A Holiday Special Edition: The Rise and Fall of TITANS’ Lian Harper

It’s Christmas, that special day of the year that also happens to be my birthday. And for my birthday I decided to do a little follow-up to my article on Roy Harper — one focusing now on his daughter Lian.

With the end of DC’s “Doomsday Clock” in our rearview mirror and DC’s rumored “5G” plans for its fifth generation in our near future, I feel we first need to stop and remember how DC has treated its third and fourth generation characters.

Many people assume from my general outrage over DC editorial’s treatment of the Harpers that I was a fan of them long before Justice League: Cry for Justice. The truth is I didn’t become interested in Roy or Lian until after the fateful moment of Lian’s death. Before then, my first and foremost favorite of the Titans was the original Duela Dent — and even her death in Countdown to Infinite Crisis didn’t offend me as much. Duela still has a special place in my heart (even if I don’t talk about her as frequently as I do the Harpers), but the less said of the current “Joker’s Daughter,” the better.

From Lian’s death in 2010, I’ve generated a considerable amount of fan content featuring her and Roy together. I’ve written fanfiction and commissioned multiple pieces of from different artists, including pro Titans creators George Perez and Phil Jimenez. Before I really dove into Devin Grayson’s writing, my biggest source of inspiration for Harper Family content came from my artist friend Levy Rasputin, whose artwork inspired several of my stories. In the last couple of years I’ve even commissioned designs of the characters for an alternate Earth setting that puts greater emphasis on their Navajo connections.

Interior art by Ron Wagner

The mess made of Roy and Lian was a wake-up call I desperately needed to the damage the Titans were suffering from for years, really since the Young Justice: Graduation Day mini-series. I’d been a fan of Teen Titans and Titans since 2006, but Lian’s death made me stop and look back on how many Titans had been mutilated, tortured, driven insane, and killed off since they were relaunched out of Graduation Day in 2003.

I surely wasn’t the only person mad about Lian’s death. Many reviewers and readers argued her brutal demise in Cry for Justice was both unnecessary and one of the biggest reasons why the series was so terrible. I’m sure I’m not the first person to write extensively on why she didn’t deserve to die.

I tried the Rebirth-era Titans series, but immediately dropped it when it became clear that Donna Troy’s revised New 52 origin (courtesy Wonder Woman series writer Meredith Finch) wasn’t going anywhere and the big villain Titans writer Dan Abnett was building up to since Titans Hunt was… an evil version of Troia from the future, driven insane by her immortality.

What? This again?

After that, I threw myself into learning as much as I could about the Harpers and something about their story resonated with me on a personal level. Their story. I strongly identify with Roy AND Lian. Which of course made The Rise of Arsenal series even harder to bear.

The foundation of the series involved Roy’s friends and family offering no genuine help to him in the wake of his dismemberment and Lian’s death. It felt as though series writer JT Krul was attempting to justify this by having Roy’s anger make him lash out at those around him. I talked in detail about Roy’s role in the previous article, but didn’t discuss Lian’s.

Interior art by Gerardo Borges

Suddenly, the Arrow family’s foundations were completely shattered. DC badly handled the Green Arrow/Black Canary marriage. Cry for Justice writer James Robinson was apparently told to kill Lian AND the previous Speedy, Mia Dearden, but managed to spare Mia. Mia simply became indirectly responsible for Lian’s death by leaving the girl at home alone while she went after the Electrocutioner. Lian is then violently crushed to death when Prometheus’s teleporting devices malfunctioned and leveled most of Star City with an earthquake. (One could argue Mia would simply have died with Lian had she stayed, however.)

Being the latest Titan child to die (following Baby Wildebeest, Jennifer and Robby Long, and Cerdian), Lian transformed into a corpse-shaped plot device to further push Roy into the role of an unhinged anti-hero lashing out at the world around him. Roy uses her death to justify his return to drug abuse and descent into violence, while Cheshire and Deathstroke try to use Lian’s death to manipulate him in Eric Wallace and Fabrizio Fiorentino’s follow-up Titans series.

