As I noted in my post about Green Lantern #81 back in October, that issue had concluded on a note of finality, with Denny O’Neil’s script commemorating the end of the cross-country (and cross-galaxy) journey that the title character and his fellow emerald-hued hero, Green Arrow, had been on since O’Neil and artist Neal Adams had launched the series on a new, “relevant” trajectory, beginning with issue #76. Readers at the time might well have wondered if Green Lantern had been cancelled, especially when an issue of the title, previously published on an eight-times-a-year schedule, didn’t appear on the racks in November, as had been the case since the 10th issue back in 1961.
But, in December, 1970, a new issue of Green Lantern (now being published bi-monthly) did finally show up — and things didn’t seem to have changed much, if at all. As proclaimed by the cover logo, this was still the “all-NEW! all-NOW! Green Lantern co-starring Green Arrow”. Neal Adams’ presence as cover artist indicated continuity with preceding issues as well. If anything seemed off at all, it might have been that after a couple of issues whose covers heralded their socially relevant themes quite overtly — i.e., #80‘s graphic evocation of the Chicago 8 trial, and #81’s direct reference to the “population explosion” in its blurb text — #82’s depiction of our two heroes being besieged by mythological harpies suggested that we’d moved back into the area of pure fantasy.
Or did it? Could it be, perhaps, that those harpies… weren’t just harpies?
Apparently, they weren’t; rather, they were supposed to represent the Women’s Liberation Movement of the era, or at least some aspect of it. I make this statement based not so much on the actual content of Green Lantern #82 as on the fact that Denny O’Neil would, in later years, refer to a “Women’s Lib story” that appeared during his and Adams’ run on the book — and there’s not really another candidate for a “GL/GA” story that can reasonably fit under that label, in my opinion.
In a 1999 interview with Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Artist #5, O’Neil described the story as “compromised”:
…I remember thinking as a good liberal that that was a story that I ought to be writing and I also now know that emotionally I was at least five years away from being able to accept that. I was basically a shanty Irish kid from north St. Louis and my understanding of what Women’s Lib was all about was woefully inadequate. Basically my paradigm of womanhood was house dress, kitchen, bedroom, take care of the kids and have dinner waiting. Only because I felt that I ought to be espousing it did I do so. I felt that that story just failed all over the place because the writer was just not up to dealing with the material.
In preparation for writing this blog post, I re-read GL #82’s “How Do You Fight a Nightmare?” for the first time in several decades — and having read O’Neil’s CBA interview quoted above much more recently than that, I couldn’t help but have his stated regrets over the story in my mind while doing so. I was thus rather surprised at what I found within its pages; or, rather, what I didn’t find.
But why don’t I let you take a look for yourselves, faithful readers, so that you can arrive at your own conclusions…
As alluded to earlier, this story represented something of a fresh start for the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” series, as the “search for America” which had occupied the heroes ever since issue #76 — or at least that part of their search that involved them driving around the country in an old pickup truck, accompanied by an incognito Guardian of the Universe — had come to an end with issue #81. That meant that O’Neil would be obliged to contrive a novel way to get the two Justice Leaguers together for this story, since they had no formal partnership to speak of. For that matter, the writer would have to do a bit of work to get Black Canary (who’d guest-starred in issues #78, #79, and #81) into the narrative as well, since — as indicated by the dialogue on the first page, above — she and Green Arrow aren’t quite a couple yet. And if this really is supposed to be a “Women’s Lib story”, then the Canary’s presence would seem to be all but essential.
Joining O’Neil and Adams on creative duties for this issue, as he had for the last two, was inker Dick Giordano, who by this time had become DC’s most frequent embellisher of Adams’ pencils; with a couple of exceptions, he’d remain on the series until it ended, with issue #87.
Green Arrow may be a political liberal, but O’Neil consistently writes him as taking a traditionally male “protective” stance with the woman he calls “pretty bird” — despite the fact that he knows her — or at least should know her — to be an entirely capable superheroine in her own right, i.e., his equal. And in this story, at least, his patronizing attitude is consistently implied to be misguided, at best. On the very next page, for example, the Canary lets GA have it for his poor decision-making during their brief battle with the harpies; to his credit, the bowman doesn’t argue the point:
Who’s the man that Green Arrow and Black Canary both know “who’s used [to] strangeness”?” Why, Green Lantern, who else?
