2007’s The Art of the Darkness (I’m looking at the 2017 ten year reissue) is one of the coffee table burlesque publications you’re likely familiar with—most local comic shops, or comics sections of chain bookshops, will have at least one Frank Cho Heteronomicon on offer and/or display, for example. Many superhero artists who gain acclaim for drawing attractive fantasies choose or are invited to gather many such drawings of the same theme in one place, bind them in a nice classy hardback and reach new markets: those people (whom we most likely all are, now and then) who don’t feel like reading a story, but do feel like looking at something horny.
The Art of the Darkness
Top Cow Productions (Image Comics)
The Darkness is an ideal subject for one of these books. For those fools among you who have never heard of Top Cow’s lowkey top earner (by which I mean his comic did okay but most people know him from the video games) — Jackie Estacado, here’s his premise: he’s twenty-one, he’s not at all prone to reflective thought, and he’s absolutely chockablock with cum because if even the merest speck of it gets anywhere near a fertile womb, he’ll drop right dead. The Darkness is a superhero who, textually, Cannot Fuck. Many writers have squandered this—but the facts are the facts are the facts. Jackie is an orphan mafia hitman, and The Darkness is his hereditary evil suit that manifests horrible and verbose gremlins. Together they… do crime, mostly. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is the chastity or death curse. Did you know that Ann Nocenti was involved in the early stages of developing this character? I know, right? Go figure.
Page fourteen displays perhaps the most distilled essence of this character, or at least the scene behind his creation: Jackie kneels, hands on the ground, chained. His face is obscured by his hair. His knees are apart. He’s on a hilltop at dawn, so his power is just about to founder entirely, and he’s being balanced on by his perky as anything, part-of-that-world breast framing, platform heels in the air, mortal enemy the Angelus (A Sexual Female). Her thighs press into his lower back as he SUFFERS. It’s not Kaneoya Sachiko, but it’s close as hell.
The first seventeen pages of art are dedicated to showcasing Marc Silvestri’s take on the character and the brand’s aesthetic. This is both smart and reasonable: Silvestri isn’t just the founding father of Top Cow, he’s also a direct co-creator of The Darkness and penciled its first, Ennis-written arc himself. Silvestri is the defining artist of The Darkness, and in return it defines Marc Silvestri as an artist. Not only because Jackie is a big dim babe, a creation of the type Silvestri is so exquisitely gifted at producing: this is what a Silvestri page can and will look like in the PC era—PC as in Personal Computer, as in how his detailed linework is coloured after the industry went digital. More and less rendered styles of colouring are present; styles that give more and less precedence to Silvestri as a line artist over Silvestri as a compositional artist.
Finished covers are displayed both with and without their penciled originals, the latter being printed at the same scale as the former, so it’s really clear what’s lost as well as gained in the finishing process. It’s much less interesting to look at an unbroken field of digital black than it is to absorb the soft detail of hand-hatched shadow, and more to see of the artist in how much of the page he hatches before indicating “more of the same” with the artist’s “x,” or how long his hatch marks are, or how hard he presses the pencil for them. Or even how hard the pencil is! It’s interesting to see how hair texture changes with the decision of an inker, and the decision of a colourist after that. On pages twenty two to twenty three, a soft and salty roughness becomes greasy mess with the angularity of the inked line and the glossy sheen of the digital colours on both the hair and the skin below it. Jackie goes from a low, breathy smoulder to a constipated grimace, and most of that’s in very delicate detail about the teeth.
Thirteen more pages are given over to Dale Keown, who gives Jackie a little more light in his eyes, a little more poise in his posture. He looks slightly more experienced; his nose is a little bigger; the angles of his face aren’t as sharp. Keown’s style of hair for the character is… well, frankly, it’s less gorgeous—less volumised, less L’Oreal. It’s still thick, still long, and don’t worry, I’m making that joke in my mind as well. But it’s more wet look, more Casey Jones, more trad-masc. This Jackie often boasts light stubble, different to Silvestri’s clean shaven version but approaching the same cosy-rough textural profile (recall the aforementioned salty hair). Keown is more interested in exploring the body horror of the thing: Two of his images show Jackie’s body being literally transformed into gremlins. In one, Jackie looms miserably with an open coat, a flasher looking for witnesses of his maladaptation. In the other, shirtless, Jackie is forced down to the lower left-hand corner of his own cover as nasty little beasts, all eyes, hand and teeth, projectile-pour out of his naked torso.