Cheshire blames Roy for Lian dying and claims he “owes” her for it, while Deathstroke tries to offer both of them Lian’s return from the dead to keep them under his thumb. Anyone that’s read Villains United by Gail Simone and Dale Eaglesham knows Cheshire really has no right to claim Roy owes her for Lian dying. Lian’s death is also used to imply Cheshire’s lost her edge as a villain, and she’s later believed to be subconsciously suicidal because of losing her daughter.

The timing of the release of Rise of Arsenal and how it synched with my own familial struggles at home were also a factor in my growing focus on Roy and Lian. The level of objectification Lian suffers from both her parents and DC editorial after her death has always been a sore spot for me.

I love Roy as a character — and truly, the brunt of my scorn at characterization in Rise of Arsenal remains aimed at the supporting cast for their apathy. But even I’ve been led to hate Roy for exploiting Lian’s death to explain his new violent tendencies and have wanted to see him punished for it. He and Cheshire both needed to own up to Lian’s memory for using her and apologize directly to her.

My reasons for feeling so strongly about Lian’s death and degradation are likely rooted in the problems I’ve struggled with in my own family. My parents messily split up in late 2009, and during most of the first half of the 2010s I found myself stuck mediating between them and my brother while juggling college and two jobs.

I was expected to support their problems, while my own were being ignored and I felt like I was only there so they had someone to scream at. I got called a martyr for my troubles. Dealing with all this at the same time Rise of Arsenal and Titans: Villains for Hire were being released didn’t help matters at all.

Interior art by Rick Mays

Despite being an adult, I’ve often felt objectified by my own family due to being “the reliable one” when all hell broke loose. Seeing Roy Harper’s abandonment and Lian Harper’s exploitation by those who were supposed to help and care about them when they needed it felt familiar, and I empathized greatly with the way the two have been screwed over, ostensibly to fuel a scenario where the marriage between Roy’s parental figures could devolve into disaster.

My dislike has steadily intensified over the years from hearing people, fans and creators, try to vainly position Lian of having always only been a plot device meant to boost Roy as a character. They either consider her a means to produce cutesy fluff offering no sustenance or an annoyance that pigeonholes Roy into a role that doesn’t suit his hound dog tendencies. To which I say,

Cute. But wrong.

Yes, Lian does have the potential to be limited as a character due to her young age (especially in the stories where she’s still a baby). However, as the character grew older, writers such as Devin Grayson and Jay Faerber demonstrated what a perceptive, emotional, and complicated child Lian was and thus how much potential she would have had — if she’d been allowed to grow older. Devin Grayson even said she imagined Lian would’ve identified as a queer woman as an adult, robbing readers of another potential LGBTQA character to identify with.

Lian was definitely more of a device when she first appeared back in the 1980s. Roy and Cheshire had no idea Cheshire was pregnant when Roy left her, since he couldn’t bring himself to have her arrested. Lian’s existence was used to show Cheshire as more than just a mercenary for hire and was an expression of the duality between this woman’s identities of “Cheshire” and “Jade Nguyen.”

Interior art by Eduardo Barreto

Cheshire frequently referred to Lian as not being a part of “Cheshire’s” world, but rather “Jade’s.” She did not consider her life as a mother to be connected to her life as a mercenary, which explains why she’s only ever angry at Roy while in costume. Cheshire’s now attempting to focus all her negative attributes into her “day job” so it doesn’t affect the way she treats Lian.

Initially, Cheshire only told Roy about their child as revenge for leaving her and had no intention of ever letting Roy near the infant. Roy managed to find them anyway and Cheshire relented, allowing Roy to know Lian’s name and hold her in his arms. That still wasn’t enough to quench her anger at Roy for the way their romance ended, and she once claimed she’d torture Roy by feeding him the barest details on Lian’s development happening without him in their life.

Eventually though, Roy gained permanent custody of Lian after it became clear Cheshire was too dangerous to be allowed to care for their daughter. Especially after she destroyed the country of Qurac with a nuclear bomb just to prove that she was capable of doing so. And for years, that didn’t stop writers from making it clear Cheshire’s love for her daughter is genuine regardless of how many people she’s killed.

