In the 90’s, there was very little more tantalizing than the barrage of advertisements that permeated every last issue of every last superhero title I would read. Whether it was Mile High Comics, East Coast Comics, Dynamite, and more, these ads were everywhere. They really whetted the appetite of a young man plunging headfirst into superhero lore. I would find ads and just stare at them, mentally circling what I wanted, doing fruitless arithmetic to figure up the shipping & handling prices for orders I would never make. Marvel also did house ads around this time for all sorts of merchandise from bend em figures to posters to all things in between.
The first time I ever saw Darkhawk was in an ad for a t-shirt in a Marvel comic. I loved him from that instant. One reason I got him into him so quickly is that I was starting to get into comics, and he was new. Paul O’ Connor of www.longboxgraveyard.com has said that 12 years old is the Golden Age for anyone, and Darkhawk is a shining example of that. Since he was new at the same time I was new to comics, he felt like mine. I expressed a similar sentiment on my article on Jack Kirby’s Bombast; that work may have paled in comparison to the King’s grand work, but I will always love Bombast and the rest of the Secret City Saga because they are mine.
The other reason I instantly loved Darkhawk is because I was 13 years old when I encountered him for the first time and I was struck by that visual. He just looks damn cool, and if you know anything about 13-year-old young men, you know that stuff that looks damn cool and looking damn cool themselves is the most important thing in the world to them. So when I saw that shirt and then this card, I was awestruck!
Darkhawk owes a great deal to the Spider-Man mythos in many ways. To start with, many Spider-Man villains will be around for the first few issues. Hobgoblin and Tombstone both appear within the first twelve issues and Venom shows up not very long after that. Danny Fingeroth, one of the creators of Darkhawk, was an editor on the Spider-Man titles for quite some time, and maybe even at this time, and that would explain his ability to use the Spider-Man mythos with seeming impunity.
Darkhawk is also a teenager, just as Peter Parker was when he became Spider-Man. Marvel seemed to be trying very hard to recapture that in the 90’s. We have Chris Powell, who becomes Darkhawk through an accident, which messes up everything about his life; Rick Sheridan, who winds up with Sleepwalker in his brain via an accident, which messes up everything about his life; and the New Warriors, which had a similar motif. I will be covering Sleepwalker and the New Warriors here soon! How excited does that make you?!? Whoa, that’s a little too excited…maybe reel that in a bit. Or get excited for Darkhawk’s first appearance!
The other element of Darkhawk that is owed to Spider-Man is the supporting cast. Very similar to early Spidey stories, Chris Powell is surrounded by a group of folks like his girlfriend, his little bothers, his mom, his video pals, and his dad. You can tell that they wanted that Spidey feel where everyone sort of knows everyone else. Sort of like Cheers, but with less cash spent on alcohol rehab. I like much of the supporting cast, but I will say that some of them are woefully underused in a cast that keeps getting bigger. I only saw his pals a couple times, including one named Headset, who gets shot. Other than his girlfriend and family, these guys disappear for issues at a time only to resurface when you have almost forgotten about them entirely, which is highly similar to the memories you have of dates you went on in high school, although Chris’s pals seem to show up when he needs them while your memories of those dates show up when you need them least.
Chris’s family, though, is a big deal. His dad is a cop, while his mom is an assistant district attorney. Chris ain’t the only hero in the family! His little brothers are twins, and they are very annoying in the way twin little brothers of a teen would be in any delightful 90’s sitcom. This being a 90’s superhero comic, a little of those twins goes a long way for me. Cheryl is Chris’s girlfriend, and in true teenager superhero-Spidey trope fashion, Chris has a very hard time balancing his super hero activities with his love life.
Another telling element of Darkhawk is the combination of the Spidey mythos with just a touch of Wolverine. Chris Powell becomes Darkhawk when he finds an amulet in an abandoned amusement park (where he caught his cop dad taking a bribe from the mob), so Darkhawk starts his series with a mysterious past that he does not understand, and while the triple-claw on his right hand also works as a grappling hook, there ain’t a good enough liar in the world to convince me it doesn’t owe at least a little to everyone’s favorite Canadian mutant.
