Jackie Estacado has a big year ahead of him.
As the bearer of The Darkness, Estacado is one of the most important figures within the Top Cow Universe, as evidenced by his central role in "Artifacts," the publisher's upcoming 13-issue limited series written by Ron Marz and illustrated by a team of artists including Michael Broussard. But his own adventures can't be discounted either, as "The Darkness" writer Phil Hester has plenty of dark designs ahead for Estacado as the character moves towards his milestone 100th issue. Before that, however, Jackie has to settle his score against the deadly Sovereign.
"The Sovereign is an immortal king from an impossibly ancient civilization who, as punishment for some act of hubris, was cursed to live forever in the idols made in his image during his reign. So, he's basically a ghost that can inhabit and animate statues of himself," Hester told CBR News of Jackie's current nemesis. "An ancient Darkness wielder had a hand in his downfall, so now The Sovereign loves nothing more than tormenting whatever Darkness wielder he can get his hands on, and currently that's Jackie Estacado. For nearly a year, The Sovereign duped Jackie into believing that he held Jackie's soul captive in Hell, and if Jackie performed certain unsavory tasks for him it would be released. This turned out to be a huge con, but Jackie didn't realize it until he had done a lot of truly deplorable things in The Sovereign's service. We all know that anyone who screws with Jackie gets screwed back, so the last year or so of the book has detailed how Jackie put together a start-up crime family to take down The Sovereign's earthly power structure. Right now they're winnowing away the number of statues The Sovereign can inhabit in the hopes of cornering him in his final body and destroying him once and for all."
Jackie's latest attempt to chip away at The Sovereign comes in this week's "The Darkness" #85, in which Jackie encounters an eccentric Russian crime boss named Vasily Martynov. "He's a retired human trafficker who has built an immense and decadent art collection," said Hester. "One of the pieces in his private museum is a Sovereign statue Jackie has sworn to destroy. Jackie and his erstwhile A-Team negotiate the sale of the statue, but a double cross from Martynov complicates things. On top of that, Martynov has a Rasputin-like enforcer named Arvo that seems to be magically inducing crippling flashbacks to Jackie's time as an orphaned youth."
The title of the latest "Darkness" arc is "Alkonost," derived from a mythical creature in Russian folklore that may or may not come into direct conflict with Estacado himself. "The Alkonost is a bird-woman from Russian folklore, almost like a beautiful harpy, if you can imagine that," said Hester. "Her song is said to be so angelically pure that hearing it will induce such bliss that your memory will be lost upon hearing her song. It's an amazing concept and I wanted to put Jackie into conflict with it, but exactly how that comes to be isn't revealed until #86. As far as Jackie knows through #85, he's fighting Russian mobsters led by a vaguely creepy monk - little does he know."
Speaking to the genre and tone of "Alkonost," Hester said of the current story-arc: "'Alkonost' starts as a crime story and quickly becomes something close to a supernatural thriller. On page one, we're '100 Bullets.' But by page 22, we're a 'Hellboy / Lord of the Rings' mash-up."
Just as Jackie is assisted by a carefully selected group of criminals in his quest to bring down The Sovereign, so too has Hester found an ally in Sheldon Mitchell, the latest illustrator on "The Darkness" starting with issue #85. "Sheldon is another in a line of startlingly talented guys to come out of Top Cow's in house studio - Michael Broussard, Nelson Blake II and now Sheldon," said Hester of his new "Darkness" collaborator. "I think Sheldon possesses the Top Cow attention to detail that fans have come to expect; he fits the house style. That said, he's got a dark edge and a clarity of composition that really set him apart from anyone else out there. He'll be a big star soon enough -Â let me have him while I can, world!"
"I'm really excited [about joining 'The Darkness']. I consider it a huge honor to be working on a book one of my favorite artists created and to be working with such a fantastic writer, Phil Hester," Mitchell told CBR of his new Top Cow assignment. "Phil knows just how to write for the artist and that makes my job go a bit more smoothly. I like the fact that Jackie is becoming more aware of what he's capable of and is experimenting with the Darkness power. We can slowly see Jackie growing into his role as the Darkness and less like Jackie the kingpin."
Mitchell's artwork was recently showcased in the pages of "Stealth" from "Pilot Season" architects Robert Kirkman and Marc Silvestri. According to Hester, Mitchell's work on "Stealth" demonstrated that he was the right choice for "The Darkness." "To be honest, when I saw it I was like, 'There's our next Darkness artist,'" said the writer. "We knew Michael [Broussard] was leaving to tackle 'Artifacts' with Ron Marz, so the hunt for a new artist had begun. Phil Smith, Filip Sablik, Matt Hawkins, Marc Silvestri and I were beating the bushes for a new artist, and when the 'Stealth' pages started coming in we all sort of slapped our foreheads and said, 'Oh, yeah. The guy was here all along.'"
With "Alkonost," Mitchell will spend his first "Darkness" arc illustrating "dungeons, knights, ancient lands and the occasional mythical beasts we love so much," but he's just as excited about Estacado's future as he races towards issue #100. "I'm looking forward to seeing what direction Jackie's developing Darkness power will take him," said Mitchell. "Will he gain even more control as he evolves or will he be consumed by the power of the Darkness to embrace evil - and what will that mean for the people in his life?"
Those questions and more are sure to be addressed as Hester's plans for the next fifteen issues of "The Darkness" become clearer. "The conflict with The Sovereign actually wraps in issue #8,8 and Jackie goes on a whole new journey into the depths for issue #100," Hester revealed. "He'll face betrayal from within his ranks, the return of forgotten allies and enemies, and new wrinkles to his powers. Things go from supernaturally tinged crime noir to outright fantasy horror. I'd say the next year or so on the book will feel a lot like 'The Darkness' #75, the speculative flash forward I wrote about a world dominated by the Darkness. Jackie is a tortured soul and no one can live long under his curse. He finally takes matters into his own hands and forces a kill-or-be-killed confrontation with the Darkness force itself in a way I hope truly marks a milestone for both the character and Top Cow comics. Succeed or fail, 'The Darkness' #100 will be a huge game changer."
"The Darkness" #85, written by Phil Hester and illustrated by Sheldon Mitchell, arrives in comic book stores this week.