Monday, September 23, 2013

Green Lantern/Green Arrow

This is an important series, a landmark of comics history in which Dennis O'Neil, assisted most notably by penciller Neal Adams, transformed the Green Lantern series into a soapbox for social commentary and polemics, many of them voiced through GL's new costar, Green Arrow, who was recast as a modern-day leftist Robin Hood. It's a pretty astonishing transformation. Before #76, the first issue tagged as Green Lantern/Green Arrow, there was no regular writer on the Green Lantern ongoing, and O'Neil was just one of several writers doing an issue or two at a time, telling generic, disposable, instantly forgettable tales of GL facing off against monsters, aliens, robots, etc. There's nothing in the preceding dozen or so issues, including those written by O'Neil, to prepare one for #76's slap in the face, in which GL and GA face off against a corrupt landlord, and in which GL is famously confronted by a black man who accuses him of doing lots for aliens with purple or blue skin, but nothing for those on his own world with black skin.

Immediately, the duo take off on a trip across America, accompanied by a disguised Guardian from Oa, encountering racism, poverty, drug use, and other social and political issues. By today's standards, O'Neil's writing is preachy, unsubtle, and often rather ludicrous, and he has a tendency for trotting out Nazi comparisons at the slightest provocation. It's politics-for-dummies, in its way as simplistic and morally black-and-white as the GL vs. Sinestro stories that had earlier defined this title. But these are still important comics, elevating these characters beyond the repetitive, thematically threadbare stories that had previously contituted their monthly adventures, suggesting that comics, even superhero comics, could have real moral content and could deal with the real world, however clumsy these efforts often are at tackling these themes.

That sense of a stab at realism is aided in a big way by Neal Adams, whose grainy, gritty art is as much of a game-changer as O'Neil's new stories. With the first O'Neil/Adams issue, this immediately looks and feels like a whole different book, its new street-level themes mirrored in Adams' realistically rendered faces and love of shadowy textures. O'Neil, for his part, doesn't really maintain the same level of commitment throughout this sequence of issues. The initial burst of socially conscious stories lasts a mere four issues before the heroes are once again confronting cosmic menaces and supervillains, albeit with a pronounced allegorical undercurrent to it all. This synthesis is most powerful in a story that casts the villainous Black Hand as an agent of a sinister conspiracy to keep people docile through consumerism; elsewhere, O'Neil offers up muddled and incoherent satires of Nixon/Agnew and women's liberation, with the latter story nearly sabotaging the whole run by making feminists into (literal!!!) harpies.

But then comes probably the most infamous story of this series, the two-part tale in which Green Arrow's "ward" Speedy becomes a drug addict. It's easy to mock now, and there's no question that, like all of O'Neil's work in this period, there's a thread of camp outrageousness here, as well as an over-the-top preachiness that makes the moralizing speeches come across like an after-school special. At the same time, the story is remarkably candid about drug use, and remarkably sympathetic (given the tenor of the times) towards the addicts, who with exceptional self-awareness lay out their reasons for turning to drugs, saying that drugs help them forget the problems of their lives, help them ignore the racism and neglect they face from their elders and the rest of society. It's probably the most morally complex of the GL/GA stories, because though in the end the heroes catch the villain who's peddling the drugs, it feels like a pretty hollow victory, underscored by having the story's last pages take place at a funeral for an overdose victim. This particular villain is caught, but there's a sense that nothing has changed, that the problem is a lot larger and can't be solved with mere fisticuffs or simplistic ideas of "justice" — a pretty mature admission from the superhero comics of the time. Adams also turns in one of his very best sequences in the form of a harrowing page on which Speedy, withdrawing cold turkey, staggers around under the watchful and sympathetic eye of Black Canary, who's helping him through his pain. It's beautifully rendered but horrifying, Adams' expert handling of body language perfectly capturing the young addict's anguish in just a few nearly silent panels.

The O'Neil/Adams run ended with #89, a hamfisted but oddly compelling mash-up of Jesus' death with an environmentalist parable, notable for unsparingly making GL's girlfriend Carol Ferris kind of the villain here, and the story ends with GL blowing up one of her airplanes in a burst of righteous anger. The series blew up too — it won awards but apparently never sold well. O'Neil continued the saga with backup stories in The Flash, with Adams sticking around for the first 3 installments, long enough to give Green Arrow and Black Canary a relatively graceful goodbye before O'Neil started churning out GL solo adventures. O'Neil revived the series years later, but without Adams (Mike Grell drew many of the new issues) and without the social commentary. The issues O'Neil wrote from #90 on, starting in 1976, have very few traces of the earlier series' political ideology or issue-oriented themes. There are scenes here and there that reference poverty or race or drugs, but never in the sustained way that the earlier run had done. Instead, it's a return to space opera, alien invaders, alternate dimensions, and so on, and it's mostly a bore in comparison to the vitality and emotional excess of the original O'Neil/Adams run. There's some camp appeal here — Sinestro disguised as a jester; the bizarre saga of Itty Bitty, a flower-shaped alien who dies and comes back as a zombie flower; Hal Jordan as a trucker who mostly stashes his rig in space while fighting alien menaces; Hal hooking up with and nearly marrying Guy Gardner's psychic gypsy girlfriend. It can be fun, and silly, and Grell (in particular among the several pencillers who rotate through these issues) is a fine artist, but the series is always a pale shadow of its former identity, and it's never quite clear why exactly Green Arrow is tagging along on all these spacefaring adventures at all. His presence was really only required to be a voice of social consciousness and down-to-earth realism, both attributes purposefully missing from the rebooted series.

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