Originally published at Sequart.com on August 12, 2007
The Fate of an Archer
“Oh, he’s fast, the archer is! Fast hands, fast feet…yes, and a bit angry, too! His is an independent soul—he’s pioneer material, like Wild Bill and Wyatt, he’s not about to be pushed—by anyone!”—Green Lantern #89
Thug 1: My finger! You broke my freakin’ finger!
Thug 2: Hey! You ain’t allowed to do stuff like this! I heard you’re s’posed to be a good guy!
Green Arrow: Maybe you heard wrong.—The Longbow Hunters #2
One can’t go on for very long talking about politics and superheroes without coming to Green Arrow. And with a big summer planned for the Emerald Archer over at DC Comics—he’s proposed to Dinah “Black Canary” Lance (again), his origin story is being (re)told by the politically savvy duo Andy Diggle and Jock, and, to top it all off, his solo title’s just been canceled (again)—it seems like as good a time as any to re-examine Oliver Queen.
1. Green Arrow as Superhero Critique: A Vigilante Theodicy
The guiding thesis of this column (when I write it, at least!) is that there is an implicit engagement with the political within superhero comics. And, while I’ll pursue this thesis shortly with respect to Green Arrow, what is interesting to note up front is that, since the late 60s (1969’s Justice League of America #79), the Green Arrow character has consistently been used to explicitly engage with political issues. In fact, for many the phrase “politics and superheroes” conjures up one thing above all else: the Green Lantern / Green Arrow team-ups written by Denny O’Neil back in the early 70s, starting with the justly-honored classic, Green Lantern #76 (“No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!”). The premise of the stories is simple; as O’Neil recently told Wizard Magazine:
We could do pretty much anything with [Green Arrow] that we wanted. So my idea was to base stories on real-life social problems. We had a guy who would kind of represent the establishment—I always figured Green Lantern for the best damn cop in the world. And to me, in my most hippie days, I was not one who hated anybody who wore a tie but I was definitely on the side of people who didn’t. So that was gonna’ be Green Arrow.In his introduction to the trade paperback collection of these stories (Green Lantern / Green Arrow Volume One), O’Neil explains what he means by “the best damn cop in the world”:
Green Lantern was, in effect, a cop. And incorruptible cop, to be sure, with noble intentions but still a cop, a crypto-fascist; he took orders, he committed violence at the behest of commanders whose authority he did not question. If you showed him a law being broken, his instinct would be to strike at the lawbreaker without ever asking any whys. Wasn’t this the mentality that sent American troops into Korea and Vietnam? That brought Federal marshals’ clubs down on the heads of lunch-counter protesters? Wasn’t this the cowboy authoritarianism responsible for the mess we were in? Not that Green Lantern was evil, he or any of the other heroes who championed Nineteenth-Century American at the expense of Twentieth-Century justices—and at the expense of the environment and perhaps the survival of the planet. No, nor were their flesh-and-blood counterparts evil. They just never had any cause to doubt their assumptions. All right, there was a place to begin: I’d give them doubts. (5-6)Enter Green Arrow, Bringer of Doubt: The plot of “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!” is by now well-known, but to recount it in brief: While on a visit to Star City (once and future home of Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen), Green Lantern (AKA Hal Jordan) witnesses a “punk” kid attacking an older, well-dressed gentleman, while onlookers watch and cheer. Green Lantern saves the gentleman and sends the youth off to jail, but his moment of victory is cut short when the onlookers start jeering and throwing trash at the hero. GL is ready to put down the impromptu-riot by force, but is interrupted by Green Arrow, who warns him, “Touch him [the rioting punk] first, Green Lantern, and you’ll have to touch me second…and I’ll touch back! Believe it, chum! Back off! Go chase a mad scientist or something!” It turns out that the well-dressed gentleman is a slum lord (“the fat cat landlord who owns this dump!—the creep who hasn’t spent a cent for repairs in years”), who has come to evict his tenants (“kick a lot of old folks out on the street!”) so that he can tear down the building and replace it with a parking lot. Jordan protests that he’s upholding the law, doing his job, but Green Arrow retorts that the Nazis used the same excuse. Their argument is interrupted by a poor, older black gentleman, who—in three of the most famous panels in the history of comic books—asks Green Lantern, “you work for the blue skins…you helped out the orange skins…and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with--! …The black skins! I want to know…how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” Jordan hangs his head and says, “I…can’t!” And so begins a crisis of faith whose resolution will see Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen (along with a Galactic Guardian—one of those “blue skins”—in human form, and the occasional accompaniment of Black Canary) traveling across country, running into one social issue after another (and Charles Manson…but that’s another story).
