23 August 2014

Putting Distance between Green Arrow and Batman

As I described on Thursday, DC Comics’s syncretism meant the company sometimes ended up owning two quite similar characters/trademarks. That pushed its staffers to come up with creative ways to distinguish them, expanding the bounds of its superhero stories.

Thus, in 1986 the company put Superman and his most successful equivalent from another publisher, Captain Marvel, in the same universe. And the editors and writers started emphasizing what made them different.

The fact that Captain Marvel is really a kid named Billy Batson—i.e., even more of a naïf than Kansas farmboy Clark Kent—became the defining aspect of his character. Storytellers also found more significance in how Captain Marvel’s powers arose from some form of magic (rather than, like Superman’s, through science).

Wonder Woman didn’t present such problems because no other company had such a powerful female hero. Instead, DC had to struggle with America’s changing picture of the ideal woman—and that’s another story.

As for Batman’s equivalents, it’s important to note what defined that character for most of his 75-year history. It wasn’t being dark and brooding and driven by vengeance. In fact, from the early 1940s through the mid-1980s, Batman was a cheery special independent agent of the Gotham police who just happened to dress as a bat. What defined him was:
  • He had no special powers beyond being a very smart, very athletic man.
  • He wore a mask to preserve his real identity.
  • He was an immensely rich socialite.
  • He had a lot of cool bat-themed gadgets and vehicles to deploy in a fight.
  • He worked with a teen-aged assistant.
That formula proved so popular that in 1941 DC’s sibling company, All-American Publications, created its own version: Green Arrow. He, too, wore a mask to disguise his life as Oliver Queen, an immensely rich bachelor. He used trick arrows, an Arrow Car, an Arrow Plane, an Arrow Signal, and even an Arrow Cave. And of course Green Arrow had his own kid sidekick, Speedy.

For a long time, DC kept Batman and Green Arrow apart. While Batman was an occasional member of the Justice Society of America, Green Arrow was relegated to a lesser hero team, the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Stories about him and Speedy appeared in World’s Finest after Batman and Robin’s, but the heroes never met. Green Arrow survived in backup stories through the early-1950s crash of superhero comics, probably because DC editor Mort Weisinger had co-created him, but he never had his own magazine.

When DC launched the Justice League of America, first in The Brave and the Bold and then in its own title, Batman made brief appearances. But Green Arrow didn’t show up at all, prompting fans to ask why he was left out. The problem, I suspect, was that he seemed too similar to Batman—why would the team need them both?

After popular demand, Green Arrow finally joined that group in Justice League of America, #4. Batman then stopped appearing so often, and it wasn’t until issue #10 that both characters showed up on the same cover.

Eventually the proximity of two similar characters prompted a new generation of creative minds to come up with ways to distinguish them—and to take superhero comics in a new direction. In 1969 artist Neal Adams gave Green Arrow a new look with a Van Dyke beard (at a time when facial hair had a politic meaning). Writer Dennis O’Neil made radical changes in the character of Oliver Queen. He lost all his money—no longer a millionaire with an unending supply of gadgets. He started a romance with an independent crime-fighting colleague, Black Canary.

While Bruce Wayne was then showing a new sort of social conscience with the Wayne Foundation, O’Neil had Oliver Queen start speaking loudly for political justice and change. Now the character stood out in Justice League meetings—in fact, he came to alienate some members of the group. It wasn’t just his politics but his temper and attitude. Green Arrow thus became one of DC’s first examples of a superhero who wasn’t a paragon in every way.
As a result, Green Arrow became an interesting character, perhaps for the first time. O’Neil and Adams partnered him with Green Lantern in a series of stories exploring social issues in America. Those highly regarded tales didn’t sell well enough to keep the Green Lantern magazine from cancellation in 1972, but they did cement the new character of Oliver Queen for readers. As a result, it became possible for him to be a foil for Bruce Wayne/Batman in subsequent decades rather than a pale green copy.

A similar process occurred in the late 1980s after DC introduced the Charlton character of Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle, into its main line. He, too, was a masked man without powers but with a lot of gadgets and smarts. He ended up on the Justice League with Batman. But that was the start of the grim, antisocial Batman we know today, and the magazine’s creators moved that Blue Beetle in the opposite direction, toward comedy.

With the “New 52,” DC brought Wildstorm Comics’s Batman equivalent, Midnighter, into its standard universe. Already Midnighter had been established as gay and happily partnered with the Wildstorm equivalent of Superman, providing more distance from the Caped Crusader. Now Midnighter is showing up in Grayson, actually offering storytelling value in how the character is a version of Batman.

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