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We've Got Relevance

 

Recently a Marvel executive at a big sales summit caused a stir in the fan press when he said that their declining sales was the result of the company's push to add diversity to their comics. Well, that's not exactly what he said. He noted that sales were down, and specifically that sales of some of their more “diverse” titles were down, and that according to the feedback the company has been receiving from their retailers, that diversity is to blame for it.

In the past few years, Marvel has been making some drastic changes to some of it's iconic heroes. We've seen Captain America replaced by his black former partner Falcon; Thor, Iron Man and Wolverine replaced by women; Spider-Man by a black-Hispanic teen from an alternate universe and the Hulk by a Korean-American brainiac. And some fans have complained that this is all just Politically-Correct Social Justice Affirmative Reverse-Discrimination and want to go back to the Good Ol' Days when the Avengers line-up was whiter than the Moon Knight's underwear.

Personally, I can't say any of this bothers me much. I suppose I don't have that much emotional investment in the classic Marvel heroes. I'm sure the iconic characters will come back eventually – indeed, some of them already have – because that's the nature of the Comic Book Industry. To me the important thing is if the new versions are good characters and if they will have good stories. I was somewhat annoyed when DC killed of Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle several years ago, and dubious about his replacement, a Hispanic kid in an alien battle suit. But the new Beetle proved to be a likable, engaging character and a worthy successor to Ted, so I don't begrudge him taking on the venerable Beetle legacy.

But thinking about Diversity and Super-Heroes reminded me about another time when the comics tackled Big Social Issues. I'm talking about the legendary Relevance Era in DC Comics.

The late '60s and early '70s were a turbulent time in American culture, and comic books no less. Audience tastes were changing, and DC's solid, reliable heroes like Superman and Batman were looking bland and unexciting next to the comparatively complex and more sophisticated characters coming out of Marvel. In addition, a new generation of creators was coming into the comics industry that was more willing to challenge the old formulas and gimmicks. Overall, there was a sense that instead of simply punching out super-villains, super-heroes ought to be addressing real-world social problems.

Editor Julie Schwartz was an important mover behind the push for “relevance”. He had served as the godfather of the Silver Age back in the late 1950s, re-tooling characters like the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman into science-based heroes. In the mid-'60s he had been charged with updating Batman and was instrumental in creating the “New Look” Batman and refocusing the comic on mysteries and crime.

By 1970, the Green Lantern he had re-envisioned as an interplanetary lawman over a decade earlier was showing his age, so Schwartz brought in a new team to shake things up. Denny O'Neil was one of the new blood writers. A couple years earlier, O'Neil and Mike Sekowsky had done a controversial re-vamp of Wonder Woman, changing her iconic star-spangled costume into a more contemporary pants suit and making her a martial arts hero. The intent was to make her like Emma Peel from the TV series THE AVENGERS, although she wound up looking more like Kung Fu Mary Tyler Moore. Neal Adams was soon to become the superstar artist of the '70s.

They added Green Arrow to the title. Previously, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, had always been kind of a Batman knock-off, only with arrows as his gimmick instead of bats. He was secretly a millionaire playboy, he had a sidekick who was also an archer; he drove around in an Arrow-car and had an Arrow-plane; and he operated out of an Arrow-cave. O'Neil saw the character as a modern day Robin Hood and made him passionate about helping the poor and needy. This set up a character dynamic of the iconoclastic hippie liberal Oliver vs. the law 'n' order space cop Hal Jordon.

In GREEN LANTERN #76 “No Evil Will Escape My Sight”, Green Lantern rescues a guy being attacked on a city street, but is shocked when the bystanders take the attacker's side. Hal's fellow Justice League member Green Arrow shows up and explains that the guy Hal saved is a slum landlord and the people attacking him were tenants whom he was evicting so he could raze their homes.

As Ollie and Hal debate Law vs. Justice, a poor, elderly black man comes up and confronts Hal. There follows a striking three-panel sequence which has been often reprinted and sometimes parodied. It can be regarded as the start of the Relevance Era.

“I been readin' about you... how you work for the BLUE SKINS... and how on a planet somewhere you helped out the ORANGE SKINS...” he says. “...and you done considerable for the PURPLE SKINS ! Only there's SKINS you never bothered with...!”

