A half-century after writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams’ history-making run on “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”, it’s easy to see those thirteen comics as being more of one piece than they actually were. The run is well remembered, and rightfully so, for its consistent emphasis on social issues; but while it’s true that “relevance” was the watchword throughout the O’Neil-Adams tenure on Green Lantern, it’s worth noting that the expression of that guiding principle varied quite a bit over the two years of the project’s duration — as did the kinds of stories within which the writer-artist team couched their social commentary.
When it first began in February, 1970, “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” was about as grounded as a comic book featuring two costumed superheroes could be. Starting in issue #76 and continuing on through #79, the emerald duo set out on a quest to “find America”, taking on the likes of a greedy slumlord, a crooked mine owner, a charismatic cult leader, and some racist lumbermen as they crisscrossed the country in an old pickup truck. But as realistic and contemporary and, yes, relevant as these conflicts were, generating narrative suspense was a challenge, given that one of the two “hard traveling heroes” possessed an incredibly powerful magic ring that should by rights be able to make quick work of such mundane foes.
The series took a new tack beginning with issue #80 (coincidentally, the first O’Neil-Adams issue purchased by your humble blogger). In that book’s opening pages, the creative team deep-sixed the pickup truck (literally), then sent their heroes off into outer space — virtually as familiar a milieu for Green Lantern adventures as Earth had been, prior to #76 — for an adventure that used an extraterrestrial stand-in to comment on the American judicial system in general, and the recent trial of the Chicago Eight/Seven in particular. The next issue employed a similar strategy, with yet another distant planet’s population explosion serving as an allegorical foretaste of what might be in store for our own world. Following that, with issue #82 the series returned to Earth — though with significant portions of the story taking place in a mystical dimension, from whence came mythical females –Amazons, harpies, and Gorgons — whose militant misandry was evidently intended to evoke the era’s Women’s Liberation Movement.
Arriving a full year after the beginning of O’Neil and Adams’ run, issue #83’s “…And a Child Shall Destroy Them!” in some ways split the difference between the relative realism of the first four issues and the outright fantasy of the last three. The tale had a thoroughly Earthbound setting, with nary an alien or myth-derived being in sight; nevertheless, it also included a fantasy element, featuring as one of its two human antagonists a little girl with formidable mutant powers. Additionally, the story continued the series’ recent trend towards making its points about the “real” world through allegorical or other indirect means; in this instance, that means was broad political satire, as O’Neil and Adams cast, in the roles of the two villains of their latest tale, the (then) current Vice-President and President of the United States.
The presence within the comic of Spiro Theodore Agnew, or at least a dead ringer for him, is clearly indicated by Adams’ cover.* On the other hand, the role of Agnew’s boss, Richard Milhous Nixon, is only hinted at; but perhaps this is appropriate, considering that (as we’ll soon see) it’s the Agnew surrogate who calls the shots within the story, despite “Nixon” actually being the one with the power.
This may seem a bit backwards to readers of our current era, in which Agnew is generally seen as a figure of much less importance than the 37th POTUS (though the fact that he’s remembered at all gives him a leg up on many other Veeps). Yes, both men were forced to resign their respective high offices under a cloud of scandal; but the complex of offenses we remember as Watergate represents a watershed moment in American public life, while the details of the unrelated bribery scandal which brought down Agnew are barely remembered today (though they’ve gotten a little extra attention recently, thanks to Bag Man, a podcast [and companion book] from MSNBC host Rachel Maddow).
In a 2010 interview, Adams explained how he saw the relationship between the two leaders:
Agnew was a dingbat, who used the power of the president to beat up on the press, and make a very successful smokescreen for the crap—pardon the expression—that Nixon and his cohorts were left free to perpetrate. On a personal note, I believe Agnew encouraged Nixon far more than he would have been, because for the most part, Nixon was an honorable man, right up to Spiro Agnew’s running interference for him.**
In actuality, Agnew seems to have wielded very little real power, or even influence, in the Nixon administration. Writing in his 2015 book, Spiro Agnew and the Rise of the Republican Right, about how Nixon effectively sidelined his Vice-President in the early months of their shared first term in office, historian Justin P. Coffey states:
For the next five years Agnew remained away from the center of power. When it came to the major decisions he was simply frozen out. Nixon never consulted Agnew about domestic policies. Agnew never had the chance to weigh in with his thoughts about Vietnam.
