By Duane Swierczynski, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Michael Gaydos
Of all the Red Circle characters the Black Hood is probably the most inconsistent. Originally created as a very basic mystery man archetype in the vein of golden age Sandman the character has since morphed into an urban biker hero a la Ghost Rider, a hard-bitten psycho vigilante similar to Punisher, and stealth government operative sporting duel pistols. As a result this latest iteration seen in Dark Circle Comic’s The Black Hood ends up a hodgepodge of elements drawn from almost the character’s entire history. The major new element introduced in this interpretation of the “man in black mask fights crime” concept is that this Black Hood is kind of a human monster, and it works like gangbusters.
Unlike almost all of his predecessors, this latest Black Hood is infinitely more ambiguous in his ethics and drive to action. Even the 1992 Impact Comics version of Black Hood was governed by a vague code of moral ethics, as mentioned he was similar to the Punisher in that he killed criminals out of a sense of bloody justice. This current Black Hood, a scarred cop who’s become addicted to pain killers name Gregory Hettinger, can’t even be categorized as an anti-hero, he’s more of an anti-villain. His animating cause to vigilantism is one of selfish and criminal origins, initially striking at the underworld as a way to steal more drugs to support his pill addiction until, inevitably, the thrill of extreme violence supplants his previous dependency.
What’s so incredibly impressive about The Black Hood is how it turns these character flaws into endearing qualities. A lesser book easily could’ve wallowed in its main characters awfulness, but The Black Hood manages to avoid ever feeling transgressive in its depiction of Hettinger as a broken and amoral man. There’s never a sense that these are choices that rise out of cynicism or because the writers hold the concept of superheroes in contempt, because Hettinger’s actions are presented to us without a sense of judgment. The Black Hood isn’t trying to use Hettinger as a sacrificial lamb to condemn the fanciful nature of superheroes or even the often-overlooked brutality of urban crime fighters, but more as a stark depiction of flawed humanity. Hettinger isn’t framed as horrible because of his addiction nor is he framed as heroic because of his vigilantism, he’s simply shown to be a man, with all the weaknesses and strengths of any person. In that respect The Black Hood is very similar to Golden Age or Watchmen in its efforts to strip away the picture perfect identities and stark morality of most superhero stories.
The flip side of all this is that The Black Hood’s emphasis as a character study completely envelopes the actual narrative of the comic. For the most part that’s acceptable, the real focus is on Hettinger’s personality and struggle rather than organized crime, it’s just that this leaves the narrative backdrop a bit too oblique and difficult to follow. There’s an emphasis on corruption, secret activities, clashing municipal systems, all of which is serviceable, but ends up drowned out by the much more interesting focus. It leaves us with more of the suggestion of a central narrative than an actual story so the finale of this first arc, though enjoyable, can’t help but feel somewhat anti-climactic as the hero confronts the incredibly underdeveloped lead villain.
Artwork wise both Michael Gaydos and Kelly Fitzpatrick are on top of their game. Gaydos has a very grainy style that Fitzpatrick perfectly compliments with an emphasis on speckled coloring. It adds a thick layer of urban grime to every scene that really evokes a sense of dark decay. Gaydos’ masterwork, however, has to be the Black Hood himself. He’s this perfectly realized hulking figure, bounding through the night with physical motions of a violent juggernaut. The hood itself is wonderfully drawn and comes off more like the mask of a slasher villain than a superhero, it creates a truly imposing visage. Meanwhile Fitzpatrick makes excellent use of shadow and lighting, creating a very noir-infused mood for the proceedings that blends well with the sense of frank reality and moral ambiguity. Finally the individual panel boxes are all hand drawn in this craggily and wavy manner that completely eschews the standard hard lines of comics. It’s the perfect conclusion to the book’s emphasis on showcasing the harsh imperfections of reality as opposed to the comforting certainties of fiction.
The Black Hood is a triumph that easily stands toe-to-toe with works of golden age revivalism like James Robinson’s Starman or Geoff John’s Justice Society of America. The art and writing perfectly complement each other to create an incredibly cohesive tone and focus across every aspect of the book. It’s a dark character piece that has the courage and dedication of purpose to stand up and depict the world as it is rather than how we’d like it to be without resorting to jaded cynicism or tired moralizing, simply a harsh reflection of reality that’s infinitely too rare in the modern comics landscape.