Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing The Black Hood 1, originally released February 25th, 2015.
Drew: Superhero comics are a trope-filled medium. That’s doubly true of origin stories, which need to explain what would drive a normal person to dress up to fight crime. It turns out, there aren’t a whole lot of explanations out there. Was their family murdered in front of them? Were they the victim of some kind of science experiment gone wrong? Have they inherited some kind of mythical power? Every variation has been done, but so few have been done well. Indeed, the drive to get to the actual superheroics tends to leave origins rushed and expository — not the best recipe for a great story. The Black Hood 1 manages to avoid the tropes and the gratuitous exposition — while still taking its lead from regular guy to masked vigilante — trading our expectations in for some good old fashioned mystery.
The issue actually opens with the Black Hood being killed, and ends with his killer taking up his mantle, but this really doesn’t seem to be a “take up my sword” moment. There’s no Abin Sur-like exchange between the old Black Hood and our protagonist, Gregory Hettinger — heck, the Black Hood never utters a line of dialogue. Gregory isn’t inspired by the Black Hood’s mission (there’s never any mention of what it was) and he isn’t hoping to avenge his death (because Gregory is the one who killed him). No, Gregory’s decision to become the Black Hood is entirely the result of drug-addled circumstance…or is it something more than that?
Writer Duane Swierczynski is plays it deliciously ambiguous. You see, Gregory was also wounded in the shootout, and the experience has left him a changed man. Are these changes just related to his guilt and growing addiction to painkillers? It seems so, until we get a glimpse of Gregory’s homelife.
Wait, what? Gregory wanting to cover his face to hide from his problems is understandible — he was disfigured in the shootout, after all — but that he would wear a hood so strikingly similar to that of the man he killed must mean more than that. Is this his way of processing guilt, or could there be some kind of supernatural force driving him to become the Black Hood?
I’m not familiar enough with Black Hood’s history to know if there’s ever been any hint of this in the past, but like I said, Swierczynski is careful to leave it ambiguous. Of course, in order to make “supernatural force” seem like a reasonable option, he needs to plant some clues to lead us to that conclusion. They aren’t huge — more act 1 than act 2 of Close Encounters of the Third Kind — but they’re certainly there.
As this scene happens, it feels like Gregory is just cataloging some kind of out-of-body experience — perhaps even dying. In light of the issue’s conclusion, though, it’s hard not to read this as some external force taking over his body: someone else speaks through him; his soul leaves his body; the dark comes down over his head [like a black hood].
What’s remarkable about this is that we aren’t ever told anything about the Black Hood being some kind of supernatural being. If this were a DC book, you could guarantee that Gregory would have been transported to some kind of metaphysical space to have this whole thing explained to him (and the audience), but here, we’re left to wonder what exactly is going on. That’s a riskier move, relying on the patience of the audience, but it’s a heck of a lot more alluring than another cookiecutter origin story.
Swierczynski makes a lot of smart choices to distinguish Gregory’s journey — his slow fall into addiction, the specificity of the Philadelphia setting, the gritty, street-level focus — but a big piece of what makes this issue so unique is Michael Gaydos’s idiosyncratic art. He leaves his pencils uninked throughout the issue, giving the art a raw, energetic feel. I’m actually torn about what Gaydos’s methods might be — I suspect the backgrounds might be digital — which I think fits the ambiguity of the story beautifully.
There’s a lot to talk about here, Patrick, but I’m afraid I’m going to prompt you with some extra-narrative details. I couldn’t tell you much about Archie’s Red Circle imprint, as the ambassador of its relaunch as Dark Circle, you couldn’t ask for a stronger issue. The pedigree is so tailored to our tastes — we’ve been impressed with both Swierczysnki and Gaydos before — it’s hard not to feel like this thing was made for us. Still, there’s a lot of history with Black Hood that I don’t know going into this thing, but I don’t feel lost at all. How important a gesture do you think killing Kip Burland (the original Black Hood) was to ingratiating new readers to this series?
Patrick: I am also woefully unfamiliar the character of the Black Hood, but Swierczynski and Gaydos move with enough self-assured confidence in this issue, that I’m not sure any previous incarnation of this character would matter. The tone of this thing is remarkably dour, but the creative team seems insistent on keeping the source of that darkness in the head of our hero. Rather than turning Philadelphia into a Gotham City knock-off, they develop a sort of internal-Gotham. Gregory’s biggest opponents aren’t the Falcones or the Joker or Killer Croc, they’re PTSD, shame, addiction and loneliness.
Setting that tone so strongly so early in the series is probably a lot of what makes this issue so ingratiating to newbies like me. It’s not enough that Greg kills the old Black Hood — he has to feel terrible about it, and take loads of shit from his co-workers. There’s that old saying about having to kill your heroes in order to achieve greatness — maybe the inverse of that is also true?
I’m enamored with Gaydos’ art in this issue. Drew, I think your suspicions about him using digitized backgrounds may be correct, and that all goes a long way towards giving the setting character. Specifically, it allows for a much more nuanced expression of Philadelphia, and in turn, a more nuanced story. A lot of that is accomplished by the first page.
The elevated train is sort of a classic symbol of city-living, but the quality and size of buildings right across the street from the train are remarkably consistent with what I know from having lived in Chicago. And then the smaller apartment buildings right off that main drag also feel right. It’s a realistic showing, one that doesn’t exaggerate the city-ness of the city to make a point about urban crime or something dumb like that. When we’re grounded by the location, we’re also grounded in the stakes — dude with a weapon outside of the school? That’s the motherfucking end of the world now. Remember how the first issue of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl had to trot out GALACTUS by issue’s end in order to have effective stakes?
So, back to Drew’s question about whether this is an effective ambassador for the Dark Circle imprint. I think it is, but I suspect Swierczysnki and Gaydos know that they have a long, painful road ahead of them. We spend a lot of time in this issue sitting with Gergory and his speech therapist. She assures him that the lessons will take and he will be able to speak normally once again. She’s adamant that she’ll succeed — going so far as to say this during their first meeting.
Reinventing and representing Black Hood to a comic book audience that has mostly forgotten the character (and ignored the publisher) is going to be excruciating, just like Gregory’s recovery. Swierczynski is promising us that he’s in it for the long haul. Through persistence and sheer force of will, he’ll turn Black Hood into something we have to read.
They’re well on the way to doing that. Gaydos’ aesthetic is amazing, expressive but totally grounded, like a less-clean Michael Lark. That squiggly, sketchy quality extends right out to the two sets of gutters on every page. The outer edge of every page is black, but the background of every page is white, with black lines outlining each individual panel. Even that final page — the only splash in the issue — has three layers of outline before we get to the actual content. That’s just another way Gaydos is using the medium to keep us at arms length force the audience to draw their own conclusions about what’s happening. It’s no coincidence that Swierczynski closes the issue with:
So what are you — cop or junkie? No, I tell the 15-year-old inside my head. I’m something else right now. I’m the Black Hood.
Is that kind of a dig at superhero comics target demo? Yeah, maybe. But it’s also a promise that this is going to be a more challenging look at the psychology of one particular superhero.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?