Friday, July 12, 2013

1987 and all that 010: growing pains

by Matt Derman

...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.

Part of what this book is famous for is stripping down the Green Arrow concept to its purest, simplest, and most disconnected-from-the-shared-superhero-universe version as possible. In the first issue, Oliver Queen laments letting “the gimmicks and trick arrows do the job for [him]” and goes back to the simple, potentially fatal arrows we all know and love. Grell is even careful to avoid the name “Green Arrow,” except to have Oliver, in the same scene where he gives up the fancy weaponry, say that the persona was somewhat forced upon him by public perception and not, necessarily, a moniker he likes or wants to hold onto. This all plays into Grell’s attempt to dramatically age up the character and its audience. He abandons the code-names and gadgets and other more fanciful aspects of superhero comics in order to tell the story of what might happen if a real man, using real-world weapons and tackling real-world problems, tried to take justice into his own hands. It does not always (or even often) go well, but Oliver’s efforts are still noble and heroic.

Oliver goes after serial killers, corrupt CIA agents, and various organized criminals. He also butts heads with local cops, gets information by torturing petty thieves, and teams up with a Yakuza hit woman because her targets are the greater evil. Her name is Shado, and her story, almost as much as Oliver’s, is at the center of this series. In the first issue, she is known only as “the Robin Hood Killer,” a mysterious murderer who has left a trail of bodies in her wake moving west across the country. She makes it to Seattle only shortly before Oliver moves there, and though at first they are rivals, he gradually comes to admire her skills and respect her cause until they find themselves fighting on the same side.

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.

The idea of the good guys using lethal force is just one morally questionable aspect of 'The Longbow Hunters'. Personally, I don’t accept the notion that all superheroes should avoid killing no matter what. Situations will be different, and call for different tactics, plus at some point, if you’re not offering a permanent solution to the super-villains, you’re just allowing them to keep coming back for more. But in this story, the villains aren't super. Neither, truly, are the heroes, though Oliver and Shado’s precision with their weapons does require some suspension of disbelief. So the question becomes: if Oliver and Shado kill when other methods might be just as effective in shutting their enemies down, does that make them evil? On that, I’m less sure of where I stand, and Grell feeds into that ambiguity. Oliver, the protagonist, only kills once, and it is Dinah’s torturer who is his victim, a sociopath who relishes her pain and misery. If anyone has it coming in this book, it’s this guy. Yet it still eats Oliver up to have taken a life, causing nightmares that make him wonder if he is now as bad as his foes. Shado is less bothered by it, but also less definitively a hero. All she’s ever known has been preparation for and now the carrying out of her assassination assignment. I empathize with her, and don’t hold her wholly responsible for her actions, but her being so unphased by the death she causes is neither a surprise nor an especially strong argument in favor of such extreme methods.

Grell is not necessarily trying to justify the methods, anyway. The violence in this book is graphic and harsh and sometimes hard to look at, not celebrated or condemned but left to stand on its own. The reader is respected enough to make up their own mind about which, if any, of the violent acts are called for, and where the characters (and, by extension, Grell) maybe go too far. Shado killing “the Reverend,” who once was part of the group that stole from her father but is now harmless, homeless, and delusional, is much harder to support than when she kills the Seattle Slasher. I genuinely feel bad for the Reverend, death falling on his small, pathetic, unsuspecting form from above and behind. But the Slasher is killed moments before knifing his next victim, so when he dies what I feel is relief. Shado walks that line throughout the narrative, and the script and artwork walk it with her, sometimes more disgusting and unsettling than is needed.

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.

The purpose of the scene is to push Oliver to his breaking point, to make him a killer. It also helps the reader come over to Shado’s side; any enemy of the people who did this to Dinah isn't a friend of mine. It establishes the bottomless depths of corruption and wickedness the villains possess, the extremes they’re willing to go to in order to save their illicit empire. But it’s still a bit much, a prime example of Grell being so “grown up” in his story content that it turns me off. I don’t have a problem with the narrative goals of this plot point, but the execution crosses lines it needn't cross in the name of brutality and maturity.

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.

In some ways, 'The Longbow Hunters' feels like the prologue to a much larger work that it later actually became. Grell would script some 80 issues of 'Green Arrow' after this, the first writer to have the character as the solo lead of an ongoing series. So these initial 141 pages seeded things that Grell would continue to develop down the line, including the aftermath of Dinah’s torture, Oliver’s desire for children, Shado as a Catwoman-esque villain-hero, the CIA agent, Oliver’s relationship with the Seattle cops, and so on. None of these things resolve entirely here, because Grell is smart enough to tell a more confined story on his first outing without tying too tight a bow on it. Yet this series feels whole too, and indeed each issue stands as an enjoyable and self-contained act.

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.

“Dragon Hunt” is the second chapter, and it belongs to the women. The first half of the book is interspersed with scenes of Shado’s childhood, as Oliver tracks her down, tries to stop her, and then loses to her when they fight. The second half is Oliver picking up Dinah’s trail and finding her captured and abused, killing her captors with Shado’s help, and getting out just seconds before the warehouse she was held in explodes. It is very much the dramatic high point of the series, and the most action- and tragedy-packed of all three issues. The finale, “Tracking Snow” finishes filling in Shado’s origin story and sees the final confrontation between her, her enemies, and Oliver on Mt. Rainier. It has its fair share of action, but ends up heavier on the exposition, with the crooked CIA operative and his partner, the head of the drug-running operation, each getting to deliver a somewhat long winded speech about how unstoppable they are. The CIA agent is right, and walks away unscathed; Shado shoots the other guy through his heart as soon as he stops talking. Admittedly, the ending is not as tight as either of the first two issues. It is the most predictable chapter, with Shado inevitably murdering the last of the men on her list and Oliver confirming things about his enemies that the reader already knew. But it brings things to a satisfactory close, and Grell’s artwork never wavers, so even when the story’s not as impressive, everything looks great.

Grell’s art is incredibly rich and realistic. Like the scripts, the visuals aim for maturity, avoiding the flatter, more exaggerated styles of typical superhero comic books. The artwork is layered, texturally varied, and heavily detailed. From the fashions to the facial expressions of characters large and small, Grell puts a tremendous amount of care into every panel. He also plays with non-traditional layouts, and offsets some of the most extreme action with much calmer, more grounded, more intimate scenes in between. His backgrounds are as full as the foregrounds, and his people are shaped like real people. The art goes a long way toward creating the more grown up tone of the series, because Grell (assisted by Lurene Haines) packs it with nuanced emotion, intense violence, and a believable cast.

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.

Heroes who are debatable villains, villains who are the epitome of wickedness, drugs, dirty politics, implied rape, vicious torture, sex scenes, serial killers…there’s really no denying that 'Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters' is not for kids. Grell may have pushed the envelope further than he needed to here or there, but he was intentionally crafting a more savage story for an audience he knew could handle it. He puts Oliver through a great deal, and Dinah through even more, never letting either of them heal completely from the wounds they receive in this book. Shado, though she succeeds in her mission, also fails to recover from the damage of her past, still controlled by an evil organization and no doubt bound for more kills-for-hire in her future. The bad guys may lose, but that doesn't mean the good guys win, because conflict is often not as clear-cut as that. Grell recognizes this, and puts it on display in his story to great effect.

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