Writer: Daniel Way. Artist: Steve Dillon, Publisher: Marvel Comics (Max Imprint)
Stop me if this comic-book plot sounds familiar: A rich man whose parents were killed when he was a boy has dedicated his life to training to become a masked vigilante and fight crime, and he now faces his biggest threat, an insane mass murderer who looks like a clown. That’s right, it’s the story of Nighthawk vs. Whiteface.
Okay, let me give you some background before I move forward. Back in the 1970’s Roy Thomas and John Buscema created a group of heroes called the Squadron Supreme to face The Avengers. The Squadron were a bunch of analogs for DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Among several others there was a man from another planet who had powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, named Hyperion, a beautiful Amazon named Power Princess, a man who could run really really fast, named The Whizzer, and a masked vigilante, who didn’t have any actual super powers, but was an excellent fighter and had many high-tech gadgets, called NIGHTHAWK. These characters were supposed to be from a parallel reality than the world that the Marvel heroes were in, and originally started out as villains, to have an excuse for them to fight the Avengers, just so Thomas and Buscema could do sort of Avengers vs. JLA fight. Eventually these characters become popular on their own, and returned many times both as heroes and villains, even had a critically acclaimed 12 issue miniseries set in their own world. A version of Nighthawk ended up crossing back to the Marvel Universe and become a hero there, and another version of Hyperion is currently a member of The Avengers.
Back in 2003, J. Michael Straczynski started a new series called Supreme Power, which radically rebooted the characters, taking them further away from their roots as analogs, and placed them in a more realistic world, trying to show what would really happen if super-powered beings began appearing. So when the alien baby lands on Earth, he’s not found by a nice couple who raise him as their own, he’s found by the government, and raised to be a secret weapon for America. As for Nighthawk, he was a now a Black man, named Kyle Richmond, whose parents were killed by a couple of racist rednecks when he was a boy. We never did get the fill-in details of what happened as Kyle grew up. But as an adult he was now a millionaire, and had been training himself to fight. The first thing I liked about this character is that his costume was bad-ass.
Now that’s the kind of outfight you need for street-fighting! So with that costume, he would take to the streets at night. He primarily focused stopping Hate crimes against Blacks. The first time we see him in action in the ongoing series, he see brutally attacks three White guys who were trying to assault a Black woman. The next time, when he and Hyperion first encounter each other, Nighthawk is in the process of fighting some other White guys who are vandalizing a Black church. I often saw him described on message boards as “racist,” but it’s not like he just went around beating up innocent White people, he was specifically attacking White criminals. But he did have some racial anger in him. In later issues, he called the Black superhero, the Blur (an updated version of The Whizzer), an Uncle Tom. And when he, The Blur, and Hyperion confront a super-powered serial killer, Nighthawk tell that they’re going to “kick your sorry White ass.”
So now we get to this series. In late 2005, Marvel spun-off this 6-issue miniseries, featuring Nighthawk in his first solo adventure. I have to give writer Daniel Way credit here. Taking a character that at first glance is just a “Black version of Batman,” you’d think he’d try to go out of his way to avoid any similarities in his story, but just said to heck with it. he’s fighting a crazy clown. And he makes it work, because we can see here exactly why Nighthawk is not Batman, as he has his own way of dealing with the killer. The story is that about a decade earlier this White doctor who worked at a pharmacy in a poor Black neighborhood decided, for reasons unknown, start secretly lacing his medicine with some new kind of poison that he had created. Dozens died, and he was caught and taken to jail. His first night in jail he is physically (& possibly sexually, although it’s not explicated stated) assaulted by a group of Black prisoners who break into his cell. Afterward he is left catatonic, not saying a word for a decade. Then, while being transferred, he comes to and escapes, brutally murdering a clown who was visiting the hospital, and stealing his disguise to get away. He then goes back to business, somehow getting involved in the drug trade, lacing crack cocaine with a new version of his poison, killing anyone who smokes it.
We learn that Nighthawk has a secret alliance with the Deputy Mayor, who is a good man and wants to help Nighthawk clean-up the city, although he doesn’t always agree with Nighthawk’s methods. The Mayor on the other hand is an arrogant, and borderline racist, man who initially doesn’t take the threat seriously because, after all, it’s only drug addicts who are dying. But then the killer targets the Mayor’s own family, killing them and a bunch of other kids at a party, and that’s when the you-know-what hits the fan. What follows is a very suspenseful and intense story. A potential love interest for Nighthawk is introduced and then targeted, as well. Nighthawk comes face to face with the killer (only referred to as Whiteface in the final issue), uncovers a drug-running conspiracy including a high-profile city figure, and has a final showdown where he has to choose between saving an innocent life or subduing the villain. Nighthawk’s solution is quite interesting. You have to see it for yourself.
All of this is beautifully illustrated by Steve Dillon, who brings these characters to life, and shows the gruesome brutality of the violence just right, without going over the line, it doesn’t feel gratuitous at all. But this is an “adult” story. I do have to knock off a couple of points because I felt like it was never adequately explained how Whiteface was able to get back into business so quickly. Over 3,000 people are killed from his drugs, that’s quite a wide reach for a guy who’s been locked up for 10 years. Also, Nighthawk is show flying his own special Hawk-shaped jet through the city. It’s the kind of thing we expect from a character like Batman, but this series is supposed to take place in what is essentially the “real world,” that was the major point of the Supreme Power revamp. So the jet felt like a fantastic element that didn’t belong. Despite this, I still recommend the series with a grade of: