Too Cold Outside for Snowbirds to Fly

Snowbirds

“The battle of values that shook a nation.” -GL/GA

As stated in my previous posts, I thought we’d mix it up this week by reviewing something that had to be approved rather than something that was banned. Most books are innocent until proven guilty, however the need for literary content to gain approval before being circulated is far from an abstract concept. Throughout history and under many governments the world over, written works have required approval for various reasons. For an interesting glimpse into this legacy, be it the Catholic Church censoring books or the Nazis burning them, I recommend Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book.

THE DEFENDANT: “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” and “They Say It’ll Kill Me…But They Won’t Say When”, written by Denny O’Neil, artwork by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, DC Comics

THE ACCESSORY: Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, DC Comics

THE PRIORS: The Comics Code Authority came about in the 1950s as a result of a juvenile delinquent specialist’s mistaken notion that comics were responsible for the rise in criminal activities among America’s youth. He interviewed numerous incarcerated young people, trying to determine the cause of this new trend and noticed that many of them read comics. Reading comics was a very common youth activity at the time (this was back when comics were at the newsstand instead in niche specialty stores), so this was hardly a causal relationship. Most children behind bars had read comics simply because most children had. However, the idea that comics were responsible for the social plights of the mid-20th century sparked an industry-wide crackdown.

The Comics Code Authority, a form of self-regulation, was imposed as an alternative to government regulation. Comics were not technically required to get CCA approval, but many retailers refused to carry titles that had not been approved. The rules under the CCA were incredibly restricting, banning everything from sexual content and sexualized women to horror and the undead, and policing depictions of crime and law enforcement.

When Stan Lee wanted to do a Spider-man story featuring drugs, it was not approved by the CCA, even though the comic portrayed drug abuse as destructive. Instead of changing the story, Marvel put out the comic without CCA approval.

THE PARDON: After Amazing Spider-man broached the issue, the Code was revised, allowing for stories to address drug use if portrayed negatively. This change in rules allowed for the ground-breaking, “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” which, unlike Amazing Spider-man, addressed drugs with more personal and realistic consequences.

THE REVIEW:

Green Lantern/Green Arrow: Green Lantern/Green Arrow was an attempt by DC to use comics as a means of addressing issues of social justice. The famous team-up plays hot-headed, radical Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) against the authority-trusting Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) as they tackle the moral and social issues facing America at the time. Racism, cults, drugs, troubled teenagers, corporate feudalism, pollution, unjust laws, institutionalized oppression, nothing is off limits (except sexism, it seems; more on that later). The stories range from campy and melodramatic to powerfully resonant, helped by the fact that many of these issues are still relevant and hotly contested today.

More than just being a solid collection of comics and a part of DC history, this run is a fascinating and illuminating glimpse of a people and a moment in time. This picture of America in the 1970s shows the collective fears, hopes, dreams, and anxieties of a generation. Though media such as comic books, genre fiction, and pulp fiction are often dismissed as mere entertainment with no literary or cultural value, it is often these works that offer the most anthropological insights. For more on this, please see my thoughts on Dracula.

Reading this collection, a veritable Polaroid of politics and social upheaval, decades later provides an interesting perspective, not just because of what is still relevant, but what isn’t. I’m always amused by sci-fi that still has 50s gender roles. Bradbury does it. Dick does it. How could they foresee so much change and be on the money about so many things, yet fail to see the feminist movement coming? It boggles the mind. Some of the stories in this collection leave me with a similar feeling. They are so radical for their time, yet now can come across as uncomfortable and racist–the very thing they sought to change.

This is largely a good thing, showing how far American society has come in less than half a century. What was seemingly idealistic then is a far cry from good enough now. It made me wonder how media from today will be perceived forty years from now. Will my attempts to address inequality in my own fiction be seen as horribly racist or sexist one day? I shudder at the thought, but, at the same time, I welcome the amount of progress that would imply.

However, the treatment of my favorite costumed leading lady, Black Canary, made me feel far more discomfort than hope. The narration is favorable towards Dinah Lance, waxing poetic about her beauty and martial arts prowess to an awkward extent. I know she’s good, canonically better than Batman even, but is she really the greatest to ever master her chosen martial arts disciplines in their entire history? Really? Does she have to be the best that ever was in the history of forever just to be taken at all seriously among the boys? It also kind of smacks of the dude goes native and does it better than all the natives trope.

The narration also dwells so much on how she abhors violence despite being skilled at it. I wouldn’t mind this, but it happens so frequently that it became problematic, not only because I don’t need that kind of insight into O’Neil’s fetishes, but because it paints her as a wide-eyed, innocent, Madonna-esque vessel of life, making her less of a character than a symbol (and not in the good way like Batman, V, or Zorro). The amount of times she gets concussed (sexily concussed; the girl can swoon with the best of ’em) does nothing to help this. Again, look how far we’ve come? Dinah goes from being rescued more than a girl in an Oxnard Montalvo movie to saving Green Arrow’s emerald hide in his own titular DCAU short and serving as a badass drill instructor on Young Justice. Of course, then Arrow happened. Maybe we haven’t come so far after all.

In addition to the narration, Dinah’s relationship with Ollie is downright squicky. Despite being the most outspoken, radically liberal character, Ollie’s treatment of his girlfriend is nothing short of meatheaded. He’s controlling, condescending, overprotective, and just an all-around bad boyfriend. It’s night and day from the Ollie and Dinah I know and love. Despite attempting to beat a man to death for harming Dinah, Ollie can hardly be bothered to save her life when she needs a blood transfusion, dragging his heels and complaining that he doesn’t want to go back to the smog and filth of the city he once protected. I honestly would love if this was intentional (doubtful). If so, it would be a brilliant yet subtle commentary on how, even in progressive circles, those who condemn the injustices of others may be blind to their own prejudices. Never again indeed, Mr. Queen.

