Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing The Black Hood 4, originally released May 27th, 2015.
Drew: There’s nothing quite like a ticking clock to heighten drama. As much as I love the verisimilitude of more relaxed pacing, I can’t help but get excited when everything has to happen RIGHT NOW. I suppose those timebomb moments reflect their own kind of reality — deadlines can force us to rush through everything from our morning routine to the intro paragraph we need to write about the latest comic from Dark Circle — but knowing that there’s no time for second chances can really make a story gripping. Of course, just about every timebomb, whether it’s the inevitable arrival of a character or a literal timebomb, has been done to death. Or so I thought. Remarkably, Duane Swierczynski finds a totally novel timebomb in The Black Hood 4, giving Greg Hettinger the urgency his mission has been so sorely lacking.
The issue picks up with Greg losing a fight to the Connection’s henchmen. He’s beaten and stabbed, but the fight finds a whole new depth of seriousness when they pull off his mask. The goons quickly identify Greg as “the hero junkie cop,” leaving Greg feeling totally cornered.
That extra fear is enough to turn the tide of the fight, but it doesn’t matter — the cops cut arrive to cut things short. Greg escapes, leaving the henchmen alive and in police custody. Greg knows they’ll share his identity with the Connection as soon as they can — possibly as soon as he’s able to send a lawyer — and that that would put him in danger for the rest of his (potentially very short) life.
I know I’m getting into the nitty gritty of the plot, but it’s some deceptively clever plotting. Greg’s identity is only protected as long as these goons aren’t allowed to talk to anybody, and he absolutely knows it. It seems like he has a plan, but first he needs to buy some time. He calls in a favor to Dev to keep the guys held without mirandizing them, a maneuver that is technically legal, but only for six hours.
And there’s our ticking clock. The rest of the issue provides some boilerplate origin story vignettes: Greg reveals his alter ego to his kind-of-sort-of love interest and works his way up the food chain looking for the kingpin behind everything, but both of those beats are given extra life by the running clock. Indeed, that he’s running out of time may be the biggest motivator for Greg confiding in Jess. I mean, sure, he trusts her and maybe even cares about her, but right now, he just doesn’t have time to lie to her.
That’s actually a damn believable motivation. There’s no unearned emotional beats here, he’s just too desperate to keep this secret anymore. Indeed, it pushes against his well-established preference to just not say anything. That same sense of recklessness carries over to Greg’s renewed pursuit of the Connection. It seems his methods will only be messier and more violent than what we saw last month, which might actually lead to more results.
Which is to say that a ticking clock might just be what Greg needed all along. Note that I didn’t say “what this series needed all along” — I still think the discursive path this series took up front was the right one. This is a superhero origin that has often felt more like a gritty cop drama than a superhero story, and I wouldn’t change a beat of it, but I think accelerating it into the end is absolutely the right move. This arc will still end with everything in place for the hero going forward, it just got there in a totally unexpected way.
As always, I can’t praise Michael Gaydos enough for selling that grit. And I mean “grit” both figuratively and literally — we can see the grain of the paper (though I admit it may be “digital paper”) throughout the issue, giving his shadows a loose, sketched-in feeling. That sketchiness gives the art an improvised feel that is the perfect match for the vérité style of the story. There’s no time to ink this — this is happening NOW.
Patrick, I’ve always loved this series, but seeing it kick into a higher gear here somehow got me even more excited. I could read months of that slow burn, but there’s nothing quite like knowing everything will be coming to a head next month. In that same spirit, I’m going to be timing your response. GO!
Patrick: OH GOD THAT’S SO MUCH PRESSURE. Here’s the thing, no matter how long it takes me to write my response, it’s going to get done. Like, I know this is real life and there’s always something that could prevent me from making observations and typing them up, but come on: we all know this article is going to end with me having finished writing it. I can’t actually say the same thing for Greg’s predicament. Drew, you mentioned that the explosion at the end of the six-hour countdown is the Connection discovering the Black Hood’s identity, but there’s another layer of disaster waiting for our hero: the cops find out Black Hood’s identity. Sure, the Connection would have him killed, but what do you think happens to Greg’s safety net if he’s identified as the mysterious figure that assaulted two guys in the cemetery? It’s almost unfathomable that Greg would get out of this one unscathed.
Swierczynski has always played against our expectations, to the point where I can no longer state with any certainty that Greg has to live to fight another day. What’s the very first thing we learn about the Black Hood in this series? We watch him die. Maybe the reason this origin stories feels so unlike other origin stories is that it’s not the origin of Black Hood, but the final breakdown of Gregory Hettinger.
I also find it fascinating that Swierczynski doesn’t let his own time limit push the character or his world outside of its own reality. He’s not storming the police station or anything like that — all of Greg’s moves are distinctly on Greg’s level. Which means that the indignities he faces are also on a more modest level. His train ride home is heartbreaking, not because something hugely dramatic happens, but because his harassment is on a real scale. That fucking kid in the Eagles shirt…
We can see this kid on the train both before and after he’s a dick to Greg, his green sleeves setting him apart from the grays, browns and blues everyone else is wearing. It’s like that kid — and the impulse to reject a drug addict bleeding out on the train — is a persistent part of Greg’s experience. Also, it may just be logical costuming, but the fact that the kid’s wearing an Eagle shirt strengthens his connection to the city of Philadelphia more generally. It’s not just a group of teenagers that are shitty to Greg, it’s the whole city.
Hey, I know we’re always very quick to praise Gaydos, but I wanted to draw a little extra attention to colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick. I love the quality of her coloring in general — there’s a blotchy organic quality to her backgrounds, echoing the urgency of Gaydos’ non-inked pencil work. She’s almost always working with a rather limited palette of cool blues, adding to Gaydos’ persistent grit. During that opening fight sequence, Fitzpatrick punctuates the more violent moments with blood-red coloring. When Greg is thrown into a tombstone: red; when Greg is cut, red; and the most damaging move of all gets the red-sky treatment.
It’s a simple visual cue, but it is damn effective. The next red we see on the page is that positively haunting image where Greg puts the Hood on in front of Jessie.
Is that a trick of the lighting? Perhaps the couch is stained with Greg’s blood? Or, maybe it’s just Fitzpatrick’s signifier that shit is getting real.
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