On June 11, Denny O’Neil died at the age of 81. He was a longtime writer and editor of comic-books who, in both capacities, had a major impact on some of the biggest comic-book characters including Batman and Superman. The words “legend” and “legendary” get used a lot when describing him, and rightfully so. Many people who write better than myself have written about his life and career, I encourage you to read my friend Benjamin’s posts Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020 and Denny O’Neil, Azrael, and the Pursuit of Social Justice. But for this post I just want to talk about one specific comic-book, or really one comic-book sequence, that O’Neil wrote which has been debated a bajillion times (Benjamin gives his impressions of it in his first post).
In 1970, Green Lantern’s series wasn’t selling as well as it used to, so O’Neil was given the task of revamping it. With issue #76 O’Neil took over as writer and added Green Arrow as a permanent “guest star”, making this a team-up book. Before this, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) has been portrayed as a typical 1960’s science-based superhero, fighting alien invaders and other fantastically-powered villains, while Green Arrow (Oliver Queen) was initially just a Batman clone (complete with a teen sidekick) who used arrows as his primary weapons (and not regular arrows, but special “trick arrows”). O’Neil’s plan was to inject some “realism” into their stories and use them to address more socially-relevant topics. To that end, although they were great friends, O’Neil painted the two heroes are political opposites, with Green Lantern being the staunch conservative and Green Arrow the radical liberal. This made sense as Green Lantern was essentially a cop, albeit an intergalactic one, while Green Arrow had been visually based on the folk hero Robin Hood, whose modus operandi was to steal from the rich and give to the poor. In a now-infamous sequence in that first issue, Green Lantern finds himself confronted by a random old Black man on the street.
Despite the innumerable comics O’Neil has written, including his creation and introduction of the Batman villain Ra’s Al Ghul, I think it’s safe to say that for better or worse this one short sequence is probably the most-quoted and reprinted series of panels from his career, and I’ve been seeing it brought up a lot in the many tributes I’ve seen written about him in the wake of his death
Now, over the years since I first became aware of this comic (it’s a little before my time, I’m not quite that old), I’ve seen it increasingly critiqued. There are the White fans, both liberal and conservative alike, who dismiss it out of hand, who say that Hal should have pointed out all the times he’s saved the whole world, which includes all the Black people on it, and all the other villains he’s defeated and in the process saved hundreds of lives regardless of color. What does this man want, for Black people to get extra special protection?!? Basically reducing this sequence to an “All Lives Matter” argument.
I’ve also recently seen an increasing number of Black fans, and well-meaning White liberal fans, who actually denounce the sequence as “racist”, in a paternalistic sense. Look at the pathetic old Black man begging the great White hero to save them.
I think both interpretations are short-sighted. I’ll concede that the sequence is not perfect, particularly when judged by modern-day comic-book writing standards. It’s a bit ham-fisted and lacking in subtly. But I believe the intent and the underlying point O’Neil was trying to make was valid. First, you must acknowledge what a dramatic change in tone this was for the time period. 6 issues earlier Hal was fighting a confused alien toy robot who followed him to Earth.
No offense to that writer, but it’s not exactly high literature.
And, as I noted before, Green Arrow (who, by that point, had mainly been a backup feature in other titles, never having his own series), was a rather simple Batman clone.
The point being that this sort of thing was new territory for the comic. Over a decade before comics like WATCHMEN would make it in vogue, O’Neil was attempting to inject a bit of “real-world problems” into the title, albeit while still clearly being set in a traditional fictional comic-book universe, which comes with some limitations. So the point I believe was to question how much responsibility would superheroes, if they were real, have towards addressing societal problems?
Superheroes, as traditionally portrayed (especially during the “silver age”) were overwhelmingly White male power fantasies who essentially fought to maintain the status quo. Some bad guy in a costume shows up to cause a ruckus, the hero flies to the scene and they punch it out for a few pages until the hero emerges victorious, yay!
But what is the Black teenager living in substandard housing with his parents struggling to pay the rent supposed to care about any of that? Saving “the world” from an alien invasion is great, but when the aliens are gone and certain citizens are still living with overt and covert racism, police brutality, gang violence, etc., where is that superhero now?
So to not only address that but have Hal, the hero, realize how ineffective he’s been in that regard, is a pretty radical approach. Again, I’m not saying it’s perfect, maybe the same point could have been raised in a better way, but I’m tired of seeing it condemned, it was a good effort, and I appreciate Denny O’Neil’s motives.
By the end of the issue, the two heroes would choose to embark on a road trip across America, where each issue they would encounter new people and face various other social and political issues, including another now-infamous issue where they discovered that Green Arrow’s teen sidekick was a drug addict.
The kid called himself “SPEEDY,” what did you expect?
At the behest of artist Neal Adams, the title would also later introduce one of the first major Black superheroes, as John Stewart got selected as a backup Green Lantern for Hal Jordan.
Interestingly, despite the critical acclaim that the series garnered at the time, including from later writers who continue to cite it as an influence, it was not very commercially successful, and the series was canceled after 13 issues, with the two heroes being moved to backup features in other comics. The title would be revived four years later, with Denny O’Neil once again writing. But for this run on the title he eschewed his original approach and wrote this book more like a traditional superhero series, with Hal and Oliver fighting evil aliens, robots, and costumed criminals as opposed to addressing societal issues, and this would prove to more commercially successful approach as O’Neil continued to write it for 39 issues (in his last 6 issues the series went back to being a solo Green Lantern book).
Still, there’s a reason why the original Green Lantern/Green Arrow run is remembered today, along with many other memorable stories that Denny O’Neil wrote in his lifetime. He will be missed. R.I.P.