The Comic Cave – Green Arrow: Year One

The Comic Cave is a fortnightly feature where we spin the Wheel of Comics and see what graphic novel story it brings up for us to deep dive into! This week we take a look at Green Arrow: Year One, the post-Crisis origin for DC’s Emerald Archer.

Today, thanks in large part to the CW television series Arrow, the character of Green Arrow has a decent following, and is known to people who may never have picked up a comic book before. Despite the series playing incredibly fast and loose with the character (he was treated like a green Batman) it made one of the earliest members of the Justice League better known, and it made people begin to see him as more than just a Robin Hood-like character. But those who read the books knew this already, we understood that despite the sometimes cheesy outfit Oliver Queen was an amazing character. And 2008’s Green Arrow: Year One showcases that brilliantly.

Chances are if you were a reader of Green Arrow comics you’d know his origin story: marooned on a deserted island, billionaire playboy Oliver Queen had to learn to survive until his eventual rescue, using a bow and arrow to hunt. As with most characters though, this origin went through some revisions, and the origin that everyone knows for Oliver Queen isn’t even his first one. Originally, the character was an archaeologist who specialised in Native American culture. This Golden Age origin was altered by the great Jack Kirby in the Silver Age to the one we know. Post-Crisis changes kept a lot of these changes, and altered how Oliver manages to get off the island, changing it from saving a passing ship from pirates, to him fighting criminals on the island who are using it to grow drugs. And Green Arrow: Year One takes this story and expands it into a six issue mini series.

The book begins with Oliver Queen, a young billionaire playboy, travelling the world with his bodyguard/survival expert Hackett, who is taking Ollie to extreme locations, such as the north pole. Ollie has a lust for adventure, a desire to experience the thrill of adrenaline in the most remote, dangerous, and extreme environments. After a brief trip to the Arctic, the two of them head home to Star City, where Oliver attends a charity auction to raise money for drug rehabilitation centres in the city. He’s come for one particular item, a bow and arrow set once owned by the legendary archer Howard Hill.

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Hill, who is a real person, performed the archer in old Robin Hood movies that Oliver watched as a kid. He loved the films so much that his parents even paid to have Hill train him for a while. Oliver drunkenly boasts that Hill told him he had the most raw talent he’d ever seen in an archer, but like most everything else in his life Ollie gave up on it. However, his love for it is still there, and he immediately bids a ridiculous amount for the bow and wins it. In his drunken ramblings Oliver manages to insult everyone else at the auction, and makes a fool of himself. This makes Oliver decide that he needs to get out of the city for a while.

Luckily for him, Hackett is due to leave Star City on Oliver’s private yacht in order to make an illegal deal for him. Hackett has set Oliver up with the opportunity to secretly invest in a new resort being built in Fiji by an old business associate of his, Chien Na-Wei. Armed with a bag filled with $14 million, Hackett is supposed to sail out into the pacific to meet Chien Na-Wei and make the handover. Oliver sees this as the perfect opportunity to get out of the city after his embarrassment at the auction, and insists on joining Hackett, even if Hackett keeps telling him it’s a bad idea for him to go.

Days later, out in the ocean, Hackett confronts Oliver. There is no resort deal. Hackett is stealing Oliver’s money, but now that Oliver is on the boat Hackett has to deal with him too. The two of them fight, and Hackett gets the upper hand over his former friend. Despite knowing he needs to kill Ollie, and receiving orders to shoot Oliver in the head from a mysterious phone call, Hackett dumps the unconscious Oliver over the edge of the ship, leaving him in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles away from civilisation. Fortunately, Oliver doesn’t drown, and eventually washes up on the beach of a remote island.

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From here we observe Oliver trying to survive on the island, using the few bits of survival knowledge he’s picked up from all of his extreme vacations and Hackett over the years. He eventually finds an old village on the island, burned to the ground and abandoned. Scavenging supplies, he manages to find a water source, and crafts himself a rudimentary bow from scrap metal, and makes arrows from bamboo. Oliver uses the bow and arrow to hunt, and is able to keep alive. He keeps on improving his equipment, crafting better arrows, arrows fletched with the green feathers of the island’s parrots.

One day, months into his time on the island, a plane comes flying in low over the beach. Oliver tries to signal for help with a flare arrow, but soon realises his mistake when one of the people on the plane begins to shoot at him with a rifle. Oliver manages to wound the attacker with his bow, causing the man to shoot up the cockpit, crashing the plane into the centre of the island. Oliver takes off after it, and discovers that it has crashed in a mountaintop crater in the centre of the island, a crater being used to grow fields of poppy seeds.

As Oliver scavenges from the crash, a pregnant woman named Taiana, approaches him. She tells him how the criminals came to her island, killed those who resisted them, and enslaved the rest, forcing them to work the poppy fields in order to grow their drug crop. Oliver is forced to hide when more of the slavers arrive, including Hackett, and their boss, Chien Na-Wei. Knowing that the island is home to a group of ruthless killers, and that the man who betrayed him is there, Oliver begins a guerrilla war on the slavers, attacking them from the jungle. Eventually, Oliver launches a full scale assault on the criminals, one where he will either destroy their operation and free the slaves, or die trying.

