Father’s Day Special: Devin Grayson on ARSENAL and Lian Harper

In reviewing the line-up for DC’s Green Arrow 80th Anniversary Special, many fans were in fact overjoyed when they learned Devin Grayson was included in the line-up of creators. Their excitement doubled when Grayson announced on her twitter account that she would be writing a story about Roy Harper, and in her words: he would have BOTH of his arms and ONE daughter.

Cover art by Howard Porter

Devin Grayson is often considered THE modern author of authority when it comes to both Roy Harper and his daughter Lian. Her handling of the characters began with the Batman Plus Arsenal one-shot released in 1996, and continued through her work on Titans and the Arsenal miniseries illustrated by Rick Mays.

I’ve discussed in detail in previous articles how Grayson’s work on the Harpers expanded on their emotional complexity and depth. Her portrayal of Roy Harper’s origin story was the first to intimately focus on Roy’s upbringing in a Native American community after the previous versions tokenized this for the sake of explaining Roy’s use of a bow and arrow.

Cover art by Rick Mays

Roy’s origin stories that have followed after Grayson’s work unfortunately fell back on the same principle by minimizing this aspect or making it problematic. In DC Rebirth’s Green Arrow and Titans series, he switched from Navajo to Spokane simply because Green Arrow was now located in Seattle, and featured the unnecessarily cheap drama of Roy being kicked off the reservation because he was suspected of murdering his foster father while black-out drunk.

Grayson took Roy’s Navajo origin story and removed the “white savior” elements around the death of his birth father, Roy Harper Sr. Roy’s first foster father Raymond Begay (a.k.a. Brave Bow) was humanized as a man who did his absolute best to raise Roy but ultimately decided to find Roy a home outside the reservation in Arizona because he was dying from liver cancer.

To that end, Raymond sought out Roy’s hero Green Arrow and convinced him to take Roy in. While she didn’t spend a huge amount of time focusing on Raymond Begay, Grayson nevertheless established he was a good father to Roy and a lot of Roy’s integrity and complexity were attributed to Raymond’s care.

Art by Rick Mays

Up until Devin Grayson had the chance to write about Lian Harper, the character didn’t fulfill much of a role beyond simply being Roy’s kid. She was either too young to contribute to the plot, or a bit character and generic cute little kid. Grayson’s portrayal of Lian showed her gradually gaining a personality of her own.

While still an adorable young girl, Grayson’s Lian showed an uncanny adeptness for the identities of those around her and a willingness to empathize with people much older than herself. While other writers did discuss how Roy being a father was the best thing to ever happen to him, Grayson’s portrayal of their relationship was at its peak in regards to love, compassion, and honesty.

Cover art by Phil Jimenez

I recently reached out to Devin Grayson to ask her some questions about her story in the Green Arrow 80th Anniversary Special and on her contributions to the evolution of the Harpers over the last three decades.

Jude DeLuca: To begin, your story “Green-Man and Autumn-Son” goes back to the Titans era of the late 90s/early 2000s when the adult Fab Five were back together. The story includes Roy Harper as Arsenal (back in his costume designed by Rick Mays) and Lian Harper, and discusses Roy’s Navajo origin story right?

Devin Grayson: Mostly! I think it’s less about Roy’s Navajo origin story than about the evolution of his relationship with Ollie. But those things are tangled together, so either interpretation is fair.

In terms of when it takes place, I have no idea how DC’s handling continuity these days, but concerning my work and the over-arching storylines in my head, yes, it’s from the period you describe.

I think about the concept of continuity in superhero comics a lot and really go back and forth with it. On the one hand, I think of super-hero stories as contemporary mythology; tales that exist outside of time, legends we have no right to sort into chronological order.

I dislike the emphasis on whether or not a story is canon and how it does or doesn’t fit in with every other story – in some ways, that’s an unfair burden to place on writers, who should be encouraged to tell the stories they most want to tell in whatever timeline best supports each individual tale.

