Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: The Black Hood #1

"Archie Comics" and the words "dark" and "mature content" fit rather uncomfortably in the same sentence. The publisher's bread-and-butter for decades has been their kid-friendly gag comics featuring the ageless teenagers of small town Riverdale. In fact, the often bland but always wholesome, all-ages aura of Archie Andrews and friends has been used in the past as the fuel for certain Archie comics, like the infamous 1994 Archie Meets The Punisher and, much more recently, the Life With Archie series which saw grown-up Riverdalians facing adult situations like gun violence and breast cancer (culminating in the death of Archie) and the surprise hit Afterlife With Archie, in which a zombie apocalypse comes to Riverdale in a shockingly adult series.

The successful marriage of Archie Comics and darker, more mature content was almost certainly a factor in the publisher's new Dark Circle Comics line of superhero comics, as was, one imagines, their recent miniseries The Fox by Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid. Sure, it was light-hearted and all-ages, but it did reintroduce a handful of the publisher's old superhero characters (some of whom appeared in their digital-first series The New Crusaders, which I kinda liked, but lost track of after a few paper issues).

Archie's stable of superhero characters are quite long-lived, but unlike their immortal teenage characters, they come and go, rarely sticking around for very long. Products of the Golden Age superhero boom, when Archie Comics was still MLJ, they were revived by DC Comics twice—first and most successfully in the '90s, under the "Impact Comics" line—and more recently and more disastrously at the end of the last decade, when DC saw fit to inject still more superheroes into their already crowded DCU universe, and attempt to sell them in a pricier package consisting of lead stories with back-up features.

Now Archie Comics is bringing them back themselves, and, as the change from "Red Circle" (which appeared on the covers of The New Crusaders just a few years ago) to "Dark Circle" signals, these are going to be darker comics, with content on par with or, as in The Black Hood #1, surpassing the sort of content one might find from DC and Marvel, who have a stranglehold on the dark superhero-comics-for-grown-ups market. The Black Hood is rated "Teen +" for "Violence and Mature Content," and is, honestly, more adult than anything I've read from either of the Big Two featuring tights and capes in a long time: There's a "fuck" and a "motherfucker" in here, whereas your average Marvel comic might use those words, but spell them "@#$%" and "mother@#$%er." (Your average DC Comic, meanwhile, wouldn't have any swearing, just poorly-drawn ultra-violence, generally involving dismemberment or someone being impaled from behind.)

That they are challenging DC and Marvel for that corner of the comics market isn't really in doubt however, at least not with this particular title, as its creative team consists of names quite familiar to readers of both of the Big Two's superhero lines.

It's written by crime novelist Duane Sweirczynski, whose comics credits include The New 52 iteration of Birds of Prey and, for Marvel, Moon Knight, The Immortal Iron Fist, The Punisher, Cable and comics featuring various other X-people. He's also written Bloodshot for the new Valiant, the new X for Dark Horse, Judge Dredd for IDW, and he also did a Godzilla comic for IDW, which has been collected as Gozilla: History's Greatest monster.

And it's drawn by Michael Gaydos, probably best known for his Marvel collaborations with Brian Michael Bendis on the Jessica Jones character, in Alias and parts of The Pulse; he's also drawn Manhunter for DC and Snake Woman for the short-lived Virgin Comics.

So here we have a character that's 75-years-old, appearing in a new #1 comic book by a crime novelist and an artist working in a photorealistic-style, featuring a darker, grimmer, grittier take on the character than ever before. Game on, DC and Marvel!

So, who the hell is The Black Hood, exactly?
Well, he debuted in the awesomely-named Top Notch Comics back in 1940, the creation of a Harry Shorten, according to Wikipedia. This original Black Hood was a cop who was also a superhero, and he wore a pretty damn generic costume, one that looks about identical to that of The Tarantula and one of The Sandman's earlier costumes, only black where theirs was purple. Hell, that doesn't even look like all that hood-like a hood, does it?

He was revived in the 1970s as part of Archie's Red Circle line, and, as mentioned, again in the early 1990s as part of DC's "Impact" line, in which they created a new, interconnected world of superheroes based on the Archie-owned characters.
That particular series was written by Mark Wheatley and mostly drawn by Rick Burchett, although some guy named Tim Sale and another guy named Peter Snejbjerg got involved before the twelfth and final issue shipped (So hey, Archie, if you wanna go ahead and collect the Impact books, that would be fine by me). That Black Hood was actually about the Hood as much as the guy wearing it, and it was explained that it originally belonged to an executioner. Just as he was about to execute a witch, she cursed the hood, so that whoever wore it would be compelled to do good...and tended to die pretty quickly. This series established the Hood as a sort of legacy identity, passed down throughout history to different guys wearing the mask. As far as the designs go, I like the look of this hood the most.
Despite some '90s excess in the design, there's a pleasant cartoonishness to the hood itself, and, I suppose it's worth noting, there's some simlarities between Burchett's above cover for Black Hood #2 and Gaydos' cover for the new Black Hood #1 (Additonally, Howard Chaykin's variant cover for Black Hood #1 features a character wearing a sharp jacket not unlike that worn on cover for the DC Black Hood #7, seen above).

The final version appeared in a 2010 issue of DC's The Web, which starred a character with the ugliest costume in superhero history prior to the New 52's Teen Titans #1. That Black Hood's origins were connected to Justice League Detroit, so, um, yeah, who knows why DC's last Red Circle revival crashed and burned?

And all of that brings us up to date, right?

This comic and I got off to a pretty rocky start. I liked how when you turned the cover, you were faced with a second cover, featuring a close-up of the main character's face, sans hood, so as you opened the comic you were basically un-masking him. They shoulda die-cut this cover.

