comics, comics criticism, dc comics, rearview mirror, writing

Green Arrow: Hunting For the Past in The Longbow Hunters

In the last few years Green Arrow as a property has become as much about the mythology of his extended cast and family as much as or more than the man himself, Oliver Queen. Whether in the CW television show where “The Arrow” is part of a larger team who assists him, or in Joshua Williamson’s new #1 which is squarely about the character’s legacy and family. But the seminal 1987 miniseries The Longbow Hunters is about Green Arrow as a man, and what it means to live a life of violence. The series becomes something like Green Arrow’s Dark Knight Returns. But writer/artist Mike Grell doesn’t have his hero saving American democracy or starting a revolution. This is a story about aging, mortality, and defining a legacy to be remembered by. And unlike Dark Knight, Longbow Hunters has become an indelible part of canon, a defining story about how Oliver Queen views himself and operates within the world.

In today’s DC Universe, Green Arrow will be remembered by his extended family and adopted (spiritually if not legally) children . But in Longbow Hunters that family is nonexistent and closed to him completely. Dinah Lance, Ollie’s longtime girlfriend and the superhero Black Canary, rejects his proposal to start a family and tells him she doesn’t want to bring children into the world just to make them an orphan. Ollies believes himself to have failed his ward and former sidekick Roy Harper, who struggled with addiction and eventually moved on from him. Being Green Arrow has cost him nearly everything.  

Despite the character’s expansive supporting cast in the intervening decades, Grell’s work is foundational to much of Oliver Queen’s characterization even in 2023. His influence is particularly notable in the Arrow television series, which features a darker and more brooding version of the character that feels like it was lifted entirely from this miniseries. Grell’s take on the character is notably aloof and cynical, much less brash and prone to preachy monologues about liberal politics. Instead, those politics are internalized and become evident through his actions. 

Upon moving to Seattle with Black Canary, an aging Oliver Queen reflects on his life and what kind of impact he’s made upon the world. What good, really, was traveling the country with Green Lantern or fighting aliens with the Justice League?

“I’ve been wandering …looking for the part that’s missing… The part I forgot. The basics.”

His fortune gone and friends pushed away, Oliver now knows that more of his life is behind him than before him. His desire to start a family, to discard the trappings of superheroics, to leave something that matters in the world, stems from the melancholy of aging. The fleetingness of mortality and the sadness of recognizing that his youth is behind him colors the entire series. Memory–and its traps–are a major theme throughout the book, reflected even in the layouts. Past and present exist side by side. Memories intrude upon today, never completely out of site. It’s a uniquely comic book storytelling device. The ever-present weight of the past surrounds Green Arrow in a way that cannot be captured in any other medium. There are no cuts or scene changes. Memory exists on the same page, right next to current events.

Grell emphasizes the way the past lingers in a number of other ways. He presents flashbacks to Ollie’s time stranded on the island where he learned to hunt like pages in a scrapbook. Images of newspaper reports and clippings recur across the three issues. We discover the origins of the mysterious hunter Shado through a literal framing narrative throughout the third issue, where her tragic past is recounted and juxtaposed directly against the present day which plays out within the frame. The memory and reality contextualize and play off of one another. It is a striking reminder of the way we can become trapped within the pains, losses, and failures of days gone by. 

Memories intrude upon the aging archer. A constant nagging in his mind that something is missing. Perhaps it is a despair about what he will leave behind. But with the possibility of a family closed to him, he must fill that emptiness inside with something else.

In Seattle, he tries to fill that missing piece inside through action. Reflecting on his harsh reality as a castaway, Ollie realizes a truth about himself that he had forgotten.

“I am a hunter. That’s the one thing I learned on that island… The one thing I’m really good at. That’s what I forgot. The basics.”

Grell’s Longbow Hunters  is of an era where superhero comics were expanding in ambition and scope, a time where DC especially sought to take their larger-than-life characters and ground them in something more like reality. As such, it pushes boundaries and deals with more adult themes in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable to a modern reader.  The DC Universe was beginning to accept that the world was complicated and heroism was rarely black and white with easy moral choices. Beyond the most notable examples of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, there was John Byrne’s Man of Steel and Denny O’Neil’s The Question. Grell has Oliver push aside the broader elements of his history, even avoiding using the name Green Arrow altogether.

Ollie abandons the flashy trick arrows, compound bows, and Arrow-branded paraphernalia of the Silver Age. Being a part of the Justice League, fighting super criminals, it all took him away from the people most in need of help. Those forgotten and abused by the broken social structures. With a new, less flashy costume, Ollie takes to the streets of his new city to investigate a string of murders among sex workers by someone known only as the Seattle Slasher. At the same time, another killer dubbed by the press the “Robin Hood Killer” is killing seemingly unconnected older men.

The tricks and gadgets and fancy bows were all a distraction. Ollie, feeling his body slowing down and fearing for what kind of world he would leave behind, went back to basics: the purity of the hunt. In issue 1, Ollie admits to himself that on the island hunting had become too much of a thrill. It was too easy for a hunter to revel in the violence. Throughout the miniseries, Green Arrow is faced with others who give into that temptation. Some in the pursuit of personal justice and revenge, others for sadistic pleasure. 

