If you could choose, would you want to live in Metropolis or Gotham City?
Here’s the thing. I live in both. Chicago is the template for both of those iconic cities in recent films (The Dark Knight and Man of Steel), but rarely seen just as itself in comic book form, and even less frequently when set in the modern day.
So, it’s been with some trepidation, excitement, and resounding vigor that Chicago has been blessed with two comic series in the last few months to take the Windy City and put its modern day dilemmas in sharp focus: Deathstroke from DC Comics and Nighthawk from Marvel.
Both series narrowed in on the overwhelming reality of Chicago’s murder and gun violence rate, particularly in regard to how it affects the Black communities of the city. Black writers write both series with non-white artists at the helm, with Deathstroke’s one issue ode to “Chicago” written by Christopher Priest and illustrated by Denys Cowan, and Nighthawk’s six-issue series written by David F. Walker and illustrated for the most part by Ramon Villalobos.
None of the creators, that I’m aware, are Chicago residents, but all have expressed in interview the meaning and importance of what’s happening in Chicago to their overall communities, near and far.
Upfront, I need to be clear: I’m white. I live on the North Side, removed from the central spikes of gun violence and the highest murder rates in the city. And I’m no expert on the socio-economic factors and history that’s led to this crisis moment, primarily isolated to Chicago’s Black communities (although I am actively educating myself now).
But I’m scared. Not of the violence that dominates the airwaves both locally and nationwide, but of its wielding as a rhetorical weapon by our “President” as he seeks to punish a Democrat-saturated sanctuary city that outwardly resists his agenda. I’m scared of the repercussions of military force moving into Chicago neighborhoods, negating the rights of our citizens and further isolating segregated Black and white communities from each other.
As Zach Fardon, former U.S. Attorney from Chicago, describes:
What would a National Guard presence say to folks in those neighborhoods? This is war, and you are the enemy. The Chicago of bike paths and glistening lakefront, and economic opportunity — that’s not your Chicago, it’s ours and we will protect it.
This is not war. Wars are fought between enemies. There is only one enemy here, and it is us, all of us in Chicago. Every single one of us. We are the problem, and we are the solution.
One of the realities of a statement like this is the acknowledgement that no one type of action is going to change the overarching direction of Chicago’s violence alone. And it’s not just that violence is tolerated, often romanticized, throughout the city’s history, from Al Capone and the Untouchables on up. It’s that the problem (and therefore the solution) does not hinge upon the actions of any one policy or group of actors.
And that’s one of the things I think Deathstroke #11 gets terribly wrong in its look at the cycle of gun violence in parts of the Windy City.
From the very first page of the issue, Priest and Cowan set up a reading of Chicago as hopelessly under the thumb of gun violence, as told by a police detective narrator who laments the situation in blasé terms.
“Did you know I can’t light this? My cigarette. It’s against regs.
“4200 shootings here in Chicago last year. Over 700 homicides. The city is helpless to stop it.
“But smoking? THAT we’re putting a stop to.”
The problem out of the gate is the idea that the violence in Chicago just happens as the police watch — that they are not complicit players in the conditions that fuel it in the neighborhoods where it spikes. In interview with Comicosity, Priest addressed the question of police involvement in rather surprising terms given the recent report from the U.S. Justice Department laying out a string of routine abuses by the Chicago Police Department, particularly against Black citizens.
“I think that the story spreads the blame around,” Priest begins. “Are there issues with the police department? Absolutely. But at the same time, these guys are under an incredible amount of stress and under threat 24/7.
“When a law enforcement officer gives you a lawful instruction, we’re supposed to follow it. Not argue with the guy and frail around and run and carry on. If you feel the cop is wrong, take him to court.”
“It’s easier to blame residents for not cooperating with police,” Mikki Kendall explains in a recent feature for Essence, “then to address the sad reality that Chicago is the only major American city that has to address a history of police torture before it can move on to any concept of marginalized communities trusting the police.”
