Jerk City, USA

Back in the 80s everyone in comics was terrified of street crime. Muggers and the like had always been a staple of comics. There’s always a grandma getting her purse snatched by a shadowy thug in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man – you know the type, central casting, beige jacket, old-fashioned drivers’ cap pulled just over the eyes in a way that only obscures their face when they’re being drawn in a comic book. Spidey swings by, pops off a few quips, and we’re already on page three. Bam, thinks the writer, that’s one-seventh of the job done in an hour! 

Then Frank Miller got mugged and his Daredevil set a paranoid tone that the rest of the industry was only too happy to emulate. Crooks went from being middle-aged professionals – the kind of upstanding mooks who put down “skel” under “Profession” on the census form – to dangerous punks out for kicks. This reflected a larger movement in pop culture in the 1970s and early 80s. The general belief was that cities were ungovernable hellholes. White Flight was in full effect. The only people who went were green kids fresh off the Greyhound on their way to central casting to be fitted for a punk jean jacket and rakish pirate earing. Then they were ready to hassle “the squares” and get their jaws broken by Moon Knight. The circle of life!

Suddenly theaters were filled with stories about good cops pushed too far by a broken system that only served as a revolving door for the worst kind of criminals to be let back out on the street on a technicality. Lots of crooks were getting released on technicalities back then, which certainly seems weird and kind of bad until you realize that “technicalities” is usually code for “due process.” But the crooks were out there and if the cops had their hands tied by the system, well, some screw-faced middle-aged character actor was going to take out a gun with a barrel larger than a baby’s forearm and show the bad guys what for, by gum. It’s good to remember, especially if you find the archetype unpalatable, that these stories linger because they are viscerally appealing.

Reading comics my whole life has given me plenty of time to consider the question of vigilantism, and in my considered view it is unambiguously bad. I hope you can deal with that kind of a red-hot take. The reason why vigilantes are bad is precisely why they are such attractive and enduring figures: any one person who steps outside the law on their own recognizance presents a threat to a system that cannot abide exceptions. They always use the old saw about a person “taking the law into their own hands,” and that’s a very revealing idiom: laws are in and of themselves fragile things, the kind of thing you, yes you, could snap in two without breaking a sweat. Words on paper have no supernatural enforcement mechanism. We all forget that at our very real peril.

Anyone can break the law, is the problem, and very easily. So of course everyone thrills to vigilante stories, because everyone has their own ideas about right and wrong. Everyone regardless of their political affiliation can easily summon up a basketful of “exceptions” that they themselves would easily make – were they the kind to make such exceptions. The premise that vigilante stories are inherently reactionary is, I think, a faulty one. The early Superman who terrorized wife-beaters and exploitive bosses was just as much of a vigilante as the Punisher who blows away goombas and gangbangers by the gross.

The Punisher is important for these conversations because he presents a model of the vigilante at his most basic and featureless: a man foreswears all other activity in his life for the sole purpose of meting out justice, dedicates every waking moment to murdering people who supposedly deserve it. The Punisher’s great super power, and it is a super power, is that he never misses. He’s never wrong. He never shoots a bystander by accident. He never mistakenly blows up a school bus full of kids. And that’s why he can exist as an absolute exception, because the premise – that he is the world’s greatest mass murderer, but only ever kills people who completely and unambiguously deserve it – is as much gossamer as a man from Krypton who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. And it’s been a potent tool in the hands of writers on the left as well as the right.

These are very dangerous threads for the superhero genre to pull, however. Pull the wrong one and the whole tapestry comes undone, and you’re left with stories about dudes who dress up in leather and beat up neighborhood toughs basically because they feel like it.

DC was on a roll in the late 80s. They’d had no small success with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns – maybe you’ve heard of them? They were kind of popular for a while. The advent of the first Tim Burton Batman movie in 1989 inspired a wave of Bat-mania that birthed a thousand “Zam! Plop! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids!” news stories in your local Gazette-Picayune. Just a couple years previous, Crisis on Infinite Earths had cleared the deck for all the old heroes to get shiny new coats of paint. There was no incentive for creators not to swing for the fences. Some of these swings worked better than others: you may very well have a copy of Batman: Year One on your shelf, but probably not The Man of Two Worlds.

