Jim Valentino’s Shadowhawk:

Year One

At the time of Image Comics’ inception, Jim Valentino openly admitted to being the least known founder.  Valentino stated in the first edition of the trade paperback of Shadowhawk vol. 1 that “I was pretty anxious about my ability to hold up my end” (Valentino 2).  Except for fans of his successful tenure on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and his lesser known but still successful indy comic, normalman, few mainstream comic book fans readily recognized his name in comparison to the likes of Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Rob Liefield.  Prior to his time at Image, Valentino had yet to publish a comic that sold over 500,000 issues, let alone the million plus mark that a number of his colleagues previously accomplished in their time at Marvel.  Yet in spite of these initial misgivings, Shadowhawk proved to be one of Valentino’s greatest successes achieving sales of over 500,000 copies for its inaugural issue.

Although Image Comics aimed to push the boundaries of super-hero comics with its brash and bold approach through hypermasculine super-heroes, excessive displays of violence, and unabashed sexual energy emanating from the characters, it was clear the influence from the big two publishers—Marvel and DC—still cast an ever-present shadow on the new company.  While Jim Valentino might have intended to leave the Batman type to fellow Image founder, Todd McFarlane as he produced the highly successful Spawn series with its title character performing as a supernatural – and far more lethal – Caped Crusader, readers of Shadowhawk quickly identified this series as a Batman derivative from the opening sequences of the first issue.  Like many of the hyper-real super-heroes of Image Comics’ first year in business, Shadowhawk provided readers with an updated response to what the question of what the more well-known super-heroes would look like if they were allowed to more accurately reflect the increasing interest in sex and violence of their readers.  This was nothing new but the amount readers actually saw portrayed on the page as opposed to their imaginations was.

The grim representation of the super-hero carried forward in titles, such as Shadowhawk, first made major headlines in the comics industry in Frank Miller’s deconstruction of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns followed by Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, most notably illustrated in the Comedian and Rorschach—two heroes who demonstrated no remorse using excessive violence to keep criminals in check and challenging readers’ conceptions of where criminal behaviors were being demonstrated.  These representations helped satiate questions raised in the minds of fanboys throughout the world: “What would happen if super-heroes had a bad day?”  Perhaps more to the point, “What would happen if super-heroes crossed the line and made use of excessive violence to keep the peace?”  In providing a response to these discussions taking place in comic shops all over, the super-heroes in Moore’s Watchmen and Miller’s Dark Knight Returns would also effectively provide the knockout punch to the Comics Code that horror writers, such as Marv Wolfman, and progressive-minded creators such as Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams began hammering away at during the previous decade.  Six years after this watershed moment in super-hero history and with the Comics Code reeling, the comic book industry still found itself surging ahead into the brazen, new world of the anti-hero.

What is noticeable between the super-heroes of O’Neil and Adams from the 1970s as well as Miller and Moore from the 1980s and what readers encountered in those early Image Comics releases, however, is lack of critical exploration of the nature of violence and short and long-term ramifications on the super-hero him or herself.  Clearly, there are deep-seeded psychological issues that compel these heroes to don their capes, perform these self-constructed roles, and place themselves in perilous situations so that they might respond in ways that typical society would otherwise deem unacceptable: physically, mentally, or emotionally brutalizing other beings in addition to a host of other lesser crimes such as breaking and entering, trespassing, spying, etc.  It is no accident that psychological scarring, traumatic stress, and the manifestations of emotional disturbed individuals are so prominent in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  Rorschach’s early childhood trauma provides one of the more significant influences on his crime-fighting lifestyle while the Comedian’s desperate attempts at finding humor in both the desperate situations he finds himself and the despicable acts he performs all of which make for a thoroughly engaging case study in the psychological ramifications of long-term exposure to and use of violence as a method of conflict resolution—a point that could equally be applied to Miller’s Batman.  Further, O’Neil and Adams earlier engaged in controversial discussions over race, class, and drug use in their critically-acclaimed run on Green Lantern/ Green Arrow.