Then I turned another page, saw the "art"—photographs of Philladelphia, perhaps pulled from Google Earth, run through some kind of filter—and set the book down for a couple days. I didn't think I'd be able to get through 21 more pages of that.

For my second attempt, however, I was prepared for the worst, and thus, forewarned by that hideous first page, I managed to read the whole thing.

Swierczynski keeps a few central aspects of the character, including his cop and/or ex-cop secret identity, the fact that "The Black Hood" is an identity that can be passed from person to person and, of course, that there is a crime-fighter wearing a black hood in the first place.

Our policeman protagonist is Gregory Hettinger, information delivered to the reader via the first two lines of narration:: "My name is Officer Gregory Hettinger. This is what happened."

What happened is Hettinger, a motorcycle cop, is motorcycle-copping around when he gets a call on his police radio about a man in a mask and some guys with guns fighting near an elementary school. He intervenes, getting shot in the face with a shotgun before shooting one of them in the forehead with his gun.

The shotgun takes part of his face, his ability to speak clearly and a huge psychological toll on him. And the guy he shot? Well, that was local vigilante The Black Hood, who, like Garth Ennis' version of The Punisher, split the police force's opinion in terms of whether he was a criminal deserving of being put down or a hero deserving a medal for doing the things they can't.

Despite being lauded as a hero and meeting a beautiful speech therapist who is totally going to be his love interest, Hettinger downward spirals to rock bottom, which is him sitting on his couch in his undershirt, hiding his Two-Face-esque face under The Black Hood's black hood*, and indulging in stolen pain-killers, which he has become addicted to.
He's running around rooftops on Percoset when he sees someone getting mugged, and he jumps to the rescue, narrating, "I'm The Black Hood."

It's a decent enough first issue.

There's not much in it that is remarkably original, but street-level, realistic vigilante crime-fighters are pretty well done-to-death at this point, so if the first 22-pages of an episodic, written-for-the-trade story by Swierczynski seems generic and derivative, well, perhaps the genre is as much to blame as he is. I mean, yes, he could have done something different and interesting that would have made the writing end of this comic good, but he didn't. On the other hand, he didn't do anything bad really, either. He failed to be great, and is there really all that much shame in mediocrity?

That said, this is very much the first chapter, and I think it will be interesting to see where a writer like Swierczynski, who has so much experience writing about crime in prose, can take a superhero character where he's free to do pretty much whatever he wants, rather than having to navigate DC and Marvel continuity. I'm not sure what restrictions Archie had for Swierczynski going in, but it sure doesn't seem like they said no to anything in terms of content, and if there's a Black Hood continuity of any kind, it's not apparent from this book.

Gaydos' art is something that I imagine not too many readers will have a problem with, but I really couldn't stomach it. Everything looks like a photo. Well, the backgrounds all look like photos, the characters and foregrounds look like drawings of photos carefully placed atop photos. It's a style that must have its fans, as one sees it so often, but I prefer comics art that looks like it was created by pencil, pen, paper and hand; I like seeing the lines the artist makes, and I like seeing the world as the artist imagines it, not as I'd see it if I Googled "motorcycle cop" or "man running" or whatever.

Ironically, the panel borders are rough and hand-drawn looking, but the images in the panels are these pristine recreations from photographs. I like the overall design of the book, the panels appear on a similarly roughly-drawn white background, which is itself on a black page. I just don't like what's inside those panels.

Variant covers are provided by Francesco Francavilla, David Mack, David Williams and Howard Chaykin; I like all of their cover art better than I like Gaydos' art. Williams' is particularly cool, as his Hood looks an awful lot like an extremely angry Cobra Commander in some kind of all-black stealth mode:

Like most Marvel comics, this will run you $3.99, but it's not a bad package, really. There are only 22-pages of comics story, but there's also one page of a prose introduction of sorts from Swierczynski and two-pages of a prose article by his fellow crime writer Dennis Tafoya. And there are only four ads, and they're all at the back of the book, so they don't interrupt the story itself.

Two of those ads are for the next two books of the Dark Circle line—the next Haspiel/Waid Fox comic, and a new take on The Shield. I'm looking forward to both of those much more than I was this one, which I can confidently say was not my cup of tea, but then, I knew that going in.

*Looking over the comic one more time as I scanned images, I noticed that the original Black Hood in the comic, the one our Black Hood kills, seems to be wearing an entirely different hood. That first guy has what appears to be a simple black ski mask on, or something akin to a ski mask. It has a wide hole in the front for his mouth; actually, it looks a bit like a store-bought version of the Golden Age Black Hood's black hood. The hood Hettinger wears, which he finds hanging on his locker with a note from his partner saying, "Nice Shooting Son!", has no mouth hole. So perhaps it's just a black hood that his partner found and not the black hood that The Black Hood was wearing. That, or Gaydos screwed up on the art. I'm thinking the former now...especially since the hood The Black Hood was wearing would have a bullet hole in it, not to mention an awful lot of blood on the inside.


Unknown said...

Caleb, you really ought to go check out Mark Waid and Dean Haspiel's Fox: Freak Magnet if you haven't already. The artwork is gorgeous, and the story is absolutely bonkers, but in a good way.

Or, if you're already read it, I'd love to read your review.

Caleb said...

I did read and review Haspiel and Waid's Fox series. I think I reviewed most of the individual issues here on EDILW as they were coming out, but I reviewed the trade for Robot 6:

Anonymous said...

Note that this is actually the second time that Archie attempts a darker, grittier Red Circle line, the first one in the late eighties as the Spectrum reboot, which was cancelled before anything was published as they got cold feet in the wake of a couple of high profile indecency in comics cases.