DC Rebirth: How Green Arrow became a 'social justice warrior' again

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Last spring, DC Comics started over again. Under the Rebirth banner, the company relaunched its main books and reinvented its famous characters. This kind of event has become rather common among the two main superhero comics publishers in recent years: Marvel shook up its storied continuity with the Secret Wars event in 2015, and DC itself just did a huge relaunch in 2011 called The New 52. But where The New 52 had experimented with radical new directions for its characters (Superman dating Wonder Woman! No sidekicks for The Flash!) to mixed results, Rebirth aimed to bring its characters back to their core elements while simultaneously looking to the future. It’s been a huge success so far, both commercially and critically.

Now that the first collections of the Rebirth line are rolling out, casual fans have a chance to see what all the fuss is about. To figure out how Rebirth came to be such a success, EW spoke to the creative teams behind five of DC’s biggest books (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and The Flash) about how they freshened up their famous characters while still paying homage to past classics.

Among the pantheon of DC’s top heroes, Green Arrow has always been something of an odd duck. He started off as an obvious Batman rip-off (rich boy takes on eccentric hobby in reaction to traumatic origin story) and often struggled to differentiate himself. The superpowered Justice League, after all, is not often in need of trick arrows. Green Arrow’s aimlessness changed in the ’70s, however, when writer Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams paired him up with Green Lantern for a cross-country road trip. Green Lantern/Green Arrow traded in alien conquerors and would-be supervillains, instead pitting its heroes against everyday American problems of racial injustice, drug addiction, and other socio-economic issues. In the process, Oliver Queen changed from just another rich boy superhero to what the internet now calls a “social justice warrior,” attuned to the struggles of the downtrodden and determined to use his privilege for good. Although the character shifted on and off this beat over the subsequent decades, it remains an iconic part of his history. And that meant it got brought up when current Green Arrow writer Benjamin Percy met with DC Rebirth mastermind Geoff Johns to plot out the character’s future.

“What we did to start with was to make a list of things that have made Green Arrow great in the past,” Percy tells EW. “Who are his best enemies? Who are his most interesting sidekicks? And then the idea was, how can we write the greatest Green Arrow storyline of all time? How can we put a unique modern stamp on it while tipping our hat to history? It meant bringing back the goatee, it meant bringing back Black Canary. It meant really channeling great creators like Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams.”

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And so, within the first few pages of this new Green Arrow series, Oliver Queen tells the reader that he’s gotten bored of boardrooms and eligible-bachelor escapades. Instead, he says, “I prefer the job description of social justice warrior.” He then leaps off a rooftop in full Green Arrow regalia, on his way to fight street criminals. But the interest in social justice is a real one, and many of the enemies in this Green Arrow run feel ripped from current headlines. First up is the Ninth Circle, a grotesque group of “1 percent” billionaires whose machinations force Oliver to reconsider his own wealth and privilege. The fact that Green Arrow takes place in the real city of Seattle, as opposed to the fictional metropolises that populate other DC comics,

“If you think about who should Green Arrow face off with, given his political leanings and the core history of the character, it seemed to make the most sense to make it a villainous cabal of bankers,” Percy says. “Now, when we started off Rebirth, Oliver Queen was in his ivory tower. If you think about that Robin Hood legacy, that just didn’t make sense to me. There’s that one line that kind of becomes the definitive line in the series: ‘how can you fight the man if you are the man?’ We’re bringing back that Robin Hood element. To give you a hint of what’s coming down the pipeline, we’ve got storylines about an oil pipeline that runs through the Spokane Indian reservation. We’ve got a storyline about the intentional bankruptcy and corporate takeover/bailout of Seattle. We are making this very much our own series and a series that’s relevant to right now.”

DC Comics
DC Comics
DC Comics
DC Comics

The focus on modern issues is not the only element Percy and artist Juan Ferreyra have brought back to Green Arrow. In its attempt to shake up the status quo, The New 52 era of DC made a point to separate Green Arrow from his longtime love interest and crimefighting partner, Black Canary. By contrast, Percy and Ferreyra not only reunited the two right off the bat, they made their dynamic essential to the book.

“The series might as well be called Green Arrow and Black Canary,” Percy says. “Green Arrow doesn’t really work without her, it’s like a yin without a yang. He often makes the wrong decision, so there’s a collective element to their relationship where she serves not only as a love interest but also as a kind of conscience. I can’t imagine writing the series without her. She’s such a badass.”

Ferreyra worked to make the connection between the leads clear in the art as well.

“I tried to do more round and soft edges with Black Canary, and give more hard edge to the design of Green Arrow. But at the same time, I used watercolors and soft pencils and things like that to make them come together as a couple,” Ferreyra says. “Then parts of the drawing are out of focus or in a blur so every time they’re together it feels like a dream.”

Green Arrow vol. 1: The Death and Life of Oliver Queen is on sale now.

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