Green Arrow #21: City of Two Tales
Spoilers for Green Arrow #21 follow.
In the fall of 2015, I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania for a semester-long gig where I knew I probably wouldn’t have much of a social life—or at least not one I was used to having. My colleagues at Penn State Altoona were kind and generous and had me over for dinner frequently, but they also had spouses and kids and weren’t going to be interested in bi-weekly trivia nights at a local pub, as had been my routine with my friends living in Tempe, AZ, the past four years. Meanwhile, the only other people in town close to my age were my students, and I wasn’t planning on hanging out with them over the weekend. So, I decided to do something to make up for my lack of friends: I opened a pull list at the local comic book shop.
The local comic book shop, as it turned out, was a twenty-five minute drive up the mountains a bit to the next town over (shoutout to Codex Comics & Collectibles in Ebensburg, PA). I hadn’t read comics regularly since middle school, though I’d retained an interest in all things superhero—movies, television shows, clickbait articles. Most of the comics I pulled were Marvel titles, the latest stories of characters I’d grown up with—Avengers and Spider-Man and the like. I also started pulling Green Arrow, a character I never had any interest in, in any of his incarnations. But newly writing Green Arrow was Benjamin Percy, a fiction writer whose stories I’d loved since college. I was curious to see how a fiction writer like Percy, who routinely blends literary and genre conventions, would tackle a Big Two superhero. I dug through back issues to find his first few and haven't missed one since.
For two and a half years, Green Arrow has been a constant companion. Now, with news that Benjamin Percy will be wrapping up his run on the title (along with Green Arrow #21 artist Juan Ferreyra), I wanted to revisit one of my favorite issues (so far). Post-DC Rebirth, the four- to six-issue story arcs in Green Arrow have continued to build on one another, making the run one long cohesive story, which feels rarer these days given the preponderance of reboots and the frequency of changing creative teams. It’s been a thrilling ride, and it’s been such a pleasure to see both Percy and Ferreyra (and Otto Schmidt) experiment and try new things and become better and better collaborators. One of the major turning points in the narrative comes in Green Arrow #21, where a series of domestic terrorist attacks destabilize Green Arrow's home of Seattle as part of the first step in turning it into “a Star City,” but it’s the way the story is told that makes this issue stand out.
Having more than one narrative going in a superhero comic is nothing new—in fact, it’s expected. Most superhero stories have an A and B plot going, while often laying the groundwork for future stories in C and D plots. It’s not uncommon to see those A and B plots woven together in interesting ways—for example, dialogue from an A plot overlapping onto a B plot panel to connect them thematically, or even a character from a B plot finishing the sentence of a character from the A plot, except in a new, unexpected context. This issue of Green Arrow strikes me as unique because its competing plots happen simultaneously throughout (almost) the whole issue: on the top third of the page, we follow Green Arrow in an introspective but spooky investigation, while the bottom two-thirds of the page bounces around locations throughout the city where various horrors are being unleashed.
Initially, the Green Arrow sections dominate, despite being a smaller portion of the page. Oliver Queen is the title character, we’re in his head, there’s often only one or two panels comprising his section. Meanwhile, the other sections are told in smaller panels, all in dialogue, they seem almost mundane, because we don’t yet know what's going on. They’re able to fade into the background of Oliver’s internal monologue—until the plans come to fruition. Then, we get full spreads of the death and destruction underway, while Oliver becomes smaller, quieter. Helpless and unaware of what’s occurring somewhere else.
The effect of this is it splits the internal and external struggles, which are usually intertwined in superhero stories. As all these acts of murder, extortion, kidnapping, and destruction play out, Oliver Queen is relegated to wandering a cemetery, to snooping around his late father’s crypt-like lair. If this were another comic, where we were only shown death and destruction and civilians in trouble, we might expect our hero to leap into action as we turn the page, to show up out of nowhere and save whomever they can. But this issue reminds us the whole time, even as planes crash and buildings fall, that Green Arrow can’t do anything to stop this. There’s a wonderful tension, a kind of false-start urgency that comes from it—as Oliver continues to ponder his legacy, wonder who in his life he can trust, wrapped up in his own head, the bad guys are scoring victory after hideous victory.
The parallel stories also emphasize how little time passes. Without seeing Oliver’s exploration of the lair, we might assume that all the atrocities being committed were over a longer period of time. Instead, it gives us that all-happening-at-once feeling—Oliver has taken only a few steps, only a few minutes have passed at most, yet more damage has been done, more lives have been lost all the while.
Toward the end, as Oliver discovers a mask he thinks is his father’s, a mask he thinks reveals his father had been involved with the occult criminal organization Oliver’s been after this whole time, his story falls away, and we see the perpetrators of violence come together, successful, victorious. Then, on the full-page panel that closes the issue, Oliver joins the story we may feel he should’ve been in all along, looking out over a city in flames. He thinks nothing in this panel, his voice ostensibly silenced—instead there is only the dialogue from one of the orchestrators of this mayhem overlaying the scene. Ultimately, had Oliver been more a part of the action, he probably couldn’t have done much to stop their plots—but this splash gives us that Empire Strikes Back moment, that absent victory. Over the course of the story, Oliver uncovered (and misinterpreted) a single piece of a much larger puzzle. Meanwhile, his city was razed, and here where the stories finally meet, the big picture becomes clear, like blurred and double vision suddenly colescing into focus.