I don’t know that any DC hero has benefited as much from Rebirth as Green Arrow. Returning to form in a dramatic comeback, Oliver Queen burst onto the scene with Benjamin Percy’s holistic thirty-nine issue serial novel and kept the hits coming with two phenomenal, yet vastly different, issues that make up Kelly and Lanzing’s “The Children of Vakhar”. Now the torch passes once again as Mairghread Scott takes Ollie into the heart of Stryker’s Island Penitentiary for Green Arrow #41, the first chapter of “Better Than”.
This is, to my knowledge, Scott’s first full issue within the DC Universe and I, for one, couldn’t be happier to have her. Nevertheless, at times you can feel her getting accustomed to the space. The opening page is as fine a summation of Oliver Queen as I’ve seen, but it is simply a summation. In this vein, there are moments peppered throughout that are somewhat broad, as Scott explores Oliver’s character for the first time on paper. Still, even that opening page demonstrates Scott’s sterling character sense, setting the focus of the issue on Ollie’s liberal rage towards the prison industrial complex.
From the first, Oliver Queen’s arrogance and lack of self-control are on display, but, unlike so many writers, Scott writes Ollie’s progressive fervor, not without judgement, but with some joy. Yes, Oliver is rich, white, and connected. Yes, he is the Man he rebels against. But, right from the beginning, the opinion of this book is, ‘So what?’ and before long it becomes ‘So what? There are people out there without those privileges that need help.’
While she occasionally flinches, urged by her worries, or her editor, to make text out of subtext, when Scott summons the interiority of Oliver Queen, it’s fantastic. There’s a naturalism and depth that can’t be beat and Scott makes space, just individual word choices or additions of optional clauses in a sentence, to tell readers something about Ollie and how he sees the world.
The issue quickly establishes Ollie’s combative nature and uses that to implant a devil on the shoulder of both Green Arrow and the reader. This is a classic story of a superhero punching above his weight class. The Parasite is a classic Superman villain, as are most of the named inmates, and Scott does not hold back in giving him a veritable smorgasbord of lesser known powerhouses to dine on.
The Parasite himself is not a huge presence in the story. His thoughts and motives remain a mystery to us and, though it makes for one of the issue’s most striking moments, he exits the story far earlier than one might expect. Even so, he makes his mark. He looms over the entire issue and his flat affect and inhuman design make his early appearances a treat.
Perhaps most important, his breakdown after his hearing is fascinating. It’s totally at odds with how he behaved earlier and is never brought up again. Throughout the early part of the book, Ollie sympathizes with or, at least, pities the Parasite, but as soon as he becomes a threat, that opinion changes. Other people are in danger and those contradictions that Scott highlighted must choose a side. The question, as it has always been for Green Arrow, is Which Side Are You On? It’s a brilliant bit of character work for Green Arrow and a clever way to pivot away from what seems to be the larger plot until Scott is ready for it. That’s why Parasite’s escape makes for such a perfect transition point.
What caused Parasite’s panic? How much of him is human and how much monster? And what is it that frightens a monster so? The issue stays mum, not even beckoning you to discover next time, simply saving it for when the moment comes. And that’s both a strength and a flaw of Green Arrow #41.
Put simply, this issue doesn’t quite play by the normal rules. The pacing just feels wrong. It seems less interested in telling a complete arc or drawing to an enticing close than the average Big 2 book. Yet, at the same time, it’s also willing to use this first chapter for something different from what, it seems, will follow, taking a more filmic, act-based approach. Perhaps you could say that the issue is written for trade, and with a young female writer at the helm, the demographics would probably back you up, but I’m not sure if that’s what’s happening here either. It’s certainly possible that this is another story designed to be read in collection, but, with only the information available now, I’m not sure if this issue was written with an eye towards trade readers, or if it was actually uniquely focused on the monthly reader, but without the handholding of more traditional single issue structures. It’s certainly strange, perhaps even awkward at times, but I feel like it trusts the reader in an interesting way that may yet come into full bloom.
The place where this pacing is unambiguously weaker is in the last half of the issue. Seemingly channeling the never produced Green Arrow: Escape from Supermax, Scott sends Ollie bouncing from threat to threat as he attempts to rescue the prison guards. Unfortunately, while there are a couple of really solid moments, the feeling of tension just isn’t there.
Scott succeeds in gifting the story percussive action, but while this probably would have been fantastic on TV, it becomes a slide show of Ollie firing arrows into a crowd. Yes, each one is wild and interesting, but there’s not enough frames to build excitement or make them feel cohesive. The stakes are clear enough to feel that each villain bested brings Green Arrow closer to his goal, nor is there enough sense of challenge to make us fear for our hero’s safety or sympathize with his endurance.
The idea of the hero finding himself in a completely different final boss-worthy threat is actually really cool, but this implementation is maybe two pages, and a close call or two, short of its potential.
What this sequence definitely does have going for it is one of the strongest examples of the more abstract imagery that the issue uses from time to time. Matthew Clark, Sean Parsons, and Jason Wright obviously had some fun with this issue, offering fun bullseye imagery, malleable layouts, and clever plays with time and page space. The ideas on display are interesting and separate this from the average fill-in arc. However, clarity is not always the word of the day. A great sequence of the Parasite in captivity falls short because the minuscule panels don’t offer enough space to breathe, to contextualize what’s actually happening or process that these are separate panels. Likewise, the final stand is not always legible, distancing us further from Ollie’s struggles and strategies.
The art itself is sharp, but not especially memorable. It’s certainly on model and lacks awkward anatomy or obvious errors, but it doesn’t have anything else to wow the reader. Jason Wright’s colors also feel a little washed out through most of the issue, giving a distinct look, but not one that helps with the somewhat restrained emotion of the aesthetics.
Despite the effective but listless vibe that afflicts many characters, the Parasite himself is brimming with energy. With a more saturated color scheme and a delightfully pitiful design, Joshua Allen is the life of the party from his first appearance to the final page of the book. The Shark (besides being an incredibly weird villain that I wish I’d heard about sooner) captures much of the same energy, implying that this art team has a particular knack for monsters.
In fact, while not all of them have the same spark of life, Clark and co. are notably skilled at presenting each character in the perfect art style for them. The variety on display is impressive and it doesn’t distract, even if flipping from one page or character to the other can sometimes make you wonder why it doesn’t.
“Better Than” gets off to a bumpy start with Green Arrow #41, but, while there are some weaknesses in pacing and energy, clever design and intelligent writing carry it through. It’s certainly the least polished of the three Rebirth era Green Arrow stories we’ve received, but that only makes it a diamond in the rough. Scott offers a classic Oliver Queen just like her predecessors, but also tells us something new about him and sets up a pretty exciting hook for next issue. Though much depends on how the story develops, Green Arrow remains a smart and innovative book for DC.
Green Arrow #41 is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.