This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 7, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Does it matter if Green Arrow has a goatee?
On a micro level the answer to this question should be an easy no. If we were to pick out some classic Green Arrow stories, like “The Longbow Hunters”, “Quiver”, or “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”, and take the time to erase his goatee and draw in a chin and upper lip instead, these stories would be just as good as they ever were. A choice of facial hair is rarely going to impact any visual story. Short of historical inaccuracies or plot-based mustaches or beards (like The Thing’s Blackbeard-beard in Fantastic Four #5), there’s no reason to get hung up on what’s on the lower half of a character’s face.
Pretending like that’s the full scope of this question or why fans were excited when Geoff Johns announced that Green Arrow would get his goatee back at the DC Rebirth announcement event is obtuse though. The key difference between discussing Green Arrow’s goatee and Leonardo DiCaprio’s attempts at facial hair in movies likeThe Wolf of Wall Street and The Revenant, is that Green Arrow isn’t a character connected to a single story. He’s part of something integral to many, many superhero comics: continuity.
When comics readers discuss Green Arrow, they aren’t just talking “The Longbow Hunters” or “Quiver”, they’re talking 75 years of comics dating back to More Fun Comics #73. While Green Arrow didn’t have anything blonde below his hairline back then, he also wasn’t a wildly popular character. It wasn’t until 1969 when Neal Adams redesigned the emerald archer with a Van Dyke beard that his presence in the DC Universe began to grow. Adams had a clear love for the character and continually looked for reasons to incorporate him into DC Comics. It was with regular collaborator and classic superhero writer Dennis O’Neil that he brought Oliver Queen into Green Lantern’s ongoing series forming the iconic “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” run.
In the same way that readers think of comics like stories like “Batman: Year One” and Batman #47 (“The Origin of Batman”) when thinking of Batman rather than the gun-toting vigilante of Detective Comics #27, they think of this goateed archer when recalling Green Arrow rather than the Robin Hood-like man of More Fun Comics #73. Whether you’re picking up a Batman comic or a Green Arrow comic, they come with a pre-loaded set of meanings and associations. When a creator slaps a bat on a character’s chest or put their head under a cowl, they receive a certain set of assumptions and good faith from the audience. They can take it for granted that readers understand this character’s origin and motivations, allowing them to tinker rather than paint a complete portrait of a character. That goes for Green Arrow as well. When a creator puts a blonde, goateed man in a green suit and give him a bow and arrow, readers get who they’re looking at.
That’s not to say that simply removing the goatee will baffle superhero fans and leave them questioning who it is they’re looking at. However, changes to classic visual cues signify a change in the same way that removing Superman’s red trunks might. And yes, I’m switching from Batman to Superman to make comparisons, but Siegel and Shuster’s Action Comics #1 pretty much knocked this character design out of the park at the very start. When DC Comics made these sorts of changes to the characters at the start of the New 52, they were signifying a new course for them. The removal of the red trunks and goatee were meant to modernize and deage these heroes, suiting them to a younger audience in 2011. You can debate how well that worked if at all, but those tweaks were definitely the first signs of these changes being made.
Green Arrow in his New 52 series was both metaphorically and literally fresh off the boat. He was new to being a superhero and resembled the character of Arrow from CW’s Arrow more than the Oliver Queen of Green Lantern/Green Arrow (even though that TV series had yet to launch). As the series progressed, the similarities between this Oliver Queen and the one played by Stephen Amell became even more pronounced. By the time writer Jeff Lemire and artist Andrea Sorrentino took over the series with Green Arrow #17, it was riffing directly on the violence, martial arts, and island-centric plotting of the show. Amell’s stubble-faced Arrow and the clean-shaven Green Arrow of this comic had come to represent a very different take on the character. Without the goatee Green Arrow had become a young, angry character willing to take lives and light people on fire. Oliver Queen had become the inverse of the classic evil doppelganger trope where adding a goatee made him a better person rather than a worse one.
Of course shaving doesn’t make you a bad person, no more than growing a goatee makes you an evil twin. Green Arrow had already committed murder with his goatee still intact in the absolutely dreadful 2009 series Justice League: Cry for Justice. Yet that one story felt out of place in the same way that many from this period of DC Comics do. Over the past five years of Green Arrow stories, the fresh-faced hero has stuck to a very central shift in the character and the loss of his iconic facial hair is an incidental parallel to this change.
Giving Green Arrow his goatee back is no guarantee of any changes in plotting or characterization. If you took all of Andrea Sorrentino’s artwork from the current volume of Green Arrow and penciled in his Van Dyke, you’re still left with a dude lighting other dudes on fire. That’s some ugly shit whether or not you can see someone’s chin. The goatee isn’t integral to the moral and ethical character of Green Arrow, but it is symbolic of that character.
When you imagine Green Arrow with his finely waxed moustache and pointed beard, you don’t summon the stories of Arrow or this most recent series. Instead what comes to mind is the core of Green Arrow as many readers have come to identify it. With a goatee he is a hot-headed, loud mouthed liberal, fighting against injustice wherever he may see it no matter the odds. With or without his hood or the Arrow Cave or his millions, Green Arrow with a goatee is the left-leaning do-gooder of the DC Universe. That’s a connection forged by decades of stories weaving that imagery into the most well-known take on one of DC’s best-known characters.
Someone promising to bring back Green Arrow’s goatee may sound silly, but readers familiar with the character and his recent history understand that said promise isn’t really about the goatee. It’s not terribly hard to add facial hair to drawings and that’s not a cause for excitement amongst any crowd by itself. However, bringing back the politics and beliefs of a social justice focused superhero is cause for celebration, especially for those who love the character. Bringing back the goatee is about a whole lot more than a few lines, it’s about the causes Green Arrow fights for.
I’m inclined to say that Green Arrow’s goatee does matter for that reason, and it’s the same reason that I would say Superman’s bright red trunks matter. They aren’t key to the characters and you can tell a great story without those elements; they don’t matter a lot, but they still matter. Applying those elements creates a connection between classic versions of these characters and the ones we’re reading about now. It makes a small (and easily broken) visual promise that Green Arrow will fight for the little guy in both word and deed. While it is entirely possible a goateed Green Arrow will still murder folks and set people on fire, it’s a small symbol that he’s back to fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves.