WRITING COMICS: NIGHTHAWK, Part 3: Tilda Johnson and the Art of Compromise

The best part of writing NIGHTHAWK – the part that was always fun and gratifying – was the character Tilda Johnson (a.k.a. Nightshade, a.k.a. Deadly Nightshade). For decades, Tilda has been a ridiculous character – a genius robotics expert that works with werewolves, and frequently wore a leather bikini. When it came to black women in mainstream comics, she definitely inspired more than her share of eye-rolls.

I really wanted to see what I could do to re-invent Tilda Johnson, and turn her from something of a joke to a badass. The first step in my extreme makeover was to cast her as something of a wisecracking sidekick to Nighthawk. The idea was that somehow Nighthawk managed to help this evil werewolf-consorting robotics genius to reform her evil ways, making her almost a hero…almost. I really wanted the chance to have Tilda’s character evolve beyond a “Girl Friday” role and become a force to be reckoned with. I asked Ramon Villalobos, the artist on NIGHTHAWK, to model Tilda after both Grace Jones and Skin, the singer for Skunk Anansie.

Originally, NIGHTHAWK was going to be twelve issues, and in the second half of the run I planned to explore Tilda’s character more. I would show how Nighthawk found and recruited her, and then I was going to incapacitate him, leaving Tilda to don the Nighthawk costume for a few issues. All of this got scrapped when the book was cancelled, cutting the run from twelve issues to six. Shortly after the cancellation of NIGHTHAWK, I got the gig writing OCCUPY AVENGERS. I was given my pick of team members, though it was suggested I put Nighthawk on the team. I agreed to bring Nighthawk into the cast as a guest star, as long as I could bring Tilda in as well.

The plan was to have Tilda become a permanent cast member of OCCUPY AVENGERS, while NIGHTHAWK would make two guest appearances. The second guest appearance of Nighthawk was to be issue #10 or #11 where I would kill him off (I was no longer in just incapacitating him), and Tilda would take over as Nighthawk for the remainder of OCCUPY AVENGERS. And then…well…OCCUPY AVENGERS was cancelled, and there would be no issues #10 or #11 (nor would there be #12 through #14, as had been the original plan).

As with NIGHTHAWK, OCCUPY AVENGERS had poor sales, and it was cancelled early. There was no way I’d ever get to tell the story I had planned. Complicating matters was the fact that the cancellation happened during the SECRET EMPIRE event, in which I could not use my lead character Clint Barton/Hawkeye as he was being used elsewhere. But it gets worse…I didn’t have all the issues originally slated to tell the story — my SECRET EMPIRE tie-in was supposed to be three issues, but it was cut down to two.

The cancellation of OCCUPY AVENGERS was my third title that was cancelled early (POWER MAN & IRON FIST was also cancelled prematurely), and I was starting to think my days at Marvel might be numbered. At this point I was desperate to see through to completion the plans I had for at least once character I was writing for Marvel, and it looked like Tilda might be my last and only chance.

I really wanted to make Tilda’s transformation into a hero complete, so I crammed parts of the “Death of Nighthawk” story idea in to the SECRET EMPIRE tie-in. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Nighthawk/Raymond Kane was killed out of costume, and his death was only shown in two panels. I did it this way because there simply wasn’t enough room in the space I had to make his death more of an event (I was stuffing three issues of story into two issues). Honestly, it was a big mistake. The story fell flat, with many people initially missing the fact that it was Raymond Kane who had been killed. Once I decided to kill Nighthawk, I knew that I wanted him to die out of costume – a seemingly meaningless and empty death that would have a tremendous impact on Tilda. I wanted his death to be as a black man, and not as a costumed superhero. But it never came across that way.

Both NIGHTHAWK and OCCUPY AVENGERS (and to a lesser extent POWER MAN & IRON FIST) are examples of how you have to be prepared for whatever comes your way when writing work-for-hire comics. You have to be prepared to make adjustments to your story, and at times you have to be willing to compromise. Both series were cancelled early, resulting in me having to make compromises in the story I planned on telling. These compromises worked in NIGHTHAWK – it reads like a full and complete story. But the story adjustments made in OCCUPY AVENGERS fell short – it never read like a complete story. Ironically, I think some of my best writing at Marvel was on OCCUPY AVENGERS (I’ll get into that in a later post).

I get a lot of people telling me how much they loved NIGHTHAWK, which means a lot to me. There were aspects of the series that I loved, and had a great time writing. That said, I don’t think I’d want to write the character again. I told as much of the Nighthawk/Raymond Kane story as I could, and there’s little desire to revisit him. Tilda Johnson, however, is something else completely different. After the cancellation of OCCUPY AVENGERS, I had hoped we might be able to do a limited series starring Tilda as Nighthawk (man, was that ever naïve). I believed then, and still believe that a badass, black female anti-hero needs her own book.

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