Green Arrow – No such thing as a bad character: Part 7 – Two Stories

I’ll declare an interest here because the two stories I plan to discuss now are my two favourite stories involving Green Arrow. One of them is a very controversial series, with many detractors, whose charges cannot be easily dismissed or disregarded, but which had a massive impact on the DC Universe.
The writer of both was best-selling thriller writer Brad Meltzer, known for high-powered, tightly-plotted, fast-moving thrillers with a background in Law, power and Washington. And a closet Green Arrow fan, as evidenced by the Easter Egg in one of his early novels, when the lead character went into a meeting with four aides named Oliver, Dinah, Roy and Connor.
Kevin Smith had continued Green Arrow after ‘Quiver’, but, coming from a film background, he had no concept of, or feel for the monthly deadline, so it was not unwelcome to DC when he left. I am assuming that the approach to Meltzer, who had also never written for comics before, was made with a view to extending the ‘prestige’ aspect of the series coming from an established writer from a field with less public contempt than comics.
Meltzer agreed to write what was originally a four part series, subsequently expanded to six, but only once he had come up with something that he believed impacted on Green Arrow, and added something Oliver Queen’s history. What finally inspired him was a conversation with a close friend who introduced him to the concept of ‘porn-buddie’, that is, a trusted friend who, if anything happens to you, will go straight to your home and remove your porn stash before anyone else gets there.
It seems an improbable inspiration, but Meltzer immediately saw the relation to superheroes, and especially to one who had died and been restored.
‘The Archer’s Quest’ begins at Ollie’s gravestone, with a meeting with Clark (Superman) Kent. Ollie wants to know who came to his funeral. Clark, having gone through this himself, tries to dissuade him but eventually produces the paparazzi pictures that the Daily Planet bought up and kept from publication. Ollie checks off family and friends one by one, until he finds a face he doesn’t recognise: a stranger at his funeral, who has seen all his ‘family’s real faces.
He asks Roy (formerly Speedy, now Arsenal) Harper to trace the stranger through his CIA connections, but Roy deals himself in to accompany Ollie – a nostalgic Green Arrow and Speedy outing. The stranger is Thomas Blake, aka Catman, a prominent and recurring Batman villain from the Fifties, virtually ignored since then. Meltzer plays Blake as over the hill and pathetic: overweight, an abuser of woman, a clown.
(Within two years, Gail Simone would transform Catman into a charismatic and complex character in Secret Six , which reminds us that there is no such thing as a bad character.)
But Blake is a McGuffin. He has been sent to the funeral by The Shade, a former Golden Age Flash villain, taken up in the mid-Nineties in James Robinson’s Starman series, and transformed from a villainous cypher into a charismatic and complex character, which reminds us that there is no such thing as a bad character. The Shade is Ollie’s ‘porn-buddie’: that is to say, that after the deaths of Barry (The Flash) Allen, Superman and Hal Jordan, Ollie realised the need for someone who, if anything happened to him, would get in there, collect all Green Arrow’s artefacts and destroy them, leaving nothing to connect Queen’s name to his secret identity, and nothing to expose his loved ones to reprisals.
But the Shade sent Blake, who is apparently trustworthy, to the funeral because he was not prepared to get that close to the Justice League. Similarly, there have been a handful of things, important things, that he has not been able to access. This sets up the spine of the story, where Ollie and Roy take to the road to retrieve theses.
It’s partly a history lesson, partly an interesting exercise in what Ollie truly values from his former life. At least one item is a new addition: a hitherto unrevealed gift from Barry Allen, a replica of his signet ring, in which he stored his costume, and one of a set given to his JLA friends, each containing their own costumes.
Like the ‘porn-buddie’ notion, it’s the kind of idea that only a novelist would come up with, who’s used to regarding the world of his characters in a wider context than just the relevance to the actual plot.
It takes most of the journey for Roy to accept why Ollie had not entrusted this ‘executorship’ to him, though Ollie’s logic is impeccable: everyone dies, they’re in a job where death is an ever present risk, but the Shade is immortal.
