As we related on this blog back in February, in early 1971 Marvel Comics became the first major American comic-book company to publish a story dealing with drug abuse, when they released three monthly issues of Amazing Spider-Man without the Comics Code Authority’s Seal of Approval. But DC Comics could easily have been the first to do so, instead, if only they’d had the nerve — or at least that’s how artist Neal Adams tells the story.
That story appears to begin with a project that DC was invited to produce for a government agency (either the City or the State of New York, depending on the version of Adams’ narrative you consult). Both Adams and his creative collaborator on DC’s famously socially conscious title Green Lantern, writer Denny O’Neil, were asked to submit treatments for a comic book about drug addiction. This, presumably, would have been some sort of giveaway comic, distributed in such a manner that the Comics Code would have been irrelevant — but the project never came to fruition. As Adams told interviewer Bryan Stroud in 2007:
…Denny did an outline and I did an outline of what kind of book it could be and they didn’t like our outlines (laughter) and we had taken a lot of time. Both Denny and I had gone to Phoenix Houses and we had talked to the guys and you know the shit that you hear isn’t exactly the shit you hear from the guys who are really junkies. Very, very different. …the problem with society, both of us, Denny and I, realized was that we were not taking care of our kids and we were not giving them alternate things to do and we’re not rewarding them for their hard work and we weren’t doing much of anything. We were actually making potential addicts.
…And they wanted us to do something about telling them to say ‘no’. This is like, “You’re bad.” No. We don’t think so. You’re bad, society, you’re screwed up and you’re making us bad, but we’re not that bad. So they weren’t happy with what we did, so they abandoned the project.
Both Adams and O’Neil still wanted to do a comic on the subject, however. And so Adams, on his own initiative, took the next step:
…I think, “We’ve got to do something on drug addiction,” but of course it’s against the Comic Code, so I went home and I did that first cover [which ultimately appeared as the cover of GL #85]… I penciled it and I inked it and I put the lettering in and I brought it in and I gave it to [GL editor] Julie Schwartz and his hand grabbed it very briefly and then he dropped it on the desk as if it were on fire. He said, “We can’t do this.” I said, “Well, we ought to.” He said, “You know we can’t do this. It’s against everything.” I said, “Well, this is where we’re going. This is what we ought to be doing.” So he said, “You’re out of your mind. Once again, you’re being a pain in the ass.” So I took it into Carmine [Infantino, DC’s Editorial Director]. Carmine didn’t know what to make of it. I took it into the Kinney people, who were now running DC Comics and were sort of used to this and of course they dropped it like a hot potato.
Meanwhile, Stan Lee was proceeding with Marvel’s own anti-drug abuse project. When the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) declined to amend the Code in a way that would have allowed Lee’s Spider-Man story to pass muster — a change that DC’s Infantino had joined Marvel in supporting — the Marvel editor opted to send the finished first installment to the printers anyway, and his boss, publisher Martin Goodman, backed him up. A February 4 story in the New York Times described Infantino’s reaction as one of dismay, quoting him thusly: “You know that I will not in any shape or form put out a comic magazine without the proper authorities scrutinizing it so that it does not do any harm, not only to the industry but also to the children who read it. Until such a time, I will not bring out a drug book.”
Of course, as most of you reading this will already be aware, Lee and Goodman’s gamble paid off. There was no push-back from distributors or retailers over Marvel releasing a comic minus the Code seal, and no negative public reaction to the book’s contents (at least, none seems to have been reported).
Adams described the reaction in the offices of DC Comics thusly:
Now try to imagine DC, they’ve got this cover, right? Could have scooped Stan… They screwed up. So within a day or two they call a meeting of the Comics Code Authority. Remember the Comics Code Authority is bought for and paid for by the comic book companies. It doesn’t exist independently. It’s a self-regulating organization. So DC Comics calls Marvel, they call Archie [Comics], they go and have this emergency meeting. “We’re going to revise the Comics Code!” Okay, within a week they revised the code and within a week and a half they tell me and Denny to go ahead with the story. (Laughter.)
On April 16, the Times reported that the CMAA’s member publishers had decided to amend the Comics Code to, in the words of reporter Lawrence Van Gelder, “give themselves written permission to deal with the subject of narcotics”. This time, Infantino was quoted as saying: “I feel it’s a great step forward for the industry. I think this can prove that the medium that was considered junk for one generation will be the jewel for the next. It can explore the social ills for the younger generation and help them decide how to direct their lives.”
Three months later, O’Neil and Adams’ drug addiction story — the first half of it, anyway — finally made it to spinner racks.
