There’s no such thing as a bad character.
People who don’t read mainstream comics on a regular basis don’t understand how utterly malleable the characters are, although a comparison between the Adam West Batman of the Sixties and the Christian Bale Batman of the Noughties should open some eyes. It’s down to the fact that the companies own the characters. No-one, especially not their creator, has any effective control over them – as witness the manner in which Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster were forced off Superman by an editor who persuaded management that only he knew how to handle the Man of Steel. Anybody, literally anybody, can write a character: as long as they are not already being successfully sold, they are available to anybody who has an idea for the use of them.
The classic example was the transformation of the Swamp Thing by Northampton born, bred and based Alan Moore, in his first series for American comics. Moore took over a somewhat moribund, clichéd character whose uninspired adventures were heading towards cancellation, and literally reversed the character’s story and origin, transforming Swampy into something utterly new, fresh, inspired and full of potential.
In slightly less deliberate form, this was what happened to Green Arrow at the beginning of the Seventies. It was down to two people and three comics. The people responsible for making the Emerald Archer interesting for the first time were writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, and this was achieved through The Brave & The Bold 85 (August/September 1969), Justice League of America 75 (November 1969) and Green Lantern 76 (May 1970).
The first of these, The Brave & The Bold 85, was drawn by Adams, but was written by the veteran writer Bob Haney, and was surprisingly produced under the editorship of Murray Boltinoff, a very conservative figure with almost a terror of doing new things. The title had been through several phases since the mid-Fifties but, since issue 74, had been a Batman book, featuring team-ups between the Caped Crusader and a different guest star every issue.
Adams had already begun using the series as a way of changing the look of Batman, moving the character away from the camp and bloodless daytime version of the Sixties towards a sleeker, darker version that hewed closer to the roots of the character. In 85’s “The Senator’s Been Shot!”, Adams produced a new and radically different costume for the Emerald Archer.
Gone was the plain tunic and the dull hat. The new version was much slicker (it was Adams, of course it was slick) and vivid. There was still a hat, but it tapered towards the forehead. There was an undertunic with a loose-folded neck, topped by a laced jerkin, bare arms with leather bands, slick pants, leather boots. It was vivid, it was interesting, and it came with a blond moustache and goatee beard.
That was the most striking element. Remember that this was a time of massive social and cultural upheaval, and that beards and moustaches were very much the symbol of the young, the disaffected, the ‘scruffy, dirty’ hippies. It was a visual move immediately creating associations Green Arrow had yet to display, associations that would arise naturally from the sympathies and concerns of the new, younger generations of artists and writers just beginning to enter the comic book industry and displace the veterans of the Forties.
It also Oliver Queen’s secret identity wide-open, especially given the very tiny domino mask he sported, but like Clark Kent and his glasses, the bowman got away with it.
The story itself was no great shakes. Millionaires Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen attend a fundraiser at which the beneficiary, Senator Cathcart, is gunned down. The Governor asks Bruce Wayne to fill his place in Congress to see Cathcart’s anti-crime bill passed. Concerned about which of his identities is more important, Wayne confides in a psychiatrist (who happens to be the Senator’s son).
At the very same time, Oliver Queen is experiencing an identity crisis, and consults the same psychiatrist about the same issue. Unrealistically, the guy concentrates his efforts on trying to help his patients quickly instead of mentally tallying the decades of fees he’s about to earn from two such extremely disturbed individuals. The two heroes team-up to bring in the would-be assassin, Wayne fills in until Cathcart recovers. Notably, along the way Queen relies on skill and accuracy, and not on gimmick arrows.
The bigger change was to come in Justice League of America 75, though first we had to see GA in issue 74 where, confusingly, he is back in his old tunic, clean-shaven, and still carrying a quiver of trick arrows. This is understandable given that this issue is not merely the second half of the annual JSA team-up, but also a direct continuation from the much earlier issue 72.
It’s to writer O’Neil we turn for the next stage of the revision. O’Neil had replaced Gardner Fox on the JLA with issue 66, and and been engaged in shaking off the stodge and trying to develop something with some relevance to the problems of the time. Julius Schwarz had installed him to change things, whilst Dick Dillin, himself new as at issue 64, was the penciller.
The story, which continues on from JLA 74, is co-narrated by Green Arrow and Black Canary, the former Justice Society character, as two people whose lives have suddenly been uprooted and who are seeking new paths, or, to put it in a bit more practical fashion, haven’t got a home to go to. The juxtaposition was a foreshadowing of a pairing that, on-off, on-off, has lasted until the end of DC’s pre-New 52 Universe.
The Canary is alone because, in the previous story, her husband Larry Lance died, saving her, and she’s asked to be brought from Earth-2 to Earth-1 to escape memories of him (and also to fill the role of token female member of the JLA following Wonder Woman losing her powers and stepping down). Green Arrow is alone because a crooked businessman named John Deleon has forged documents ‘proving’ that Oliver Queen has fraudulently manipulated municipal bonds, causing Ollie to lose his fortune.