Many people believe Roy only turned his life around when he became a dad to Lian, but that isn’t necessarily true. After he went cold turkey and beat his heroin addiction with support from Black Canary, Roy turned over a new leaf and cleaned up his act. He devoted time to some rehabilitation programs and found employment as a government agent, which is how he met Cheshire in the first place.

No, Lian wasn’t responsible for Roy reinventing himself — but her presence in his life gave him more incentive to be a better person and clearly being a father was truly the best thing to ever happen to him. Motivated by his own abandonment issues, Roy worked harder to be attentive and nurturing to Lian,  doubly so because her mom was not the picture. While Roy was historically known to rely on nannies and babysitters from time to time, he still made the best effort possible to let Lian know he loves her and wanted to do right by her.

One element of Rise of Arsenal that felt hollow came when Roy hallucinated a rotted version of Lian claiming he was a horrible father because he kept being a super-hero and it got her killed. Some fans even agreed and Roy was put on a few “Worst Comic Dad” lists because of Lian’s death. Honestly, this was a rather one-sided argument when you know how dangerous the DCU is and knowing even IF Roy ever quit being a costumed hero Lian would still be a target. Her mom is an international assassin. Remaining in the hero business meant Roy was more prepared to protect Lian from immediate threats and granted the Harpers access to a support system of empowered men and women. And ultimately, Lian’s death wasn’t a result of Roy being a super-hero.

Interior art by Gerardo Borges

The late 1990s saw Lian getting more page time alongside her father and she began to develop her own personality. The Arsenal mini-series by Devin Grayson and Rick Mays showed Black Canary was starting to teach Lian a thing or two about combat. When she’s being held by the villain Vandal Savage, Lian’s prodded by Canary to show Vandal “the finger trick” she was taught. Lian then snapped Vandal’s thumb in half.

Lian was much more prominent in the first volume of Devin Grayson’s Titans than she’s been in any other series, which is why I’ve mainly considered her a Titans character first and an Arrow character second. All of the Titans, especially the Fab Five, doted on Lian and would do anything to protect her. Tempest, normally the least likely to get enraged, is especially angry when Lian goes missing in one issue.

During Devin Grayson and Jay Faerber’s time on the book, Lian showed an uncanny knack for keeping up with super-hero identities. She recognizes Cyborg right off despite him gaining his new golden body after JLA/Titans: The Technis Imperative, and has picked up her dad’s rather unfortunate nicknames for Tempest and Beast Boy: “Gill Head” and “Salad Head.” When asked who leads the JLA, Lian answers “Owacle.” She knows to refer to Dick Grayson as “Nightwing” and never accidentally reveals his secret identity. She even correctly refers to Dick as Roma, though spelled “Romany.”

During the period when Roy was dating Donna Troy, Lian was growing especially attached to Donna and vice versa. Even after the romantic relationship ended, Donna remained rather close to Lian and was almost a second mother to her. It makes some sense all things considered. Donna began dating Roy some time after her son and stepdaughter died, and Lian’s mother has been mostly absent due to her criminal behavior.

Interior art by Mark Buckingham

To put this in the proper context, a later story arc dealt with Donna being erased from everyone’s memories. She handled dealing with Roy and the others not knowing who she was, but when Lian appears visibly scared of Donna since she doesn’t know who Donna is anymore, that’s what drives Donna away from the Titans’ HQ. Donna even looked as though her heart had been ripped from her chest over the idea that Lian, of all people, was scared of her. And after Donna was “killed” at the end of Graduation Day, Lian accurately guessed Donna would come back from the dead like her grandpa Green Arrow did.

The expression of Lian’s perceptiveness was especially prominent when she helped her dad with Grant Emerson’s PTSD. When Roy brought Grant with him and Lian on their camping trip to Arizona, Grant began to get angry about the sexual abuse his foster father put him through. Despite the possibility of Grant exploding due to his emotions, Lian never once gets scared of Grant’s volatile state and remains by her dad’s side as Roy tries to help Grant. Using what she’s learned of Navajo beliefs from Roy, Lian helps Grant verbalize the pain he’s suffering from by asking him about his tears and what they’d say if they were a song. Even though Lian’s too young to understand the explicit details of sexual abuse, she understands Grant’s in serious pain and wants to help him in a meaningful way.

