Welcome to another installment of this blog’s occasional feature “It Came from the 1990s” in which I spotlight comic books that were released between 1990 to 1999. One of my reasons for doing this feature is that as a teenage comic book fan the 1990s were MY decade. I started following comic books regularly in 1989 when I was 13 years old, and as such the comics of my high school and college years were released within the 10 years that followed.
This time I’m going to be taking a brief look at The Brave and the Bold, a miniseries published by DC Comics in late 1991 and early 1992 that subsequently fell into obscurity. I recently re-read it for the first time in many years, and found it to still be a good, enjoyable read.
The Brave and the Bold initially ran for 200 issues from 1955 to 1983. As per Wikipedia, it started as “an anthology series featuring adventure tales from past ages with characters such as the Silent Knight, the Viking Prince, the Golden Gladiator, and Robin Hood. Beginning with issue #25 it became a “try-out” title for new characters & teams such as the Justice League of America. The series changed format yet again with issue #50, featuring team-ups between established DC characters. Finally, commencing with #74 and continuing throughout the rest of the run every issue of The Brave and the Bold had Batman team up with a different character each month.
For whatever reason, in 1991 someone at DC made the decision to revive The Brave and the Bold as a six-issue miniseries, featuring a team-up of three characters: Green Arrow, the Question, and the Butcher, with Black Canary appearing as a supporting character. DC promoted the project with a house ad announcing “The Return of the Original Team-Up Title.”
This incarnation of The Brave and the Bold is very much of the early 1990s. As with the Black Canary: New Wings miniseries that came out around the same time which I profiled previously, it was edited by Mike Gold, and it was very much of the post-The Dark Knight Returns era in which creators sought to bring a certain sense of realism to superheroes. I’ve always felt this approach worked best with non-powered costumed crime fighters, characters who already had one foot placed in a sort of quasi-reality. As such it’s not too surprising that Green Arrow and the Question were two of the most successful character revamps in the wake of TDKR.
Writer & artist Mike Grell reimagined Green Arrow as a shadowy urban vigilante who eschewed the trick arrows of his past, tackling street-level crime in Seattle. Following the successful three issue Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters miniseries by Grell in 1987, archer Oliver Queen graduated to a well-received ongoing series also written by Grell.
I suppose the Question might actually be considered a precursor to the anti-heroes who became so prevalent in American comic books during the 1980s. He had been conceived by Steve Ditko for Charlton Comics in 1967 as a somewhat less-radical version of his creator-owned character Mr. A, a ruthless vigilante who adhered to moral absolutism and Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. The Question, aka investigative reporter Vic Sage, was nearly as much of a fanatic as Mr. A, but his actions were softened just enough that the Comics Code Authority wouldn’t reject the material out of hand. Clad in a blue trench coat, fedora, a blank face mask obscuring his features, the Question certainly possessed a distinctive appearance.
Following Charlton’s demise in 1986 the company’s “action heroes” including the Question were purchased by DC. Writer & editor Denny O’Neil, who was at the opposite end of the political & ideological spectrum from Ditko, re-conceived Vic Sage as a Zen philosopher who fought to uncover political corruption. It’s subsequently been argued that perhaps O’Neil ought to have invented a brand-new protagonist rather than completely changing the thematic foundation of Ditko’s character. Whatever the case, though, The Question series written by O’Neil & drawn by Denys Cowan, which ran for 36 issues from 1987 to 1989, received a great deal of critical acclaim.
As for the Butcher, he is Native America ex-CIA operative John Butcher. Created by Mike Baron & artist Shea Anton Pensa, the character made his debut in a self-titled five issue miniseries published by DC in 1990. Other than a couple of back-up stories in Ms. Tree Quarterly, I believe The Brave and the Bold was his only other appearance to date.
Now that we’ve finally gotten the preliminaries out of the way, we can take a look at The Brave and the Bold miniseries, which was written by Grell & Baron and drawn by Pensa, with Pablo Marcos inking the fifth and sixth issues. Steve Haynie was the letterer and Julia Lacquement the colorist. Pensa drew the covers for the first two issues, with Grell providing cover art for the rest of the miniseries.
Oliver Queen, John Butcher and Vic Sage are each separately investigating an apparent alliance between a group of radical Native American separatists and the Irish Republican Army in the Pacific Northwest. The three men’s paths soon converge as they seek to uncover what has prompted this highly unusual association of extremists.
There’s a number of twists & turns in Grell & Baron’s plot as the three vigilantes attempt to find out what is actually taking place, and who is really pulling the strings behind the scenes. Along the way we have some interesting, and often humorous, interactions between the lead trio as they work together with various degrees of reluctance.