But these disparate elements amalgamate into what wound up being a fun, if sometimes confusing, read. I really think that Marvel wanted this to work, hence the firm insertion into the Spider-Man web (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) and the rest of the Marvel Universe. Darkhawk would join both the New Warriors and the Avengers West Coast during his 90’s run, and he also participated in the Infinity Gauntlet, War, and Crusade. While this ultimately failed to get Darkhawk to catch on in the MU, it was a good move on their part, and I recall always being excited to see Darkhawk show up in other titles, just as I imagine Spidey fans were excited to see Darkhawk batting Hobgoblin in issue #2. First though, he had to master the necessary superhero trick of busting in through a window and issuing a strong command.
A good thing about the panels above is the fact that they demonstrate almost everything Darkhawk can do really quickly. He has super-strength and grapples into places, shoots a force beam out of his chest, glides on his wings, and can make a force field. While we see neither gliding nor the force field here, we do see the fact that normal folks can’t hang with the ‘Hawk! Too bad he will now have to fight Hobgoblin.
Within two issues, we have had a Spidey arch-foe and the trappings of the Spidey mythos, so issue #3 is definitely time for the man himself. Of course, this wasn’t a big deal by this time. Spidey was appearing everywhere from Silver Sable to NFL Superpro to Sleepwalker, so while his visage may have increased sales, it did not do much to increase excitement. He was so ubiquitous at this time that I bet he even had at least a cameo in this one too.
In this case, however, I feel that having Spider-Man in the title wasn’t just to boost sales, but it serves to sort of pass the torch of teenage hero with problems to Chris Powell. Marvel did the same thing over in Sleepwalker around this time, and as I stated earlier, it really seemed like they wanted to re-create that sort of paradigm for the 90’s. Of course, they also just wanted to put Spidey on a cover. I guess we can be thankful it wasn’t Wolverine, but I can’t help but wonder about Darkhawk and Wolverine going claw-to-claw sometime. The kid can grow out of the 90’s, but you can’t take the love of the idea of 90’s clawfights out of the kid. Also, here’s a Darkhawk cover.
Spidey and Darkhawk manage to save the day, but of course, this being the 90’s, Darkhawk has to at least toy with the idea of killing his enemies. People who bemoan 90’s comics often talk about how tiring it is that so many 90’s characters were killers, and while I understand that, I found it much more tiring how so many characters had to hem and haw about it, as though the willingness to consider killing was something that every hero had to consider. Darkhawk chooses not to kill, which is good because anyone who almost loses to a fire because of hubris should probably not be taking lives.
Darkhawk isn’t just dependent upon Spidey’s rogues for fodder; Fingeroth does a decent job establishing a few villains exclusively for Darkhawk. Philippe Bazin is a major crime lord who has extensive ties to Chris’s dad. His named-after-an-allergy-medicine daughter, Allegra, later becomes a love interest for Chris. His first villain that really made me take notice is Portal, a guy who looks quite similar to Darkhawk, but he has the ability to teleport and look cool fighting Darkhawk on a comic book cover.
We also learn in this issue that under Darkhawk’s helmet, he looks grotesque. So grotesque that he not only recoils from it in the mirror, but he looks so hideous that this later becomes a weapon for him to use. For real, in a fight, he takes off his helmet and the other guy is so horrified that Darkhawk is able to get the drop on him. Good thinking, but it is a shame seeing his terrifying visage was the price to pay for this weapon.
Portal and Darkhawk have a very epic fight, and we learn Portal is Native American. He apparently first appeared in Avengers, which was news to me then. I was picking Darkhawk up sporadically, and I recall being asked about Portal by someone in my class. I triumphantly and confidently announced he had been created for Darkhawk. I wish that were the only thing I had been wrong about in 7th grade; I also thought this girl was my girlfriend for two weeks after I had been dumped. The same guy who asked me about Portal was supposed to tell me that she had broken up with me. Maybe he knew I was wrong, and this was his revenge. Whatever happened, Portal is a Native American and he is not fond of breaking stuff in museums.
