My journey through “the shelf” has taken a bit of a sharp left turn with this next trade. The brainchild of Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams, this comic collects a series of Green Lantern/Green Arrow joint comics which follows their journey together across the country as they seek to discover what exactly is wrong with America.
The series units two different viewpoints. With Green Lantern, we have a law-abiding citizen who has always believed in justice. When confronted with a morally ambiguous situation, the character is left with a wavering resolve, unsure if he has been acting in humanity’s best interests after all.
On the other side is Green Arrow, the renegade sort who is frustrated and angered by the social injustices he witnesses, and vows to do whatever he can to help those in need, regardless of what side of the law this puts him.
Though brought together with a common goal, the two heroes often butt heads as to how a situation should be handled.
This alone is not an original concept. Other comics prior to this had allowed opposing superheroes to square off against one another. What makes this situation unique is that the opposing viewpoints deal with highly relevant ideas. These comics were written in the early 1970’s, a period of time that saw great social unrest and call for change. Heavily influenced by the country’s emotional state, the stories featured here take strong political stances, addressing such varied social issues as racism, Native American poverty, and overpopulation.
When I realized the theme of this collection, I was unsure how to react. This was certainly different than any other comic collection I had read. Rather than focusing on small-town crime or otherworldly phenomena, these stories focus on pressing, real-world issues that were at the forefront of many Americans’ minds. I found myself wondering if the stories presented here were likely to engage younger audiences, or if the concepts addressed would go over their heads. The story arc only lasted for a handful of issues, so perhaps I have my answer there. Although I’m sure the concepts seemed surprising for a comic book at the time, it presents a unique perspective on very real issues this country faced. In many ways, this collection felt a bit ahead of its time, causing the reader to question his or her own morality.
The inherent problem with this tactic is that the stories used hit just a little too close to home. The ideas presented here read like something out of a textbook, and were likely lifted straight out of newspaper headlines. Comics, like all fictional media, are a form of escapism, and being slapped in the face with constant reminders of the real-world problems surrounding you is not likely going to boost sales.
That’s not to say that such thought-provoking questions can’t be raised. It just seems to be more effective when done in a roundabout, hinting manner. The perfect example is presented in this trade, in which Green Lantern and Green Arrow travel to a distant planet after ________ is banished, and witness deplorable living conditions.
Overpopulation and its devastating effects are certainly not unheard of in our world. What makes this story so powerful though is that its real-world affect is hinted at tangentially. Rather than hitting the reader over the head with facts and figures, the story allows one to make these connections on his own and draw his own conclusions. The story creates emotion and sympathy in the reader without harsh reality looming overhead. It’s much easier to swallow such heartbreaking stories, even if they mirror our own lives, if we, as readers, can remove ourselves from the situation, at least to a certain degree. As such, the story stands out without the historical narrative overshadowing it. Had more of the issues taken this approach, perhaps the comic would have lasted a bit longer.
On a more personal note, I greatly enjoyed the inclusion of Black Canary in a handful of these issues. The last time I came across her on “the shelf”, she was adjusting to life on Earth One and cautiously flirting with Green Arrow. The stories here pick up where those left off, with her still attempting to find herself while wrestling with her feelings. She is as badass as ever, detesting violence and attempting to avoid it at all costs, but able to more than hold her own when she has no other choice.
One of the elements I’m most intrigued by since starting “the shelf” is the progression of character development and depiction of relationships over the course of decades. Relationships, particularly romantic relationships, often felt flat in the earlier comics. They were there, but they were a last-second inclusion, a punch-line to lighten the mood and superficially connect the superhero to the world they were living in.
With Black Canary and Green Arrow, we see the emergence of a deeper type of love being depicted. Theirs is not the “absent-minded man, unhappy woman” relationship so common in earlier comics. Instead, there is a deep connection between these two, one that filters out from the story rather strongly.
Knowing Black Canary is in danger, Green Arrow panics and demands information. His sole thought is her safety. O’Neil doesn’t include an aside from the characters depicting their inner thoughts, or have them vocalize their feelings in any direct way; he doesn’t need to. He lets their actions speak for themselves, which makes for an altogether engaging and compelling story, much moreso than the stilted, unromantic relationships often seen in Golden Age comics. I was glad to see this progression towards more natural relationships, and hope this form of storytelling is a trend that caught on rather quickly.
The stories collected in this trade are an interesting read. To an extent they’re a bit dated, but they’re certainly still relevant. Not something I would want to sit down and binge read thousands of pages, but definitely intriguing stories that leave a lasting impression. After this collection I’m left wondering what, if any, socially conscious comics are being written today, and if they take the same approach or have the same impact that these stories likely did.