Lian’s also demonstrated a deeper understanding of her mother’s actions than you’d think a 4-year-old was capable, and it’s genuinely heartbreaking. She has no illusions about what her mom’s done as Cheshire and hasn’t made excuses for it either, but she still loves her mom regardless of what she’s committed. However, Lian clearly got upset about the things her mom’s done and was shown getting angry about the people Cheshire’s hurt.

At one point, Roy hired Chanda Madan, a young Quraci woman to act as Lian’s babysitter. While talking about her mom and dad’s ethnicities, Lian learns about Chanda’s grandparents and how they were killed in the nuclear bombing of Qurac. As Lian hears about this, she instinctively places her mom’s photo facedown away from Chanda. Lian feels the need to apologize to Chanda, and becomes so angry she throws her mom’s picture at the wall shouting “BAD MOMMY!”

Even worse, when Chanda finds out Lian’s mom is Cheshire, she starts screaming at the poor girl. Chanda asks if she knows what her mom’s done, talking about the thousands of people who died and indirectly asking how Roy could’ve slept with her. Sadly, all Lian can do is quietly ask if Chanda now hates her, too.

This kind of characterization is more than just a “plot device.”

Interior art by Paul Pelletier

The drama about Lian and Roy’s connection to Cheshire continued in the series, especially when Cheshire became a member of Vandal Savage’s group Tartarus. Chanda at one point refused to look after Lian so Roy wouldn’t be able to go with the rest of the Titans to stop Tartarus, hoping without Roy there Cheshire might get killed. Lian tells Chanda her dad has to go, stating he’s the only other person who cares about what happens to her mom. It’s heartbreaking seeing Lian reveal how she knows most of the people around them, even the other Titans, hate her mother for what she’s done. Lian knows she and Roy are practically the only people on Earth who likely don’t want her mom dead. This also demonstrates she understands her dad pretty well, too, since she knows he isn’t happy about Cheshire’s situation either.

Again, despite all this, Lian loves her mom very much and for as much as she hates what Cheshire HAS done, she’s also unhappy with the way everyone else thinks of her as a monster. How many of us have been forced into a position where we need to admit our parents have done terrible things, yet we still love them anyway?

Nevertheless, Chanda tried to remain as Lian’s babysitter and truly cared about her wellbeing even as she secretly started helping a group of Quraci men and women who want Cheshire dead. For as much as she loathes Cheshire, Chanda refuses to let Lian be a casualty in that and eventually quits working for Roy because she doesn’t want Lian to get hurt.

In spite of Lian’s role as the team cutie and her sadness around her mom, Lian also showed a jealous side which made her more believable as a kid. After the Titans start housing the DEOrphans, Lian grew to dislike them for a couple of reasons. There was something about them she didn’t trust, and she didn’t like them taking attention away from her. Lian even once screamed at them how she “was here first.”

Amusingly, Lian’s dislike turned out to be valid for two reasons. The DEOrphans actually were hiding something, how one of them had been controlling the Titans’ semi-ally Epsilon against Epsilon’s will the whole time. This was rather genuinely disturbing, because Argent had been attracted to “Epsilon” and was outraged learning she’d been tricked into dating a preteen.

Cover art by Angel Unzueta

Lian’s jealous side also briefly sprung up around Tempest’s baby son, Cerdian. She’d previously gotten along rather well with Cerdian before Dolphin, Tempest’s wife, decided to move into the HQ. In one particular issue, Lian steals a toy from Cerdian when her dad and current nanny Rose Wilson aren’t looking, and then lies about why Cerdian’s crying. Considering this took place after Lian was infected by her Jokerized mother in the Joker’s Last Laugh tie-in issue, her actions were believed to be a side effect of the poisoning. After Faerber left the title, nothing else came out of this. It’s still not that hard to believe Lian wouldn’t be happy with sharing the attention she’s received from her dad and his friends. She’s so used to being the only kid around; of course she’d be jealous.

A few years later, Lian seemed to have grown out of her jealous phase and got along much better with Jai and Irey West. One particular arc in Wally West’s last Flash series featured Lian hanging out with the West Twins while their mother Linda needed medical attention, helping to take the kids’ minds off Linda’s status while Roy kept an eye on them.

