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Neal Adams: How Green Arrow / Green Lantern #76 Changed Comic Book History

Neal Adams has died, but one comic book he co-created created 40 years ago has impacted comic books for generations.

Adams died at 80-years old. He was a legendary comic book artist who used his photorealistic stylings to reinvigorate Batman and other superheroes. In real life, he was a tireless defender of comic creator rights. While the world is mourning his loss there's one story that not only changed his career. It also changed the comic book industry and helped usher in a new age in comic books.

The Beginning of the Bronze Age

Many who study comic books refer to different periods of comic book history by "ages". 

First is the "Golden Age" between 1938 to 1956. Many of the most popular comic book characters like Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman were created during this time. Comic books first came into their own and became popular. Then came the "Silver Age" between 1956 to circa 1970. Around this time the popularity of comic books was blamed for a rise in juvenile crime. In 1954, the Comics Code Authority was created to regulate and curb violence in comics. After that was implemented comics shifted away from horror and war to superheroes.  The next phase, the "Bronze Age of Comic Books" ran from about 1970 to 1985. 

This is where Green Arrow / Green Lantern #76 comes in. In 1971 writer Dennis O'Neil was paired with up-and-coming penciler Neal Adams for Batman #237. Sales at DC were slipping and O'Neil had a number of ideas for righting the ship. One of those was to tell more socially relevant stories in the comics. O'Neil brought dark and gritty stories to Batman and Adams' highly realistic art was a breakthrough for the company.

“Denny modestly described it as a return to the character’s roots, but it was much more than that,” said DC Chief Creative Officer and Publisher Jim Lee. “They channeled the zeitgeist of the times and brought to life a darker, more evocative yet grounded take on Batman.”

The team was finding success and editor Julius Schwartz decided they would be the perfect pair to revitalize a flagging comic book.

Green Lantern tells the story of a human who's given an alien ring that allowed him to create anything he could imagine. Alan Scott / Green Lantern was created by Martin Nodell and Bill Finger in 1940. But John Broome and Gil Kane introduced a new Green Lantern named Hal Jordon. The comic had a decent enough run but sales were tanking. Adams and O'Neil took over from veteran comic book creators John Broome and Gil Kane. 

This comic would break new ground and helped usher in the more realistic and socially relevant "Bronze Age".

A New Kind of Team-Up

Green Lantern was renamed Green Arrow / Green Lantern and it was a twist on the classic team-up comic that DC and Marvel had done in the past. Team-Up comics were a common story-telling technique and it usually helped a less popular comic book character tag onto the popularity of a more popular comic book character.

World's Finest Comics and Superman/Batman were both popular in the comic book companies.  First, the two characters shared billing with their names taking equal weight in the title.  Second, sometimes the heroes would fight when they first meet but would quickly become friends. This comic was different because the two were framed as slightly adversarial. 

O'Neil thought carefully about Green Lantern and came to the conclusion that he could be reimagined as a "Space Cop". During the 1960s and 70s high profile riots and other events cast the police in a different light. They became a flashpoint for civil rights abuse. For example, in Augusta, Georgia police killed three black people in early 1970. At Jackson State College Mississippi State Troopers fired 250 rounds into a women's dorm killing two young black men.

What if he used Green Lantern as a symbol of the Establishment? "I mean, he wore a uniform, he did what he was told, he answered to bosses," he later said. But in order to explore that idea, he needed somebody to take the "opposite point of view".

Green Arrow was a clear Batman rip-off. A billionaire named Oliver Queen with no superpowers uses his money to become a superhero. He even has a young ward like Robin named Speedy. But by this time Adams had given GA a new look and costume the year before in The Brave and the Bold. O’Neil made Queen lose all his money in Justice League. The character was ripe for a reimagining.

Green Arrow was reenvisioned as a "man of the people" fighting the rich to save the poor like Robin Hood. The stage was set for a change and it would turn the comic book industry upside down.

Civil Rights Comes to Comics

The story is called "No Evil Shall Escape My Sight". In the opening of Green Arrow / Green Lantern #76 Green Lantern is patrolling Star City and sees two thugs beating up an old man. So he does what cops should do and fights the "bad guys". But instead of being celebrated as a hero, the crowds jeer him. But the most shocking thing to GL is that Green Arrow joins in and tells him to "Back off! Go chase a mad scientist or something."

It turns out that the man is a horrible slum lord named Jubal Slade. At the time landlords were selling off properties to avoid paying property tax and forcing the tenants onto the street. Queen shows Jordan all the people that Slade was planning to throw out of their homes just for some money. People living in an apartment the landlord hadn't repaired in years.

Comic books of the Silver Age were goofy, fanciful, and exotic. They rarely dealt with everyday street crime much less urban poverty. This was taking the readers into a whole new world.

As the two superheroes are talking an old man shuffles up to them and this is where the comic takes another turn. The man asks Green Lantern why he works for the "blue skins" (Guardians of the Universe) to help out planets with "orange skins" and "purple skins", and why he never bothered with the "black skins" on his own planet. 

Dennis O'Neil was white but he was far from rich. In fact, as was common in the comic industry at the time, he was overworked and underpaid. He was living in the slums of 1970s downtown Manhattan and saw urban black poverty up close.

This was a time when New York City was a dangerous place. Gang violence, subway crime, and muggings were shockingly common. It had gotten so bad that NYPD warned people not to take the subway.  The city was on the edge of bankruptcy with almost $10 billion in debt. Mayor Abraham Beame was forced to cut the police, fire, and sanitation departments. The reduction in the city's police force caused an increase in crime. O'Neil was living in all that and he decided to use his perspective to craft a new kind of story. 

