Many of comics’ most popular heroes have been around for decades, and in the case of the big names from the publisher now known as DC Comics, some have been around for a sizable chunk of a century. As these characters passed through the different historical eras known in comics as the Golden Age (the late 1930s through the early 1950s), the Silver Age (the mid 1950s through the late 1960s), the Bronze Age (the early 1970s through the mid 1980s) and on into modern times, they have experienced considerable changes in tone and portrayal that reflect the zeitgeist of the time.
With this feature we’ll help you navigate the very best stories of DC Comics’ most beloved characters decade by decade. This week, we’re taking a look at the best Green Arrow comics.
Green Arrow made his debut in 1941, in the same issue as comics' greatest hero, Aquaman, in a story by legendary editor Mort Weisinger and artist George Papp. Early era Green Arrow is notable for recycling various elements of the Batman mythos: a billionaire playboy and his youthful ward with no super-powers tool around the city in their Arrowcar (or sometimes their Arrowplane), and zoom out of the Arrow Cave whenever the commissioner lights the Arrow Signal.
What Green Arrow was missing that Batman stories had was elements of darkness and the grotesque. Green Arrow stories, most of which were around six pages, had no time to develop atmosphere or mystery, and mostly focused on the visual punch that came with trick arrows and other high tech gadgets. Green Arrow also mostly fought one-off, anonymous gangsters who usually employed sci-fi gadgets themselves, with very few recurring villains.
The major exception to this rule was Bull's Eye, a clown-themed, riddle-leaving villain with a target on his chest who did little to quell comparisons to Batman. Nevertheless, this story contains a real visual verve due to the art of Papp, who is able to get a lot of mileage out of Bull's Eye's target-shape motif. The story is a fun little caper that sees Green Arrow gleefully setting a trap for his foe.
Best of the rest: “The Green Arrow” (More Fun Comics #73), “The Silent City” (More Fun Comics #74), “The Secret of the Centuries” (More Fun Comics #76), “Doom Over Gayland” (More Fun Comics #77), “The Archer from the Zodiac” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #120), “Date With Diana” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #111), “Unhappy Birthday to You” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #137)
1950s: “The Green Arrow's Mystery Pupil”
Green Arrow continued as an anthology feature through the '40s and on into the '60s, moving from More Fun Comics to Adventure Comics to World's Finest. Perhaps the most notable thing to happen to Green Arrow during this time — apart from the simple fact of continuing as a superhero feature during the '50s when most superheroes were disappearing (perhaps, like Aquaman, due to the simple fact of keeping his head down as a journeyman backup feature; perhaps, also like Aquaman, because he was the creation of editor Mort Weisinger) — was that a series of eleven stories were drawn by Jack Kirby.
As much as I would like to have chosen one of Kirby's tales for this decade, the crown for the 1950s has to go to “Mystery Pupil,” a story in which Green Arrow trains a millionaire philanthropist in the use of his trick arrows and in which he most clearly explains his pacifist philosophy. The story here flows beautifully, with satisfying set-ups and payoffs. Plus, when this story was reprinted in 1965, Mort Weisinger said flat out that it was the best Green Arrow story to have been published to that point, and who am I to argue with Mort Weisinger.
Best of the rest: “The World's Worst Archer” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #263), “The Case of the Green Error Clown” (World's Finest Comics vol 1 #100), “1001 Ways to Defeat Green Arrow” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #174), “The Mystery of the Giant Arrows”/”Prisoners of Dimension Zero!” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #252-253), “The Green Arrow's First Case” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #256), “The World's Three Most Dangerous Arrows” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #248), “The Puzzle of the Five Queens” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #203)
1960s: “The Senator's Been Shot!”
Green Arrow joined the Justice League in 1960, the team's first non-founding member, which is fortunate, because GA's solo feature in World's Finest would end with #140 in 1964, and he would not be a solo feature again until, well, he became part of a duet, which we'll get to in a second.
That revitalization of the character might not have happened without “The Senator's Been Shot,” in which artist Neal Adams introduced his redesign for Green Arrow, featuring his now-trademark Van Dyck beard and sleeveless turtleneck costume that somehow still works. This redesign would inspire a shake up of Green Arrow's status quo in the pages of Justice League, having Oliver Queen lose his vast fortune, gain a social conscience, and fall in love with a certain pretty bird from Earth-2.
There is more to this issue than just a great costume redesign, however, as both Batman's and Green Arrow's secret identities are at stake when a senator's son is kidnapped following an assassination attempt on the senator himself. The Caped Crusader and the Emerald Archer have to team up to rescue their mutual friend in time for Bruce Wayne to vote in the senator's stead on a crucial anti-crime bill.
