John Barrowman has inhabited some of our favorite TV characters, but when he’s not playing those characters on screen, he can often be found writing new chapters in their lives with his sister, Carole. Their latest? A comic shining a light on the elusive history of Arrow’s Dark Archer.
Out today in collected form after is digital debut earlier this year, The Dark Archer, set between Arrow’s third and fourth seasons, delves into the unrevealed backstory of Barrowman’s mysterious character on the show, Malcolm Merlyn—former Dark Archer and leader of the League of Assassins, and occasional ally to Oliver and friends. The series, with art by Daniel Sampere, Juan Albarran, and Kyle Ritter, follows Merlyn as he takes a break from leading the League of Shadows when a figure from his past strikes out at him, seeking vengeance and uncovering how he became the shadowy figure we meet in the first season of Arrow.
We recently sat down with the Barrowmans to discuss how they got into writing the comic, how they eventually hope the series will impact Malcolm’s life on Arrow—but be warned, there are a few minor spoilers for the comic discussed, so be careful if you plan on checking it out!
io9: Tell us a little bit about how The Dark Archer came to be.
John Barrowman: Well, Carole and I had collaborated on other stuff, you know, my autobiography and also The Hollow Earth series— the YA novels that we’ve written. And we’d already written a Torchwood comic book called “The Selkie”, which was a one-off comic a little while ago, and when I started doing Arrow, I started seeing that they did have a comic book series, for Oliver Queen and for the lore of that part of the storyline. When I started, I talked to Carole, and I said, “There’s nothing for Malcolm Merlyn. There’s no background, there’s no real kind of history of where he’s come from, how he became who he is.”
We only have little snippets of his in comic books and throughout from the ‘60s onward, and also in the DC Encyclopedia. So, I said to her, “Look: I’m going to go in and talk to Geoff Johns about two projects, and one of them— I want to talk about doing The Dark Archer.” And she says, “Well let’s do it!” I went in, spoke to Geoff Johns, I spoke to everybody at DC, and I said my sister and I would like to do this Malcolm Merlyn comic book. I kind of want to keep in the family—because at that point, we’ve already been asked to do a Torchwood comic book by another company, and I said to them, “ I want to do this one with you before i do any of the others.” And they said, “Well... let’s do it.” And literally that’s how it started. And Carole had to immerse herself one again into the world that I was involved in with Malcolm Merlyn.
This was, really, your first opportunity to have done an extended comic book miniseries together. What was that like in comparison to your past collaborations?
Carole Barrowman: I think of the things that made this different was that the work that we’ve done before—other than the novels together—was always stories that existed. You know, when I helped John write his autobiographies, obviously, he lived the life, so obviously there were all these things to draw on. I think what made The Dark Archer a lot different, and maybe a little more exciting from the writing perspective was there really wasn’t much. When we both did our research and when I delved in more thoroughly into the backstory there were just big gaps.
Many times Malcolm appeared in the earlier comics he was just sort of static. There wasn’t anything, no backstory with him. So I think that made it much more exciting because we had to create an arc that connected to that shadowy past, and then back up to the kind of Malcolm that he was as we knew him in the TV series. I think when you have those holes it makes it really cool. You’re making stuff up!
John Barrowman: One thing that they say we have to do is be able to interject it into the stories that are happening on television, and the really kind of most awesome thing about this is the fact that Carole and I have created the history now for Malcolm Merlyn, that will be in the DC lore for the rest of time. That’s the best part of it. That’s pretty awesome.
You had quite a large scope with what you wanted to do with the story. Were there any ideas you suggested while going through Malcolm’s history that ended up not making it into the comic?
John Barrowman: DC were pretty much onboard, because Carole and I, we had to give them a kind of outline of what we were going to do to begin with. And then they basically let us, I say the team— you know, Carole, myself. and Daniel Sampere [Dark Archer’s artist] and Juan Albarran [Dark Archer’s Inker], kind of go with it. And that was the most exciting thing, because.. .in a way, I’m sort of giving us a bit of gravitas here, we kind of know what we’re doing, because we’ve written before! And so we knew that there was like, editorial things that they wanted, maybe just little tweaks here and there, but I mean —if you agree with me,Carole—there’s nothing really they said that no you cannot do once they knew what we wanted to do.
