The Green Arrow was created by writer/editor Mort Weisinger and artist George Papp, and he first premiered in More Fun Comics #73. The comic had a cover date of November 1941, although it was likely on sale in late October. The only hint of a Green Arrow story on that comics cover was the declaration of :"Three New Features!" Aquaman was another one of those new features to debut that issue.
With issue 77 (March 1942), Green Arrow started appearing as the main cover feature. And Green Arrow stories would begin to appear in other comic books.
Green Arrow was more successful than many of the superheroes of his day but hardly top of the pack. It took Superman and Batman only a year to rise from their anthology comics Action Comics and Detective Comics to graduate into solo comics titled Superman and Batman. Green Arrow didn't get solo cover billing until 1983 -- 42 years after his debut.
So, Green Arrow wasn't an overnight success, but he kept on going when other superheroes had ceased publication.
This article looks at the early years of this modern-day Robin Hood.
Comics artist and scholar Scott McCloud has traced the artistic heritage of "comics" from the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt to the Rake's Progress by 18th century painter William Hogarth. But for most people, the still was strongly associated with comic strips which appeared in the Sunday (or Saturday for places with blue laws) editions of newspapers from the early 20th century to today. Beginning in the late 1920s, publishers began to reprint the best newspaper strips in a magazine compilation -- a comic book.
But the comic book was truly born in 1935 when former cavalry officer Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson of National Allied Publications released New Fun #1 -- an anthology with featuring comic stories from an assortment of genres -- cowboy, adventure, spies, detectives, sci-fi heroes, humour features and the beginning of a serialized adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's classic novel Ivanhoe. New Fun was the first comic book to feature all-new material. Well, I say all-new but in his introduction to the 2020 reprint comics writer, editor and historian Roy Thomas pointed to all the newspaper strip characters that those "new" characters in "New Fun" strongly resembled. Perhaps there was some truth when New Fun was renamed More Fun with issue 7 and then More Fun Comics with issue 9, the first issue to be in the smaller size of what we think of as comic books.
But really, the name "New" just migrated over to Wheeler-Nicholson's second title New Comics, which was cover-dated December 1935. With issue 15 in 1937, New Comics became New Adventure Comics. Among its many features from issues 23 to 30 was a Robin Hood adventure serial. With issue 32 in 1938, the name changed again. it was simply Adventure Comics.
To fund his next comic, Wheeler-Nicholson needed to go into business with his magazine distributior / printing plant owner Harry Donenfeld and Donenfield's accountant Jack Liebowitz. Together as Detective Comics Inc., they released Detective Comics in 1937. It was a successful venture. At least it was for Donenfeld and Liebowitz -- they forced Wheeler-Nicholson out of the business the next year.
Like the previous comics, Detective Comics was an anthology book drawing on various common archetypes. Two of the features were Bart Regan and Slam Bradley -- both created by two young creators from Cleveland -- Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. You might not have heard of Slam Bradley, but you've definitely heard of Siegel and Shuster's next creation -- a creation that truly kicked off the "Golden Age" of comic books.
Action Comics #1 was cover dated June 1938, but was on sale in April of that year. Kids were probably still gabbing about the exciting new character on the cover while they were lining up to see Errol Flynn in the film The Adventures of Robin Hood released the following month. Superman combined a degree of social realism with wish fulfillment. The caped hero in those early tales wasn't dealing with mad scientists and evil alien robots, but with wife-beaters, corrupt businessmen, unsafe mining conditions, and war-mongering lobbyists. It was the sort of social ills that his creators faced growing up in the Depression and now on the cusp of another World War, but combined with the blood-and-thunder adventure of the pulp novels. Superman was an instant hit with readers. The earlier comic books might have had "New" in the title, but those comics traded in a familiar genres -- cowboy tales, spy adventures, medieval knights, funny animals and the like. But Superman launched a new genre -- the superhero.
This was something new in entertainment. Whatever ascendants for Superman's powers, costume, or origin we can find in Edgar Rice Burroughs or Doc Savage or the Phantom or Zorro or Philip Wylie or Popeye, nothing had ever read like this before.
-- Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and The Birth of the Comic Book
Once it was clear that it was clear that this new novel character -- Superman -- was responsible for the rapidly increasing sales of Action Comics, comics publishers looked to create their own superheroes to cash in on the new trend. Rival publisher Timely Comics introduced the fire and water themed heroes The Sub-Mariner and The Human Torch in 1939's Marvel Comics #1. (Yes, that Marvel. The company known as Timely in the 1940s changed their name to Marvel in the 1960s during the second big superhero wave.) Fawcett Comics brought out its own caped-and-tights hero Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics. Superman's publishers sued Fawcett for copyright infringement for over a decade. (Now this Captain Marvel is published by the same company as Superman, although his name has been changed to Shazam for trademark reasons.)
