One of the interesting things about the extensive list of DC Comics characters is that there are plenty of characters that can be used to advance or deepen the story of lead characters. Since the dawn of stories, storytellers have been using the damage of “lesser” characters to add complexity to the protagonist by having them deal with the tragedy of those they care about.
In the case of Roy Harper, it has become an almost competitive sport to see who could do the most damage to the red-headed step child (literally) originally known as Speedy. The character was created by Mort Weisinger and George Papp as the ward and sidekick of Green Arrow and originally debuted in More Fun Comics #73 in 1941.
The Sordid Comic History of Roy Harper
The character’s torment began in earnest with one of the most famous and important socially aware stories of the seventies. In Green Lantern #85, the issue title “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams, it was revealed that the teen sidekick of Green Arrow had become addicted to heroin. This fact has been retconned to alcohol addiction and back to drugs, but it remained in his history that Roy was an addict.
Roy lived with his addiction for a long while. It was ingrained in his story, and mercifully, he overcame it. The important point to note is that the addiction story was not necessarily written to help develop Speedy but rather to see how the lead characters in the book, Green Arrow and Green Lantern handled the revelation. It also served to enhance the character of Black Canary as she nursed him to sobriety.
For most of the 1980’s, Roy Harper was pretty much in the creative control of Marv Wolfman. It was then, specifically in New Teen Titans Vol. 2 #20, that Roy was informed that he had fathered a child with the assassin Cheshire. While this was a plot device that added to the depth of Harper’s character, he was a single father. Even in presenting him with a positive character trait — Roy was an excellent father — , the circumstances were daunting in that his baby-mama was a criminal.
The 1990’s and 2000’s were two fairly positive decades for Roy. He reunited with his friends in the Titans and Outsiders books and took leadership roles. He also evolved into first Arsenal and then Red Arrow and eventually joined the Justice League as a full-time member. That is when the chaos really began.
In James Robinson‘s run on JLA, Roy was maimed by a mind controlled Shazam (It’s Captain Marvel). His lost arm became a major factor in his characterization until the Flashpoint reset. However, losing an arm was not the worst thing to happen to Red Arrow in this run. In the storyline that immediately preceded Blackest Night, the villain Prometheus, in an attempt to emotionally wound Green Arrow, destroys a large portion of Star City, killing Roy’s daughter, Lian Harper… I know! Right?
As bad as all that is, when the Flashpoint event ended and the New 52 era of the DCU began, Roy lost all the growth and personal strength that he acquired over the previous two decades. It was thrown away, and he was characterized as a screw-up sidekick hanging around with Red Hood in the Outlaws comic.
The Rebirth era that followed New 52, was not any kinder to Harper. Despite his reconciliation with Green Arrow and his reunion with the OG Titans, he was accidentally killed in Tom King‘s Heroes In Crisis by one of his best friends. And no more Roy Harper… for now.
One more thing… In television media, Roy has appeared as a prominent character in two properties. In the Arrow series, he is well portrayed by Colton Hayes, but in that world he is also a tortured soul, although everyone in the Arrowverse has significant baggage. In Young Justice, the original Roy Harper is kidnapped, maimed (again), and replaced with a clone. The guy cannot get a break.
What Does This Mean?
Holy Crap! That is a lot of pain. Why? Easy target? Who knows for sure. The important thing is that the character was consistently saddled with heartbreak and pain for almost seventy years. Many of the writers who saddled Roy with problems are people that I love and respect. Let’s be clear about that.
It feels that the character himself was permitted to be treated badly by DC management. He was created as a knock-off Robin to a knock-off Batman, and while other characters recover from their hardships, Roy always carried his baggage. DC editorial for the past couple of decades has made it clear that they have issues with young sidekicks for adult characters and Roy had been a target for abuse long before that regime took power.
Obviously, Roy Harper is not the only character in comic book history to be treated so poorly, see Carol Danvers, but unlike the current Captain Marvel, he has not had his victorious time in the sun. As I have previously stated, I have a great affinity for the New Teen Titans series and the original Teen Titans in general. I, for one, hope that, if DC Comics continues to make new comics, someday we will have a resurrection and celebration of a this noble character.