The close-up of the old man's face is raw and spills across the page. His expression of disgust is powerful and moving. This points to another way the comic changed the comic book industry.

Depiction of Minorities

One big change in the comic is the depiction of black people. Typically different races were just drawn as white people with different color skin. Usually, the Asian characters were the same except for slanted eyes and a bowl haircut. Green Lantern comics featured the incredibly racist character named "Pieface". We talked about the Pieface controversy before.

Black people rarely appeared in the comics. Usually, they were background characters or thugs. Marvel introduced the first black superhero in mainstream America with the Black Panther in 1966. But almost ten years later most artists just showed black people with caucasian features but darker lips and curlier hair. 

Neal Adams was different. He chose to show them completely different with curler hair, and more pronounced noses and lips. It was a revelation at the time and changed the way comics handled minorities going forward. 

Although Adams was white he lived in New York and came face-to-face with his white privilege. "I pretended that I was liberal, I pretended that I understood," he later said. "And then you'd go through Harlem and it's, 'What are you doing here, white boy?' And how did that happen? Excuse me, you're just another guy, right? But you happen to have darker skin and you're treating me like I put you there. And guess what? I did. I did put you there. That was the reality."

Every artist after Neal Adams strove for a more realistic style and a more diverse appearance. "No Evil Shall Escape My Sight" changed everything.

This brings us to the next big change that Green Arrow / Green Lantern #76 brought.

Realism in Story and Art

Instead of fighting giant alien monsters, Green Lantern finds himself fighting a slumlord who is technically following the law. Jordan tries to convince Slade to keep the building but the man laughs in his face. "I mean you gotta be kidding!" Slade laughs. "I mean I have the law on my side. I can do anything I want with my property." Green Lantern tries to solve the problem using his fists but the Guardians intervene  It's a world much closer to the world we live in.

Besides the subject matter, Neal Adams excelled at a more realistic style of drawing. Up until this point, most artists followed in the style of the greats like Jack "King" Kirby and Curt Swan. But Adams was different. He received his art training at the School of Industrial Arts in New York City. 

At 21 years old he started drawing the Ben Casey syndicated newspaper strip. This was his big break. Both demanded a very realistic art style and Adams's style was a huge shift from the slightly cartoony look of comic books up to that point.

While his work on Batman had set the stage his run on Green Lantern would push him to the national stage. Neal Adams had an art style that fits perfectly with O'Neil's more realistic writing style. The pair would work on the comic for twelve more issues and it changed DC comics forever.

Hard Travelin' Heroes

At the end of the comic, the two find a way to beat the slumlord by tricking him into admitting his crimes. Green Arrow pleads with Green Lantern to stop traveling the galaxy and fight for the good people of America.

"Forget about chasing around the galaxy and remember America," Green Arrow says. "It's a good country – beautiful, fertile, and terribly sick! There are children dying, honest people cowering in fear, disillusioned kids ripping up campuses." He then references the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

"On the streets of Memphis, a good black man died," he pleads. "And in Los Angeles, a good white man fell. Something is wrong! Something is killing us all! Some hideous cancer is rotting our very souls!"

Hal Jordan realizes the error of his ways and sets off to confront the slum lord. But Slade points out he hasn't broken the law. He has every right to make money any way he wants. Green Lantern is about to punch the slum lord when an angry blue guardian head chastises him for attacking a "human who has committed no crime". Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, and a Guardian named Appa Ali Apsa (disguised as a human) decide to join together. The trio travels the country to learn what it means to be a hero. The story arc is known as "Hard Travelin' Heroes". 

The story arc would lead to a groundbreaking thirteen-issue run. The comics broke new ground by talking about previously untouched topics like drug abuse, racism, and ecology. 

Adams and O'Neil won Shazam Awards in 1970 for Best Individual Story for this comic. He also won Best Pencil Artist (Dramatic Division) for this comic. He also won the 1971 Goethe Award thanks to this series. The two-part comic about discovering Speedy is a heroin addict won them another Shazam award for Best Individual Story. The run prompted New York Mayor John Lindsay to write a letter to DC commending them for the comics. 

Looking back from 2022 it's hard to imagine how game-changing this is. But if you look at the other comics sharing the shelf with Green Arrow / Green Lantern #76 you can see the difference. 

One comic is Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane #100. In that issue, Superman realizes aliens are using an android version of Lana Lang to frame Lois Lane for her murder. In Superman #225 an evil scientist creates a duplicate of the Man of Steel with a beard and goofy suit that transmits pain to Superman. Meanwhile, in Superboy #164, the hero discovers aliens from the Crab Nebula are replacing everyone on Earth with android duplicates. These are the kinds of comics the world was reading when Adams and O'Neil pushed the boundaries. 

It was ground-breaking and set the stage for creators like Frank Miller who idolized Adams and personally mentored him. Miller went on to create the influential dark graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Legendary artist Alex Ross said on Twitter that Adams was "one of the greatest artists in the history of American illustration". 

You can pick up the Green Lantern/Green Arrow paperback from Amazon. It's worth every penny.

The man was a giant among men and his comic in 1976 started it all. Happy Trails Mr. Adams.


About the Author

Maurice Mitchell has been a passionate science-fiction fan of movies, television, books, and comics since age five. He and his twin brother Nigel created the site "The Geek Twins" to share that passion. Maurice has written and created infographics for sites like The Geek Twins and About.com. His work has been featured on sites like Business Insider, io9, Slashfilm, and more.
Read more of his posts | Follow him on Twitter @Mauricem1972 

What's your favorite comic by Neal Adams? How have comics changed over the years? Let us know in the comments below!
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