Saturday, February 11, 2012

Should Have Beens: Darkhawk

In the early 90’s the race was on in comics to find the “new Spider-Man.” The old Spider-Man had grown into an at-his-youngest 20-something married to a super model, so the void for relatable teenage was gaping. There was an influx of “legacy” characters at DC like Superboy, The Ray, Damage, the third Robin and so on, but they tapped more into the general idea that young people like reading about other young people. At Marvel, many new characters were created and existing characters tweaked to fill the spot of Peter Parker as the average kid who happened upon extraordinary powers and could be you.

I’ve heard at least Robert Kirkman describe Sleepwalker as “his Spider-Man,” I suppose because his alter ego Rick Sheridan was semi-directionless young guy most comic fans could theoretically see themselves in, but since the “hero” himself was a whole other personality, I’ve never really bought that. Nova got a big push to the forefront, but Rich Rider had been around long enough as an established character that his differences from Peter Parker pushed back and made him his own man. Same deal with Speedball, Night Thrasher, etc. The Phil Urich incarnation of The Green Goblin was interesting, but a bit too much of a concentrated inversion of Spidey to fill his shoes.

I think the closest we got to a Spider-Man to call our own in the 90’s was Darkhawk, and even if he wasn’t the new Peter Parker, he presented a cool enough concept I’m surprised he hasn’t had more staying power.

I wasn’t a regular Darkhawk reader when he had his ongoing series. I bought one issue because it was an Infinity Crusade tie-in and way later (like, recently) read his first few appearances when they were reprinted, but mostly my exposure to the character was via New Warriors and guest spots. When he resurfaced a few years back as part of Runaways then Loners and ultimately War of Kings, I gained more familiarity. The idea of Darkhawk seems like a hit for me, but maybe the execution wasn’t up to snuff; again though, I read those early issues and even through 20 years later eyes I found them pretty compelling.


Chris Powell was the teenage son of a policeman from Queens, New York who witnessed his dad taking a bribe from a crime boss and stumbled on a weird amulet while trying to avoid being seen. Said amulet allowed Chris to transform into the armored warrior Darkhawk, whose abilities he used to combat organized crime and super villains alike.

I know the few times I checked in on Darkhawk as a kid, much was made of the fact that his dad had gone missing and that he was dating (or at least romantically involved with) the daughter of the crime lord from his first appearance. That actually held a lot of appeal for me, as Chris’ supporting cast was different from the normal set of classmates and would-be mentors you usually got with teen heroes, instead extending to his suddenly single mother, underworld figures whom he maybe could or couldn’t trust, and of course that crime lord’s daughter (no, I don’t remember her name, I read like three issues). The old Romeo & Juliet love story is fairly tried, but there’s a reason it’s also true (I think that’s how you use that expression).

In the War of Kings: Ascension mini (I’ll get there in a sec), I didn’t see Chris’ dad around anywhere when they showed his home life, but I don’t know if he was found, if he died, etc. Regardless, mystery was another thing that I thought would make Darkhawk stand out. The question of his dad’s whereabouts was one thing, the true origin and nature of exactly where the Darkhawk armor came from was another. I remember there was a Marvel trading card set around 1993 or 1994 where a sub series was “Greatest Mysteries” and one was “The Face of Darkhawk,” because I guess one time he took the helmet off and what he saw in the mirror was hideous.

Eventually a lot of the Darkhawk mythology got unraveled, in Ascension (told you) and War of Kings, with the explanation of a sort of corps of cosmic bad asses linked to the Shi’ar (hence the bird motif) who kept armored bodies in a wormhole and pulled them out when needed; the amulet Chris found belonged to one of these guys, who turned out to be villains. I remember when editor Bill Rosemann was breaking this concept (I may have even contributed an idea or two, which I’m sure Rosemann will deny) and it sounded cool as heck to me; still does. It straddles the line between cosmic and corruption on a scale I feel the original Darkhawk series wanted to reach but never quite got to; certainly there’s untapped potential here (hence the post).

Chris Powell himself was a bit of a blank slate generic teen at first, which may be a reason he never quite took off, as everything around him from his family to his girlfriend to his origin was more interesting than him. However, again, I think in recent years guys like C.B. Cebulski, Brian K. Vaughan and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have infused Chris with more personality, playing up the fact that he’s a kid who had to grow up fast once his dad left and matured fast in some ways but remains over his head in others. He’s definitely somebody I can relate to; whose boneheaded mistakes I roll my eyes at because I’ve made them and whose little victories I smile for.

Another thing Darkhawk had and has going for him is armor, which is intrinsically cool. Mike Manley did a cool initial design (I love his little bird claw) and more recent artists like Wellinton Alves and Brandon Peterson have brought it closer to its full potential.

One thing Darkhawk has against him is that his name is Darkhawk; there are few codenames that sound more dated and 90’s. It does have its charm though (and he is in fact a dark hawk…sort of).

Darkhawk could have a unique place in the Marvel Universe as a hero with roots set as far apart as outer space and the streets of New York. There are a lot of questions still to be answered for older readers and a lot of ground to mine to get new fans on board. If I were the sort to end posts on bad puns, I’d say I hope to see Darkhawk take flight again soon.



Fat Basterd Inc. said...

Fantastic Piece. There's been some talk that Abnett and Lanning are going to make Darkhawk a big piece of the story that's going to bring Richard Rider back to the ongoing Marvel books later this year.

Lint said...

I had the "Heart of the Hawk" story line as a kid, where Tombstone wants the amulet, and remember really liking it. Though I can't recall buying any more beyond that, other than his few issue stint in the New Warriors. Ah, memories.

Sorry for Rant said...

Abnett & Lanning were the worst thing to ever happen to Darkhawk. They are the most overrated writers in the business. I feel like Mugato in Zoolander.

Rant aside thanks for the article, I always enjoy reading about Darkhawk who happens to be my favorite comic book character.

Also, her name was Allegra Bazin.

Ben Morse said...

Glad you dug the article and more power to Darkhawk, but ill will not be spoken of my pals DnA on my blog!

I mean, you CAN speak ill, it's a free country, but I won't agree with you. :-p

Tegan O'Neil said...

I'll speak up to say that I think Powell did have a very distinctive personality in the original run - and it was an interesting contrast to Spider-Man. Instead of getting powers and being instantly responsible, Powell was portrayed as a normal kid without a lot of academic ambition, and more than a little bit resentful because his home life was so fucked up. So he was actually allowed to be petulant and rash and not always entirely sympathetic, and it worked because they had put a great deal of thought into making us understand why this guy's life was the way it was. Even when he kept screwing up - which he did a lot - we felt for the guy because he was in over his head. It was an interesting take on the archetype, that was for sure.

Ben Morse said...

This is enlightening. Thank you, Tim!

Sorry for Rant again said...

Ben I respect your loyalty but what DnA did with Darkhawk was an abomination. For brevity's sake I will attempt to not comment on other DnA penned comics.

What they did was take one of their cute little ideas & pluck an obscure Marvel character out of history to shoehorn into the role.

It would be like if I took Richard Rider then had the book begin by him waking from a coma & learning that he never did anything as Nova but instead he has been in the coma since getting struck by the light beam from Rhomann Dey's ship. Instead of being Nova, Richard Rider is actually an elemental, the living embodiment of cosmic waves. All his "memories" were just his body's way of trying to cope with what had just happened. I think you would agree that would be lazy writing.

Anyways, we can agree to disagree. I enjoyed your Darkhawk article & assuming I don't get banned from your blog I'd be happy to see more Darkhawk articles from you in the future.

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