After a fifteen-year hiatus, writer Ann Nocenti is returning to the world of comic books, taking over the ongoing “Green Arrow” series with issue #7 as announced today by DC Comics at New York Comic Con.
An editor at Marvel Comics in the ’80s and early ’90s, Nocenti rose to prominence after creating the character Longshot with artist Arthur Adams in 1985 and stepping in to take over after Frank Miller as the permanent writer on “Daredevil” in 1987. The relatively unknown Nocenti took the industry by surprise as her run on the character proved as popular as Miller’s, collaborating first with artist Barry Windsor-Smith and then John Romita Jr. on the title. Tackling social issues and creating enduring characters such as Typhoid Mary during her 1987 to 1991 run with the Man WIthout Fear, Nocenti went on to write for several other Marvel titles,, writing the 1988 graphic novel “Someplace Strange” with artist John Bolton and creating the “Kid Eternity” miniseries for Vertigo Comics with artist Sean Phillips in 1993.
Nocenti’s involvement in comics dwindled in the late ’90s, however, and outside of four standalone Batman stories written for DC in 2003 and 2004, Nocenti has been absent from comics for the past fifteen years. Nocenti has spent the last decade and a half focusing on a journalism career that has taken her everywhere from agitating for prison reform in the United States for “Prison Life Magazine” to reporting on tribal unrest in Pakistan, a subject she also documented in the film “The Baluch.”
Announced today by DC Comics as the new permanent writer for “Green Arrow,” Nocenti gave CBR an exclusive interview about her return to comics, her views on the New 52, and her plans for Oliver Queen — weapons, goatees and all!
CBR News: You’re writing Green Arrow starting with issue #7. Is the plan for you to come on as the permanent full time writer for “Green Arrow” as a first step towards your way back into writing comics?
Ann Nocenti: Yeah, I miss comics a lot, My life has been pretty busy and crazy doing lots of other things, so when Bob Harras called me in with Dan DiDio, they just wanted to talk to me about bringing me back into comics. They said that the writer was leaving “Green Arrow” and they gave me some of the New 52 relaunches to read. The ones they gave me were terrific, I thought! “Animal Man” and they gave me the “Frankenstein” one and “Red Hood” — they gave me a whole bunch of them. Anyway, I thought they were terrific and it seemed like an exciting thing to be part of. I had never read a Green Arrow comic, so I read his Wikipedia entry! [Laughs] I thought, well, I don’t really get a sense of who he is at all. The only consistent thing was this phrase that he was a “thrillseeker/activist.” I thought, for tradition’s sake, keep that, but try and really figure out who he is with the first trilogy that I do. So what I’ve done is I’ve sort of thrown him someplace new so I could figure out who he is.
Does that mean you’re coming on and cleaning the slate, moving him away from Seattle where J.T. Krul placed him and rearranging his supporting cast?
Well you know I believe in tradition, I believe in keeping a lot of elements secure, because people’s lives don’t tend to completely switch from month to month. I want to keep the stuff that the previous writer did, which was to create this huge tension in Oliver Queen with his boss, Emerson. He’s just really sick of the bureaucracy of running a corporation. I play off that as a way to jettison him someplace else. Then, he has these two characters, this kind of reluctant weapons guy and he has his tech girl, and I like that. They will remain his tether to the real world while we send Green Arrow out in a more international way.
Since you are uprooting Oliver in an attempt to try and figure out who he is, are you also creating new villains in order to bring out aspects of his personality and build the character by placing new obstacles around him?
