Thanks to The CW's Arrow, Green Arrow has been enjoying a surge of popularity with the billionaire archer stepping a bit out of the shadows as a supporting player for the Justice League to anchoring his own Arrowverse of shows and stories on television.
But for all the popularity of his current incarnation, Green Arrow has a long and complex history that many fans aren't familiar with. In his new book "Moving Target: The History and Evolution of Green Arrow", author Richard Gray digs deep into the Oliver Queen's character history and how he has evolved and changed from a side character with a muddled origin to the hero we know today.
We spoke with Gray about his book, Green Arrow's evolution, and even what the legendary Jack Kirby, who had his own turn shaping Green Arrow, would have to say about the character today.
Writing the book
Green Arrow is a character that a lot of people don't give the depth of thought to that maybe the character deserves. Why did you write the book and what research did you do that allowed you to tell Green Arrow's full story?
Richard Gray: I guess one of the reasons behind doing it is the reason you just mentioned which was that there aren't a lot of people who have done a lot of research into it, so my primary purpose in doing the book was to actually have a definitive resource for anybody who is interested in Green Arrow or even the history of comics around Green Arrow. The resources themselves, the book is split up into chapters, like books are, but the way I've split up the chapters I should say some of the chapters, are straight history chapters. Some are interpreting the art or maybe critically analyzing the art or the writer's intention, certainly I do that with Neal Adams or the Trevor Von Eeden art in the 80s so in those cases my actual resources were the books themselves. I literally, the first place I started was going back and reading everything in order, which was a monumental task in and of itself, starting in the 1940s and going through. The research…I had actually done a series of articles for an old podcast I used to host called Behind the Panels and I had done a series of articles in researching Green Arrow over the years for that. It was about seven articles that were attempting to tell the history of Green Arrow and it was a combination effectively of reading books, autobiographies, other material that was already out there.
Green Arrow’s growth and 'Arrow'
One of the things you talk about a little bit in in the book is that his origin is as a kind of back up supporting hero and while he’s undergone a lot of development over the decades, he is still sometimes seen as a b-list hero. Why do you think that is?
Gray: I think it has a lot to do with his history. When it comes to DC characters if you're not in the holy trinity of Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman you're almost automatically labelled as a b-list hero. The current Justice League, the modern Justice League is certainly those six or seven characters and Green Arrow doesn't often get a look in there. I think it is interesting, a lot of people still tend to tar Green Arrow with a singular brush and its either that goofy version of the boxing glove arrow character from the Golden/Silver Age or the loudmouth left wing hero from the 60s, 70s and onward. I think he's a character that, because he's had these noticeable peaks and troughs but didn't have a sustained run of those things for a long time...keep in mind this is character that didn't have his own book until the 80s. I just don't think he's had the limelight, the exposure. In fact, I don’t think he was even, with the exception of one television episode in the 80s, he never had that sort of Saturday morning cartoon familiarity for people. Until Justice League International, the cartoon from the early 2000s I want to say he didn't really have much of a television presence at all. So, I think a lot of that familiarity that the a-list has definitely comes from the tv shows that evolved from the 50s to the 70s. Green Arrow was just never part of that. It's only recently where writers have discovered him, where artists have gone ‘actually, no he's someone interesting to work with’ that he's slowly worked his way into the mainstream and of course, he has his own tv show now.
How do you think that the tv show is impacting how writers are presenting Green Arrow in comics?
Gray: I think directly. I think speaking more broadly on DC there is an attempt to align the comic book counterparts with the corporate blockbuster tv version of the characters. We've certainly seen that in numerous reboots even in the last five six years. Green Arrow up until very recently was very much an attempt to be a bit the reckless young character that he is in the tv show and sort of this weird amalgam of batman and with a high-tech spin on him which is a very weird place for me as a long time Green Arrow reader to see that in the comics after the post-Flashpoint reboot. But he is very much I think literally to the point where the writers of the tv show were actually pinning some stories and the characters from the tv show, who were born in the tv show, were making their way into the comic book. Now you've had some great writers like Jeff Lemire who's interviewed in the book who actually have taken those characters and given them a DC Universe spin. I think that's where it's more interesting that those two things can influence each other in like a creative sharing rather than just being ‘we'd better stick in Felicity because she's popular with the fans.’
