When you think about it, do you have those favorite books that you always just seem to go back to, re-reading them more times than you care to admit regardless of whatever else is crammed on your bookshelf? Well, for me, one of those books is undeniably Hearts of Darkness, and still holds up as one the best comics that I’ve read ever since I first flipped through its pages back in the sixth grade.
Hearts of Darkness was first published back in 1991 by Marvel Comics, at the beginning of a time that would see the company release some really horrific stories by decade’s end, Onslaught, The Clone Saga, and Heroes Reborn I’m shaking my head at you. But at the beginning of the 90s, the house of ideas was still trying to put out some good stuff, and their take on the supernatural corner of their universe was one of their better efforts. Not only did they give us Sleepwalker and the first Morbius solo series in the early years of the decade, but we also got a fresh take on Ghost Rider, with this book heavily leaning towards getting that character over, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The story for Hearts of Darkness takes place in the small town of Christ’s Crown, where the demon Blackheart is summoned forth by a group of naïve cultists that he then proceeds to mercilessly wipeout to show his gratitude. The demon then sets about tricking the heroes Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and The Punisher into making their way to tiny village, offering each of them their own dark bargain if they will help him kill his father, Mephisto, so that he can take control of the throne of Hell and become nearly all powerful in the process. Not surprisingly, all of our hard-bitten do-gooders reject the offer flat, prompting an angered Blackheart to take the entire town hostage and kidnap a young girl to try and force the three into assisting him. What follows is a battle for heroes’ souls and a gateway to Hell itself being torn open, with Ghost Rider pursuing Blackheart to the infernal pits to take on the demon one on one in his own realm. It’s wonderfully dark and grim, and with the strong occult and satanic overtones, something that would probably never come out today thanks to Disney’s current take that’s pretty much Killed any enjoyment I once had for Marvel.
The book itself isn’t all that long, weighing in at only about fifty pages or so, and the story is pretty simple in design and execution. But what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in dialogue and characterization that writer Howard Mackie brings to it, with the big three involved all being very distinct and having their own voices and feeling as they should. The Punisher comes off as a tortured man still haunted by the deaths of his family, especially after Blackheart keeps showing him his wife and children being gunned down over and over again, which only serves to piss him off all the more in the end. And Wolverine is the gruff Canuck that we’ve all come to expect, chomping on a cigar and having absolutely none of the demon’s crap.
What Mackie does really well with the story, however, is highlight the new Ghost Rider, with Dan Ketch and the Rider himself having their own voices before and after the fiery transformation that brings the spirit of vengeance into being. Ketch is promptly cast into the overwhelmed every man role of the story, drawn into something that he still doesn’t fully understand and trying to figure out the powers he’s been burdened with as he goes along. While the Ghost Rider is focused and driven, and ticked off to no end once Blackheart makes the ultimate mistake of stealing his bike. I thinking this is one of the best stories involving this incarnation of the character since the early issues of his solo series, with the bleak tones and dark narrative showing just what can be done with him when handled with care.
And speaking of dark, how can I not mention this book without giving a word to the artist, the very accomplished John Romita Jr. His artwork compliments the story that’s being told here perfectly, with his gritty style capturing a harsh feel that really suites all the characters involved. The Punisher looks like a grizzled badass, Wolverine is depicted as the squat killing machine that he should be, and both Ghost Rider and Blackheart come off as otherworldly entities in their own rights. I’ve never felt that Romita fit when he was given a character that was too “clean” to work with, but with who he has here, his style really clicks and depicts all these anti-heroes as just as they should be.
If you want a quick, but good, read from the early 90s, I can’t recommend Hearts of Darkness enough, or if you’re just a fan of any of the characters involved I think it’s really worth a look. You can pick it up dirt cheap on Ebay or Amazon if you’re so inclined, but I’d advice against getting the edition with the sequel, The Dark Design, included in it, that story was just a letdown compared to what came before it. In all, it’s a solid offering with artwork that still holds up amazingly well for its age, so if you’ve never explored Marvel’s darker side do yourself a favor and check it out, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Until we meet again, guys, take care. Later, gang.