365 Days of 'The Darkness' - Phil Hester On His First Year

Cover to The Darkness #76
Cover to The Darkness #76
Cover to The Darkness #76

Well, it hasn't technically been 365 days, but with the upcoming (March 25th) 76th issue of Top Cow's re-numbered The Darkness, writer Phil Hester will celebrate his first year, or in comic book terms, 12 issues, on the title. Originally created by Garth Ennis and Marc Silvestri, the story of a young mob hitman turned wielder of one of the Top Cow universe's most powerful mystical forces has taken some interesting turns under Hester, including setting up its star Jackie Estacado as a South American drug lord/dictator and god-like creator of sentient life.

Newsarama recently spoke with the writer looking back at this first year on the title, about what make Jackie tick generally, and a look towards the future…

Newsarama: So Phil, Top Cow comes to you sometimes perhaps a years and a half ago or more, and asks you if you wanted to write The Darkness. At that stage, what did you know about Jackie Estacado and the 60-plus something number of issues of the Darkness?

Phil Hester: They asked me to pitch seemingly out of the blue, but I later learned that Witchblade writer Ron Marz and Top Cow editor Rob Levin enjoyed of some of my earlier writing work and decided to take a chance on me.

I bought and read the original Darkness run by Garth Ennis and Marc Silvestri when it came out, but when their involvement waned so did my readership. I sort of came and went for the rest of the run, following it when artists or writers I liked were on the book. When I landed the gig I spent a weekend catching up on what I had missed. What I learned about Jackie still holds true today, I think. Beyond the magical hitman thing; he's charming, amoral, funny, vicious, loyal, brutal, sentimental, and in possession of one of the most powerful weapons in the universe.

NRAMA: What immediately appealed to you as a writer... that you looked forward to exploring and sparked ideas?

PH: I think every writer immediately puts him or herself in the shoes of their protagonist and tries to see the world through their eyes. I have a very, very hard time imagining evil motives for anyone (I'm Pollyanna's more naive brother), but I can identify with ambition. I tried to find where Jackie's ambition lurked and drag it out and put it in play.

NRAMA: Do you find yourself responding more to his powers and the whole supernatural Top Cow mythology? His crime family past?

PH: All of the above. Who can resist a supernatural mob drama? The real story here is one of youth, though. Jackie is a really young guy, maybe only 23 or 24, and has a lot of growing up to do. So, we can throw the "coming of age" genre in the mix with the mob stuff and horror angle.

NRAMA: How about conversely, what made you pause or immediately decide that was something you wanted to fix or ignore? Or where did you think The Darkness needed to get better?

PH: I don't think there was anything I wanted to ignore, but, as I said earlier, when I put myself in Jackie's shoes the first thing I asked was, "Why would I settle for being a mob hitman, or even a capo, when I'm basically as powerful as Green Lantern?" I think Jackie spent a lot of time reacting in the past. He wasn't the catalyst for his own stories. Exploring his ambition unlocked the more active aspect of his character, and I think made him both more sinister and more sympathetic.

NRAMA: What term would you use for Jackie? You already listed some of his less-than-admirable qualities. Is “anti-hero” even appropriate? As sort of Master of the Darkness universe, how do you wrap your around the star of your book not exactly being an upstanding, tax-paying citizen?

PH: It's hard for me. My favorite kind of character arc is found in A Christmas Carol. The heel has an epiphany and is transformed. I'm always fighting the urge to redeem Jackie. Who knows? By the end of my time I may give in and find a way to make him a tad more pure of heart, but I wouldn't count on it.

Jackie is definitely motivated by self interest. Sometimes that leads him to fight alongside the good guys, but most of the time it's the opposite. I don't think he's evil as much as he is amoral. He has some admirable qualities, but they are clearly outweighed by his vices. If I were a genius writer I'd make you care about him the way David Chase was able to make audiences care about Tony Soprano. I'm sure I'm not up to that task, but I'm trying. Being honest about a character is a great way to find an avenue the reader can travel down and find, if not sympathy, at least some level of understanding with your protagonist.

Short answer: He's a jerk, but I surround him with bigger jerks that make him look like the good guy by comparison.

