Walker's "Nighthawk" Battles for the Soul of Marvel's Chicago

For some Marvel heroes, saving the day means punching out a villain and ending their latest scheme to conquer the world. But others face a more difficult battle against crime and corruption so entrenched, it infects the very soul of the city they're trying to protect -- and, if they're not careful, it can infect their souls as well.

The extra-dimensional refugee known as Nighthawk has jumped head first into such a situation in his new series by writer David Walker and artist Ramon Villalobos. Making things even more difficult is the fact that Nighthawk has chosen to bring his bloody brand of justice to Chicago, a city with a decades-spanning legacy of corruption and violence, and no other Marvel heroes to protect it.

RELATED: Walker Explains How "Civil War II" Tests "Power Man & Iron Fist's" Friendship

CBR News spoke in-depth with Walker about his plans for "Nighthawk" and how he hopes to use the series to provide escapist entertainment while asking questions about the problems plaguing real world Chicago. Our conversation touched upon how people in the Marvel Universe view Nighthawk's lethal brand of justice, the inspirations for some of the series' new characters, his plans for the established Marvel villain who appeared in issue #1, and the other Marvel heroes he'd like to see eventually cross paths with Nighthawk.

CBR News: One of the things I liked about "Nighthawk" #1 was the fact that there was a lot of righteous violence from the title character. And yet, you didn't let readers forget that this violence had impact on both those getting beaten and the one dishing out the punishment. It looks like in his private moments Nighthawk may not be comfortable with what he's becoming.

David Walker: Yeah, you see some of the more popular of these characters like the Punisher, or over at DC there's Batman, and they have the justification for their activities. But you never see too much in the way of remorse or some sort of personal conflict on a moral or emotional level. One of the things I always loved about Daredevil was that there was always that level of conflict between his Catholic upbringing and what he's doing as Daredevil.

I wanted to bring some of that. I wanted to get into the heart of this character who's driven to do really brutal things, but who was raised by parents who were essentially pacifists. There's a lot of my youth in this element of the book, because when I was younger, I would get into a lot of fights. I was raised by my mom and my grandparents, and they were all very much of the pacifist mind-set. I never wanted to hear that. I always wanted to fight.

That created a lot of internal conflict within me, because my first response was always, "Let me beat the hell out of this person." But then I would hear the voice of my mom or my grandmother, and it would be like, "You're so much better than this, and this is also going to get you into serious trouble at some point."
That's part of what I wanted to bring to the character, because you don't see it that much, especially in these classic characters who were orphans and are avenging the deaths of their parents. What if how you were going about that vengeance is in direct contradiction to who they were and how they raised you? That's part of what I wanted to explore.

Another interesting aspect of "Nighthawk" #1 was your protagonist having to get involved in what was happening in Chicago in his civilian identity as Raymond Kane. Is stepping out of the shadows and being a public figure something that he's comfortable doing?

I thought it would be kind of an interesting to see him as someone personally trying to step up. I was trying to bring in this notion that, as a black person in America, you may have a sense of extra levels of responsibility. Here, we've got this guy who's a respectable businessman, and he dresses up at night and fights what he views as crime. At the end of the day, though, that's not enough for him.

You have to work to make sure that there's affordable housing, and that people's basic needs are taken care of. It's something that here, in this first arc, we're not able to get too heavily into, just because of the story we're telling. I'm laying the groundwork for it now, though, so it doesn't come from out of nowhere.

Why did he choose this particular city?

I sort of inherited this from J Michael Straczynski's "Supreme Power" run back in 2003. It was part of an arc that I really loved, and in that particular setting, he was based in Chicago. When I started talking to Marvel, that was one of the conversations.

Chicago is not a city that is over run by superheroes or supervillains, but at the same time, it's such an incredibly complex and violent city. The state of Illinois has one of the strangest histories, in terms of crime. I want to say, and I could be wrong, that the state of Illinois has had more governors that went on to become convicted felons than any other state in the nation. There is this weird level of corruption and crime. Those two things go so hand in hand with everyday life, I thought it would be really interesting to have a "hero" in this city who, sometimes it's questionable whether he's really a hero.

It seems like the complex and diverse nature of the different neighborhoods in Chicago would allow the book to explore a variety of different stories.

