Marvel’s NIGHTHAWK: A 'Black Superhero In a Country Infected By the Disease of Racism'

"Nighthawk #2" first look
Credit: Ramon Villalobos (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Squadron Supreme’s Nighthawk may have roots as a Batman stand-in, but writer David Walker and the art team of Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillain are bringing him forward to a place of cultural relevance, and tearing free of his origins as a riff of another iconic character.

Using Nighthawk as a vehicle to examine the state of race and the criminal justice system in America, Walker, Villalobos, and Bonvillain are positioning him as an ultra-violent, rage-filled crimefighter who battles with himself almost as much as with villains, and with the systemic problems that lead to racism and rampant crime in his adopted home of Chicago.

Newsarama spoke with team Nighthawk ahead of the series launch this week, discovering the surprising roots that drive their vision of Marvel’s new premiere ass-kicker. Namechecking everything from Shaft, to sneakers, to real world politics, the trio paint a picture of a hero very much built for the modern world.

Credit: Ramon Villalobos (Marvel Comics)

Newsarama: David, let’s kick things off by talking about who your Nighthawk is. You’ve said before he’s a violent, unrestrained crimefighter. What’s driving that?

David Walker: Nighthawk is driven by rage. He is angry with everyone and everything, and he has trouble containing that anger, so he focuses it and turns it loose on what he feels is the most obvious responsible party. Of course, it is far more complicated than that, which is part of what makes this character interesting. Here you have a black man, whose parents were murdered by racists, and he blames the racist ideologies that inform our society for their deaths. At the same time, his parents were pacifists, so in a way, he blames them for their deaths, because they refused to meet violence with violence. This leads him to be angry with himself, for being angry with his parents, which simply feeds into the rage. In the end, you have a man who is held together by a single emotion—anger.

Nrama: Ramon and Tamra, how has the idea of Nighthawk as an ultra-violent hero influenced the visual language of the book? How do you envision the character?

Ramon Villalobos: Ultra-violence is definitely something we toy with because of the nature of David's scripts but we like to keep it stylized so that its not overly grim and gritty. I like to think of it like the violence in rap music – it’s there, but a lot of times its a heightened reality and not a self serious portrayal. It's the difference between Tupac or Ice Cube talking about committing crimes as opposed to one of these CSI-type shows or something. Nighthawk to me is violent by circumstance, not choice. He's violent because he lives in the murder capital of America and so maybe violence is part of his DNA. The struggle of whether or not that's necessarily right, even if it’s necessary, is a huge part of his story.

I live in Stockton, California, and there's a lot of violence in this city, we broke some records for murder rate per capita ourselves, so an outright glorification of real world violence is not something I'm interested in showing. So yeah, while it is part of the character, I like to think Tamra and I are framing it in a stylized way that resonates with an audience that's maybe not always being catered to in comics.

Credit: Ramon Villalobos (Marvel Comics)

Tamra Bonvillain: A lot of dark or gritty stories often get handled in very gray, desaturated tones, and both Ramon and I wanted to go wilder with the colors on Nighthawk. I think you can still convey darkness and moodiness in a violent story with a wider palette range, and personally to me, it's more interesting to look at.

Nrama: There are several versions of Nighthawk in Marvel lore. Which version is the star of this book? Is he still from an alternate Earth? Will other versions of Nighthawk play into your title?

Walker: This version of Nighthawk is Raymond Kane. This is the same guy we saw in J. Michael Straczynski’s Supreme Power series several years back, and is currently in Squadron Supreme. Like all the members of Squadron Supreme, he’s from an alternate Earth, and is here as a result of the events that took place last year in Secret Wars. In the Straczynski book, he was known as Kyle Richmond, but his name was changed to avoid confusion with the other Kyle Richmond, who dresses up, fights crime, and calls himself Nighthawk. As for the other Nighthawk—the Kyle Richmond one, I think he’s still floating around somewhere. I don’t have any plans for the two to meet just yet, though they will come face-to-face in an issue of Squadron Supreme.

Nrama: David, you’ve said previously that racial tension and injustice is a theme at the heart of Nighthawk. Why do you feel it’s important for a superhero to address that? How does the setting of Chicago – a city that’s seen its share of racial tension – play into that theme?

Credit: Ramon Villalobos (Marvel Comics)

Walker: Traditionally, superheroes act as extensions of law and order. They may act outside the boundaries of the law, but when all is said and done, they are at service to law and order, which makes them part of the status quo of the criminal justice system. The problem with this system is that it often falls short of adequately serving black people in America. We have seen this time and time again, when police officers kill unarmed blacks, and the court system fails to convict the killer. The two biggest threats to black people in this country are racism and the criminal justice system that is infected by the disease or racism. At some point, if you are a black superhero, fighting to protect black people, you are going to reach a crossroads where you will realize that you must protect them from the forces of law and order—from the status quo. And at that moment, you cease to become a traditional superhero, and enter into a world where roles are less defined.

