I’m back with more of my Indie Comics Month with another new guide for all Patrons of CK! This guide is for perhaps the least popular of the Image flagship titles, but the one with perhaps the most straight-forward, self-contained, and satisfying runs of them all. It’s all explained in my Guide to ShadowHawk by Jim Valentino!
Guide to ShadowHawk by Jim Valentino
ShadowHawk was the only one of the Image launch books that I did not dabble in back in the early 90s, which means the character has always been a mystery to me – as were his serially-numbered 90s mini-series and what seemed like repeated returns from the dead.
I’m not sure I can explain why, other than that Jim Valentino was the least explosive of the Image Comics founders and launch artists at the time. I knew Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, & Rob Liefeld from X-Men, and had at least seen Todd McFarlane on Spider-Man and Erik Larsen on Spidey and Hulk. However, Valentino mostly kept to his Guardians of the Galaxy (1990), which was set millennia into the future of Marvel Comics. With no crossovers into my beloved X-line, I hardly knew who Jim Valentino was.
Also, Valentino’s ShadowHawk simply wasn’t my style of hero. He looked like a shiny, armored Batman or a direct Darkkawk knockoff, roaming the dark alleyways of NYC. Even with a set of shiny Wolverine claws, he never seemed that interesting to me.
(Little did I know he was actually an indie version of totally different character I’d eventually come to love: Moon Knight!)
What I did know about ShadowHawk, likely thanks to regularly reading Wizard Magazine, is that he was HIV-positive. I was keenly aware of the AIDS/HIV epidemic in the early 90s. A debate over whether AIDS was a “plague” sent by god to punish sinners is what caused my permanent fracture with my Christian faith, and by the time of the reveal in ShadowHawk I was being certified as a peer sex educator.
I never knew anything more about ShadowHawk. Was he gay? Was he a future star of the musical RENT? Having that knowledge divorced from any other details of the character made his seemingly repeated death and return seem like it was in mildy-bad taste to me. I never knew the full story of ShadowHawk being HIV-positive, the numbering of his series, and his many incarnations until I researched this guide!
First, here’s the story, in Valentino’s own words from the back matter of Return of ShadowHawk (2004) #1:
The AIDS angle was in response to a lot of disinformation at the time about the AIDS virus. It was being touted (mostly by the religious right) as only affecting gays and IV drug users. One of the intents of this story-line was to educate about the disease, and essays in the back of the book gave a lot of information about it to the reader.
I love that Jim Valentino decided he wanted to foreground an AIDS/HIV plot (and information!) for a character that many readers had already decided would be their cool, violent, indie version of Batman. There were very few forms of popular fiction at the time that were portraying AIDS/HIV as something other than a disease for gay men and IV drug users. Even when a straight character in a TV show had an AIDS-related plot, it often traced back to sleeping with someone who was secretly gay or on drugs.
While with a modern lens we might wish Valentino hadn’t shied away from making his character a gay man, in the 90s it was a revolutionary act to portray title character Paul Johnstone as a straight, black man who was HIV-positive while also being a District Attorney and a costumed superhero.
I’ve been confused for years about the volume titles of early ShadowHawk comics, even after buying them before moving to New Zealand. Now I finally understand. Valentino originally released the first three story arcs as ShadowHawk (1992), ShadowHawk II (1993), and ShadowHawk III (1993). Then, when he decided to bring the Saga of Paul Johnstone to a close, he used legacy numbering to continue ShadowHawk (1993) from issue #12 to its conclusion with #18.
None of the various one-shots and mini-series from the period matter much to this ongoing saga, save for a brief back-up story from ShadowHawk Gallery, which acted as a link from the third mini-series to issue #12.
I always assumed that Paul Johnstone had died in one of those early mini-series and then returned later for the legacy numbering. That wasn’t the case! Valentino never returned to Johnstone as a title character from his death in 1995 until 15 years later in 2010.
In the meantime, Kurt Busiek detailed more of the history of ShadowHawk in The New Shadowhawk (1995) #1-7 which (improbably) was expanded in the Extreme Studios crossover Shadowhunt. This is what firmly established and expanded ShadowHawk as an analogue to Moon Knight, with many avatars through the ages. The end of that storyline introduced a new character under the mask, who Valentino used in a number of indie comics jam series until he finally had the chance to write him as a solo character from 2004 to 2006.
Now I understand the shape of Valentino’s 30 years of ShadowHawk – and, I also really appreciate it. He told two complete stories – one of an unintentional hero who was called to serve justice right up until his untimely, unfair demise. Then, after Busiek broadened the character’s backstory, Valentino returned for the saga of a legacy character learning what it means to be a hero. (Also, he briefly linked the two characters in a 2010 mini-series.)
In a way, Valentino’s two-part Saga of ShadowHawk is the most complete and concise of all of the Image launch titles. Now, with this Guide to ShadowHawk, you can hunt down every issue in reading order with a lot less time and effort than I did back in 2016.
If you love the idea of delving into the continuity of every one of Image’s launch books, plus other indie comics both big and small, consider becoming a Patron of CK. For as little as $1 a month or $10.20 a year, Patrons currently have access to…
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