The responsibility of revamping Green Arrow was given to Mike Grell. Grell was an industry vet whose biggest success up to then was Warlord, a late Bronze Age fantasy series set in an Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired underground world. He relaunched Green Arrow in The Longbow Hunters, which proved both popular enough to earn Grell the gig of the relaunched Green Arrow series, and extremely controversial.  

The story redefined Oliver Queen by separating the character from most of the conventional trappings of the superhero story. The villains were organized criminals, rapists, murderers, and street thugs. The CIA showed up a lot. Instead of gallivanting around the universe with the Justice League Green Arrow stuck close to the streets. He wasn’t even called “Green Arrow” anymore, anywhere but on the cover of his book. He didn’t wear a mask, he didn’t have a secret identity, and he certainly wasn’t using boxing glove arrows anymore. He settled in Seattle and became a dude who dressed up in leather and beat up neighborhood toughs basically because he felt like it.

All well and good, as far as it goes. There’s no arguing that the direction was a productive one for the character, as much of it stuck to this day. The Oliver Queen on the enduringly popular Arrow TV show owes more to Grell’s version of the character, certainly, than Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams “socially conscious” version from the 60s or Jack Kirby’s sci-fi Batman interpretation from the 50s. The main difference between Green Arrow and Marvel’s Hawkeye was always that Hawkeye was a dude whose main power was bluffing, and that’s how he stands shoulder to shoulder with Thor and Captain America. Green Arrow, though, was out of place next to Superman and the Flash, and the reason why is that subsequent generations of creators told us so all the damn time. He sometimes served as the conscience for the Justice League, pointing out that they should be doing a better job by the little people they were ostensibly protecting. But you can only hector Superman for not caring about the little guy so many times before he loses his super-patience and puts you out an airlock of the satellite, because Starro’s coming over and a guy whose main power is righteous indignation is of limited utility against the fury of the Star Conqueror. 

But even if the broad strokes might have been well received, the execution left much to be desired.

A mysterious package arrived the other day containing issues #13-20 of Grell’s Green Arrow series. This run has since been packaged as The Trial of Oliver Queen, so-called for the final two issues of the run. These comics are very much – and I mean extraordinarily so – a product of their time. This was 1989 and all the cool comics had blurbs on the cover announcing that they were Suggested for Mature Readers. Accordingly, there’s no shortage of tits and swears, and buckets of blood. There’s a two-parter that is set partly in a strip club, for instance, and another story shows a guy getting his head blown off up close and personal on panel. Gratuitous called and he said for me to let you know that he’s busy today, so let’s just fucking let it aaaallllllllll hang out.

As artifacts of a transitional period in the comics industry, these books are endlessly fascinating, if not really very good. There was an audience for “Mature Readers” superhero books, but people still didn’t know what that meant. In practice it meant that a lot of superhero books with supposedly “Mature” themes became grindhouse matinees in painted miniature: here’s the sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but the stories are still the same kind of stunted, in very telling ways.

All genres are defined by tropes and signifiers, and over time in established genres these tropes and signifiers have a way of codifying into tics. For our purposes these kinds of narrative tics have two major attributes: 1) the creator accepts them as a given and reiterates them uncritically, often unconsciously, and 2) they are so connected to the genre’s premise that tweaking certain aspects of said premise creates unintended consequences.

Superhero characters are often – not always – but often vigilantes. That’s a given. We could even call that a premise. Superhero stories also often – not always – but often revolve around physical confrontation as a means of settling conflict. So far so good! Do you see, though, how these familiar premises are actually kind of . . . fragile? The moment you poke them you see that accepting superhero stories depends on presenting vigilantism in at least a semi-acceptable light, and doing so requires routinely creating the kinds of problems that can best be solved through violence. On such shaky premises are empires won and lost.