As for the series being set in Chicago – that city has a history of racism that is heartbreaking. Back in the 1960’s, it was considered the most racist of America’s northern cities, and when you look at the city now, it ain’t in the best of shape. There’s a reason they call it “Chi-raq”, and it isn’t just because of gang-related violence. That’s the thing most people don’t understand. Yes, there is terrible gang violence in Chicago, but you have to look beyond what is right in front of you. Inadequate housing, rampant unemployment, poor school systems, and corrupt politics are where it all starts, and no one can deny how bad things are in Chicago. Parts of that city are amazing, and great people live there, but the parts of Chicago that are broken are among the most broken parts of this country. All of America’s greatest failings, from how we deal with race to poverty to human rights, are in full effect in parts of Chicago, and it is not a pretty picture.

Nrama: Ramon, Nighthawk started out as a pastiche of Batman, but this new series takes him in a different direction. What are your visual touchstones for making Nighthawk his own unique character?

Credit: Marvel Comics

Villalobos: Yeah like I mentioned before, hip hop and things that are relevant to that culture are the primary touchstone. I love sneakers, so there are some cool shoes in here - definitely cooler than Batman ever wore. I just imagine Nighthawk is like an updated, cooler version of Batman. He’s been around for like what? 75 years? That's rad, and I love Batman, but Nighthawk honestly feels a lot more culturally relevant. Our Nighthawk is someone who I feel like would be respected in the streets he inhabits and protects more than Batman has in a long, long time. So yeah, Nighthawk has cooler shoes, cooler pants, he dresses cooler even when he's not in costume. The visual language for the book is more rooted in streetwear blogs and rap videos so its just different from a lot of other comics.

Also, there are lots of nods to Chicago itself. I was fortunate enough to spend some time there last year before I started the book, and I tried to soak in some of the atmosphere and shout out some of the places I visited or saw while I was there.

Nrama: David, playing off the idea of Nighthawk as a Batman riff, how do you take a character with that kind of origin and make him stand on his own two feet?

Walker: That’s a good question, and probably the one that I get asked most often. To me it is simple, I try not to think of Nighthawk as a Batman riff so much as I think of him as his own character. Yes, both characters were orphaned at an early age, but being an orphan is a classic trope in popular fiction. Off the top of my head…Oliver Twist, Superman, Tarzan, Harry Potter, James Bond, Spider-Man, the Lone Ranger, and John Shaft were all orphans. The death of all of their parents had a profound impact on their lives. The key to making any character stand on their own is to make a character stand on their own. For me, with Nighthawk, part of that has been defining the relationship between him and his parents, and what that loss means. It also means that I have made the conscious decision to put in the work so that Nighthawk is more than a riff on Batman, and that the stories I tell are stories that could only star Nighthawk.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: Tamra, your work on Nighthawk has been described as “integral” to the book’s visual identity. What’s your approach to Ramon’s work, and how do you use color to build Nighthawk’s world?

Bonvillain: I try to discuss with Ramon any specific ideas he has for a scene going into it. It can be very general, or sometimes he might share a piece of reference to shoot for. Once I have the basis to start from, I interpret how to make that work. I'm bringing a lot of my own ideas to the thing, but I want to make sure it also gels with what Ramon is thinking.

Nrama: Without being too spoilery, what’s on each of your drawing boards right now?

Villalobos: Currently I'm drawing a city on fire.

Bonvillain: Well, I work on a lot of different titles, so at the moment it's a little girl and her dinosaur.

Nrama: Nighthawk, as a concept, has deep roots in the Bronze Age of the Marvel Universe. Is there a nostalgic component to this modern take on the character?

Credit: Marvel Comics

Villalobos: If there is, honestly its probably more ‘90’s nostalgia than ‘70’s. Not only because David gave me an obscure ‘90’s villain with rad spiked shoulder pads to draw, but because the vibe of this whole book feels very early to mid ‘90’s to me. The last time racial tensions boiled over like in this book was in the L.A. riots and the O.J. verdict and that sort of thing. I spent a lot of nights drawing and rewatching movies like Boyz ‘N’ the Hood and Blood In Blood Out for that street noir kind of aesthetic you don't find much these days. Nighthawk would have been the hardest book to come out back then, but ya know, it didn't, so I guess we'll just have to settle for it being the hardest book coming out now instead. [Laughs]

Bonvillain: I wasn't really familiar with the original Squadron Supreme until later, but I did read the Supreme Power series when this version of Nighthawk first appeared. I'm not really trying to emulate anything from that era, but I did think he made an interesting character, and it's cool to be working on him now.

Nrama: What’s the longterm goal for Nighthawk? How does he fit into the Marvel Universe, and what can fans expect as the series continues?

Walker: I can only speak to my own personal goal for Nighthawk, and that is to write the best stories I can. As the series continues, fans can expect to see Nighthawk become more extreme and more tortured. He will find new allies in unlikely places, and, I hope, will force other black superheroes to examine what it is they are doing. Ultimately, that is what I’m trying to explore—what it means to be a black superhero in a country infected by the disease of racism.

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