It was Thanksgiving again, a holiday I loathe because it seems to pride itself on the way it brings out the worst in families. God knows I can’t help but tense up whenever discussion of my own family’s plans for Turkey Day starts. That’s not even me getting into the idea of a holiday being built on centuries of exploiting the native inhabitants who lived in America before white colonists “discovered” the country. But alas, November is also considered Native American Month, so there’s some consolation to the last few weeks.
I’ve already spent a lot of time on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook talking about DC’s Roy Harper. His death provided a big part of my article on Heroes in Crisis this past summer. I’d already been angry about what had been done to him and his daughter Lian for… wow. This entire past decade. I’ve talked and written about the Harpers enough that at least a few people have referred to me as THE authority when it comes to Roy and Lian. Although I’ve also made mistakes over the years in close proximity, namely in discussion of Lian’s mother Cheshire.
With Native American Month freshly in my rearview, I want to focus on an aspect of Roy Harper’s backstory that’s not talked about as much as his time as a heroin addict or his troubled partnership with Green Arrow. I want to dive into Roy’s Native upbringing, from the racism prevalent in the original stories, to writer Devin Grayson treating the subject with respect and making it an integral part of Roy’s history, to how DC subsequently diminished it and then brought it back in a problematic way.
The Fall of Roy Harper
Some have argued DC Comics hasn’t known what to do with Roy in recent years, but I’d argue that’s not true. Roy has a rich history of characterization DC could use to do interesting stories, but they have chosen to rehash the same drama about his past drug addiction and animosity with Green Arrow. The entirety of the last decade feels like one long era of degradation and wasted potential for the former sidekick, leading up to his anticlimactic and rather insulting death in Tom King and Clay Mann’s Heroes in Crisis series.
From 2010-2011, Roy was positioned as a troubled, psychotic anti-hero/villain lashing out at the world after he lost his right arm and his daughter Lian was killed at the end of Justice League: Cry for Justice. DC’s editors seemed to justify this as wanting to do “interesting” stories with Roy without Lian “dragging him down.” James Robinson tried to spin the decision at San Diego Comic Con 2010 that cutting off Roy’s arm was a tribute to Iraq war veterans, a statement he contradicted in the Cry for Justice trade collection by stating the editors forced him to put Roy in this direction.
The first aforementioned “interesting” story was Rise of Arsenal by J.T. Krul and Geraldo Borges, which was constructed to have all of Roy’s friends and family deliberately failing to — or making no effort to — help him with his grief. It seemed like an excuse to justify Roy’s descent into villainy, while presenting him as a steadily unhinged jerk lashing out at those around him. The most egregious example comes from Black Canary, who emotes so little and makes little attempt to help Roy as he succumbs back into addiction, before abandoning her one chance to get him through this by writing him off as a lost cause — ironic given her role historically in supporting Roy through drug addiction. Canary’s actions turn out to be the ones to truly damn Roy when he’s left open to more hallucinations, culminating in a corpse-like visage of Lian telling him he’s a horrible father and he has to kill one of the villains from Cry for Justice.
Mixed in with all of this are the hallucinations Roy’s been experiencing. Doctor Mid-Nite is somehow oblivious to Roy stealing his pain medication. Cyborg constructs a hideous prosthetic arm that only makes Roy’s pain worse, being just as oblivious as Doctor Mid-Nite. Dick Grayson fails to recognize there’s more going on with Roy’s mental breakdown, even as he vividly hallucinates after using heroin for the first time in years. Dick doesn’t even fully argue against Canary’s belief that Roy’s hopeless, and consents to have him locked down in a room at a center for villains with substance abuse problems. While also stupidly leaving all of Roy’s weapons and gears IN the center, not thinking there’s a chance he could escape.
Because Dick and Black Canary are so beloved by fans, readers didn’t want to call them out on how badly they screwed up. Canary only expresses guilt for her actions once or twice in the follow-up Birds of Prey, while Dick never acknowledges how he screwed up and continues acting under the pretense he did everything he could to help Roy.
