It may be virtual but it still counts.
It may be true that politics being injected into comics is nothing new. People love to bring up Captain America for example. The problem is HOW it’s done. Back in the old days it was usually subtle and tried to be fair to all sides even if the author was clearly picking one over the other. These days none of that is true. Political points of view seem to be the dominant reason any decision is made, from changing characters to creating new characters to how the enemy is depicted to who is hired to work on the thing in the first place. It’s heavy handed but not really properly examined and at times you risk making the hero look bad and end up being raked over the coals by a liberal black man who uses a cartoon character for his avatar. By the way, go watch Just Some Guy’s reviews. They’re hilarious and make a good point.
That point is you CAN discuss politics and make a statement. Superhero stories are at least in part science fiction and sci-fi has always been a good way to discuss the world around us and make commentary while still telling a good story. That doesn’t mean the reader will always agree. According to most science fiction my religion is a lie, and I certainly don’t agree with that. Star Wars doesn’t get into that but both Star Trek and Doctor Who, two of my favorite franchises, have been telling me that for as long as I’ve been watching them. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the stories, just that I disagreed with their sentiment. The question is how you do it right?
In 1970 writer Denny O’Neil decided to make some political commentary in the pages of Green Lantern in a multi-issue arc that saw Hal Jordan and Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen go on a road trip so Hal could experience the “real world” or some junk. It began in issue #76 and it’s a story that features a rather infamous panel of Hal being called out for not helping people of a certain skin color. I always wondered about the context so when I had the chance I looked into the digital posting on comiXology. I think it was a part of a set of comics put up for free after O’Neil’s passing, though I don’t remember if that was the reason for its inclusion. Well, it’s time to actually look at the story to see how well it holds up and to get proper context for that scene.
Green Lantern (co-starring Green Arrow) #76
DC Comics (April, 1970)
“No Evil Shall Escape My Sight”
WRITER: Denny O’Neil
ARTIST: Neil Adams
no colorist credited
LETTERER: John Costanza
EDITOR: Julius Schwartz
And just a heads up. We’re going to be doing a lot more sociopolitical talk here than usual. You may hear perspectives you agree with and ones you don’t. If you can’t read both with an open mind (and that’s is NOT the same as agreeing with it, just understanding where the other person is actually coming from…something people on Twitter refuse to do) you aren’t going to enjoy this. Because yes, some of my views have to come out as well. I’m doing a review and while I may make jokes and discuss how the story is being told I am going to have thoughts here. Getting the discussion going was hopefully what O’Neil was trying to do here. So you have been warned, here’s the review.
The comic opens with one of those splash pages comics used to have where there’d be some teaser image and a narration that dramatically teased the story to come. I don’t miss these. That’s a role better performed by a good comic cover. It’s better to do something more like a cold open. For example that issue of Batman I reference so much just started on a street corner with the upcoming murder victim asking for change. The narration still adds flavor to the scene, which is what good narration should do since you can already see and “hear” what’s going on, but doesn’t waste time getting you to read the story. You’re already reading the comic because the cover got you to flip through it and you liked what you saw, so you bought it (I hope), brought it home or to school or to your barracks or wherever you went, and started reading it. You don’t need this opening page. Just start the darn story!
The story finally starts with Hal coming to Star City because something was bothering Green Arrow last time he saw his friend and he’s concerned. He sees this guy roughing up some overweight guy and assumes it’s another punk hassling an innocent man. It’s not quite that simple, but Hal has to go with what he sees. So he tries to keep the “punk” from attacking the fat guy and uses a ring construct to send him to jail, which they just did back then. “A guy just showed up in a glowing green cage. Must be the bad guy. Put him in the cell with the dude who got hit with a cream pie arrow.”
