Someone once said never look a gift horse in the mouth, but when the gift is a supernatural curse like the Darkness at some point you have to start raising questions. And after fifteen years of carrying the burdens and the benefits that being the Darkness bearer have had for mobster Jackie Estacado, he’s thrown off the mantle and set his sights on the heart of the Darkness to protect his family.For 30+ issues, writer/artist Phil Hester has scripted the adventures of Top Cow’s lead male hero. In it we’ve seen Jackie question his mob past before he took up the Darkness, taken and lost a family, and become a richer character in the process. With the release this week of The Darkness #96, readers are at the beginning of the end for Hester’s four year run on the series. Over 36 issues Hester has added layers to Jackie Estacado while still keeping him true to the bastard persona created years ago by Garth Ennis, Marc Silvestri and David Wohl. On the eve of his final arc, Newsarama sat down with the veteran writer/artist to walk us through these final days.
Newsarama: What can you tell us about this upcoming issue, The Darkness #96?Phil Hester: It kicks off my final arc as writer of the series and sets up the conclusion I've had in mind since I took over the book. Jackie Estacado will be tested by the Darkness as he wanders through all the different levels of Hell reserved for dead Darkness wielders. I guess that's a spoiler, huh? As the story progresses, Jackie goes deeper and deeper into The Darkness dimension seeking a final confrontation with the malevolent entity that has dominated his existence. It's the final showdown!
Anyway, we get Romano Molenaar back on art duties, so we're playing to his strengths and throwing Jackie into realms that accentuate Romano's gift for fantasy.
Nrama: Jackie has been living with the Darkness for years – what is pushing him now to confront the dark forces that empower him?Hester: Anyone that's been following either The Darkness or Artifacts knows that Jackie's been undergoing some pretty profound changes. He has a stake in the world now, especially through his daughter Hope. Jackie's been the pawn of several unfathomably powerful forces in his life, and he's finally had enough. Time to make a stand and protect those he loves. That doesn't necessarily reflect an enlightened moral position, but it does signal some growth toward self-awareness... and you can't even have a self if you are simply the pawn of someone else, no matter how powerful they make you. Time for Jackie to break some chains and be his own man.
Nrama: As strong as Jackie might be, he’s just an ordinary guy without the Darkness powers. What gives him the idea he’ll have a chance fighting the one thing that makes him more then a normal man?Hester: At this point, Jackie feels like he knows the ins and outs if the Darkness well enough to face it on its own turf, turn its own power against it. Also, Jackie has had some coaching from the Foreigner, the deathless sage who's the only Darkness wielder to ever break its control. He's got a few tricks up his sleeve.
Nrama: Can you tell us about the dimension the Darkness lives in, and what obstacles Jackie has once inside?
Hester: Well, it's best to think of it as a world unto itself. It contains multiple realities, all created by and controlled by the Darkness. This hellish dimension is where all past Darkness wielders are condemned to spend eternity, as are any of their victims judged corrupt enough to share their torment. It's a kind of nightmarish afterlife where hundreds of generations of Darkness wielders vie for supremacy, each staking out fiefdoms where they can, all part of the Darkness' very body. It's a never ending orgy of destruction and torment that Jackie has to work his way through, each level reflecting some inner turmoil of his own.Nrama: This seems like a real breakthrough for Jackie, to confront this power he’s wielded for so long. What about you, Phil – what are the real breakthroughs you’ve had during your years on the book?
Hester: That's hard to say. I'd like to say I've made Jackie more relatable and his adversaries more interesting. I gave him some friends that actually lived through the experience, and some enemies who matched his power level. I suppose the challenge when writing a franchise character is to provide the change needed for character growth while staying true to the core concept. In Jackie's case it meant him becoming more self-aware, but remaining a complete and utter bastard.
Nrama: What would you say are the most personal moments for you in the series?
Hester: Well, it takes pace in The Darkness #99, so it's tough to talk about it without spoiling things. Let's just say Jackie gets a life review of sorts and makes some connections he thought were lost to him forever.
Besides that, it was probably the issue I wrote from the point of view of a mercenary sent to assassinate Jackie. We told it in the form of a long voicemail the hit-man leaves his daughter when he thinks he's about to die at Jackie's hand. I hope that story spoke to my larger goal in taking on the series. All along I've been trying to humanize some (sometimes literally) inhuman characters. By providing little details about their everyday existence, by giving them understandable motivations and desires, I hope I gave their actions some more heft.Nrama: This arc is the big finale for the first hundred issues of The Darkness as well asyour tenure on the book. What’s it like leaving here and now?
Hester: It's time. Outside of Green Arrow, my run on The Darkness is the longest I've worked on any series, as artist or writer. If I can't spit out what I need to in 36 issues and almost four years, I should give up! Honestly, Matt Hawkins, Marc Silvestri, Filip Sablik and Rob Levin all took a huge chance when they brought me on board. I don't think they wanted to rehab the character or anything, because the book was always a fantastic concept, but I think they were eager to see what new ground we could cover. I hope I provided that, and now it's time to let David Hine shine his light under the rocks of the Top Cow universe and see what's growing there.Nrama: Let’s drill down a bit before we go: what made The Darkness #100 the right time to pass the torch onto someone else?
Hester: It's a nice, round number. It feels like a landmark and a good platform for David's launch. Looking back now, I'm very grateful for all the talented people I got to work with, especially Michael Broussard, Sheldon Mitchell, Jorge Lucas, and all the brilliant pinch-hitters who've stepped in to draw an issue or an arc. I feel like an anniversary issue gets this changing of the guard the attention it deserves. Let me know if you agree when you actually get your hands on #100, folks.