NRAMA: Not to get all high-fallutin' on you, but what's your thoughts on the concept of "evil"? Do you think there are people out there twisting their greasy handlebar moustaches plotting to do wrong? Doesn't the human brain sort of have a way of justifying any actions?

Do you try to call on something like that when writing a Jackie?

PH: I do believe in right and wrong, but not in evil. I think everyone is born wanting and willing to love, but that it can be beaten out of them in some fashion, resulting in damaged goods. Not to say there aren't plenty of people who deserve to be at the bottom of a dry well somewhere, but I think everyone is, in some way, struggling under the bewildering burdens of life and how they make sense of that can lead to all sorts of strangeness. I think what other people would call "evil" I call "sickness".

Jackie certainly falls in this category. He was someone orphaned at an early age then raised by a family of criminal sociopaths. Is he supposed to pluck virtue out of thin air? Not to say all his behavior is predetermined, but his starting point is certainly lower than a normal person's. That's one thing it's taken me a while to figure out as a human being- The Golden Rule doesn't always play, because although you should always do unto others as they would do unto you, but there are some people who are actively engaged in self-destruction. Jackie's dancing on that line right now.

NRAMA: Why do you think we find ourselves attracted to a Jackie or a Tony Soprano and somehow justify that attraction?

PH: I think we all see a bit of ourselves in there somewhere. We all feel the urge to take a shortcut and lie, steal, cheat, or resolve something with explosive violence because it seems so much easier than humbling ourselves, right?

NRAMA: True…

In promoting the trade paperback of your first story arc, Top Cow really focused on the idea that you didn’t have to be familiar with The Darkness to understand and enjoy your first storyline, particularly citing fans who might have played the videogame but never read the comics.

How much of bridging that gap was a specific part of your plans? Meaning the videogame specifically… Was it something you played or researched before setting out to essentially relaunch the title?

PH: It was tough. We definitely wanted the new first issue to be a WTF? moment for longtime readers- something really shocking and intriguing, but we also wanted it to be accessible. I think we did that by sticking to the Stan Lee/Jim Shooter/Archie Goodwin rule that every new issue of your book is someone's first issue. Try to explain the lay of the land for them without sacrificing too much in the way of progressing the story.

Cover to The Darkness #76
Cover to The Darkness #76
Cover to The Darkness #76

Rob wisely had me add a prologue to the first issue that satisfied not only my weakness for purple prose, but my desire to bring everyone up to speed.

NRAMA: Can you give readers a quick recap of your story so far, most of which is found in the Accursed trade paperback?

PH: Jackie, unsatisfied with mob life, meets a lowlife chemical engineer who helps him hone his Darkness skills to a new degree. Jackie learns to manipulate Darkness matter on a molecular level, allowing him to create horrendously addictive designer drugs and seemingly sentient automatons. Jackie and his new friend, Professor Kirchner, use this new drug to destabilize a tiny South American country and eventually usurp their government. It seems to go well for a while, but when the local rebels earn the backing of the United States, Jackie's friends and creations turn on him, and he falls in love with his sworn enemy, things go to hell pretty quickly. The whole shebang culminates with Jackie facing off against The Darkness itself in a battle for control of the evil power.

NRAMA: Tell us about the decision to explore Jackie as a sort of South American dictator/drug lord. That’s not exactly about the comic book play book? Did you have any real world influences that suggested that path to you? Did the arc accomplish what you wanted it to?

PH: I read and loved Mark Bowden's book, Killing Pablo, which is a superb non-fiction drama about drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's rise and fall. There seemed to be such a rich, complicated relationship between Pablo and the people of Colombia who he alternately preyed upon and rewarded. It seemed like the pinnacle of a criminal's career, but it all ended in bloodshed, of course. I thought it would be interesting to watch someone like Jackie- relatively young, but immensely powerful- try to occupy that same role. Thankfully for our readers, this ended in blood, too.

I feel like I could have written twelve issues in this setting, but we also wanted to show readers we weren't abandoning his mob past altogether, so we wrapped it in six. I have no idea how successful I was. The arc got some attention, which is what we ultimately wanted, but I'm sure I could have gone deeper on Jackie's relationships with Elle and Marisol.

NRAMA: Speaking of things ending in blood and Jackie's love life, not to ask you to give away your long-term plans, but what is a happy ending for someone with Jackie's moral center (or lack thereof).

