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Comics starring super-villains are nothing new. In the '70's, Doctor Doom had his own series in ASTONISHING TALES, and the Joker had his eponymous book. More recently, we've seen THE THUNDERBOLTS. But it never quite works; reading about villains who never swear or smoke dope or get laid is kind of like watching cop shows where no one curses or smacks around a suspect just for kicks. It doesn't ring true. But when you're publishing a general audiences comic, you have no other choice, right?
Well, Marvel has solved that problem by releasing THE HOOD under their mature readers MAX imprint. THE HOOD, a 6-issue limited series by Brian Vaughan and Kyle Hotz, stars small-time hood (get it?) Parker Robbins, a character who unapologetically curses, steals, and cheats on his pregnant girlfriend. Like Tony Soprano, he's not totally unsympathetic; he has his own code of honor, as we see when he and his cousin/partner in crime John kick the crap out of a Hydra terrorist who attempts to recruit them, getting a little post-9/11 revenge for the city of New York. And Parker does want to take care of his girlfriend and baby, as well as his Mom, who has Alzheimer's and needs constant care. It's just that he feels the best way to accomplish these goals is through robbery.
Acting on a tip John has received, the two men break into a warehouse where, supposedly, a "big score" awaits them. What they find is a pentagram, burning candles, and a demonic, hooded apparition that attacks them. Parker shoots the creature full of holes, seemingly killing it. John runs for it, but Parker is compelled to take the creature's boots and cloak, reasoning that at least he won't leave totally empty handed.
Outside, Parker is mugged by gangbangers, who demand his designer shoes and wallet. Parker throws the shoes in their faces and runs. Cutting his feet on broken glass, he puts his freshly purloined boots on and finds they enable him to walk on air.
In issue 2, he further discovers that the hooded cloak has the power to make him invisible for as long as he can hold his breath. After testing out his new powers, Parker and John realize this is their chance to play with the big boys. They decide to rip off some smugglers bringing in black market diamonds, not realizing that the smugglers might have super-powered protection of their own.
That's as far as the first two issues take us; they're mostly about establishing the characters and setting the scene, rather than a complicated plot. But there are a number of intriguing storylines unfolding, not the least of which is that the monster Parker stole the hood and boots from may not be dead at all.
At a time when there aren't many fresh ideas in comics, THE HOOD feels fresh because of its uncensored approach to the subject matter. Like the TV shows THE SHIELD or the aforementioned SOPRANOS, these are truly morally ambiguous characters, acting out of the base desires we all have - greed, lust, wrath - rather than some grandiose plan to rule the world. Cameos by Marvel super-villains like Electro and The Constrictor firmly establish this series in the Marvel Universe, but Vaughan wisely keeps the focus on characters he's created and can play with more freely. We all know that if he kills The Shocker in this series, the dude will be back frying Spider-Man's ass two months from now, but recovering heroin addict John could easily bite the dust, which adds suspense to the story.
Vaughan writes with confidence and flair, seeming much more comfortable here than in the work he's done on pre-existing characters like the X-Men's Cyclops. His characters live and breathe, and provide us with the best explanation to date as to why anyone would put on an attention-getting costume when commiting crimes - "one word: pussy," Parker explains, as he and John watch a plainclothes Electro get mobbed by groupies at their local dive bar. As for the art, I've enjoyed Kyle Hotz's stylized, slightly surreal work since his days at Malibu comics in the early '90's, and it's perfect for this series - moody, shadowy, and yet just a bit cartoonish, like the characters themselves. I feel confident in saying this is probably the best work these guys have done to date.
While some creators think a Mature Readers stamp is nothing more than an excuse to take established characters and have them swear, kill and screw up a storm with no rhyme or reason to it, Vaughan and Hotz are using their freedom to give us a fresh take on established conventions, and tell a damn good story in the process. I'm pleased to award THE HOOD four Rabid Fanboys.
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