So: let’s look again at Grell’s Green Arrow. Here we have the superhero stripped down to some of his very basic components. Suddenly you can do things for Mature Readers that weren’t really available until Camelot 3000 blew the doors off the joint. Green Arrow is a comic without super villains. The villains in the four stories contained within The Trial of Oliver Queen are, in order, someone trying to murder a politician, a suicidal merc, a badass Canadian biker, and Oliver Queen’s own conscience. These aren’t really superhero stories as such, inasmuch as the genre’s expectation of resolution is stymied repeatedly by Oliver’s inability to find problems that can be unambiguously solved with fists. The creators’ attempts to fit these stories into the format – even the Mature Readers variant – makes for an often uneasy reading experience.

The most controversial and least palatable aspect of these stories, in hindsight, has to do with gender. The fact is that I simply do not want to lambaste thirty-year-old Green Arrow comics for having regressive politics in regards to sex work, and I really really don’t want to touch – as in, nowhere near with a ten foot pole – Grell’s insistence on depicting scenes of intensely gory sexualized violence. A scene where a stripper is murdered by crucifixion . . . well, what is there to say, really? It was unpleasant to read and unpleasant to relate.

This is an instance where the genre’s general disinclination to get into more sordid topics like sexual violence is revealed to be more than just a superfluous tic. Using sexualized violence as a means of “upping the ante” in Mature Readers comics is reprehensible. Rather than delivering any kind of meaningful treatment of the issue, a superhero comic can’t really help but fuck it up by turning even a brutal murder of a sex worker into an opportunity for the hero to, like, feel really intense. It’s not a problem that can be adequately solved by hitting, it’s just sordid and unpleasant. It’s hack writing.

The Green Arrow in these pages is a reactionary thug, full stop. He keeps stumbling into situations for which he is markedly unprepared – something the book itself stresses at various points – expecting somehow to be able to solve complex problems with a bow and arrow. And righteous indignation.

It doesn’t work. Let me tell you why.

The last story in the book, the titular Trial, is actually a perfect illustration of just why this approach to superheroes is a dead end. The story begins when Oliver jumps in to a firefight to save a cop who he thinks is about to be gunned down in an alleyway. Turns out the kid had a paintball gun – something completely novel in the far-flung world of the G. H. W. Bush administration. So the cop misses the kid from close-up range but Oliver, being the world famous Green Arrow, does not, and he plants an arrow right in the kid’s chest.

As you might imagine Oliver takes that kind of hard. He gets a stern talking to from a judge at the inquest. Then he goes off into the forest and has a manly bro-down with Hal Jordan where he gets over himself. (A petty aside: the most purely satisfying sequence in the entire run comes when Oliver beats the shit out of Hal Jordan for a few pages – Hal Jorden, the only super-hero with balsa wood for brains.) He comes back to the world ready to heroically start shooting arrows in people again and gives a solemn speech at the hospital bed of the same cop from the earlier shooting (who just happened to get shot by another punk kid, this one walking around with a Glock in his waistband, because comics):

I thought about it. Perhaps if the courts were more concerned with justice than “law,” there would be no need for men like me. Look around and see a young woman murdered by a man on work release from prison . . . or a three-time rapist let out after only a year in jail . . . and I ask myself, where’s the justice? I don’t envy you your job. You have to deal with the law, and the law is very clear. But when you’re forced to watch some psychopath turned loose on the streets because of a technicality, don’t you ever ask yourself . . . where’s the justice? I’ll admit, I started doing this for fun. But that was a long time ago when things were a lot simpler. Now we’ve got kids on the street who kill for pocket change. When some scumbag beats an eighty year old woman for her social security check . . . and the court can’t touch him because he’s a juvenile who’s back on the street in sixty days, a lot of people want to know . . . where’s the justice?

Remember back in the 60s when Oliver was the conscience of the Justice League? When he confronted good old Hal Jordan about his inattention to the black skins relative to the purple and orange skins, he was hip and racially conscious. They did stories about the population explosion and heroin. They were with it.

But suddenly we see here, within the context of Green Arrow’s career, a larger dynamic at work. The guy who went to Woodstock and though the Freedom Riders were just the bee’s knees is suddenly really upset about street crime. Suddenly really worried about Willy Horton and strangely responsive to the siren song of Lee Atwater. Because it’s not just that his perspective has changed a bit with age, no, of course not. He still believes in the same kind of justice he did when he was just a rich punk flying around in a god damned Arrowplane, and refuses to believe that the problems he’s tackling have more complicated causes and symptoms than can be either diagnosed with superhero comics or solved with quick vigilante justice.