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Green Arrow: Year One is an incredibly stripped down, back to basics approach for the character, one that if you changed the lead characters name could just be a cool action comic set in the real world. The book shows a realistic version of the DC Universe, because there are no hints at the DC Universe existing here. Other than the names Oliver Queen and Star City being in one issue there’s nothing here that ties it to the larger universe. There’s no mention of Superman or Batman, the bad guys don’t have any kind of powers, and you don’t even see Oliver as the actual Green Arrow until the final page of the book. But none of these things are criticisms at all.

Andy Diggle, who never again wrote for Green Arrow after this, has a history of writing for non-superhero comics, having begun his career in British comics writing for 2,000AD, before moving across to writer American comics in the DC Vertigo imprint, creating for characters like Constantine in the Hellblazer series. Diggle’s history of writing less showy, less colourful characters sets him in good stead for this story. Despite people thinking of Green Arrow as being a bit hokey, of dressing a bit like Robin Hood, this story doesn’t do that, and makes a very real, and very justifiable version of the character. He isn’t wearing all green, sporting a fancy hat or hood. He’s wearing scraps of clothing, and he’s wearing a hood sewn together from scavenged tarp to keep the potentially deadly sun off him head during the day. He’s not making a fashion choice, he’s doing the best he can.

Despite this stripped down, bare bones version of the character it still feels like Oliver Queen. The douchey playboy at the start of the book fits the background you expect for the character, and the events on the island fit into the kind of person he will eventually become. The island is his crucible, it’s taking the raw elements of who he was before and forging them anew. The parts of the book where we get to see this, seeing him search for water, building his shelter, refining his equipment, are fascinating to watch as we’re seeing a man broken down and remade into something better than he was before.

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The book also does action incredibly well, and manages to make a man with a bow and arrow feel interesting each and every time he has to go into battle. The first time we see him having to turn his weapons on another human is when he ends up shooting down a plane, something that sounds ridiculous on paper, yet the book makes feel very plausible. After this, the next action sequence is Oliver and Hackett hunting each other through the island jungle. This is perhaps my favourite part of the entire series, and the issue it takes place in, issue three, is one of the best in the book. Later in the book we see Oliver starting to do things that you expect from Green Arrow, covering arrow tips in tar to create burning arrows, removing the tip from an arrow to create knock-out arrows, and performing trick shots that take out multiple opponents at the same time.

There are a lot of elements here that fit into the character as already established, whilst the book does add new things to the story. Characters like Hackett, Chien Na-Wei, and Taiana are all new to this book, and their inclusion doesn’t alter Oliver’s origin in huge, substantial ways, but it does make it more personal for him, it does add more depth, and it makes him surviving on a remote island into something more interesting than just ‘I hung out on the beach for a few months’. A lot of the elements introduced in this book would actually go on to be included in the already mentioned Arrow television series. Chien Na-Wei, who Ollie keeps calling China White, would go on to become a recurring villain in the series, appearing in thirteen episodes across the eight seasons. Taiana would also appear, in a similar story in the fourth season flashbacks, where she and a number of people have been enslaved to work drug fields on the island. Most notably, however, would the the character of John Diggle, played by David Ramsey, who was named after Andy Diggle (his brother would later be introduced in the show, named Andy).

The artist Jock, also British born like Diggle, provides the art on the book, alongside colourist David Baron, and helps to sell the more grounded, realistic take on the character. The two of them had previously worked together on Diggle’s Vertigo series The Losers, and they seem to work well together, with a creative process whose end result is gorgeous. Jock has a way of creating both weight and a sense of movement to his figures, and the times where Oliver is running around the island, stalking his prey, attacking from the shadows, all look fantastic. The colours play a large part in the art too, and there are some scenes where certain colours seem to take over everything.

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For example, the scene where Oliver is fighting with Hackett in the jungle is incredibly green. Some panels are simply Oliver’s silhouette in an action pose in front of a plain green background, which feels like it shouldn’t work, but looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s also not a coincidence that the first scene in which Oliver chooses to take action against bad people, to becomes the kind of hero he’s destined to be, is filled with the colour green. The colours don’t just help to set the scene, but they indicate where we are in Oliver’s journey too. There are a ridiculous number of pages and panels in this book that you could take out and slap onto a poster and they’d make for gorgeous Green Arrow prints.

Green Arrow is one of those characters where those who don’t really know much about him tend to dismiss him. ‘He’s just a guy with a bow and arrow’, ‘he looks like Robin Hood’, but there’s a lot more to the character than people first think. Green Arrow: Year One showcases how versatile he is, how you can take this character and drop him into an action movie setting and it works. He’s one of the biggest characters in the DC Universe, he was the first person to join the Justice League outside of the founding seven, and he’s been around since the Golden Age. Oliver Queen is more than an archer, more than a guy who wears green, and this book proves that. If you want to make a great Green Arrow movie that will appeal to folks who don’t normally go in for superheroes, this book would make the perfect basis for it.

Green Arrow: Year One was published by DC Comics from July 2007 to October 2007.

Next time on The Comic Cave – Invincible: Family Matters by Robert Kirkman.

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