Detective Comics introduced a new character with issue 20 (October 1938) -- the Crimson Avenger. But this non-powered character was more modelled off the radio hero The Green Hornet than Superman. In issue 44 (October 1940), the Crimson Avenger would switch to a more Superman-like skin-tight costume, but by then, another superhero was headlining Detective Comics.
The brainchild of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939). Batman captured some of that Superman magic and was a big hit with readers. Batman's secret identity was millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. The idea of a millionaire dressing up in a costume and fighting crime had its roots in Zorro and many of the pulp heroes of the 1930s. Batman handled the existing heroic tropes better than most, but it would be a year before Batman's biggest impact
In Detective Comics #38 (April 1940), Finger, Kane and artist Jerry Robinson would introduce a new element into the Batman feature -- a kid sidekick named after Robin Hood, Robin the Boy Wonder. New superheroes from various publishers such as (Captain America (1941) were introduced with their own kid sidekicks, and existing heroes like the Shield, the Human Torch and Mr. Scarlet soon acquired kid sidekicks, all in the mode of Robin.
Superheroes soon dominated the monthly anthology comics from Detective Comics, Inc. Adventure Comics jumped on the trend with The Sandman in issue 40 (July 1939), who originally appeared to be more in the Green Hornet / Crimson Avenger mode favouring a suit instead of tights (although that changed later). The Hourman turned up in Adventure Comics #48 (March 1940) already decked out in tights and a cape. Over in the original comic book series, the Spectre appeared in More Fun Comics #52 (Feb. 1940) followed by Dr. Fate in issue 55 (May 1940).
The Sandman, the Hourman, the Spectre and Doctor Fate joined forces with heroes from the anthology comics of sister company All-American -- The Flash and Hawkman from Flash Comics) and the Green Lantern and the Atom from All-American Comics to form the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3 (Winter 1940 - 1941), the forerunner to super-teams such as the Justice League of America and the Avengers. [Superman and Batman were honorary members only, as they were also appearing in their own solo comics. And fear of over-exposure caused the Flash and Green Lantern temporarily into honorary status when they got their own solo titles.]
But there were some troubles. On May 8, 1940 Sterling North published an editorial in the Chicago Daily News that declared comic books were "A National Disgrace" -- inspiring kids to violence with tales of violence and wrecking their eyes with bad printing quality. David Hajdu, author of The Ten-Cent Plague : The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America called North's criticisms were "little more than a double echo" of the criticisms of newspaper comic strips over 30 years before.
Robin Hood fans and scholars will recognize the pedigree of such criticisms go back even further. Expressions such as "Tales of Robin Hood are good enough for fools" long denigrated the violence of the stories, the moral flaws of the characters and the cheap printing of the black-letter ballads. The Scottish Parliament banned Robin Hood play-games in 1555 -- leading to riots when attempting to suppress performances of these games in 1561.
North's article was picked up by many other newspapers, and other articles followed branding comics a danger -- for their printing standards, for their content ... and for their high sales. M.C. Gaines, co-owner of DC/National's sister company All-American Comics assembled a team of experts to testify on behalf on the value of comic books and to oversee their line. It was largely just for show, but the comics with a DC logo vowed to clean up their act. "A Message to Our Readers" ran in the October 1941 issues of comics -- such as More Fun Comics #72.
One month later, the Green Arrow -- a hero who resembles the outlaw hero Robin Hood -- would debut in More Fun Comics #73.
The official name of the publisher of the Green Arrow stories has changed over the years -- and often employing different names concurrently.
When Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz entered into an agreement with Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's National Allied Publications to release Detective Comics, they formed Detective Comics, Inc. which acquired Wheeler-Nicholson's other comics.
In 1940, the comics started displaying a logo "A DC Publication" on the cover. In the issues covered dated November 1941, it was revised to "A Superman DC Publication".
But this logo didn't just appear on the comics from Detective Comics, Inc. but related companies. Issues of Superman were officially released by Superman, Inc. And while Green Arrow's appearances in More Fun Comics were from Detective Comics, Inc., his appearances in World's Finest Comics and Leading Comics were by World's Best Comics Co.
The DC logo also appeared on the covers of the separate-but-linked company All-American Comics, owned by M.C. Gaines and Jack Liebowitz long before it was acquired by Detective Comics, Inc. in 1944.
All these companies were collapsed into National Comics in the issues with February 1947 covers (on sale in December 1946). And National Comics Publications became National Periodical Publications in 1961. While "National" was added to the logo, it still had a big old DC in the centre. Most fans knew the company as DC.
And in 1977, now part of the Warner family tree of companies made the common nickname a corporate reality as the name was officially changed to DC Comics.
I hope you'll forgive me if I just refer to the company as DC, no matter the period in its publishing history.