This gets the citizens around them mad at Green Lantern, and Green Arrow as well. It turns out the fat guy was a bad person. Except technically he’s not a criminal. He’s a jerk as we’ll see, but he wasn’t the criminal and Green Lantern is a space cop assigned to Earth and a member of the Justice League. Ollie is usually depicted as a more liberal/progressive type so I understand both points of view here. To Hal the kid was breaking the law. Ollie on the other hand is thinking of the boy’s grandmother, who now has no one to help her as the kid left his job to take care of her.
Hal points out that the kid broke the law by attacking the man but Ollie defends him by telling Hal that the kid was just mad at the guy. He’s a slumlord who wants to knock the place down for that most infamous of reasons places got torn down back then…a parking lot. Three years after this story there would be a gas shortage so hardly anybody would be driving these cars but…where are they supposed to be going parking out here? We don’t see any kind of business that people would flock to. Is it that close to downtown Star City? At least tear it down for better housing, or threaten to raise the rent if he does actually make the building worth living in, but the parking lot reasoning just never stops sounding like an odd business move. But I wouldn’t be born for another few years so maybe I missed something.
Hal defends himself by saying he had a job to do, and to a point I side with Hal. An actual cop would have broken things up since the only “assault” we see is the kid pushing him down. The right response would be send the kid on his way and try to convince the man not to make things worse by demanding charges. Police officers are supposed to keep the peace and one shove doesn’t necessarily mean the immediate response is to ring them to jail. Hal acted a bit hasty there but should have tried to separate him. As the closest thing to a cop there at the time, that was Hal’s job…and technically Green Arrow’s as well. Instead Green Arrow’s response is “Seems I’ve heard that line before…at the Nazi war trials!”, emphasis made by the comic. You know who else does their job, Ollie? SUPERHEROES! Which supposedly you are. If this guy is such a jerk, and he is, this is only going to further encourage him to not listen to you and go ahead with this. What the slumlord is doing may be immoral but it’s not illegal and there are other solutions. Heck, your rich! Buy the place from him and fix it up nice while not charging rent. Heck, give to them for free and you cover the taxes. I don’t care, it’s your building now! But comparing a cop who only saw one guy attacking another, with no idea who they are to the NAZIS? Seriously? Ollie’s Twitter feed is not something I want to read.
And then here it comes, folks.
In that vein what has he done for the white skins? Save the planet both the white, black, and various other randomly assigned color skins live on multiple times. I’m sure black people keep money in a bank Green Lantern stopped from being robbed or that black people were in the path of some natural disaster Green Lantern stopped. I’m sure he’s rescued black people before. What do you exactly expect him to do? Green Arrow is the street level hero, Green Lantern is the interplanetary space cop who protects an entire sector of space, not just one planet. He can’t stop racism, by now black people had the right to vote and all the “whites” only garbage was nonexistent and illegal. (Sure, some jackasses found ways to continue it but the point is they didn’t have the legal authority behind them anymore.) By the way, the kid that was sent to jail WAS A WHITE KID! It makes more sense to ask what Hal has done for the poor or downtrodden, but again that’s Green Arrow’s gig. Hal doesn’t do the street level threats because that’s not where he operates. It’s like asking why the doctor who goes around the world to impoverished nations to give free eye surgery to sick children isn’t running the clinic in downtown Detroit.
This comment causes Hal to “look into his own soul, and his life changes…” but he asks the same question I did. What is he supposed to do about it? He can’t stop racism any more than Superman can stop all war. You can’t regulate hate, you can only combat it with love and logic. Racism is illogical since it’s based on a shade of melanin because someone’s ancestor was born in a different meteorological climate and by God or adaptation, whichever you follow, was born with a different skin color or eye shape or nose size. Racism has no basis in common sense and neither does grouping everyone together by these unimportant differences. My Transformers are less organized than the whole racial divide. And the “answer” to Hal’s question? “I’m no advice committee…if you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way.” In other words you don’t know how to solve the problem either so just dump it on the guy who risks his life day after day testing airplane safety, protecting the world from destruction, and fighting guys who tattoos come to life and kill you. That’s hardly being part of the solution.