Yet, when looking at Valentino’s work on Shadowhawk, the same level of nuance and depth becomes quite evident; yet, it is clear there are greater plans for this character in comparison to other super-hero titles coming out of Image at the time.  As he stated shortly after the publication of Issue #4, “My idea was to take Batman and strip him down to his core—what makes him work, what doesn’t” (1).  He then goes on to describe how this “core” of Batman called for a “person [whose] mission was to strike fear in the hearts of criminals…he would not allow homicidal maniacs like the Joker or Penguin to continue inflicting their lunacy” (1).  And readers discovered that this meant Valentino’s new super-hero would “feel a certain amount of satisfaction as his spine breaks” (Youngblood, Issue 2).  Valentino makes social inequality and the presence of cheap street drugs in urban settings a concern for his hyper-violent hero.  Further, we discover Shadowhawk is an African American leading his own title.  Even during the 1990s, there were few comic book super-heroes who were both minorities and leading titles on their own.  In these regards, Shadowhawk does attempt to do more than attempt to focus strictly on superficial, action-packed “fun” and poor stereotyping as seen in Youngblood’s Chapel.  However, one cannot help but notice how the inner monologue and the discussion between the characters from one issue to the next focuses more on the ultra-violent mystery man and less on his motives for continually incapacitating the criminals he encounters on the street.  One might raise the question as to whether we need heroes such as Shadowhawk in light of the disregard he displays for the laws of society—something he explicitly and cynically flaunts from his personally experiencing a breakdown in justice in his civilian life.  It is equally clear this question is not one the text is raising, but is instead, the response of at least this reader while encountering the story years after it initially hit newsstands.  Ultimately, it becomes clear that Shadowhawk serves as a derivative form of Batman as he was damaged earlier in life and now takes to the rooftops to battle crime on his own terms—through striking out at criminals with fear and a steeled fist.  Unlike the Batman being published during this same period of time, however, the sense of humanity and psychology fails to make itself evident other than instances of when the reader is simply told what Shadowhawk is thinking or experiencing.  And the mark of a truly compelling narrative—super-hero comic or otherwise—is that the character development is shown—not told.  Still, Shadowhawk certainly caught a lot of readers’ attention at the time it was published for addressing the issue of what a “no holds barred” Batman would like look, which was one of Valentino’s originally intended goals for the title.

While Shadowhawk would go on to prove to be Jim Valentino’s most successful work in the comics industry and validate his role as one of the founders of Image Comics, it should not be mistaken as one of the great titles that helped provide the long-term stability the company presently enjoys.  Instead, readers should view this series from a similar lens to that of the other early super-hero titles coming out of Image at the time such as Youngblood, Wild C.A.T.S., and Cyberforce to name a few.  They were action-packed romps that provided space for a number of enthusiastic creators to run amok with super-heroes who were only superficially different from the heroes these artists previously worked on at Marvel and DC, but under much more restrictive conditions.  Where creators were held to the hard and fast guidelines that Batman did not kill, use guns, or cross the line of violence that would have placed him at odds with the Gotham PD, Shadowhawk was under no such compulsion.  Valentino stated: “Only in super-hero comics do heroes not kill.  I decided the character wouldn’t kill… but he’d maim” (Khoury 134).  These titles served as playgrounds for readers’ imaginations so they might exercise those intensively aggressive hypothetical situations regularly discussed amongst comic fans in order to finally satiate those age-old questions such “What would happen if Batman finally snapped?”  The result would be the reverberating sound of a criminal’s spine being broken at the hands of a steel-clad figure bounding across the rooftops in Jim Valentino’s Shadowhawk. While Shadowhawk could be viewed as noteworthy for answering this question, this sort of distinction is not really one that earns a book a reputation that lasts for multiple generations.  So is there a longer-lasting, redeeming quality about this first series for this Image founder?

