The Chris Powell incarnation of Darkhawk had a moderately successful run from 1991-1995 during the comics boom of Marvel Comics, when just about any title could make it to at least 50 issues and even the lowest-selling title sold in numbers that would make it the industry’s #1 Bestseller by a wide margin by today’s standards.
The original series dealt broadly with a teenage Chris discovering a mysterious amulet at an abandoned amusement park that he had followed his police-officer father into. He discovers that his father is a ‘dirty’ cop, taking money from the mob under the table, and within a short period of time the amulet transforms him into android known as ‘The Darkhawk.’
Broadly speaking, the series dealt heavily with issues of identity, and how identity is molded by our perception of our parental figures. As the new hero Darkhawk, Chris adopts many temporary father-figures throughout the superhero community, each of whom give him a different perspective on the type of hero he wants to be. These include Spider-Man, The Punisher, Daredevil, and Captain America: each of whom operate under wildly different ethical codes of conduct and try to implore Chris to become the sort of hero they want him to be. His dilemma is obvious as he tries to figure out his own identity while mitigating the influence of his peers and paternal figures.
When it’s well done, this is an incredible metaphor for how we construct our own identities during adolescence. This is further complicated by the fact that Chris had a steadfast view of his identity that was based around his father, opting for the ‘nurture’ side of the nature vs nurture argument, but when his father’s heroism is revealed to be a ruse it sends Chris into an existential crisis: does this mean that he too will be corrupt, following in his father’s footsteps? Or will he continue on the path that his father and mother tried to steer him toward, as a force for good? Is his persona and identity determined by the biological influence of being his father’s son, or by the lessons learned on his father’s knee?
These are big questions that are only re-raised in Darkhawk #51, which picks up at least ten years after #50. The book acknowledges the myriad of appearances Chris has made throughout the Marvel Universe since his monthly book was cancelled,bbut in this issue its revealed that he hasn’t been able to turn into the Darkhawk for roughly a year, and that he has followed in his father’s footsteps, in a sense, and become a New York City cop.
This is an interesting development, because it signifies that there is still, even after all this time, a dichotomy within Chris. That he chose a middle group between nature and nurture, following the good example of his father but leaving the bad, both states that his answer to the Nature v. Nurture debate is A) still in question, and B) that the answer may be somewhere in the middle.
Officer Chris gets a call on the radio that there is a disturbance at the same amusement park he visited as a child that revealed his father’s duality and resulted in his transformation into the Darkhawk. Some other older officers, who were in on the take along with Chris’s father, hear him accept the call and follow him in order to pressure him to also accept money. It is immediately following this that two renegade Darkhawks appear, and Chris is finally able to transform again and defeat them. He also enters into a space inside his own mind where he can converse with the Darkhawk persona directly as if they are two separate consciousnesses within the same body. What’s even more interesting is that the Darkhawk persona is not the same bloodthirsty creature it was the last time we saw it, during The War of Kings. It still has those elements, but it is now willing to work with Chris and join with him to battle the remaining despots of the Raptors (the actual name of the other people who wear the Darkhawk armor).
There is a part of me that wanted to write on the cyclical nature of life as a superhero. Spider-Man is destined to fail people he loves, because that guilt is a part of his character. Captain America is destined to feel out of place, because that is part of his character. The X-Men will always be hated and feared, because that is part of their character. This constantly changing and yet always returning to the same things is a trope of superhero fiction, but I think there’s something more here.
Chris has been unable to change into the Darkhawk for a year. He is currently working as a good cop, is happy with his life (except for recurring nightmares) and has a lovely fiancee that he will be married to within the month. He is even ready to give the amulet that previously had allowed his to transform into the Darkhawk to the Avengers for study… he is as firm and steadfast in his identity as one can be, as much as he was when he followed his father into the park as a boy.
It is only when Chris is given the opportunity to emulate some of his father’s lesser characteristics that he is allowed to transform into the Darkhawk again. To me this signifies that the dual identities of Chris / Darkhawk are representative of his dual choices for how to follow in his father’s footsteps: Darkhawk represents the negative side of that equation, and only resurfaces again when Chris is offered a bribe.
What’s more telling is that the Darkhawk persona is now something he can communicate with. This is emblematic of the two states Chris was in when faced with this moral choice: when he was a child he had not yet decided who he was, and so the Darkhawk was something he became for short periods of time. Now that he is an adult and has his personality all but set in stone, the resurgence of the Darkhawk isn’t seen as a part of him but as an external consciousness that he can debate with, while hopefully maintaining the core of who he is.
And to drive the metaphor of identity home, one of the most iconic moments of the original series was when Chris took off his helmet while in the Darkhawk body and looks in the mirror to reveal something that horrified him under the mask. At the end of this issue, Chris comments that he feels different in the Darkhawk body now, and tries the same thing again… only to be horrified again, but by something new.
Chris has once again found himself in a crisis of identity, but this time it is a mid-life crisis as opposed to a crisis of finding identity. Different, yet similar, and his mind has developed the same tool to cope with it: The Darkhawk.
Marvel has been doing an interesting thing as a part of their Marvel Legacy event: in addition to going back to Legacy Numbering for most of its titles, is has also resurrected some long-cancelled titles for one-shots with the contiguous numbering. As such we get Darkhawk #51, a full twenty-two years after Darkhawk #50.
I’ve read a few of these one-shot test-kitchen titles, and this by far has been the one which appealed to me the most. Not only was I a longtime Darkhawk fan back in the day, back when you could pickup comics easily at the local pharmacy, but also has someone who enjoys good storytelling. Because this is, of all the Legacy One-Shots, the one that seems to have the most going on. Most of them seem like issue-long flashback designed to remind a disinterested public as to what these properties are, but author Chad Bowers actually has a story to tell here. I hope her gets the chance to continue it.