If you’ve been sampling the wares of Archie Comics’ new “mature readers” imprint, Dark Circle, chances are that you’ve been a bit surprised (hopefully pleasantly) by how “all over the place” these books have been in terms of their tone. The Black Hood has proven to be every bit as grim n’ gritty as advertised, and that’s been terrific and all, but Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid’s relaunch of The Fox has been just as accessible-for-all-ages as its previous iteration at the defunct-again Red Circle, while The Shield has the flavor of an old-school superhero yarn.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking any of these books — truth be told, I’ve been digging every single one of ’em — but when Archie first announced that they were “updating” all these classic characters for the fallen times in which we live, their press releases touting the new line definitely emphasized the “dark” in Dark Circle, and up to this point, The Black Hood has been the only title in the bunch that you wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving out for your ten-year-old to find.
All that changed in a hurry last Wednesday, however, with the debut issue of Frank Tieri and Felix Ruiz’s revisionist take on The Hangman, with its initial five-part story arc titled, appropriately (and simply) enough, “Damned.”
Like all the other characters now gathered under the Dark Circle banner, this guy’s been around since the 1940s, but has never really seemed to stick for too long. For a while there, Archie even licensed all of these properties out to DC to see if they could get anything going with them, but the track record of failure continued and the house that Siegel and Shuster built quietly allowed the rights for the lot of ’em to revert back to their former publishing home some years ago, where they all, apart from The Fox. have been gathering dust ever since. Now, however, they’re back with a vengeance, and the character of The Hangman might just be the nastiest, gnarliest bad-ass of the bunch.
The strange thing is, it’s several pages until we get to meet him in this opening installment. Instead, we’re introduced first to one “Mad Dog” Mike Minetta, a mid-level mob enforcer who likes his job a little too much but manages to maintain the charade of a hard-working and devoted family man all the same. There’s a scene where “Mad Dog” shields his daughter’s eyes from a hostage he’s keeping bound and gagged in the trunk of his car that has to be seen to be believed, but when he takes this wing-clipped stool pigeon out to be dispatched, well — that’s when we realize this bastard’s even more hard-core than we realized.
Tieri — who will always and forever be known as the guy who dragged The Punisher into outer space over at Marvel — absolutely nails the “Brooklyn mafia goon” banter in his fast-paced script, and Ruiz’s art, while admittedly borrowing semi-heavily from Alex Maleev, by and large conveys its own uniquely twisted slant on modern noir throughout, aided in no small part by the expert coloring of Kelly Fitzpatrick. My one gripe is that there are a couple of noticeable occasions where what’s being said doesn’t exactly mesh so well with what’s being shown (like when “Mad Dog” informs his victim that he’s going to smear strawberry jam on his crotch — I promise, it’s not what you’re thinking! — but appears to be dumping it into the air and letting it land wherever), but overall the flow here is pretty smooth, especially once our sadistic fuck of a protagonist hears tell of the legend of The Hangman, a local Brooklyn bogeyman who apparently takes out the guys the cops can’t get, subsequently it off, and then finds himself being pursued by him mere moments later in a compelling action sequence that can best be described as “street-level supernatural.” I’m tellin’ ya, friends, it’s some seriously gripping, balls-out stuff.
Throw in a superb cover by Ruiz (pictured at the top of this review) and some kick-ass variants by Francesco Francavilla, Tim Bradstreet, and Robert Hack (respectively, as shown), and you’ve got an altogether awesome package here, even if the last page doesn’t necessarily make a heck of a lot of sense on first pass-through (my best guess is that the “spirit” of The Hangman is passing on from its former host into Minetta, but I could be wrong about that, and it should be a little more clear in order for the “cliffhanger” ending to have maximum impact).
So yeah, The Hangman #1 certainly isn’t a perfect first issue, but it’s a damn engrossing one all the same, and should more than whet your appetite for more — provided you’re a deviant sonofabitch like I am. And seriously, did you ever think you’d see the line “he wants me to cut her cunt out and send it to him in the mail” in an Archie comic?