The story ends as far as the plot demands, with Ollie repackaging his recovered assets and writing another ‘will’ to the Shade, but at the last crossing out the ex-villain’s name and substituting that of Roy. But its real revelation, and the core of what Meltzer wanted to bring to the story, to Ollie, precedes that. The first object recovered was, supposedly, the easiest, the Certificate presented to Ollie to commemorate his membership of the Justice League, reproduced faithfully from the original by Mike Sekowsky, over forty years earlier. But Ollie lied to Roy: you don’t get the easiest first, you get the most important first. Behind the Certificate is a photo: for years, Ollie has told everyone that he knew nothing of his son Connor until meeting him at the ashram when Connor was an adult, but the photo is of Ollie holding the baby Connor. He has lied to everyone: he knew of Connor all along, knew that he’d run away, unable to take responsibility for his own child. And he’s lying still, because the photo remains a secret. It’s a moment of illumination, into Ollie, and into his own knowledge of himself.
‘The Archer’s Quest’ was a Green Arrow story: Meltzer’s other series, Identity Crisis, was a company-wide crossover that was not about Green Arrow, but featured him prominently throughout.
Identity Crisis was the first of DC’s summer crossover events for four years, after an unbroken run of events from 1985 to 2000. It was not originally planned as such, but rather as a small, intimate story, which at heart it was: the story was of the death of a superhero’s wife and the investigation of her death, revealing a very personal and intimate motive. But this small, intimate story opened doors into parts of the DC Universe that had long been closed, and whose opening shed something other than light on corners many people would have preferred to keep dark.
And though the world was neither threatened nor remade, Identity Crisis had a more profound effect on DC, becoming the springboard for several years of controlled and organised stories and developments, than any story since Crisis on Infinite Earths had literally remade reality.
Green Arrow’s prominence in the story, though its principal effects did not personally touch on him, was an expansion of Meltzer’s ‘porn-buddie’ concept. Since Superman’s death, and Ollie’s, the superhero world has become more organised, so that when death comes, there is a set procedure, for contact, clean-up and investigation. The case is Ollie’s: though the detection is carried out by others (notably a superbly offstage Batman in the first half of the story), Green Arrow is case manager, and it’s a mark of the long transition the character has undergone that the guy who shoots arrows, who is far outweighed on the scale of sheer power by the vast majority of those others involved, is not only accepted, but also credible in that role.
The opening of the story is a smoothly controlled, bravura display of shifting viewpoints, revolving around an initially mysterious Now. Ralph (Elongated Man) Dibny is teamed up with a younger hero investigating a situation: their conversation whilst on stakeout slides forward from the past, alternating with a series of flashforwards to different heroes, at different times after Now, each receiving unpleasant news. At least one veteran reader saw Now coming and approached it with little pleas of ‘no, not her’. But now was the moment a fearful Ralph, racing against disaster, gets back to his apartment – an apartment protected by the most serious and scary security the Justice League in its various human and alien technologies and genius individuals can supply – to find his wife Sue dead, her body burned almost beyond recognition.
It was a shock in itself for the older reader. Ralph and Sue had been around since 1960, a loving, cheerful, lightweight and sunny couple, without any enemies: it was a serious step in the direction of cruelty to kill off Sue Dearborn Dibny, especially in the face of the loving build-up in Ralph’s conversation with Firehawk, and the one piece of information his brilliant deductive skills could not anticipate: that Sue was, at long last, pregnant.
Sue’s death rippled out across the entire superhero, and supervillain, community. Everyone looked to their loved ones and feared someone who could get so thoroughly behind their guard, exploit their worst fear. Ray (The Atom) Palmer saved his divorced wife Jean Loring from a hanging, but Tim (Robin) Drake’s father Jack was killed by the broken-down, stumblebum Captain Boomerang, who was also killed.
The villain, unexpected as it was, and clumsily as it was revealed, turned out to be Jean Loring, who had wanted to cause some kind of crisis affecting everybody’s loved ones, in the hope of luring Ray back to her. She’d used one of his spare costumes and size and weight controls to enter Sue’s apartment, shrink and get into her brain, intending just to ‘rough her up’, but miscalculated and set off a brain seizure. But that Loring did have a history of mental issues, it would have been an unsuitable, stitched on ending, but even with the addition of continuity, it still felt strained, unrealised.
But Sue’s death and Jean’s guilt were just the thread to lead us from beginning to end. What mattered in Identity Crisis, what sparked all the controversy about its contents, which provided the basis for the years of interconnected stories to follow, was the worms that crawled out of the cans opened in pursuit of the truth.
