Producer Andrew Parsons talks with comic book author Denny O’Neill and historian Bradford Wright, about Green Lantern and Green Arrow – two green superheroes who helped lead the way to more socially-conscious comic books in the 1970s.
**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this episode. There may be changes.**
BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re devoting today’s show to stories about the past that have something to do with the color green.
In the early 1960s, new comic book heroes like Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men, all created by Stan Lee and Marvel comics, seemed to be rescuing the industry from a sales slump in the 1950s. But as the ’60s progressed, sales declined yet again. The Vietnam War, Civil Rights struggle, and overall generational upheaval had realigned what young people were looking for. They want to comic books to take on the issues they were facing every day.
PETER: So comic, books well, they turned the page. By the early 1970s, Iron Man had shut down his company’s weapons division. Captain America teamed up with a black superhero whose day job was being a social worker in Harlem. But perhaps no comic represented the shift better than a series that featured two green superheroes who had gotten their start nearly 30 years before, Green Lantern and Green Arrow. BackStory producer Andrew Parsons has the story.
ANDREW PARSONS: In early 1970, Denny O’Neil walked in DC Comics for his weekly editorial meeting. DC was the home of Batman and Superman. But when he got there, his editor put a different hero on the table.
DENNY O’NEIL: He said, in effect, that the Green Lantern book was floundering. So he asked me if I had any ideas.
ANDREW PARSONS: The answer was yes. At 30 years old, O’Neil was part of a new generation of comic writers filling the places of pioneers who had been promoted to editors. And this new generation was young enough to be part of the highly political counterculture protesting the Vietnam War. But protests weren’t really O’Neil’s style.
DENNY O’NEIL: I was never going to be a fiery leader and overthrow The Man. But I felt I should do something, and I had access to comic books, and I kind of had been given a blank slate.
ANDREW PARSONS: Green Lantern had been created in the early ’40s and was basically an intergalactic cop. To Denny O’Neil, he was an establishment guy, always busy fighting villains in other galaxies for an ancient alien police force. So O’Neil decided that the series would bring Lantern down from space and educate him about what was going on in America, racism, drugs, violence, pollution. But he also wanted a more anti-establishment voice of justice, so he revived another ’40s superhero, one that looked a lot like Robin Hood, Green Arrow.
DENNY O’NEIL: Green Arrow represented the counterculture. For him, authority would damn well have to prove itself.
ANDREW PARSONS: But what really made the Green Lantern/Green Arrow alliance different was the villains. Previously, Green Lantern had fought powerful aliens and mad scientists. One of his nemeses had a bulging oversized brain with telekinetic powers. Denny O’Neil’s new portrait of evil looked quite a bit different.
DENNY O’NEIL: He’s overweight, he sneers, he smokes a big smelly cigar, and he reeks arrogance.
ANDREW PARSONS: The bad guy he’s describing? A slum lord. In the series’ first issue, an evil inner city building owner named Jubal Slade is trying to evict African American tenants. At first, Green Lantern sides with him, only to be called a Nazi by Green Arrow. But Lantern’s eyes are eventually opened.
DENNY O’NEIL: And one of the people who lives in this ghetto is saying, I’ve been reading about you, how you work for the blue skins, how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins. You’ve done considerable for the purple skins. The only other skins you never bothered with, the black skins. I want to know, how come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern. And in the last panel, Green Lantern, with his head bowed, saying, I can’t. And the rest of it is Green Lantern going against this slum lord.
ANDREW PARSONS: But that doesn’t mean he uses many superpowers. After the slum lord hires men to kill the two superheroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow team up with the local district attorney to help take Slade down.
DENNY O’NEIL: That kind of set the tone for the rest of the series.
ANDREW PARSONS: Honestly, when I read this issue it struck me as kind of like an afterschool special, a bit cheesy and oddly overt. There is a bunch of action and adventure, the Green Arrow is also prone to these mini speeches about injustice. In one, he starts out with a line about how a good black man was killed in Memphis and a good white man in Los Angeles. Here’s Denny O’Neil describing the rest.
DENNY O’NEIL: Something is wrong. Something is killing us all. Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls. In the background behind Green Arrow is Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
BRADFORD WRIGHT: Well, the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series got a lot of attention.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is historian Bradford Wright. He wrote a book on the history of comics.
BRADFORD WRIGHT: The mainstream press ran a lot of stories on it, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek. And the term that came out of this, coined by the media anyway, was relevance to characterize these comic books that had, quote, “grown up.”
ANDREW PARSONS: The series wasn’t the first in the relevance trend. But Green Lantern/Green Arrow possessed more gall. It was directly calling out authority figures for acts of injustice. And it didn’t take long for politicians to recognize the utility of comic books for their own messaging campaigns. New York City mayor John Lindsay bought a page in DC Comics, and the Nixon administration asked Marvel to put an anti-drug message in Spiderman, a message Green Lantern and Green Arrow were quick to pick up on.
BRADFORD WRIGHT: And not too subtly. You had on the cover of Green Lantern/Green Arrow Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick, shooting up with heroin. And Green Arrow discovers that his sidekick is a junkie.
ANDREW PARSONS: Though the series had critical acclaim, it only lasted a few years. By the mid ’70s, the industry was ready to move on.
DENNY O’NEIL: One day I came in, and we were not going to do the book anymore.
BRADFORD WRIGHT: I think kind of the sense of what comic book superheroes are really supposed to do had been a little bit muddled during the whole relevance trend. Essentially, I think comic book makers had concluded that their readers wanted less proselytizing and more punching from their superheroes.
ANDREW PARSONS: In other words, superheroes had kind of stopped being superheroes. These days, Green Lantern’s still around. But he’s flying without his liberal partner and is battling outside supervillains again. In the 2011 Green Lantern movie, one of the members of the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps warns of an evil lifeforce that’s–
SINESTRO: An enemy we don’t yet fully understand. We do know it’s powerful enough to destroy entire civilizations.
ANDREW PARSONS: It’s a far cry from the villains of the relevance trend, where bad guys were recognizable people with recognizable agendas. Now, in the age of the War on Terror, government surveillance, and the great recession, maybe we’re just more comfortable with villains in the shadows, ones we don’t fully understand.
ED: Andrew Parsons is one of our producers. You can read more about that 1970s relevance trend in Bradford Wright’s book, Comic Book Nation. We’ll post a link to that, along with a few frames from the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, at backstoryradio.org.