Superhero Evolutions: Roy Harper

We all fight for different things. But we all still fight….Everything we need – it’s all within us.

Who is Roy Harper? Well, he’s been lots of different things. He began as Speedy, the Green Arrow’s sidekick. He’s also been the Red Arrow and Arsenal. He’s been a drug addict, a single father, and an amputee. He’s one of the first comic book characters to really be involved in some heavy topical issues, but bad creative decisions have turned him into a parody of those very same issues. Looking at Roy Harper’s history is like watching a train wreck, then watching the sole survivor emerge from the blazing inferno, take six steps forward, then get hit by a speeding car.

My knowledge of Roy Harper extends from his early days up until about 2010 or so. When DC rebooted its universe, he joined up with his buddies Jason Todd and Starfire in Red Hood and the Outlaws, but I’ve read very little of that series or anything else involving Roy since. What I have to offer here is a history of “Roy Classic.” So let’s dive in, shall we?

Totally not Robin, We Swear

Roy Harper was introduced as Speedy, sidekick to the Green Arrow, in that duo’s debut in More Fun Comics #73 back in 1941. At the time, he was just a Robin analogue for the Green Arrow, who himself was a Batman analogue. The Green Arrow had an Arrowmobile, and Arrow Cave, he was a wealthy playboy by day with a child ward who fought crime by night, and so on. But the Green Arrow and Speedy totally weren’t ripoffs of Batman and Robin, we swear! There are marked differences…well, one marked difference. The Green Arrow and Speedy used bow gimmicks instead of bat gimmicks.

More Fun Comics #73
Here we see the typical nuanced and clever portrayal of Native Americans in Golden Age comics.

Anyway, Roy Harper wound up in a plane crash on an isolated island along with his father and their Indian servant Quaog. Roy’s father died in the crash, but Quoag and Roy managed to survive and lived well on the island thanks to Roy’s excellent archery skills. Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, this origin would get a revisit and it would be established that Roy’s father was a friend to a Navajo tribe and that Roy was raised by the Navajo following his father’s death. In both versions, his mother is a non-character who has been out of his life almost since birth. Whatever the origin, he would eventually get paired with Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, who nicknames him Speedy because his speed with a bow exceeds even Ollie’s. Ollie eventually took Roy in as his ward and acted as the boy’s surrogate father.

My Ward is a Junkie

While he began as a Robin ripoff, Speedy did turn into a fairly interesting character on his own soon enough. He wound up on the Teen Titans, where he had a brief relationship with Donna Troy, aka Wonder Girl. But despite making some progress, he didn’t really have his own niche in the DC Universe – a problem that would follow him for decades.

Green Lantern #85
Insert obligatory “Speedy is on speed” joke here.

In the early 1970s, Oliver Queen lost his fortune and wound up traveling America with buddy Hal Jordan, fighting for the little guy. This helped separate the Green Arrow from Batman, as Ollie took on more of a social conscience beyond just beating up criminals. In what is probably the most iconic issue of this period, Roy got involved with his surrogate dad’s storyline. In Green Lantern, volume 2, #85, Ollie wound up revisiting the kid he had basically abandoned so he could run across America on his male bonding trip. During that time, Roy had fallen into drugs and become addicted to heroin. For the time period, this was a ground-breaking issue and was one of the stories that marked the beginning of the Bronze Age of comics. Never before had drug addiction been dealt with head-on by a comic book. Even if it was mentioned, it would never, ever be a major character who was the junkie.

Its place in comic book history aside, the issue was a really nice chance for the Green Arrow to put his money where his mouth was. He had spent issue after issue ragging on Hal Jordan for ignoring the little man, and now he had a chance to lend support to his drug-addicted ward. So what did he do?

Well, he kicked Roy out on his ass.

Yeah, lesson one in the DC Universe: the Green Arrow is an asshole. Depending on the writing, this trait can be a good thing about the character, in that it shows a realistic jerk with a heart of gold, or a bad thing, in that he kicked his own surrogate son out of his home for doing drugs – after spending a lot of time reaming Hal Jordan out for ignoring real-world problems, no less. Luckily, Roy had some friends in his life that weren’t total douches. Hal and the Black Canary eventually reached out to Roy and helped him quit heroin cold turkey – which might qualify as a crowning moment of awesome for Roy, since detoxing like that is not only extremely hard but a good way to wind up dead due to the withdrawal symptoms.