Following Rise of Arsenal, there was Eric Wallace and Fabrizio Fiorentino’s Titans, where Roy’s mental degradation is exploited by his vengeful ex-lover Cheshire and Deathstroke the Terminator. Because Deathstroke shot and humiliated Cheshire on their previous mission, she wants him dead and seeks out Roy to help her plan her revenge. She plays the sympathy card before she tries to exploit Roy’s loyalty to the Titans. Ultimately, Cheshire says she truly doesn’t care if Roy dies, because he owes her for getting Lian killed.
Roy eventually joins Deathstroke’s bastard Titans team where Cheshire verbally abuses him and uses sex to keep him under her control, while Deathstroke secretly spikes Roy’s heroin supply with Bliss (a drug made from human children). The series was cancelled thanks to the arrival of the New 52, with the last two issues featuring Roy suddenly redeeming himself and ending Deathstroke’s twisted plans with the possibility of restoring the good name of the Titans alongside former teammate Jericho.
After the end of this period came the New 52. From 2011-2016 Roy was characterized as a loser wannabe frat boy who was supposedly a genius inventor with a penchant for ugly trucker hats. Gone were Lian’s existence, his time as a founding Titan, his former drug addiction, his rugged charisma and ladies man reputation, his father/son relationship with Green Arrow and his bond with Black Canary. Written almost exclusively by Scott Lobdell, Roy became a snotty child prodigy with a neglectful father who grew up to be an alcoholic whose lowest point involved trying to get Killer Croc to murder him in combat as a means to commit suicide.
In this era, Roy seemed to exist solely to boost up Jason Todd, supposedly his “best friend,” in Red Hood and the Outlaws. The very first issue of Outlaws featured Roy considering how to take advantage of Starfire’s memory problems to have sex with her, coming this close to becoming a rapist had Starfire not offered to him first. This was meant to be played for laughs, but considering Scott Lobdell’s own reputation, it shouldn’t be surprising this was played as a joke. Some have argued Lobdell worked so hard to turn Roy into such a pathetic loser because it was the only way he could make it believable that a character who once led the Titans and the Outsiders — and even joined the JLA during Brad Meltzer’s run — was now slumming with a disgraced former Robin.
2016-2018 briefly saw a change in direction with DC Rebirth as Roy was finally brought back to the Titans and reestablished as a founding member alongside Nightwing, Flash, Tempest, and Troia. His past relationship with Cheshire was restored as well and he barely associated with Jason Todd anymore.
A Loser and an Addict
However, much of the work done with Roy’s backstory was forced to conform to what had been done during the New 52 so nothing had majorly changed for the better. Roy was still considered a loser by the majority of the DCU. An issue of Nightwing went particularly hard in this direction, with Damian Wayne expressing embarrassment at being saved by someone as incompetent as Roy.
Writer Benjamin Percy ignored Scott Lobdell’s take on Roy’s origin story, but went the path of ripping off Jason Todd’s post-Crisis backstory. Percy turned Roy into a homeless kid caught trying to steal from Green Arrow. Even when Roy’s not associated with Jason Todd, Jason’s influence hasn’t vanished from Roy’s life.
Roy never regained the paternal relationship he had with Green Arrow with Arrow even saying he wasn’t sure if he could ever trust Roy. Roy only just recently met Black Canary so her role as a potential mother figure vanished, Lian Harper was never brought back into the continuity, and DC still tried to wring more angst out of Roy’s past addiction problems. Roy’s last appearance before he was killed in Heroes in Crisis was in an Outlaws Annual, with Lobdell trying as hard as he could to reaffirm everything he did with the character (his friendship with Jason and Killer Croc, his alcoholism, etc.) and using Jason to bid Roy goodbye.
Then came Heroes in Crisis, where Roy’s accidentally killed by his best friend Wally West and has his body violated to fake a mystery. Tom King disregarded everything about Roy’s past to establish a new retcon about Roy abusing prescription pain medicine. (I discussed that more in detail during my previous article about the total failure of Heroes in Crisis to say or do anything to follow up on its promise to tell a meaningful story about superheroes and PTSD.)
