Monday, June 08, 2015

A few thoughts on The Brave and The Bold #1-6 (1991)

I found all six issues of this 1991 miniseries in the $1 bins at a comic book store in Erie, Pennsylvania that I had never heard of and, as far as I know, was not around when I attended college in the city in the back half of the 1990s. I remember seeing house ads for the series in the other comics I was reading back then–probably Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Sandman and/or some Batman comics–and being curious about the title and the characters. I had obviously heard of Green Arrow and even The Question, but was completely unfamiliar with Native American hero The Butcher, who I assumed was a popular if obscure character on par with The Question, but whom I had never seen reappear anywhere else in the years of comics-reading which followed (Looking him up online now, something I didn't have the option of doing in 1991, I see he was apparently created by writer Mike Baron and artist Shea Anton Pensa for a five-part miniseries simply called The Butcher guest-starring Green Arrow; his surname is actually "Butcher," too, so it's not really all that creative of a codename, nor is it indicative of his violence or anything).

I'm pretty sure I have at least one issue of it that I must have similarly found in a discount bin somewhere, as at least parts of the second issue were familiar to me. I hope I don't actually have all six of these in a longbox somewhere, and I simply forgot reading them.

The series was co-written by Mike Grell and Mike Baron, and mostly penciled and inked by Shea Anton Pensa, with Pablo Marcos helping ink the last few issues. Grell also seems to have drawn the bulk of the covers, as you can see above.

Some thoughts:

–It was somewhat surprising how down-to-earth the plotting was. While former Justice Leaguer Green Arrow gets top-billing on the cover, and fellow former Justice Leaguer Black Canary appears early on (out-of-costume, and as Dinah Lance), there's little in the way of the fantastic here. Oliver Queen is basically just a rogue vigilante who uses a bow and arrow, and when he attacks bad guys, no one really seems to recognize him. He's just some guy with a bow and arrow who dresses in green; no one's ever like, "Look out! It's Green Arrow!"

The costume he wears at this point is barely even that. A hood is as close as he comes to concealing his identity, with no mask and no trick arrows. (Well, there's one grappling hook arrow, but that's it.)

The closest thing to the fantastic, beyond Ollie's amazing aim perhaps, is The Question's mask, which gives him the bizarre, featureless face. When he first appears, he's wearing it and his trenchcoat and hat, but after that, he goes the majority of the series out of mask and costume, as just plain two-fisted, uzi-shooting journalist Vic Sage.

This could very easily have been a standard 1980s action movie, had Baron and Grell simply changed the names of the stars. That's neither necessarily a bad thing nor a good thing, but it is a striking thing. It's very rare to read a DC or Marvel comic book so thoroughly disengaged from the superhero universe settings of the publishers. For comparison's sake, consider Matt Fraction, David Aja and company's Hawkeye, premised on being a comic about what the Avenger did when he wasn't being an Avenger–it was full of cameos and references to various Marvel superheros, on a fairly constant basis.

The superhero comic-as-80's action movie vibe of this comic was unusual enough at this point to be downright refreshing.

–I thought the use of "The Brave and The Bold" for this book was...interesting. I imagine it had something to do with preserving the trademark or copyright on the title, as it's fairly randomly applied here. The logo takes the old one from The Brave and The Bold and attaches the word presents, and then throws up the name of the three main protagonists who have their own logos, so that the book looks like it's entitled The Brave and The Bold Presents Green Arrow, The Butcher and The Question, but the fine print simply refers to the book as The Brave and The Bold.

I don't know if it's simply a matter of my mind seeking patterns for comfort, or having been trained by reading enough issues of the Brave and The Bold collected in Showcase Presents collections, but I expect a book with that title to have two co-stars teaming up, not three, so it seemed a little weird to me to have all three in here.

According to the letters page, some consideration was given to adding Black Canary's name to the covers as well, but they decided against it, as she only appears sporadically, and never as Black Canary.

–I forgot how much I liked the "old" Black Canary, the one who had short black hair as Dinah Lance, and put on a blonde wig to fight crime. Maybe it's not a very realistic disguise, given how fake wigs tend to look in real life, but it's extremely effective in comic books. Black Canary is unrecognizable in her street clothes and without her wig.

–Check out this cool place Ollie takes Dinah to dinner at:
Chez Cool? I'm sure it doesn't get any cooler than that

–Speaking of cool, at one point in the first issue, John Butcher realizes that Green Arrow has stumbled into a case he himself was working on, and he goes to visit Dinah and Ollie at Sherwood Florist.

Ollie greets him thusly:

–It was weird to read the adventures of this particular take on Green Arrow after having spent so much time with the Justice League version that preceded and followed the urban hunter iteration. It was mostly weird to see how quick to kill GA is here.

In the first issue, he's Green Arrowing around in the woods when he stumbles upon a terrorist camp of radical Native American separatists. When a guard spots him and points a gun at him, GA shoots an arrow into the barrel of the gun (thrusting the gun back into the guard's jaw) and then KOs him with a kick.

Later, he's putting arrows into the legs and bellies of people shooting at him.

By the end of the story, he's smooshing bad guys under logs...
...and killing them left and right...
Man, Batman and Superman would not approve of that kind of behavior. (So I guess it's a good thing this series is so divorced from the DCU in general.)