The actual story dealing with Roy’s addiction was pretty powerful, especially considering the time period. Unfortunately, it also sort of became Roy’s defining feature. For the most part, he was Green Arrow-lite. He didn’t even fit in as a sidekick anymore due to his falling out with Ollie. As a result, whenever a writer needed something to make Roy stand out from the other heroes around him, they’d bring up his drug problem. As of this writing, it’s been 30 years since the groundbreaking story, and all most people know about Roy is still that he’s a junkie.

Out on his Own

Aside from his drug addiction, Speedy’s first big change wasn’t in his costume, but rather in his superhero career. After his falling out with the Green Arrow, he went his own way and began having adventures outside of just being Ollie’s sidekick or one of the members of the Teen Titans. He also used his status as a recovering drug addict productively, taking time off from spandex-clad heroics to serve as a counselor for teens with drug problems.

His most significant solo adventure came when he took on an undercover mission for the government to win the trust of the mercenary Cheshire. Cheshire is a major villain who has literally nuked countries in the Middle East, but to this day it turns out her one soft spot is Roy Harper. Proving that he learned more than just archery from ladies man Oliver Queen, Roy not only won Cheshire’s trust but became her lover. Unfortunately, the ruse worked a little too well, as Roy himself fell in love with Cheshire. In an interesting twist in which Roy accidentally followed in his mentor’s footsteps when it came to abandonment, Roy’s conflicting feelings for Cheshire eventually caused him to leave her. He certainly couldn’t condone her murderous activities, but he couldn’t bring himself to have her brought in, either. What he didn’t know as he left, though, was that she was pregnant with his child. He would only find out about the existence of his daughter Lian when Cheshire hunted him down and tried to kill him, only to wind up stopping short because of her feelings for Roy. Apparently, murderous sociopaths don’t comprehend love or compassion all that well.

Cheshire Versus Speedy
Oh comic book romance…you make soap operas seem so normal by comparison.

Cheshire wound up leaving Lian behind as she escaped capture, leaving Roy as her sole guardian. Thus Speedy took up a role that made him all but unique in all of superhero comics: that of a single father.


For 50 years, the only real physical change in Roy was his age. He went from a plucky teenage sidekick to a young adult with a heroin addiction to a single father in his 20s. Honestly, that’s the type of development that I wish we’d see more of in comics. I like the idea of heroes aging, albeit not in real time, with kid sidekicks growing up and adult superheroes eventually having to retire. But that rant aside, Roy was one of a handful of characters to see some pretty fascinating development. Then in the 90s, he went with the same trend everyone else used to show personality growth: he got a new pair of tights.

Roy takes a flying leap into the 90s.

The Teen Titans became a government-backed organization, and their leader Nightwing (the first Robin, also grown up) stepped down. Having worked with both the government and the Titans before, Roy stepped up to fill the void. But he apparently decided that Speedy was too lame a codename for the leader of the Titans and decided to become Arsenal instead. He got a new costume and some weapons other than bows and arrows, although his schtick remained being fast and very accurate. Roy’s new costume had the essentials of a 90s look – unnecessary pouches, asymmetrical armor, and boots that apparently warped the shape of his feet. However, it was pretty subtle for the time period – he didn’t have huge guns, a metal arm, or the like.

In his personal life, Roy eventually got in touch with the Green Arrow again. Ollie apologized for being a dick, Roy forgave him, and the two shared a real father-son moment. Then Ollie got blown up in an airplane and killed.

Oh don’t worry. He got better.

Arsenal 2: Electric Boogaloo

Arsenal 2
The look is an improvement. The dialogue…not so much.

Like many other superheroes who got stupid with their costumes in the 1990s, Roy eventually became more sensible. Although he remained Arsenal, he toned down the pouches and gizmos, shifting to a costume that resembled a cross between his old identity as Speedy and his new identity as Arsenal. While his costume changed, his personality began to become more like Ollie. After a renewed relationship with Donna Troy went bad, he became something of a ladies man, although he never got to the level of womanizing the soon to be resurrected Oliver Queen was.