But on the other hand, part of the richness of superhero comics comes from their serialized nature. Many of us grew up following specific characters and feeling like they were growing up alongside us, and it can be really jarring to have a corporate event or creative pivot invalidate the relationships and character growth and narrative structure of those tales.

So I’m highly sympathetic to that, even as I shrug and answer questions about continuity with, “got me!”

Interior art by Rick Mays

JD: How does it feel to be back writing about Roy and Lian?

DG: Fantastic! I’ve really missed them and was so thrilled when DC editor Dave Wielgosz approached me about writing this. I’m also really pleased to see DC doing anthologies again—they’re such a great way to showcase talent.

My love of Dick Grayson is well known, but Roy’s my other guy. I’ve always felt a strong connection to him.

Roy’s a survivor with a rich, complex backstory framed by loss and abandonment, but also beauty and dignity. There are still so many stories to explore about the way those qualities express themselves in him.

And Lian, so essential to his growth, is just bursting with promise of her own. I mean, the daughter of Cheshire and Arsenal, who grows up being babysat by people like Green Arrow and The Titans? C’mon! How are we not following her every move!?

JD: You reached out to a Navajo translator to help construct this story, correct?

DG: Not to help construct it, but to help with translating. Sadly, the phrase she verified for me ended up being replaced. The change came about for a very good reason, but it was last minute and there wasn’t time to get it back to her, so I’m no longer confident that the story title Lian asks for is correct. Lian would know more Diné Bizaad than I do, but fortunately, she’s four years old in the story, and not a native speaker, so if I messed up, it’s credible for her to have gotten it wrong.

And you’re correct about the story being constructed around the oral traditions of Navajo story-telling, which run deep. That would be the way Roy would have learned stories, and as a parent, he would be making a conscious effort to pass that on to Lian.

DC ran the story by representatives of the Navajo Nation and they suggested that we include text at the end inviting people to learn more about their culture and encouraging readers to seek out stories from authentic Navajo voices, which I strongly support. I can personally recommend  Vee F. Browne’s Monster Slayer: A Navajo Folktale, the gorgeous poetry of Elizabeth A. Woody, and Kay Bennett’s lovely Kaibah: Recollections of a Navajo Girlhood.

Interior art by Adam DeKraker

JD: As it stands, you were perhaps the most prominent creator to place emphasis on Roy’s Native upbringing and make it an integral part of who he was, rather than a throwaway element to justify his proficiency with a bow and arrow. Throughout his appearances written by you there were mentions of Navajo culture and mythology.

Would you care to talk a little about the work and research you did as you refined these elements?

DG: When dealing with long-established characters, it’s so important to look at where they came from. I wasn’t the first writer to connect Roy to the Navajo, but I might have been the first to get really excited about that connection.

It risks being problematic, of course – you don’t want to have him become another white guy presenting as a paragon of indigenous culture. But for me, in thinking about Roy, that connection creates a defining internal landscape, one in which archery may have been the least important element.

Obviously, that particular skill set came in real handy when Roy found himself side-kicking for Green Arrow, but his prowess as an archer wasn’t what helped him survive. It was the stories the Navajo taught him; their acceptance of him, and their connection to nature, and the way they look at the world that grounded him and taught him gratitude and what I’ll call a Western version of mindfulness.

Like so many other super-heroes, Roy is lacking a supportive, biological family of origin. But what he was given instead was a very genuine relationship with an Earth that is alive all around him. Animism is most frequently associated with the Cherokee, but it’s also very present in Navajo legends and storytelling, which are bursting with anthropomorphic deities. Think how different your worldview would be if you experienced the sun and the wind as living entities!

One of my favorite things about writing Roy is the contradiction between the laid-back, culturally assimilated colloquial self he presents socially and the dynamic connection to a vibrant, living world he’s carrying inside.

Interior art by Rick Mays

JD: During your tenure writing Roy, you defined him as a man willing and determined to accept and learn from his mistakes in order to become a better person, not just for his sake but to give Lian the father she deserves.