We get a close-up panel of the old man, his face creased by misfortune but his eyes brimming with rage, looking up fearlessly. “...the black skins! I want to know... HOW COME ?! Answer me TAHT, Mr. GREEN LANTERN !”

In the third panel, Hal lowers his head in shame, avoiding the old man's eyes as he admits, “I... can't”.

Hal decides to try to get justice for the landlord's tenants, which isn't easy, partially because the landlord hasn't technically done anything illegal, but mostly because Hal's bosses, the Guardians of the Universe, (the 'Blue Skins”) call him on the carpet to warn him that his job is to patrol his sector of space and not concern himself with piddly little details like Urban Blight on his own backwater planet. Hal defies the Guardians and tells them that they have been locked up in their ivory planet of Oa for too long and that they've been pondering the Big Picture of the Universe so much that they've lost sight of the lives of all those people living on the myriad worlds they oversee. He challenges them to leave Oa and take a look at how things are at ground level.

One of the Guardians, a guy that Hal calls “The Old-Timer”, takes him up on his offer, and together the three of them, Hal, Oliver and the Old-Timer, set out on a road trip to Discover America and face the burning issues of the day: racism, poverty, pollution, drugs...

Ah, drugs.

Probably the most famous, (or infamous), stories from this run, and an issue which some critics have called the start of the “Relevance Era”, was the 1971 two-parter beginning in GREEN LANTERN #85, “Snowbirds Don't Fly”. While rounding up a bunch of street thugs, Green Arrow discovers that they are armed with some familiar-looking technology: weapons from his own personal arsenal. He does some digging and learns that his former sidekick, Speedy has been pilfering gadgets and weapons from the Arrow-cave and selling them on the street. At first Ollie thinks that Speedy is doing this as a ruse to infiltrate a drug gang, but ultimately he must face the truth: Speedy has become addicted to heroin and has been stealing Ollie's stuff to support his habit.

It had only been a year or two earlier when Marvel had challenged the Comics Code Authority by publishing a Spider-Man story with an anti-drug message without their blessing, which had led to changes in the Comics Code. Whereas the Spidey tale had one of Peter Parker's friends with a drug problem, Denny O'Neil reasoned that showing one of the heroes dealing with addiction would pack a greater punch.(Later still, Speedy would father a child out of wedlock – with a villain, no less – making him that era's go-to-guy for questionable life choices).

Green Arrow and Speedy have it out, and Speedy does manage to shake his addiction, but Ollie comes off rather poorly in this story. For all his crusading for social problems, he's been totally oblivious to one right under his nose.

Other comics DC published around this time also tried to tackle social issues, with varying success. Even the best stories tended to be a bit preachy, and at worst they could be ludicrous. Perhaps the most notable example was an issue of SUPERMAN'S GIRLFRIEND, LOIS LANE published in 1970 titled – and I would not make this up – “I Am Curious, Black”. It was pretty obviously inspired by a 1961 book, “Black Like Me”, about a white reporter who disguises himself as a black man to learn how things look from the other side of the racial divide. In the comic, Lois wants to do a story about racism, but feels stymied because she is an outsider. So Superman helps her out by using a piece of weird Kryptonian technology to make her black for a day or two. He keeps the dangdest stuff in the Fortress of Solitude.

DC's Relevance Era only lasted a few years. Comics historian Ron Goulart recalls dropping in on Julie Schwartz once around 1973 and asking him how relevance was doing. “Relevance is dead,” Julie replied unhappily. Viewed strictly as a gimmick to boost sales, Social Relevance” turned out to be a failure, and the Powers That Be at DC Comics decided to go back to the tried-and-true gimmicks like putting a gorilla on the cover.

But although the Age of Relevance officially died with the Nixon Administration, the impulse of comics creators to make something Important still recurs from time to time. We saw it again with the creation of Black Lightning, and with the EL DIABLO revival of the late '80s, and the special one-shots both Marvel and DC published in the 80s about African Famine Relief. These comics don't change the world, but at their best they give us some good stories and maybe change a little bit of the comic book universe.



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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.