Any amount of risible super-pirate Cap’n Lash is far, far too much, and there are five pages and more of the wretched character in writer Mike W. Barr and artist Trevor Von Eeden’s 1983 mini-series Green Arrow. There’s simply no excuse for a supposed master criminal who dresses like a second-row extra from Michael Curitz’s Captain Blood, all ye’s and thee’s and threats, to have his yo-ho-hum underlings sliced into “shark bait” if they don’t do as he demands. Even Barr seems to have struggled to think well of the thoroughly lamentable Lash. He “looks like he escaped from a road company of ‘The Pirates Of Penzance,’” Green Arrow is given to thinking, before dumping the bad Cap’n and his arrow-cracking whips into the ocean, and with very little effort too. If only Cap’n Lash had been given a parrot screwed to his shoulder, if only he’d been played up with a genuinely sharp and campish ambition, then at least the reader might have chuckled at the absurdity of it all. But the last station on the line before Ridiculous is Pathetic, and that’s what the grand punch-up at the climax of Green Arrow’s first mini-series is.
But the super-heroics really aren’t very important at all in Barr and Von Eeden’s Green Arrow. Their decision to focus on character rather than the threadbare traditions of the super-person punchup leaves the series seeming like a very distant ancestor indeed of today’s obsessively super-hero-centric comics, in which the very sight of a typical, costumeless individual who’s not functioning as a victim can come as something of a surprise. Even the appearance of the relatively well-known Count Vertigo in the second issue of the run served as nothing more than a mildly amusing distraction, with neither creator making the slightest effort to present the character as either convincing or terrifying, as today’s expectations would demand. But then, even their take on Green Arrow himself did little more than play out exactly the kind of over-familiar if well-executed set-pieces that he’d typically been associated with in the post-Adams period, and there’s no attempt made to make him any more realistic or fearsome.
To Barr and Von Eeden, the “Emerald Archer” was nothing less or more than a bloke in a Robin Hood costume with the ability to pin the tail of a leaping rat to a wall from 600 yards, and with a rat-tail-pinning arrow specially designed for the task too. Theirs was not an enterprise concerned in the slightest way with encouraging us to look differently at either the super-hero in general or Green Arrow himself. Avoiding any thought of bad-assing Queen’s costumed alter-ego up – if any such an idea ever occurred to them at all – writer and artist unselfconsciously embraced the ridiculous traditions of fire-suppressing, feedback-causing, arm-fastening-to-wall, and lock-greasing arrows. Similarly, there was no attempt made to make sense of the fact that Oliver Queen and Green Arrow are quite obviously the same person and should be recognised as such by everyone who encounters the two of them. Even at the moment at which Alan Moore and Frank Miller were embarked upon the most radical reframing of the super-hero comic since the Marvel Revolution of the early ’60s, Barr and Von Eeden seemed to take it for granted that the late Silver-Age model for how super-heroes work on the page needed nothing but the slightest tinkering with.
Yet, their work on the Green Arrow mini-series was, in its own way, a notable and successful attempt to re-frame the cape’n’chest-insignia comic for a somewhat older and more literate audience. As a project, it was indeed soon to be entirely eclipsed as a possible influence even within the halls of DC, with Miller’s Ronin debuting in the same month and Moore’s first Swamp Thing script to see print in less than six months time. By the time of the publication, just a few years later, of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Barr and Von Eeden’s bright, gentle innovations stood as nothing more than evolutionary dead-ends, at first largely ignored and then almost completely forgotten. And yet even now, there’s much to be said for key aspects of their collaboration on Green Arrow, just as there is for those few super-books of the eighties that shared something of Barr and Von Eeden’s approach, such as Evanier and Spiegle’s fine and perpetually under-rated Crossfire.
