In retrospect, one of the creative highpoints in the history of DC Comics seems to have come in the period just following The Crisis on Infinite Earths. During that period in the mid-80s, DC took a number of their old standby heroes and revamped them for a more modern audience. Fans of the different characters would probably easily point out the memorable and even at-times groundbreaking work being done by the likes of John Byrne on Superman with the Man of Steel mini-series on to a regular run, Frank Miller on Batman with Batman: Year One, George Perez’s Wonder Woman reboot, the insanity that was Keith Giffen’s Justice League, and the dark tone of John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. True, not every revamp would be a hit, but these in particular all left marks that stand to this day for their unique interpretations of classic characters.
What surprised me a couple weeks ago while looking over the graphic novel selection at Amazon was there was another high quality revamp done at that time that seems to be somewhat forgotten in certain ways. That would be when writer/artist Mike Grell took on Green Arrow in a superhero comic for more mature readers. Starting with The Longbow Hunters storyline, Grell remade Oliver Queen into a different character yet again. Review for that mini-series prologue after the break.
To start, a quick history lesson:
Green Arrow first appeared in 1941 and was basically a Batman rip-off in a Robin Hood costume. Billionaire playboy Oliver Queen lived in stately Queen Manor outside of Star City with his youthful ward Roy Harper. The two fought crime as Green Arrow and Speedy, working out of the Arrowcave underneath the Manor, where Oliver parked his Arrowcar and his Arrowplane. As for crime fighting, no matter what the situation, Green Arrow had a trick arrow that could do whatever he needed done, such as the famous boxing glove arrow. This was the clean-shaven Green Arrow who joined the Justice League, and though he was around for many years during this period, he was always relegated to a back-up story behind someone else in the main feature.
In 1969, under the writing of Denny O’Neil and the pencils of Neil Addams, Oliver changed his appearance, growing his famous beard and becoming the outspoken liberal people remember him as. He still didn’t quite merit a book of his own, but he did get second billing with his pal the Green Lantern in the famous-but-ultimately short-lived Green Lantern/Green Arrow series. This would be the Oliver Queen who famously bickered with space cop Hawkman while both were on the Justice League for no clear reason aside from the fact Hawkman was a space cop.
Outside of a mini-series or two, Oliver wouldn’t get his own starring role until The Longbow Hunters under Grell. Grell returned to DC to work on this character, and further redesigned him with the hooded look he favors today. This Oliver, bearing a strong resemblance to Travis Morgan from Grell’s popular DC high fantasy series Warlord, moved to Seattle with longtime lover Dinah “Black Canary” Lance and began to refer to himself as an urban hunter. Grell wrote the series as a more mature, real-world series. Gone were the trick arrows in favor of the old-fashioned regular kind. Oliver’s longtime origin story–that he was stuck on a deserted island and taught himself archery to stay alive, only to bring in some drug lords–was revamped by Grell to be how Oliver caught two stoned pot farmers and turned them in without firing a shot. He took up the Robin Hood look for a period but changed to the hood given the weather of the Pacific Northwest, and wasn’t afraid to get rough with the lowlife criminals he found on the streets.
The other angle Grell introduced was the idea Oliver was having a midlife crisis. He distinctly refers to his age in this story as 43, and since his former sidekick Roy over in Teen Titans was now a father to a small child named Lian, he himself was something of a grandfather, and he was looking to settle down with Black Canary and raise a family, something she is uninterested in as she is looking to keep playing superhero.
The story is just as clearly set in the political atmosphere of the 80s as Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. The plot involves CIA agents smuggling money to the Contras following the arms sale to Iran, crack is a major problem on the streets, Vietnam is still casting a shadow over the nation in one form or another, and a tombstone at a cemetery is listed as belonging to “Ray Gun” in what I am sure was not a coincidence. Grell introduced a few longtime supporting characters, some of whom would be recognizable to fans of the CW’s Arrow in the form of CIA hitman Eddie Fyers and the Japanese archer Shado.
As a revamp, Longbow Hunters is a fantastic reimagination of a longtime character. That said, there is one part of the story that many readers have found questionable, and that’s the treatment of Dinah Lance. While investigating a case of her own, Dinah is caught and tortured. Many readers have assumed she was raped, though Grell himself denies this (and the story backs him up when Oliver checks the largely unconscious Dinah into a hospital). Oliver’s rescue of Dinah is the emotional highpoint of the story, the climax that changes what kind of man Oliver Queen believes himself to be. But, as a feminist friend pointed out to me, the same friend who pointed out the problems of the original incarnation of Harley Quinn, Dinah doesn’t rescue herself, she needs to be rescued by her man, and the story puts the focus on the trauma on how it affects Oliver and not Dinah. It is worth noting the introduction to the Longbow Hunters trade I read both recently and before that conversation make it clear that Grell was interested in showing how this incident affected Dinah and made her an advocate for domestic violence, among other things. The trauma wasn’t going to be just swept under the rug, no matter how she seemed at the end of this story. The problem was The Longbow Hunters doesn’t really cover that. That came in later stories in the main series, and DC for the longest while didn’t collect them into trade form.
That was actually rectified at some point, which was what prompted me to reread The Longbow Hunters. I also managed to get the next two trades and will have reviews for them sometime in the future. We’ll see how it turned out after all. In the meantime, Longbow Hunters gets an eight and a half Errol Flynn portraits out of ten. The Canary issues and the general datedness of the book make it good, but somewhat problematic nearly thirty years after the original publication.