For those keeping score, the roots of the mid-80s “deconstruction” of the superhero genre really begins here, in the ideological conflict between Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Green Lantern, the incorruptible super-cop, is shown to be a “crypto-fascist,” “good-guy” status notwithstanding. Why isn’t this deconstruction-full-stop? Because it leaves the form of superhero-ism standing. We are not treated to a deconstruction of superheroes here, but instead to a critique of the Green Lantern’s style or method of heroism. And the character of Green Arrow is essential here, because he is the voice of the critic. Green Arrow becomes the first dissenting voice within the superhero community, the first to say that “good vs. evil” isn’t as simple as black-and-white. (And for my money, the Silver Age ends right there.)
We must be careful to differentiate two issues with respect to Green Arrow’s critique of Green Lantern, however. Green Arrow shows up in the pages of Green Lantern to show Hal Jordan (and us) that Jordan’s approach to heroism is the wrong one. But we must not be so hasty as to assume that this makes Green Arrow’s approach the right one. Indeed just nine issues later, in Green Lantern #85 and #86, we are given a storyline equally critical of Ollie’s approach to saving the world: the classic story of Speedy’s addiction to heroin. The standard interpretation of the storyline runs as follows: “In his zeal to save America, Oliver Queen had failed in his personal responsibility to Speedy—who would overcome his addiction with the help of Black Canary.” But the truly damning critique comes from the mouth of Roy “Speedy” Harper, at the end of issue #86:
Roy: Drugs are a symptom…and you…like the rest of society…attack the symptom…not the disease! But this symptom is worse than most—it maims…it pains…it dims you! It drives you to the edge of insanity and over…and one day ends your trip on a slab in the morgue…with a tag around your toe! Gotta go now…Where is Oliver Queen’s failure? Certainly, Roy is angry at Oliver for allowing him to suffer from drug addiction alone. But the force of Roy’s argument goes beyond this personal failing: Oliver Queen, in his Green Arrow persona, just attacks the symptom, not the disease. On the verge of a serious critique of superheroism in toto, however, Roy (/Denny O’Neil) pulls his punch: drugs are a particularly nasty symptom, and the mistake is not in attacking symptoms, but in failing to properly prioritize them. By the end of the scene, Roy is assuring us that he will do better than Green Arrow, not by attacking the “disease,” but by going after the most important symptom first: “I’m cocky enough to think I can help some of my friends avoid that slab!”
Roy: Thanks for the hand, sister…but he needs your help now more than I do—only he doesn’t know it…he’s kinda dumb…in a lotta ways…I’m like him a lot! I’m cocky enough to think I can help some of my friends avoid that slab! See you “straights” around!
By the end of Denny O’Neil’s run with Green Arrow, then, we have been presented with our first serious critique of superheroism, only to have it covered over with a false promise. The critique, to summarize what’s just been said, runs roughly thus: Simply going out and fighting crime isn’t enough; one doesn’t automatically do good simply by opposing evil. Or, more briefly still: There are bad ways to be a “good guy.” This way of framing the critique, though, automatically sets up the false promise: There is a “good” way to attack the symptoms; There is a “right way” to be a superhero. And so the crisis of faith that began with Green Lantern #76 ends with a renewal of the promise of righteous superheroism.
