To begin, here’s a note on something from the recent past, circa 2001.
The scene plays out in the pages of the Back Then newly-minted Green Arrow (volume three for those keeping count), scribed by the formidable Kevin Smith and beautifully visualized by Phil Hester.
Hester’s artistic style is crucial to understanding the scene. But first you need to know what happens. It’s Batman and Green Arrow riding in the Batmobile, with Green Arrow just recently back from the dead. And the entire scene is banter about how Ollie Queen, the Green Arrow seems to be a cheap knock-off of the Batman, although Arrow-themed rather than Bat-totemed.
“We could have taken the Arrow-mobile,” Ollie suggests as they drive, then “or taken the Arrow-plane” right after Batman suggests needing to get to the Bat-plane. “Arrow-plane, good God man, have you ever had an original thought?” Batman pipes. It’s the kind of blow more laced with schoolyard savagery than with any kind of amicable, collegial rivalry. And for a moment you’re thinking, has Smith strayed too far into Kerouac Country?
But Kerouac or no, Smith is dealing with a perennial Green Arrow problem. Perennial and appearing so frequently throughout the character’s publication history, it almost seems to be the very ground, the character stands upon.
It’s the same problem the Smallville showrunners had to deal with in their particular mythology, one they solved by casting Justin Hartley as Green Arrow in a world sans Batman. It’s the same problem that the illustrious Jack Kirby dealt with Way Back When. And Kirby dealt with this problem by weaving in strands of internationalism and diplomacy as a secondary through-narrative.
But Smith confronts the problem of Green Arrow being a cheap Batman rip-off differently, although, not entirely satisfactorily. Smith’s Batman-vee-Arrow comes in a post-’90s world. It’s post-Whedon, post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s smirky, quirky humor, post Bruce Timm’s lavish Art Deco Gothic in the gorgeous Batman: the Animated Series. Post all that retrofitted zaniness we saw on shows like Amblin’s Animaniacs and Freakazoid!.
Smith riffs perfectly on that ’90s creative sentiment, and that riff loops in beautifully with Hester’s updated Bruce-Timm-but-slightly-more-serious-slightly-more-edgy artwork. You can read about it for yourself in Green Arrow: Quiver (and you really should read Quiver, because it achieves what few other books have–it dusts off a somewhat dated thematic, Green Arrow’s famous roadtrip from the ’70s, and parlays that into a workable metaphor for a look at the entire DCU circa 2001).
Personally, it’s hard for me to get through Ollie looking like a little bit of a chump in his own book. I understand that the scene is meant to play like a kind of evolution of Whedonesque ’90s humor, a kind of you’re-right-now-deal-with-it sarcasm from Ollie to Batman, and I know that Hester does the same for the artwork by evolving the Timm ’90s sensibility, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable granting the premise, and I know that back in 2001, there was a pecking order to the DCU and Batman was Top Dog in an exclusionary kind of way. But even knowing these things, I’m not sure I can entirely grant the premise. Must Ollie play second fiddle to Batman in his own book? Am I ok with that? Maybe not so much.
It’s really this wrestling with the idea of the Green Arrow in the face of the far more successful idea of the Batman, that takes center stage in “Prodigal,” which is a Batman: Zero Year tie-in. It’s however far back in time it was (recently, although DC’s been mum on exactly how far back), and Oliver Queen has just returned from his ordeal on the island. He hasn’t adopted the alter ego of the Green Arrow as yet, but his ordeal has taught him to appreciate the bow as a weapon. Gotham’s gone dark and madmen and urban injustice are rampant. To confront the disaster conditions, Moira Queen, Ollie’s mom, has entered Gotham. And now she’s been taken hostage. Enter Oliver Queen, into the murk of Gotham, before he even donned the Emerald.
What makes “Prodigal” so completely arresting is the same thing that made that scene from Quiver so memorable even more than a decade on–it’s the interplay between writer’s craft and artist’s craft that makes for a psychological vividness.
The scene plays out: Moira is about to be extracted by ex-Marine John Diggle, who heads the Queen Industries security team that accompanied her. Firefly shows up, although he himself hasn’t yet decided on his nom de crime, which is hauntingly beautiful because it demonstrates the psychology of disarray that everyone find themselves in, even opportunistic criminals. Batman shows up to rescue the situation. But being novitiate, winds up needing, and ultimately being rescued, by Ollie.
As the two tag each other in and alternate punching out Firefly, a new Green Arrow-Batman dynamic emerges. Ollie is raw and damaged and broken and Batman scans as an over-prepared schoolboy, arrogant and overbearing, borderline pompous. Artist Andrea Sorrentino’s beautiful linework offers readers a deep intuition on how jagged and raw and disassembled Ollie must be feeling. And at the same time, the clean precision of Sorrentino’s Batman shows how put-together he seems, and how simultaneously eerie and inspiring put-togetherness reads in such a landscape as Gotham in it’s Zero Year.
That new dynamic of Batman-as-blowhard from Ollie’s perspective, and Arrow-as-disaffected-therefore-ineffectual is beautiful because it allows for an equivalence of perspective, and allows for Batman and Green Arrow to be on a far more equal footing. It is Green Arrow stepping out of the shadow of the Bat for the first time, perhaps in his entire publication history.
But that’s not even the best part of the book. The best part is Moira recognizing her own son, despite the paltry hood and the rugged beard and the world knowing, knowing beyond doubt that Oliver Queen must be dead. And even when you get through the raw emotion of that, that last page will still blow you away.
It’s hard to keep piling accolade upon accolade on this book. But in the hands of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino, Green Arrow has become something special again. And it simply deserves to be read by you, whoever you are.