Kids who discovered More Fun Comics #73 in 1941 probably first read the cover-featured Doctor Fate story. The mysterious magical hero had recently been made over into another wisecracking, strongman superhero -- not that dissimilar to Superman. Then after an ad for Superman's krypto-ray gun, they'd encounter the first of that comic book's new features -- the Green Arrow by writer/editor Mort Weisinger and artist George Papp.
The top two-thirds of the page depicts the "wizard archers of the century" the Green Arrow and his kid sidekick Speedy in action. (In time, the "the" part of Green Arrow's name was mostly dropped.) The bottom third of the page features a masked killer dispatching three wealthy men with famous surnames in the method that their famous namesakes were killed. For example, as he shoots George Lincoln, the killer declares "Abraham Lincoln died by the gun -- and so do you!"
On the next page, we meet our new heroes in their civilians disguises.
Well, I say new. But as they pack for a vacation, Oliver Queen's youthful ward Roy Harper remarks on the adventure they just finished. Green Arrow ad Speedy might be new to the readers, but it's clear from the story that they were already well-established adventurers. This was a common trope. The first appearances of fellow non-powered superheroes the Crimson Avenger, the Batman and the Sandman also allude to past unseen exploits.
Regular comic book readers would probably note the similarities to Batman and Robin's alter egos of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson. Of course, there were a couple of crucial differences. Bruce Wayne lived in a mansion, whereas Oliver Queen has an apartment in the city. And perhaps the most crucial difference, Bruce and Dick have black hair, whereas as Oliver and Roy have brown hair.
Brown hair, you might ask? Yes, for several of his early appearances, Green Arrow had brown hair. In More Fun Comics #79 (May 1942), Green Arrow's hair is first depicted as blond -- the colour it remains to this day (in comic books at least). Speedy's hair would go through some more transformations -- first brown, then blond, and then finally settling into the red hair by More Fun Comics #81.
Oliver and Roy hear about the murders of three members of"the famous history club". They eagerly postpone their vacation to dash off and solve the crime. No grim avengers of the night were this pair. Much like Batman and Robin of the 1940s, fighting crime was fun.
The heroes then dash off to their super-fast car. This was another standard trope. Radio and comic book star The Green Hornet has Black Beauty, Batman has the Batmobile, and the Green Arrow has .... the Arrowplane? Yes, for some reason that completely mystifies 21st century readers, Green Arrow's car was called a plane. A couple years later it would be renamed the Arrowcar, and he'd have an Arrowplane that actually flew.
The Arrowplane -- or Arrowcar -- does possess one special gimmick that the Batmobile did not have at this time. The vehicle has an ejector seat or "catapult" that launches the Green Arrow into the sky and through the high window of the History Club. This catapult stunt became one of Green Arrow's signature moves in the early years.
The treasurer of the History Club, Ezra Samson, introduces his fellow members. Each with a famous namesake -- Frank D'Arcy, Amos Socrates and Leonard Achilles. Achilles had received a letter saying he'd be next. As the legendary Greek warrior Achilles had died from a wound in the heel, his modern-day namesake took the precaution of wearing metal boots. But Green Arrow correctly deduces that's what the killer wanted. Leonard Achilles doesn't get a chance to sulk in his tent, as he's immediately electrocuted by a device hidden under the rug he was standing on.
Then a bullet whizzes past Green Arrow's head. The hero shoots a rope arrow -- his "arrowline", yet another gimmick that will become a fixture -- out the window and tightrope walks across to a nearby building in pursuit of the gunman. Speedy catapults up to join him.
The Green Arrow lets Speedy display both his skill with the bow, and that how the normally deadly weapons can be used harmlessly by shooting at the would-be assassin's clothes and pinning him to a rooftop pigeon coop.
The criminal, named Mugsy Smith, quickly divulges what he knows which isn't much. The gang's leader always wears a mask. After dropping Mugsy off at the police, Green Arrow disguises himself as Mugsy to infiltrate the killer's lair. Disguise is a common trope in superhero tales but also harks back to Robin Hood lore. For example, in one ballad Robin Hood disguises himself in Guy of Gisborne's horsehide costume to get close to the Sheriff of Nottingham and free Little John.
Unfortunately for Green Arrow, there's one tiny detail which gives him away -- Mugsy is missing a finger.
The criminals capture Speedy as well. Rather than just shooting the heroes, the masked killer and his henchmen just decide to leave the gas on before leaving the room. The evil overlord gloats that "when I return, the Green Arrow will be dead as William Tell." This proves that the ridiculously impractical deathtrap was a storytelling staple long before Her Majesty's Secret Service printed out the 007 licence to kill for James Bond.
As all heroes do, Green Arrow and Speedy free themselves. And then they go on to rescue the members of the History Club from more crazy deathtraps.