Ollie at least has…something resembling an idea, keep the people from getting kicked out. How exactly? He’s a space cop and test pilot. He can’t honestly do anything except what he comes up with…talk to the landlord. Not surprisingly a slumlord isn’t exactly easy to convince to do something honest, especially in a fictional story meant to attack such people.
Hal being Hal (though surprisingly he goes through the whole story without being knocked unconscious) he starts getting mad when the greedy scumbag won’t listen and goes to attack him himself. Granted this is AFTER he orders his goons to escort him out forcefully when we don’t see him ask Hal to leave after inviting him to stay initially. Still, unlike the kid from earlier who just shoved him and could have gotten off had Hal not decided to immediately send him to jail what Hal was about to do is assault, and would be police brutality on any other planet. As it is there are still rules that superheroes must follow even in the DC universe, so scummy as the slumlord is the Guardians are right to interfere, sending Hal on a mission that even he knows is just meant to help him cool off. It’s Hal Jordan. That isn’t happening, so once the task is technically done he doesn’t stay behind as ordered (defending Saturn’s moon from asteroids is hardly a priority task) and returns to Earth. It’s not the first time Hal has violated orders and it won’t be the last, right Hal?
Of course we are talking about the Guardians. I’m pretty sure the stick has gone so far up its tickling their brains. They don’t even give Hal a chance to speak in his own defense. Yes, slumlord (his name is Jubal Slade…what white parent names their kid Jubal unless they’re in Hollywood?) didn’t commit a crime (though putting their hands on an officer would count for the goons…not sure if that applies to superheroes and GL’s police authority isn’t recognized on any country on Earth) and Hal did need to cool of (when doesn’t he) but they also accuse him of attacking his “brother Earthling”, forgetting Earth is made up of many different cultures and opinions…something that according to virtually every sci-fi story I’ve read or watched is the only planet in existence where this happens. Plus assuming the Guardians are in the wrong is usually the correct default opinion.
Ollie on the other hand doesn’t have a better plan. Remember, he’s rich enough to just buy the property from Slade in his secret identity and then do whatever he wants. Fix it up, offer free rent, give it time-travel abilities (he’s in the Justice League, he knows people)…whatever. His solution instead is a sting operation. That’s a different green guy’s job, Ollie. He decides to pull the old protection racket scheme on Jubal hoping he’ll be betrayed. Again, wrong crimefighter in a green costume. Sure enough he sends goons to assassinate him and Green Arrow stops them, but the tape recorder is accidentally shot and thus the evidence is gone as well. Good failing, Queen. Get this, when he’s talking to Hal in the next scene he actually thought Jubal was going to come himself. This isn’t your first day on the job! I can find you a small child who saw that coming.
Oh, there’s one now.
Here’s where we come to the full burn on the “evil developer” idea. Yes, we have him hiring assassins. He’s not just a jerk, he has to be a criminal or else he can’t get his comeuppance. I guess Ollie already checked on the historic landmark option, had a “save the slum” rally that didn’t work, and he still isn’t putting up any of his own money. Okay, at this point I have to check, so if you wrote “this was the period Ollie was broke and fighting crime on the street” you clearly did not read the whole article before clicking “post comment” and that’s always a bad idea. At least I’m being honest on having to do research during the article. This time Hal and Ollie work together to get Jubal to confess to the hit on Green Arrow, and right in earshot of the district attorney. You know, the right way to handle this…for the first time in this story. Jubal pulls out a grenade he has because and threatens to blow everyone up before he loses his freedom. Hal uses a giant hand to flick it through a window. At least it wasn’t a boxing glove.