Sadly, after the end of the first Titans series, Lian was nowhere near as prominent as she once was. She made sporadic appearances in Outsiders, Green Arrow, Justice League of America, and the second Titans volume. Her most significant role during the era between 2003 and her death in 2010 occurred in Outsiders, where she was briefly kidnapped and branded by a child sex ring. The story arc in question bizarrely featured the Outsiders teaming up with real-life hero John Walsh to expose the head of the abductions. Thankfully Lian was rescued, but the story implied she’d been scarred for life because of the kidnapping and the tattoo on her back. This storyline was never followed up again in Outsiders, and in Lian’s later appearances she was as happy and well adjusted as she normally was.

From 2003 to 2010, Lian’s age was portrayed inconsistently. In some stories she was a toddler, while in others she was attending elementary school. By the arrival of Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America she was back to being potty trained. Her gravestone following her death said she was 4 or 5 years old when she died, which really didn’t seem likely. Due to the inconsistency, Lian was never given a chance to properly start training as a potential sidekick to her dad even though she had her own Speedy costume. Those seven years were a waste of potential stories for the young girl, even more wasteful considering her dad had joined the Justice League and was in the spotlight of DC’s premier super team.

Fan art by Sarah Oleksyk

One of the biggest examples of a story that never happened concerned the existence of Lian’s baby brother, Thomas Blake Jr. Conceived by Cheshire via Catman during Villains United, Tommy was meant to be Lian’s replacement in case the villain Mockingbird went through with their blackmail arrangement against Cheshire and detonated the bomb in Lian’s head.

Neither Roy nor Lian ever learned about Tommy’s existence, before or after Lian died. Chances are if they had known about Tommy it would’ve completely changed the dynamic between them and Cheshire. Becoming a big sister might’ve given Lian development over her latent jealous side since she’d have to share her dad’s attention for good, or possibly brought out a protective side and put her on the same level as Roy. Learning about how and why Tommy was born and the Harpers’ reaction to it could’ve also provided a chance for someone to rectify the conflicting portrayals of Cheshire (Troubled mercenary who loves her children Vs the genocidal maniac willing to forsake her children if it’s convenient to her survival).

Interestingly, some fans created their own content featuring Lian and Tommy together in the ways that never happened. My friend Enn Carbohydrate was pretty much the first to create fanart of the two together featuring Tommy dressed in Catman pajamas inspired from his birth father.

Fan art by The Enncient One (created under the name “slider-chan“)

Come the beginning of the New 52, Lian was completely written out of the continuity. Her death never happened because she’d never actually been born. Lian’s only appearance in DC’s titles after her death and erasure occurred in 2015 during the Convergence event.

Convergence: Titans, written by Fabian Nicieza and Ron Wagner, appeared to be commissioned specifically to undo the mess made of the Harpers before Flashpoint. Roy redeems himself of his actions after Lian died, and Lian is plucked from the timeline before her death and reunited with her father. The two part story demonstrated Lian’s best qualities, handling the chaos around her surprisingly well and only slightly confused. She doesn’t even seem bothered by her dad needing a prosthetic arm when just that morning (to her) he’d been fine. The villain Dreamslayer tries to use Lian as a tool to control Roy, but Roy won’t have it and gets Lian back without betraying the Titans. When Roy unleashes an EMP that gets rid of Dreamslayer and destroys his base of operations, Lian doesn’t panic and keeps her eyes on her dad when he falls over.

Interior art by Ron Wagner

Surprisingly, the character debuted in the second season of TV’s Young Justice as Lian Nguyen-Harper. As part of the more streamlined approach to the portrayals of Red Arrow and Cheshire, the two were married at some point between the shows first and second season. Lian’s presence motivated Red Arrow to stop obsessing over finding the original Roy Harper, and the third season showed the now retired “Will Harper” devoting himself to being a father and caregiver.

However, while many fans were overjoyed to see Lian back in some form, she had little role to play in the second season. After her debut, Cheshire focused on avenging her sister Artemis’s supposed death while Red Arrow’s role was taken over by the original Roy, now called Arsenal.

