Hard Travelling Heroes
by Rupert Griffin
Rethinking the Sixties: O'Neil and Adams'
INTRODUCTION: COMICS AS POLITICAL PROPAGANDA
Green Arrow II is the only superhero with a political point of view. Granted, it was sometimes hard to tell what that point of view was - Green Arrow never espoused a coherent political philosophy, eg, something which was recognisably and definitely Marxism or liberalism or anarchism - but it was anti-authoritarian and socially aware. That separated him from the other superheroes. The other Leaguers - including Green Lantern II - may have had vague conservative beliefs (which revolved around the notion of the goodness of virtue, decency and a faith in authority and the status quo), but political and social beliefs were never as essential to their characterisations as they were to Arrow's.
This trend began during the Hard-traveling heroes run on the Green Lantern-Green Arrow book from around 1970 to 1971. After O'Neil and Adams got their hands on Ollie, he became a moralising, cantankerous, undisciplined, occasionally sanctimonious and overbearing hero who made all the other Justice Leaguers look like the bunch of stuffed shirts they were (God bless them). He is instantly recognisable - by his signature slangy eloquence and his mixture of ranting and whining. He is the superhero as the sixties and seventies hipster (and he was as equally socially conscious in the eighties, the Reagan era).
I wish that the writers at DC had taken this politicisation further. As I get older, I want to read books and comics, and even listen to rock music, with a point of view: I much prefer Ayn Rand (although I don't agree with her politics) to Stephen King or John Grisham; I much prefer Jack London or Sinclair Lewis or any other socialist writer to any modern American novelist writing today. I don't like Rage against the Machine's music, or their Marxism (or any Marxism, for that matter): all the same, what a relief their music and their video clips are - something with a message instead of the usual, petulant post-Kurt Cobain introspective self-absorption which we find in their grunge-playing contemporaries.
Now, wouldn't it be interesting to read a full-bore anarchist issue of Green Arrow (O'Neil classifies Green Arrow as an anarchist), in which Ollie quotes Kropotkin and Bakunin, or even Noam Chomsky, in long speeches? Why not portray, in the Legion of Superheroes, a 30th-century Earth overrun by world communism, with pictures of Lenin and Marx hanging everywhere? (That 30th century architecture always did look totalitarian). Wouldn't it be more interesting than the usual superhero slam-bang thank-you ma'am? I'd much rather read a comic about the horrors of life under communism, because this would connect to reality, to the world. A dose of worldliness was what made Hard traveling heroes so refreshing, so innovative.
THEMES IN HARD-TRAVELLING HEROES
Here I'll go take the reader through stories in the Hard-traveling heroes arc which addressed political and social topics of the sixties and seventies.
No evil shall escape my sight: Green Lantern goes against the strictures of the Guardians of Oa and tackles a sleazy slum landlord - a fat, obnoxious, cigar-chomping thug. (This was a stock character in sixties and seventies comics). The story features Green Arrow's first speech on the evils of poverty and slum life, and the first manisfestation of his most irritating habit of his - comparing anyone who disagrees with him to the Nazis. (The rhetoric is reminiscent of that of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the German left-wing terrorist group which around the same time launched a terrorist against the West German state for its perceived Nazi-like qualities).
We have here the famous speech from an elderly Black man who is a slum dweller:
On top of that, we have a declaration by Green Arrow a few pages later: 'On the streets of Memphis, a good Black man died... And in Los Angeles, a good White man fell... Something is wrong! Something is killing us all...! Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!' In the background of the panel, we see iconic images ofMartin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy floating behind Green Arrow's head.
But do those two men deserve to be Leftist icons? Bobby Kennedy's president brother was a hard-boiled right-wing hawk who had foreign leaders assassinated, and started the Vietnam War (in 1961; troops from my country, Australia, were sent there around 1962); we know nowadays, contrary to liberal myth, Bobby either commisserated in these goings-on or at least approved of them. I'm not debating the rights or wrongs of US foreign policy here, or Australian foreign policy for that matter: I'm merely saying that we should acknowledge political leaders as they are, or were. And this honest, unflinching examination of our political icons should extend to MLK as well - but doesn't. How many Americans know that he was a cheat who plagiarised the published work of others to gain his doctorate? (This is a deadly, deadly sin in academia - the academic equivalent of first-degree murder). Or that he was a sexual pervert (and a pretty brutal, sadistic one) and whose widow successfully lobbied the courts to bar the opening MLK's FBI file, for fear that a public knowledge of the contents wouldd 'ruin his reputation?'.