This is where the story could end but then the Guardians call again, angry Hal left. Now maybe Hal was going to say “but if I hadn’t we couldn’t have proven the slumlord was also a man hiring assassins and we’re pretty sure he was going to blow the block up wearing a monster costume because I know guys who deal with both on the regular” but Ollie has to open his big mouth first, yelling at Hal first for groveling (aka apologizing for disobeying orders even though in this case he was right to do so and even the Guardians of Oa can be reasoned with…eventually) and then demanding that only street level crime matters, and to give up saving the galaxy and protecting America…which resides in the galaxy and if does so it means giving up being a Green Lantern because the Guardians need someone defending ALL of Sector 2814 not just one portion of one planet. Plus you know….ALL THE OTHER HEROES FIGHTING STREET LEVEL CRIME THAT ARE PART OF THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (at the time that was the name) AND LETTING THE HERO WHO PROTECT OTHER PEOPLE DO HIS JOB! Basically Ollie, the left-leaning hero, is saying “screw everyone else, just protect your own”, which I don’t think is exactly the message he wants out there.
I will give Ollie credit for one thing though, because I give credit where it’s due. He also comes down (less harshly surprisingly) on the Guardian on the space phone for being all up and mighty with no understanding of humanity. The Guardians do have a nasty habit of seeing things from too far on their high sticks and not understanding the “lesser” people. Kind of like Congress. So Ollie suggests if they’re going to put Earth on their list of places to protect, maybe come check out what it’s actually like (from his point of view of course). And even more shocking he agrees with them. Would not have placed money on that. After a week an unnamed Guardian (I assume he gets one by next issue) is chosen to disguise himself as an Earth man and joins Hal and Ollie on a road trip to discover the “real” America. I’m sure nothing will go wrong in Star City while he’s out exploring everywhere else instead of fighting evil at home.
Well, I’m sure this road trip helped BOTH heroes to see how hard life is and how difficult it is to cope with and he’ll be compassionate and understanding while getting Roy the help he…
The compassionate guardian of the everyman, people! At least Roy gets better eventually. Until you know who takes over the publishing.
This comic is kind of a mixed bad. For every right there’s a wrong. Ollie is treated as being right even when he isn’t. Hal is treated as being wrong when he isn’t. So when Ollie is actually right and Hal is actually wrong you can hardly tell. The Guardians are about the same…unfortunately…and the message is “screw everyone else because you should only take care of your own” even though there are plenty of people working on that problem while someone needs to also take on the larger enemies of humanity and beyond. Green Arrow works as a street level hero. So does Batman. For Superman or Green Lantern this doesn’t work (despite Superman’s beginnings things changed before he reached his iconic status). Someone also has to protect the planet from external threats in the DC universe and fight the mad scientists and bug-eyed monsters running around our planet. The story seems to reject certain kinds of heroes, those who aren’t street level. There is a place and need for both kinds of heroes both within the DC universe and among the DC comic titles.
As for the message sent I don’t think it succeeds either. Hal is chided for not helping the “black skins” while helping other colors in space, but he’s not told how he can handle it without being the villain, and even that wouldn’t solve the real problem. And yet the story isn’t about racism. It’s about a slumlord in his legal rights but not his moral rights. It’s about helping the poor, not the black man. Instead of showing some “larger issue” it just comes out of nowhere. It demands people do something, but offers no solutions. What we get otherwise is a standard story about a criminal that just happens to be a slumlord looking to build a parking lot. While Jubal Slade isn’t a strawman he is a cliché and one-note. Nothing is interesting about him. He’s just there to get Hal and unnamed Guardian to go with Ollie around the country to see the world from his eyes, and I am a bit curious if his point of view is treated as the only one that matters. Plus it sets up what happens to Roy and leads that character down a bad path he only just comes out of.
It’s not a bad comic but I do think it’s maybe overhyped for that one scene, and it’s a scene that doesn’t work in the DC universe, not with a Green Lantern. There are plenty of heroes in the DC universe you can use to alert the reader to real-world problems but to do so without cheapening that issue or preaching to your audience without entertaining them in the process turns off even those on your side. That’s what we’re dealing with in modern comics, but that used to be the exception. This skirts that line and the story suffers for it while the message is lost in the confusion. In the end it solves nothing and entertains nobody, and it’s worse now than it is here. It’s not terrible but it’s not one I can honestly recommend.