Another Keown image places Jackie in the lower right corner in front of a wall of these “darklings,” again shirtless, this time with the point-sharp metallic claws of the Darkness directed at his own rough-textured skin. Page thirty-seven offers an almost Hellraiser-ean vision, stapled and writhing, though this image is rather confused by the observation that the darklings appear to be dressed for World War I. On page thirty-two, a mass at the bottom of the image is in lower focus as it reaches to twine around the snatched waist of the perfectly focused Mr. Estacado, mimicking the quirks of vision that are often seen in “me touching you” images like these.
Joe Benitez takes three pages, inked in all three by Joe Weems and coloured twice by Tyson Wengler. Their takes on the character are more high-voltage, less emotionally present: Jackie as a cool secret agent, Jackie in the Darkness doing a cool jump or sending out a legion of Darklings. These are the most uncomplicated “power fantasy” images in the book so far, but even though Jackie’s body features in them less (once because his suit is low-detail, twice because he just doesn’t take up much of the composition) they’re pleasant and charming simply because of the visibility of that fantasy. Oh, he wants to be James Bond? Ok, pretty dweeby. So ok, cute. Oh, this cover has a woman in a hood in a frame with roses all around her? Romantic!!
Keu Cha’s The Darkness: Black Sails, a one-shot about an ancestor who also bore the Darkness, gets four pages, and favours a blunter, heavier, mistier look. Eric Basaldua also gets three pages, one of which meshes unhappily with its colourist resulting in a sickly look that will appeal to the vampire hounds and consumptive-attracted among us.
Steve Firchow’s section is an unexpected pleasure, leaning heavily on the occult-adjacent dramatic tableau imagery very common to Michael Turner’s early Witchblade covers (a series in which Jackie debuted and the Darkness regularly guested). In the first, and unfortunately the only one to get a whole page to itself, Jackie’s leg dangles like a fishing line even as his hair streams tumultuously upward, the gesture in his head and neck suggesting a great and tragic angst. Firchow’s final showing is a cyberpunk flavoured “Tales of” cover—a ridiculous delight, a confection of radical electric hover boots, really big wallet chain, and chinbeard. God bless our future.
Stjepan Šejić’s work, toward the end, is more in the Keown vein than any but swaps out that rough-smooth peachy texture for his stylistic gloss. It’s body horror with more parseable sexuality. Demonic spinal taps are mildly reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell’s staple plugfucking, and hellsnakes thrust out angrily like (we’re keeping it real) big hard dicks. Like Keown, Šejić gives us a Jackie opening his coat to show us the frightening inside. But this time it’s pretty much just an angry crack, which the anatomically uncharitable might liken to a vagina, and he’s surrounded by a cave full of teeth. I think this is imagery that will work for someone, and I can’t say that it’s off-brand for The Darkness.
Šejić does make one choice that I think is definitely poor: he gives the Darkness, in its fully suited, worn form, a toothy mouth. Basaldua also gave the barest implication of a mouth, in his fully-suited first image, and I can’t say that I enjoy either of these decisions. A draw of the Darkness, aesthetically, is that it has no mouth, and that’s for various reasons. One is that the Darkness is worn by Jackie Estacado—that it’s an aesthetic that is applied to a character construct with established traits and qualities. One of Jackie’s traits is that he’s coarse—and none of his qualities involve conversation. Jackie Estacado is a man who needs to shut up; the Darkness puts a great big shiny plaster over his otherwise running mouth. Another is that men who wear three-quarter facial masks that leave their hair and eyes free look like how they’ll look when they’re between your thighs. It says, “Imagine.” The mouth is implicit and needs to stay that way. An explicit mouth is distracting. Especially when it’s made of sharp and lipless teeth.
The rest of the book is one-off images by an array of successes in The Darkness’ aesthetic ouvre, and a catalogue-style cover gallery. There are short interviews with the artists and a writer or two interspersed throughout. This book is successful as light erotica, as a brand history, and as an encapsulation of that mid-90s to mid-late 00s mainstreamed-alternative aesthetic period where things were Dark and Chained and incredibly Cool. Devil May Cry, NuMetal, The Covenant, MySpace—Top Cow has always had it in pure form. I don’t know if it’s a moment that’s quite hit retro yet, but it won’t be long, and for some of us… it lives always in our hearts, minds, and loins.