Monday, August 5, 2013

Green Arrow

Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters (Mike Grell) - This was the start of what turned out to be an epic run by Mike Grell on this character, a three-issue miniseries that revitalized Green Arrow and attempted to introduce him into the new "grim and gritty" era of superheroes the same way Frank Miller had for Batman. It's an interesting, lovingly made work with some contradictions and problems that prevent it from being a total classic, even if it is still one of the essential GA tales. Grell wrote and drew the series, and his art is gorgeous, alternating between multiple styles: some panels pop out in hyper-realistic detail, others are sketchy and minimalistic, and others have more of an in-between, conventional superhero style. The contrasting styles work really well together, and it's all held together by Julia Lacquement's sumptuous colors, which look like they're done with a mix of paints and colored pencils. The book simply looks AMAZING, even if Grell is a better draftsman than he is a designer, and some of his page layouts are somewhat cluttered and confusing.

The story is interesting, too, and Grell gets a lot right. He establishes Oliver Queen (he's never really called Green Arrow in Grell's comics except on the covers) as a character outside of his superhero identity, an aging radical who still holds on to some of his idealism, as he wonders what he should be doing as he gets older. Grell also does a great job of setting up the romance between Ollie and his longtime girlfriend Dinah Lance, AKA Black Canary. The love and tenderness and emotional connection between this pair are richly developed in their scenes together. Probably the high point of the series is the moment when Ollie, feeling old and wanting to start a family, asks Dinah to have a child with him — her devastating response is framed by Grell in one of his hyper-realistic panels, her sad face highlighted by the bold, photo-like styling of this panel.

That emotional richness is one reason why it's such a shame that Grell ultimately can't think of anything better to do besides falling back on the clichéd old trope of having the hero's girlfriend kidnapped, tortured and sexually assaulted, causing him to go on a revenge quest. The fact that the damsel-in-distress here is herself a hero with a long history in the DC universe only makes it worse; Dinah, of all people, shouldn't be relegated to woman-in-refrigerator status, a mere victim to spur on her man's violence, especially since elsewhere Grell does so much more with these characters and their relationship. There's something shallowly "dark" about all this implied rape and sexualized violence, a sense that the series is just trying to respond to the era's imperative to make every hero grittier and more violent. Moreover, such excess isn't necessary: the series is most "mature" when it candidly deals with the main characters' feelings for one another and their conflict over starting a family, not when it resorts to shock-value violence and sexual torture. There's a lot to like here, in the gorgeous art and the compelling characterization — of Ollie, Dinah and also the new character Shado, who would become very important to Grell's GA — but the more violent and sexualized moments too often feel forced and unnecessary.

Green Arrow #1-80 (Mike Grell & various artists) - Following the success of Longbow Hunters, Grell moved on to write (but mostly not draw) an ongoing GA series for 80 issues. I read it in a condensed period of time, but still, by the end, it was all but impossible to remember why I had enjoyed it at the beginning of the run. There's no getting around it: this goes way downhill after a while. At first, though, it's pretty good, not without some of the same problems that marred Longbow Hunters, but still solid enough. Nice interactions between Ollie, Dinah and, at times, Shado, who pops up for arcs at predictable intervals. Some decent issue-oriented action with Ollie taking on street crime, prostitution, drugs, the environment, and all the kinds of often-hamfisted social issue stories you'd expect from a Green Arrow series.

Moreover, the first 34 issues or so provide a nice arc and a nice resolution to some of the issues raised by Longbow Hunters — notably, a sequence that mirrors the one where Ollie rescues Dinah, except with her taking the active role this time, thereby neatly calling back to the earlier scene and this time letting Ollie know how it might have felt for Dinah to be the helpless victim being rescued by him. There's also the heartbreaking scenes that follow this rescue, when Ollie and Dinah decide they might want to start a family after all. And then, well, it all goes off-track.

The subsequent "Black Arrow Saga" is promising but doesn't live up to its potential, sacrificing drama and action to introduce the annoying new character of Marianne and her especially annoying accompanying narrative boxes. Then Ollie goes off on his own for a year, wandering the world through a series of dismally boring and predictable adventures. When he gets back, it's not much better, and except for the inevitable appearances by Shado, who shows up about once a year for a four-part arc, the series trods through one forgettable two-parter after another. There are especially abysmal stories that riff on various pop culture touchstones, like clumsy takes on Shane and Cat People. There's a very odd story about the death penalty that ties itself into moral knots trying to deal with this issue in the context of a vigilante hero who has at times killed those he felt deserved it.