One thing that didn’t change in Roy’s life was his commitment to Lian. Where Ollie had been a dick to his ward, Roy turned out to be a decent father. It didn’t hurt that he had reconciled with his own mentor and that Lian had the benefit of being raised by the collective Teen Titans as well as the Black Canary, who is one of the top martial artists in the DC Universe and one of the most compassionate family ladies one can imagine. Just for kicks, I had to add in a scan that doesn’t highlight any changes Roy went through, but just shows how even an infant can be pretty badass when she’s got a smidgen of superhero training.

Lian Harper
Despite the wonky art, this scene cracks me up.

Red Arrow

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, killing off superheroes for shock value had become chic. After about half the Teen Titan got killed in one big adventure, the group dissolved, and Roy moved from the Titans over to a new group, the Outsiders. Well, it was a new old group, as the Outsiders had previously been a team assembled by Batman and…well, comics just love to reuse names, don’t they?

Red Arrow
He’s like Green Arrow, but…red.

The Outsiders turned out to be a bit of a disaster thanks to the fact that the villain Deathstroke posed as Batman and fed Roy information as the group assembled, thus manipulating him from day one. The group eventually dissolved, and Roy wound up joining the Justice League under a new moniker, Red Arrow.

Unfortunately, many fans Red Arrow Roy as a complete ripoff of the Green Arrow. As Arsenal, he could at least look somewhat different, rather than being Ollie in a red suit. And while he was still very much a unique character, having the backstory of being a recovered drug addict and a single father, it’s hard for those subtle notes to sell comics. Fans didn’t get to see Roy’s personality on a cover in the comic shop – they just saw a guy ripping off Green Arrow. So DC decided that the better way of showing Roy’s development would be to get rid of one of the things that made him a unique character, over-emphasize his most negative aspects, and give him a shiny metal arm.

Take a deep breath, because we’re about to wade through a whole lot of shit.

Cry for Justice and the Rise of Arsenal

Funny story: I actually got interested in Roy Harper because of some of the worst comics ever written. Somewhere in the crapola that is Cry for Justice and Rise of Arsenal, I figured there must have once been a good character. And there was.

Let’s recap. By 2009, Roy Harper had been in comics for almost 70 years. During that time he had followed this character arc:

  • Orphan
  • Taken in by Oliver Queen, who he saw as a father
  • Basically forgotten by Ollie, and fell into drugs as a result
  • Kicked out by his surrogate father for being a drug addict
  • Kicking his drug habit
  • Becoming a counselor for other teens with drug problems
  • Becoming a single father
  • Reconciling with Ollie and forming a relatively stable family unit for his daughter

The Justice League: Cry for Justice came out and screwed it all over. I could go into detail about what makes Cry for Justice so bad, but instead I’ll just link to a review of the comic on Atop the Fourth Wall. In a nutshell, writer James Robinson decided that he wanted to explore the concept of justice as it applies to a superhero comic. Apparently, that involved having stilted characters stumble around yelling, “Justice!” repeatedly while torturing supervillains. Hal Jordan of all people tortured supervillains, which makes no freaking sense. Torture is the applied use of pain and fear, which is exactly the type of thing a Green Lantern is supposed to fight against.

Anyway, the whole miniseries involved a convoluted plot by a villain named Prometheus, who had steel-plated plot armor since everyone else in the comic got dumber so he could look good. That picture above? That’s Roy after a battle with Prometheus in which he got his arm cut off. Thus we have one of the two new defining traits of Roy Harper: he has a missing arm. That would eventually get replaced with a cybernetic arm, which apparently screams “character development” much better than having a daughter, being a mentor for teens, or struggling with his tendency to be a bit of a womanizer.

Maimed Roy
Yeah…I really needed to see this.

Prometheus wound up destroying much of Star City, killing thousands of people including Lian. Yeah, poor Lian got a building dropped on her. And it’s not even the focus of the story – she wasn’t in the story until she died, and her death is resolved in only a couple of panels. To make matters worse, Roy himself is unconscious while this happens, so we never get to see his immediate reaction to this tragic event. Basically, the entire situation was a hamfisted way of trying to make Roy more “edgy” and “interesting,” resulting in Cry for Justice just being a badly written ad for the next miniseries, The Rise of Arsenal.

(Side note: At the end of Cry for Justice, Green Arrow kills Prometheus for his crimes. This leads into a stupid plot in his own book where he is put on trial for murder. The jury finds him not guilty, and the judge overrides their decision, exiling him from Star City. Even ignoring the fact that the legal system doesn’t work that way even in an Ace Attorney game, the mere thought that someone who executes a terrorist who murdered thousands of people would get a murder trial instead of a ticker tape parade shatters my suspension of disbelief.)