But one of the qualities that had made Agnew attractive as a running mate for Nixon in the 1968 presidential election — a reputation as a strong proponent of “law and order”, (earned by his strongly negative response to protestors during his time as Governor of Maryland), which made him attractive to conservative voters who might have found Nixon too moderate — would turn out to be extremely valuable to Nixon politically. Agnew eventually became Nixon’s point man (or, if you prefer, “hatchet man”) in defending the administration’s policies, especially in regards to the Vietnam War, by going on the attack against the critics of those policies — most notably, those within the news media and on college campuses. His speeches soon became known for the memorable, alliterative phrases (generally supplied by such White House speechwriters as William Safire and Pat Buchanan) that he used in assailing such critics — “nattering nabobs of negativism”, ”pusillanimous pussyfooters”, and so on.
In the fall of 1970, Agnew gave many such speeches as he traveled the country, stumping for Republican candidates ahead of the midterm elections in November. His efforts ultimately weren’t all that successful, at least in political terms — the Democratic Party would retain its majorities in both the House and Senate — but they gained a great deal of press along the way. Almost certainly, they would have come to the attention of both Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams — and were likely on the creators’ minds as they each worked on what would become Green Lantern #83’s “…And a Child Shall Destroy Them!”
On the other hand, they probably gained little purchase in the young mind of my thirteen-year-old self. Certainly, I wasn’t mulling over the Vice-President’s way with words on whatever day it was in February, 1971 that I pulled GL #83 off the spinner rack. Rather, while I’m sure that I was curious about the fact that the bad guy on the cover was the spitting image of the VP (I wasn’t completely clueless), I believe I was ultimately a lot more interested in learning who the mysterious shadow belonged to. Who, after all, could strike such fear into the hearts of our two emerald crusaders?
I’d only have to turn to the first page to find out…
As already noted, I’m pretty certain that I understood “Grandy” to be a caricature of Ted Agnew from the get-go. I’m just about as sure, however, that I didn’t recognize “Sybil” as Neal Adams’ take on what Dick Nixon would look like as a little girl. I would eventually get it, of course, but I think it took me several years (and even then, someone may have had to point it out to me). In hindsight, it’s hard to see how I could have missed it — I mean, just look at those jowls… the ski-slope nose… even the hairline!
In the 2010 interview referenced earlier, Adams suggested that working Nixon into the story was his idea: “Denny was after Agnew in the book, by having him use the little girl’s power. I extended that to going after Nixon, as the character that held the power that he wielded.”*** Again, it may seem odd from our contemporary perspective to depict Agnew as manipulating or using Nixon, rather than the other way around. But in late 1970-early 1971 — well over a year before the June 17, 1972 Watergate break-in, and a time in which Nixon had still managed to largely stay “above the fray” of directly attacking his political opponents (though he’d waded in a bit in the run-up to the midterms) — it wasn’t all that unreasonable a point of view.
Just in case anyone reading this doesn’t recognize the three folks in the panel above (as unlikely a prospect as that seems), they are, from left to right: Dinah Drake Lance (Black Canary), Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), and Oliver Queen (Green Arrow).
Since making her first “GL/GA” appearance in the run’s third issue (#78), Black Canary had been featured in every installment but one; by this point, she had effectively become an unofficial co-star of the series.
O’Neil and Adams are upfront in acknowledging their indebtedness to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds for the sequence just concluded, to the point even of giving the director himself a cameo as Meadowhill School’s mailman — a nod to the director’s own habit of making such appearances in his movies.
As they leave the school, GA asks his friend about Jason Belmore; GL is evasive, explaining that he’s never met the guy: “He’s… just someone whose name I’ve heard!”
Then, approaching their parked car, they notice what appears to be a strange woman crouching by the vehicle…
I can distinctly recall my surprise in 1971 at the revelation that the unfortunate young woman who’d been assaulted by Grandy and Sybil on page 1 was Carol Ferris. Carol had been a mainstay of the series when I picked up my first issue of Green Lantern back in 1965, and I’d never been sure exactly what had happened to her; not ever having been more than a semi-regular reader of the title, I’d missed issue #49, which is where she’d told Hal she’d become engaged to the “handsome and wealthy” Jason Belmore (just as Hal was about to propose to her himself, poor guy). She’d made several appearances since then — including in issue #73 (another one I missed), where she’d informed GL she’d broken things off with Belmore, implying it was because of her unresolved feelings for our ring-slinging hero. (Yes, it was your classic “gal digs superhero, but thinks his secret ID is a drag” trope, cribbed straight from the Superman-Lois-Clark triangle.) But the couple hadn’t gotten together at that time, and as of #83, Carol has clearly had second thoughts about her rejection of the evidently very patient Mr. Belmore.