“There are all kinds of hunters,” Ollie narrates, “Some hunt to survive. Some just like to watch things die. Some hunt the hunters.”

The Seattle Slasher, though dealt with quickly by the end of the first issue, is revealed to be a soldier who was trained to be a weapon and twisted until all humanity was wrung out of him. All that was left was death and violence.  It’s what Oliver fears he could become. 

When Dinah is captured while investigating the Slasher, she ends up strung up and tortured by a hired goon in one of the more unfortunate and poorly aged moments of the story that reduces one of the most prominent female superheroes into little more than a prop. 

Upon discovering her, Ollie is horrified and infuriated. In the shocking climax of the second issue, he lets loose an arrow and kills the assailant – thrusting an arrow through the man’s chest.

We as readers are not granted much of Ollie’s inner monologue about his reaction to this deadly act. Did he believe it was the only way to save Black Canary? Or was it just anger and vengeance for the way his beloved was brutalized? We don’t know. But it is clear the moment is a profound shift for the character.

In Green Arrow’s second meeting with the Robin Hood Killer, a Yakuza assassin named Shado, she recognizes a new kinship between them. In their first, brief, encounter, she is not threatened by him. She has seen his eyes and knows he does not have the spirit of a killer. But now his eyes tell a different story. He has changed.

Shado is another kind of hunter. She exists somewhere in between the other twisted murderers and Oliver’s righteous violence. She is out to avenge her father–a man brutalized and diminished by a pack of ex-military criminals. In her quest for vengeance, Shado and Oliver’s stories intersect. In the third issue, they do so quite literally in a stunning visual where they cross through one another.

Both have trained themselves to be deadly weapons. But unlike Oliver, who fights against the dark thrill of the hunt, Shado embraces it. She recognizes her methods and mission are inherently deadly. Oliver tries to deny it–until he no longer can.

The arrowhead is another visual motif throughout the miniseries. It carries the weight of Oliver Queen’s sadness and directs it. The weapon becomes an extension of Ollie’s self. When the two archers meet, Grell’s art twists man and weapon together. Oliver becomes nothing but a head and arms rearing back the bow. All that matters–all that is left– is the weapon. His trajectory and Shado’s have brought them to the same tragic place. 

Where the other killers in the series are an extreme distortion of the thrill of the hunt, Shado is not so different from Oliver Queen at all. Ollie is forced to grapple with that as they face off and eventually work together to thwart underworld plans. But in the process, his inner-world is turned upside down.

Mike Grell and his assistant Lurene Haines’  layouts and painted artwork throughout the series provide stunning visuals that enhance and reflect Oliver’s state of mind and his tortured inner journey. By and large, Grell abandons traditional grid structures and, on occasion, panel borders altogether. But despite the disjointed and almost chaotic page design, the imagery is never muddled or hard to follow. The world may be unfamiliar and out of control but it operates with its own precise and deliberate logic. Panels are offset in vertical layouts, movement and lines effortlessly guide the reader through time and space.

This is a complex world with its own order, and as Ollie tries to find his new place in it, he is forced to contort himself within it.

As the story comes to a close, Green Arrow confronts Magnor, the head of the criminal enterprise that killed Shado’s family and has been flooding Seattle’s black market. Grell’s composition makes this scene intentionally misleading–and ambiguous. Oliver turns to leave, Magnor pulls a gun. In the next panel, an arrow flies through Magnor’s chest from left-to-right, the previously established visual relationship between the two characters. For a moment, it looks as if Oliver has killed him. Has he accepted his new status as a killer?

But in truth, the shot has come in from the window, behind Magnor. As it runs through the old man, the bloody tip races toward the heart of the newly revealed Shado. She is already dead in every way that matters. She recognizes herself as nothing but a tool. Fulfilling her mission is a new death. There is no meaning left for her.

Oliver, at the opposite end of the page, from the other side of the limp body, simply waves. He is not shocked or enraged by the murder. Death is a part of life, he has accepted it now.  For himself, maybe he’s already a bit dead. For evildoers, perhaps it is the only justice that meets the crime. Importantly, Ollie’s lack of reaction raises another question–Did he know Shado was there? Did he plan the meeting to position Magnor in the right place for Shado’s killing blow?

Whatever his thinking, Oliver leaves the meeting and returns to Black Canary’s bedside at the hospital, where he admits to her she was right. Their lives don’t allow for things like happiness and children. Legacy and future don’t matter–the past, though ever-present and clawing at our heels, doesn’t matter–all that matters is the present moment. In seeing Black Canary tortured and near death, in seeing Shado consumed by her mission of vengeance, Oliver tries to embrace gratitude and accept that life is an unpredictable and disordered thing. All that he can control is how he maneuvers through it in the here and now. Perhaps he is lying to himself. But he knows now that he always has been. 

It is no good hunting for that missing past. The memories of that simpler time cannot be regained. The arrow only flies forward from the bow. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s