Green Arrow's allies have no compunctions about killing either, with The Butcher's weapon of choice being a knife, with which he slits his opponents' throats and, at the climax, Vic Sage is firing automatic weapons into a crowd of bad guys and finishes off their leaders with a bazooka.

–For a guy who sometimes doesn't appear to even have a mouth, Vic Sage sure has a mouth on him:
Swastika money target lightning bolt! That's, like, the F-word of grawlixes, isn't it?

–Anyway, this was a pretty fun read, made more so for just how unusual it reads in 2015. I liked the big, dumb action movie plotting, I liked Shea Anton Pensa's weird, expressive art, with its gnarled, knotted human figures exploding into awkward actions, and the way he draws hair, from Ollie's seemingly permed mustache to the big, flowing action mullet on Vic Sage and bigger-still mullet on Sage's friend Tot.

Goofy fake-swearing aside, it was a surprisingly adult comic, too–if this were an action movie, it probably would have been rated R. There's a good deal of killing and blood, but it's very grounded and connected to the real world, with the wounds being inflicted coming from blunt trauma, gunshots, explosions and knives and arrows; there's none of the ultra-violence and strangely inappropriate gore you find in a lot of DC Comics of the past decade or so, in which spandex-clad, cape-wearing children's cartoon characters get impaled, disemboweled or lose limbs. I don't want to go so far as to say the story was "sophisticated," but there's a level of sophistication to it; Baron and Grell's plotting is sort of cartoonish, but it's cartoonish in the way of cartoonish adult entertainment; the characters have actual motivations that exist in the real world (money, sex, power, respect...that sort of thing, not, like, ruling the galaxy or reshaping DC Universe continuity or whatever).

The politics of it were a pleasingly complex mish-mash, too. Our heroes are manly men of righteous violence; politically incorrect vigilantes unafraid to use lethal force and break laws and rules in pursuit of justice. Their opponents include an Irish terrorist, radical Native American separatists of varying levels of commitment to violence and a forest clear-cutting, eco-evil robber baron. Caught up in the conflict are various people of indigenous cultures with varying view points on the future of their culture, and which paths to take moving forward.

It often reads like a Libertarian version of the old Denny O'Neil-penned social relevant Green Arrow/Green Lantern adventures, but it's so 1980s in its tropes and trappings that it's hard to apply the right labels to aspects of it, as words like "liberal," "conservative" and "libertarian" don't really mean the same things today as they did in 1991. I appreciated that while it has political elements to it, it's not a screed, and as broadly-drawn as some of the characters are, the writers don't set up any straw men.

There's a perhaps uncomfortable "might makes right" message in here, but "might" is defined by martial arts ability, archery skills and willingness to execute awesome motorcycle jumps as opposed to fire power, political power or money. So the ultimate moral Grell and Baron were trying to impart, I think, is to take karate, kids.

That, and that explosions are cool.
And explosions are, of course, apolitical.


googum said...

That's weird: I'd never read that B&B either, but wasn't a big chunk of Denny O'Neil's Question run about him not killing? I guess Batman was right, kill once and all bets are off...

Anonymous said...

Can we have native american heroes who don't wear huge signifiers of HEY KIDS! DIVERSITY? We don't all wear fringed leather, dammit, or silver & turquoise geegaws, or fucking FEATHERS.

Fucking comics.

Sorry. Just had to get that out.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I worked at a comic shop when that mini came out. It was odd, because I think we only had a few subscribers to The Butcher monthly. The B&B did sell very well, though. You gave it a good review, Caleb, I think it sold well more because Green Arrow always seemed to sell. We had a 24 hour sale once and a guy got off work from a restaurant and the bus stop was in front of the store, he ended up spending $70 on just about every GA comic we had, and of course this was when the books were maybe $1.25. $70 at 5 AM is pretty good to start the day.

The older customers were happy to see The Question again, there were a lot of "About time!" comments. DC90s was like DCNow, though. Most new books never lasted long. Without looking it up, I'll bet The Butcher lasted only six issues.

Ja D said...

This sounds better than most of the new comics these days.

Andrew said...

@Wayne- Butcher was a 5-issue mini series, so yeah, it didn't last 6 issues.

@Caleb- Have you ever read Grell's Green Arrow run? Other than a brief 2-part team-up with the Warlord, Travis Morgan, and an out-of-costume cameo by Hal Jordan, I don't remember a single other reference to the greater DCU. Grell was given Ollie and the then-depowered Dinah and allowed to do pretty much whatever he wanted, which was to make Ollie more of an urban vigilante. No masks, no trick arrows and no JLA communicator to bail him out of trouble. There was also lots of social commentary and a "Mature Readers" tag for the violence and sparse nudity. It's one of my personal favorite comics of all time and I recommend the new trades DC has been releasing collecting Grell's issues. Volume 3 just came out (really volume 4 if you count the Long Bow Hunters mini trade.)

Oh, and I've also read an interview with Grell specifically about the B&TB mini and he pretty much disowned it, claiming that he and Baron found that they had "incompatible" writing styles. I had the impression that Baron did most of the heavy lifting on the series. It's been awhile since I read it but I do remember it reminding me a lot of his Punisher comics.

Bram said...

Ha! See today's Gone and Forgotten.