2. Green Arrow as “Urban Hunter” (Vigilante): Crypto-Fascism Strikes Back
Having served the purpose of critique—and then “theodicy”—in his guest-star role in Green Lantern, 1987 finds Oliver Queen ready to strike out solo in Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters, a miniseries which would launch a lengthy solo title run for Ollie and his cast of supporting characters. If the end of Green Lantern / Green Arrow renewed the promise of superhero vigilantism, The Longbow Hunters (like much of the post-1986 superhero comics genre) allows this promise to run wild. Where O’Neil took Green Arrow through the trauma of his first accidental human kill (“The Killing of an Archer!” a story which ran as back-up material in Flash #217-219), Grell pushes Queen to the point where he makes his first intentional kill: Finding a kidnapped Dinah Lance tied up, tortured, and threatened with rape and death, Green Arrow fires an arrow through the heart of her torturer and leaves the torturer’s wounded henchmen to burn to death behind him. Over time, Grell explores the inner conflict Oliver feels over the death; but he leaves no room for doubt that Oliver himself has changed. “I once said you haven’t the eyes of a killer,” Shado tells him in issue #3 (“Tracking Snow”), “They’ve changed…as you have. You can never go back. Nor can I.”
Over the course of Green Arrow’s subsequent solo title (Green Arrow, vol. 2)—most of it written by Mike Grell—we see the character shift from his socially-conscious, fight-for-the-little-guy, “Hard-Traveling Heroes” persona (what O’Neil describes as “sort of an über-liberal”) into an out-and-out vigilante hunter. Queen’s kill-count slowly rises; at various turns he fights street gangs; works for the CIA; and works for the Mossad (to shut down a CIA-funded terrorist training camp). By the end of Mike (as O’Neil says, “a libertarian kind of guy”) Grell’s run, Green Arrow is politically indistinguishable from any of a dozen other vigilante anti-heroes. The conservative Chuck Dixon is able to smoothly take over, as Queen further descends into political freefall. By his last adventure—the five-part (albeit six-issue) “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (Green Arrow #95-101), Ollie has split his loyalties between the CIA and an Eco-Terrorist organization. Unable to decide between them until the last minute, Green Arrow finds himself enmeshed in a death trap: he must now choose between losing his arm (and thus giving up his vigilante crime-fighter days) and dying in a bomb explosion aboard a plane. Having fully become the vigilante at this point, Queen is unable to bear the thought of losing his arm and chooses death.
If the Silver Age ends with the false promise of righteous vigilantism, the mid 80s and early 90s find Green Arrow, along with the rest of his brethren, failing to capitalize on that promise. Their failure, by extension, throws us back upon the falsity of the original promise. The superhero genre has by now been deconstructed, and the would-be hero ignores that deconstruction at his own peril. And so Oliver Queen succumbs to the same dilemma faced by every post-deconstruction superhero: He can throw his lot in with the government, and be a vigilante in service of corrupt government power (it is no mistake that Queen is forced to work for the CIA through a plot device which involves the Iran Contra Scandal), or he can take to the streets, becoming judge, jury, and executioner. Either crypto-fascist super-cop, or crypto-fascist criminal; either way, the political choice is clear.
3. Green Arrow Reborn: The Third Way
In many ways, Kevin Smith’s 2000 relaunch of the Green Arrow character (Green Arrow, vol. 3, #1-10, the “Quiver” storyline) can be read as a meditation on the intractable dilemma of post-deconstruction superheroes. With the loss of Silver Age innocence, the once-carefree black-and-white days of crime-fighting give way to shades of grey and ineluctably fascist overtones. Green Arrow, the most explicitly Left-leaning of the crime-fighting elite, was for that reason one of the hardest hit ideologically by deconstruction. As we have seen, the descent into right-wing vigilantism leaves the Battling Bowman casting about for a moral high ground and, when none is to be found, he drowns (or, rather, explodes). And so the question arises: how can you bring back a hero like Oliver Queen without simply throwing him right back to the wolves of fascism?
The most immediate response to the crisis of deconstruction—the route which is even today still being attempted by the so-called “Reconstructionist School,” people like Darwin Cooke, Paul Dini, Alex Ross, etc.—is to ask, “Well, why can’t we just turn back the clock? Pretend the Modern Age never happened; present these characters the way they were back in the Silver Age, when Good and Evil still meant something…” And this is exactly what “Quiver” gives us: Oliver Queen is resurrected by the nearly-omnipotent Hal Jordan, but as he was at the end of Green Lantern #89, in 1972. This is an Oliver Queen who has never killed anyone; this is an Oliver Queen who still fights for “the little guy” (and against “fat cats”); and most importantly of all, this is an Oliver Queen who is standing on, but has not yet walked through, the doorway out of the Silver Age and into the Modern Age.