Oh yeah, absolutely. In the very first issue, he has a brand new, very devious — well, let’s say he has a new villain and a new girlfriend in the very first issue. And both are complicated! [Laughs]
I think people’s strengths are kind of, in some way, their flaws. Green Arrow is a thrill seeker and he shoots off and does stuff, but there are repercussions to this shooting off and doing something. I’m going to play a lot with the notion that if you are going to be an impulsive, reckless hero, your heroic instincts better be pretty right on. What I think about is sports; Wayne Gretzky has to know where the puck is next and he has to get to it, no matter what. The long distance runner has to endure a huge amount of pain, they have to develop a tolerance for pain. If [Green Arrow] slams himself off to do something, his instincts have to be unerring — like shooting an arrow. So I’m going to fool around with that, I’m going to fool around with the double edge of his strengths also being his weaknesses, in a weird way, and I’m going to give him some really awesome new women to play with!
Also, I was talking to Dan [DiDio] and Bob Harras and they started talking about Steve Jobs — this was weeks ago, before he died — and what an insane perfectionist he was towards all of his technology. I think I’m going to have Green Arrow experiment quite a bit more with his weapons arsenal and have that kind of obsessiveness. It’s got to be perfect. Somebody with a bow and arrow and quiver, it’s a very cumbersome weapon in this day and age where everyone else has a sleek little pistol. He’s vulnerable in close combat when he can’t draw his bow. I’m going to fool around with giving him some smaller arrows and things he can use in close combat, but like Steve Jobs, within the comic he’s going to be testing things until they’re perfect, from his point of view.
I have to imagine that from a creative standpoint, it’s got to be fun to spend hours thinking up new trick arrows.
It’s a blast! I mean, I’ve always been into weaponry; I’ve got a gun, I do karate — I’m into weaponry. The other day, I was outside just fooling around and I took some twigs and made myself a little bow and arrow! I think [Green Arrow’s] got to become more in love with the fetish of the bow and arrow. I know it comes from Robin Hood, but Robin Hood is a very old myth that goes back to when the bow and arrow was kind of a cutting edge weapon! [Laughs] To me, what I love about “Green Arrow” is ,there are a lot of challenges there. How do you make sense of a guy that will take up a weapon with obvious, severe vulnerabilities and weaknesses? It’s like that joke, who brings a knife to a gunfight? He does! [Laughs] I’m going to have fun with that, because for whatever reason he has an instinct that fighting with an arrow is the thing he’s got to do. He has his reasons for it that maybe have to do with challenging himself. Up where I live, in the country, there’s a lot of deer hunters who will only hunt deer with a bow and arrow because they like the discipline and precision, and they think the gun is kind of cheating. I think Oliver has some of that in him. Mostly, I want to fling him around the world on some very exotic adventures with some extremely eccentric villains and lots of exploration of different femme fatales he encounters, and then have this kind of undercurrent of the Steve Jobs-ian fetish with technology and weaponry.
As you mention, Robin Hood is something of a template for the character and one of the most famous versions of Green Arrow was when he was used as just that — a hero standing up for the working man, and his comic became a soap box for different social and political issues. Is that something you are going to do with this Green Arrow, use him to address real world issues?
Even though, in my various runs in comics, I’ve certainly done a bunch of activist comics and social justice comics and things like that, I find it a little boring to do that stuff in a comic. I would have to find a way to make it extraordinarily exciting. I mean, is he going to go over to Occupy Wall Street? No. [Laughs] Is going to go down to Occupy Seattle? No. But in a kind of Steve Jobs-ian, grand gesture way, maybe he would send a box of something over there.
I don’t really know yet how I’m going to reconcile the big international adventures; I think the template for him, which I talked about with Bob Harras and Dan, was a touch of Steve Jobs and a touch of James Bond. James Bond is no social activist. Did he fight for the right side? Yes. So I think somewhere in there, I’m going to find a way to have him continue the tradition of, like you said, fighting for the working man and social justice, but on a grander scale.
As you are still figuring out Oliver, when you write a comic, how do you approach an issue? Do you plan strict plot points and beats out or is it a more organic process?
