Legitimizing a Hero:

Green Arrow’s Rocky Journey to Success

In the last two years we have seen a sudden rise of popularity of what, at one time, could have been considered fringe heroes: heroes that had a fan base but for some reason couldn’t quite break into the main stream consumption of super hero pop culture. Green Arrow was one of these heroes. The character has had numerous devoted fans over the years that read and loved the Emerald Archer but had to watch subpar iterations of him on animated series such as Justice League Unlimited, the Batman, and Batman: the Brave and the Bold. During this time he was used as a stock character more than an integral part of the show.

When Warner Bros. introduced him into Smallville as a regular cast member, it was truly unique and a great move on the part of the writers. It made perfect sense. The show had been on the air for some time and the fans were simply tired of being bated into seeing Clark Kent become Superman. So they introduced a character that had already become a hero: Green Arrow. He was a DC hero that was established and had a following but not overly well known by the public at large so there was no chance of him overshadowing the main character. It was a very intelligent move by the writers and producers.

Unlike Clark Kent who was still finding his way to a pair of glasses and a super suit, Oliver Queen was strapping on a quiver and running around in green leather. The Green Arrow portrayed by Justin Hartley was a character that was already on his path and was on the offensive and proactively working on the hero bit. This was a far cry from the character of Clark Kent at the time. Clark was reacting to events and situations around him. It gave the show a great burst of actual superhero energy that it desperately needed.  For the character to finally reach a live-action iteration was a win for Green Arrow fans.

The character had an opportunity to be wonderfully reinvented in Sept. 2011 with the launch of the New 52. Many fans looked and waited with anticipation at the new Green Arrow title, only to be disappointed. The title written by JT Krul was three steps in the wrong direction. It was poorly plotted and lacked some consistency in quality and characterization. The book floundered in story and execution with an obscene amount of disposable antagonists. This would be a trend that would plague the book for sixteen issues. The old line of Green Arrow titles and graphic novels such as Long Bow and Year One had created a level of expectation that was not being met.

The book only fell further from grace when a new creative team took over featuring Ann Nocenti as writer. This new team did such damage to the character that is it is difficult to see how it would eventually pull itself back up. Nocenti’s Oliver Queen was a childish, reactionary, incompetent, and easily manipulated. The King Leer story line had been called everything from boring to racist in its portrayal of China. It simply did not meet the expectations of readers that wanted their Oliver Queen back. While Oliver Queen may have been invented to be the poor man’s Bruce Wayne he had become a truly unique character. The fans had fallen in love with a lively, devil-may-care archer that stood for the common man while running a billion dollar company. The character was so potent that he went against the grain of the Justice League more than once.

Many readers would try to stick it out with the New 52 Green Arrow but manly simply left. According to retail orders from Diamond Comic Distributors the New 52 Green Arrow premiered with an estimated $55,512. By its eighth issue it was down to approximately $24,690. That is more than half. Of course, there are many factors to lighten this blow. For instance, the excitement of a number 1 issue, the fact that these are numbers only from Diamond Comic Distributors, and the numbers are approximations make the reality of a commercial failure less likely. Still, the quality of the writing and art was just poor. The title would continue to suffer. Then along came Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino.

Jeff Lemire did something that the other writers couldn’t. He captured who the New 52 Oliver Queen was trying to be. Suddenly he was more definite, less charming, more focused even though he was reacting to the offensive of a new antagonist. Also, the whole façade of billionare playboy was almost completely tossed out. The gimmick had become cliché. Lemire goes so far as to introduce a supporting character that Oliver had fired for stalking another employee, thus demonstrating that Oliver was truly invested in the day to day of Queen Industries.  The writing in conjunction with Sorrentino’s rich art gave new life to the dying title. Green Arrow Volume 4: The Kill Machine (issues17-24) goes in depth to explore the character of Oliver Queen by doing a few things immediately. In issue seventeen of Green Arrow the reader finds Oliver dealing with the loss of his company with rage. Almost immediately he confronts a board member named Emerson who brings up the fact that it was no mistake that Oliver wound up on the deserted island with just a bow. Lemire quickly plants the seeds of the island being more than simple survival but instead a test to forge Oliver into something more than a rich brat. Lemire strips him of his wealth, a healthy portion of the book’s supporting cast, and most of his resources. The first half of the collection is very reminiscent of DC’s Bruce Wayne: Fugitive. The writer cuts so much dead weight from the book that it relieves the reader of sixteen issues of frustration and a fresh start is evident. Everything from the characters and the past storylines were essentially wiped clean.

