Green Arrow circa 1958 by Jack Kirby
The success of the new American TV show Arrow provides me with an excuse for another excursion into what what makes the mainstream comic book industry irremediably different from printed fiction, in a way that book readers will find hard to grasp.
Arrow, which is making a good job of combining flashy, CGI-enhanced action, a Lost-like backstory carefully doled out and a surprising psychological depth in its approach to its superhero lead, is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen. It’s a very modern, and in some ways innovative approach to a character who’s been around for seventy years now.
But the thing about Green Arrow was that for thirty years he was a nobody, a nothing, a C-list costumed character with the undeserved distinction of being one of only six such to have been in continuous publication since the Forties. Thirty years of being an implausible (for comics!), unoriginal, characterless figure.
And in the forty years that followed, Green Arrow has grown to become one of DC’s foremost characters, popular, reliable and commercial (at one time his title’s sales were running second only to Superman). Green Arrow is the living embodiment of the saying, “There’s no such thing as a bad character.”
What readers of books often don’t realise, or fully understand even when they do, is the extent to which mainstream comics characters are open to anyone to write. Take Superman: as should be better known, the Man of Steel was created by writer Jerry Seigel and artist Joe Schuster. How many people, do you think, have written Superman stories?
I don’t know the answer, though I’m sure that more than one comic book fanatic could give you an exact number (or as exact as records will allow), but the answer is: hundreds. Seriously: hundreds. Remember I’ve been reading these things for about fifty years myself, and that it only takes two writers a year to get us into three figures, and I can assure you that fifty years ago there were more than two Superman writers being tyrannised over their scripts by editor Mort Weisenger.
Start to think about that a little. Consider James Bond, if you will. Skyfall is the twenty-third movie in roughly the same period since I started reading comics, and Daniel Craig the Sixth Bond. Writers such as Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Sebastian Faulks have, between them, exceeded the number of Bond novels published by Ian Fleming, though you don’t ever hear of anyone actually reading them. But even if you count the writers of each film in this category, we are still not near fifty people who have written adventures of 007.
And don’t forget that none of those writers have ever had to steer their work to accommodate any of the others: contrast that to the period when Superman titles were appearing every week of the year, as a continuing story, to which each writer was contributing only every fourth episode.
So let’s return to that mantra of, “There’s no such thing as a bad character,” and start to apply it to Green Arrow.
The Emerald Archer was created in 1941 for More Fun Comics 73 by none other than future legendary editor of Superman, Mort Weisinger, with artist George Papp. Weisinger also created Aquaman in the same issue, a factor that has to be taken into account when considering the little known fact that, after the near Holy Trinity of Superman, Batman (with Robin) and Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Aquaman are the only other heroes to have been continuously published since the 1940s.
Aquaman was a fairly pale knock-off of Timely’s Sub-Mariner, and Green Arrow showed little more originality. Think of Batman, of boy side-kicks, Batmobiles, Batarangs, Batplanes, Batcaves, not to mention the millions of dollars with which to buy them. Change Bat for Arrow, and Green Arrow had exactly the same things as Batman, except the memorable origin.
You see, Oliver Queen fell off a pleasure yacht and found himself stranded on a desert island. To survive, he taught himself archery. He also discovered a young boy, Roy Harper, and taught him to shoot arrows. Finally, they were rescued after some crooks tried to use the island as a hideout. Once the Less-Dynamic Duo got back to Star City, Oliver dressed them up in bowman’s tunics – he in green with red boots, Harper in red with yellow boots – provided them with an improbably variety of trick arrows and, ta da! Green Arrow and Speedy were born!
For the next twenty-three years, until the ironically titled “Land of No Return” in World’s Finest 140, Green Arrow had a regular back-up series under Weisinger’s editorship, at different times in More Fun, World’s Finest and Adventure. The first was the old fashioned kind of anthology comic with multiple series, the second starred Superman and Batman, and the last began as an anthology before, in 1958, becoming the home of Superman’s newly-discovered teenage cousin, Supergirl.
GA, and Speedy, were also members of the Seven Soldiers of Justice, also known as the Law’s Legionnaires, the only superhero team to follow the Justice Society of America’s example in the whole of the Golden Age. The Seven Soldiers had full-length adventures in Leading Comics 1 – 14.
With the exception of the Seven Soldiers stories, and a brief period when he was being drawn by Jack Kirby, Green Arrow was, as I’ve said, a nonentity, distinguished only by whatever trick-arrow the writers had come up with this month to keep pages 1 and 8 of the story from being opposite each other. Green Arrow also suffered the indignity of being excluded from the original line-up of the Justice League of America, which, since Aquaman made the grade, was a real slap in the face.
Nevertheless, Oliver Queen was honoured by being the first new member to be inducted into the JLA, in their seventh adventure, issue 4 of their own title. And he was in every adventure until issue 22, at which point the League underwent a change of approach. Instead of every member appearing every time, the new policy was to have 5-6 members in each story, with the others absent. This made stories less cluttered, but it also began to show an editorial order of preference that, at least in part, reflected the relative popularity of the various members.
This was soon recognised on the letters page, with a perceptive reader identifying that the JLA was now made up of a ‘Big 5’ of Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman, and a ‘Small 6’ of Aquaman, The Atom, the Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and mascot ‘Snapper’ Carr (trust me, you don’t want to know).
By this time, GA had lost his regular series. Away from the Justice League, appearances by the Emerald Archer were rare, and mostly as a background character. At any time, he could have just simply disappeared, and at that time it would not have been into that comic book limbo where all outmoded ideas go to wait for a writer with an idea (or maybe no better idea!).
Indeed, the JLA fans who were involved enough to write would have happily despatched him. One issue contained a letter suggesting that the League had too many members and suggesting that three should resign, as unnecessary and unwanted: Green Arrow, as a knock-off of Batman, was one.
Another correspondent went further: he suggested that Green Arrow should be killed. Not only was the character not wanted and not needed, but a story in which he died would be both an exciting and dramatic event in its own right, but also the springboard for a series of stories in which the JLA pursued his assassins and brought them to justice. The writer of that particular letter might not have gone on to become a comic book writer, but his idea certainly has taken on a life of its own.
Poor Green Arrow. In an era when DC were industriously bringing back the long-cancelled heroes of their Golden Age, the fans were urging them to get rid of one such who had survived almost thirty years. The response on DC’s part? A particularly ludicrous issue of JLA in which GA does indeed tender his resignation, refusing all explanations, prompting each and every JLA member (even Wonder Woman, unsuccessfully, for particularly obvious reasons) to disguise himself as GA to penetrate the plot.
But that was almost the last moment at which GA could be dismissed as a no-hoper.