So what’s wrong with this approach? We can do far worse than the answer Smith’s “Quiver” gives us: it is soulless and irresponsible. Oliver Queen’s Silver Age body is resurrected, but his soul—having been through the Modern Age deconstruction—does not get resurrected with it. And so a soulless Green Arrow returns to battle evil in Star City. In doing so, he opens the door for a far worse possibility: demons from Hell might now be allowed to walk the Earth by possessing Queen’s soulless “husk.” To carry the metaphor to it’s natural—if extreme—conclusion: To simply dress up and play Silver Age, pretending the Modern deconstruction never happened, is to allow the soulless husk of one age to be the cheery, heroic face that simply covers over the demons of another age. Deconstruction showed us not that superheroes had changed, but that the superhero form was always inherently tied up with fascism. The desire for Silver Age heroes, then, is not the desire for non-problematic heroes, but the desire to be ignorant of those problems. At last, realizing that it is the only responsible choice, the Modern soul of Oliver Queen returns to his resurrected body, and we have a Green Arrow thrust back into the Modern Age. With it, of course, come all of the old ideological problems. And so the Emerald Archer deals with it the same way the rest of his contemporaries do: ignores the problem until it grows to Crisis-sized proportions.
And so we fall into the rhythm of the late Modern Age: the superheroes start to act, as if deconstruction had never happened; these acts by definition throw up contradictions within the superhero archetype; the contradictions grow to unmanageable proportions; a “Crisis”-style event “resets” the system; the superheroes start to act, as if deconstruction had never happened…Etc. Perhaps we should not be surprised that DC’s previous crisis-event schedule has recently been overturned in favor of a sort of ongoing-crisis situation; Identity Crisis led straight to the Countdown to Infinite Crisis, which of course rolled right over into (the aptly-named) Infinite Crisis, which spawned the year-long 52 (linked with the “One Year Later” “resets” in each book), etc. But whereas with explicitly right-wing characters—like Batman—or characters seemingly above or outside politics—like Superman—this “reset” is seemingly without problem, Oliver Queen—again, the most explicitly Left-wing of the heroes—is placed in contradiction simply by the attempt to reset him crisis-free. And so what we are quickly finding is that the Green Arrow character must directly confront deconstruction at the very moment when the rest can go back to ignoring it. This has given rise to DC’s most recent attempt to overcome deconstruction, Judd Winick’s “Crawling Through the Wreckage” storyline for the “One Year Later” reboot in Green Arrow.
Winick introduces the new “solution” to deconstruction in the opening pages of Green Arrow #61, as follows:
There is always much talk among “rabble rousers”…among dissenters…among those who choose to swim against…the tide…the talk of “The Man.” “Sticking it to The Man.” “The Man holds us back.” Depending on the context, The Man can be anything from the status quo to a high school principal. But in general, The Man is The Establishment. The Law. And those who enforce it. Or make it. So what becomes of the rabble rouser, the trouble maker, the rebel—when he becomes The Man? (1-2)In the “One Year Later” event, we find that Oliver Queen has become the mayor of Star City, where he is made out to be an obviously liberal politician (albeit liberal in Winick’s sense, which amounts to an active support of gay rights, an acknowledgement of the AIDS crisis, and a stated concern about—if not much action against—poverty). Meanwhile, he has also just resumed his vigilante activities as Green Arrow, and—as we’re told a few issues later—he has been using his personal fortune to fund the Outsiders, a vigilante group “who, as the public sees it, were a couple bad days away from being terrorists” (Green Arrow #73). Queen is thus simultaneously pursuing the liberal path of change through the legally-sanctioned process of law (albeit “taking advantage of the broadest interpretation of [the] law,” as one newscaster puts it in Green Arrow #65), and the path of the criminal vigilante. This should be a strict opposition. However, by standing on both sides of the fence, Oliver Queen is able to bridge the gap by, in effect, reaching across it to shake his own hand: Mayor Queen refuses to condemn the actions of Green Arrow, simultaneously drawing the line between legitimate and illegitimate authority and giving the illegitimate vigilante the explicit sanction of legitimate law:
