So, to recap; Green Arrow, created in 1941, spent almost thirty years as a colourless Batman knock-off, appearing in back-up stories and as a part-time, minor Justice League member. He was then taken up by two of DC’s leading creators of the time, visually and dynamically transformed, and installed as co-star on one of DC’s leading character’s series. Within eighteen months, the series is cancelled and Green Arrow returns to back-up stories and more frequent Justice League appearances for almost a decade and a half, alleviated by a one-off four-issue mini-series which spawned, well, nothing.
Not a lot to show for 45 years existence, really, and if it were not for his creator being Superman’s editor (and, knowing Weisinger, possibly having some financial interest in his appearances) he could have vanished into limbo by the start of the 1950s.
But Crisis on Infinite Earths had come and gone in 1985, sweeping away the entire history of the DC Universe, and leaving a level playing field upon which the winds of change could sweep. Great things could happen.
However, Crisis was not the only limited series published by DC in the mid-eighties to have wide-reaching effects, and whilst Crisis only applied to DC itself, the other two series would have a profound effect on the comic industry as a whole.
First of these is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ justifiably legendary Watchmen but the one that directly pertains to this history is The Dark Knight Returns, written and drawn by Frank Miller.
Miller had come into comics at Marvel, where he had made his name as, first artist, then writer/artist, of a spectacular run on Daredevil, full of lithe, athletic movement, dark shadows, clipped and stream-lined narration. DC had tempted him away with an offer to write and draw a (ninja-influenced) series of his own creation, which had turned out to be far from the success, artistic and commercial, that everyone had expected. Hurriedly, both parties had looked round for something that was more of a commercial sure bet, and agreed on Batman, the character many fans had been longing to see Miller draw for several years.
The Dark Knight Returns was set in the future, with Gotham City transformed into a dystopic nightmare. Bruce Wayne, retired as Batman for over a decade, is forced back into costume by an irresistible urge within, but superheroes are now underground figures, except for the eternally youthful Superman, now serving an ageing President Reagan.
Appearing simultaneously with Watchmen, The Dark Knight was an equally astonishing success. Both were deconstructionist stories, but what people saw, and what they copied immediately, was the superficial aspects of brutality, callousness and graphic ultra-violence. Quickly summarised as ‘grim’n’gritty’, their influence blanketed the comics industry and, despite honourable attempts to rebalance the mainstream, that influence prevails to the present day.
But what, you may justifiably ask, has all this to do with Green Arrow?
Typically of DC, even at their most creator-friendly, the company has never quite absorbed the idea that a series’ success could be because of its creators, not the characters. In their eyes, at least half the success of The Dark Knight was down to its format: a series of four 48 page issues on a higher quality of paper than the industry had seen before, perfect-bound with square backs, a format the company first called ‘Dark Knight’ but then ‘Prestige’. So it was incumbent on them to quickly come out with another ‘Prestige’ format series, to catch that wave. The result was Green Arrow – The Longbow Hunters, written and drawn by Mike Grell.
With all due respect to Green Arrow, who did have his fans, his selection as the follow-up to a massively successful series featuring one of DC’s big guns in a truly ground-breaking story was, frankly, a colossal failure of comprehension. The Dark Knight featured a character known across the world, in a format sold in bookshops, whose audience reached far and beyond the comic book fan. Green Arrow was a nobody, unknown outside that increasingly insular fandom. What better evidence that DC had completely missed the point of The Dark Knight‘s success?
The irony is inescapable, though I doubt that anyone at DC had even the faintest subconscious appreciation of what they were doing: Green Arrow was created as a cheap knock-off of Batman: who more appropriate to star in a story that was a cheap knock-off of the physical format of Batman’s most successful story?
The Longbow Hunters is not, in itself, a bad story, rather a drab, undistinguished plot, but, even taking into account the latter’s flaws, it is in no way comparable to The Dark Knight. Nevertheless, it was to prove the landmark for Green Arrow that the O’Neil Adams efforts of fifteen years earlier had failed to provide.
Grell had moved on considerably from the mid-Seventies period during which he’d illustrated the second GL/GA run. He had had a long-standing and successful run as writer/artist on his own, Edgar Rice Burroughs-influenced series, Warlord for DC and, in the early Eighties, had taken advantage of the burgeoning Direct Market. This concentration on selling direct to fans, rather than an increasingly indifferent public, enabled smaller ‘independent’ companies to set up and publish. Lacking the means to pay page rates comparable to DC and instead offered royalties – and ownership!
Grell had created Jon Sable, Freelance for First Comics, a series that provoked praise and condemnation in equal measures, with very little middle ground, but in 1987 he was a writer/artist with a proven commercial background and a distinct and certain style. He also had ideas for Oliver Queen.
It was not so much the story of The Longbow Hunters that proved to be a success (the series was controversial for having Black Canary captured, assaulted, impliedly raped, and requiring rescue by her boyfriend) but rather its atmosphere. Grell portrayed a much more mature, physically, Green Arrow, reaching his fortieth birthday, in a very rich relationship with Dinah (Black Canary) Lance, at least fifteen years his junior, willing to make babies with Ollie, but not orphans. The pair have recently moved from Star City to Seattle, from a DC city to the real world, and to the Pacific Northwest, then very much in vogue, but more importantly, far removed from the natural East Coast bias of the superhero mainstream.