Even in 1983, there were criticisms that Barr’s plot for Green Arrow was fundamentally unconvincing, and that its MacGuffin – the secret formula for a cheap petrol substitute – was nothing but a convenient contrivance. That, of course, quite missed what the purpose of a MacGuffin is, just as it obscured how Barr was using the broad outlines of a thriller / mystery plot in order to define Oliver Queen’s personality. For what Mike W. Barr was doing in the Green Arrow mini-series was developing the man behind the mask rather than obsessing over his super-heroic identity. The frustrations of Queen’s investigations into the murder of his dear friend Abby Horton emphasised his tenacity, the dangers he encountered underlined his bravery, the complexities of the challenge defined his intellectual strengths and – particularly – his limitations, while the unavoidable hobnobbing with the super-rich illustrated his principled egalitarianism. What matters in Green Arrow isn’t really “Who killed Abby Horton?” or even “Why Is Green Arrow Worth Paying Attention To?” but rather “Who is Oliver Queen?”
This was, of course, hardly a radical move. It carried nothing of the innovation, shock, and novelty of the Superman tale “For the Man Who Has Everything” or Batman: Year One. But, for all of that, it was a relatively uncommon way of approaching the costumed crime-fighter tale, and that’s especially so when delivered carefully in the context of the then-luxury of a self-contained mini-series. Rather than having character defined and themes established through punch-ups with super-baddies and the gathering menace of world-threatening jeopardy, Barr reduced the role of the long underwear villains in Green Arrow to that of peripheral hired thugs. In doing so, he had Green Arrow himself function as little more than his alter-ego’s bodyguard. In short, Barr created two more-or-less parallel stories. In one, the super-people battled things out pretty much as always, but they did so mostly off to one side of centre-stage. In the other, Oliver Queen, rather than Green Arrow, took the limelight, functioning as a less-than-competent detective attempting to uncover the murderers of his dearest friend. Against a background of broad types making up the comic’s line-up of suspects, from the femme fetale ex-girlfriend to the taciturn and loyal uncle, Barr served up conflicts that defined Queen’s strengths and limitations as a person far more than his fighting prowess as a vigilante. If the two strands of Barr’s focus sometimes fail to convincingly work together, and if it’s, on occasion, obvious that Green Arrow’s exploits are really tangential to the story’s success, the series always remains entertaining and captivating.
It’s a decision which flew in the face of how super-hero comics were to develop, and it reflected an apparent fascination on Barr’s part with the leads of mystery tales and newspaper strip protagonists. Indeed, a fascination with all things super-heroic is almost entirely missing here, and there’s little of the mania for creating a distinct strata of super-people that has more and more obsessed the Big Two’s output ever since. If there is anything at all that’s comics-meta about Barr’s tale, it’s an attempt to differentiate Green Arrow from Batman. Oliver Queen is made the recipient of an unwelcome fortune and thrown into exactly the kind of corporate shenanigans and upper-class brown-nosing that he’d once been exceptionally glad to leave behind. Given all the financial advantages of Bruce Wayne, Queen stumbles from situation to situation without the slightest clue of how to track down his prey. He’s embarrassed by a CIA agent who discovers how ill-constructed Queen’s bluffs are, mocked by the executives he attempts to impress and even intimidate, and sneered at by the well-bred predators who consider themselves his superior. Even with all of Bruce Wayne’s advantages, Oliver Queen is anything but The Batman, and that’s, of course, the point.
Few scripters are able to portray a man of average intelligence without making him seem a fool and a bore. Barr’s Oliver Queen is quite deliberately played as being neither a genius or an idiot. Because of that, he functions as the kind of convincing and endearing everyman who’s remarkably rare in the super-hero book, and yet quite commonplace in down-these-mean-streets novels and films. Like us, he’s baffled by power, stumped for sophisticated schemes, and frustrated by the tedium and detail of everyday routines. Yet, he’s also persistent, decent-hearted, implacably loyal, perpetually armed with a quip, and fundamentally at ease with himself. Stripping Queen of the embarrassing clichés of ’60s pseudo-Marxism and yet leaving his fiercely democratic principles intact, Barr ensured that Green Arrow emerged as a far more substantial figure than ever before. Unlike the model of the costumed crime-fighter, which is now the norm, he’s not consumed by angst or alienated from the everyday world beyond that of his super-powered peers. Even when stunned by terrible loss, he remains free of pseudo-adolescent traumas. But then, this is a book where funerals don’t occur in the rain and where the determination to run down ill-doers isn’t accompanied by fists shaken at the heavens or the strong temptation to hang up perpetrators for a righteous lynching.
