I have no doubt that many of the comic book fans who picked Green Lantern #80 up out of the spinner rack in August, 1970, took one look at the cover and immediately thought of Bobby Seale, and the 1969-70 trial of the Chicago Eight/Seven:
But I’m also pretty sure that my thirteen-year-old self wasn’t one of them.
While I feel certain that the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (which, along with Mad magazine, was my main source of information on current affairs in those days) covered that story, I don’t remember being anything more than dimly aware of it, if that. (My family usually had “Uncle Walter” on while we were doing other things, like eating dinner, which made it pretty easy to miss stuff.) And so, when I scrutinized artist Neal Adams’ dramatic cover for GL #80, I didn’t understand that it was directly referencing the October 29, 1969 incident in which Judge Julius Hoffman had ordered Seale, a defendant with seven others in a federal case charging them with conspiracy and other crimes, to be bound and gagged following the latter’s allegedly disruptive behavior in the courtroom.
Rather, my younger self looked at Adams’ cover and wondered, who the heck was that little old man who was being sentenced alongside the comic’s two superheroic stars? I wanted to know the answer to that question, and it was probably that, more than anything else, that drove me to finally pick up an issue of “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”, five issues into its run.
I say “finally pick up”; but, as regular readers of this blog know, when Green Lantern #76 was published in February, 1970, I was in the midst of a period (lasting roughly six to eight months) during which I largely lost interest in comic books. And so, despite the fact that, just one month prior, I’d read and enjoyed Justice League of America #79 — a comic which, as I’ve argued here, can be viewed in retrospect as a preview of the radical new direction that that issue’s writer, Denny O’Neil, was, in collaboration with Adams, about to take with Green Lantern — I opted to pass on the book which is viewed by most fans today as Ground Zero for the “relevance era” in American comics, and which also, at least for some, marks the point at which the Bronze Age of Comics truly began.
But how did DC Comics come to approve such a drastic change of direction for the ten-year-old title? Simply put, its sales were tanking. In 1965 (which happens to be the year I bought my first issue of Green Lantern), the series had enjoyed an average 273,527 sales per issue . By 1968, that figure had dropped to 211,750; a year later, sales had dropped even more precipitously, to 160,423. Having already seen two of his other titles which, like GL, featured re-invented Golden Age heroes — Atom and Hawkman — be cancelled for poor sales in the last two years (even combining the two heroes in an Atom & Hawkman series hadn’t staved off the inevitable), editor Julius Schwartz was probably willing to try just about anything to avoid Green Lantern‘s meeting the same fate.
As O’Neil would recall a mere five years later, in an interview with Guy H. Lillian III published in the fourth issue of DC’s in-house fanzine, Amazing World of DC Comics:
The book was faltering,and Carmine [Infantino, DC’s editorial director at the time] said, in effect, “If you have any ideas, go with them.” I had for a long time wanted to see if we could combine a journalistic concern with the flamboyance and fantasy that’s part and parcel of superhero concepts. By happy coincidence, Julie—and Neal Adams—were thinking along approximately the same lines.
According to O’Neil, he had anticipated that his script for GL #76’s “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!” would be assigned to Gil Kane — the feature’s original artist, who’d recently returned to the book after a brief hiatus in 1968. But Neal Adams ended up getting the gig instead. In Adams’ account (as told to Arlen Schumer for an interview in Comic Book Marketplace #40 [Oct., 1996]):
DC was going to cancel Green Lantern. Gil Kane was off the book, so I asked Julie Schwartz if I could do the last couple of issues. All I wanted to do was draw Gil Kane’s character and live up to his image of it. Julie told me I had too much to do, but I knew I could do it. And I wanted to do it. I had done so much with Batman that everybody’s eyes were bugging out. So what was I going to do with Green Lantern?
It’s fascinating to contemplate how things might have turned out if Kane had, indeed, drawn GL #76 (and however many issues might have followed thereafter). Would O’Neil’s conceit of exploring the social issues then roiling America via a dialectic between the conservative Green Lantern and the liberal Green Arrow still have been perceived as a radical innovation, as it ultimately was when illustrated by Adams? Or would it more likely have been seen as simply an interesting conceptual take on the familiar “Green Lantern” feature, which had been visually defined by Kane’s art ever since its 1959 debut in Showcase #22?