The story itself featured the various JLAers being confronted by mysterious green duplicates of themselves, vicious, destructive, free from conscience, each representing the uncontrolled and selfish parts of their personalities. The Leaguers have to overcome their evil sides to win, which, given Green Arrow’s identity crisis, leads to his giving in to his duplicate’s claims that Ollie never was a crime-fighter, just an attention seeking thrill-hunter who wanted to feel good.
Fortunately for all concerned, this scene takes place in front of a jewellery store looted by the duplicate, and owned by an elderly couple of self-effacing, scraping along, hand-wringing citizens, whose pathetically brave acceptance of the fact that they are not worthy of attention from such an important person as Green Arrow passively-aggressively guilt-trips Ollie into being what he must, i.e., a superhero who defends the weak from predators (good intentions were not being portrayed subtly in 1969).
After having his look transformed, Green Arrow now had his personality transformed (if you can call the establishment of one after nearly thirty years to be a ‘transformation’).
O’Neil would continue to feature Green Arrow and his new, loud, social crusader personality in almost every issue of Justice League of America after that. The old GA, sans beard, sans new costume would make a cameo appearance in World’s Finest 189 (also November 1969, but clearly out of chronological order), but it was not until O’Neil and Adams came together as the new creative team on Green Lantern that the butterfly truly emerged from its cocoon.
Beyond their shared viridescent names, there seemed to be nothing in common between Green Lantern – wielder of a ‘magic’ ring controlled by his thoughts that could do pretty much anything – and Green Arrow – a guy who shot arrows. But this was part of the point of the pairing. It was just as much a radical re-examination of Hal Jordan, the inter-galactic cop, the straight arrow (sorry) beholden to alien lawmakers, as it was of the new Ollie Queen, the socially conscious, radical, indeed anarchist, concerned with moral as opposed to legal justice.
The pair clashed immediately in an infamous manner: Green Lantern, returning from attending upon his bosses, the Guardians of the Universe, drops in on Star City to visit his close friend, Oliver Queen. He finds a mini-riot going on, a dozen or more angry young black men (this was an era when it was impossible to find a black man at DC who didn’t have the adjective ‘angry’ spot-welded to his description) hurling garbage at an older, lone, well-dressed white man. GL automatically shields the law-abiding citizen, only to find garbage being thrown at him by Green Arrow.
GL is shocked to find GA defending such obvious crooks, but GA lets him in on some not-so-obvious information. The white guy is the Landlord of the building, the blacks are tenants, and this is a slum. When GL is taken inside, he (and the reader) gets an eyeful of just how ill-maintained, dirty, disease-ridden and rackety these people’s accommodation is, because the Landlord is ripping them off. Just as GL’s world-view is rocking, slightly, along comes an elderly black man with a question that will crack the Man Without Fear in two: he’s heard how Green Lantern works for the blue skins, and he does a lot for the white skins, and on some planet or other he helped the orange skins and the purple skins, but could GL tell him why he’s never done nothing for the black skins?
That moment, which is a false but, in the context of the times, unavoidable question, sets in motion a landmark series, as O’Neil Adams as the pair were known) took the two heroes on a roller-coaster, Easy Rider kind of ride to discover the real America, continually forcing the chosen issues of the times through the debate between the conservative, law-oriented Lantern and the volatile, liberal, prepared to take the law into his own hands Arrow.
The two even argued about music, with Ollie taking a shine to ear-bleeding rock music, and Hal staying loyal to the Dixieland jazz his creator John Broome favoured.
Although the duo shared logos on the cover, the comic still remained Green Lantern officially. It made noise, it made waves, but it didn’t make sales increase, especially not when Adams began to display the first signs of a preference for completing his art to his satisfaction rather than to deadline. Superheroics returned to the forefront quite quickly, though seen through the prism of the O’Neil Adams-led Age of Relevance. Black Canary became almost a third star of the series, slipping into the foreshadowed role of girlfriend to GA, whilst maintaining her status as an independent, strong-minded female, of course.
The most notorious issues of the series saw the first return of Green Arrow’s sidekick, Roy Harper, in issues 85-86, but not as Speedy. This time the issue was drugs, and Roy turned out to have become a heroin addict, largely as a consequence (he claimed) of being abandoned by Ollie. He also developed the superpower of going cold turkey in a single page, under the anxious eye of the Canary, but the story was still notable for being the first time DC defied the Comics Code Authority and went out without the Seal (as had Marvel, a year earlier: together, the two stories forced the CCA to re-write the Code to permit reference to drugs-taking – as long as it was in the cause of pointing out that it was A Very Bad Thing).
And then Adams did blow the deadline, forcing Green Lantern 88 to go reprint. The delayed story went into issue 89, but the sales had tanked too much, and the series was abruptly cancelled. One final, completed story, which would be a landmark issue for Green Arrow over twenty years later, was chopped into three and run as a back-up in The Flash, but that was it.
The transformation had worked artistically, but not commercially. When the Green Lantern series resumed as an ongoing back-up in The Flash, it did so with the Lantern only. For the time being, Green Arrow went back to back-ups, alternating every issue of Action, and to featuring with the Justice League. At least he got to turn up a bit more often now.