Off the heels of Heroes in Crisis, Shawna and Julie Benson wrote an issue of Green Arrow focusing on Roy’s funeral. The issue rehashed everything about Roy that had been done poorly since the start of the New 52 and came across as being more about Green Arrow’s self loathing for his failure as a mentor then about Roy. It also served as a glaring example of how poorly Heroes in Crisis was constructed since one of the attendees at the funeral is Gnarrk, who supposedly died alongside Roy at Sanctuary.
Following his death, the insults about Roy’s loser status continued. Jason left a horribly backhanded message on Roy’s voicemail, calling him a terrible hero but a “good friend,” and Batwoman says she never “got” Jason’s friendship with Roy as more a dig to the latter than the former. Oh, and note these two incidents were in Outlaws, so even his most recently-dedicated creative voice Lobdell couldn’t refrain from deliberately insulting the character.
One last tidbit: we recently saw Wally West’s quest for redemption in Flash Forward #3 bring him to Earth-43 where he encounters a version of Roy fighting against a Justice League made up of vampires. This Roy has never met a Wally on his Earth, and ends up fatally wounded by vampire Batman and then dying in Wally’s arms. This was also written by Scott Lobdell.
The takeaway from this past decade of storytelling? Roy Harper is a “screw up” and “the addict,” a loser and a substance abuser. At the same time, his friends and allies are forced by the narrative to constantly bring up his old problems regardless if this is in-character for them. It’s a particularly cheap excuse to justify Roy becoming a villain or getting sent off to die. We get it. He did drugs once and then stopped. It shouldn’t be hard to talk about something else.
The switch around from abusing heroin to alcohol to pain medicine has the distinction of treating all addicts as the same regardless of what they use, lumping them together and removing any intersectionality between them. Would you treat an alcoholic the same you’d treat someone abusing heroin? What about the factors leading up to their dependency? The unevenness of the details only serves the mentality that all addicts are part of one giant, faceless lump.
The consistency of Roy’s support system failing him because the plot demands it contributes an unsavory taste to the mix and creates a special kind of hopelessness. Adding Roy’s status as a perennial washed-up sidekick and you get the same hamfisted narrative found in schlocky 1980s PSAs on how “DRUGS ARE BAD AND ONLY LOSERS DO DRUGS.”
Out of everything DC could’ve focused on, it’s frustrating to see Roy boiled down to a joke about drug abuse when the character has clearly offered so much more in terms of storytelling. Fans — especially me — have been livid over DC’s refusal to make him a father again and bring Lian Harper back out of limbo (also due to what Lian has to offer as a character in her own right).
One element I’ve been just as angry about is the lack of acknowledgment over Roy’s history while growing up in a Native American community since childhood. Despite the character being a white man and the hideous amounts of racism found in the earlier origin stories, the late 1990s saw Devin Grayson putting a surprising amount of effort put into making this element of the character both genuine and respectful without turning Roy into a White Saviour stereotype. Sadly, this period lasted only a few years when DC went back to ignoring this element of the character.
There are at least three variants of Roy’s origin from the Golden and Silver Age and they each involve him being looked after by a Native man following the deaths of his biological parents. That’s about the only consistent part of the stories besides Roy becoming a ward of Oliver Queen.
More Fun Comics #89 was the original story, where Roy, his father, and his father’s *sigh* Indian manservant Quoag are in a plane crash. Mr. Harper dies, leaving Quoag to look after Roy while the two of them are trapped on Lost Mesa. In this version, Quoag is more a friend to Roy than a father figure and dies later on after the two meet Oliver Queen.
Adventure Comics #209 was the second retelling. This version featured the deaths of Roy’s dad AND mom, with his dad now being a scientist. The two were killed in an explosion caused by one of Mr. Harper’s experiments. Roy was found by the local tribe and nursed back to health by Chief Thundercloud. Thundercloud raised Roy alongside his son White Cloud, teaching him archery and giving him the name “One with Speed.” And then Thundercloud abruptly kicks Roy out of the tribe, telling Roy he needs to find Green Arrow (who Roy’s apparently never heard of until now).