They rescue D'Arcy from a fire, Samson from a bomb, and then finally catch up with the killer when he tries to poison Amos Socrates. Green Arrow shoots the escaping crook in the leg but it doesn't slow him down. When they finally pin the criminal to the wall with arrows, he's revealed to be Ezra Samson -- walking on stilts to make himself look taller.
And it's revealed that Green Arrow already expected this would be the case. He'd realized that the bomb intended to kill Samson was a fake -- just planted to divert suspicion.
Somehow Samson manages to wriggle out of his arrow trap and flees the scene. Our heroes give chase in the Arrowplane. Green Arrow shoots the tires of Samson's car, causing it to careen off a bridge.
Back at the History Club, the Green Arrow explains that Samson was likely embezzling money from the Club and planned to make to make Socrates look guilty, by making his death look like suicide.
Oliver Queen and Roy Harper place Samson's fake bomb in their trophy cabinet, and the narrator assures us will see more daring criminals -- and more trophies -- next month.
The influence of Batman and Robin on Green Arrow and Speedy should be obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Caped Crusaders, particularly how they were depicted between 1940 and 1969. But in his 2014 Retro Review of More Fun Comics #73, Reid Vanier takes it to task for being an "unabashed copy" copy of the first Batman story in Detective Comics #27. Both tales feature killers sending death threats to a connected group of men and characters being trapped in a room filling up with gas.
In Moving Target: The History and Evolution of Green Arrow, Richard Gray agrees with Vanier's assessment but with an important caveat. "This is difficult to ignore, even if many of the stories of this era were based on familiar formulas." Gray goes onto cite a 1940s DC Comics memo which instructed the writers to follow the traditions of the pulp novels.
This is surely something that Batman's co-creator writer Bill Finger would have known, as his first Batman story is a compressed adaptation of 1936 pulp magazine story Partners in Peril featuring the "bat-like" Shadow. Batman's first story borrowed more from the Shadow story than Green Arrow's first story borrowed from Batman.
Green Arrow also does not resemble so much the Batman of 1939 as he does the Batman of 1941 -- by which time the kid sidekick and the special car had been added to Batman's lore. The early Batman himself borrows from previous non-comics heroes such as The Shadow, The Phantom and Zorro himself. A key difference is that Batman's popularity eclipsed those of his inspirations, whereas Green Arrow never matched Batman in popular. Batman's influences are mere trivial factoids, whereas Batman's influence on Green Arrow is a source of amusement.
Fans of the 2012-2020 Arrow TV show will probably not find it unusual that the Green Arrow kills his foe in More Fun Comics #73. In the first season of the TV series in particular Oliver Queen would often deal out lethal justice with his catchphrase "You have failed this city." But for much of the character's comic book history, the idea of killing a foe would be very much out of character.
Superhero comics were more violent in the early days than they later became. Batman snaps a criminal's neck in a 1939 issue, and he carries and uses guns in other early stories. But by early 1941, Batman is lecturing his kid sidekick Robin "Remember, we never kill with weapons of any kind." They do still occasionally knock a criminal off a great height, as would Green Arrow and Speedy too in a few early tales. But shooting guns or snapping necks were frowned upon by the time Green Arrow debuted.
The original archer hero, the Arrow from Centaur Comics, did deliver a killing arrow to his foe's chest on occasion, but that's not something we see from the Golden Age Green Arrow. Here, the killing is slightly more indirect. Green Arrow shoots at the tires of a car, not its driver. Although his declaration "This'll stop him ... for good!" strongly suggest he intended the car to careen off the bridge, killing the driver.
And Green Arrow isn't the only superhero to dispense lethal justice in More Fun Comics #73. Doctor Fate hurls his foe Mr. Who through the wooden planking of a boat and to what the hero believes would be a watery grave, although the final caption correctly implies that the villain would return. In his first adventure, Aquaman tosses a hand grenade back at a Nazi raider -- which sinks the submarine and kills the leader.
The DC editorial edicts which already toned the violence by 1941 would become even stricter within a couple years. Soon DC's superheroes would not only no longer kill, but it would be treated as if they had never killed.
When Green Arrow did kill someone again -- accidentally in 1972 and deliberately in 1987 -- these incidents were treated as life-altering events for the hero.
In their critical looks at Green Arrow's debut story both Reid Vanier and Richard Gray single out the art of George Papp for praise. It's much-deserved.
I'll have a lot more to add about Green Arrow's co-creator Mort Weisinger and many other elements of the Golden Age in the near future. But for now, skip ahead a decade or so to the Silver Age.
Text, © Allen W. Wright, 2022.
Green Arrow and related comics are copyright © DC Comics and used without permission under fair use for the purpose of criticism and review.