PH: I think I know, and it has something to do with growing up a little and taking responsibility for your actions. It doesn't mean Jackie's going to come to Jesus in the last issue or anything, but he will come around to the idea that it wouldn't kill him to act for the greater good once in a while.

NRAMA: How much do you think readers want to see Jackie “grow”, and how much do you think readers just want to see Jackie being a bad-ass?

PH: That's the real trick, isn't it? We definitely have to dole out our quota of bad-assery, but if Jackie just spins his wheels, killing folks and firing off one-liners, people get bored with it pretty quickly. It turns into a Crank movie. I enjoy writing the cool, bad-ass stuff... a lot, but my instincts are to always keep him growing and learning. There will certainly be some one step forward, one step back moments, but Jackie is always going to be changing while I'm writing him.

NRAMA: So Kirchner (lowlife chemical engineer) is dead, the “Darkbaby” is dead and Elle appears dead, but how much of their legacy will continue to play a role in the future of the title?

PH: That's the problem with The Darkness - all the villains die! We'll see Jackie return to that same mastery of his powers soon, and though I don't think we'll see Kirchner or The Darkbaby any time soon, Elle may still be skulking around somewhere like a supernatural Glenn Close.

NRAMA: Hide the rabbits…

What was the thought behind depowering him for a while?

PH: Well, he sort of breaks up with the Darkness at the end of "The Empire" arc and has the notion that the Darkness force is withholding its full power from him. He was pretty close to omnipotent at the end of the "Empire" arc, so I wanted to see how he operated on the other end of that scale. The good news is he's still a bastard and still knows how to get things done. This depowering will come to an end soon and we'll see him unleash his full power on some folks who really deserve it.

NRAMA: Currently over in Witchblade, the whole Top Cow artifact mythology is taking center stage at the moment. How much do you and Ron Marz coordinate with and through Top Cow and will the 'War of the Witchblades' or the post-'Broken Trinity' stuff play a role in the title for the immediate future.

PH: Ron and I talk a lot, mostly about fantasy football admittedly. Filip Sablik, our new Editor-in-Chief, also makes sure we're on the same page. Even when I'm not thinking about how to tie something into the larger Top Cow universe, he is. For example, I just created a Heap/Man-Thing/Swamp Thing homage for Jackie to fight in the upcoming issues I'm slated to draw (#80-81), and Filip wisely suggested we make the source of his powers something artifact related.

NRAMA: How large a role will the Sovereign continue to play in the title? And you’re introducing a new character into the mix the Foreigner? Are these two characters related?

PH: Although they've met, they are not related. I tried to set The Sovereign up as Jackie's arch enemy for at least the next year. Their current conflict comes to a head in issue #78, but repercussions will affect Jackie for the next 12 issues or so. The Foreigner, as he's known, is more mysterious. He seems to know more about The Darkness than anyone, even a former Darkness wielder, should. He hates the Darkness, and seeks to destroy it, but sees some spark in Jackie, some unexplored route to controlling the darkness once and for all.

NRAMA: Considering the legacy of the Darkness and his youth as you've pointed out, in a twisted way, are either of these characters in your mind a play on father-figures for Jackie?

PH: That's a good question, but in The Sovereign's case I would say no, and in The Foreigner's case I would say he's more of an older brother. He bullies you and treats you like crap around his friends, but he still gave you your first porn mag and taught you how to throw a curve ball.

NRAMA: What else can you tell readers about what’s coming up in you second year of The Darkness.

PH: After an arc with a de-powered, street level criminal Jackie, we'll watch him rebuild a crime family, a custom crime family, to take on The Sovereign's considerable worldly empire. We'll meet a swamp monster, the Angelus' secret weapon, a rival mystic crime family, and too many delightful criminal scumbags to shake a stick at.

Also, we'll have issues drawn by the unbelievable Michael Broussard, the gritty Jorge Lucas, the startlingly brilliant newcomer, Nelson Blake II, and some broken down hack named Phil Hester.

Related:

The Boys Meet Crossovers: Garth Ennis Talks 'Herogasm's

The Darkness: Accursed Director's Commentary w/ Phil Hester

Geoff Johns on Green Lantern and the Night to Come

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