It is a secret, ultimate irony, that one of the hardest things in writing is to find human drama in psychoanalytic theory. And yet, with David Hine’s reboot of Top Cow classic, The Darkness, you sense the hand of one of the great masters of comics storytelling when he effects exactly this. The Darkness is the story of mafia hitman Jackie Estacado, ascended to head of the family, entwined with an elemental force of wildness and human weakness. At its core, The Darkness is both a savage statement about human failings and a loving, lavish articulation of the deep power of noir fiction. And specifically in the hands of writer David Hine, “The Crack in Everything”, the newest Darkness storyarc, is drama fueled by psychoanalytic thought, laced with the high art of Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and French psychoanalytic linguist Jacques Lacan.
There’s something that needs to be said about the Top Cow universe before we wade in. One thing at least, is that I always feel I should be more involved in its intricacies and machinations, its plot twists and dilemmas. Top Cow comes out of Image, the landmark company formed when top tier artists broke away from Marvel to unite and form brand where they can own their own intellectual properties. So Top Cow is a generationally relevant statement, for perhaps the last of the Gen-X generations.
But somehow the Top Cow universe has always remained at a distance to me. It’s not just that DC and Marvel still dominate the skyline. It’s something deeper, more quintessential to Top Cow, and I can’t yet put my finger on it. There’s beautifully morose ending to Barney Hoskyns’ Low Side of the Road, a not-so-recent Tom Waits biography. Waits is notoriously focused on leading a private personal life. Hoskyns however, has managed to write a bio without being able to rely on Waits’ friends and collaborators who’ve all circled the wagons around Waits to ensure his privacy.
So here we are at the end of Hoskyns’ Low Side of the Road a book that grabs its title from a Tom Waits track (on Waits’ Mule Variations album). It’s the end of the book and Waits has just finished playing a gig somewhere small and familiar. And Hoskyns is standing outside trying to get chance to talk to Waits. Even after writing the book, Hoskyns is still waiting for access. And Top Cow is a little like that for me. Like I’m still standing outside no matter how many of this lovingly rendered pages I read. Like decades later, I’m still trying to find that way into the universe. It’s one of the most beautiful, surreal feelings I’ve ever experienced, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Another thing to be said is this. Top Cow’s recently gone through a kind of Rebirth. The Darkness’s “The Crack in Everything” is part of this megaevent. You can read about the events of that led to that Rebirth in Artifacts, but The Darkness’s POV is pretty well summed up in the Ron Marz-written, John Tyler Christopher-drawn “Reborn” which appears in the opening pages of issue #101, the first chapter of “The Crack in Everything”.
The story’s this. There are 12 Artifacts, each of which needs to bond with a wielder. The more recognizable Top Cow creations, The Witchblade and The Darkness are among these Artifacts. As are the lesser popularly-known Angelus and the Rapture and some eight others. The McGuffin for Artifacts was the discovery of a thirteenth Artifact, one which might have instigated an armageddon event. The final outcome? To avoid exactly that kind of armageddon event, The Darkness (a force for wildness and chaos) instigated one. Then used his daughter Hope’s power (and the thirteenth Artifact) as the template for a new reality.
So the Top Cow rebirth plays out now, in the world that Jackie built. Somethings still stick. Jackie is still the head of the family. Jackie still has Hope as a daughter. But Jackie’s beloved Jenny is still alive. And they live together in their Mafia McMansion in Saddle River, New Jersey in a house called Erewhon (anagram for “Nowhere”, named for the Samuel Butler utopian novel).
To maintain his happy home, Jackie concedes to Jenny and after much struggle and torment, manages to separate himself from The Darkness. And that’s the story. Jackie and The Darkness as separate entities for the first time in the history of the character’s publication. The Darkness trapped in Jackie’s Bunker, a safe room beneath the mansion, at night going out and doing Jackie’s bidding.
It’s here where David Hine is at his most stirring. It’s here where he taps Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Phase and finds human drama in it. The Mirror Phase is simply this: at around 18 months a human child experiences a very strange encounter with a mirror. Believing its reflection to be An Other, the Child notices (incorrectly) that this Other has greater control over itself. And if an Other can exert a greater control, the Child reasons, then perhaps the Child too can exert a greater control over its own musculature. And thus, the sense of selfhood is established, over a lie, a projection.
What David so masterfully introduces, is the idea of a noir-inspired decay of selfhood. Jackie’s going end up dead (probably not since he’s so iconic in the Top Cow universe) if noir fiction storytelling is anything to go by. And The Darkness will live on to corrupt others. “The Crack in Everything” is this beautiful, languid unravelling of Jackie’s perfect world. It is the raw, monstrous power of The Darkness unleashed for the first time, no longer held in check by Jackie. It is the slow, baneful corruption of the family pet, and the even slower corruption of Hope, the next wielder of The Darkness. And it is the painful-to-watch verging of Jenny into some kind of Victorian madness.
It’s not unfair to say that David finds the full weight of almost all of English literature and brings it to bear on “The Crack in Everything”. There’s the Jekyll and Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson. There’s the haunting, taunting jeering of the antagonist we find in Poe. There’s deep, inner crime of Chandler, and the psychologically disturbing tropes of Thompson (Jim not Hunter). David’s even found a noir of Jane Austen. But for me the perfect image plays out in Part 3 (issue #103), with The Darkness trapped in the Bunker, waiting on his darklings to return with the family pet. It’s clear at this point that The Darkness is working his own agenda, throwing his weight behind the idea that it might be easier to do business with Hope rather than with Jackie.
It’s a brutal moment. And it reminds me of Henry James’ The Middle Years. “We work in the dark”, James writes, “We do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art”.