Yes, different neighborhoods and different concepts. The two biggest things we're exploring in this first arc are police brutality and gentrification. Pretty much every city in this country is facing those problems, but when you look at Chicago, which several years ago was dubbed "Chiraq" because of the violence that continues to plague that city, there's so much to be told there.

I'm not trying to knock Chicago. I was just there. I have friends who live there, and there are aspects of that city that are amazing -- but I also think Chicago, in a lot of ways, represents the things that can go wrong in a city when there's not enough accountability, when there's a lot of duplicity, and when there's a lot of greed. We see that in a lot of other cities too, but there's something about Chicago. When you look at the murder rate and the crime rate and the level of corruption within both state and local politics as a writer, you go, "Wait a second! How come there's not more stuff set here? You guys are missing a gold mine!"

By contrast, I'm working on "Power Man & Iron Fist," which takes place in New York City, a city that I've lived in and spent an enormous amount of time in. It's tough to tell a story about the gritty, sleazy side of New York and have it set in Times Square. Because that Times Square that I grew up in, the one that was in movies like "Taxi Driver," is gone. People are so familiar with New York now, for me it feels hard to find that urban decay that, sadly, Chicago has. There's an overabundance of it there.

In a way, Chicago is one of your supporting characters.

It is, but it's not as much as I want it to be at the moment. I'm working on that, but the concept of what Chicago is definitely informs the story.

When I write comics, I do a tremendous amount of research, most of which never shows up in the final product. I always tell people it's my preferred form of procrastination, but I really studied up on the history of crime in Chicago, the history of politics in Chicago, and another interesting topic -- the history of race relations in Chicago.

A lot of people don't know, remember or understand that during the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s, Chicago was called "The Birmingham of the North." It was considered one of the most racist cities in the country. It was the home of the American Nazi Party and George Lincoln Rockwell. Those lingering elements don't go away easily in any city. Just because a city may get a black mayor or the country might get a black president, it doesn't necessarily mean that all that lingering racism and racial animosity goes away over night.

So again, if Chicago isn't as much as a character as I want it to be right now, what Chicago is is informing this book. I think it would be difficult to set this particular series in too many other cities; even a city like Cleveland, which god knows has its issues with police brutality and racism, but it's not like what we're seeing in Chicago.

Right, didn't the Chicago P.D. have a black site style interrogation center?

Yeah -- Homan Square is the name of the place, and I reference that in an upcoming issue of "Nighthawk," but it could be that I put that reference in an upcoming issue of "Power Man & Iron Fist." I can't remember.

Homan Square was one of those things, when I first read about it I thought, "How is this possible?" There are so many people that don't know about this place, where literally thousands of people who were taken by the police, disappeared and were held without being charged or facing trial. Some really scary stuff went on there, and when we talk about the breakdown of the American Criminal Justice System, Homan Square represents as bad as it gets in the last 10 years. It's up there with what the Rampart scandal was to Los Angeles in the '90s.

So, I love Chicago for a lot of reasons, but it also terrifies me. I'm trying to put both my love for the city and fear of it into this series, and that's what Nighthawk is. He's a person who loves this city and is afraid of it at the same time. I think we're seeing that throughout the country.

Again, all of that says to me that there's a breakdown in the American dream and there's a lot to be mined there and addressed for storytellers. Not all entertainment needs to be 100 percent escapist.

Assisting Nighthawk in his Chicago crusade is Doctor Tilda Johnson, who old school Marvel fans know best as the villainous Nightshade. What made you want to bring her into the book and cast her in this role?

I always got the sense that there was some resistance from people over my using her. She hasn't shown up much during the last 10 years -- I feel she hasn't been used that well, and I thought what was really interesting was the fact that she's one of the biggest robotics and electronic engineering experts in the Marvel Universe. Yet she's always running around in a leather bikini. I thought, "Let's do something with her. Let's turn her around. Let's change her."

When you look at her origin, and why she went into crime -- I don't know if this was done intentionally by her creators back in the '70s, but I've known people who are kind of like her in that they were really, really smart and talented, but they never caught a break and went into a life of crime.

I have friends who are involved in what I like to call, "The Underground Economy." So I have this notion of Nighthawk arriving on this Earth after the events of "Secret Wars," looking around, and going, "Who are the people that I can use and get working for me that have the talent and skill? That have never been given the right opportunity and the right amount of money." In my mind, Tilda was it.

Were you and your artists doing an homage to the film "The Warriors" with some of Tilda's scenes in issue #1?