The third season presented Lian as a 3-year-old now voiced by Zehra Fazal, living with her father and aunt while her mother is absent. Lian showed glimmers of her comic book counterpart’s perceptiveness and is implied to know about her parents being Red Arrow and Cheshire. However, while there were a handful of adorable moments between Will and Lian, Will honestly didn’t interact with his daughter that much. The season put more focus on lingering sexual tension between Will and Artemis. Time will tell if Lian will have a bigger role in the show’s fourth season.

Still from Young Justice

The only other version of Lian to have any prominence in DC’s officially distributed media came from the Elseworlds blockbuster story Kingdom Come. Mark Waid and Alex Ross introduced an older version of Lian among the newer generation of heroes in the KC timeline. Having fashioned an identity for herself as Red Hood, Lian joined the rest of the Fab Five’s children (Darkstar, Nightstar, Flash IV, Aquagirl II) as well as her grandparents Oliver and Dinah Queen in Batman’s Outsiders.

Lian didn’t really have any lines, but the final issue of the four book mini-series has a rather touching and heartbreaking scene between her and her father. While chaos rages at the Gulag, Batman leads the Outsiders in an attempt to corral the Justice League and the rogue metahumans. When Red Arrow notices Red Hood nearby, he stops everything he’s doing and rushes to his daughter’s side. Unfortunately, it’s just in time for the two to learn Dinah Queen’s been killed by stray gunfire. Father and daughter are then obliterated next to each other by the atomic blast.

While it’s implied the Roy and Lian of this world had some falling out much like the rest of Teen Titans of this era had similar problems with their parents, Roy’s willingness to ignore everything else for the sake of his daughter’s well being transcends universe and timelines.

The design retained Lian’s red hair from her debut in New Teen Titans, but her eyes now distinctively resembled her mother’s. Alex Ross’s notes explicitly described Lian’s name and appearance having no connection to the Joker’s original criminal persona, stating it was based off Little Red Riding Hood and the Arrow of Golden Age comics. One earlier draft even revealed Ross considered having Lian inspired by her mother Cheshire.

Despite the deaths of most of the Kingdom Come Teen Titans, Red Hood and the others reappeared in the main DC Universe during Titans #23-25 by Jay Faerber and Paul Pelletier. When Troia’s archenemy Dark Angel is systematically erasing the memory of Donna Troy from every timeline, the KC Teen Titans get selected by the god Zeus to stop her before Dark Angel destroys the main version of Donna. Red Hood and the rest initially clash with the regular Titans before claiming to be a group of government operatives.

Interior art by Paul Pelletier

At the time, Red Hood was the only member of the KC Teen Titans to have a direct counterpart in the regular DCU (Irey West hadn’t been born yet and Robby Long was dead). She has a brief encounter with her younger counterpart, who notices right away Red Hood has a resemblance to Cheshire, something almost all the other Titans missed. When Lian brings this to Roy’s attention, seeing the older and younger versions of Lian together, he appears visibly unnerved.

It’s truly disappointing when DC seems to have no idea what to do with Lian, much as with Roy. The perceptiveness and perseverance of the character clearly struck a chord in readers if the outrage over her death is to be believed. Not to mention she’d had seniority over many of the other younger generation characters who HAVE since gotten their own titles, such as Damian Wayne and Jon Kent.

Any toddler certainly does have the potential to be solely a plot device, but writers such as Devin Grayson and Jay Faerber successfully portrayed Lian with a surprising amount of believable depth. It’s not hard to consider she’d do well in stories aimed at younger audiences, and the success of DC’s Ink and Zoom imprints offers a valid means to reach that audience.

Fan art by Levy Rasputin

What’s happened with the characters of Roy and Lian is a symptom of an ongoing, rather vicious cycle of needlessly cruel storytelling involving DC’s legacy characters. It’s a reason why the upcoming 5G initiative already feels so hypocritical and insincere sight unseen. It’s easy to applaud a seeming desire to do right with fifth generation characters — to move the universe along — if you ignore how blatantly abused and mishandled their third and fourth generation characters remain.

I have had enough of vicious cycles. Haven’t you?


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