We can never really know, of course; but it seems undeniable that no comic book artist of the time, not even the extraordinarily gifted Kane, could have been so perfectly well-suited to collaborate with O’Neil on this bold experiment in superhero genre storytelling as was Neal Adams. Adams’ photorealistic style, as well as his skill in depicting dynamic action, made him an ideal artist for visualizing O’Neil’s scripts, which (at least at the beginning) framed the exploits of their costumed, code-named protagonists in a more grounded setting meant to evoke the “real world”, in a manner rarely seen in the genre before now. What was more, Adams had been the creator responsible for giving Green Arrow his dramatic new look in the first place, back in Brave and the Bold #85 (Aug.-Sept., 1969) — though, it should be noted, it was O’Neil who had developed the archer’s new hot-headed personality in the pages of Justice League of America, in a process that had begun as early as the writer’s first issue of JLA back in the fall of 1968, almost a full year before Adams gave GA his visual makeover.
But, as you might imagine, none of the above ruminations were occupying my thirteen-year-old mind when I first sat down to read Green Lantern #80, back in August, 1970. Rather, as I noted earlier, my main concern was to find out who that little old man shown on the cover was.
And, wouldn’t you know it — O’Neil (assisted by Adams, of course, as well as by inker Dick Giordano) answered that question for me on the story’s very first page:
Actually, I was on pretty solid ground as soon as I read the first line: “He is a Guardian…” My very first issue of Green Lantern (which also happened to be one of the very first comics I ever bought) had in fact been #40, featuring the stone classic, “The Secret Origin of the Guardians!”, written by John Broome and drawn by (who else?) Gil Kane. Of course, I was used to the little bald fellas from the planet Oa having blue skin, but it was easy enough to work out that if a Guardian was going to be traveling around the U.S. of A. with Hal (GL) Jordan and Oliver (GA) Queen, he’d have to make some cosmetic adjustments to fit in. Still, I’m sure my younger self wondered just why one of the immortal Guardians had chosen to go on this road trip with Hal and Ollie; but since I hadn’t bought GL #76, I’d have to wait until early 1972, when”No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!” was reprinted in black-and-white mass market paperback format, to learn the details.
In that Shazam Award-winning story, Green Lantern fell afoul of his bosses on Oa when, at the instigation of Green Arrow, he took the side of some impoverished tenants against their evil but (apparently) law-abiding landlord. Ultimately, however, GA was able to convince the Guardians that they had grown too remote from the mortals whose peace and security they were theoretically dedicated to ensuring:
The Guardians selected a representative from their number to travel to Earth, disguise himself as a mortal, and join Hal and Ollie as they hit the open road in an old pickup truck to, as they say, look for America. The trio’s wanderings would continue over the next three issues, but, as of issue #80, they were about to come to an end — as I and other readers would learn on page 2:
Having just gotten on board with “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”, I wasn’t all that invested in “the Easy Rider thing”, as Oliver Queen calls it in the first panel of page 2. But for some readers who’d assumed that the road-trip format would last, if not necessarily for the current creative team’s whole run, then at least longer than three issues, the apparent termination of the heroes’ “search for America” came as a surprise — and not a very welcome one. As reader Juan Cole put it in the letters column of GL #84 a few months later: “…in issue #80, after only three issues of America-tramping, Green Arrow decides he’s had enough, since they’d crossed the country twice. When? I wasn’t along, and if I wasn’t along, they may as well not have done it.”
Methinks Mr. Cole had a point. Perhaps O’Neil was finding it difficult to contrive situations of sufficient dramatic potency (as well as social relevance) that the two emerald crusaders could reasonably stumble into while wandering the nation’s byways — especially ones that they couldn’t resolve almost immediately, considering that GL possessed a weapon granting him nearly godlike powers* — but it still seems an odd decision, or at least a premature one, to abandon the “hard-traveling heroes” concept after a mere three issues.
Whew — talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, huh? (And just in case you’re wondering, we never do find out what caused the trucker to suddenly swerve into the wrong lane, back on page 2.)
