How Ann Nocenti Captures an Outlaw Superhero in "Green Arrow"

Incoming writer Ann Nocenti sets to work in defining Green Arrow, not as the unexpected freedom of being a superhero, but in terms of the limitations that constrain us all.

Green Arrow #7

Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Ann Nocenti, Harvey Tolibao
Price: $2.99
Publication Date: 2012-05

Incoming regular artist, Harvey Tolibao, captures a perfect vivid energy to the Green Arrow and his world. Characters twist and turn, not confined by any one panel, they fall across the comics page as easily as they launch themselves from the confines of the panels. Harvey evokes a deep, inner kineticism, even when the characters do nothing more than stand still. This magnificent, dynamic new kind of comics, a drama of motion capture that Harvey finds hidden deep within the traditional superhero genre, is perfect in itself. But it is even better when it intercepts what can only be appreciated as the first stirrings of Ann Nocenti's project with Green Arrow.

Ann and Harvey come in as the new creative team on Green Arrow, with this opening arc of "Triple Treat". There's already a heavy tilt towards conditionality in the storytelling (both narrative and visual), the idea that external conditions will begin to shape the course and speed of the story. But what's more surprising to me is how Ann not only builds on the work of earlier writers of this New 52 Green Arrow (JT Krul, Dan Jurgens, Keith Giffen), but how a single image seems to regularly emerge when I think of her Green Arrow. Stranger still, it's not an image from Green Arrow's past (we're still in that magical period where we're wholly uncertain as to what that past might be, given the Newness of the New 52), nor is it an image from the publication history of the character (Mike Grell's gorgeous Green Arrow: the Longbow Hunters, comes up time and again, but not in any connection with Ann's work).

Instead, the image that my unconscious seems to throw up on the screen of my mind's eye, is one from film. Specifically from the Lion King. It's the moment where Simba's father, Mufasa, discovers Simba had disobeyed him and gone off to play. The moment right after "I just can't wait to be king", that song of pure joy and youthful abandon. It's the scene that plays out that very night, where Mufasa dismisses his attendants and plans to deal with his son himself. At once the fear seems very palpable. Simba is about to get the shellacking he really does deserve. As he draws nearer to his father, he unwittingly steps into Mufasa's footprint. Simba's own paw is dwarfed by that print.

Of course our fears are entirely unjustified. No pummeling ever comes. Instead, Simba draws from a deep well of inspiration. From just that sole interaction that we can see, we're spellbound at the idea of the kind of relationship this father and son must have. Green Arrow #7, part one of "Triple Treat", feels a little like that. Like Ann, pulling Green Arrow Oliver Queen aside and gently framing the issue of what kind of Green Arrow he's going to become. There's a flirtation with Shakespeare here (how beautiful is it that Ann is able to find King Lear already on page one), and I filiation with conditionality. But even these seem as secondary to the real drama of Green Arrow.

Green Arrow is a superhero unlike any other, in that he has no crutch. Batman saw his parents die in front of him, Superman saves everyone because his entire world was destroyed, Captain America wanted to end the reign of a great evil, even when he was physically unable to do so. But Green Arrow? Why would Oliver Queen be a superhero at all? While there's a perfectly valid (and beautifully written, uncompromisingly drawn by Andy Diggle and Jock) origin story in Green Arrow: Year One, there's no great trauma, not enduring grief that motivates the Green Arrow.

Instead, Oliver Queen finds himself in the throes of self-definition. Why exactly is there a need for a superhero like the Green Arrow? He certainly patrols the streets of Seattle, more than that really, he hunts down renegade supervillains. But where does Green Arrow's cultural authority (which would be rooted in a meaningful reason for being a superhero, if not societal authority which would be similar to the authority of a policewoman or a priest) stem from? Green Arrow is nothing more than a renegade himself. An outlaw superhero who bags the bad guys, but doesn't get wrapped up in civil structures of frontier towns. More an Old West bounty hunter than a US Marshal.

It is this profound state of self-awareness, yet simultaneous lack of self-definition that Ann harnesses to maximum effect to carve out a new drama for an old dilemma that lies at the heart of the superhero genre. "Must there even be a…" in this case, a Green Arrow. Perhaps the character who comes closest to attempting to reconcile this fundamental question is Wolverine. In X-Men lore, Wolverine seemingly comes out of nowhere, nothing more than a pure living weapon. He has incredible powers, he has talons made of indestructible metal. He even has memory blocks that prevent him from remembering what has happened to him. But at the final moment, Wolverine is pulled back into having a raison-d'être: he's clearly been made the subject of Nazi-like biomedical experiments, he clearly has every right to hold a grudge against the people, and the structures that brought him to that point. So Wolverine becomes a kind of science-fictional Jason Bourne, on a quest to recapture his lost memory and wreak revenge on those responsible.

In distinction to the Green Arrow, alter ego Oliver Queen finds himself equally compromised. He is CEO-in-waiting, the heir apparent to his deceased father's Queen Industries. But unlike Simba and Mufasa, Oliver seems to be more the victim of his father's love than its hope. Rather than run the whole of Queen Industries, Oliver was made the concession of managing Q Core, the high-tech innovation, and relatively smaller wing within Queen Industries. Oliver Queen reads like something we've never seen before, a tech-CEO who comes from money, rather than from innovation. And just the hints that Ann drops in this first issue of her run on Green Arrow, already leads one to hope that she's beginning to write a Godfather of the West Coast Tech Corridor. (She must be writing this, what else can the clashes between Oliver and Emerson be?).

It's this skillful sculpting of the characterization of Green Arrow and Oliver Queen and the separate, but multiplying dilemmas that each identity faces that leads me to wonder how Ann might respond to another film from the 1990s--Ronin, starring Robert de Niro and Jean Reno, and directed by John Frankenheimer. Through all the magnificently stylized shootouts and car chases, one moment rings truest. That moment when de Niro is told the legend of the 47 Ronin, the honor-bound warriors who found themselves betrayed by an outside plot and forsook their social rank to redeem the honor of their Lord.

It's where the movie gets it's title, and it's the same condition Green Arrow, and Oliver Queen both find themselves in--men who believe deeply in the social institutions that birthed them into the positions they find themselves in, and yet, men who find themselves at odds with those very institutions. What happens when the people meant to manage the institutions you cherish, are insufficient to the positions they hold? What happens when the institution itself, falters as a result?

Green Arrow, in a magnificent drama sculpted out by Ann Nocenti, and supported superbly by Harvey Tolibao, is the story not of a clear and palpable disillusion, but a far subtler, far more imperceptible disillusion just off in the distance. It's not the monomaniacal grandeur of something that has been broken that needs to be repaired, or something that has been lost that needs to be reclaimed. It is the small, very human drama of why things aren't as good as they ought to be.






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