From AMAZING FANTASY #15 on, Marvel could be counted on to deliver strong young super heroes and tales of being isolated and outcast to the masses. With each subsequent era, the House of Ideas would return to these themes and bring forth new creations, unique in appearance and temperament; reflections of an archetype updated for the present day.
In the 90’s, Darkhawk and Sleepwalker undeniably became the latest avatars of these tales. Both heroes, before taking on their mantels of justice, lived their lives as young college students bedeviled by difficulties that had nothing to do with world-consuming cosmic beings or rage-fueled baddies.
Chris Powell, the teen who would be Darkhawk, struggled to make sense of a world where he witnessed evidence of his police officer father’s corruption before his dad seemingly vanished, abandoning him, his mother, and his twin younger brothers. After suffering the side eyes of neighborhood gossips and a domestic life torn asunder, Powell’s subsequent adoption of the Darkhawk guise, becoming an obsidian skinned flying armored being, came as just another complication.
A half hour west via the Jackie Robinson Parkway, Rick Sheridan also found himself balancing school and life with considerable hardship in Brooklyn.
And, to be clear, this was Brooklyn circa 1991, a far different borough that we think of it today.
Juggling a job as superintendent of the building where he lived with his dog, his academic career as a film student, a part-time job teaching English to recent immigrants, and a rocky romance with childhood sweetheart Alyssa Conover, Sheridan could only be described as besieged. Financially overdrawn and drowning in stress, being a hero who resembled nothing so much as an emaciated green alien with fly eyes seemed like the last thing he needed, but he had to be one anyway.
For Powell and Sheridan, however, the true hook came from their alter egos, the things they became. Or rather, the things that took them. See, in both cases, neither Rick nor Chris were fully in control when they became heroes.
Using the amulet that made him Darkhawk allowed Chris’s consciousness to remain, but his body would be deposited into Null Space as an android—later revealed to be part of an ancient alien race called the Raptors—assumed his place on the earthly plane. Powell ended up literally removed from his own life, replaced by something with a face so hideous even the hero himself could not gaze on what was beneath the mask.
Sleepwalker, meanwhile, “emerged” from Sheridan while he slumbered. Rick could engage his heroic self on the so-called Mindscape but he, effectively, never really served as the body or brains behind the hero; only a vessel that Sleepwalker spent around 16 hours a day trapped within.
Teen and college aged super heroes have, of course, always been metaphors for puberty. Mutant powers stand in for the plethora of changes in the body of an adolescent that come as both a delight and a distress to the individual living with them. With Sleepwalker and Darkhawk, however, the body horror and the sense of no longer being you became the focus. Powell and Sheridan felt isolated not only by way of their family situations, their financial issues, and their academic struggles, but also because, quite literally, they lost control of who they were. What the overwhelming rush of hormones might have been to a normal teen became recast as these late adolescents strung up in Null Space or the Mindscape while something else acted on their behalf.
Chris and Rick not only could not control their feelings or gave themselves over now and again to poorly planned impulse; they could not control their very selves and had to give themselves over to immensely powerful aliens. For the 60’s, a sudden manifestation of eye blasts or the ability to stick to walls came as a shock but only in society’s reaction to such changes came hazard. In the 90’s, the danger lived within, a shadow that the duo sometimes fancied themselves in control of even as it consumed their lives and remade their lives before their very own helpless eyes.
Therefore, unlike the teen heroes who preceded them, Darkhawk and Sleepwalker’s heroism came not from bravery in battle but in the willingness to let go; to allow themselves to become something more and less than who they had always been in the name of helping others.
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