A few years ago, I went to a writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon run by the literary magazine Tin House. It was great, both personally and creatively. I made writer friends who I’m still in touch with to this day, I learned too much to recount, and I met some of my favorite writers, including Green Arrow scribe Benjamin Percy, who was yet to start writing comics way back then.
Each night at Tin House, after we’d finished our morning workshops, lessons, and craft lectures, we all went down to an outdoor amphitheater along a river to listen to the accomplished writers read, and one of those evening readings featured Percy.
I remember so clearly how at the podium he told everyone in a gruff voice that he’d grown up obsessed with werewolves and that now, as an adult, he’d written a novel about them, a grisly epoch with shades of commentary on terrorism called Red Moon (which is a great read, btw). Then he read the first harrowing chapter.
This was eye-opening for me. To that point, I’d never seen a capital-A Author let their childhood fascinations bleed (werewolf pun, eh? okay, I’ll stop but you have to give me some time to be a better person) into the serious adult work of literature, certainly not so directly. It was refreshing and freeing and incredibly inspirational to see a writer I admired and respected do this, and it’s a lesson I’ve kept with me as I've given myself permission to re-indulge my lifelong love of comics.
It’s a lesson I’ve also been thinking a lot about in the past 24 hours since news broke that Percy’s last installment of Green Arrow would come in March. I've been on board since the start, since the New 52, and Percy’s run, quite simply, has been among the all-time best on the character, with each arc acting as a chapter in a rich novel, upping the stakes as it heads toward a climax. I can’t call it THE best ever yet because I haven't seen the end, but my guess is that it lands in the conversation.
I also think Green Arrow has been foundational to Rebirth’s success, arguably the book fans and critics point to most when praising the way the initiative rehabilitated characters and brought back core elements. Percy assures us another killer team is taking over after the April-May two-issue fill-in arc, and he’s cryptically hinted he’ll be on a new DC book soon, saying he’s headed to “the zip code where a dark sensibility like mine belongs,” which is totally Gotham, right? Right. So, we have that to look forward to.
Today though, following 24 hours of mourning a Green Arrow book I’ve loved for the past 3 years, I want to celebrate Benjamin Percy’s time on Green Arrow, and I also want to throw out a wild prediction for who takes over the book next, before ending with a literary reading list for comic book fans who also enjoy literary fiction.
Let's do it!!
Part 1: The All-Time Great Green Arrow Run
One of my favorite things about Benjamin Percy’s Green Arrow is the staccato captions of its narration. Nowhere else in these comics is it more evident that Percy is a writer with vast experience in prose. His captions in Ollie’s voice are generally short, sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful, and always pitch perfect for what’s about to unfold, so subtle you might read through them without giving a second thought to the utter precision of the language guiding you. It’s a beautiful thing.
Readers of Percy’s novels and short stories likely recognized the geographic fit right off. Percy is seemingly as fascinated with the Pacific Northwest as he is with werewolves, which says a lot. Few heroes in comics are as associated with a real world city (one that isn’t New York, anyway) as Green Arrow is with Seattle, and Percy just gets Seattle, the glimmering side of it as well as the rainy melancholia that lies beneath. This understanding of the setting really came through in his work on this book, especially in the recent Rise of Star City arc *SPOILER* that turned it into a post-capitalist hellscape known (perfectly!) as Star City (what a statement).
Right from the start, Percy worked with fantastic artists on this book, including the incredibly consistent and underrated Patrick Zircher during the New 52, plus guest pencils by the downright sinister Szymon Kudranski, whose work I've long admired. Then, in Rebirth Percy was joined by one of the best 1-2 punches of the entire line: Juan Ferreyra and Otto Schmidt, whose styles are as distinct as they are varied, yet somehow seemed to sync up around the stories. I'm excited to see the work they go on to do, hopefully with even bigger marquee books at DC, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt to think I won’t get to regularly see Ferreyra's action work or Schmidt's all-time best depictions of Black Canary.
An alternate title for this section could be “The Love of the Character,” but I think that love is best summed up by The Goatee. Oliver Queen’s unabashed return to his trademark facial hair at the start of Rebirth was played for laughs in Percy’s script, but there was also serious truth behind it: somewhere along the way the essence of the character had been lost and Percy was hellbent on finding and restoring it, starting with the goatee and following close behind with the return of Ollie’s relationship with Black Canary, which Percy depicted better than any Green Arrow in quite some time (to be fair no other writer has even written the Canary-Arrow relationship in quite some time because in New 52 it never existed).
Like Ta-Nehisi Coates in Marvel’s Black Panther, Benjamin Percy in Green Arrow was a writer you could see growing with his proficiency in the comics medium on the page. There were early missteps in the New 52 Green Arrow, to be sure, which is why I think this ended up being the Rebirth book that enjoyed the most successful resurgence. You could practically see Percy learning as he went, maturing into the skilled comic book writer many of us are sad to see moving on now.
Part II: What’s Next
I threw this out on Twitter after hearing the Percy news, but I'd like to once again call my shot: the next permanent Green Arrow writer will be Brian Michael Bendis. I had this hunch back when the Bendis news broke. Green Arrow is the exact sort of street level character Bendis has always written to great success at Marvel. He’s also a hero with a definite sense of humor who can alternate between gritty and witty. Plus Jessica Jones, who is arguably Bendis’ most famous creation, owes some of her look and attitude to Black Canary, now doesn’t she?
I’m calling it: BENDIS.
Part III: More Books Without Pictures
Comics and literature have always been linked for me. In high school, I got heavily into them both, reading as many comics each Wednesday as my part-time job allowed while going to the public library to discover work from Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem and Chuck Palahniuk. As I got older and went to college, my interest in comics waned (gah! I’m a cliche!), but nonetheless I found myself drawn to literary writers who loved or dabbled in the medium. If some or any of this sounds familiar (heck, even if it doesn’t), then you may enjoy some of the following books, none of which have pictures.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: All of us are Oscar sometimes.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: Especially recommend for those who love the Golden Age of Comics.
Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: Growing up with comics and adversity.
The Broken Earth Novels by N.K. Jensen: Modern classics.
Loving Day by Mat Johnson: This book has two characters who buy a big stack of new comics every Wednesday, possibly making it the most well-known book in literary fiction to have this.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle: LaValle wrote an excellent series for Boom! last year. Also, this was my favorite novel of 2017.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Don’t read this when you’re home sick like did, but read it literally any other time, it’s that good.
The Hannish Cycle Novels by Ursula K. Le Guin: Start with Rocannon’s World, which would make a brilliant comic book adaptation, but end with Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, a pair of masterpieces.
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy: You know this guy.
Voodoo Heart by Scott Snyder: You really know this guy.
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.