Grell & Baron’s story contains prominent social & political elements. One of the main issues that is brought up is the question of how Native American tribes, after centuries of persecution & genocide, should approach the future. The conservation of an embattled culture’s history & traditions while simultaneously working towards progress & modernity can be an exceedingly difficult balancing act, and understandably disagreements, often violent, are sadly inevitable. And unfortunately there will always be forces that will exploit such dissention to their own greedy ends.
I’m not quite sure who was responsible for what in the plotting & scripting, although it’s fairly safe to conclude that Grell handled Green Arrow’s material and Baron managed the Butcher. No idea if one or the other or both of them wrote the Question, but there is a “special thanks to Dennis O’Neil” credit in the second issue, leading me to wonder if he might have at least given the story a once-over to make sure Vic remained in character.
John Butcher is scripted with a rather humorously sardonic voice which I enjoyed. In the first issue, commenting to Green Arrow and Black Canary on the Native American independence movement he’s been investigating, Butcher offers the following opinion:
“I think the separatists are inviting disaster. It’s good to preserve culture, but radical attempts to create separate nations are confrontational and counter-productive. You got to go with the flow.
“Ain’t I a proper Republican! Personally, I don’t pay taxes. I must be a hypocrite or a libertarian.”
It’s interesting that, in keeping with the “grim & gritty” ethos that was very much at the forefront in superhero comic books, all three characters are willing to use lethal force. At the same time, Grell & Baron don’t glamorize the killing. It’s very much depicted as an unfortunately necessary evil, and there are two separate occasions when Butcher finds himself regretting that he had to kill an adversary. Having said that, the ending of the story does get very violent.
Reading this story in 2023, I did find there was the same problem of pacing that bothered me back when this miniseries was published over 30 years ago. The first five issues have the plot, and the mystery, unfold very gradually. Then with the sixth and final issue everything rushes to a conclusion.
Pensa’s artwork on this miniseries is definitely distinctive. I would describe his style as being simultaneously hyper-detailed and an exaggerated cartoonish quality. On the first couple of issues, barring the occasional oddly-constructed panel or awkward layout, Pensa does some genuinely beautiful, striking work. His covers for those two issues are also very strong. I felt Pensa’s pencils & inks and Lacquement’s coloring worked well together to produce some very textured, illustrative artwork.
Pensa’s art does seem to get somewhat loose & sketchy with the third and fourth issues, though. Perhaps this was why Marcos was brought in to provide inks on #5 and #6. His work certainly does give a different feel to the finished art.
I certainly enjoyed Pensa’s work on this miniseries. Whatever weaknesses there might be, Pensa’s storytelling for all six issues are very strong. For example, there’s a several page sequence in issue #4 in which the Butcher and the Question are fighting thugs on top of a speeding lumber truck. It’s almost dialogue-free, and Pensa does a superb job laying it out, making it a very tense, exciting scene.
Pensa’s career in comic books was relatively brief, beginning in 1986 and lasting roughly a decade and a half. He worked with Baron on several different projects during that period, and also penciled an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
I imagine Pensa was one of the numerous talented artists who got their start during the indy comics boom of the mid 1980s, when wildly different styles were prevalent, but as the exaggerated superhero work of the early 1990s became so totally in-demand among publishers, opportunities unfortunately dried up and he had to find work elsewhere. From what little I’ve been able to find out about him, he also did work for gaming companies such as White Wolf. It’s a shame he didn’t have a more prominent, prolific career.
Grell is, of course, an absolutely incredible artist, and his covers for issues #3 to #6 are gorgeous. As I recall, during this time Grell was focusing mostly on writing and on cover artwork, but within a couple of years he was once again doing interior pages, too.
I met Grell and Gold at a small comic con in the mid 1990s, and I got the first issue of The Brave and the Bold miniseries signed by them. That was probably a somewhat unusual choice, especially as I know I owned a few issues of Green Arrow. But, as I explained at the start of this post, I didn’t start following comic books regularly until around 1989. This miniseries was among my first exposures to Grell’s work, so it had a certain sentimental value to me.
Although the majority of Grell’s run on Green Arrow was collected in a series of trade paperbacks by DC a decade ago, The Brave and the Bold miniseries has yet to be reprinted. I took a look on eBay, and copies of the comics can be found at affordable prices, so if you feel like seeking this one out it should be relatively easy to find.
Perhaps this miniseries wasn’t among Grell’s strongest work (reportedly his collaboration with Baron did not go smoothly) but it nevertheless helped get me interested in his writing & art, and to subsequently read a number of his other projects.