Barr’s greatest triumph in Green Arrow is the character of Abby Horton, an ageing and yet vigorous widow, who, in an audacious continuity implant, becomes the young Oliver Queen’s best friend. Introduced through Queen’s memories on the news of her death, Barr and Von Eeden sketch in her entirely compelling character with such emotion and economy that she remains, even today, the most substantial member of any incarnation of Green Arrow’s non-super-heroic supporting cast. There are few more touching scenes in all of Green Arrow’s history than those showing the white-haired Mrs. Horton and the youthfully blonde Mr. Queen confounding onlookers with their intimate and society-shocking friendship. And when Barr quickly recaps Green Arrow’s rather risible origin, he brilliantly closes it with a frame in which the rescued Queen is shown running into the arms of his friend, shouting “Hiya Abby! Didja miss me?” All the silliness of how Queen came to be impossibly able with a bow suddenly becomes worth paying attention to, because the time spent mastering such absurd skills on that entirely implausible island is now time that kept these two dear friends apart. As such, the silliness of the super-hero backstory becomes productively subsumed into the relationships of smartly-delineated characters. I can think of no similar relationship between a young man and a considerably more mature woman in any other super-hero book from any period. In such gentle and touching moments lie the strength of Barr’s work on this series.
Barr’s work on Green Arrow was essentially concerned with introducing into the super-hero comic broad and emotionally affecting character types played out in the context of the popular thriller. By contrast, artist Trevor Von Eeden’s innovations in Green Arrow were both far more radical and, in places, challenging. (It’s mostly forgotten today that Von Eeden was the artist of the now-obscure and yet once fiercely acclaimed Thriller, a comic so admired by Alan Moore than he offered its editor his services as scripter when Robert Loren Fleming left the project.) Perhaps Von Eeden’s now a largely forgotten comics artist because his work tended to avoid either the spectacular grandstanding shot or the adoring fetishisation of the super-hero. Instead, he was concerned far more with the subtleties of expression and the nuances that indicate, and distort, the passing of time. Inked here by the beautifully expressive and controlled linework of Dick Giordano, Von Eeden’s art emerged with a clarity that other collaborators of his often obscured. Though the quality of the work of both artists declines somewhat as the series progresses, with every sign of looming deadline crises, the pages in Green Arrow are never less than intriguing and telling.
His page designs often shattered conventional notions of how panels should be organised in a traditional grid form. Densely crowded sides packed with small panels were broken up by pages in which the space given to the guttering was substantially increased in order to manipulate how action was perceived. Events tended to be presented from unexpected and even oblique angles, forcing the reader to involve themselves in making sense of situations which might otherwise pass somnambulently by. (It was a tendency taken to an extreme in Thriller, where some readers found his work impenetrable.) Matched with the precision and clear purpose of Barr’s scripts, Von Eeden’s handling of scenes, such as Queen’s sorrow at his friend’s passing, remains touching and admirable. Grief is accentuated through gathering shadows and the subtly diminishing size of Queen’s face across a sequence of panels, and never once does Von Eeden resort to excess, to angst and tears and teen-ballad misery. Whether showing Oliver Queen dancing furiously at an up-market ’80s disco, or barely controlling his rage when stymied in his investigations, or dishevelled and shameful while pretending to be a shallow socialiser, Von Eeden succeeded in making his lead a distinct and unique character rather than a stereotypically charming Robin Hood knock-off.
Barr and Von Eeden created a version of Oliver Queen who was almost entirely free of the constraints of the clichés that had come to be the markers of his personality. They made him a loner who wasn’t averse to collaboration, a hunter who wasn’t defined by belligerence, an anti-materialist who wasn’t still locked into the war between the counter-culture and The Man, and an able crime-fighter who was also an admirable and profoundly mortal everyman. In doing so, they largely removed Green Arrow from the strait-jacket of the super-hero tale as it was then constructed and suggested that one way forward for the sub-genre was to make us care more for the people that we were reading about and less for their costumes and powers and melodramatic excesses. It’s an approach that remains as refreshing today as it was in 1983, but then, that’s because it’s a style of storytelling that remains as uncommon now as it was then.