Yes! That was all intentional, because I love Lynne Thigpen's performance as the D.J. in "The Warriors." I was like, "Let's have her be this way in the beginning." The funny thing is, so many people haven't picked up on who Tilda is. They don't realize that Deadly Nightshade is an old character. That, in and of itself, is kind of funny to me, but I do understand, because she looks drastically different.

In the original drafts of the scripts, she was playing more of a role like the D.J. in "The Warriors" and an oracle. Then I hit a point where I had to give her a little bit of action, and I would love to do more stuff with her, maybe even a one-shot. Part of it is, I feel like there's some interesting black, female characters in the Marvel Universe. Misty Knight has a much bigger role, now, in "Captain America." There's Monica Rambeau, who's over in "The Ultimates," but there's not that many villains.

Over in "Power Man & Iron Fist" I'm turning Black Mariah into an interesting villain as we move forward. We've got the villain covered -- let's do a morally ambiguous character. My idea for Tilda is that, at any given time, she's at least one of the smartest people in the room. She also might be the most deadly. She can build a robot that can kill you, but she can also kill you with her bare hands. I wanted her to be a character where people go, "Wow! I don't know if I've ever seen anybody like this before!"

Rounding out the supporting cast of "Nighthawk" are some police officers: Detective Dixon, and the cops investigating the serial killer known as the Revelator; Nina and a male investigator whose name I don't believe we got.

Yes, Sherman Burrell.

Dixon represents everything that can go wrong with the police force. He is corruption. He is the system not working.

Nina and Burrell represent all the good the police can be. At the same time, though, they're on opposite ends of the spectrum. We're going to see Burrell is more of a veteran. He's more cynical, he's seen enough. How can you be a good cop on a force that's riddled with corruption? He's got this sort of cynicism, where Nina, who is younger than him, is very enthusiastic

Part of where the series is going is, we're going to reveal both of their relationships with Nighthawk. And their relationships become very complicated with him, because the police's relationship with Nighthawk is terrible. He's sort of the Punisher of Chicago, and I always liked how in the Punisher books there was always the sort of cops that turned a blind eye to the Punisher or sort of supported him. I wanted to bring that element in.

I've seen that done quite a few times in a Punisher book, and over at DC, Batman has his supporters and detractors. I always think that's interesting, because with superheroes, we're mostly talking about people that take the law into their own hands. To me, the concept of a vigilante is extremely fascinating. On one hand, they are doing certain things that the cops should be doing, or that the cops want to do but can't. Then there's the other hand, where it's like, "No, you've absolutely crossed the line."

Nighthawk did that in the first issue. We saw him busting these white supremacists -- gunrunners, who also deal meth. He doesn't just bust them, though -- he kills them all. [Laughs] Where is the line drawn? Nighthawk would argue that those guys were going to do something wrong and deadly within the next 24 hours, and that he just got them out of the way. Then we have the moral argument that follows.

The beautiful thing about writing comics and fiction is, as a writer, I can have characters make these moral statements that I don't necessarily agree with and wouldn't necessarily do. That makes for entertaining reading, and compelling discussion afterwards.

The white supremacists weren't the only villains in "Nighthawk" #1. You also introduced Dan Hanrahan and the Revelator, both new creations.

With the Revelator I wanted a character that was a mysterious serial killer, which can be bit cliche, but I wanted someone who their crimes were motivated by striking back at what they sees as being the biggest threats to their Chicago; the black community. In some regards, Revelator is Nighthawk gone bad. Spoiler alert: There's a line in issue #2 or #3 where Tilda says to Nighthawk, "This guy is you on a bad day." Then they get in an argument and Nighthawk says, "I would never do this." She replies, "But you have. You just blew up a warehouse full of Nazis. So get off your high horse."

I wanted to play this duality of, how do you confront the systemic problems of racism? You have these two characters. The Revelator, who is clearly a villain and Nighthawk, where it's not always that clear. They're both sort of fighting the same enemies, though. That's going to make for some interesting stuff as the story progresses.

Hanrahan is interesting, because it also sounds like heavy hand. That was kind of intentional. He represents the greed and corruption of America. He's a composite of business people, corporations and presidential candidates that I personally look at and go, "We need to be a little worried about this." There's this notion where they talk about making America "great again," but that begs the questions of making it great for who? And at what cost? And was it really ever that great?