In spite of the naivete of these books, it's hard not to be carried away by the blind, counter-culture optimism: back in those days, radicals could make demands and expect them to be met - they didn't feel the need to compromise for the sake of political expediency. Ralph Nader's feckless but noble candidacy for president in 2000 recalled this spirit.
Journey to Desolation: This is an intriguing fantasy set in a mining-town, Desolation, which is cut off from the outside world. It's run by an Evil Cigar-Smoking Capitalist, Mr Slapper Soames, and his gang of ex-Nazis. (That's right, ex-Nazis - who are portrayed here as bumbling, incompetent and stupid Germans like those in Hogan's Heroes. O'Neil is here drawing on a typical New Left theme: the connection between Capitalism and Fascism - a theme, coincidentally (?) enough, which was made great use of in Soviet propaganda). Slapper controls the courts and everything else in Desolation, and rules the town with an iron fist; the miners are miserable, poor, ignorant, oppressed, and so on. But they are stirred into action by Johnny Walden, a guitar-strumming protest singer, who Soames believes may even get famous like 'that other singer... That Dylan fella!' and so has to be killed for fear he may blow the lid off Soames' operation.
Despite the story's stupidity, it works: I suppose Adams' stellar artwork, and O'Neil's taking the story very seriously, does lend the story a dose of realism. It's not hard to imagine that a small, isolated town - with strange goings-on - is tucked away somewhere in America, that enormous continent filled with wonderful things and strange people. (In fact, you can find plenty of such towns in American pop culture lore - with names like Providence, Twin Peaks, Salem's Lot, and so on).
A kind of loving way of death: This is the Charles Manson-cult story. Black Canary is waylaid by a gang of bikers and left to die, and ends up in the care of Joshua, a bearded cult-leader, who brainwashes her and some young groovy hipsters.
Interestingly, O'Neil shows that Joshua, like Manson, plans to use murders to trigger off a race war: 'Such has been the course of history in this nation that the White man and the non-White man are enemies... It is a pity that we must kill--! But we have no choice-- those of White ancestry and the others can no longer share the same land... To survive, we must make corpses of the Red man... The Black man.. The Yellow man... Now is the time! We strike our first blow for peace... We descend upon the Indian village like avenging gods-- and leaving nothing... alive!' In other words, Joshua is a hippified version of Theodore Roosevelt - that racialist and Social Darwinist US president who viewed the Indians with contempt.
At the end of the story, when Black Canary is de-brainwashed through her love for Green Arrow, Ollie explains in a Stan Lee-like homily: 'Maybe when we get you straightened out, we'll learn something... Maybe we'll finally know how maniacs like Joshua can come to be... How they can seize the hearts of decent people and fill them with the poison of hate... of bigotry!'
This story does go into Black Canary's origin - the Bronze Age Black Canary's, that is. Dinah Drake Lance, in case we've forgotten (and I suspect we all have) was from Earth-2; after her husband, dies saving her life from Aquarius, a 'star creature' (which looks like a giant meatball) in a Justice League-Justice Society team-up, she relocates to Earth-1. It's fun reading about that here and I wish that DC would bring this old origin back.
Ulysses Star is still alive!: You can't say that you didn't know this was coming: an Indian story, or to put it more accurately, an Indian reservation story. Once, this noble tribe roamed where the buffalo roamed, and now they die in reservations - and evil White businessman try to defraud them of what little land they have left... You know it all: you've heard it a thousand times.
I won't go into the plot here: what I will do is address the depiction of minorities, such as Indians and Blacks, by O'Neil (and, by extension, other comic book writers). Why is it we never see a bad Black character - eg, one who takes drugs, fathers illegitimate children and then abandons them, is dependent on welfare, and is always getting in trouble with the law, just like that Black protagonist in the hit tune by Afroman, ''Til I got high'? Usually whenever an Afroman makes his way into the comics, we see a good, upstanding Black character - eg, a Cyborg, a Black Lightning - moralising to him, telling him to change his act, to lift his game because the reputation of all Afro-Americans depends on it.
It's an old, old cliché; and what I've said here can be said of the portrayal of good and noble Indians as well - no negatives (unless properly qualified), only positives. Minorities such as Blacks, Indians and members of the working class (?!!) are sacrosanct; evil White capitalists are not - and even upstanding superheroes like Green Lantern are shown to have feet of clay. (Especially in this period, in which - and I swear to God this is true - Lois Lane took special chemicals which changed her into a Black woman so she could see how the other half lived).