Carole Barrowman: No, nothing at all. And in fact, I would even answer that and say before we even began to do the outline and really put it down on paper. We always had a sense that we thought we should figure out in this how Malcolm got wealthy. Where did his money come from? How can he have such fabulous real estate? Great cars? I mean, where does all that come from? And so we really took that and ran with it. That’s why I think we ended up coming up with, no spoilers, kind of an adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark-kind of story.
We love those kind of stories and it seemed to us that that fit with the kind of personality that Malcolm has. He’s always appearing and disappearing. What’s he doing? But I think the question that we both had when he started was “Where did he get his money from? And how did he establish himself as such a presence?” And then I think the other thing that we wanted to play of off was the way that the TV show always starts with Oliver—
John Barrowman: “My name is Oliver Queen!”
Carole Barrowman: “My name is Oliver Queen”, so we thought, “let’s have some fun with that.” So it starts with, “My name is Malcolm Merlyn”, but then...
John Barrowman: And then three/four pages in, we get a big close up of him, bleeding, he says, “My name is not Malcolm Merlyn.” And that’s just where anybody who’s read the digital copies is just kind of going, “Whaaaaaaaaat?!”
It’s a great moment that helps kick off the whole series.
John Barrowman: And also that—you know, his name being Arthur King— you’ve got Oliver Queen, Arthur King, it’s a whole kind of little Easter Egg-y kinda things that we’re throwing in.
Carole Barrowman: And also, Arthur King: King Arthur. You know, that’s—
John Barrowman: Yeah, it’s all that kind of... the lore. [Breaks into sudden song] THE LOOOOOOOOOORE!
Carole Barrowman: I think when we found out that [Arthur King] was one of his names, we really wanted to—that really cemented for us that we should do a Raiders of the Lost Ark thing. Because that of “Holy Grail” connection.
Now that you’ve created Malcolm’s backstory, has this process informed how you’re playing the character on Arrow going forward?
John Barrowman: Well, no, because the thing is, I have to be honest with you—I don’t know if any of the producers have read it!
But the story itself is set aside. When Carole was going away, when she was taking all the information and went away and started putting it all together and doing the heavy work, we made sure that it was something separate so that it didn’t influence what I was doing at that given time. Because, in a way, Malcolm’s story is still really very secretive to all of the other characters within the show itself. The only thing that’s kind of revealed in the comic is the sense that you have Nyssa, who knows more about Malcolm’s past than Oliver or his daughter, Thea. So I don’t think it influenced me in how I play the show.
What I would love to see, and I think the fans would love this and I know I’ve spoken to Stephen [Amell] about this, is to have a one-off episode, or a couple of episodes that are solely delving into this story that we’ve written. Let’s go back. Let’s do it. Let’s take this and put it on the screen and see where Malcolm’s wealth has come from, where the love of his life came from, where his determination came from. Also the fact— spoiler alert!— that he does have another son out there who is just as vicious, or more vicious, as Malcolm. And Malcolm’s not afraid of a lot of people, but he kind of fears his son a little bit. Any son that can chop off their finger, you know, in front of you...I think that’s someone you need to take care of! Mind you, I have had my hand chopped off...so I don’t know if it does influence it? We separated the two in a sense, but I would love to see it played out onscreen.
If you do more comics in the future, is there an Arrow character you’d like to do a series like this for, or perhaps other DC characters in general?
John Barrowman: have said to Carole, and she knows— there’s a group of three people and an individual within the DC encyclopedia that was the other [comic series] that I proposed to DC about doing, and they ironically said that they just had a discussion about one of them. I think that those were the ones that we were going to propose to do. Like, a Torchwood comic... let’s say a Torchwood for DC, a Torchwood-type group. And then we were asked by Titan to create the new Torchwood comic.
Which is exactly what we’re doing at the moment and our first comic is out and doing really, really well, and everybody likes the characters. There’s a lot of references to little things that Carole and I both love about Torchwood and Doctor Who [in it]. So, yes, there are other DC characters we would like to do, particularly the team I described. But I don’t want to say who they are in case it does go ahead! It’s not something that is out in the public knowledge yet. We’re always looking for new projects. But hopefully something will be done about The Dark Archer on television and Torchwood is doing very, very well. So yeah, we’re busy at the moment!
Arrow: The Dark Archer is available both digitally and in a tradepaperback collection now.