Friday, April 30, 2010

Racism in the North Woods

Green Lantern #79 (September 1970)
"Ulysses Star is Still Alive!"
Denny O'Neil-Neal Adams/Dan Adkins

Doug: We're back for our fourth and (for now) final look at the highly regarded run in Green Lantern by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams. It's our intent to return to this title at some point in the summer. It's been an enlightening look, yet a curious experience to be sure.

Karen: In retrospect, I may have been too harsh on this series in previous posts. There's no denying that what O'Neil and Adams were doing at the time was a huge step for DC. Although I still think that last story was a very lazy effort!

Doug: I'll have to agree with you, friend. I think I have been guilty of looking through my Marvel Age lens at these stories. I have to accept that editorial at DC was different from what Stan and Roy were allowing their creators to do at the House of Ideas. Instead of incessantly panning Denny O'Neil's writing, I should instead be embracing his envelope-pushing.

Doug: Our hard-traveling heroes remain in the Pacific Northwest, where their last adventure had brought them. As the story opens, Hal, Ollie, and the Guardian (can you believe it's been four issues and they haven't named this guy?) sit around a campfire. Footsteps running through the adjacent forest alert the trio, and snap GL and GA to action. What they find is shocking: a Native American fallen and at the mercy of a lumberjack and a businessman. All bear weapons, and all spout racist epithets. It's really quite unnerving to this reader, O'Neil's penchant for in-your-face language. I'll be quite frank, and I've said this previously -- I would really like to know how these stories were received 40 years ago. A little bit of his far-left (don't read into that, as I tend to vote Democrat) moralizing in an issue, and then a multi-issue exploration of a given topic of social injustice would have been welcome compared to this tour de force of poverty, economic oppression, and racism. I understand that America has its problems, and perhaps it was better that the heroes did not solve those problems but instead felt beat down by them as well. But this series has left me weary.

Karen: I really wish the TPB collections had the letter pages from these issues. It would be fascinating to see what the reader reaction was. I wonder if readers back then would be as appalled as we are by terms like "redskin" and the other epithets. I tend to think not. What was really unbelievable was when the heroes first encounter corporate bad guy Theodore Pudd (how did they get away with that name?) he asks them to help wipe out the "filthy savages" - even though they just prevented him from shooting a Native American man! How does that make any sense? Lazy writing again?

Doug: At issue in this book are logging rights. This is certainly a "ripped from the headlines" story, as the early 1970's were rife with Native American issues of fishing rights, etc. In fact, the so-called Second Wounded Knee, involving a stand-off between the Lakota of Pine Ridge, SD and FBI agents would be only two years from this time. The Native Americans state that their claim to the land was lost with a former tribe member who left 20 years ago; the loggers claim rests on the fact that the government copy of the deed has been lost. So, with no paperwork, the logging company intends to squat on the land. O'Neil uses extremely racist language in this segment, employing the terms "redskin", "paleface", "animals", and "creature".

Doug: Of course, Hal thinks there's nothing to be done (Hal's becoming a bit tough to take in the role of socially unaware stiff), while Ollie counters with his emotion-on-his-sleeve kneejerk reaction. But Hal surprises the reader by taking the only lead they have -- the tribe member who'd left two decades ago -- and investigating. As fate would have it, Hal arrives at the only address he could find, to find the building ablaze. Even here O'Neil gives us racist vocabulary. Anyway, Hal finds the man he's looking for, rescues him, and then learns that the paper he was after was indeed real... until it burned with the building. Adams art and storytelling is particularly strong in this scene. Hal then flies off to Washington to seek aid from a Congressman friend. For Hal, it is paramount that any solution be within the bounds of the law.

Karen: At least Hal speaks up for himself in this issue! "I'm getting a bit tired of your lording it over me with your moral superiority routine..." It was good to see some backbone from him. Hal's initiative in finding a solution-within the law -was refreshing.

Doug: Back on the reservation, Ollie and Black Canary minister to the children. They discuss what the people need, and determine that all the medicine, books, and financial aid in the world won't be enough. What these people truly need is a return to their spirit. So, in a scene right out of Scooby-Doo (seriously... that is all I could think of when I got to this part), Ollie "disguises" himself as Ulysses Star, the tribal forefather who'd made the original treaty for the land. He keeps popping up, "haunting" the loggers and tribe members alike. Hal eventually shows up to break up a skirmish, and engages the "ghost". As they battle, Ollie's true identity is revealed, and he and Hal take out their liberal/conservative issues on each other.

Karen: Oh man...Scooby Doo is right! Things were going so well until that old trick was dragged into this plot. Why? It just seems so pointless. Why do we have to have these guys fighting each other practically every story?

Doug: The story ends with arrests made for the arson of the building that burned earlier in the story and a pledge from Hal's congressman friend to remedy the situation through the legislative and judicial processes. Hal and Ollie make up, and listen to a short sermon from the Guardian. And we're left to our own beliefs/devices to decide how the story turns out.

Karen: I suppose it makes sense that there's no resolution, because these types of problems are not easily resolved. But rather than fighting each other I'd like to have seen our two men in green actually work together.


Edo Bosnar said...

So, when his identity was revealed, did Ollie say, "...and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids and that - oh, wait a minute..."
By the way, I grew up in the Pacific NW, and I can say the logging issue became really hot in the 1980s, and the fishing rights problems, esp. with reference to Native Americans, never went away. So in that respect I have to say kudos to O'Neil for tackling such flashpoint issues in a comic book way back then, even before they were really being dealt with substantially in other pop culture media like television or movies.
As for racist language, hell, it's 2010 and there's still a pro football team called the "redskins"...

Luis Olavo Dantas said...

I never managed to overcome my puzzlement at the name "Ulysses Star". Which Native American community would ever have such a name?

Bruce said...

Very late to the game on this one - I hadn't discovered this wonderful blog (which has quickly become my favorite comics site on the Internet) when this originally was posted.

Anyway, I read all four of your Hard Travellin' Heroes reviews, and I agree that Denny O'Neill can get a bit preachy at times during this run. He's pushing a progressive perspective, and not being too subtle about it.

However, the reason these stories work for me is because the opposing viewpoint (in this case, represented by Green Lantern) still is treated with respect. Green Lantern may be "wrong" in these stories, but he's still presented as a good guy.

Contrast this with the wretched Civil War series, where the conservative stand-ins (Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic) are outright villains. Or the original Hawk & Dove series, where the liberal character (Dove) was presented a self-absorbed wimp, compared to the overly aggressive but heroic Hawk.

I find O'Neill's more balanced, respectful treatment of the political opposition to be much more palatable. And the Neal Adams art doesn't hurt! His work from this era, both on GA/GL and Batman, is some of my favorite comic art of all time.

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