Why did you decide to put the effort into emphasizing Roy as someone whose greatest strength is his choice to learn and move forward when it would’ve been easy to portray him as a standard “bad boy with a gold heart?”

DG: It’s difficult to answer these kinds of questions because I recognize that we’re talking about writing fictional stories, which in turn means that I did, of course, make decisions about how to approach him, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Working with well-established characters like Roy feels more like making friends with someone who already exists so that it’s less a matter of  “I’d like him to be this,” than “Oh, okay, this is who he is, let me figure out how best to show that.” I know things about him that don’t in any way feel like decisions I made, and indeed, lots of the elements of his backstory were already in place by the time I started working with him.

I think what happens is that different writers look at those elements and do some kind of fictional math with them, and for some writers, no-mother+dead-father+raised-by-the-Navajo+adopted-by-Oliver-Queen+drug-addiction+baby-with-supervillain/single-dad=bad boy with a heart of gold. But based on my lived experience and my fictional proclivities, it equals a vulnerably centered survivor committed to being present in his life and striving to do better.

Interior art by Mark Buckingham

JD: You were also the first author to give Lian a genuine personality beyond being a token cute kid. She was smart enough to follow all the super-hero identities around her (like stating ‘Owacle’ runs the Justice League), and compassionate enough to understand both of her parents on a deeper level than most of the adults around them.

What was it like getting to expand on Lian’s personality and giving her more of a role than just “Roy’s daughter?”

DG: Again, the second I first read about her, she just felt so present to me and so obviously already a person. And the fictional math on her!

Cheshire is brilliant, so, just genetically, Lian’s going to have a busy, curious, attentive, analytical brain, and Roy has this rich background we’ve been discussing that leads him toward honesty and reverence and an ability to be truly present—if imperfect—as a parent, which in turn guides Lian toward creativity and compassion. It’s a great combo.

JD: You mentioned in a past interview you imagined, if Lian had been allowed to get older she would’ve identified as a gay woman (and picked up some of her dad’s traits). It would’ve culminated in Roy proudly walking Lian down the aisle at her wedding.

You also said you imagined Lian taking more of an investigative job for the government in a capacity similar to Auntie Oracle. You think you might be willing to revisit this if you’re given a chance to write about the Harpers in the future?

DG: Definitely! That’s another example of fictional math – we add elements together and then multiply by time. I think grownup Lian would be a phenomenal character to explore.

Interior art by Rick Mays

JD: While this doesn’t necessarily have to do with your story in the Anniversary Special, I did want to ask about an aspect that was introduced after your run writing about the Harpers.

Gail Simone later introduced Cheshire having a baby boy, Thomas Blake Jr., from an encounter with Catman of the Secret Six. Roy and Lian never found out about Tommy’s existence, so, how do you think the Harpers would’ve reacted to learning Lian had a baby brother?

DG: Let’s see…I think for Roy it would bring up some jealousy. He’s not naive about who Chesh is and certainly doesn’t expect to her be any more chaste than he’s willing to be, but thinking about things like that in the abstract is very different than being confronted with the physical reality.

Though a small part of Roy harbors a secret fantasy about being able to include Jade in the family he’s created with Lian, a larger part of him understands the impossibility of that. So I think he’d acknowledge the news with an unhappy wince and pretty much leave it at that, unless either Cheshire or Lian needed him to become involved.

I’m not familiar with this story and so don’t know how Thomas was raised, but that would make a big difference for Lian. She’d be very curious about her half-brother and also—if Tommy was indeed being raised by Jade—what that looked like and why it hadn’t been on the table for her.

If she learned that baby Thomas was out in the world on his own, she’d take it upon herself to rectify that situation, which would mean convincing Roy to get involved. It would wound her slightly, on a personal level, to know her mom was raising another kid, but it would be unacceptable to her to have a member of her family not being properly cared for.

JD: Thank you for all the work you’ve done on Roy and Lian!

DG: Thanks for the great questions and all the kind words about my work!

DC Comics’ Green Arrow 80th Anniversary Special hits shelves June 29, 2021.


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