The series reaches its nadir in issue #75, which throws in a ton of guest spots and tries to stir up some cringeworthy drama out of nothing. It's all over not long after that. The run has its moments, mostly early on, but it never really rises to the level of greatness, and Grell keeps sabotaging the best attributes of the series, neglecting the great Ollie/Dinah romance in favor of disposable and rushed "issue" stories, while Dinah too often disappears into the background for long stretches. The big action arcs, often focusing on Shado or the morally ambiguous assassin Eddie Fyres, are better, with Grell spacing out just enough emotional beats to keep the series from ever becoming completely brainless. It's an important and often interesting run, and it contains the seeds of a truly great and revolutionary take on these characters, but Grell is never able to bring it all together into a satisfying whole for any sustained period.

Brave and the Bold: Green Arrow/The Butcher/The Question (Mike Grell, Mike Baron & Shea Anton Pensa) - A lousy six-issue spin-off miniseries that teams up these three fringe characters. The story is a mess, involving a conspiracy between the IRA and various Native American tribes, with weapons deals and rebellions and terrorist attacks, but rather than seeming like a twisty action plot, it's just a confusing jumble that never makes much sense or really deals with its underlying issues in an interesting way. It winds up just being an excuse for some lame action. But the worst aspect of the series is definitely Pensa's art, which just doesn't work at all on any level. It's sketchy and cartoony and stylized, which is fine, and there are panels here and there where I can sort of see what he's going for — a garish, cartoonish style reminiscent of Moebius' more humorous moments. For the most part, though, it's just hideous and unclear. Pensa's terrible at character definition, so the large cast is impossible to keep track of, the Question just looks like Green Arrow without a beard, and at one point there's a villain who looks exactly like Ollie. Dinah, meanwhile, looks like Mick Jagger. This isn't a good story to begin with but the ugly art just makes it intolerable, easily the worst thing to come out of Grell's entire Green Arrow run.

Shado: Song of the Dragon (Mike Grell, Michael Davis Lawrence & Gray Morrow) - In contrast, this is a really great spin-off, featuring Shado finally on her own, without Ollie around (he appears only in a brief flashback/memory). The story is somewhat formulaic, and indeed it drives home that Shado is a great character about whom there are a limited number of stories that can be told, and most of them just involve her fighting the yakuza. But this series finally allows her a moment to shine on her own, without being a player in a Green Arrow plot, and she definitely carries the miniseries, with some help from a small cast that's assembled around her. The story touches on the usual Shado themes — particularly the driving forces of honor and destiny — and surrounds her with other characters who have their own conceptions of honor, their own ideas of the things they must do. But the art is the real star: Lawrence inked by Morrow, for a style that's thoroughly realistic in its figures and faces, but stylized in the loose, free-associative page layouts. Lawrence also provides rich color washes that give the book a very sensual and almost abstract feel. There are some occasional data dumps about Japanese history or the characters' histories, so the writing isn't always that graceful, but for the art and the overall feel of this mini, it's well worth reading.

Green Arrow: The Wonder Year (Mike Grell & Gray Morrow) - Late in Grell's run on Green Arrow, he offered up this miniseries detailing Ollie's origin. It's his attempt to do a Year One-style take on the character, but like a lot of Grell's work on this character, it falls short of its aspirations and its promise. On the plus side, it's a great-looking comic, a worthy successor to Longbow Hunters in that respect at least. Morrow is mostly inking and finishing over Grell's layouts and pencils, and the art is sumptuous and richly varied. The regular Green Arrow series often looked very good, but Grell really trotted out the big guns, artistically, for these Prestige miniseries, and the amount of work that went into making this look so good is very apparent. It's a shame the story isn't worthy of such effort. Grell, during his run, disposed of all of Ollie's trick arrows and gimmicks and attempted to make him a realistic, street-level hero. This origin story fits awkwardly with that approach, constantly calling attention to how ridiculous it is to run around with a bow-and-arrow and a Robin Hood costume fighting crime. There's a level of suspension of disbelief that Grell has to overcome here, to sell the idea that this idle rich guy, changed by his experience of being stranded on an island, dresses up as Robin Hood and runs around fighting bad guys, and he can never quite get this across. The story is nothing much, either, riffing on the 60s and 70s radical student groups as a figure from Ollie's past gets tangled up in a conspiracy stretching back to a decades-old terrorist attack by one of those groups.


  1. I've recently read and really enjoyed the later Year One by Andy Diggle and Jock. Nothing much added to the story, I guess, but beautifully paced and among the best I've seen from the artist (whose cartoonishness can sometimes undermine the characters.) Need to check the Longbow Hunters, thanks!

  2. I'll have to check out Year One, I like Jock. I can see not digging him but I wouldn't say his style is especially cartoonish. It's more like a stylized realism.

    Longbow Hunters is worth a read for sure. Amazing art, pretty good story, some very problematic elements.

  3. (ah i see that you're right on jock. that was because i only distinctly remembered two other titles from him: hellblazer pandemonium, where i think his art is too light for delano's ramblings, and fakers, which is pretty cool, but still on the more flat and stylized side of his work.)