Fans as creators
You mentioned interviewing Jeff Lemire. You also spoke with Brad Meltzer, who is known as being a lifelong comics fan. Writers like Meltzer have the luxury of going into writing comics as fans, something creators in the 40s didn’t have. What impact do you think that has on the writing and development of Green Arrow?
Gray: That's a good question and I think it's a question that applies to comics more broadly as well. In fact, we've started seeing that from the 90s even that there were people who were...the instinct in the 90s was to see what could be done differently with the characters, let's scrap the original legacy characters and let's replace them with younger versions of themselves and we certainly saw that with Green Arrow, with Conner Hawke with, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner , Barry Allen, Bart, Wally West and any character you can think of had a younger replacement, but I think by the time these guys, particularly Brad Metzler, Judd Winick were really making it big in superhero comics in the late 90s and early 2000s there was that move back to a nostalgia, to try to recapture their version almost of, in this case, Green Arrow. In fact I think Phil Hester, who I interviewed but was also kind enough to write the forward for the book I think he actually said that when he decided to do Green Arrow there was no question that the version in his mind, he was going to reinvent the costume, he was absolutely going to the Neal Adams version because that's the version he grew up reading and that's the version he wanted to bring to life. That totally gelled with what Kevin Smith wanted to do in that instance as well. So, I think we're seeing people who firmly have an idea of what the character is in their mind based on their own history with the character. You're not getting people who are coming in and of course the big difference is that in the 40s and 50s these characters were new and they weren't being put up on pedestals of decades worth of history. Comic books certainly weren't elevated to the point that they are now in terms of the fact that someone like me can come along and writing a critical history of the character (laughs). That never would have happened back in those days so I think we are a revisionist take, we're seeing a nostalgic take more than anything and we're seeing you know people, it's like getting the keys to the kingdom it's like getting paid to do fan fiction. And I think that's fantastic it's one of the other things that I'm always fascinated in the relationship the reader has to the book without the reader the characters don't really exist the reader brings those characters to life and reinterprets them in their mind so it’s to me the next logical step, the reader becoming the writer and I find it fascinating.
It kind of gives you a different a depth when you read those stories.
Gray: Absolutely. It's like being in a secret club almost, like when someone throws out a Simpsons quote and you quote the Simpsons quote back to them it's like ‘hey, you get it, you saw that episode so you know what I'm talking about' so when you see those little sly references in the comics now whether it's a nod to an issue from the 70s or its bringing back a character like Jeff Lemire brought back Eddie Fyers from Mike Grell's run, Ben Percy decided to set his series in Seattle and had some Grell references, it's like ‘yeah, I get it, thank you, thanks for that, I appreciate that,’ you know?
Controversial subjects and the “conscience” of the DC Universe
Comic books in general have never really steered away from taking on controversial stories or controversial subjects. When the Green Arrow comic handles controversial subject matter, specifically the drug storyline or Mia's HIV storyline, it has a completely different tone than when other characters take on heavy subjects. What do you attribute that to?
