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Ross Lincoln | 17 Jul 2014 20:15
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Green Lantern and Green Arrow grapple with drug addiction.

Story: "Snowbirds Don't Fly"
Green Lantern issues 85 and 86, Aug-Sep 1971.

By the late 60s, Green Lantern sold poorly and DC was seriously considering cancelling the title altogether. As part of this, Green Lantern and Green Arrow (star of another low-selling title) were paired up on a recurring basis. Since the series looked headed for the chopping block anyway, writer Denny O'Neil, who by the way is an enormously important influence that helped the comics medium mature, was given a greater deal of creative freedom, and he decided to use it by tackling social issues.

"Snowbirds Don't Fly" was the first of these issues-inspired stories, an attempt to dive into the issue of drug addiction head-on, and shockingly, in a way that doesn't rely on judgmentalism to make its point.

At the start, Green Arrow is attacked by criminals who, he discovers, were using arrows he designed. He ropes Green Lantern in to help him figure out what happened, and they eventually discover a junkie den where, to their shock, they find Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy. At first, they assume Speedy is working undercover to bust a heroin ring, but it turns out that he's become addicted to the drug, and sold his arrows for drug money.

As one might expect, Green Arrow is extremely angry with Speedy over this mess. We've all experienced our parents freaking the hell out on us for far lesser mistake "You're a lousy junkie, no better than the rest of the sniveling punks!", Arrow shouts at Speedy. But in an interesting inversion of the normal approach to anti-drug literature, this story takes great pains to present Speedy's struggle sympathetically.


He throws Green Arrow's rage back in his face, telling him "a big man like you doesn't need drugs, does he? You get high on your own self righteousness!", and storms out, and both are left with serious questions and deep self doubt. Green Arrow starts to consider whether or not he failed Speedy as a guardian in some way, though he ultimately decides he didn't, that Speedy's problem is that he didn't "hang tough". Soon after confronted by Green Lantern, Speedy lays into him too, telling him "Lantern, your generation has been known to lie, dig it? You've told us war is fun, skin color is important, a man's worth is the size of his bank account, all crocks! So why believe your drug rap?"

Green Lantern doesn't lash out at him like Arrow did, however, only offering support. This leads to Speedy collapsing, weeping, in the arms of Dinah Drake (aka Black Canary), which inspires him to go cold turkey. Once he cleans up, he confronts Green Arrow once more, only this time he shames Arrow for not having provided the support Lantern and Canary gave him, then punches him. "I'm sharing a very small piece of the pain I've just gone through..." he says. "The kind of pain thousands of kids are going through every day because an uncaring and unthinking society turns its back on them." Damn, that's cold medicine.

Meanwhile, Green Lantern and Green Arrow devote themselves to breaking up the drug ring, eventually discovering the kingpin of the operation is a corrupt pharmaceutical executive who is publicly involved in anti-drug efforts. So, basically, the story was 40 years ahead of its time.

It contains the usual problems with such stories during the period, most obviously the hilarious attempt to write hip slang, but it's a remarkable tale that manages to tackle the horrors of drug addiction without relying on shame and punishment as the solution, and in case it wasn't clear, it even villainizes the pharmaceutical industry, decades before the oxycontin epidemic would begin to ravage the American heartland. Beautiful stuff, even when it's heavy-handed.

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