WRITING COMICS: NIGHTHAWK, Part 2: Finding the Villain

As I mentioned in my previous post, NIGHTHAWK was my first regular series at Marvel, even though it came out second. I started developing NIGHTHAWK back in May of 2015, but the first issue would not come out until May 25, 2016 – more than a year later. In that time, the series underwent considerable changes. My original pitch went something like this…

“A black person can’t be a superhero in America and also serve the larger black community. Superheroes are extensions of law and order – they serve the status quo of a system that has a long history of violence and oppression within the black community. If a black superhero were protecting the black community, they would be at odds with the systems of oppression. They’d be dealing with gentrification, systemic racism, and police brutality. And the moment that the black superhero took a stand against something like police brutality, which is part of the status quo, they’d become a villain. A truly black superhero would need to be a threat to the system.”

Yeah, that was basically my original pitch for NIGHTHAWK, which was developed over a series of phone calls and emails in April 2015. I had this idea of exploring what it meant to be a black superhero in a world where blackness is often interconnected with criminality. It was a lofty goal – very violent, dark, and somewhat controversial. But Marvel agreed to do it…at least initially.

SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to get into story and plot elements of NIGHTHAWK that will contain spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Many of the key elements I had originally pitched for NIGHTHAWK were initially accepted, only to be later rejected, requiring some major changes in the story. Some of these ideas would eventually make it into two other series I wrote – POWER MAN & IRON FIST and OCCUPY AVENGERS (which I will detail later). Perhaps the most significant change to NIGHTHAWK was the villain.

The original villain for NIGHTHAWK was going to be…prepare yourself…Alex Wilder. Yes, Alex Wilder of RUNAWAYS, who would later turn up in POWER MAN & IRON FIST, was to be the villain of NIGHTHAWK. I wanted to really powerful black villain for the series, and didn’t feel there were any in the Marvel universe. At the same time, I felt Alex Wilder was an interesting character that had not been fully explored. My plan was to bring him back as a ruthless crime boss known as Soul Man. The premise being that Alex was resurrected from the dead, and he was feeding off the souls of other people – specifically black people. This was to be a grand metaphor for crime in the black community. And at first, it was going to happen. There were even character designs of Alex as Soul Man by Ramon Villalobos (see below).

In the original pitch of NIGHTHAWK, Alex/Soul Man was the crime boss of Chicago, peddling a mysterious drug that is flooding the streets and literally draining the souls of black folks. Nighthawk is out to stop him, while also dealing with corrupt cops brutalizing the black community. This way, the hero of the story was stuck between two opposing forces, both terrorizing the black community of Chicago. The story would also delve into the gang dynamics of Chicago, and the city’s long history of violent racism.

In this early version of the series, nearly every black villain in the Marvel made an appearance. Seriously, just about every black villain to ever go up against Luke Cage was in the series, and there was an incredible funeral scene for Cockroach Hamilton (an idea that was repurposed for POWER MAN & IRON FIST). As the series progressed, Nighthawk was going to pull many of the villains away from a life of crime, and recruit them to protect the city from evil cops and racists, and to stop the terror of Alex/Soul Man. The idea of criminals protecting the community was inspired by the long and complicated history of criminality in the black community. But that never came to be (the only part of that original idea that remained was the use of Tilda Johnson/Nightshade, who had always been a major part of the series).

Fairly late in the development process, I was told that I could no longer use Alex Wilder – he wasn’t a serious enough villain to make him a worthy adversary. I pushed back, arguing that with his history, I could build someone compelling and formidable. But no one believed me. As a side note, when I used Alex in POWER MAN & IRON FIST, it was a watered down version of what I had planned for NIGHTHAWK, and I believe that I failed in making the character interesting. Maybe the same thing would’ve happened in NIGHTHAWK. Maybe my ideas would have proven far greater than my ability to execute them.

With the loss of Alex Wilder, I had to come up with a new villain…not to mention a largely new story line. This is where things started getting difficult. Several ideas were kicked around for a villain, but none of them worked (in my opinion). There was a lot of talk about BATMAN: THE COURT OF OWLS, and the need for a villain like that. If not that, then someone like Joker – someone that could really challenge Nighthawk (which had already been done in a previous NIGHTHAWK series). I wanted to use an existing character – preferably a black villain – but it was clear that the folks at Marvel wanted a new character. I really didn’t want to write an “angry black man versus the evil white guy” story. I wanted something complex and layered, that really examined the idea of blackness, and what it means to both protect and exploit the community. I threw out a bunch of ideas, all of which were rejected.

Then I came up with the idea of a black serial killer targeting white people, creating all kinds of racial tension and paranoia in Chicago. But here’s the twist…the killer would appear to be black, but in fact it would be a white person pretending to be black, and stoking the flames a racist fear. Editorial liked the idea of a serial killer, but not the whole white-person-pretending-to-be-black idea. They said it was too ridiculous. I pointed out that the Manson family had tried to make their killings look like they had been committed by blacks, in order to spark a race war. I pointed out other crimes committed by whites, but blamed on blacks that had been major news stories. I said that if I was going to have a white villain, I wanted his greatest weapon to be the societal fear of blackness. I wanted to show how media, law enforcement, and the general population accept the evil of black people at face value, and project that perception of evil on to all black people. But it didn’t work – I was stuck with a black serial killer, offing white people – the Revelator. But honestly…I was fine with that, because I had a great idea.

NIGHTHAWK took place in Marvel’s Earth-616 universe, but the character came from Earth-31916. After the events of SECRET WARS, Nighthawk was transplanted to Earth-616 and changed his name from Kyle Richmond to Raymond Kane (I know…it can get confusing). My premise was that while Nighthawk was the Raymond Kane/Kyle Richmond of Earth-31916, the Revelator was actually the Raymond Kane/Kyle Richmond of Earth-616. This meant that he and Nighthawk would be the same person, just from different realities. I was told that this was too confusing, and even though I fought to keep it, the idea was cut.

As far as I’m concerned, Nighthawk and Revelator have always been the same person, and it makes the story much more interesting. Of course, the fact that none of this is clearly stated in the story makes NIGHTHAWK more of a standard vigilante chasing a serial killer story. Oh well. I fought the fight…and I lost. When you’re writing work-for-hire comics, you answer to other people. These are not your characters, and ultimately you only have so much control over what you get to do with these characters. That’s the nature of the business. When it’s all said and done, you try to write the best story you possibly can, with what you’re given to work with. And for all my complaining, I’m actually pleased with how NIGHTHAWK turned out.

Stay tuned for more.

 

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