Adventure Comics #262 was the last one before Secret Origins revisited the story in the 1980s. Roy’s mom is gone again and she remains absent from this point forward. Roy’s dad becomes a forest ranger who saved the life of a medicine man, Chief Brave Bow, from a fire. When Roy’s dad was killed in an avalanche, Brave Bow repaid his life debt by taking Roy in. In this version, Roy was a fan of Green Arrow and sought him out at a charity event to prove his archery skills.
Secret Origins #38 offered what, I guess, you could call a refined version of the Adventure #262 origin. Roy’s father dies in the very same fire he rescued Brave Bow from. Brave Bow is complicit in some trick with Green Arrow involving Roy getting magnetized arrows during an archery demonstration, but Brave Bow is also dying of liver cancer and had a hand in setting up Roy to be taken in by Green Arrow. The story briefly touches on Roy living as a white kid in a Navajo community while also attending school with other white kids.
The problem with these four stories is how they only barely use Native culture to explain Roy’s proficiency in archery before he meets Green Arrow. The native caretaker figures exist long enough for Roy’s skills to develop and then either disappear or die so Green Arrow can step in. I will say I was surprised to learn from writer Rob Schmidt and artist Stardustrobin that Quoag does appear to be a legitimate Native name of possible Algonquin descent, so at least SOME effort was made.
The abandonment aspect in the Adventure #209 story removes any ambiguity about Chief Thundercloud being a plot device since he literally sends Roy off on his own to find Green Arrow the moment Roy’s learned everything he can about archery. Another strike against this version is how often Roy is shown living in teepees while everyone is done up in war paint and feather headdresses, as if they came from Bonanza or Gunsmoke. At least Chief Thundercloud spoke clear English, unlike Quoag and the original version of Brave Bow who apparently didn’t know how to use pronouns.
The Rise of Grayson’s Arsenal
After all of that came Devin Grayson’s version of Roy’s origin, established in the Arsenal mini-series she worked on with artist Rick Mays. Instead of ignoring or retconning the Native elements, Grayson essentially made the best of a problematic situation by legitimizing this part of Roy’s past. Grayson humanizes the Navajo community and made the characters actual characters instead of stereotypes.
To begin, Roy’s father is still a forest ranger and Roy’s mother is still absent. To wit, Mrs. Harper is SO absent from the story Roy has absolutely nothing to go on regarding who she might’ve been or what happened to her. Roy even weaponized this in Titans #16, as the Fab Five Titans are trapped in a dreamworld created by their old enemy the Gargoyle, based on warped versions of their respective childhoods. Roy’s the first to fully break free of the fake memories because the Gargoyle couldn’t fill the hole left by his mom’s absence, so his “Dad” could only go as far as saying “Your mom is….”
It presents a possibility that Roy can be Native by blood, with his Caucasian appearance inherited solely from his birth dad. No writer has bothered to discuss the idea of Roy’s mother and who she might have been.
Roy Sr. again dies in a forest fire when Roy is three years old, but the idea of a life debt owed to Brave Bow is removed. Grayson tones this down by instead saying Roy Sr. was friends with the Navajo community in Oljato, Arizona. She expands on this in the back-up sections for the Arsenal miniseries, with a mock interview she does with Roy. The second issue discusses in detail his childhood growing up on the reservation, after he was taken in by Brave Bow.
Grayson also goes the way of explaining “Brave Bow” is no longer the man’s true name and neither was “Raymond Begay,” which Roy puts was his “English” name. The importance of names among the Navajo nation is heavily discussed in the series, with Roy explaining the complexities of the Dine Bizaad, the Navajo language.
While discussing Roy’s upbringing, the character talks about aspects of daily life on the Navajo reservation — describing a number of things he remembers fondly, while still acknowledging there were hardships to deal with. Grayson also discussed this upbringing in her DC novel Inheritance. For most of his childhood Roy actually wasn’t aware of how different he was from the Navajo until he reached adolescence. His skin wasn’t really something he thought about. English was a second language for him while he was young, and he wasn’t even aware of the name “Roy Harper” until he was 13.
