Spine-breaking action in the “great” Image tradition…
Out of all the Image founders, Jim Valentino was always the odd man out. He was a good deal older than the rest, having spent more years in the trenches as a comic creator than any other founding member. He didn’t have the name recognition of Lee, McFarlane or Liefeld, with the biggest book he’d done at Marvel up to that point being Guardians of the Galaxy (decades before the movie made them a household name). His art style was a complete 180 from the rest as well, inspired more by the traditional, unflashy styles of the Silver and Bronze ages of comics and refined through his beginning days on the indie comics scene. For all intents and purposes, Valentino’s art was a square peg to the round hole that made up the majority of his peers in the Image stable.
So it is perfectly understandable then that Valentino’s debut book Shadowhawk carries with it the same metaphor of mismatched shapes clashing against each other, a Bronze Age superhero sensibility given the ultraviolent, super-serious treatment that was Image Comics’ bread and butter throughout those first few tumultuous years. Like Spawn and Savage Dragon before it, Shadowhawk #1 does have the benefit of not having to introduce the reader to twelve new heroes and villains--as a single character title, that much more room can be devoted to setting up the world and the supporting cast. It’s a shame, then, that not much of that is present here in the first issue. We don’t learn anything about the title character other than that he is bulletproof, and he likes to snap two-bit thugs’ spines. Valentino tries to set up the mystery of Shadowhawk’s true identity (even holding a “Guess Who Shadowhawk Is” contest in the letter column), but doesn’t really engage the reader on an emotional level to want to discover who his title character is. Shadowhawk comes off as little more than a violent psychopath--no witty banter, no real sense of justice or a desire to help others, just a dude in a fancy suit who likes to cripple other dudes at the slightest provocation. As the various Shadowhawk series’ went on, Valentino would stretch the concept out to be more than just the ultraviolent, grim n’ gritty hero prevented here, giving comics its first HIV-positive superhero and turning Shadowhawk from a simple armored vigilante to a spirit of justice that moved from host to host throughout the years (not unlike Matt Wagner’s Grendel). But none of that is evident at the outset, and--at least as far as this first issue goes--it’s cliché city from beginning to end.
What is different is Valentino’s art, a breath of fresh air compared to his contemporaries. Valentino stays true to basic human anatomy and prefers softer and fewer lines than the other Image young bucks, what with their outrageous poses and endless scribbles of detail on every corner of every page. Valentino’s layouts are clear and concise, and he gives all his characters expressive faces that convey a wide range of emotions--unlike some of the other Image books, in which the characters varied from “angry” to “more angry.” Not to be outdone by his younger partners, Valentino is also given to a double-page splash or two (the last one being a vertical one, at that), but generally, the artist favors function over form, which was almost in diametric opposition to the prevailing styles of the day.
Shadowhawk went on to star in a few more miniseries and even an ongoing or two, but--after the initial sales spike afforded to all the Image books at the beginning--ultimately never captured the zeitgeist in the way many of the other Image series did at the time. But Valentino went on to craft well-regarded works like A Touch of Silver and Drawing From Life through his own Shadowline Studios, and more importantly, served as Publisher of Image Comics from 1999-2003, where he diversified Image’s output beyond run-of-the-mill superhero fare, leading to success stories like Powers and The Walking Dead… which in turn helped lead Image Comics to be the leading publisher for creator-owned comics in the marketplace. Not bad for the odd man out of the original seven.