I’m pretty certain that my thirteen-year-old self, despite not being plugged into any kind of fannish communications network in June, 1971, was at least generally cognizant of these behind-the-scenes goings-on by the time I ultimately laid eyes on Green Lantern #85. No, I didn’t read the New York Times (not even on Sundays). But I did read each and every letters column in every comic book I bought, and the one in Amazing Spider-Man #100, published a couple of weeks earlier, had included a number of excerpted responses to the “drug trilogy” in AS-M #96-98, including these from readers who were obviously better informed than I was:
“I have to commend you for bucking one of the less reasonable aspects of the Code and doing a story on drugs.” — Warren Bluhm, Chester, NJ
“Drug abuse has to be fought. It is terrible that the Comics Code Authority wants you to close your eyes and pretend it’s not there.” — Frank Kobola, Ft. Lee, NJ
“Stan thought that the topic was too important to wait until the Comics Code approves of it.” — Jeff Strell & Robert Greenberger (yes, that one), Jericho, NY
“The sub-plot about drugs is what has been lacking for a long time in the comic world. I can see the Comics Code Authority’s point in refusing to approve this issue, but the superheroes are supposed to live in our world with our problems.” — Becky Clover, Canton, Ohio
As you can see, it wasn’t hard to pick up the gist.
So… I knew that Marvel had beaten DC to the punch. I knew that it meant something that Marvel had put out three comic books about “the drug problem” without the Code seal, and that DC had waited until that was no longer an issue.
That still didn’t lessen the impact of picking up a copy of Green Lantern #85 and seeing Green Arrow’s ward and partner, the Teen Titan known as Speedy, getting caught by his mentor in the process of shooting up heroin. Or make me any less eager to buy the book and take it home to find out what the hell was going on.
The caption that opens the tale may seem overwrought, at least by today’s standards; but the strong personal feeling it expresses appears to have been genuine, as, even before they’d done their research with the Phoenix House organization, both O’Neil and Adams had had direct personal experience dealing with the problems caused by drug addiction. As O’Neil would tell interviewer Guy H. Lillian III a few years later:
That was one we wrote out of genuine concern. I lived in a neighborhood heavily populated by drug addicts at the time. I saw people nodding out from heroin every day on the street. I had friends with drug problems, people coming over at 3 a.m. with the shakes. Neal was, at the time, involved in a drug rehabilitation program in his neighborhood. So it was a problem that genuinely concerned us. (Amazing World of DC Comics #4, Jan.-Feb., 1975)
Something else worth noting here at the outset of the story is that Adams has contributed the full artwork, inks as well as pencils; while he generally did both jobs for his covers, it was fairly unusual at this stage of the artist’s career for him to do so for a comic’s interior pages.
“My woman just told me she’s not going to be home when I call anymore…” Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen’s breakup with Dinah (Black Canary) Lance appears to have occurred off-panel between issues; while they’d had a tiff in GL #84, the scene had been largely played for laughs, and didn’t seem to be all that serious (let alone final). Similarly, the couple’s relationship appeared to be in good shape in the concurrent issues of the other title they both appeared in regularly, Justice League of America.
On the other hand, Ollie’s behavior towards Dinah had consistently been portrayed in both titles as being so possessive and condescending that many readers (then and now), rather than being surprised at this turn of events, might be more inclined to wonder what had taken her so long.
Is Ollie really so surprised that an arrow fired at him at point-blank range, even from a “relic” of a crossbow, has actually found its mark and hurt him? Probably not, but we’ll have to wait a couple of pages before we find out the other, more reasonable reason for his obvious shock.
Those couple of pages, incidentally, are a tour de force of (mostly) “silent” graphic storytelling, as well as a sterling example of O’Neil and Adams’ shared satirical sensibility. But, hey, see for yourself:
When Ollie sees the arrow again, it confirms his suspicion that he’s seen its like before (and lets us in on why he was so shocked at the bottom of page 3). Deciding he’s going to need help on this one, he rings up his old pal (and co-star) Hal Jordan, in Coast City.
Hanging up, Hal immediately changes to Green Lantern, then flies straight to Ollie’s “pad” (presumably still located in Green Arrow’s traditional home base of Star City)…
Speedy, aka Roy Harper, had been Oliver’s ward and GA’s sidekick for thirty years as the real world reckons time, having made his debut back in More Fun Comics #73 (Nov., 1941). At this point he had yet to show his face in Green Lantern, in which Green Arrow had been co-starring since issue #76 (Apr., 1970) — though of course he was a mainstay of DC’s Teen Titans, having appeared in every issue of that title since #19 (Jan.-Feb., 1969).
The pleas of “Junior” — whom we readers, as well as Green Arrow, recognize as one of the three muggers from earlier — fall on deaf ears as far as Mr. Browden is concerned; the building superintendent callously kicks the young man in the face and slams the door shut.
O’Neil arguably leans a little too much here into playing up GL’s role as the more straight-laced member of our heroic duo, by making Hal so painfully naive as to actually justify Ollie’s tagging of him as “dumb“. On the other hand, this plays into helping set the righteous, know-it-all Green Arrow up for what every reader already knows is going to be a very hard fall (assuming the reader looked at the comic’s cover before jumping into the story).
There’s more expert graphic storytelling from Adams at the bottom of page 9, as the artist uses “insert” panels like the successive frames of a film to economically convey GA’s pained reaction to Browden’s punch to his wounded shoulder.
Of course, Browden’s fists are useless against GL’s power ring, and so…
Yes, Green Lantern actually uses the word “lad”, and not in an ironic way. It won’t be the last time this issue, either.
