’Neil in a recent photo
The writer who authored the twelve social-problem Green Lantern/Green Arrow issues was Denny O’Neil, who was given the task to revamp Green Lantern’s image in the face of slumping sales.  He hit upon the idea of using serious social issues in the comics by drawing on his past as a journalist.  As O’Neil put it, referring to the team it would take to produce the new Green Lantern comic:

We would dramatize [contemporary social] issues.  We would not resolve them.  We were not in the polemic business.  I was smart enough to know enormously complex problems couldn’t be dissected within the limitations of a 25-page comic book and humble enough to know that I didn’t have solutions anyway.  Still, I cherished the notion that the stories might be socially useful: I could hope they might awaken youngsters, eight- or nine-year-olds, to the world’s dilemmas and these children, given such an early start, might be able to find solutions in their maturity.  My generation, and my father’s, had grown up ignorant; my son’s didn’t have to.  Maybe I could help, a little. 

Green Arrow in ‘More Fun
Comics’ #91 (1943)
One way O’Neil dramatized the issues was to give Green Lantern someone to argue its other side.  O’Neil chose to pair G.L. with Green Arrow in the stories that he wrote.  The writer chose the green-costumed archer (his outfit a nod to Robin Hood) because, in the D.C. pantheon of superheroes, Green Arrow (who first appeared in More Fun Comics #73 back in 1941) was only a second-tier figure who never really gained a following of his own, the way Superman and Batman did.  Usually appearing in the back pages of other heroes’ comic books or as just another member of the Justice League of America, Green Arrow had never really developed his own personality; he was something of a non-entity.  O’Neil decided to change his characterization to, in the writer’s words, “a lusty, hot-tempered anarchist to contrast with the cerebral, sedate model citizen who was Green Lantern.  They would form the halves of a dialogue on the issues we chose to dramatize.”  Where the magazine had previously been titled Green Lantern, O’Neil made the virescent-clad archer a co-star and changed the title (at least on the cover) to Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

Neal Adams
Another reason why the G.L./G.A. series grabbed my attention was because it was illustrated by my favorite comic-book artist, Neal Adams.  I had become interested Adams’ art ever since his late-1960s work on the D.C. character Deadman and the title The Brave and the Bold (which teamed Batman with a different superhero every month).  I was impressed by the hyper-realistic (for comic books of the era) look of the characters he drew: where drawings by other comic-book artists maintained a highly stylized or somewhat simplistic rendition of their characters, Adams’ lifelike illustrations made an effort to reproduce proportions, facial features, and gestures like those seen in the real world.  “If superheroes existed,” Adams is reported to have said, “they’d have to look the way I draw them.”  No argument here.  But Adams also viewed his characters on the page from cinema-like angles, unusual for comic books at the time: extreme high angles, extreme low angles, extreme close-ups, and everything in-between.  Every so often, he would even play with the sequencing of panels, sometimes having a drawing beginning on one page and continuing over onto the next.  All of these are familiar conventions in comics these days, but they were quite unusual at the time.  Adams’ involvement in the G.L./G.A. series is one more reason for my continuing interest in it. 


From ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #76 (1970)
The first G.L./G.A. story (issue #76) observed the law-enforcer Green Lantern coming to the defense of a portly middle-aged man being roughed up by another man on the street.  G.L. intervenes on the middle-aged man’s behalf, sending his assailant to jail.  But shortly afterwards, the brash, excitable Green Arrow — clearly on the side of the underdog — informs his by-the-book colleague that the man he rescued was a slumlord, and the man he sent to jail a soon-to-be-evicted tenant.  After viewing the miserable conditions of the tenement, G.L. realizes that upholding the law doesn’t necessarily serve justice.  In the end, the slumlord is arrested for his underworld connections and for trying to have G.A. murdered.  The final pages conclude with the archer making a speech strange to see in a comic book at that time: after evoking the assassinated Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, G.A. says, “Something is wrong!  Something is killing us all!  Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!”


As a social-problem story, Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 isn’t exactly compelling.  For one thing, the narrative’s motivating problem — the slumlord evicting his impoverished tenants — is never really addressed: the slumlord is delivered to justice because of his underworld connections, not because he is a slumlord; and the tale leaves the fate of his hapless tenants unresolved.  Also, the 20-plus-page comic book doesn’t have the room to develop the characters in a truly satisfying way, so they still come across as stock figures.  But for a mainstream superhero comic book of the late 1960s/early 1970s, this was startling stuff.  Confronting a super-powered hero, one used to battling villains from outer space, with very real terrestrial problems brought an unusual social consciousness into an art form usually noted, at the time, for its lack of worldliness.  This made Green Lantern/Green Arrow seem a bit surreal.

But, alas, the relevance and realism — and awards — that O’Neil and Adams brought to the title didn’t rescue its sales figures, and it was discontinued after two years.  After I bought my first issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow (the last one to be published), I did what I could to get my hands on #76 and those other eleven previous issues, not an easy thing to do back in those days before comic collecting became the relatively high-profile activity it is today.  It took a few years, but I eventually acquired all eleven by the time I was in college.  By then, I had given up collecting comic books as a hobby, and I aspired to achievements other than drawing them.  But the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series of the early 1970s continues to fascinate me because of O’Neil’s infusion of social problems into superhero stories and because of Adams’ excellent artwork.  Fortunately, their twelve issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow have been critically praised in many quarters as the greatest run of superhero stories in comic-book history, and they have been reprinted numerous times over the intervening years.
 
A ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ reprint edition from 1983
Furthermore, Denny O’Neil’s transformation of the character of Green Arrow from a non-entity to a cantankerous liberal firebrand has made him one of the more popular and dynamic superheroes in the D.C. Universe.  In 1976, the comic title Green Lantern/Green Arrow was resurrected by other writers and artists, but without the socially conscious themes.  When the title switched to solo Green Lantern adventures, Green Arrow moved to his own solo stories, one of the most notable being the adult-oriented limited series Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters in 1987.  Today, Green Arrow can be seen as the main character in the popular CW series Arrow. 

Of course, Green Lantern/Green Arrow was published back in the days when comic books weren’t as varied as they are today.  Back then, all comics (at least as far as I could tell) had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority and thus had to contain family-friendly content (otherwise, they would need to switch to another format, like Mad and Creepy).  With the burgeoning of a post-adolescent readership over the decades, comics began to include more adult content and edgier material, with some titles eschewing CCA approval altogether.  And after the early 1970s, the proliferation of shops specializing in the sale of comics and graphic novels has created different book formats and a different marketing environment than when the 7x10 three-color newsprint magazines were relegated to one corner of the drug store or the 7-11.  With today’s wide variety of “funny books” and graphic novels, a title like Green Lantern/Green Arrow, among comic-book aficionados, would have a harder time standing out from the overabundance of choices.  But I’d like to think that the current environment of comic books as a serious medium for adult readers was shaped in part by Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s startling juxtaposition of otherworldly superheroes confronted by urgent real-world problems — even if we former youngsters haven’t, as Denny O’Neil hoped, grown up to solve them.  

Trailer for the CW series ‘Arrow,’ based on the Green Arrow

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