Meltzer was bold enough to throw in his biggest revelation as early as issue 2. Issue 1 ends after Sue’s funeral, with superheroes splitting off in all sorts of directions, to hunt down possible culprits. Silently, secretively, five current and former JLAers slip away to meet a Ralph transformed from grief to vengeance, to hunt Dr Light.
Dr Light was a Sixties-created villain, who could manipulate light and lasers, but he had been treated as a joke, an incompetent for two decades. On the surface, he was an unlikely prospect as villain, but the sextet were certain. And when the new Flash and Green Lantern, Wally West and Kyle Rayner, suspicious of that certainty, add themselves to the party, an explanation becomes necessary and it all starts to get nasty.
Light wasn’t always an idiot. Once he was a nasty piece of work, and never more so than when he found Sue Dibny alone in the Justice League satellite. Light attached Sue. More than that, he raped her. He was caught in the act by the returning Justice League and was beaten down, but not without realising how he could hurt them in future: how he’d give light-shows of his actions in prison, how he’d hunt out Sue again when free, and other people’s wives and girlfriends.
So, in an echo of Watchmen‘s insistence upon a rigid reality and truth, the heroes voted, by a margin of 4 v 3, to not merely take all Light’s memories of the scene, but to try to change what was in him that spurred him to be this violent, this hurtful. The change was made by Zatanna, the magician girl, and it went wrong, robbing Light of his brilliant mind and turning him into a buffoon.
It destroyed, at a stroke, everything that DC’s superheroes were or had been supposed to be from the Silver Age on, but it did so with a hard-eyed realism that said, in effect, if you want the fantasy of beings with amazing powers clashing against each other, you have to accept the reality of this.
And with the reader reeling from that revelation, suddenly the heroes had to swing into action, with only enough time to indicate that the incident with Light was not the first time they had wiped villains minds.
In fact, this referred to an actual JLA case of the late Seventies, where a band of villains had exchanged minds with the JLA, taking their bodies over: Meltzer applied the remorseless logic that the first thing they would have done would have been to remove their masks, necessitating the wiping of their memories after their eventual defeat.
This last came out after a furious knock-down fight in issue 3 with Deathstroke, a mercenary hired by Light to protect him. Ollie’s description of the scene of Light’s rape had included a vivid panel depicting Light fighting off seven heroes simultaneously: by a fluke chance, in the battle against Deathstroke, a tableau occurred that replicated that scene, hero for hero. The sight breaks Light’s conditioning, restores his memories, restores his full and very dangerous mind, and raises his levels of hatred to the stratosphere. It also changes fundamentally the relationship between hero and villain, the ground rules. But in Light’s moment of realisation he generates a powerful hologram, that only The Flash seems fast enough to see. It’s of Light under attack, but this time by eight heroes, not seven: Batman is there as well.
It takes until almost the end of the story for West to go to Ollie with that vision and ask him openly about it, and it’s Ollie’s refusal to answer that opens us up to the ultimate game changer: they took Batman’s mind as well.
Batman had been there for Dr Light’s take-down before rushing to the next emergency. But, because it was Sue, this time he came back, in the middle of Light’s magical lobotomy. And he went bananas. A horrified Zatanna froze him physically, and then the Justice League took the decision to delete ten minutes of their friend and ally, Bruce Wayne’s memories as well.
What would flow from that, forward and backward, practically sustained DC for the next year and a half, and rumbled on for much longer.
Many people hated Identity Crisis, for what it was, what it did. In a single series, it tainted everyone’s youth and innocence, by destroying the sweetness and the naivete of the Silver Age and, at a stroke, reducing the heroes to the same moral level as the villains. People hated Sue Dibny’s rape, especially when it was used against such a likeable, nice woman (not that rape ever distinguishes between its victims). If you want to be picky, it was never explicitly stated that the rape actually happened: the crucial panel is a close-up of Sue’s clenched hands, and it is for the reader to decide how much time elapses before the next panel, when the JLA teleport back into the satellite. But, let’s be honest, to reject actual rape on a technicality would be to undermine the story.
So, not a Green Arrow story, but one in which Green Arrow played a significant role, a confirmation of his place among the circle of the DC Universe’s.
It was, for me, Green Arrow’s peak.

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