Released this week, The Dark Archer is the first issue of the new Arrow spin-off comic, staring Oliver Queen’s favourite frenemy Malcolm Merlyn, or the Dark Archer as he was known back in Season 1. The comic is written by sibling duo John Barrowman, who of course plays Malcolm on the show, and Carole E. Barrowman. Artwork is handled by Daniel Sampere, who has illustrated a number of DC titles in the last few years.
The comic’s premise is that by the end of this mini-series, we’ll have seen Malcolm’s backstory for the first time and learnt how he became the man he is today. In terms of continuity, the story is set between season 3 and 4 of Arrow, meaning there are spoilers for last season in particular.
One of the most apparent things about the comic is how it feels oddly old-fashioned. The hidden villain, who the comic opens with, gives an extended flowery speech about having captured Malcolm, while later in a flashback Malcolm is talking to himself in self-congratulation like the often monologuing comic characters of old. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and this tone has its place in comics but it’s noticeably out of sync with Arrow, which is admittedly cheesy but not exactly to this degree.
I cringe to write this but the comic feels a little self-indulgent. Malcolm is presented as charming, clever, rich, funny and physically threatening. Even when he’s facing death, as he is in the opening pages of the issue, he’s announcing how he’ll be free and wittily snapping back replies to his captor.
Malcolm is a cocky character, it’s part of his appeal. But going back to season 1 of Arrow he also felt dangerous and would drop the cheery façade when appropriate, here Malcolm bleeds confidence in every retort and in doing so it somewhat cheapens his character. He comes across as more one-note than he actually is. Just like how Oliver Queen is more than a threatening voice, Malcolm is more than a smug reply, but in this opening issue we don’t really see that.
I feel compelled to mention that the comic is also a little bizarrely off in how it handles race, with an overweight South American, complete with missing teeth, walking his lama at one point and another two local POC acting as Malcom’s assistants, tending to his needs. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but couple that with the implication that this rich white guy has flown into the impoverished country and kidnapped local people to work for him, and it’s a little awkwardly insensitive. The problem arises in the fact that Malcolm isn’t presented as a villain, with his jokes and smirking confidence he has the air of an anti-hero or lovable rogue. Thus Malcolm isn’t presented as someone doing bad things for selfish reasons, instead he’s testing out motorbikes and quipping about the ineffective efforts to murder him. It’s as if we’re supposed to affectionately roll our eyes with a sigh of “Oh you! Malcolm is at it again!” I can’t decide whether we’re supposed to like or dislike him here. I feel like the comic is trying a bit too hard to have him come across as a suave James Bond-esque rascal, instead of the mass-murdering, city destroying, assassin that he is on TV.
Meanwhile the artwork is solid. It’s not spectacular, but Malcolm does look like Malcolm, which is to say Barrowman himself, and the locales do mimic their TV namesakes. It’s mostly the usual comic book fare in terms of style and consistently, it’s not too hyper-realistic but it does have a more real world slant to it that evokes the TV show nicely.
For all my negativity regarding the tone and wobbly characterisation, the comic isn’t a total let-down. It is admittedly fun to see a spin-off of Arrow which actually delves into previously unknown information. If you’re not a current fan of the show, then there’s practically no reason to check the comic out as it’s very much an extension of that universe and its ongoing plot threads. For hardcore Arrow fans, the appeal of this comic depends entirely on whether you want to know more about Malcolm or not.
As a standalone comic this first chapter is a very uneven introduction, but it does fulfil its promise of showing us parts of the character we’ve never seen. Therefore, the question is; do you care enough to invest in an average comic just for some new character titbits? That’s your call.