The book sees Oliver Queen having to come to terms with what a real archer is supposed to be. A villain named Komodo who knows everything about Oliver takes away his company and hunts Oliver down. Komodo essentially leaves him with just his bow and his hood. The connection between Komodo and Oliver is revealed to be Robert Queen. Having been spurned by his son, Robert found a follower in Komodo as he was on his own archery quest. The skills that Komodo uses to beat Oliver a few times were taught to him by Robert Queen himself. Oliver was destined to be Komodo, or should have been. In adding this particular subplot into the storyline, Lemire has created a scenario where Oliver is fighting his father’s skill by the proxy of Komodo. It is a fantastic layer of storytelling that most mainstream storytelling of all mediums are missing.

The reader soon finds out that the legacy of Robert Queen was not just the company he passed to Oliver but also of an ancient society that focused on archery. Lemire injects destiny into the Green Arrow mythos. This is something that Green Arrow never really had before. We have seen numerous origin stories that focus on a young Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent that hints at what men they will become, but Green Arrow was never truly on that level before.

Sorrentino’s drawing on the book is very rich and authentic looking. It’s a very unique style but combined with the coloring of Marcelo Maiolo the panels are radiant. The team is able to create a legitimate work of art, with a double page splash panel, without being pretensious. This style of artwork is radically different from the launch artwork. One of the weaknesses of the former creative teams was the basic panel to panel format. There was so little variation that there was no discernable flow. When the new creative team took over there were sudden splashes of color that didn’t belong but emphasized the importance of that particular panel. When the reader first looks at Sorrentino and Miaolo’s work it can be jarring. But the comic takes off soon after.

In addition to redefining and restoring Oliver Queen, Lemire did something rather uncommon. He made Count Vertigo appealing, now a tragic villain. Being born to a prostitute that resented his existence, while convincing him that he was the bastard son of a noble family, she sold her son to an institute that experimented with his mind by implanting devices into his brain.  After years of abuse and experimentation, he takes over the institute by ridding it of people. Then he eventually takes over the country that he believes belongs to him. Lemire has given Green Arrow something that the New 52 title was desperately missing: a layered villain worth fighting.

While the increasing popularity of Green Arrow is due to the accomplishments of Lemire and Sorrention, the television show Arrow is largely responsible. The show premiered on the CW in 2012 and was soon a large success. To be fair, the first six episodes of the show are entertaining but exceptionally cheesy and there are plot points that mirror other DC superhero movies such as the earthquake machine being just another version of the microwave emitter from Batman Begins. The show quickly found its path and proved that a live action superhero show is more than feasible, but can be successful. Stephen Amell’s portrayal of Arrow is utterly fantastic. The character is serious, traumatized by five years of torture and training, focused, and ambitious. One of the best aspects of the show is that it continually evolves. Amell’s Oliver Queen originally comes home as an all-business-vigilante but after two seasons he has acclimated well and is a step closer to the comic cannon that inspired the show. Another strength of the show is that it does a wonderful job of validating costumed heroes and villains. For example, in the final season of Smallville viewers saw a live action version of Slade Wilson. But instead of him being the world’s greatest assassin, the writers turned him into an old grouchy four star general with an axe to grind on superhumans. Arrow took back what Smallville tossed around in the mud and created a Slade Wilson that is truly dangerous, believable, and menacing. Deathstroke is actually Deathstroke and not a watered down passive version. The uniforms of the universe that Arrow’s creators could exist in the real world even if some may be impractical. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

The show is so successful that the ongoing Green Arrow title by Lemire and Sorrentino have adopted characters found in the show and brought back a few old characters from the old continuity with revamped backstories. A pivotal aspect of The Kill Machine is the storyline of Shado. Shado is much more rounded and dynamic than the version on the show. She is a woman that turns out to be Robert Queen’s lover and the mother of Oliver’s half-sister (stolen and raised by Komodo). She is also an archer that takes almost a mentor role to Oliver. At the end of Volume 4: The Kill Machine, Lemire introduces John Diggle. Much like how Harley Quinn was adopted into the comic books because of her popularity in Batman the Animated Series. These two Arrow worlds are only getting closer and closer. Soon Lemire will be handing over the writing reins to Arrow producer Andrew Kreisberg and Arrow writer Ben Sokolwski.

It is a great time to be a Green Arrow fan. The comics are becoming a true gem of the mainstream New 52 line and the television show has an ever growing fan base. There is even a Green Arrow animated show coming to cartoon network. The character’s popularity is rapidly rising. So much so that a reader or comic fan has to wonder what other sideline hero could be this successful? We can only look forward with anticipation to see what happens next.

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Nathan J. Harmon is a graduate of Missouri State University and teaches English in southwest Missouri

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