Red Arrow and Drug Abuse
Comic book stories tackling real-life issues have been a running theme for a long time and, at this point, are a part of the medium. Gone are the days when a superhero story addressing social issues was deemed controversial. But what I consider the most interesting about these stories are their ramifications and impact on that comic book universe and their readers.
Let’s take DC Comics, for example. Back in the early 70s, writer Denny O’Neil wanted to address drug addiction in his Green Lantern/Green Arrow run. An established character got the spotlight in that regard: Roy Harper, who was Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy at the time, but later on, he would become Arsenal and is also known as the Red Arrow.
Roy’s drug problem has become intrinsic to his character, and, for better or worse, he is known for his drug addiction. Today we will talk about how that came to be and how it was handled in the following decades.
Snowbirds Don’t Fly and its Consequences.
As usual, it’s essential to address the context of the times and see how that played a role in some of these iconic storylines.
When Denny O’Neil took the Green Lantern title in the early 70s, the character struggled, and the writer teamed up with artist Neal Adams to give Hal Jordan a new lease on life. To do so, they added Green Arrow in the title, becoming Green Lantern/Green Arrow.
O’Neil had already revamped the character of Oliver Queen, and this particular run was focused on making him and Hal political opposites and how they would deal with different issues of rural America. It is widely regarded as one of the first socially conscious comic book runs and has gained a lot of acclaim throughout the years.
And there is one storyline that appears in Green Lantern/Green Arrow issues #85 and #86, Snowbirds Don’t Fly, where they tackle the problem of drug addiction. They addressed it through Oliver’s sidekick, Roy Harper, who became a heroin addict because Green Arrow neglected him. There is even one scene where Oliver runs into Roy when he is injecting himself with heroin.
Considering this was done in 1971 when drug addicts were not that common in comics, and it was indeed rare to see a superhero doing drugs, this issue was groundbreaking and highly influential. Many people talk about Alan Moore’s Watchmen as the point where superhero comics got darker, but you have to go all the way to the early 70s in stories like Snowbirds Don’t Fly to see where that seed was sown.
Roy Harper and drugs
When Green Arrow and Speedy were created in the early 40s, they were primarily analogs to Batman and Robin. So they had versions of the Batmobile, the Batcave, and so on, plus the fact that Oliver and Bruce Wayne are millionaire playboys and Roy Harper and Dick Grayson were their adoptive sons.
But while Green Arrow eventually evolved and became much more of a socially-conscious superhero with a bad temper and much more prone to human mistakes, the character of Roy Harper didn’t have such a smooth transition. Instead, O’Neil’s 1971 story made drug addiction the focal point of Roy’s character, which has stuck with him ever since.
While Roy would eventually leave drugs behind in that very same storyline, there would be many different stories where the ramifications of his addiction were still felt. There were Teen Titans and solo miniseries where he would have a support group. He would also try to help other people that were having drug problems.
For large portions of his history, Roy was a former addict, and he even went as far as having his daughter, Lian, with a villain of the DC Universe, Cheshire (it’s comics, it’s a long story). And many of these plot points would eventually reach a rather tragic and uncomfortable conclusion in the Justice League storyline, Cry for Justice.
Cry for Justice and addiction again
When writer James Robinson wrote the Justice League story Cry for Justice in 2009, Roy Harper had taken the mantle of Red Arrow. He was a full-time member of the League while also being a very responsible father and a fully functional member of society, with his addiction behind him.
Then Robinson decided to destroy all that.
In that storyline, the villain Prometheus destroys Star City, where Roy’s daughter, Lian, lives, and she dies in the process. Of course, killing a child character was already controversial enough, but he also decided to have Roy pass out when that happened, so we don’t get to see his reaction the second that happens. However, afterward, the death of his daughter has a downward spiral effect on Roy and his struggles with addiction.
In the miniseries that followed this story, Justice League: The Rise of Arsenal, Roy returns to his addiction to drugs, gets back together with Cheshire for what amounts to be a second or two, gets a cybernetic arm (because he lost it during Cry for Justice), and he ends up in an alley holding a cat because the drugs made him believe he was holding his daughter.
Drug addiction has become, for better or worse, the defining trait of Roy Harper’s character and has been going on for quite some time. When DC rebooted their line with the New 52 in 2011, he was relaunched as a more heroic character in the traditional sense and as a former addict, but you don’t see him having relapses or anything of the sort.
He is arguably the first central comic character to be involved with drugs. While some writers have made the wrong decisions regarding how to handle that, his progression from a helpless young man struggling with addiction to a good father who overcame his inner demons is worth the praise and solid character development. In a society overrun by opioids and other drugs, having someone conquer their inner demons is a story worth telling.