The Hidden S in Phone Booth

Big History in DC's modest Green Lantern volume

Of the big two DC has typically gotten a bit of a bad rap about not being as topical as Marvel. There is some truth to this but next week DC is releasing Showcase Presents: Green Lantern Volume 5 which collects in one modest volume one of the most famous and groundbreaking arcs in the modern age of comics.

The rather ordinarily numbered issue #76 of the Green Lantern series saw DC Editor Julie Schwartz (along with comic greats Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams) attempt to introduce elements of social concern and relevance to comics. (Don't think that this was a purely daring move, the GL comic was suffering and there was a WTF attitude about switching gears). This comic saw GL team up with his polar opposite the Green Arrow (re-made from a rich playboy guy in the Bruce Wayne mold into a kind of lefty superhero) to tour the country by bus dealing with the often grim state of affairs that was everytown USA in 1970. Issue 76 famously addressed racism and its final panels are among the most striking and well remembered of any panels of that or any other time.

What even made the move more daring is the fact that DC tried this using two of its most well established superhero characters as the foundation. In hindsight, Green Lantern was a particularly interesting and appropriate character to use here since he was more of a “galactic superhero” (not sure how else to put it) whose concerns stretched across the galaxy. The series was an attempt to literally ground him and make him aware of the problems here on his home planet.

As for Green Arrow, well, he was for the most part the mouthpiece for this new approach (his anti-authoritarian views well represented here remains a defining characteristic for GA even today). However, it was Green Arrow who was to get the biggest shock of all in possibly the most memorable comic narrative of the time (a two issue arc entitled “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”) when he discovered that his former sidekick, Speedy, had become addicted to heroin. This issue in particular got a lot of press for the time (then New York Mayor John Lindsay reportedly wrote a letter to DC commending them on dealing realistically and sympathetically with this issue).

As with nearly anything that is self consciously topical and even political there is the very real likelihood that it will age poorly and easily date. This is the case here to a point. Some of the dialog comes off as preachy- particularly Green Arrow’s dialog. There is also a sense of significance here which makes the comic seem more heavyhanded and self-consciously hip than it needed to be (Green Arrow says "dig" a lot for example). Later Green Arrow stories have been able to balance Green Arrow’s appealing sense of humor with his egalitarian sense of justice; not so much a balance in the Adams/O’Neill stories. Despite this, the moments work really work and can even bury themselves in your memory. The “Snowbirds” arc still makes an impact and the images of a strung out Speedy/Roy Harper still feel like a punch in the stomach.

Ultimately, this series remains very influential and was yet another signal that the age of comic censorship was coming to an end and that comics were “growing up.” The stories are not a rollicking good time to read; however, they remain a fascinating artifact in the archeology of the modern, sophisticated superhero comic.