The story now jumps ahead to the next morning, when Hal, having been successfully treated for severe shock, is discharged from the hospital. But no sooner have our protagonists been reunited, than…
When I first read this story at age 13, I doubt I fully appreciated the nuance that O’Neil brought to the debate between Green Arrow and the Guardians in this scene. Maybe the little blue “fossils” are being too coldhearted in their condemnation of their errant colleague, but there’s undeniably some truth in what they’re saying; it’s also ironic to have them use an argument based on environmental concerns against GA, who in other circumstances would likely be the person making such an argument.
O’Neil was fond of giving his alien planets names that were suggestive of secondary meanings (for another good example, see “Monsan” in JLA #79); and so it seems all but certain that “Gallo” is meant to evoke “gallows”. Which is a pretty ominous portent of what kind of justice our two heroes, and the Guardian they call the Old-Timer**, can expect to find at their extraterrestrial destination:
Green Lantern shares the Old-Timer’s reservations about the “welcome” they’re receiving on Gallo, but they both decide to go along with things for now…
As noted at the beginning of the post, the courtroom scene in GL #80 clearly evokes the then-recently concluded trial of the Chicago Seven for conspiracy, incitement to riot, and other crimes (down to the visual depiction of the judge being based on the real-life trial’s presiding officer, Judge Julius Hoffman, shown at right). For those unfamiliar with the details of the trial, the charges against the defendants stemmed from anti-war protests, held on the occasion of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, that had eventually led to violent clashes between protestors and the Chicago police. Originally numbering eight, the defendants included, in addition to the aforementioned Bobby Seale (a co-founder of the Black Panther Party), such well-known left-wing activists as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden. (Seale ultimately had his case severed from the others, soon after the “bound and gagged” incident that inspired Adams’ visuals for our comic, which is how the Chicago Eight became Seven.) Following a tumultuous trial, during which both the defendants and the judge could fairly be said to have indulged in theatrics, all of the accused were acquitted of the conspiracy charges, though five were found guilty of incitement to riot, and all (including Seale) were also found guilty of contempt of court by Judge Hoffman. In 1972, however, all the convictions were overturned on appeal; the appellate court cited Judge Hoffman’s failure to allow defense attorneys to screen potential jurors for cultural and racial bias, as well as his “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense.”
In later years, O’Neil would be careful to note that his scathing satire of the recent legal proceedings in Chicago didn’t necessarily mean that he’d been on board with every political position espoused by the Chicago Eight. As he said in his Amazing World of DC Comics interview in 1975: “…I was not all that terribly sympathetic to all the defendants’ standpoints in that case. But I didn’t like the way the trial was being conducted.”
The sentences Judge Hoffman handed down for contempt (which were delivered independently of the jury’s verdict on the other charges) were noted for their severity. Bobby Seale, whose prosceution ended in a mistrial, was not found guilty of any crime by a jury; he was nevertheless sentenced to four years in prison by Hoffman (sixteen separate counts of contempt, with each count earning three months’ incarceration).
At first, GL is puzzled why the Tribune don’t just leave their cell through the wide-open doorway; but when he himself makes the attempt, he quickly finds out:
GA proceeds to whip up a bow-and-arrow combo using only a bed slat, a cot support rod, and some thread from one of the Tribune fellow’s cloaks. But how, wonders GL, can a single shaft with no arrowhead possibly take out the Master Mechanic’s robotic watchdog?
Just in case anyone was wondering how effective a non-powered archer could be on an outer-space adventure like this one… well, there you go.
Our heroes and their new friends are free to leave their cell, now, but they’ve still got plenty of obstacles to get through before they can rescue the Old-Timer:
It’s somehow oddly satisfying to see the members of the Tribune, who obviously aren’t accustomed to this sort of thing, gamely wade into the melee, nonetheless.
O’Neil is making a point about dehumanization in the name of technological progress here, but it’s one that seems extraneous to the critique of American justice gone awry that’s driven the story thus far. Does this new theme add another layer of meaning to the narrative’s subtext, or does it simply dilute the existing polemic? You be the judge.
