The strange case of the Emerald Archer

I’m always fascinated by the way some characters rise to “iconic” status (however you define that) and others just as good vanish into obscurity (the same often applying to their writers too, of course). Case in point: DC’s Green Arrow, who gets his own TV show this fall, following his appearances on Smallville (though the new series isn’t in the same continuity).
Millionaire Oliver Queen debuted in his Green Arrow costume in 1941 (as you can see, he wasn’t a cover-ready star). While some of my friends find the idea of a crime-fighting archer bizarre, it was a common one in the Golden Age: Along with Green Arrow (and his sidekick Speedy) we had the Huntress, the Marksman, the Archer, Young Robin Hood and the Spider (no, I’ve idea why they named a bow-and-arrow guy that). GA was simply the only one who stayed in the game (though DC revived the Spider in the 1990s).
In the original origin, millionaire Ollie Queen and orphan Roy Harper were stranded on a mesa where they survived by hunting. When criminals show up to loot some Indian antiquities, the man and boy overcome then with archery, return to civilization and fight crime (in the Golden Age, that’s about all the motivation you needed).
A later retcon had Ollie learning to hunt while stranded on a desert island; later he encountered Roy, an orphan raised by the Navajo, and took him on as his ward. Either way, he was a Batman knockoff (like many heroes back then): Crimefighting millionaire with young ward/sidekick, equipped with an Arrowcar and Arrowcave and summoned to fight crime by the Arrowsignal. Nobody I’d have imagined getting a TV series decades later—reading some of his 1950s adventures, it seems more likely he’d have vanished from comics along with DC’s Star-Spangled Kid, Mr. Terrific, Dr. Mid-Nite and countless others (though almost everyone got revived eventually).
But Ollie had one lucky edge: He was appearing as a backup to Superboy’s series in Adventure and the Superman/Batman team in World’s Finest so he didn’t have to carry a book himself (the fact he was created by Superman editor Mort Weisinger probably cinched the deal). His undistinguished series kept running into the mid-sixties, by which time he was also in the Justice League.
And then in Brave and Bold #85 and Justice League #75 [EDIT: original post didn’t include the second issue], everything changed. In the course of two issues Ollie lost his fortune, grew a beard and became an angry leftwinger (back then growing facial hair pretty much screamed “hippy/radical”). He then jumped to Green Lantern‘s book for a series of “relevant” stories that captured the zeitgeist perfectly.
The impact of those stories kept GA running for years. The political side of his character faded into a kind of cranky anti-authoritarianism but his personality—hot-tempered, thrill-seeking, cynical and snarky—kept Ollie a lot more interesting than he’d ever been before (Speedy, having become a junkie, went off in other directions before joining the super-heroic fold again).
His appearances in Smallville may have happened simply because they couldn’t work out the rights to Batman, but that luck (if that was the case) gave Green Arrow exposure to lots of people who’d probably never heard of him. The new Arrow series will probably do the same. Maybe that’s why he’s one of the characters who got his own book in the DC’s recent reboot (though making him a millionaire philanthropist who fights crime brings him back to being a Batman knockoff.)
And so, through blind chance, a friendly editor and a few landmark stories, Oliver Queen keeps going when characters who are certainly better conceptually vanished. Go figure.

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Filed under Comics, Reading

5 responses to “The strange case of the Emerald Archer

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