After pausing to give his ring a recharge, Green Lantern whisks himself, Green Arrow, and Carol back to the grounds of Meadowhill School. There, they’re forced to take refuge from a sudden downpour within an abandoned barn; when Carol expresses surprise that GL doesn’t simply use his ring to create a shelter, the hero explains that he can no longer count on an unlimited supply of energy from the ring’s creators, the Guardians of the Universe:
One physical feature that Grandy possesses, but which Spiro Agnew did not (at least, not in 1970-71) is an ever-so slightly twirly, pencil-thin mustache — which, in certain panels (such as the next-to-last one above) gives him a certain air of Vincent Price-ean villainy. Interestingly, it’s not visible on Neal Adams’ cover — which makes me wonder if it was added to the interior art by Dick Giordano, at the inking stage. (The cover, unlike the story, was inked as well as pencilled by Adams.) Could editor Julius Schwartz have been trying to “disguise” the Agnew caricature, if only minimally?
Deciding to investigate the strange goings-on at the school as Black Canary, Dinah changes into her fighting togs (and dons her blond wig). As soon as she steps out into the hallway, however, she’s accosted by Grandy, Sybil… and Jason Belmore:
Black Canary’s brief expression of unease regarding her enjoyment of violence may be barely more than a throwaway line, but it’s still an interesting bit of characterization — and the sort of thing you’d have been very unlikely to find in a DC superhero comic just a couple of years earlier.
Once the Canary is unconscious, Grandy takes a closer look, and discovers that she’s really the new Phys. Ed. teacher. He then orders some of the students to drag her to the school’s cellar — and zombie-like, they comply…
“…I’m a person who wants order! I despise messiness… and nothing is as disordered as the average school!” In statements like these, O’Neil and Adams’ casting of Spiro Agnew in the role of Grandy is shown to have true satirical purpose, and not to simply be a matter of, “hey, let’s have our villain look like a politician we don’t like”.
To appreciate what the creators are up to here, one needs to be aware that Agnew regularly railed against permissiveness as the wellspring of all of America’s social ills. In the Vice-President’s view, the root cause of unrest on the nation’s college campuses, or in its inner cities, wasn’t any of the things that people were actually protesting about — such as the Vietnam War, or racism — but rather a failure to respect (or to exercise) what he called “sensible authority”. Agnew saw the problem as beginning in the home; in particular, those homes where parents followed the advice of Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose best-seller Baby and Child Care was first published in 1946 — plenty early enough to have influenced the rearing of the “Woodstock Generation”.
The voluble VP expounded on this theme at one of his midterm campaign trail stops, in an address given in Milwaukee, WI on September 25, 1970, that the Washington Post described as “sounding more like a sermon than a political speech”:
Agnew used as an example of everyday permissiveness a parent who permits a young child to come to the dinner table in dirty clothes, his hair unkempt and hands unwashed.
“Who do you suppose is to blame when, 10 years later, that child comes home from college and sits down at the table with dirty, bare feet and a disorderly face full of hair?” he asked.
He also cited an example of a college administrator who does not suspend or expel a students [sic] who deliberately breaks a window.
“Who is to blame, months or years later, when that student participates in the burning of a ROTC building—or even worse?” he asked.****
I’m not certain that Agnew ever spoke directly to the subject of K-12 education, but it’s not too hard a stretch to imagine he would have sympathized with Grandy’s disdain of the “disorder” of the “average school”. (Which shouldn’t be taken to mean that I believe that Agnew would have used a mutant child to mind-control young students if he’d had the chance, let alone that he’d murder a superheroine via a swarm of wasps. [Or WASPs, for that matter.] This is satire, folks, remember?)
Meanwhile, Green Lantern and Green Arrow — having left Carol waiting at the barn — break into the school building via a window (an action that the still straight-laced GL frets about). Then, almost immediately…
Belmore leads the heroes past the dining hall, where the students are presently having a meal (under Grandy’s supervision, of course). But although the trio tries to sneak by as quietly as possible, the hapless headmaster steps on a squeaky floorboard, and…
At Grandy’s command, the kids begin pelting the two “outsiders” as well as their headmaster with crockery. GL immediately responds with a ring-generated force shield, which Grandy counters by ordering Sybil to “make them sorry!” And we all know what that means…
This tableau, with its eerily-lit, unnaturally silent children, evokes the 1960 science fiction horror film Village of the Damned and similar works, and fits comfortably with the story’s earlier references to The Birds.
GL and GA race to the cellar and break through the locked door, and GL uses his ring to capture all the wasps and seal them back in their nest. Black Canary is unconscious, but alive.