Hal Jordan’s having been “conditioned to respect the authority of the law” is central to O’Neil’s characterization of him, and to the dialectic the writer has set up between Hal and the authority-flouting Oliver Queen — but the ring-slinger’s difficulty in setting it aside in this instance seems less than plausible. Surely, GL has gone up against enough interplanetary despots by this point in his career to know that not all”authority” is legitimate.
Once the toxic gas has been dispersed, our heroes press on into the execution chamber…
So concludes “Even an Immortal Can Die!” — the first story of the “All-New! All-Now” Green Lantern to frame its underlying social commentary within a science-fiction or fantasy context, though it would be far from the last. In my opinion, it was largely successful in doing so, managing to work as an exciting adventure story while also effectively making its broader “relevant” point — though, admittedly, that point was a pretty obvious one, which even a relatively uninformed young reader (such as the thirteen-year-old me) would have found difficult to miss.
And while the farewells said by Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and the Old-Timer in the final panels of GL #80 imply that the latter character’s story has come to an end, at least for now, nothing could actually be further from the truth — as the comics readers of 1970 would discover upon the publication of the series’ very next issue, just two months later. You can learn all about it, too, simply by checking back here in October, 2020, when we’ll be taking a look at Green Lantern #81.
As a sort of special bonus, we’re going to close out this post with a look at an interesting cultural artifact that, while it doesn’t really have anything to do with Green Lantern #80 specifically, does have some bearing on the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” series in general, as well as the overall “relevance era” at DC Comics:
This image (which, in the interest of giving credit where it’s due, I should note that I snagged from Tom Brevoort, who himself picked it up from Robert Beerbohm) comes from the May, 1970 issue of Bestsellers, the “magazine and paperback sales guide for wholesalers and retailers” (see cover at left). As described by Robert in a post to his “Comic Book Store Wars” Facebook group, this was the periodical industry trade journal’s annual “comics” issue for that year, which — along with a couple of feature articles and a directory of available titles — contained full page ads from most if not all of the American comic book publishers of the time.
For my part, DC’s ad provides a fascinating look into how at least some of those on the “business” side of the company saw the commercial potential of “relevance”, and indeed used the approach as a marketing tool. It stands in sharp contrast to Marvel’s ad in the same issue (see right) — which, to my eye, looks like it could have run in 1965 as easily as it did in 1970, with only minor changes (and for all I know, it did).
In my view, this shouldn’t be taken as an indication that DC’s move to relevance didn’t actually originate with the genuine interest of creators like Denny O’Neil in combining (in the writer’s own words) “a journalistic concern with the flamboyance and fantasy that’s part and parcel of superhero concepts“. But it does suggest why certain initiatives— such as Batman’s moving out of Wayne Manor to fight a “new breed of gangsterism“ (mentioned in the ad), or the Teen Titans’ renunciation of their powers and costumes to atone for the death of a slain peace activist — which don’t appear to have originated quite so organically, never seemed to fully “take”, either with creators or with fans. It may also help explain why, when relevancy didn’t provide quite the sales boost DC had hoped for, the publisher essentially just dropped the strategy — or at least stopped talking about it.
Regardless of how commercially (or aesthetically) successful they ultimately were, however — or, for that matter, how idealistically pure the motives of those that enabled their ascension may or may not have been — the comics of the relevance era still deserve credit for helping to permanently expand the thematic range of mainstream American comic books; or, at least, that’s how your humble blogger sees it.
*O’Neil obviously recognized this as being a problem right away, as he had the Guardians tamp down the power of Hal’s ring as early as GL #77; but the disparity between Green Lantern’s capabilities and those of his and Green Arrow’s opponents in these early stories (crooked mine owners, sinister cult leaders, etc.) remained an issue.
**Although Hal and Ollie’s traveling companion never got a “real” name during O’Neil and Adams’ run on Green Lantern, later stories would provide him with the moniker Appa Ali Apsa. (Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths stories would also have him go dangerously insane, and ultimately be killed by his fellow Guardians — but I’d rather ignore all that. [And since Doomsday Clock #12 recently revealed that Earth-One is still out there somewhere, I don’t even have to resort to headcanon any more to do so.])