Even an immortal can die!: This story manages to combine two themes - environmentalism and injustice in the legal system. The Guardian accompanying GL and GA through their tour of America is forced to choose between saving GL's life and disposing of some toxic waste. By choosing the former, the Guardian gets in trouble with his superiors. He, GL and GA are sent to Gallo, a planet which is an intergalatic space court, where the Guardian will be judged by a group of space judges called the Tribune. I won't give away the story; suffice to say, the Guardian does end up getting a fair trial in the end, which dovetails into the next story-
Death be my destiny! : Here the Guardian is found guilty, stripped of his immortality, and exiled to the planet Maltus. This is a classic, classic story.
Maltus is an incredibly overpopulated planet. O'Neil is, of course, tipping his hat to the 18th century British economist, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who believed that all living things were subject to excessive over-breeding, which led to a scarcity of food. In turn, the scarcity of food led to much misery, which could only be curtailed by the three constraints on overbreeding - famine, disease and war.
One of the reasons the theory is important is the place it holds in the thinking of Charles Darwin: as we know, species, according to Darwin, are in engaged in a brutal struggle with one another to survive, always in competition for scarce food - and why? Because, according to Darwin, Malthus was right: there is too much population.
And life on Maltus is certainly miserable. O'Neil and Adams portray a grim state of Darwinian struggle among the residents of that planet:
Let it be said that O'Neil was a great, great comics writer in his prime (and Hard-travelling heroes was written in his prime): this story is a classic. It's one of the reasons why I love comics.
How do you fight a nightmare?: This is a story concerning feminism. The plot is detailed, even convoluted, for such a brief story - nowadays, DC would have spread it over three or four issues. The story concerns a race of space Amazons and harpies led by a queen: once, an evil wizard proposed marriage to the Queen, but was rejected by the Queen and laughed at by the assembled Amazons (oh, I know how that feels!). The wizard, in revenge, banishes them to a surreal, chaotic, Daliesque otherworldly dimension.
How all this ties in to Green Lantern and Green Arrow, you'll have to find out for yourself. Take note here that the feminist characters are characterised as harpies, Amazons and gorgons (so, what's your point, Denny?) and that although Dinah is in feminist mode at the start of the story, by the end of it she has seen through feminism and fights to defend the man she loves.
It's a very good anti-feminist story. I find it curious that O'Neil had written an anti-feminist tale here: it's a departure from the other stories in the arc. Still, having seen footage of feminist activists from those dark days, I understand why any male, even a liberal one, would be compelled against the dictates of his liberal conscience to reject it. (The reader may think that I'm dumping on women's rights and equality between the sexes, but I assure him or her, feminism is not about those things: feminism is about 'womyn' and 'patriarchy' and is horrible. Sceptics are advised to attend a university or college with a Women's Studies course. Be afraid, be very afraid).
TO SUM UP
Unfortunately, I haven't read the remaining six stories in the arc. This is my fault: I once had the chance to buy the second volume of Hard Traveling Heroes, but didn't. (I'm kicking myself now, of course). This means I missed out on the famous Roy Harper junkie two-parter, and the first appearance of John Stewart, Green Lantern. (The Roy Harper story is important because DC has relied on that, and nothing else -- with the exception of Harper's relationship with the Asian assassin, Cheshire -- for the past ten or so years to characterise Roy. There's not much to him anymore except that history of drug addiction).
You've got to love Hard Traveling Heroes for the following: it has art by Neal Adams; it has a point of view; it has Ollie and Hal and all the rest of the Bronze Age DC cast. And DC has never equalled it, certainly not in the nineties. (In the remainder of the seventies, O'Neil and Mike Grell did GL/GA books in the Adams style which were as nearly as good. I'm fortunate enough to own two or three issues and feel that all of the GL/GA stories from this time ought to be reprinted). This is why I say that if you don't have the series in your collection, then your collection is incomplete - as incomplete as it is without Bob Layton's run on Iron Man, Perez and Wolfman's run on the New Teen Titans, Walt Simonson's run on Thor... Buy Hard Traveling Heroes if you see it, and dare dream that DC one day will reach these heights again.
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This piece is © 2001 by Rupert Griffin.
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