Review: Green Arrow Vol. 8: The Night Birds trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Green Arrow title in the New 52 has consisted mostly of upbeat superheroics, so Benjamin Percy's Green Arrow Vol. 8: The Night Birds offered a startling change. I frankly started to wonder just how viable Percy's run might be, especially since he continues into the Rebirth era, until in about the middle of the first full chapter I got it.

Percy's run, or at least this first volume, is about as close as Green Arrow has come in recent memory to the Mike Grell era. Percy's poetic, looping, wordy narration will not be for everyone, and indeed even for those who like their Green Arrow "serious," Night Birds lacks the warmth that might have drawn someone in to Jeff Lemire's books. This is Green Arrow at its iciest, underscored by artist Patrick Zircher's stark realism. As with Grell, Percy's Green Arrow requires dedication, and patience, and for the latter reason I think this is one best read in trade format. I'm eager to see where Percy goes with it.

[Review contains spoilers]

The first of two storylines collected here, "Night Birds" contains an element of mystery to it, and in the revelation of that mystery we get some sense of the themes of Percy's run. The flock of "night birds" that swoop down and carry people to their deaths are the Panopticon, robotic monstrosities that are supposed to be keeping Seattle safe, and Percy and Zircher later parallel them with tarantulas; though there is a mechanical, sci-fi bent to the story, the storytellers keep overlaying aspects of the natural world. Even at their most superheroic, these pages feel larger than their four-color borders, as if Percy's relaying some aspect of myth or an American tall tale.

This extends to the book's second story where Green Arrow battles the Bone Hunters, which includes an entire issue almost entirely dedicated to the origins of Oliver Queen's new wolf-dog. Percy's audacity here is fascinating, and I flipped back rather in shock after I read it that Percy would leave the titular hero behind so completely to tell, again, what feels like a tall tale. In monthly comics, I might not fault a reader for being miffed, but in the trade the chapter works to set the mystical, almost supernatural tone of the second part. Percy demonstrates himself as a writer dedicated to the needs of the story, no matter how unconventional.

Night Birds also marks a more distinct return to Green Arrow's activist roots than we've seen of late. The first story swiftly takes up issues of profiling and police brutality; in a clever twist the residents of Seattle's "Pennytown" adopt Green Arrow's signature hood as their own emblem to foil the Panopticon's all-seeing eyes. Keeping with the book's distant tone, Percy does not overtly explain or even spend too much time on the villains' motivations, such that the base racism that underlies at least part of the story is nearly too subtle, as when the Panopticon's first victims are all in retrospect in interracial relationships.

Had Percy not already pushed the common boundaries of story and tone pretty far, he takes it one step farther by introducing for the first time post-Flashpoint Catalina Flores, the Tarantula. Flores factored most notably in Devin Grayson's pre-Flashpoint Nightwing series, where the character killed a villain in cold blood and is largely considered to have raped Dick Grayson. This makes Flores a third rail-type figure almost on level with Dr. Light, and at least when the New 52 brought him back it was a significantly different character with a different look; Percy and Zircher's is seemingly about the same character with about the same costume. I'd be curious to hear the conversation in which using Tarantula in an essentially heroic role seemed a good idea, and further for Oliver to consider himself in love with her by the end of the book. Again, however, I have to give Percy points for daring, and I'm curious to see what Percy does with the character since he's can't hardly be ignorant of her baggage.

I did appreciate that despite what's essentially a new take on Oliver Queen, for the most part unrecognizable from the Oliver in Andrew Kreisberg and Ben Sokolowski's Green Arrow Vol. 7: The Kingdom, Percy does pay some deference to the runs previous. John Diggle and Felicity Smoak, late of Kingdom, are both absent, but Percy uses Oliver's sister and "sidekick" Emiko, and perhaps more surprisingly, slovenly tech guru Henry Fyff. Though it's clear Percy's doing his own thing, I appreciated these indications of Percy as a fan, too, in that he didn't wholly jettison what came before.

Patrick Zircher's contribution to Green Arrow Vol. 8: The Night Birds can't be overstated, as his stark, serious Oliver Queen definitively separates this book from the Oliver of Daniel Sampere or even Andrea Sorrentino; Sorrentino's Oliver was gritty but playful, whereas Zircher's is hauntingly bleak. To that end, Night Birds only falters slightly at the end when guest artists come on; they capture the last story's gore just fine, but some of the narrative power clearly goes out of it. But Zircher is back with Benjamin Percy next time around, and this whole unexpected outing certainly makes me enthusiastic to follow Percy to Rebirth.

[Includes original and variant covers, DC Sneak Peek story]
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