Philadelphia missed out on the first wave of hard-boiled American crime writing 90 years ago. Civic corruption was a main concern in many of those stories, and Philadelphia famously did not care about such things.
By the time the city made its mark in crime fiction, such social issues had fallen by the wayside, and the individual took center stage. Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, American crime stories offered up legions of small-timers, desperate men who struggled against long odds and almost always lost. Noir had arrived, and Philadelphia produced the greatest noir writer of them all, David Goodis.
That's where Duane Swierczynski comes in. Age 43, a prolific author of novels, nonfiction, comics, and interactive mysteries, Swierczynski was born within earshot of the Market-Frankford El, and his newest project focuses on the Philadelphia he knows best, viewed through the prism of the city's greatest crime writer.
The Black Hood, a four-issue graphic novel, tells the story of a police officer who is shot in the face while breaking up an armed robbery, drowns himself in painkillers, takes refuge behind the series' titular disguise, and becomes an avenging super-antihero (though without superpowers).
"David Goodis was a huge inspiration," Swierczynski says. "His doomed characters roam the dark Philly streets after a major fall from grace. That's pretty much what happens to Greg Hettinger, the man under the hood."
The book's dark streets are recognizably Philadelphia, though not the Next Great City touted by boosters with real estate to sell. The opening panel of The Black Hood's first issue, for example, is a view down onto the Market-Frankford El, all browns and grays, sparks and grit flying. Center City's skyline is visible only far, far in the background. No bright lights here.
No bright lights, but plenty of Philadelphia, some of it wryly humorous. When Hettinger, the cop/protagonist, regains consciousness after his injury, for example, his police captain brings in a reporter named Danny Chitwood to interview the fallen hero, "a loving nod to Michael Chitwood," Swierczynski says - the legendary Philly cop (and Upper Darby police superintendent) who has helped Swierczynski in a past research project.
A comic book is, like a movie, a collaboration, and much of The Black Hood's foreboding atmosphere is down to colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick's dark palette, heavy on browns and grays and blue-blacks. And the book's artist, Michael Gaydos, did more than just illustrate the story. One panel has Hettinger, in his black hood for the first time, wearing an undershirt and slumped in a chair in his dark apartment, looking anything but heroic.
"I went back and looked at my panel description," Swierczynski says. "I think a lot of the exhaustion you see was the brilliance of Michael Gaydos. I described [Hettinger] as looking 'completely relaxed and high, arms spread open.' Michael took that and crafted a seriously creepy moment."
Swierczynski credits his editor at Dark Circle Comics (an imprint, believe it or not, of Archie Comics) with having a hand in reincarnating the Black Hood (the character had been around for decades).
"I was noodling around with a crime novel I was calling Good Cop Bad Cop when Alex Segura at Archie Comics approached me to pitch my take on the Black Hood, a character who had been around since the pulp days," Swierczynski says. "Weirdly, my crime-novel idea might fit, but I thought Archie would never go for it. Too dark, too violent. So I was stunned when Alex not only wanted it, but encouraged me to go even darker."
Segura says Swierczynski was perfect for the edgier, more contemporary stories he wanted for Dark Circle. A professed fan of Swierczynski's novels, Segura says he has "enjoyed a lot of his comic work, but I also got the sense that he wasn't getting the chance to fully cut loose and really dig deep into a character or series. So, with that in mind, I reached out to him. He came back with a pitch that . . . he thought we'd turn down as too edgy or risky. We did the opposite and asked him to push the envelope more. And here we are."
The Black Hood's Philadelphia feel does not end with its story and illustrations. Each issue includes a short afterword on the city's history of violence and corruption, each written by a contemporary Philadelphia crime writer (that idea was Segura's).
Says Swierczynski: "We both liked comics with little extras. Ed Brubaker's Criminal, for instance, would have these great essays about noir, crime writers, and Hollywood. (I wrote two of them, actually.)
"I don't think most people know much about Philly, aside from the obvious cultural references. We thought it would be fun to do a little schooling. . . . I love this city, don't get me wrong. But we're also a famously corrupt town that fell from grace a long time ago, and we're still reeling from the blow. For a crime writer, this place is a virtual wonderland."