I have a particular way of writing a comic. Comics are short. Yhey are only twenty pages, so you can take a year of comics and that can be your opera, and the opera can have a lot of different passages in it. I kind of believe every issue should be a single story, just a complete story. But there is a momentum that forms like triptychs over it, and then it forms your big overtures, and then the whole thing ends up kind of operatic. I also want a beginning, middle and end, a classic short story approach to every single comic. What I do is I try to figure out, what is the kick in this comic, what is the main feeling I want to get, and everything in the comic has to serve that. I mean, this is real technical writer talk and probably boring for most! [Laughs] I think where comics get in trouble is when they try and plot too much in a single issue. It’s only twenty pages and you should leave with a feeling that you get from reading a short story or watching a short film. But most of all I want to have fun, because if I have fun, the book will be fun!
You mentioned you really missed writing comics — how does it feel to slip back into the grind of putting out a monthly book again?
It’s really fun! I did a monthly for DC, “Kid Eternity,” but I’m having all these flashbacks to writing “Daredevil” and the affectionate bond that develops between you and your character and how they’re always in your head. Everywhere you go and everything you do, it’s sort of like they become your pal; they’re hanging out in your head! [Laughs]
It’s a really sweet feeling to have this heroic buddy that you carry around with you; when I do things, he’s always there. I don’t quite have that feeling yet, completely, for Green Arrow, because I’ve only just started. I remember over the years with Daredevil, he became quite real for me. It’s a lot of fun.
I think most people know you best from your long and successful run on “Daredevil,” which also starred a character whose inherent idea was that he took risks and flung himself off buildings. Is that something that attracts you to Green Arrow and these types of characters in general — that idea of somebody flinging themselves into situations without thinking it through and only going off of moral impulses?
Absolutely, because I’m a bit of a risk taker myself. I just came back from teaching film to Cherokee Native Americans, and I’m headed to Lapland to teach film to reindeer people! [Laughs] I was in Haiti teaching film and I made a film in Baluchistan, which is a really rough tribal area in Pakistan. I know my own nature is, “Ugh, life’s getting too comfortable — what can I do to shake my mind up and challenge myself?” I used to take big physical risks with sports. I don’t do the physical risks anymore — well, I guess it is a bit of a physical risk the countries I go to — but for the most part I feel very reckless and impulsive myself. That part, I think will be easy.
I don’t know about “no physical risk” — I’ve read your articles about Baluchistan and so many of your pieces seem to start, “I was in a bullet-proof armored tank,” or, “So there were guns everywhere!”
Yeah! [Laughs] I mean, I also have that international experience, so I can take [Green Arrow] places. I know what those places smell like and I know what the people are like, so I can do things with that. I’ve only been to Seattle a few times, so I have a certain sense for what that town is like, but I think I’m going to keep Oliver Queen there and send Green Arrow out and about. But like I said, your best qualities are your flaws; to a certain degree, some of the things I did were a bit stupid! Putting yourself in danger is a little stupid. I never looked into the reasons why I do it. Maybe I will with “Green Arrow,” but it’s definitely what I was saying, that your strengths are in some ways your flaws.
Like you said before, you’ve been teaching around the world and you’ve made some documentaries — outside of comics what are you currently working on?
I really like to teach, I just really love it. I’m about to start a two-year mentorship with the Samis who are in Lapland, which is like Arctic Norway, which means going back and forth to Lapland and teaching film there and immersing myself in that culture. I always have something going on. I’m working on a novel now, a piece of journalism, I write for this site called HiLowbrow and I wrote a series of tales from Haiti. I’m always doing stuff, but I probably will put all my creative juice into “Green Arrow.”
You wrote a couple of “Batman” one-off stories semi-recently, but you’ve taken a long hiatus from comics for the most part. What prompted you to leave comics in the first place to focus on your journalism, and what’s bringing you back now?
It’s weird. I guess it gets back to what I was saying about how the good of something is also the bad of something. I mean, comic book writers and artists, I don’t know about the rest of them, but you definitely start living in a little fantasy bubble. It’s really, really fun and there are aspects to it that keep you in a fantasy, like something childish, though not in a bad way. I just wanted to start doing stories that were more engaging to the real world. Probably it started when I began doing some issue-related “Daredevil” comics. I went, “You know what? Maybe I want to actually address some of these issues in journalism.” It was just a natural progression.
