The Black Hood #1 is a noir tale every bit as dark as the mask on the cover would suggest, as dark as the original French translation. Art and story alike have been dipped in a barrel of oil and come out dripping of the inky blackness from beneath the earth, and it looks like there may be a kid playing with matches only a few feet away. Duane Swierczynski and Michael Gaydos are both experienced craftsmen in this particular genre and aren't holding back in their debut at Archie Comics.
The story focuses upon Gregory Hettinger, a Philadelphia police officer who is disfigured in a shootout. Shots are fired and bodies fall within the first four pages, leaving most of the comic to focus on Greg's spiral into darkness after the incident. Distraught at having taken a human life, shunned due to his appearance, and dependent on painkillers, Greg's descent is quick and brutal.
Despite his successively worsening decisions, Swierczynski makes Greg a sympathetic protagonist, although most definitely not a hero. The initial sequence in which Greg is both injured and kills a (relatively) innocent man, is shown to be complete chaos. Good intentions and police training are not nearly enough to stand up against a shotgun blast to the face. Greg makes a mistake, but the mistake is an understandable one. That same line of reasoning applies to each mistake that comes next, and there are plenty. Swierczynski walks a fine line between empathy and justification, allowing readers to slowly be submerged in Greg's hell without ever making him out to be heroic. His actions and his world are an awful place, but it is always possible to understand and sympathize with his fall.
Swierczynski's script is overwritten at points, telling readers what Gaydos' is already showing them. In an 8 panel page, Greg is shown being commended by men and children who can barely stand to look at him. The captions in the top and bottom panels add details and feelings impossible to perceive in the art, but those in the middle are unnecessary. Swierczynski's narration describes people attempting to be polite, but looking away in horror. Gaydos' art reveals that exact reaction twice and details Greg's look of dismay. This painful moment functions perfectly within the faces of the characters alone.
Gaydos illustrates these quiet, painful moments beautifully. He showed a knack for subtle human interaction as far back as Alias, and it is utilized to great effect here. The opening of The Black Hood #1 is fast paced and violent, but the majority of the comic is filled with much smaller human moments. Gaydos manages to place as much impact within a prolonged stare or despairing face as gunfire. There's a grit to his art that coats bandages, walls, and the streets of Philadelphia with a creeping darkness. His style is as natural of a fit to noir as that of Sean Phillips.
Kelly Fitzpatrick's colors serve to accentuate this ever blackening mood. Her palettes absorb all light from the panels and leave a desaturated urban landscape prepped for violence and misery. Browns, grays, and blacks dominate urban Philadelphia providing an honest interpretation of the city blocks shown, but one that also reflects a slightly heightened version of reality.
The Black Hood #1 may appear to be a superhero comic based on its cover alone, but the only truth to be found there is in the colors. Look at that black backlit by a deep, murderous red and you know all you need to about the tone and direction of this series. This is noir every bit as dark as the hood draped over Greg Hettinger's face, slowly pulling you down into the awful mistakes of a man who tried to do the right thing. It's painful, striking, and only just the beginning.