Frederick: You really think this was the best way to go?It seems that there are two possible interpretations of this situation. First, in the spirit of Slavoj Žižek, we can point out how Oliver Queen reveals the shadowy underside of legitimate power: as mayor, Queen’s legitimate power is effectively “underwritten” by the so-called “illegitimate” transgressions of Green Arrow. This is why he will win the people over by not condemning Green Arrow; to condemn the transgression would be to “interfere with [the] murky world of obscene rituals that serve[s] as the fantasmatic background of Power” (Žižek, Interrogating the Real, p. 234). What is appealing about this interpretation is that it places Oliver Queen back in the role of critic; by taking on both roles, Green Arrow is able to unmask the power relations at the heart of the standard, liberal so-called “democracy.” It makes the Green Arrow character into not a crypto-fascist vigilante figure, but rather the necessary double of the bourgeois liberal power structure. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Oliver: Absolutely. It puts a clear line between me and Green Arrow. And “his” actions will win over the people.
Frederick: I thought, as mayor, you wanted to win over the people.
Oliver: I will. When I refuse to denounce Green Arrow for “his” actions.(Green Arrow #61)
Interesting as this interpretation is, however, the brief quotation from Žižek also immediately shows why it doesn’t work: the transgressions which buttress Power within authority structures are obscene rituals, symbolic violence. In fact, Žižek’s whole point here is that “the outbreak of ‘real’ violence is conditioned by a symbolic deadlock, ‘Real’ violence is a kind of acting out that emerges when the symbolic fiction that guarantees the life of a community is in danger” (235). Halloween and Mardi Gras are examples of this symbolic violence, as are hazing rituals and “code reds.” But the latter show explicitly that, even when cruel and abusive, these “obscene rituals” cannot cross over into ‘real’ violence; as soon as they do, they must be denounced (as Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men showed us about code reds, and the perennial scandals surrounding coeds dying in fraternity or sorority pledge dares show us about hazing rituals). Green Arrow is not just some Halloween ritual: he is a vigilante crime-fighter, a “superhero.” That he tries not to kill people does not make his violence any more symbolic. Rather, this first interpretation should be read in the opposite direction: the presence of Green Arrow is the presence of real violence. The vigilante is, in this case, the one who “acts out.” Green Arrow, simply to exist, must live within a world in which the symbolic fiction guaranteeing the life of a community is always already in danger.
We must look to a second interpretation, then. Green Arrow is not the symbolic other of legitimate power, but rather the other way around: Mayor Oliver Queen is the “beard” of liberal legitimacy covering the still inherently crypto-fascist operations of Green Arrow the vigilante. The model is not “transgression as buttress for legitimate authority,” but rather “legitimate authority as cover for vigilante violence and ‘street justice’.” In other words, positions on gay rights and AIDS notwithstanding, is Oliver Queen not repeating the same basic gesture of the Bush administration?
Should this strike us as shocking? Only if we have forgotten our history: the neo-conservative movement emerged not from the Right, but from the Left. The neo-con movement is, in fact, the militaristic, nationalistic reaction to the failure of the 60s movements. What superhero is better positioned to mirror this development than Oliver Queen, militaristic, failed 60s radical?
The latest “solution” to superhero deconstruction, then, is not a solution at all: only a new face on an old problem. In place of the usual conservative crime-fighter archetype, Ollie stands as the neo-conservative crime-fighter. In place of the previous crypto-fascist roles available to the would-be “good guy,” Green Arrow gives us the neo-crypto-fascist.
For now, the Battling Bowman’s solo title has been cancelled, and the prospect of marriage ought to keep him dealing with crises of a different sort. But with the first three issues of Green Arrow: Year One already on shelves, we can be sure that our Emerald Archer will be back soon, reformulated once again. I, for one, will be keenly interested to see what comes next.