The action is down to earth and gritty (though not quite yet grim), and Ollie quite clearly kills the guy he finds torturing the captive Dinah. The two avoid using their heroic cognomens and Green Arrow appears in a revised costume, looser, in more sombre shades of green, and incorporating the hood currently used in the Arrow TV series.
Though it didn’t produce sales to match those of The Dark Knight, The Longbow Hunters sold very well, enough in DC’s eyes to support an ongoing Green Arrow series – unlimited – set in Seattle, and continuing the themes established in the Prestige series.
This time, after 46 years, Green Arrow clicked.
At first, the series was marked as ‘For Mature Readers’, a quasi-category introduced on the back of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, allowing the series to follow maturer (i.e., darker) themes, depict more graphic violence and depict situations than a comic submitted for Comics Code Authority approval would dare to feature. In many series, that label was an excuse for violent excess on a level that, from my distance, appears to be the mainstream norm now.
Under Grell, a Conservative Individualist, it meant the broader and deeper application of the milieu of The Longbow Hunters. Ollie’s new costume was more consistent with a woodsman’s outfit, he dropped the mask, used no trick arrows, fought no supervillains. He and Dinah (who’d lost her ‘canary cry’ superpower) eschewed their cognomens, avoided the superhero world – contacts like , say, Green Lantern only appeared as their civilian selves, in streetclothes – and the whole action was set in the Pacific Northwest, a very long way from anywhere else.
And Green Arrow was one of DC’s most successful books.
Grell wrote 80 issues of the series before moving on. A half-decade later, the series may have been cancelled at that point, successful as it was. The advent of Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary and extraordinarily successful Sandman series changed the ground rules of publication again: Sandman was cancelled after issue 75 because, despite being DC’s biggest seller at that time, Gaiman had completed the long story he’d set out to tell, and, instead of diminishing the power of that story by rolling the character on in other hands, DC accepted the ending.
Similar courtesies would be extended into the superhero mainstream with similar endings to James Robinson’s Starman and John Ostrander’s The Spectre, but Grell’s Green Arrow was too early for this natural development.
It had already been deflected away from its loner role after issue 65, back towards a more superheroic approach. Kelley Puckett had taken the series over with issue 81 and accelerated this, whilst veteran artist Jim Aparo restored the Adams costume.
Green Arrow had also played a critical role in the 1994 continuity-shifting crossover series, Zero Hour – Crisis in Time: the big villain was revealed to be Hal Jordan, lately perverted from heroic Green Lantern to ultra-villainous Parallax, who was brought down in the final instance by a heart-breaking arrow to the chest from his best friend, Ollie Queen.
Zero Hour was followed by ‘Zero Month’, every series ‘re-setting’ itself with an Issue 0. For Green Arrow it was the shaving of his beard and a retreat to the ashram Ollie had taken refuge in in that over-looked final O’Neil Adams three-parter, to deal with the pain of shooting his best friend. There he met a young man, twenty years his junior, Connor Hawke, of mixed Asian-Caucasian descent, another proficient archer with a degree of hero-worship towards Ollie, that is fully-explained in the big reveal – Connor is Ollie’s son, from his first visit, thirty years (of real time) ago.
At first, this was known only to the reader. Conner went with Ollie when the latter returned to the outside world, cheered by the hero worship, and was introduced to Ollie’s ‘family’, including Dinah, who’d broken up with Ollie over the fact that he’d been revealed as being unable to keep it in his pants (the fact that he’d fathered a kid when their relationship had barely begun would do nothing to help that). Connor got his own costume and acted as Ollie’s sidekick, until the ghost of Hal Jordan (who hadn’t been killed by Ollie after all but had died anyway, under completely different circumstances) gave Ollie the truth.
Angered at the deception (and thoroughly rattled by being old enough to have an adult son), Ollie stormed off on a government underground mission, infiltrating a group of eco-terrorists. Unfortunately, their plan involved crashing a plane carrying a nuclear device in the centre of Metropolis. Unfortunately, Ollie ended up with his arm in a kind of cuff, holding down a ‘Dead Man’s Handle’ which, if he removes his arm, will detonate the bomb instantly.
Equally, if not more unfortunately, this is all taking place in Green Arrow 100. Superman is on hand, but not even he is fast enough to snatch Ollie from the cuff and exit the plane before the bomb explodes and kills Ollie.
There is only one solution: that Superman use his heat vision to sever Ollie’s arm, leaving it in place whilst he gets a crippled Green Arrow away. It’s a neat nod to The Dark Knight Returns, which features an ageing, still radical, one-armed Ollie, who’s lost his other arm due to Superman.
Ollie refused the option and, typically, found another alternative in the opening pages of issue 101: he yanks his arm from the cuff, detonating he device harmlessly in mid-air. Metropolis is saved, the invulnerable Superman safe. The only casualty is Oliver Queen, blown to smithereens. Green Arrow was dead.
And there was a ready-made replacement for him, young, fresh, inexperienced, ripe for development. Connor Hawke was the New Green Arrow.