So far, Nighthawk has had a real estate developer pushing gentrification and cops profiling young black people. I can’t remember the last time a mainstream superhero comic tackled institutional racism this directly. It’s kind of breathtaking.
The creators of the new Nighthawk series—writer David Walker, along with artists Ramon Villalobos, Tamra Bonvillain and Joe Caramagna—are pulling no punches. In the series’ first issue, Walker made a point of differentiating the book’s titular character from Batman and the Marvel Comics’ analogues that preceded him. Nighthawk #2 ups the ante, opening with the vigilante persona of billionaire Raymond Kane delivering painful retribution to cops in the midst of harassing kids who’d done nothing wrong.
This series feels very much like Walker’s shot at splaying out concerns of the current political moment on the widest stage he has access to.
As part of the super-team that killed Namor, Nighthawk has no compunctions with regard to lethal force. He spares the life of the racist cop, though, only to have that decision haunt him months later.
There’s a knee-jerk wince reaction when superhero comics take on real-world issues, one that sometimes prompts readers to say that these are “just” gaudily-dressed characters who punch things. But Nighthawk isn’t any different from other cultural productions that seek to channel the energy of the time that they are created in. Shaping counter-narratives to prejudice is itself a form of resistance. As Ishmael Reed put it decades ago, writing is fighting.
Off and on since the medium’s earliest days, racism and other social ills have been the subject of standalone chapters and one-shots, getting the after-school special episode treatment in between more fantastical storylines. Similar concerns has been the basis for rich subtext, too, but Nighthawk isn’t using veiled metaphors for prejudice like, say, the X-Men have. It feels like Walker is just too impatient for that, as if he and his cohorts are working with the knowledge that the series may only get six, twelve issues tops before it gets cancelled. In the real world, police brutality incidents like the ones interrupted by Nighthawk aren’t even making it to trial. Watching a superhero stop an asshole cop might be an empty, on-the-nose thrill but it’s also sorely needed escapism. Different peoples have different power fantasies or, at least, divergent variations of the dominant ones.
Front-loading Nighthawk with thematic concerns from the very start makes it feel more urgent. It’s a book that’s pointing out that racism operates on multiple fronts. There’s no time to wait and ‘find an audience’ and then roll out social commentary. This injustices mirrored in the book are happening in the world right now, the latest iteration of a cycle that mutated over centuries. You could view the topicality in Nighthawk as crass marketing on Marvel’s part, an instance of going for the “woke” demographic. But I don’t think that tracks, especially because the book isn’t getting regular dedicated e-mail blasts or the kind of marketing push afforded to big-deal happenings like Civil War II.
The most intriguing part of Nighthawk so far is the tease of psychological repercussions. If readers are meant to cheer on the lead character as a one-man, anti-racist revenge squad, then Walker seems to be readying a correlative feedback of emotional consequence.
There’s no way one man—no matter how much money or advanced tech he has access to—can singlehandedly turn around an infrastructure designed to create a disenfranchised underclass. He’s going to have to either change or explode into a billion angry shards.