Darkhawk manages to catch Portal, but all that does is lead us into the second crossover of Darkhawk’s young career!
The team-up here really drives home why I like Darkhawk so much. As the fight commences, we get to see that Chris Powell may have the powers of Darkhawk, but he is still a neophyte at both life and superhero business. ESPECIALLY THE SUPERHERO BUSINESS. I love how Fingeroth doesn’t let us forget either of those elements of Powell, whether it is him making awful decisions in his personal life to alienate his pals, taking a bow during a battle, or just good old-fashioned hero worship!
Fingeroth does a great job keeping it real, and the art is great. Later in the series the coloring will get brighter and it loses something to me. This coloring sets a great mood for the confusion that Chris Powell feels as both Powell and Darkhawk. His world has gotten topsy-turvy in every which way, but again, like a true teenager, even when there is trouble and turmoil all around him, cool stuff remains cool stuff, and there just ain’t much cooler than not just fighting shoulder to shoulder with Captain America, but also have Captain America “Thank Heaven” that you are there. I love that sort of little touch. These are the nuances that often get overlooked and lost in superhero comics. That’s a shame too because the next few issues are completely bereft of subtlety and nuance. In fact, we get arguably the least subtle character in comics very soon after this.
Here we get another major original villain of Darkhawk, Savage Steel. I don’t want to ruin the surprise behind the concept of the villain, but it is pretty sweet. Savage Steel is an armor-clad vigilante intent on eliminating the criminal element permanently. He is basically like Punisher except he brandishes more armor and fewer skulls.
Of course, these two psychos can’t stand one another, and Darkhawk gets in the middle. This is where Darkhawk is exposed to murder and continues the whole “AM I A KILLER OR A HERO” trope that I mentioned earlier. Later in the series, he gets cocky during a hostage situation and a gentleman he was trying to protect dies. That interests me, but this whole “should I kill” thing us about as exciting as a 479-page book detailing the history of your local DMV. Killing is a big deal, and I just can’t imagine even a teenager taking it so lightly. But other than that, the book is pretty solid.
We even get Tombstone and Venom from the Spidey mythos, both of whom I like, but I especially love Tombstone. He looks cool, acts cool, and does cool stuff, like ripping Darkhawk’s chest off. For real!
That’s some Quentin Tarantino-level brutality right there! Gotta love the 90’s! For the next few issues Darkhawk cannot change back and forth between his Darkhawk and Chris Powell forms. This means he cannot heal, so he walks around with some bandages around his chest for several issues. During his quest to get his amulet back, Darkhawk not only has to cross paths with Philippe Bazin again, but this time he does so on a Caribbean island that the crime lord owns. First though, he must face another Spider-Man villain. In fact, he has to face the most 90’s Spider-Man villain of them all.
Of course, one could make the strong argument that Carnage was more 90’s than Venom, but that’s an argument for the comments section (HINT! HINT!) The battle between Darkhawk and Venom definitely reinforces the fact that Darkhawk is a piece of the Spider-Man mythos, as this is Spidey villain #3 in 13 issues! I think this may have hurt Darkhawk in the long run, but the stories were good, and it almost had a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out feel in that Darkhawk was Little Mac, a newcomer with promise taking his skills to much larger and much larger-than-life opponents.
That’s where I plan to leave you for now, folks. Scope out the Friday Follow-Up for more on Darkhawk’s origin. All in all, I like the book. I find it to be fun, and while I think there was an overreliance on the Spidey villains and guest stars, you’d have been crazy not to take advantage of the exposure if possible. Darkhawk has remained a cult classic hero since this time, but he is higher up for me. He’s one of my top 75 heroes ever, because of his look, his human self, and the fact that he and I were young and in comics at the same time! Join us next week for Angel Hayes’s return to The Unspoken Decade!