Admittedly, I struggled with the analysis of this comic, as I felt it provided a somewhat harsh review of Valentino’s best-selling work—I’d argue his work on Guardians of the Galaxy is perhaps his best work in the super-hero genre—and I was one of the adolescent fans utterly shocked at what I saw in the first pages of this sleek, new, and unflinchingly violent vision of Batman.  Unlike Youngblood—which is far more egregious in its stereotypes and flaws—Shadowhawk does place a minority behind the mask of the title character, and Valentino would later on introduce AIDS into the narrative—something far from common during the early 1990s.  Discussing this choice in topic, Valentino pointed out that “in the early 90s AIDS was still considered a “gay disease,” and one of the conceits of the storyline was that it was a disease—it really didn’t care if you were gay, straight, young, old, male, female, black, white, or blue” (135).  This hero is clearly driven by a pro-social mission, and the book attempts to espouse progressive concerns.  There seems to be a moral ground that Shadowhawk tries to hold—even if he does so by any means necessary.  It’s also worth giving credit to Valentino for avoiding many of the common problems that plagued many of the other Image titles: numerous variant covers per issue, missed ship dates and late comics, and shameless self-promotion within advertisements.

Finally, I recognize that over fifty years into the business of telling comic book super-hero stories, the creative “well” will eventually begin to run dry.  People begin to tell many of the same types of stories; however, it is still possible to use the same formula but recast it in a new and original way.  So I do not mean to cast Valentino into irons for modeling his character after Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Batman.  As he grew into the title, Valentino would begin devoting more time to developing his hero into a more nuanced and human individual at the same time toning down the violence, which had previously taken the forefront of the monthly issues.  Moreover, his interest in diversifying Image Comics in later years as the publisher is evident in the varied titles and creators he brought into the fold, which resulted in his reducing “the titillation books that Image was publishing at the time” (Khoury 137).  But confining the discussion to his initial publication of Shadowhawk,[1] I’m not entirely certain his retelling of the classic super-hero formula brings all that much to the table when taking into account what other storytellers, like Miller and Moore, already accomplished in their deconstruction of the model from the first issues of their respective works.  Valentino certainly deserves credit in incorporating the AIDS story arc into his later issues mentioned earlier, as this certainly was a controversial issue at the time, and it’s worth noting that unlike Valentino, few other Image creators were trying to integrate the same sort of social concerns into their titles early on.  Yet, this was largely a secondary concern during the first year of publication compared to selling issues to fans who were anxious to see more of the same sort of hypermasculine and overly violent super-heroes who were pushing the boundaries of an already battered Comics Code Authority and its standard of what super-heroes should and could do in newsprint.  And so, while Shadowhawk may prove to be an intense, exciting thrill ride for some readers, it is this overall lack of originality that relegates this early title to a less than stellar start looking back.

Perhaps the most significant impact Shadowhawk had was not based on the content between the covers but the opportunities it created for Valentino to open doors for even more creators.  George Khoury noted that from the beginning, Jim Valentino made a point to immediately provide either opportunities for work or the promotion of other up-and-coming creators’ works, including “people like Scott McCloud, Jeff Smith, Colleen Doran, Bob Burden” and other artists and writers who caught his eye (134).  Although these points don’t directly relate to the Shadowhawk storyline, they are worth noting as they speak to a creator whose interests clearly demonstrated an interest in the longer-term success of the medium and industry. Considering the roads Valentino paved as both the Image Comics publisher from 1999-2003 when he discovered both Robert Kirkman and Brian Michael Bendis as well as presiding over Shadowline Comics since 1992—the imprint currently enjoying rave reviews for its breakout hit, Peter Panzerfaust—there is no disputing Valentino’s place as one of the Image founders and within the current renaissance of creator-owned comics.

Works Cited

Khoury, George.  Image Comics: The Road to Independence.  Raleigh: TwoMorrows, 2007.  Print.

[1] Like my analysis of Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, I opted to maintain a narrowed focus on the first four issues of this series.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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