This unintentional theme is driven home by several ambiguous endings where characters are forced to recognize that they may harbor hate themselves and may have taken a less than noble course of action had someone not intervened. It is this ambiguity that is the strength of the story. There may be no easy answers, whether for our problems or for the questions we ask ourselves alone in the dark. It is in this uncertain, grey space that offers the reader more questions than solutions that these stories truly triumph.

Despite problematic elements, serious melodrama, hamfisted messages, and a few sciencefails that would make even Stan Lee cringe, this trade is an excellent read. It may be clunky in its attempts to address some of the issues, but at least it addresses them. It started a conversation, leaving it for others to continue, exploring new issues and, in turn, paving the way for another generation to question the status quo. If nothing else, Green Lantern/Green Arrow provided some of the comic book industry’s greatest covers, one of which graces my bedroom wall.

Nothing like waking up to Hal Jordan being called out as a racist cop.

Nothing like waking up to Hal Jordan being called out as a racist cop.

“Snowbirds Don’t Fly”: This two-part comic forces our often-opposing duo to face the ugly and all-too-familiar face of addiction. Green Arrow’s self-righteousness and outright disgust with those who do drugs is challenged when his own ward and sidekick, Roy Harper (Speedy) is revealed to be an addict.

“Snowbirds Don’t Fly” is easily the best, and most problematic story in the whole trade. This comic not only addresses drug abuse and addiction, an issue more devastating than any crimelord or scheming madman our caped heroes have brought to justice but is a largely sympathetic portrayal of those who turn to drugs. The “Snowbirds” are not a scourge upon Star City, they are the victims. Drug abuse is a symptom of other problems, whether an inattentive parent or an inability to cope with oppression, not the problem itself.

The choice to have the innocent young ward archetype as the addict shows that this is not something that happens to delinquent children or even “other people’s children.” If it can happen to Oliver Queen’s own ward, it can happen to anyone. The scene where Speedy and his fellow heroin addicts discuss why they use is easily the most damning panel in a trade famous for accusation and shock value. This scene is also a more powerful commentary on race than any of the issues that seek to directly tackle racism or discrimination.

Green Arrow is nothing close to a hero in this issue and Green Lantern, an unintentionally bigoted stick-in-the-mud for much of the collection, steps up to the plate. Again though, Dinah’s appearance is troubling. After having a heroin addict dropped on her doorstep (not getting any responsibility points on that one, boys), Dinah somehow, through the maternal magic of womanness, is able to help Roy through his withdrawals. The issue ends with Roy facing off against his hero and father figure. He still hates and blames Ollie, having gotten clean just to prove that he is strong enough to do it without help (apparently Dinah’s help doesn’t count). Instead of mulling over his ward’s condemnation and growing as a person, or at least questioning himself as Green Lantern and Black Canary do in previous issues, Green Arrow is merely proud that his son has become a man. Not exactly the lesson you should be taking from this, Ollie.

This story is an arresting read that turns our notions of heroes on its head. The innocent fall from grace, the heroic fail the innocent, and the true hell of drug use is laid bare before the reader far better than Harry Osborn’s addiction ever managed to, especially when one of Roy’s friends overdoses. Straight up killing a kid in a comic might not seem like much in the age of Game of Thrones, but it was by far the darkest, edgiest moment in the trade, except for maybe Black Canary trying to shoot Ollie for interfering with her and her cult’s genocidal machinations. Arrow recently gave a nod to “Snowbirds” in last week’s episode when it addressed a slightly different Speedy’s drug problems. Yet as interesting as the show’s take was, it fell short of the original, playing it safe instead of going for the jugular.

Well, you did name the boy "Speedy." What were you expecting?

Well, you did name the boy “Speedy.” What were you expecting?

THE TESTIMONY: Part of the reason the Code was changed to specifically allow this sort of story was because of the reception of the Amazing Spider-man by government services and their request for DC to tackle the issue. This story received similar gratitude. The second issue of “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” even features an endorsement from the Mayor of New York City.

It was ridiculous that the Code ever had a problem with addressing issues relevant to its readers. Showing the horrors of addiction does not corrupt children. It educates them. This is my biggest problem with censorship. Apart from not being beneficial, it is downright harmful. Not talking about drugs does not keep kids from using or abusing them. It merely insures that they will hear about it from other, potentially misleading, sources.

The people behind the story preempted those who may disapprove of the content, or of having serious content in what is viewed as a “fluff” medium, with their own thoughts on the matter. As the first issue says:

“Some will say the following story should not be told… There will be those who argue that such events have no place in an entertainment magazine–perhaps they are right! But we don’t think so–Because we’ve seen these noble creatures, human beings, wrecked…made less than animals…plunged into hells of agonies! We’ve seen it–we’re angry…and this is our protest!”

-Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Julius Schwartz

Looks like arrows weren't the only thing he was shooting.

Looks like arrows weren’t the only thing he was shooting.

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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

6 responses to “Too Cold Outside for Snowbirds to Fly”

  1. nightwing17 says :

    Reblogged this on Reviews by Lantern's Light and commented:
    Remember that episode of Justice League where Green Lantern is on trial? It’s like that, but with drugs!

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