In the recent past, the idea of writing “dark” or “modern” superhero comics has fallen out of favor for the zeitgeist and with good reason. After the meteoric shock that was Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Year One & The Killing Joke; comics post bronze age took a turn towards more mature themes and complicated protagonist. Some of it was good and some of it was bad; but the sheer amount of material following that template felt overwhelming. After the unmitigated failure of the New 52 publishing initiative, where DC Comics took a very misguided approach to modernizing their superhero’s with a near homogenous overtone of angst permeating the majority of their series, superhero comics swung the other way; perhaps best exemplified in the most recent DC Rebirth initiative where the more well rounded approach to it’s hero’s has helped lead the publisher in having some of their most successful comics series debuts in years. But dark, modern and realistic aren’t bad themes for superhero comics in and of themselves. It just takes a little bit more then that; it need’s an immediacy to it’s realism, a voice that’s in tune with it’s overarching thematic structure and it need’s to be absolutely fearless. Enter Nighthawk #4.
Like writer David Walker’s Powerman & Iron Fist; Nighthawk has been one of Marvel’s most unique and compelling ongoing comics since it’s launch earlier in the year. Using a revamped version of the Squadron Supreme Batman analogue, Nighthawk is what a Batman analogue should be in the United States of America in 2016; African American, gay and navigating the strange and deadly slums of Chicago where any concept of right and wrong is rendered a mute point by the blunt power of violence. Violence from it’s citizens, violence from the authorities that are supposed to be protecting them and violence from multiple outside forces that take advantage of the ensuing chaos. And in Nighthawk, those outside forces are particularly prevalent and varied. Militant white supremacist looking for any excuse to harm those that look different than them, greedy real estate developers taking advantage of systematic poverty to benefit their own wealth at the expense of the cities poorest residents and a serial killer with a brutal calling card. Chaos reigns and following the acquittal of a white police officer in the death of a black teenager, things hit a boiling point.
Writer David Walker, illustrator Ramon Villalobos & colorist Tamra Bonvillain use this backdrop to create the most exciting issue of the series following Nighthawk as he attempts to restore order and protect it’s citizens from a white supremacist gang intent on killing African Americans during a riot. It’s brutal and unrelenting violence creates a sense of tension and suspense as Walker’s script continues to ratchet up the stakes while also subtlety revealing aspects of the Nighthawk character. Yet true to form, one of those reveals is proceeded with the protagonist vomiting after beating the shit out of a police officer that shot him in the back that is then reproached two more times for good measure. The persistent focus on the vomiting in the place it’s used within the story is a particularly brilliant statement of intent for the series; nothing is alright here and everything is wrong including the protagonist even if he’s the most “right” out of everyone else in the story. Villalobos comics art has always invited comparisons to Frank Quitely in his style and while that’s fair; his Nighthawk work is in a voice that is solely his own. There are some brilliant compositions, panel work and storytelling in this issue with the artists fluid illustrations of movement and action. Like Quitely, he makes the comic book action scene high art and showing a bit of self awareness, Villalobos even uses a brilliant We3 callback to astonishing affect in the issues core scene. Tamra Bonvillain’s color pallet is an eclectic and eye catching blend of neon primary colors against a dark and drab backdrop. So much of comic book coloring involves setting a mood for the story and Bonvillain’s style choices are perfect in translating the wild and unpredictable nature of it’s storytelling with it’s brightness in the primary action while keeping a dark undertone in her foreground
Earlier in the summer, after another string of police officers murdering black civilians, Nighthawk writer David Walker ended up taking a lot of shit for criticizing the inherent racial bias of the criminal justice system on twitter. Knowing what we know about race in America and the propensity of shitheads to use twitter as a platform to attack people they don’t agree with, things got about as ugly as was expected. Walker responded the next day by posting several of his favorite metal songs from the likes of Metallica, Anthrax & Megadeath to his feed; all from the late 80’s and early 90’s, a high point in the genre for it’s raw energy and innovation. Nighthawk #4 is tapping the same vein for 2016 in it’s unrelenting violent brilliance. A dark story that deftly handles the dark reality of modern times. It’s not what you do but how you do it and Walker/Villalobos/Bonvillain do Nighthawk #4 and it’s approximation of America in 2016 to near perfection.