The Passion of the Shadowhawk.

*Shadowhawk wasn’t the first HIV-positive superhero. He wasn't even the first HIV-positive Image superhero; Rob Liefeld’s Chapel (and I admit I may be exaggerating the 'hero' designation a little here) was revealed to have been injected with the virus in “Youngblood Strikefile” issue #3, released in 1993. The plot was by the good Mr. Liefeld himself (it was the final chapter of a particularly fragmented, nonsensical three-part back-up arc) with art by a young Jae Lee, then at the height of his over-muscled pointy-angled early style. Liefeld happily rolls out a Big Conspiracy about the intentional lab creation of the AIDS virus and its release into the world as a means of population control (rather time-delayed for an engineered bacteriological weapon), but Chapel has a special, ultra-quick dormant version. Instant white blood cell holocaust if his puppet-master press the right button. It was Superhero AIDS. Fantasy work.

Shadowhawk was also injected with HIV; it was revealed just a few months later, in early 1994. Part of a criminal revenge plot, complete with funny gangster voices (I’m certain one of them commented “Dis stuff makes me noivous!”, although my copy is long-gone). Wandering around in a haze, Paul Johnstone (the future vigilante) gets mugged and he wishes that he’d bleed on his assailants, so they’d die someday just like him. Eventually he’d build his costume and run all over the city, snapping the spines of criminals, as his health faded.

Shadowhawk” wasn’t a very good comic, from what I can recall. The first four issues (released as a miniseries, like the next two of the title’s arcs) teetered uneasily between the usual dank ultra violence and bright costumed villains. Typical over-serious superhero stuff of its time, with the added gimmick of not initially revealing what the costumed character’s secret identity was. But at least in relation to the presence of the incurable real-life disease, “Shadowhawk” became special in that the story managed to complete itself, with the title character finally succumbing to his weakened state. The issues in between are hardly notable for their execution, but for the strange potential that lurked right beneath the surface, a reflection of the Dark Violence and Bright Capes dichotomy that informed the book’s own earlier issues.

In the longest arc of that initial “Shadowhawk” run, right after the Secret Origin was revealed, Shadowhawk essentially toured the Image world looking for a cure. It was six issues of crossovers with other books, which probably also made sense financially at that time. The very first of these found Paul meeting up with the aforementioned Chapel, but the cure that supposedly existed in the “Youngblood” world was not to be found. I must confess that I can’t recall the details of exactly what happened, since I haven’t read the “Shadowhawk” issue itself in years and I have next to no familiarity with the finer points of “Youngblood” continuity. I sort of recall Chapel eventually shooting himself for whatever reason, but that was later in the future. Anyway, it became genuinely intriguing to see Shadowhawk traipsing across all sorts of books, experiencing flash-in-the-pan Image teams (anyone recall The Others?) and Big Names (like Spawn) and even some of the more outré Image denizens like Keith Giffen’s Trencher and the cast of Alan Moore’s (still unfinished) “1963”.

And you can’t help but wonder, as the ultra-exaggerated Trencher hands the relatively realistically proportioned Paul a large candy-colored cartoon gun to kill himself with, how exactly a superhero in this kind of universe doesn’t find a cure? It’s the forces of that angry demigod Relevancy at work. Shadowhawk hadn’t broken a spine in quite a while by the end of that arc. But the street-level rapists and muggers he’d cripple were re-envisioned as HIV, a poisoned realism running through his veins. And the costumed superfoes were now just another name and number in the Image phonebook, a world of dime-store wonder and flashy art and high calories. But Paul couldn’t even wipe out those drug dealers, let alone the battle-armored arsonists or slimy sewer monsters. And just as the virus eluded cure in the real world, so it went for Shadowhawk, the relevancy of the realistic city mocking him by keeping his book informed; it was a real-world veto over costumed triumph.

And very little of this leapt out from the story itself. But bits and pieces did. Fragments. It got me thinking a little, and it stayed with me, if only to wonder how exactly it could have gone much better.

The final arc of the original “Shadowhawk” was only one issue long. Paul is badly weakened but he fights his arch-foe, the similarly-armored Hawk’s Shadow, a thrashingly unsubtle racist ass, if I recall him correctly. Paul wins, and has something of an epiphany, refusing to break the bastard’s spine, and rejecting a return to those early issues. I’m almost certain that he declared that only God should judge in such a way. And so the costume comes off and even the final traces of costumed vigilantism dissipate and Paul Johnstone dies as realism closes its grip. Another figure takes up the mantle, and we don’t know who he (or she) is, and we’re back where we started, just in time for Kurt Busiek’s “The New Shadowhawk”, and the eventual addition of a mystic backstory for the Shadowhawk persona, piling up sandbags now against realism and relevancy so Superheroism can jump around free from roof to roof.

And how will “Green Arrow” approach this crossroads, this riverbank, this interstate? Mr. Winick isn’t putting the disease at the forefront; the title character isn’t infected. But let’s think now, could a long-established character ever be? Death is barely a concern in superhero comics. Hell, Shadowhawk lived on, albeit with a different body under the costume. But could even that much change occur in today’s climate? Could it have even occurred in yesterday’s climate with a more established property? A well-known lead? Perhaps. Strange things happened efore the H.E.A.T. was on. But today? There’s Hollywood concerns. The Internet to consider. This brand of relevancy wouldn’t stand a chance against the icons. But the sidekicks! The little-known title roles! The disrespected spine-breakers! They are closer to us than our cherished community favorites, there in the borderlands.