It’s The Hope That Kills You: Duane Swierczynski On Dark Circle’s ‘The Black Hood’
Duane Swierczynski is the man who made Archie Comics cuss.
When the company relaunches its superhero line as Dark Circle, the flagship title will be The Black Hood, in which Swierczynski and artist Michael Gaydos, co-creator of Alias, reinvent the character in an incredibly violent mature readers crime story focused on Greg Hettinger, a cop who gets injured in the line of duty while taking down a vigilante, and takes on the identity of the Black Hood in order to deal with the pain, frustration and rage that wells up as a result of his accident.
It's a brutal story that fits right in with Swierczynski's other work on books like Judge Dredd and Punisher, and as a result, it's also a pretty big departure from Archie's usual offerings, even in a time when the company is reinventing itself with critically acclaimed horror comics and a push for a more realistic Riverdale. To find out more, I spoke to Swierczynski to talk about the origins of the Black Hood as a hero for the bad side of Philadelphia, how far Hettinger has to fall, and, maybe most importantly, Swierczynski's own place in history as the first writer to work the F-bomb into an Archie book.
ComicsAlliance: How did the conversation about relaunching Black Hood start? Was he a character that you had an affinity for before you started talking to Archie?
Duane Swierczynski: I’d never heard of the Black Hood before my editor, Alex Segura, mentioned him. But I loved that he had deep pulp roots, and at the same time I’d been kicking around an idea for a “good cop gone bad” novel that seemed to make sense for the Hood. That said, I fully expected Alex to tell me, “Nah, not quite what we’re looking for.” It was a pleasant surprise when they not only accepted my pitch, but encouraged me to go darker with it. I’d assumed they would want something more superhero-ish, but I couldn’t be more wrong.
CA: Was it an easy transition to fit the character into what you already had in mind for the novel, or did it take some work to get it?
DS: The novel idea was in its earliest, embryonic stages. Usually, it takes me anywhere from two months to a year (heck, in some cases 10 years) to develop the idea to the point where I’m ready to write the first chapter. So I just took that early idea and immediately started thinking of it in terms of a monthly comic, as well as where it might fit into The Black Hood’s legacy. It was a smooth transition, actually.
This has worked the other way around, too. Last year I had an idea that I thought about pitching as a creator-owned comic — a true crime idea, actually, with a personal connection. But the more I thought about it, the more it demanded to be told in prose. So that’s probably what I’ll be working on over the spring and summer.
CA: Along those same lines, how much research did you do into the history of the character?
DS: Dark Circle sent me a bunch of stuff, and I pored through it all, but by this point the “good cop gone bad” idea had really hold. So I focused much less on the research of the character and more on researching the world -- Philadelphia, the present -- of the new Black Hood.
CA: Were there any previous versions that were a particular favorite, or that really informed your take on the character?
DS: The original concept — of a police officer compelled to fight crime wearing a mask — is the one that’s guided me throughout this process. But beyond that, I didn’t want any kind of continuity handcuffs, and the Dark Circle guys were great about reassuring me that this was not only okay, but encouraged. That said, I think there’s a fun legacy to explore down the road. For now, though, we’re keeping the focus on Greg Hettinger, the new guy in the hood.
CA: You're a Philadelphia guy yourself, right? There's a lot in Black Hood #1 about growing up in a particular area that affects Hettinger's decision to become a vigilante, and reading through it, I was wondering how much of that came from how you grew up.
DS: Yep — I grew up in the neighborhood of Frankford, same as Greg Hettinger. But that’s where the biographical similarities end. I was a geeky band nerd who stayed inside, reading comic books and horror novels all the time. Greg, I imagine, was out and about, and very popular with the ladies, maybe getting into some minor trouble with beer and late night parties. I knew guys like Greg in high school and secretly admired them, while at the same time hoping they wouldn’t stuff me in a locker.
Using Frankford as a setting, though, was important to me in terms of its history. During the Revolutionary War, Frankford was a quiet country village. Allegedly, Thomas Jefferson read the Declaration of Independence in public for the first time in the neighborhood's Womrath Park. When I was a kid, though, Womrath Park was a drug haven directly across the street from a porno theater. (The Art Holiday, for you film buffs out there.)
And it still contains one of the most active drug corridors in the city. Last September, right near the park, a pregnant woman was shot in the face, thanks to a stray bullet from a gun battle a block away. It was a Sunday morning, just before noon, and the woman was sitting outside on her front stoop, watching her neighbor’s seven-year-old play. She died at the scene. The human being in me was horrified. The writer in me wanted to send someone there to avenge her. (I was writing the first issue right around the time this news broke.)
So I wanted Greg/The Black Hood to have a similar sense of his neighborhood’s history. He realizes that so-called “bad” neighborhoods weren’t always this way, and that it is possible to transform them. If he truly thought such a thing were impossible, I think he’d give up his mission pretty quick.
CA: I saw a headline not too long ago about how Black Hood is the first-ever Archie comic to drop the F-bomb. How do you feel about having that particular spot in comic book history?
DS: Come on. I’m sure Jughead let it slip once in a while. (Maybe off panel.)
CA: Was there a lot of encouragement from Archie to push the envelope in terms of violence and content, or did they just leave you to your own devices for that? I mean, the first thing that happens in this comic is that the main character takes a shotgun blast to the face.
DS: Alex, Paul Kaminski, and the rest of the staff were extremely supportive. But we’re not so much concerned with breaking new ground in terms of shock value — The Black Hood is not that kind of comic. All of us agree that character comes first. I just happen to enjoy putting my characters through a kind of living hell.
CA: In this first issue, we're seeing the story of a guy who's falling pretty far, pretty hard. Not to ask for spoilers right away, but is there an end in sight, or are we just at the tip of how bad things are going to get?
DS: Well, if Greg is falling down an elevator shaft in issue #1, then he has a few more floors to hit before he goes splat at the bottom. But things do brighten a little, especially as he figures out what he’s meant to do with his life, post-accident. He learns to hope again. Of course, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you.