Archie Comics is undergoing a creative renaissance. It started with Afterlife with Archie (2013), which re-imagined the kid-friendly world of Riverdale as a survival-horror zombie series. It made Archie the most culturally relevant it’s been in years, and they’ve been capitalizing on that book’s success with more forays into mature-reader comics. The Black Hood #1 launches Archie Comics’ new superhero universe, which will be published under the imprint Dark Circle Comics.
Launching a superhero universe in comics from scratch can be a daunting task with the Big Two destined to remain the top competitors in this industry for many more years to come. Valiant did so admirably when they relaunched their entire world in 2012 to great success. Three years in, and they’re still expanding. Dark Circle is off to a promising start with The Black Hood and they could soon be in the same comfortable award-winning boat as Valiant.
The Black Hood is a character that dates back to 1940 and has seen multiple reboots and series throughout the Golden Age to Modern Age under multiple companies. No knowledge of prior incarnations is needed to understand and enjoy this Black Hood, which is as reader friendly as it needs to be.
The narrative is told mostly through narration by Philadelphia police officer Greg Hettinger, who is gunned down while trying to stop a group of criminals hanging around an elementary school. Amidst his disorientation and blindness (having been shot in the face), he allegedly shoots and kills an infamous street vigilante known as the Black Hood, and when he wakes up in the hospital, discovers that he’s become the town hero because of it. His narration goes through his rehabilitation process and his medication drug dependency, and how differently the world views him now being hopelessly scarred. By the issue’s end, Greg finds himself out on the streets, donning a black hood himself and confronting thugs in an alley. It’s a familiar origin story, reminiscent in premise of Sam Raimi’s film Darkman. The Black Hood is no camp comedy, however. Writer Duane Swierczynski (Cable, Bloodshot) is in his comfort zone here, packing his script with all the grit and grime you would expect to see in an origin story about a brooding vigilante. The word ‘noir’ will get tossed around a lot when discussing this comic, and it is in the same vein as the comics of Ed Brubaker. Imagine a cross between Fatale/The Fade Out and Daredevil.
Artist Michael Gaydos is best known for his work on Alias, which earned him two Eisner Award nominations. He’s working a similar aesthetic in The Black Hood, and – to compare this comic once more to that celebrated Daredevil run – it brings to mind what Alex Maleev did on The Man Without Fear. Lines are heavy, shadows creep under every crevice, the panel boxes and dividers themselves are worn with age. This is a dime store crime novel you’d find tucked away in a far away corner in a used book store or garage sale; cover bent, pages dogeared. This is a book that has lived a miserable unloved life long before it came into your own possession.
Gaydos’ drawings are realistic, but only in the sense of what passes for realism in crime and horror movies. He frames his scenes like he would a film director, and if there’s one visual motif throughout #1, it’s close ups. Everyone is sullen in a noir, and Gaydos has a knack for illustrating the unhappy, against the undesirable world around them. This is a comic that could work in black and white, but is given a new dimension through Kelly Fitzpatrick’s colours. Colouring ‘dark and brooding’ comics is tricky business, and one of the failures of DC’s New 52-house style is that its colours were often too robust and diverse for what the drawings were trying to accomplish; it created a conflict of interest. With few exceptions, colours shouldn’t be a show stealer in a noir comic. They should bleed into the drawings, be subtle, and have a limited but specific and consistent palette. Kelly Fitzpatrick does everything right here, and it’s always a joy to see an artist and colourist work so perfectly in sync.
Dark Circle Comics will be launching more superhero titles soon, continuing with The Fox and The Shield. The solicitations for both have looked as promising as The Black Hood did, so hopefully Archie Comics can keep this good thing going, and build up an exciting new universe throughout 2015.