Gray: Probably two things I attribute to, one of them the writers. I mean in those two cases, those are two specific examples...you've got Denny O’Neil who was literally, he's been described as not a writer in that instance but a reporter, he's someone who was seeing these things happening, who was commenting on seeing the issues happening on the street seeing the issues in the media. Neal Adams mentions that he and Denny used to work with youth-off-the-streets groups and that they would literally see people going through these issues and then transcribe them into comic form to make that real so there's that element of reality to it. In the case of Judd Winick, he really used the character of Mia Dearden as an extension of Pedro and Me which was, unfortunately when Pedro Zamora died Judd Winick took up that mantle and continued his advocacy quite publicly, both in the graphic novel and in interviews and when he got the platform of something like Green Arrow he was able to continue that story through the much bigger mouthpiece of the character. You saw that of course in his Green Lantern books as well where he looked at hate crime in, I think the story is actually called "Hate Crimes" in the Green Lantern run. The other thing I attribute to is probably the fact that Green Arrow has kind of been a second-string character so you don't have the kind of pressure of the public eye. Recently in the media we saw the story of the Hydra story of Captian America splashed across major newspapers, which is surreal to me we've got Captain America Marvel issues that have made the news because of a plot twist...you don't get that sort of coverage for the Green Arrow so I think you can deal with more frankly and more reasonably. I mean, now, let's not mince words, they dealt with it terribly in some instances even in Green Arrow books, you know there are some really ham-fisted attempts at politicization sometimes, other times they are totally on the money because they are flying under the radar and they have genuine voices behind them.
One of the things that is noted about Green Arrow, both in your book and in other writings, he's noted as being the conscience of the DC Universe. Given all the changes the character has undergone over the years, do you think that is still the case?
Gray: The cynic in me would say yeah it's changed a bit but I don't think...the stories I've read more recently that's definitely changed with Benjamin Percy's attempt to bring what he actually calls and wears the term “social justice warrior” quite proudly for Green Arrow which I think is fabulous, that's his attempt to take that term back but I think comics are a very different medium than they were in the 60s and 70s in that, and I don't know whether this is a particularly controversial statement, they're a much bigger platform now. They are owned by much bigger companies and I don't necessarily think there is the willingness with Green Arrow in particular to be as overtly political, at least he hasn't been for the last five or six years. But comics more generally, I think, have been willing to tackle some bigger issues and funnily enough Marvel has done some really interesting stuff in that area in the last couple of years. They've introduced a lot more characters which are a lot more representative, they've introduced characters that are willing to talk about issues overtly but also not just discuss various issues overtly but just not have to discuss them at all, you know? They live discrimination, live prejudice and live social ills in addition to being a hero which sort of gets to the heart of that kind of Spider-man ethos of the company which is, you know, a kid who has to deal with being a teenage kid in modern society as well as being a hero or this is what it's like if you're Kamala Khan and you're Ms. Marvel. I don't see that as much with Green Arrow. Maybe the tide has turned a bit, he's still a billionaire white guy, you know? Ultimately that's still the character, that's still the origin of that character, but you know they'll still regularly make him lose all of his money and have to deal with that and yeah, I don't know whether it's a lack of willingness or if it's just a change in direction for the character temporarily but Green Arrow is certainly less politicized now I think.
What would Jack Kirby have to say?
In the book, you talk about Jack Kirby’s run working with Green Arrow and how in many ways his work dramatically changed presentation of the character. With Jack Kirby's 100th birthday having been very recently if you were able to go to him today with the character, what do you think he would think of the transformation from his point working on him forward?
Gray: (Laughs) He'd probably feel slightly smug and I’d say very vocally pleased with it because Mort Weisinger at the time was not happy with what Jack Kirby was doing. He didn't like the direction that Jack Kirby was taking him and making him and redoing this, completely redoing his origin and the origin, Jack Kirby's origin story, is the one we still have today. The island origin story, took 15 years to make its way into print and we still have that 60 years later. I think that Kirby tried to introduce a lot of science fiction elements into a book that certainly Mort Weisinger and some in the art department weren't pleased with at the time, but obviously that's where Jack Kirby's career took him and you know, today we have a Green Arrow who's quite regularly using high tech equipment and they have stories that traverse the multiverse and traverse time and space and in fact 30 years after him they literally had Green Arrow teaming with intergalactic space cop Hal Jordan so I think Kirby would feel very justified that his instincts were right with that character and that there was so much more to be done than just this very simple character that was presented in the 40s.
"Moving Target: The History and Evolution of Green Arrow" is available now.