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With a collection of over 10,000 comics, and around 300 graphic novels, I have a lot of good stuff to read; classic runs of Thor, great Neal Adams Superman stuff etc. A lot of the 1990's comics output was pretty awful though, and it is rare I revisit much of that. I pick up the occasional book for a re-read, only to be reminded why I avoided it for so long.
'Hearts Of Darkness; was originally published in December 1991, though a UK/Europe Edition was published by Marvel Enterprises in Summer 1992. It was published at a time when the big trend in comics was 'bad boys and 'bad girls', anti-heroes who were often as violent as their opponents, and so many hastily assembled 'specials' were published to take advantage of this fad. This book was pure marketing/ editorial heaven; take Marvel's three biggest 'bad boys', The Punisher, Wolverine and Ghost Rider, stick 'em together and bam, watch those dollars roll in! I haven't read this in the longest time, so expected to hate it....
...but you know what, its actually pretty good. For what could have been a quick cash in, it is actually done well, and stands up to the modern eye pretty well. Written by the workmanlike Howard Mackie (who's only really good work was on Ghost Rider) and drawn by the fantastic John Romita Jr (one of the best Marvel artists of the late 80's onwards) it touches on a bit of philosophy as well as the obligatory violence, though the latter was probably absorbed a lot easier than the former.
The story starts with the return of Blackheart, and evil deity that is the son of Mephisto (who is essentially Marvel's Devil, or Satan) who is always plotting to oust his father through various ploys. This time round, he decides he wants to show his father he is better at corrupting people, and deliberately targets those heroes he thinks already walk a narrow line between good and bad, who have 'grey souls' namely Wolverine, Punisher, and Ghost Rider.
Although we do have that philosophical current running through, it turns into pretty standard fare; Blackheart lures them to a town to get them to kill Mephisto, they refuse; he kidnaps an innocent little girl, they do battle. They are offered their hearts desires, which they reject. It is all about temptation, and Writer Howard Mackie making the point that although these guys are no angels, they are most definitely heroes. The writing is not bad, although the dialogue lives down to Mackie's usual standard; interaction between characters is usually just exposition, and that could have been done better. Mackie's preference for his own character Ghost Rider (he was writing his solo book) also shines through, almost making him the star, although Wolverine and Punisher were the big selling guys at the time.
It is also a very visual book, Romita Jr cutting loose with his big, bold artwork. The characters all look good, fight scenes jump off the page, plenty of big panels, and the only negative is one that still holds tru today; Romita Jr struggles to draw both normal, non-costumed people, and often makes children look like mini-adults. Minor quibbles though.
Although it was as blunt as a sledgehammer, Mackie makes a nice little conclusion to his story at the end. After the heroes have triumphed, defeated Blackheart and saved the little girl, they ponder their methods. Punisher reflects 'All this talk about us being close to the edge, what do you really think?'
Ghost Rider responds 'It doesn't matter if there is an edge, or we occasionally cross it. As long as the innocent are protected, our cause is just'.
Marvel making a little point about perceived violence in comics at that time? probably.
Final thoughts? it was better than I expected. Still throwaway, routine fare and really just a reminder of a time when these three were big-sellers; now only Wolverine is the big star, the one dimensional Punisher has faded away (although Garth Ennis did a great revival a few years back) and Ghost Rider was always a B-lister punching above his weight.