Mike Grell, |
The Longbow Hunters
(DC Comics, 1987)
In the 1980s, the graphic novel format revolutionized comics. With a focused, finite story arc, comics began to gain widespread acceptance from mainstream readers and media by telling mature, sophisticated stories that were a far cry from the simplistic costumed super-battles of the golden and silver ages. DC Comics was a leader in developing this new format, putting out landmark works such as The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, but for my money, Mike Grell's stunning masterpiece, Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, raised the bar and set the standard for every project that came after it.
Green Arrow had never been one of the big names in DC's stable of super heroes. Created in 1941, he was little more than a Batman clone who used trick arrows instead of a utility belt. In the 1970s he developed a social consciousness and lost his status as a millionaire, which boosted his popularity considerably, but it was Mike Grell's treatment that launched the character's first monthly ongoing series (which lasted 11 years) and spawned several concurrent miniseries.
The book starts out in a business-as-usual mode: Newly arrived in Seattle to start a new life, Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) and Dinah Lance (Black Canary) have little time to settle into their domestic lives before trouble beckons their vigilante alter-egos to take a bite out of the Emerald City's crime scene. For Dinah, it's a girl high on crack that comes crashing through the window of Sherwood Florist, Dinah's new flower shop. For Oliver, it's a Jack-the-Ripper wannabe who is slicing his way through the local prostitute population. To make matters worse, the 40-something Oliver confronts the fact that his ward and former sidekick, Roy Harper, now has a daughter, making him something of a grandfather.
Oliver asks Dinah to marry him and she refuses, saying their lives are much too dangerous to inflict upon a family. The next day, Oliver tracks the Seattle Slasher to the abandoned Undertown section of the city, discovering that the killer is a disturbed ex-tunnel rat from the Vietnam War. The Slasher jumps Oliver and gets away to apparently kill again, but a mysterious female archer with an elaborate dragon tattoo on her arm shoots the slasher, then a passing motorist before vanishing.
The mysterious archer that killed the Seattle Slasher is revealed to be Shado, the daughter of a Yakuza agent incarcerated during World War II, when American soldiers forced him to reveal a major cache of Yakuza gold. Dishonored, the agent killed himself in atonement, but his shame then fell upon his daughter, who (when she came of age) was charged with killing those who dishonored her father and the Yakuza. The passing motorist she killed was one of those soldiers, who used the stolen gold to build a financial empire. Oliver tracks Shado down -- or rather, Shado lets him find her, so she can judge what level of threat he poses -- and he fares poorly in the confrontation.
Nursing his wounds at home, Oliver hears on the news that the drug supplier Dinah had been investigating was found dead, mutilated, earlier that day. Panicked, Oliver races to the dockside warehouse Dinah suspected the drugs were being distributed from. There, to his horror, he finds Dinah tied up, tortured, on the verge of death with a sadistic old man preparing to finish the job -- slowly -- with a butcher knife. Without hesitation Oliver kills him -- there's quite a dramatic moment while readers wait to see the color of the killing arrow's fletching, since both Oliver and Shado are in the area at the time -- along with the others in the drug lab, including one of Shado's intended victims. For her part, Shado saves both Oliver and Dinah by shooting an overlooked drug runner.
The shocking turn of events is monumental. The graphic nature of Oliver's rage and pain is overwhelming as he instantly changes from a playboy hero who had never willingly taken a life to one that would sacrifice everything to save the woman he loves. Critics have blasted Grell for the "rape" of Dinah, but her suffering isn't glamorized, and isn't minimized -- the full impact of what she went through is felt for years to come in the following regular Green Arrow series. Of a more immediate nature, it is the pivotal event in Oliver's life. Crime fighting stops being a game, and becomes deadly serious. Oliver, too, becomes deadly serious, and while he still champions the underdog, he has far less respect -- or mercy -- for those who do evil. Disturbing and shocking, this is still one of the most powerful comic issues ever printed, and it only works because Grell succeeds in making the reader believe the characters are living, breathing people.
Of course, all this sets up the reader to tumble headlong into the unexpected -- but satisfying and appropriate -- conclusion. In a word, Longbow Hunters is excellent. The art is fantastic, easily one of the best painted comic layouts ever. Grell skillfully portrays the humanity of the main characters, which is all too often lacking in superhero comic books. Grell also has Oliver abandon the absurd trick arrows that had become Green Arrow's trademark in favor of broadheads, giving the title a more serious tone. The plot, too, is more realistic than standard comic fare, something that might be taken from today's headlines. Newcomers to the character are filled in on all the pertinent background through clever use of a photo album, and each chapter builds to an intriguing cliffhanger.
Outside of Seattle, atop Mount Rainier during the climactic final confrontation, Shado tells Oliver, "I once said you haven't the eyes of a killer. They've changed ... as have you. You can never go back. Nor can I." Chilling words. Gripping words. Real words. And that's what sets Longbow Hunters apart from all the other so-called superhero stories out there. These characters aren't super at all. They're regular people, just like you or me, and what they discover and go through could very well happen in real life. In fact, I'd be surprised if it isn't happening right now, and that says a lot.
Although the original three-issue miniseries is long out of print, Longbow Hunters has been reissued as a trade paperback. If you get a chance, pick it up. You'll be very glad that you did.