(It’s a little disappointing to see Dinah reduced to being something of a damsel-in-distress here, especially considering that in the previous issue — the “Women’s Lib” one — she’d made all the right calls throughout, and saved both the guys’ bacon. Unfortunately, it’s also not terribly surprising.)
Green Lantern’s linking of what he and Green Arrow just went through with Carol’s “seizure” (as she called it back on page 6) of four weeks ago seems a little bit of a stretch — but, hey, maybe there was an off-panel conversation where she gave the guys more deets about her traumatic experience (like, who was around at the time). Yeah, let’s go with that.
“The whole west wing [italics mine] is in ruins!” Get it?
My thirteen-year-old self was surprised by Hal’s sudden decision to reveal his secret identity to Carol (though probably not quite as surprised as I would have been if I hadn’t read Marvel Comics’ Daredevil #57 about a year and a half earlier; a young comics fan can become jaded so quickly…). But I recall being even more surprised by the creators’ decision to leave Carol still without the use of her legs as the story ended; I had blithely assumed that she would be “restored” with the defeat of Grandy and Sybil, and the fact that she wasn’t was a striking, if minor, piece of realism. (As things turned out, Ms. Ferris’ condition would not in fact be permanent; nevertheless, the situation would not be resolved for some time, and not until after the conclusion of O’Neil and Adams’ “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” run.*****)
As for Sybil — despite the low-angle shot of her (?) shoes in the final panel, and the question mark following “The End”, she would not make another appearance in Green Lantern, or, indeed, any other comic. The latter, of course, could not be said of her real-life inspiration; but discussion of the further comic-book adventures of Richard M. Nixon will have to wait for future blog posts.
History does not record whether or not Agnew or Nixon ever saw a copy of Green Lantern #83, let alone what they thought of it; nevertheless, DC did receive a bit of blowback on the political front. As Neal Adams told the story to Allen W. Wright in 2016 for the Interviews in Sherwood web site:
We got a letter from the governor of Florida who wrote a letter that said “How dare you insult the Vice President of the United States like that! That’s the most outrageous thing I ever seen in a comic book. It will ruin children’s minds. If you ever do such a thing again, I will see to it that DC Comics are not distributed in the state of Florida. So the governor sent a letter and the executives that owned DC at that time, I forget — they were funeral owners or whatever****** — they came to see me… and they said “Look at this letter” and handed me the letter. But of course I resisted breaking out in laughter. I said “Yeah, I noticed they didn’t notice that the little girl is Richard Nixon”… “She was?” “Yes, she was.” Apparently they didn’t notice that. They said “Well, what are we going to do about this?” I said “Well, I guess we’re not going to do it again.” [rich laughter] You idiots.
According to comics historian John Wells (Back Issue #45, p. 46), the “governor of Florida” referenced by Adams was actually ex-governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr., a Republican who’d just left office in January, having lost his re-election bid to Democratic challenger Reubin Askew. Kirk was evidently angling to stay relevant, as he’d have had no real authority to make trouble for DC by the time Green Lantern #83 arrived on stands.
In any case, to the best of my knowledge, Green Lantern continued to be distributed in the state of Florida — all the way up until the title’s cancellation. That latter event, however, is obviously a topic for another post; one that at this writing is, thankfully, still one full year away.
*Agnew wasn’t actually the first real-life person Adams had caricatured in “GL/GA” for satirical effect; he’d done so at least once before, when he based the judge in Green Lantern #80 on Julius Hoffman, the jurist who presided over the Chicago Eight/Seven trial. Still, since Hoffman was not nearly so well-known a public figure as Agnew, it didn’t have quite the same impact as this parody of the Vice-President.
**John Wells, “And Through Them Change an Industry”, Back Issue #45 (Dec., 2010), p. 45.
***Wells, p. 46.
****William Chapman, Washington Post (Sept. 26, 1970), p. A2. (Subscription required.)
*****Carol remained a wheelchair user through the last issue of the O’Neil-Adams Green Lantern, #89 (Apr.-May, 1972); by her next appearance (Superman #261 [Feb., 1973]), however, she was once again ambulatory. To the best of my knowledge, this full recovery was never explained; I suppose we’ll just have to assume that Sybil’s whammy eventually just wore off. Or something.
******DC had been purchased in 1967 by Kinney National Services, a conglomerate whose various businesses did indeed include the Riverside Memorial Chapel funeral home chain, at least in February, 1971. (For the record, Kinney sold off Riverside in June of that year. Now you know.)