To put things mildly, The Rise of Arsenal is bad. Really, really bad.

The first two issues are just garden variety bad. Roy yells at people at Lian’s funeral, he expresses his anger by beating up criminals…standard stuff. He gets back into drugs, which is kind of understandable considering the tragedy but at the same time also ignores the fact that Roy has a huge support system around him. Then again, maybe he doesn’t. Black Canary gets written so badly that she goes from someone who would go to Hell and back for her adopted family to someone who doesn’t seem to even care that Roy is back on drugs. Ollie is in jail for killing a mass-murderer, and everybody else seems to take the, “let’s let him grieve in peace” approach.

By issue #3 of Rise of Arsenal, Roy really hits the skids and the writing becomes comically bad. First, Cheshire shows up and attacks Roy, blaming him for Lian’s death:

Roy Versus Cheshire
Crack that whip!

Roy’s internal monologue in the fight seems obsessed with ranking whether Cheshire was a better lay than Hawkgirl rather than anything people really think about in the depths of their rage. And after hitting her with an electric cord, he tires her up and then they almost have angry sex. Because come on, folks, who hasn’t wanted to beat a grieving mother with an electric cord and then force oneself on her?

Anyway, I say, “almost have angry sex” because it turns out that Roy can’t get it up. And like any time in any medium that impotence is ever mentioned, it’s just used as a gag here:

Roy Impotence
Get it? His daughter is dead, so he can’t get it up! HAHAHA!

Roy then wanders around and starts beating up random criminals until he finally gets himself some heroin. He smokes the heroin (because he can’t inject it due to his cybernetic arm, and apparently the right arm is the only place one can inject heroin), which causes him to pass out and nearly die. Oh wait, no. That’s what a high dose of heroin would do in real life. For whatever reason, the writer of Rise of Arsenal decided not to do any basic research on heroin addiction (which would take all of five minutes on a web search to do), and instead decides that it causes powerful lucid hallucinations and psychosis. Roy finishes the issue beating up hobos who he thinks are villains while cradling a dead cat that he thinks is his daughter. Behold:

Roy's Dead Cat
Believe it or not, this is supposed to be serious.

The miniseries ends with Batman beating Roy up and hauling his ass off to a rehab clinic, where they strap him down and force him to detox cold turkey. As I mentioned before, detoxing like that can easily kill a man. That has to be the worst clinic in America.

Roy Harper Pre-New 52

As the title of The Rise of Arsenal implies, Roy has gone back to being Arsenal instead of the Red Arrow. That’s probably for the best, since it at least differentiates him a little bit from the Green Arrow. Unfortunately, despite all the development Roy went through over the years, he was now pretty much defined by one character trait: being a junkie.

Rise of Arsenal
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

Rise of Arsenal was a failure on many levels, including its title. “Rise” implies that a hero will rise to overcome whatever is being thrown at him. Instead, Roy spent the entire time falling, then he hit rock bottom. Following that, you’d expect him to become a better person and move on with his life, right?

Nope, he just gets hooked on a different type of drug.

Roy wound up in Titans, which was a title notable for not actually having the team in the book. The Titans are not derivative of the Teen Titans, but rather a completely different group of villains assembled by Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator. Roy, while not being a villain, went into 90s antihero mode and was kept in line by drugs given to him by Slade. So our hero rose from being a heroin addict (even if the heroin is remarkably hallucinogenic) to being…addicted to a different drug. Greeeaaat.

But there’s good news! The whole universe got destroyed!

Well, not really, but kind of. Comics are weird. In the Flashpoint crossover, Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, wound up messing around with the past and screwed up history. This led to a company-wide reboot known as the New 52, which had the side effect of turning Roy into a more heroic character again. His addiction remained part of his past, but it stopped being his defining feature.

Unfortunately, the initial issues of Red Hood and the Outlaws, where the new Roy appeared, completely turned me off for other reasons, and I never got into the character. DC has since rebooted its universe again, so I’m completely lost on what existed versus what didn’t. So until I get up to speed on this fancy new DC Universe, I’ll leave off here and cross my fingers that the future holds better things for Roy Harper.


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