The Darkness: Origins, Volume 1 by Garth Ennis (writer) and Marc Silvestri (artist)
The Darkness: Origins, Volume 1 by Garth Ennis is an excellent series that features and is named after a spinoff character from The Witchblade. The Darkness made his first appearance in issue #10 of Witchblade and got his own title soon after. He’s essential to the mythic origins of the Witchblade, and in fact, along with the Angelus, predates the Witchblade. The Darkness is the elemental power of chaos; it is the symbolic dark side of the universe and human nature, but it must always have a human bearer, just like the Angelus and the Witchblade. The bearer of the Darkness is always male, and the Darkness, unlike the Angelus and the Witchblade, is always passed down through the blood-line. It is the force that opposes the Angelus, who, from the perspective of those who favor the Darkness, “is an agent of tyrannical law and order.” The bearer of the Angelus, chosen by the force of light and order itself instead of by blood, is always a woman. Where these two ancient powers come from — another world, gods, or God — is unknown, but they are eternally at war.
The Witchblade is called the Balance because it acts as a check against the two forces, preventing either from gaining the upper hand. It combines the light and the dark, order and chaos, female and male. The Witchblade itself is a sentient gauntlet that is essentially male and must always have a female bearer. In other words, the Witchblade bearer must find balance between herself and the male gauntlet so that she can earn the right to act out the grander role of balance itself between the light of order and the dark of chaos. The implication is that our world requires both, even Darkness and chaos, and that if either goes unchecked, even Lightness and order, there will be problems on an apocalyptic level. For those attracted to the Jungian implications of Star Wars and The Force, this series offers much to think about, particularly since this series considers essential both sides of the force. The problem is not the Dark Side; the problem is a lack of balance.
I love the character of The Darkness, just like I love Satan in Paradise Lost and the Lucifer character in the two series The Sandman and Lucifer: He’s evil and makes no apologies, yet when he’s on the page, he’s the most interesting character present. Even in the Witchblade series, The Darknesss steals the show when he puts in an appearance, which is why he needed his own series, much like Sandman’s Lucifer. But what makes The Darkness even more interesting in his own series than when he is in The Witchblade is that he’s the main character, the hero, in The Darkness.
The bearer of the Darkness is Jackie Estacado, and writer Garth Ennis gives him an excellent voice, one that shows Jackie is somewhat aware of his dubious role in his own drama: “So the punchline — Can you hear me in the back? You’re gonna love this. The punchline is . . . I’m the hero.” And that punchline is the hook: Why should we care about this guy? How on earth can the writer make us like him? To me this challenge is the primary one faced by anyone who takes up the job of writing The Darkness. Garth Ennis nails the voice and makes us really root for this bad guy in this first story arc. The art helps, and is okay, but it’s really the writing, the first-person voice addressing us as readers, that gets us to care about him.
We really shouldn’t care about him given who he is and what he does. He is the son of a man who apparently was completely unlikable and cruel. We don’t meet him. But Jackie himself is a cold, ruthless mafia hitman, and when he gets the powers of the Darkness, he’s even more ruthless. He has one close female friend, Jenny, whom he met in an orphanage as a kid. He’s protected her all his life and set her up working a respectable job in a bar. That’s all the goodness we see in Jackie — his caring for and protection of Jenny. Unfortunately, he merely wants to sleep with as many women as possible and thinks chastely of Jenny, as she is like a sister to him. She, we aren’t surprised to find out, is hopelessly in love with him and sees potential, hope for good, in this cruel man. I think she functions well in the story as a way of getting us to have hopes that Jackie won’t stay as bad as he is or become worse. That hope is slim, but it’s just enough to create some narrative suspense.
Of course the best way to make us like a mafia hitman who is a cold and ruthless killer is to surround him with even worse characters! That’s exactly what Ennis does, and if you’ve read anything by Ennis before, you know that’s what he’s best at. Here’s the cast of players that make Jackie look good: The other men in the mafia, including ones like his uncle who is called “Butcher Franchetti.” By his friends. His enemies, we are told, call him “Oh god no, don’t kill my children, Don Franchetti.” Then there’s a mafia war between two “families.” And of course Ennis shows us how much more despicable that other family is. Finally, the family Estacado’s a part of has a rat in it, somebody who isn’t even loyal to his own mob. These are the good guys — Estacado’s friends and associates — and he sees them every day. As for new concerns, The Angelus and her warriors are trying to kill him in every issue from the moment he turns into the Darkness (at age 21 without any warning), and there’s a group that’s watched him his entire life (and his father before him): The Brotherhood of Darkness.
