Moon Knight, Night Thrasher, the Black Fox... Marvel’s got a few characters that incorporate elements from DC Comics’ Dark Knight. But the House of Ideas’ most on-the-nose nocturnal-avenger homage is probably Nighthawk, a character who originated as part of the Marvel’s Squadron Supreme concept.
Stretching back to the 1970s, the Squadron Supreme was the publisher’s pointed homage to the major characters of rival company DC Comics, with analogues of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and other showing up every time the team got revamped. The latest version of Nighthawk is the last survivor of an alternate reality introduced in 2003 with grittier updates of the Squadron characters. Born as Kyle Richmond, the 2003 Nighthawk’s origin story starts with his parents getting killed in a vicious hate crime. He trains to be a peak physical specimen like Bruce Wayne, but specifically targets white supremacists in his fight against evil.
The Supreme Power alt-universe was a casualty of the events leading to last year’s Secret Wars event. The Marvel Universe was reborn after Kyle’s home reality was destroyed and Nighthawk teamed up with other characters who suffered similar losses to form a new Squadron Supreme. The surly dimensional transplant changed his name to Raymond Kane because the mainline Marvel Earth has a still-living Kyle Richmond, and the two had a salty exchange in Squadron Supreme #7 just before Kane moved on to a starring role in a new series.
The new Nighthawk series debuted last week, placing Raymond Kane in Chicago, smack dab in real-world racial tensions ignited by a controversial police-involved shooting of a young black man. What’s most interesting about Nighthawk—written by David Walker with art by Ramon Villalobos, Tamra Bonvillain and Joe Caramagna—is how it pulls these tensions into a superhero milieu. That practice isn’t new by any means, but Nighthawk #1 makes a point of showing there’s a different kind of anger fueling this Batman analogue. Here, the character that began as an homage to the Dark Knight is now a response to a critique of Batman. It’s often been said that Bruce Wayne could do more with his personal fortune and political influence to better the fortunes of Gotham’s underclass, instead of dressing up as a bat and punching people. (To be fair, Bruce set up the Wayne Foundation to handle broader social ills but the Dark Knight’s focus generally tends to be elsewhere.)
Walker takes this criticism of Batman as inspiration. Driven by the trauma suffered as a child, Raymond Kane is doing fighting injustice but both the inciting incident and superhero response mechanism are racially motivated. As Nighthawk, Kane brutally incapacitates a white-supremacist gang of meth-dealing gun-runners. That’s par for the course in superhero fiction.
It’s what he does as a billionaire businessman that’s different. Kane wants to use his socioeconomic station to revitalize a blighted neighborhood gutted by racist real estate practices.
The sleazy developer who stands to profit by buying the dilapidated public housing thinks differently:
Despite his terseness and aloof affect, Raymond can’t just coolly detach himself from the fire that burns inside.
Subplots involving a masked serial killer, widespread political corruption, and the criminal past of Nighthawk’s ops coordinator Tilda Johnson all feel like decent grist for the mill, but it’s the volatile undercurrent running through Raymond Kane himself that will keep me checking out this series in coming months. There’s an unusual friction inside this debut issue, as Nighthawk doesn’t seem like the kind of character that Marvel would want to set up for any sort of kinder/gentler attitude shift. But it’s already apparent that his particular stripe of crime-fighting isn’t psychologically sustainable. He’s Batman-as-asshole to the nth degree, haunted by an enemy all his skill or money can’t vanquish. Nighthawk’s going to have to change into something else. It’s just not apparent what that is yet.