Grayson rationalizes that Raymond had Roy live with Green Arrow before he died (of liver cancer, a holdover from Secret Origins) because Raymond did worry about how Roy might be treated once he was gone. Raymond tries to make Roy understand he wasn’t trying to shun Roy because of his skin. As an adult, Roy is fully considered a member of the Navajo community of Oljato in everything but blood, with Arsenal #4 ending with a naming ceremony — finally cementing Arsenal as his name, while also making harmless jokes about his old addiction in ways most writers afterwards failed to accomplish.
The Arsenal miniseries also saw Roy adopting a new costume that blended his Navajo upbringing and his bond with Green Arrow. Rick Mays designed the costume in shades of brown and gold instead of outright red, though later artists colored it red anyway. The symbol on the chest is more of a tribal-style arrow. Accompanying the costume is a tattoo Roy gains on his left arm which he describes as the mark of being an official member of the Navajo. Specifically, he mentions the Tachini tribe in an issue of Titans. The Tachii’nii clan, or “Red Running Into The Water People” clan, is an actual Navajo clan, mind you.
Up until this mini-series, the name “Arsenal” for Roy felt like another example of an extreme 90s superhero codename such as Ballistic, Nightblade, or Shaft. Grayson took the name and, along with focusing on Roy’s skill with using anything as a weapon (a martial arts style called Moo Gi Gun), she made the name reflective of his complexity. Rick Mays’ outfit enhanced that complexity by showing, even if Roy had been influenced by Green Arrow, there’s more that shaped him into the man he is and he’s trying to honor his Navajo upbringing as best he can.
The reason why I’m trying to stress the importance of all this is because, during this period in the character’s history, Roy was treated as a member of the Navajo but he was NOT treated as their hero and savior. One of the big problems in stories regarding white people getting accepted among Indigenous peoples and nations is how said white characters are raised up as some figure decreed by legend to be the greatest of the nation. It screams of cultural appropriation and the glorification of the White Man somehow being the best Indian among all the other Indians, like white people can honestly do better at being Native.
That is NOT what was going on with Roy. He’s treated as being Navajo even if he doesn’t have the blood or skin color, but he’s no more special than any of the people he grew up with. It’s not his responsibility or destiny to condescendingly “save” the Navajo nation and he’s not used to shill a bunch of White Guilt stories. There’s nothing magical about why he was raised by Raymond Begay and he wasn’t taken in because Raymond thought there was something “special” about Roy. There’s no exploitation of Navajo myths and legends to present Roy as a “chosen one.”
Another factor in all this is how Roy’s upbringing with Raymond in Oljato gives the character a better understanding of racism and prejudice than most white people could know, because he’s lived it and experienced it firsthand since he was old enough to remember. Again, this aspect is handled delicately and isn’t rammed down the readers’ throats. Roy could’ve just as easily been used for rather obnoxious stories about how white people need to “do more” to help “the poor Natives.” It even feels more genuine than Green Arrow’s own liberal attitude because of how much of that is centered in Arrow’s egotism. Roy is the type of ally that white people need to aspire to be by being both realistic and respectful.
This doesn’t mean Roy is perfect. In Titans #15, the first part of the aforementioned Gargoyle story, tensions between the founding Titans have been getting high as a result of the Gargoyle exacerbating their negative emotions. Tempest calls Roy a “stupid racist junkie,” with the racist part shocking Roy more. Tempest says he’s tired of Roy’s “Gill head” nickname and Roy sometimes flicking water at him, asking if it’s a thing he has against all Atlanteans or Tempest in particular. Roy insists he only means these an old joke between them, but Tempest insists it hasn’t been funny for years.