As unappealing a character as Green Arrow is in these books, he’s nevertheless a legible character. He’s retracing the same real-world voyage a number of people in his demographic took. It’s not that the world is complicated and the answers less satisfying than can be adequately summarized by a fear-mongering talk radio host. It’s that the rest of the world doesn’t understand what is plainly obvious to him: there’s a major distinction between justice and the law, and he sees that distinction very clearly. Suddenly you realize he’s not the fun kind of vigilante anymore. Don’t bother asking him how he votes, you can probably tell from his Facebook feed.

There are some kinds of stories that the superhero genre is just not designed to tell. Stories that deal with urban street crime often fall short for their complete inability to address systematic economic inequality or pervasive inequality in the justice system. Batman and Spider-Man get around this, for the most part, by giving us colorful super-villains. Batman makes sense in a world with the Joker in it. But remove the villains and you begin to see – maybe they weren’t a tic after all. Maybe the villains were a pillar, and without them you just have middle-aged white dudes in leather who get off on beating up poor kids. Shying away from issues of systematic inequality may seem like a tic but, again, the publishing history of Green Arrow shows us that it’s actually a pillar of the premise, and a weight-bearing pillar at that: any problem that can’t be punched or shot can only do one of two things: 1) show off the hero’s impotence, or 2) turn the hero into the kind of paleoconservative who thinks that poor kids are the problem. Either way you’ve successfully turned the character into someone I no longer care to read about.

The saving grace here is the colors. If you know this period in DC history you know that their Mature Readers books were printed on a nicer stock of paper that held color in a really odd fashion. Julia Lacquement is not a name I was familiar with before I read this run but I was taken with her palette from the very beginning. Part of the problem with the coloring of books from this era is that they were still using similar coloring techniques with much nicer printing, and the effect was often garish, disruptive, or just plain ugly. Look at the first year of Sandman for example – and please do, avoid the recolored versions and dig those gloriously ugly colors. It’s a definite aesthetic. You can see its legacy in the work of Jordie Bellaire, for instance, someone who seems to revel in the kind of seemingly campy but actually quite effective color techniques that Lacquement uses here.

The distinctive coloring gives the run a unity despite the presence of two alternating and significantly dissimilar artists – Dan Jurgens and Ed Hannigan. Jurgens’ style is ill-suited for this kind of small-bore action, but the poor fit is part of the appeal. He always draws figures bursting out of the seams of the panels, awkwardly posed and at dutch angles but perfect for, you know, Superman bursting through the clouds. When these same techniques are put to work drawing an extended sequence in a strip club it seems like an anomaly: it shouldn’t work, really, because it plays to precisely none of his strengths. But he’s got a good hand for cheesecake art, actually, not a skill exercised often in the service of Superman comics it must be said. If only the story wasn’t exploitive and cliché-ridden. So there’s a bit of friction there between the stories and an artist who, while certainly very competent, seems on first blush to be completely unsuited to them.

Ed Hannigan is the MVP here and offers the very picture of a good artist elevating mediocre material. The best storyline here, by a country mile, is the one about the suicidal ex-merc being hunted by Australian intelligence across an expressionistic Seattle cityscape. Hannigan is the kind of artist you can trust: when he draws a bar he’s going to draw that bar down to the peanut shells in the ashtrays. Maybe everything in the panel is a little bit jumbled but everything is there and the storytelling is sturdy as fuck. You can see the joists here. Add Lacquement’s vertiginous colors and you come very close to something with the energy of Michael Fiffe’s Copra.

And it’s in these issues where you see the possibility of this kind of comic actually come alive, however briefly. Oliver isn’t trying to solve street crime or dealing with awful gratuitous murders, he’s dealing with spies and mercs. That suits the character. These are the kinds of moral quandaries that a character like Green Arrow actually can deal with – square-jawed Hemingway-esque men’s adventure stuff with poachers and explosives and the like. It’s a sad story and the ending is a foregone conclusion, but of the four stories in this set it’s the only one that actually, you know, works. That’s not a good ratio. Oh well.