GA and BC reach out to their friend and colleague by telegram (their JLA communication devices are only good for summoning the whole team, I guess?), which GL — in his civilian identity as Hal Jordan — receives a few hours later, in “a drab hotel room” somewhere out West. (Why is Hal there? What’s he doing for a living, these days? The story doesn’t say.) Of course, Hal immediately suits up:
GL follows the “monsters” to a a discotheque called “The Session”; though the club is currently closed, our ring-slinging hero finds someone waiting for him, and it’s not the harpies. Rather, it’s a tall, unusual-looking woman, wielding a scepter and calling herself “the Witch Queen!“:
“Something familiar about her!” Yeah, Hal — the red skin, high forehead, and widow’s-peak hairstyle really ought to tip you off here…
Many if not most long-time GL fans probably guessed the identity of “You?” at this point — assuming they hadn’t already, based on the visual clues mentioned earlier (red skin, high forehead, etc.). But even though I’d bought and read my first Green Lantern comic in 1965, I had yet to read one that featured Sin — er, the Witch Queen’s brother — as the villain, so I wasn’t among them.
Back at Black Canary’s place, she and Green Arrow realize that GL’s tardiness is likely a sign that he’s in trouble. GA then takes a closer look at the box the roses came in, and discovers an odd jewel (one that we readers can see looks a lot like the one in the Witch Queen’s scepter, even if GA and BC can’t). They decide to go and try to talk to the store clerk that sold GA the roses:
While Green Arrow lies unconscious in the broken shop window, Black Canary confronts his assailants, who announce their plans to finish the job by killing “the man” — though she, being their “sister”, will be spared:
OK, so these giant women warriors are evidently on a crusade to “revenge the ageless wrongs” committed by men against women over the centuries. Does that mean that they’re supposed to be the story’s stand-ins for real-world “Women’s Libbers”? Um, I guess.
There’s a brief, but pleasant artistic surprise awaiting readers on the next page (13), which, as the editor’s note in the final panel informs us, bears the inks of Bernie Wrightson — a young artist then (as now) best known for his work in horror comics. Did editor Julius Schwartz think that Wrightson was a better choice than Dick Giordano to embellish this single fantasy-themed page, or did the artist just happen to be hanging around the DC offices the day Adams’ pages came in, and did it as a lark? Frankly, I have no idea — but I’m not complaining.
O’Neil’s script makes no attempt to explain how these “Amazons” and “harpies” square with those presented in other DC books, especially Wonder Woman, and it’s probably just as well. I’m fairly certain that when I first read this story in December, 1970, I simply shrugged and figured, “well, there could have been multiple sources for our myths, right?” That’s probably still the best option for the continuity-conscious reader.
Yeah, I think I’m with the Arrow on this one — at least to the extent that the sisterhood’s only real beef seems to be with the evil wizard who banished them to “another plane of being” ages ago. Prior to that, we’re told, they were happily “dedicated to aiding man in the struggle against hostile elements”; if their words on page 12 are to be believed, their banishment actually predates the dawn of recorded human history. So, while there are certainly things that could be said at this juncture regarding the centuries-long systemic oppression of women in the real world, O’Neil’s little fable doesn’t really address that subject in any meaningful way. Perhaps this is one reason why the writer expressed such dissatisfaction with the story in his Comic Book Artist interview, twenty-nine years later.
When the recovering GA expresses some skepticism regarding the veracity of the Amazons’ tale, the indignant women warriors offer to prove it by taking him and Black Canary directly to the Witch Queen…
Yeah, the story’s surprise villain turns out to be… Sinestro! But you knew that all along, didn’t you?
(Interestingly, for all that Sinestro’s family background has been fleshed out in the years since GL #82 was published [most notably by the addition of a wife and daughter], the sister introduced here — who never even gets a name besides “Witch Queen” over the course of the story — has, to the best of my knowledge, never turned up again.)
Things seem to be getting pretty well straightened out at this point in our tale — with, of course, the obvious exception that the hero whose name appears in the comic’s indicia is still imprisoned in a “nether-plane” somewhere out there. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch involved with rescuing the Lantern from that otherworldly realm; as the Amazons helpfully explain, only one man can exist in their dimension at a time, so Green Arrow can’t make the trip. Black Canary, on the other hand, can — but Green Arrow thinks it’s too risky, and tries to tell her so.
Of course, in the end, it’s not really up to him, is it?
Neal Adams appears to have had a blast on these “nether-world” pages, proving once again that his photorealistic style coild bring verisimilitude to imaginative fantasy scenes just as well as it did to gritty urban ones.