The Brotherhood of Darkness is a riot, though they are a serious group in the book. They’ve waited for ages and ages for the exact moment to find just the right bearer of Darkness to teach the secrets of this power in order for him to lead their group into some sort of new world order of Darkness. But the way Ennis has Estacado describe them is brilliant for several reasons: Once again, it further establishes the voice of Estacado and makes us really like him. It also lets us know that the writer, by having his character make these comments, does not take his own fantasy cliches too serious (I mean, come on, The Brotherhood of Darkness? That’s ridiculous). Finally, it lets us know that these larger-than-life fantasy dramas will be played out and that there’s a larger conspiracy that’s always potentially in operation. Here’s what Estacado tells us: “The Brotherhood of Darkness, a bunch of goofs who wear black and probably read too many crappy fantasy novels, they get in touch and tell me I have to fulfill this crazy prophecy attached to the Darkness power: I gotta lead them to their destiny as Lords of the Underworld, or some crap.” If you don’t find these sarcastic lines as amusing as I do, you probably won’t enjoy The Darkness. On the other hand, if you do like it, you should be reading The Darkness.
There are many reasons why I recommend this series. One of them is the way genres are blended. I’m incredibly interested in the way authors blends genres, and The Witchblade and The Darkness are real delights for those with that interest. Where The Witchblade starts out as the police procedural side of crime fiction heading into fantasy, The Darkness is the criminal side of crime fiction heading into horror. Basically, crime fiction can be divided neatly in half: Fiction that focuses on the solving of crimes and fiction that focuses on the committing of crimes. There are other divisions after that, of course. Those who solve crimes are divided into professional and amateur. The professionals are divided into government and private. Amateurs can be in ANY non-detecting profession, so those potential subgenres are endless. Witchblade focuses on the police procedural, the solving of crimes. The Darkness focuses on the committing of crimes, and by playing Jackie against Pezzini, we have the one dynamic central to all crime fiction: criminal versus cop. In Witchblade, we get a first person account from the cop, and in The Darkness, we get a first-person account from the criminal. The two series together compliment each other perfectly. You can imagine what sort of relationship Pezzini and Estacado might develop that could complicate things . . .
So that’s the complex, but beautifully matched, way the two series blend the two major subgenres of Crime Fiction. The fact that it’s a mafia book adds yet another subgenre of Crime Fiction. These two series also compliment each other on the level of fantasy: They are both fantasy novels, obviously, since they have many of the same characters in them. However, while Witchblade dips into the dark side of horror only on occasion, The Darkness spends much of its time there. The Darkness would best be described as a Horror title, and Witchblade would be best described as a Fantasy title. I hope I’m conveying how cleverly the various teams of writers have developed these two titles so that they use all the same characters while largely being in different subgenres.
If there weren’t so many pin-ups of women in Witchblade, I’d argue that it was a comic for women, particularly once Ron Marz takes over writing with issue #80 (see my previous two reviews of Ron Marz’s Witchblade). There’s even plenty of Romance in The Witchblade, though nobody seems to talk about that genre in relation to it (even the author doesn’t mention it). But it’s very much borrowing from the Romance genre as the lead first-person female has to decide between the dark, brooding male and the blonde nice guy you can take home to mom. The Darkness is much more of a guy’s comic in the way it’s written — much more action, gory violence, less dialogue, and tons of low-level sarcasm when there is dialogue. I love it, but not quite as much as Marz’s Witchblade — but then again, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite novel, so I like Romance when it’s done well, and I enjoy witty dialogue that is central to Witchblade. No matter what your main interest, if you’re a fantasy fan, I think there are some comics that should be required reading, such as Sandman, Promethea, The Sword, and Fables. I’d also include Volumes 1 and 2 of Witchblade by Ron Marz and Origins, Volume 1 of The Darkness by Garth Ennis.