At the very least, Roy apologizes. He mentions his youth in Arizona and the prejudice he viewed then but doesn’t use it as, like, to say “I can’t be racist because some of my best friends are Indians.” This plot point wasn’t followed up afterwards and is more an example of what the Gargoyle is doing to the Titans, so whether or not Tempest truly thought Roy’s jokes were prejudice or the Gargoyle was throwing things out of proportion is left for debate.
Grayson continued focus on this during her time as a writer on Titans alongside Jay Faerber, with it being clear Roy was doing his best to teach Lian about the culture as he was taught. Roy referred to Lian as “Etai Yazi,” meaning “Little Girl.” This was prominently featured in Titans #17-19 during a mini arc focusing on Roy, Lian, and Grant Emerson, a.k.a. Damage. Grant was previously a member of the Titans team Roy led in New Titans, at the very end of Marv Wolfman’s tenure. Roy invited him onto the current team to make up for Grant’s experience the last time, and started acting like a mentor to the younger hero.
The arc kicked off with Grant having to attend the trial of his uncle, the villain Doctor Polaris, and then returns to Titans Tower as Roy and Lian were departing for a camping trip to Arizona. Roy took Grant along with them, recognizing the last thing Grant needed was to be left to his own devices (remembering how often Green Arrow did that to him). During their first night in the desert, Roy’s shocked when Grant starts to get angry about Doctor Polaris, which ultimately leads to revelations about his dead foster father. Grant reveals his dad physically and sexually abused him when he was younger, and this is the first time Grant’s ever spoken about it with someone else.
Roy tries to shield Lian in case Grant’s powers cause an explosion, but Grant only starts sobbing. Demonstrating how much Lian’s learned from her dad despite her young age, she calmly asks Grant why he’s crying and then asks if he wants to sing. Grant is confused as Roy asks if Lian’s referring to certain Navajo legends, such as Changing Woman and the Stricken Twins, while Lian brings up Child-Of-The-Water. Roy briefly discusses the usage of songs and tears in Navajo culture and what they represent, with Lian asking Grant what his tears would say if they were a song. On this, Grant starts to verbalize the abuse he survived from his father and how he feels now even though it happened a long time ago.
As a sex abuse survivor myself, I learned from my own therapist the importance of verbalizing such pain regardless of how old it is.
The discussion on tears and songs doesn’t last for long as Grant is finally able to get it all out. Roy’s references to the legends are used delicately without losing sight that this is about Grant’s pain. The end of the arc has Roy bringing Grant to the reservation he grew up on so Grant will have some space away from the Titans to work on his emotions and start to heal. Roy specifies living in Oljato isn’t going to be some vacation for Grant — so again, while this is treated as a place where Grant can work on healing, it isn’t treated as a glamorous getaway.
For the rest of Titans, Roy referred to Lian as “Etai Yazi,” but the focus later went to exploring his and Lian’s connection to Lian’s mother Cheshire following her destruction of Qurac. Jay Faerber planned to do a storyline about Roy dating Dakota Jamison, a Sioux woman raised in Brooklyn who worked as an agent for the DEO. One memorable scene had Dakota left speechless when Roy explained the significance of his tattoo, after assuming Roy was being disrespectful. Unfortunately, this was one of the many plots that got derailed because of the spotlight on the DEOrphans. Roy never even had a first date with Dakota and she’s long since vanished.
What’s My Name Again?
By the time Titans ended with Judd Winnick’s Graduation Day crossover with Young Justice, Roy’s Navajo upbringing was pushed further into the background. The Teen Titans/Outsiders Secret Files & Origins issue opened with a story by Geoff Johns that included Roy throwing away the Rick Mays costume and adopting a look reminiscent of the Ultimate Comics version of Clint Barton. Throughout the entire story, Roy’s tattoo had somehow vanished from his arm. Considering what the costume and tattoo meant for Roy in terms of symbolism, Johns’s choice to have Roy chuck the outfit in the trash feels extremely uncomfortable to think about and honestly rather insulting to the character.