Go to any reservation and ask any Native American, "When was the last time America was great?" You're going to get a really different answer from the one you might get when you ask that question at a Trump rally.

Hanrahan represents the dangers of what happens when capitalism, greed and a flagrant lack of respect for all humanity taints a person and turns them into somebody who is able to put a price on anything. You might be able to put a price on a Big Mac or a comic book, but you can't really put a price on a human life or a community. Hanrahan represents a lot of what went wrong in Chicago, what continues to go wrong, and why there's such incredible gang violence there. Part of it was these urban renewal efforts that displaced people and essentially destabilized a city. We've seen what happens in other countries when you destabilize a region, its indigenous population is dispersed, and its leadership is destroyed. It's interesting how, when people talk about Chicago, they call it Chiraq, and they call it a war zone.

If you study the most recent history of the city, most of the public housing projects were torn down and families were moved all over the city. But what happened was, in the process of forcing families to move to other parts of the city, gangs that had been in one particular area became split up and spread throughout the city.

Chicago is one of those cities where its gang activity is block by block. You can literally have a situation where its one side of the street versus the other side of the street, or one end of the block versus the other end of the block. This isn't to defend gang violence, but there was a structure and a hierarchy within the poor communities in Chicago that was destroyed, destabilized and then dispersed. Now, we're seeing the results of that. It was men like Hanrahan, this fictional amalgam of all these people, who were responsible for it. People will, of course, get angry at me for saying this, but the truth hurts as much as a shot from a metal folding chair to the head.

Hanrahan isn't someone who can be defeated by being punched out.

No, he's not. You can't kill him, either, because there's always going to be somebody to replace him. There's always going to be somebody who is going to step up. Hanrahan represents as much a system of oppression and greed as he does what can seem like the futility of fighting against the system.

Ramon Villalobos art has this almost cartoony sense to it, but at the same time, it also has a real and gritty feel to it.

Yeah. His stuff is amazing. I had seen some of his earlier work, like "E is For Extinction," and I really liked his style. I knew the story I was writing was different, though; there was a level of action and interaction that I wasn't seeing in "E is for Extinction," because the writers of that book were doing a different story. I was hoping that he would get this story and bring the level of violence and emotion that I wanted. Then those pages started turning up, and I was like, "Wow. This is really great."

As an artist, his pencils are incredibly loose. The difference between his pencils and his inks is the difference between night and day. You see the layouts and the rough pencils, and it's like, "I guess this page is going to look good." Then you see the final inks, and it's like, "Oh my god! This is amazing!"

Then you throw in Tamra Bonvillain's colors, and she and Ramon know each other. They talked a lot about what the color palette would look like. I even got involved in that conversation a little bit, because part of the narrative style was jumping quickly back and forth between locations. As the story goes forward we'll be moving in a non-linear fashion as well. There's one issue where we're jumping around in time; not by major chunks. Some times we'll have a scene 10 minutes earlier or 25 minutes later. We want to make sure that the reader can look at those scenes and just by the colors go, "Okay we're some place else. We're at a different location or a different time." The two of them have really delivered the goods.

This first arc finds you building up Nighthawk's world in a very grounded story. Going forward, are you interested in bringing in some more fantastic elements and characters from outside of MArvel's Chicago?

Definitely! I'd like to bring in some members of the Squadron Supreme, and see how Nighthawk interacts with some other people as well. I don't know if it will happen, but I'd love to have an issue where there's a confrontation between him and the Punisher. I have this great idea of Frank Castle looking at this guy and going, "Okay, I get what you're doing. I totally respect it, but you may have crossed the line." [Laughs] And, for me, to have Frank Castle to say that to somebody is sort of the ultimate irony.

I'd also love to see how some of the other black heroes respond to Nighthawk. At the end of the day, Nighthawk is at odds with law and order, as it were, and the status quo. When you're at odds with the status quo, you're kind of a villain. You might not have villainous intentions, but there are people who see you as a villain.

If you're reading this interview and haven't checked "Nighthawk" out, yet this is a hard-hitting book, and I want it to say something that I felt wasn't being said too much in mainstream comics. Marvel, especially Axel Alonso, Tom Brevoort, Katie Kubert, and Christina Harrington were really cool with, "Yeah, let's do this!" There hasn't been an idea that I threw out at them where they said, "Wait a minute! You've gone too far!" And I'm trying to go too far! [Laughs] I haven't gone there yet, though. We'll see when we get to too far.

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