Best of the rest: “The Comic Book Archer” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #269), “In Each Man There Is a Demon” (Justice League of America vol 1 #75), “Wanted—The Capsule Master!” (The Brave and the Bold vol 1 #50), “Doom of the Star Diamond” (Justice League of America vol 1 #4), “The Crimes of the Clock King” (World's Finest Comics vol 1 #111), “The Amazing Miss Arrowette” (World's Finest Comics vol 1 #113)
1970s: “Hard Traveling Heroes”
Following the Neal Adams redesign and the inspiration Denny O'Neil took from it, the two creators teamed up to join Green Arrow with Green Lantern in a new co-feature that would revolutionize comics in the way that it incorporated socially relevant issues such as race, the environment, drugs, and totalitarianism. In this series of stories, the two heroes decide to pull an Easy Rider and hop in a truck to “find America.” Much of the appeal of this series comes from the contrast between Green Arrow's newly minted anarchic and fiery personality and Green Lantern's cool-headed dedication to working within the confines of the establishment.
Perhaps the best known story of this era, issues #85-86's “Snowbirds Don't Fly,” saw O'Neil and Adams tackle the issue of youth drug use through the revelation that Green Arrow's ward and sidekick Speedy was a heroin addict. The story won awards and even garnered a letter of commendation from the mayor of New York. While much of this milestone run of stories might seem dated to modern readers, nevertheless its mark on the superhero genre has been indelible, and, boy, it's hard to beat that art.
Best of the rest: “Where Strikes Demonfang?” (Justice League of America vol 1 #94), “What Can One Man Do?” (Green Lantern vol 1 #87), “World of Faceless Slaves” (World's Finest Comics vol 1 #210), “Magic Is Bustin' Out All Over” (Action Comics vol 1 #437), “The Killing of an Archer” (Flash vol 1 #217-219), “The Plot to Kill Black Canary” (Action Comics vol 1 #428)
1980s: “The Longbow Hunters”
More than forty years after his first appearance, Green Arrow finally appeared as the solo title feature in his own book, an (underrated) four-issue mini-series by Mike W. Barr and Trevor von Eeden, which pitted him against Count Vertigo, a character now so associated with the Battling Bowman that there are like seven or eight different versions of him on Arrow.
But the biggest thing to happen to Green Arrow was in his post-Crisis relaunch, which saw the character rebooted in a more realistic and mature direction in the 1987 mini-series The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell. This story features an Oliver Queen — his arrows now realistically only pointy, and no longer feature boxing gloves or handcuffs or nuclear warheads — who is seeking revenge on drug-runners who attacked Black Canary, and also introduces Japanese archer Shado, who would become a major part of the Green Arrow mythos.
Following this three-issue mini-series, Grell would go on to write the first ongoing Green Arrow series for eighty issues, in which he would remove most of the superhero trappings of the character, moving him from the fake-sounding Star City to the slightly less fake-sounding “Seattle,” and not ever referring to the superhero characters who appeared in the book by their superhero names.
1990s: “Imaginary Stories”
Following Grell's departure, most of the superhero trappings he had removed were put back until the most superhero thing possible happened to Ollie in issue #101 of his title: he died. For the next three years, the star of the series would be Ollie's previously unknown son, Connor Hawke, as a replacement Green Arrow whose quiet, sedate personality served as a contrast to his firebrand father. Connor would serve as star of the series until it was canceled with issue #137.
While the stories from Connor's own run are as reliably solid as you would expect from a series written by '90s-era Chuck Dixon, the best Connor Hawke story is this two-parter from JLA, which saw a solo Green Arrow trapped on the Justice League Watchtower with a villain who has taken down the entire League single-handedly, and the only weapons Connor can find are his dad's trick arrows in the trophy room.
Best of the rest: “Peacemakers” (Legends of the DC Universe #7-9), “The Arrow and the Bat” (Legends of the Dark Knight #127-131), “The Wonder Year” (Green Arrow: The Wonder Year #1-4), Batman/Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, “Brotherhood of the Fist” (Green Arrow vol 2 #134-135, Detective Comics vol 1 #723, Robin vol 4 #55, Nightwing vol 2 #23), “Cross Roads” (Green Arrow vol 2 #81-90)
Don't worry: no change lasts forever, and it wasn't long until Ollie was back as the one true Green Arrow. Reintroduced in a high profile series of stories by drug user and sometimes film director Kevin Smith, with art by the incomparable Phil Hester, Green Arrow had a higher profile than perhaps ever before. He became a mainstay of the Justice League, he got married, he got fake killed, he got to be fake Batman on TV, and he got his own TV show. What more could a billionaire ask for?
The most influential Green Arrow comic of this era, even more than the Kevin Smith or Brad Meltzer runs that preceded it, is Year One, in which Green Arrow's origin is revamped for an angrier, dirtier millennium. More than any other work, the excellently crafted and beautifully drawn Year One served as inspiration for the show so popular that we'll probably have a Hawkgirl TV show one day as a result of it.
And that's it for the decades we've experienced so far! The 2010s are halfway over; we'll have to see who comes out on top in five years! Will anything be able to beat “Kill Machine”? Let's find out together, shall we?