At the very least, Secret Files & Origins had a story about Donna Troy’s funeral set before Roy changed his look, where Roy discusses how the Navajo view the afterlife while trying to explain Donna’s death to Lian. Humorously, Lian accurately predicts Donna would eventually come back like Green Arrow did, but that was about it for Roy’s Native connections for the time being.
During the Outsiders series, Roy’s tattoo had indeed remained on his arm despite the mistake in Ivan Reis’ artwork from Secret Files & Origins. Come Justice League of America by Brad Meltzer and Ed Benes, the tattoo was gone for good with no explanation as to what happened. When being inducted into the JLA, Roy dropped Arsenal and “graduated” to Red Arrow, which was considered a proud moment by Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Black Canary as Roy finally coming into his own. I’ve heard other fans agree with this sentiment, but honestly I don’t see it.
While stories like Kingdom Come saw Roy becoming Red Arrow in the future (and before Rick Mays designed the Navajo-inspired costume Roy had been running around in a Red Arrow costume), taking on the name felt more like a step backwards in terms of development. When Wally West became the Flash after Barry Allen died, it worked because Wally managed to do more as the Flash than Barry ever accomplished. He successfully moved out of his mentor’s shadow. The Arsenal mini-series discussed the idea of Roy eventually becoming Red Arrow, but the work he did as Arsenal felt more indicative of Roy coming into his own as a hero and a person.
“Arsenal” reflected all the different aspects of Roy’s character: A father, an archer, a hero, a recovered addict, a drummer, a Titan, a government agent, a detective, Navajo, white man, orphan, ward, son, mentor, and teammate. The costume functioned as a better blend of his influences. All Red Arrow seemed to do was say he was now “Green Arrow in a different color.” It would’ve been more uplifting to see Roy accepted into the JLA under the name he built for himself instead of the name everyone expected him to take up someday. If anything, THIS felt more like whitewashing.
Brad Meltzer never discussed or mentioned Roy’s Navajo connections during his year-long run on Justice League. During the JLA/JSA crossover “The Lightning Saga,” he never had Roy interact with Grant or discuss the scarring Grant received from Hunter Zolomon during Infinite Crisis. The next time any mention of Roy’s upbringing would appear happened during Rise of Arsenal by J.T. Krul where Roy bitterly dismisses his beliefs as garbage in the wake of Lian’s death. The one time in years this aspect is mentioned, and it’s as Roy is forced into a downward spiral of despair. Even worse, none of the people Roy knew from Oljato attend Lian’s funeral despite her having met and interacted with them on their trips to Arizona. J.T. Krul only brings up Roy’s beliefs just so Roy can spit on them.
The Last of the Navajo Origin
Come the New 52 and its continuity reboot, there were maybe one or two mentions of Roy having a connection to the Navajo brought up in Red Hood and the Outlaws. Again this was largely downplayed, and instead Scott Lobdell reintroduced Roy’s birth father as a neglectful alcoholic who tried to exploit Roy’s childhood genius for fame before he died. Lobdell cheapens Roy Sr.’s previous death and removes his connection to the Navajo community. Roy made a brief mention of growing up near a Navajo community, but nowhere near as thoughtful as what Devin Grayson had done. From this period well into DC Rebirth, Roy was adorned with a bunch of generic tattoos of skulls on his arms and shoulders that only enforced his wannabe characterization, courtesy of Kenneth Rocafort’s designs.
Then came DC Rebirth and Benjamin Percy took his own spin on Roy’s origin in his “Green Arrow” run. Percy changed Roy’s upbringing from Arizona to Washington, and instead of being a part of the Navajo Roy was now raised in a Spokane reservation. There’s a lot of problems with this direction. It’s true in the earlier stories the tribe had changed from Algonquin (possibly) to Sioux to Navajo, but it’s distressing when the Navajo remained the most consistently prominent over the decades even in the most reviled of the New 52 stories. The way the tribes are treated as interchangeable is as frustrating as the way Roy’s substance abuse issues kept changing.