I also love story. I just like storytelling in all sorts of forms, so it was natural to say, “How do you tell a story in journalism? How do you tell a story in film?” And then it all comes back to comics and it’s still just, “What’s the drama?”
You’ve talked a lot about defining who Oliver is and putting him in different situations, so obviously, it’s time to ask one of the biggest questions, and one that’s been floating around internet fandom for a while — do you have any plans to bring back Oliver Queen’s goatee?
He had a van dyke or something, right? I actually don’t know what his facial hair is like now! [Laughs] You know, it’s funny. I have a lot of pretty young friends and sometimes when you go into a Starbucks, there are guys who have van dykes and goatees now. It’s kind of a trend. So if [DC] shaved him because it was dorky and old fashioned, it’s kind of come back around to being hip again! [Laughs]
I don’t know. I didn’t have any plans, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll probably start obsessing on it!
The other thing is that he has to also fight with a certain illogic. Most characters that have secret identities wear masks, and it’s a delicate suspension of very strong disbelief that you would have a world famous entrepreneur Oliver Queen who has the same exact face as Green Arrow. I think sometimes they must both be on page six and somebody goes, “Hey, he looks like him!” A lot of the fun with superheroes is the tension between their secret identities because I think they often get a little schizophrenic and say, “Oliver Queen did that, I didn’t do that.” I don’t know why they got rid of the van dyke, but maybe they thought it would be too obvious when there are two high profile people running around with van dyke beards. [Laughs] It’s an interesting question, thank you!
You’re welcome! So, you’re coming onto “Green Arrow” with, really, no prior knowledge. You came onto “Daredevil” the same way, and you’ve said before that you didn’t know much about comics before talking your way into your first Marvel job. Do you feel it’s been beneficial that you have an outsider’s eye on these characters?
I think certainly looking at someone like Green Arrow and saying, “Oh my god, he looks like Robin Hood! What’s the little green hat for? This is going to be tough, it’s not cool,” you have to kind of figure out, even visually, how you are going to approach him. But at the same time, like I said before, I’m really into tradition, I’m really into the shared universe having deep roots, so at some point I’m going to have to say, “Ok, I have my clean slate feeling on him — now let me see what some of the other writers have done with him.” I don’t really know anything other than there was a long Mike Grell run. I’d be interested to see what he did, and to see what Kevin Smith did, but I haven’t really looked at the old issues yet.
Denny O’Neil did a version of him as well.
Oh, yeah! I’ll have to check it out, Denny’s a master. I should have figured it out when you said social activism, that’s one of his things! [Laughs] He’s such a terrific storyteller, I’ll definitely look at his issues — Denny gave me my first job in comics!
Finally, now that you are getting back into the monthly swing with “Green Arrow,” what is the number one big thing you want fans to take away from your new work?
I want people to have a good time. Comics should be fun, and if you layer them with something profound or moving, they should still be a blast to read. That’s one of the things I noticed from the issues Bob Harras gave me; they were super-fun to read! The few times people have handed me comics over the years, there were so many characters, I didn’t know what was going on. It felt like you had to have read the fifty issues before to understand. They were too dense for me to enjoy. I think it is a good thing to get away from making comics so impenetrable that a new reader can’t just pick them up and be enchanted.
I’ve only done this little trilogy so far, so I don’t really know yet. I’d like more reader involvement. Last time I wrote comics, there were letter pages and you got feedback; I know there’s an Internet presence now, but I kind of would like a more direct relationship with the readers. The other day I was thinking, it was just so much fun to think about weaponry! What if we got people’s ideas? Just be interactive — I’ve always liked the interactive nature of the letter columns. That’s always fun for me, having a relationship with the readers!
Nocenti’s run begins with “Green Arrow” issue #7