We’re currently in something of a Golden Age for tv series based on comic books. Agents of SHIELD returned to UK screens last night with the blinkin’ Absorbing Man! Gotham began two weeks ago and I imagine The Flash and Constantine might be picked up by terrestrial channels.
I had lost interest in the first SHIELD series one very quickly since it seemed a rehash of Angel with a few elements from the Marvel Cinemantic Universe. I’m willing to give it a second chance after watching the first box set of Warner Brothers Arrow.
Arrow is a descendant of Smallville, the Superman teen soap which ran for a spectacular ten seasons. Green Arrow first made his tv debut there as a Batman-substitute- even forming a Justice League of sorts in season six -who bullied Lex Luthor at prep school.
Arrow, is firstly, an action show about urban stealth warfare. But the plot is driven by family dramas with a soapy feel and the series also co-opts the island ordeals of Lost with some of the convolutions of Heroes. So far,so formulaic.
Indulged playboy Oliver Queen retuuns to Starling City after five years on an island in the China seas. He uses his archery skills to thwart a conspiracy that began with his own family and is assisted by loyal Tough Black Man and Adoring Blonde Computer Nerd. For some reason, she is named after a supporting cast member in 80s Firestorm . The weekly flashbacks to the hero’s origins on the island tend to be more compelling than the conspiracy story until the requisite series finale.
GA is never called Green Arrow in series one. Frustratingly, he’s referred to as the Vigilante or the Hood- the names, of course, of other comics characters. The conspirators are led by John Barrowman ( the man who introduced the Commonwealth Games accompanied by dancing tea cakes). His scenes are actually among the most entertaining with a knowing and larger than life gusto which contrasts with the endless exposition and admiring shots of the grimacing hero’s glistening torso. Another Doctor Who alumnus, Alex Kingston, appears as the matronly Dinah Lance.
A wide variety of DC characters appear in series one: villains include Deadshot; the Royal Flush Gang- here, a family of masked bank robbers; Count Vertigo – a drug dealing gangster; Firefly ( re-imagined as a firefighter-turned-arsonist). One of the major threats is Deathstroke, looking faintly ridiculous in his Perez-designed orange face mask.
DC heroine The Huntress appears as a very dark, conflicted character: a mobster’s daughter turned Lady Punisher. The Blackhawks were almost eviscerated as a corrupt security firm turned robbers. Delinquent Roy Harper has been introduced, presumably with the intention of becoming Speedy for tv. Similarly, damsel in distress Laurel Lance, who works for a law firm called CNRI (Can-ar-y!) is surely set up to be Black Canary. There have also been cutesy references to Slade Wilson’s son Joe (Jericho); Nanda Parbat, the Shangri La of the DCU ; a seismologist Brion Markov (Ge0-Force) and Laurel’s friends Ray (Palmer) and Jean (Loring). There seems no way, however, that sci-fi or supernatural characters could exist in the “grimdark” world of Arrow.
Green Arrow, created in the 40s by Weisinger and Papp, was a masked crimebuster with a boy sidekick in the Batman and Robin mould. In the late 50s, King Kirby brought a more fantastic edge, naturally including a trip into a futuristic dimensional world. But the character remained a Batman knock-off. Even one of his few memorable costumed foes, Clock King, was co-opted for two Batman tv series. GA only became interesting in the late 60s when he was redesigned and re-purposed by O’Neil and Adams as an angsty Liberal who’d lost his personal fortune.
Permanently linked to Black Canary and regularly partnered with Hal Jordan, Ollie’s character became less strident but more cranky and he was often portrayed as a smart-ass and a boor: an annoying amplification of Hawkeye but a mainstay in the JLA. Mike Grell’s prestige format Longbow Hunters in the late 80s elevated Ollie into the Mature Readers sphere where he dealt with a mid-life crisis and drug crime in Seattle.
It’s a version of The Longbow Hunters Ollie we see in Arrow and it’s his use of lethal force that bothers me most. My reading habits were formed by Silver age reprints and I find the murderous “Hood Guy” an uneasy watch. If the series had featured Marv Wolfman’s 80s Vigilante ( a bleak take on the Punisher), I’d find it more acceptable. I appreciate it may be part of the “Hero’s Journey” but I don’t approve of it. Especially because the family themes of Arrow with Hamlet-ish mother’s boy Ollie seem reminiscent of Smallville. It’s dull, predictable stuff in the main.
Gotham is ostensibly, a more adult series while a more violent one. I’m enjoying Sean Pertwee’s Caine-inspired Alfred and the reptilian, effete Penguin (played by the aptly-named Robin Lord Taylor). However, while the story’s inevitable end would be the young Bruce Wayne leaving the city to train as Batman, it’s unlikely to reach that point for years. The downfall and rise of Jim Gordon (studded with Arkhmam inmates appearances) is the probable arc of the show.
The Oliver Queen I recognise- mature, playful but still ” a guy” and NOT Bruce Wayne- is featured in Bloodspell, a hardcover DC graphic novel by Paul Dini and Joe Quinones. This project began as a joke in a text feature in one of the Dini/Ross tabloid editions of the early Noughties. It’s an adventure of fishnet-wearing heroines Zatanna and Black Canary and while it does contain some adult situations and humour, I think it’s inoffensive enough; I would let any of my senior students read it- especially the girls.
The two super-heroines pursue a ghostly villainess to Las Vegas and flashbacks charmingly depict the growth of their friendship. These flashbacks are unafraid to show the ladies’ dubious fashion choices in the 80s and feature several Justice Leagures including a wonderful Chrisopher Reeve Superman.t
I’d much prefer to watch a Canary/Zatanna series, to be honest. I’d also like to see more graphic novels from these creators. It’s iconic yet modern, fresh and yet classic. Recommended.
Coming soon: Masters of Terror
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