Page 20’s central close-up of Medusa is, for my money, the strongest image in the whole book. I won’t claim that it gave me nightmares as a young reader, but it was certainly unforgettable.
Black Canary’s argument to Medusa for sparing Green Lantern’s life doesn’t directly confront the High Priestess’ stated justification for condemning the ring-slinger: “He is a man — therefore… enemy!” Rather, she appeals to the sisterhood’s sense of their own honor and dignity, judging (correctly) that they will roundly reject the prospect of letting themselves be duped by yet another man to do his own dirty work.
Apparently, the sisterhood are cool with remaining in the alien dimension they were banished to ages ago, as well as calling off their modern-day crusade against the men of Earth. Guess it wasn’t all that big a deal to start with, huh?
There are a couple of nits to pick with the concluding panels of this story. For one, it’s a little jarring that our heroes appear to be cool with handing over two extraterrestrial supervillains to “the local police” to deal with on their own — especially when one of them is Sinestro, who even in 1970 was enough of a heavy-hitter that the whole Green Lantern Corps, as well as their bosses, the Guardians of the Universe, could never manage to keep him locked up for very long. According to Hal’s monologue on page 5, he’s currently not even on duty with the Corps, but here’s hoping he at least power-rings a quick message to Oa to let the Guardians know that the GLC’s Most Wanted, Galactic Enemy No. 1, etc., is presently cooling his heels in the lockup of a small town in the Midwestern U.S..
The second nit relates to Green Arrow’s skepticism regarding the existence of “other dimensions… Medusas… Amazons, for Pete sake!” — which leaves me, well, skeptical. This, after all, is a guy who’s fought with the JLA against the sorcerer Felix Faust and hung out with Dr. Fate and the Spectre, not to mention the fact that he knows an actual Amazon personally. And this is where he draws the line? Sorry, Mr. O’Neil, but I’m not buying it.
Still, these are just quibbles, which in the end do little to alter my basic opinion that this is a pretty solid little fantasy-adventure comic-book story, one that holds up rather well after half a century. Of course, saying it’s a good fantasy-adventure story is quite a bit different than saying it’s a good “Women’s Lib story”; and that’s more or less where we started this discussion, right? So — how should we judge that aspect of the story, when all else is said and done?
Earlier in the post, I said that I’d been surprised by what I expected to find in Green Lantern #82 — but didn’t — upon my re-reading it for the first time in many years. That’s because, based on my vague recollections of the story from previous readings, as well as the assessments of it I’d seen elsewhere (including O’Neil’s own, in his 1999 CBA interview), I went into “How Do You Fight a Nightmare?” this time expecting its harpies and other mythological females to come across as gross caricatures of early ’70s feminists, one-dimensional “man-haters”. And I suppose you can see those characters that way, if you’re so inclined; but, personally, I have a difficult time doing so.
The truth is, O’Neil’s script never really evokes the specific concerns or the rhetoric of the Women’s Liberation Movement — either by honest exploration, or by satirical overstatement, or in any other meaningful way. Certainly, there’s never a moment in this story to compare with the one in Marvel Comics’ Avengers #83 (published two months before GL #82) in which the Valkyrie assaults the titular heroes exclaiming, “Up against the wall, male chauvinist pigs!” In the end, then, it seems that there’s not really anything in O’Neil’s take on feminism here to provoke strong reactions one way or the other; nothing to be outraged by, perhaps, but nothing to get enthused about, either.
Actually, the very last part of that last statement isn’t quite true, at least not for your humble blogger. Because I believe the story can in fact be viewed as conveying a positive feminist message, if approached not by way of the mythological “sisterhood”, but rather in terms of its primary female character: Dinah Drake Lance, the Black Canary.
After all, it’s the independent-minded and extraordinarily competent Canary who takes the lead at almost every significant juncture of the story’s plot; whose instincts and judgements regarding both people and events unfailingly pay off; and who both saves Green Arrow’s life from the murderous Amazons and rescues Green Lantern from Medusa. By contrast, GA gets only a couple of good moments mid-story, while fighting Sinestro — and GL (whose own damn book this is, at the end of the day) pretty much plays dude-in-distress for the whole thing. I’m not saying this story should be considered a feminist landmark, by any means, but I think it has a good deal to commend it, especially in the context of its times.
Perhaps Denny O’Neil did occasionally mishandle feminist themes in the stories he wrote over the course of as long and distinguished career (most comics writers of his generation did); but as far as Green Lantern #82 is concerned, the late author should be able to rest easy. That’s my opinion, anyway.