There’s also the unnecessary drama around Roy’s departure and how he’s rejected from the reservation as a suspected murderer. It’s annoying enough that Percy is reinforcing stereotypes about alcoholism among Native Americans, even though it IS a big problem. There’s none of the nuance or grace seen in Devin Grayson’s time as writer and the inclusion about the pipeline felt more like Percy exploiting current events regardless of Green Arrow’s history of activism.
Big Bow is treated as even more of a victim and plot device than Quoag and Brave Bow, and now Roy has a foster brother who hates him and then vanishes after they mend fences up until Roy dies. It’s hard to measure up to the portrayal of Raymond Begay as Roy’s foster dad and how it goes from Raymond reaching out to Roy’s personal hero and arranging for him to take Roy in, to Roy stumbling into Green Arrow’s path because he stole from him in much the same way Jason Todd stole from Batman.
On top of all of that, the change was primarily made to make things easier for Green Arrow since the character was now situated in Seattle instead of Star City. The changes are made for the benefit of Green Arrow’s character, not Roy’s, robbing more validity to Roy’s origin story and reinforcing him as just an element of Green Arrow’s life instead of his own person. Compare that to how hard Devin Grayson worked to make Roy’s story HIS story with Green Arrow simply a character in it.
Absolutely no mention of Roy’s native upbringing is ever discussed in Heroes in Crisis, with Tom King ripping Roy down to “the addict” once again as he retcons Roy’s abuse problems. There’s no talk of Roy’s relationship with Brave Bow, Raymond, or Big Bow, or anything that occurred in any of the origin stories. The character’s last appearance and he’s stripped of meaning for the sake of some of the worst dialog I’ve read as a comic supporter and an early warning sign of the quality of Heroes in Crisis.
I should also mention Evan Shaner’s cover for Flash Forward #3 teased a variant of the Rick Mays costume being worn by Earth-43 Roy, but the interior art only had Brett Booth rehash one of his unused designs from his time on “Titans” with Dan Abnett. The one mention to Roy’s Navajo connection in years and it ended up having no relevance or inclusion to the story.
It’s infuriating to know despite all this, the only things DC has chosen to focus on when using Roy Harper are him being a drug addict and him butting heads with Green Arrow. I’ve seen so many fans influenced by the portrayal of the character in Red Hood and the Outlaws and it’s hard to swallow knowing it’s built on that first issue and Roy seriously considering sexual manipulation on a former teammate and friend. And it was done for comedy.
I’m not trying to say the Navajo aspects of Roy Harper’s history deserve more attention and focus from characters of blood Native descent. I’m trying to say here we have a character that not only grew up in another culture, but was raised to treat that culture with understanding and respect. He’s seen racism against Native Americans because he’s experienced that same racism alongside his community. He’s had it perpetrated against him instead of acting as a participant in its execution. He’s taking the things he learned of the culture and is passing them on to his own daughter, who by age 4 shows better understanding of Navajo beliefs then most adult white people. He’s used what he knows to try and help others without being high and mighty about it.
Roy is not built up as someone who needs to educate others about the “Poor plight of the American Indian” and is not treated as some legendary destined hero who will liberate the Indians from their suffering. Roy could’ve just as easily been as loud as Green Arrow, or he could’ve come across as preachy and hamfisted as a particularly bad episode of South Park or Family Guy, but he’s NOT and that is really important to understand. If any of us as white people want to call ourselves allies, or learn how to respect and understand Native Americans, their history, traditions, and culture, we need to take a page from Roy’s book on the way to act.
His original origin stories were grossly racist and I’m not saying Devin Grayson’s writing was absolutely flawless, but I will say her stuff is very, VERY good and I will defend her and Jay Faerber as the only writers in decades who ever had a clue as to what they were doing with Roy and his daughter. Their contributions deserve more recognition after the decade of damage done by the likes of J.T. Krul, Eric Wallace, Scott Lobdell, Benjamin Percy, and Tom King.
Roy Harper is not a savior and despite his mistakes he is NOT a screw up. He’s a complex character and a devoted ally who understands boundaries, and for that matter Lian was an ally in the making. For all intents and purposes he is Native in everything but blood, and DC needs to remember that.