...reading comics from the year i was born!
Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters #1-3 (DC)
by Mike Grell, Lurene Haines, Julia Lacquement, Ken Bruzenak
Phrases like “mature readers” and “grim and gritty” and “dark superhero” have become commonplace in the comic book culture’s vernacular. This was not always the case. And even though there’s a general acceptance among current comic fans that grown-ups can enjoy them too, not everyone in the world agrees. At times, Mike Grell’s 'Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters' feels like a loud, overdone response to the naysayers, so brutal and hopeless and cynical in its content that no one could possibly suggest it was meant for children. There are places where this almost feels like the series’ top priority, and those are usually it's weakest moments. That said, each of the three prestige format issues also contains stunning artwork, a strong lead character, and enough legitimately moving tragedy that, as a whole, the title is still a success. It has uncomfortable yet compelling takes on violence, heroism, and morality that (whether you agree with the series’ viewpoints or not) are at least sure to provoke thought and stir up strong emotions.
Shado is a murderer, yes, and more often than not she kills her targets in cold blood and from a safe distance, but generally they deserve what they get. They were all criminals in their past, greedy thugs who stole gold from her father, and most of them have only grown into more despicable and/or sophisticated law-breakers since then. The gold in question may not have been clean exactly, since it belonged to the Yakuza (who also funded Shado’s archery training from her infancy and sent her after the men who dishonored her families, biological and criminal). So Shado is really just one villain’s weapon with which to attack other villains. But she also takes out the Seattle Slasher, another serial killer in the area who has been stabbing prostitutes. And when Dinah Lance (a.k.a. the Black Canary, though she’s never called that in this book) is kidnapped by the real baddies, Shado assists in the rescue, saving Dinah and Oliver’s lives. She earns Oliver’s trust in this manner, and proves herself worthy of the reader’s support as well. Whether or not you agree that a hero can kill, in this tale that’s what they do, but Shado does so with far more discrimination and purpose than the villains. Oliver, too. It is, ultimately, what sets them apart.
Dinah’s kidnapping is the clearest instance of this. Make no mistake, this is Dinah Lance’s refrigerator moment. Her only role here is to be the damsel in distress, and Grell accomplishes this by shredding her clothes and her flesh (though not her spirit), and implying that far darker things were done to her off-panel. To some degree, he makes up for it preemptively through her strong and confident characterization in the first chapter, and I’ve read enough of the Green Arrow ongoing that followed this mini-series to know that Dinah comes into her own before Grell is done. But within the pages of 'The Longbow Hunters', she stumbles blindly into danger and ends up in over her head, primarily for the purpose of a stomach-turning splash page of her strung up and broken while her stunned torturer takes an arrow through his chest.
Not to say that this is unrealistic, that people this horrid and moments this disturbing don’t exist in the world. Of course they do, and things far worse, and Grell is shining a brilliantly bright light on some of the darkest corners of the modern world. So the few places where the despair is laid on too thickly are still thematically sound and done in the service of story. My tastes for the grotesque notwithstanding, Grell is consistent in his depiction of cruelty and depravity as widespread problems with many increasingly ugly faces. In the final issue, he reveals the primary villains of the book to be former soldiers and a current CIA agent, using drug distribution chains already in place for Iran-Contra deals. That’s an awfully cynical final beat, made even more so when Oliver ends up keeping the duffle bag of untraceable money the CIA man brought along for the trial run. Not that Oliver does not deserve it, (and Dinah sure as hell does, too), but still…is this how heroes should be rewarded? With dirty money that their enemies let them hang onto? Another moral quandary popping up at the end of a series with several.
The first issue is titled simply, “The Hunters” and it introduces the new status quo for Oliver and Dinah, opening a florist shop in Seattle. It also sets up and reveals the identities of the Seattle Slasher and the Robin Hood Killer both, plus the head villains of the book are met briefly, and there’s an incredibly significant and well-written conversation between Oliver and Dinah about having children. He is eager for them, but Dinah doesn't want to give up being a vigilante, and to her that means no kids. Because the hero-ing lifestyle necessarily means risking her life, she thinks it unfair to bring children into the world with such a high risk that they’d become orphans. It is a fair point made well, and Oliver is forced to agree because he’s smart enough to see that Dinah’s right. But he still wants what he wants, and the small inner turmoil he feels about giving that up is left unresolved for now, as more urgent problems arise. A young woman reacting to a bad batch of crack comes crashing through their window, so Dinah sets off to investigate whoever supplied the drugs. Oliver decides to track down the two local serial killers, and though he finds the Slasher, it is Shado who defeats him, exposing herself as the Robin Hood Killer. Even at twice the typical page length, this is a lot of story to fit in, especially after the seven-page recap of Oliver’s past that Grell provides obligatorily early on. It is a respectful nod to his predecessors, and also a mission statement, as Oliver rejects his previous superheroics and resolves to fight a simpler, more human fight for good. A strong and sure opening to a debut that keeps up that quality of storytelling until its final page.
Colorist Julia Lacquement also contributes greatly to the overall visual quality and atmosphere. The range of her palette is enormous, allowing her to highlight just how detailed Grell’s pages are to begin with. The hues are muted but never drab. The greens of Oliver’s outfit are no less dazzling in this setting just because they’re darker; they are merely toned down to match the rest of the book. The blood is still vibrant red, and so is the fire, but they’re not as brash as they tend to be in this medium. Lacquement reins her colors in, opting for a more reserved approach that fits with what Grell is trying to do. They are a perfect collaborative match, and their work comes together as a cohesive whole that lines up exactly with the goals of the narrative.