Say, we haven’t seen that shadowed figure reclining in the window before, have we? I wonder who that might be?
Here, O’Neil walks a thin line — successfully, in my opinion — as he allows the young addicts to tell the story’s readers what they’re up against in their daily lives, without suggesting that these challenges excuse such actions as their earlier mugging of Oliver Queen.
Yep, that mysterious figure is none other than our boy Roy Harper. No surprise there, right?
The Asian-American youth explains to our Emerald Crusaders that he hates his habit and wants to see the pushers behind bars; thus, he’s willing to lead the heroes to their location. GA, noticing that Roy is “looking pretty pale“, tells his ward to remain behind, while he and GL go with the addicts.
As Green Lantern’s ring-power bears them over the city, Green Arrow continues to verbally harass their “guests” (not so unreasonably, in my opinion, considering how they mugged him earlier):
GL may not know a whole lot about drugs, but his space-cop instincts pay off well here…
The Black addict has some qualms about what they’re doing (“Man, I don’t wanna see anybody busted!”), but doesn’t stand in his friend’s way when the latter hits up the pushers for a “reward”:
The pushers and the addicts take off, just before the police arrive on the scene, lights flashing and sirens blaring. But someone else has arrived, too, and he intercepts the cops, directing them away from the hangar…
This scene of Green Lantern’s victory against the heroin “monster” is, perhaps, a little too on the nose; but it does provide an action-based climax for this first chapter of what most readers will by now have realized is going to be a continued story.
Soon, the trio are back at Oliver’s apartment…
Some readers in 1971 — especially those who’d been keeping up with Speedy in Teen Titans for the last couple of years– might quibble with the notion that Roy should be lacking for “friendship”. On the other hand, those same readers would likely also be aware of how Speedy and his teammates had been through the mill of late in that series (the death of Dr. Swenson, their work with Mr. Jupiter, etc.), and thus might see how Green Arrow’s chronic absence from his ward’s life could have had a negative impact on the young archer.
One might argue that the story’s final panel — no larger than anything else on the page — undersells the drama of the moment. But since we’ve already seen this image (or at least a near facsimile) blown up to full-page splash size, via the book’s cover — and thus have been waiting for the moment it represents to arrive for the last 21 pages — I think that the more understated, economical approach used here works. After all, it’s not like O’Neil and Adams have to give us a hard sell for the next issue. What reader with the slightest interest in these characters would be able to pass on Green Lantern #86? Not my younger self in 1971, I assure you.
Without claiming to recall precisely what was going through that younger me’s mind way back then, I feel pretty confident in saying that, only halfway through the tale, it already felt more substantial and “real” than Stan Lee and Gil Kane’s efforts in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 had — though it still meant something that Marvel had gotten there first (and it always would). Of course, O’Neil and Adams still had plenty of story left to tell, and thus, plenty of opportunities to screw it up. Come August, we’ll be taking a look to see if the creators managed to stick the landing; I hope you’ll join us.
As substantial and momentous as “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” indisputably was, it couldn’t fill all of the content pages ordained by DC’s new 25-cent, 48-page, “Bigger & Better” format. And so, it would share space in Green Lantern #85 with reprinted material.
Like with Batman #234 earlier in the month, editor Julius Schwartz had a wide assortment of appropriate archival content to select from. Not only did he have twelve years’ worth of Silver Age Green Lantern stories of varying lengths on hand, but the nine years of Golden Age Green Lantern adventures that had preceded them. And if he wanted, there was also the long stint of Green Arrow (and Speedy!) tales in More Fun, Adventure, and World’s Finest that he could draw on. Even Black Canary’s late-’40s solo outings from Flash Comics could be tapped.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Schwartz decided to lead off with a “Demand Classic” that was relatively close to home — a tale of the Green Lantern he himself had had a hand in developing, Hal Jordan, from a comic he himself had originally edited, nine years previously: “The Strange Trial of Green Lantern!”, from GL #11 (Mar., 1962):
I can’t honestly claim to remember what I thought of this John Broome-Gil Kane-Joe Giella story on first reading it a half-century ago; nevertheless, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it was probably my favorite of any of the reprints I read in DC’s comics that June, the inaugural month of the “Bigger & Better” era.
That’s because it prominently featured the Green Lantern Corps, of whom I’d been a fan going back at least to GL #55 and #56, back in 1967. As much as I was enjoying “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”, if there was anything I missed about the “pre-relevance” days, it was seeing the alien members of the Corps on at least an occasional basis. For my money, you couldn’t go wrong with any story that featured the imaginative, frequently bizarre, but somehow always endearing designs of Gil Kane for these stalwart extraterrestrial law enforcement professionals:
Seriously, just take a good look at these guys:
So, yeah, I was probably pretty happy to have the opportunity to read this one.
Not that that meant that I was suddenly happy about the price hike, mind you. Or that I no longer believed that reprints (even the really good ones) belonged in their own titles (preferably giant-sized), and shouldn’t be found between the same covers as the brand new stuff.
In the end, even Tomar-Re can only take you so far, y’know?