Priest and Cowan, in fact, drive attention down to a group of mothers — a textual parallel to the national organization Mothers of the Movement, mothers who have lost their children to police and gun violence — who hire Deathstroke to strike back against the gangs who killed their children. When confronted by reporter Jack Ryder (alter ego of the anti-hero The Creeper) and taken to task for providing their kids with movies and video games that encourage gun violence, the mothers are uniformly incalcitrant to his argument that gun violence begets gun violence.
Aside from the fact that after nearly 20 years, there’s still no discernible evidence that violence in video games predicates criminal gun violence in those that play them, the real disconnect is overlooked in that scene. With a murder case clearance rate of only 30% and a propensity to escalate violence upon arrival, the Chicago police department has become anathema to a certain portion of Black Chicago residents. It isn’t simply that the police aren’t doing their jobs — in Chicago, they leave layers of trauma behind with their involvement that mirrors the PTSD experienced by wartime combatants.
There’s not a lot of evidence of that type of trauma in the pages of Deathstroke #11, but a whole lot of finger-pointing on what it means to be a responsible parent in the Black communities of Chicago.
It is a fact that five of Chicago’s 22 police districts are driving nearly all the increase in rates of homicide and gun violence, concentrated in select areas of the West and South Sides. In the 11th District alone, shootings have risen 78%. Not coincidentally, the 11th District is also at the center of a massive, under-policed drug market, not to mention the target of severe city and state cutbacks.
When the city closes schools, kids now have to cross gang territories and unfamiliar spaces to get an education in a system that has experienced more renewed segregation since the end of the consent decree in 2009. As a result, children are removed from their families and other support systems that keep them close, protected, and out of the line of violence. After school programs, sports programs, social services are all considered expendable in a city and state facing an economic downturn — a crunched budget accelerated by massive payouts from the mayor’s office in cases of police abuse to the tune of $662 million.
Hospitals are underfunded across Chicago, decreasing the number of available and qualified trauma centers, which subsequently increases the likelihood that gun violence will be fatal. Unemployment rates in parts of the city, particularly in heavily segregated Black neighborhoods, approach 50%. And the politics of real estate, especially in a city reaching the end of its ability to sprawl in the early 21st century, are a significant factor as well.
This is something Walker was thoughtful enough to place at the center of his narrative in the six-issue (gone too soon) run of Nighthawk, as the recently transported-to-616 hero settles in Chicago and has to fight oppression on two fronts: in the streets against a corrupt police force and in a suit against a manipulative real estate developer.
The atmosphere Walker and Villalobos are intent on delivering for Nighthawk is intense to be sure, and not exclusively for the perpetrators or victims of violence in the city. The trauma, palpable among citizens Nighthawk regularly interacts with, is carried by the hero himself as well. The process of standing against racist white perpetrators stoking violence, Black citizens engaging in petty crime, and the police that pay far more attention to the latter than the former — it all takes a mental toll on Nighthawk that’s written out in scene and rendered in the neon state of alarm colorist Tamra Bonvillain flushes the series in.
Walker tackles the complicity of the Chicago Police Department head on, executing a sense of balance between cops trying to do their job (and having to resort to working with Nighthawk to avoid interference from their corrupt colleagues) and those which perpetrate what the U.S. Justice Department drove home at the start of 2017.
That’s not to say Walker navigates completely away from the territory Priest covered in Deathstroke #11, hosting a quick interaction between Nighthawk and a group of Black kids looting amid a Nazi-fueled rampage in the city streets. It borders on a respectability lecture in regards to how one should behave in the presence of police, but is rendered to clearly illustrate the perception among the community that the police can’t be trusted under any circumstances. Yet, it still recognizes culpability on the part of the kids themselves.
Nighthawk: They were going to kill you. And they’d be VINDICATED in doing so — you’re breaking the law. You’re making it easier for them.
Kid: We just tryin’ to get ahead.
Nighthawk: This isn’t the way to do it. Don’t give them an excuse to kill you.
Kid: They don’t NEED an excuse, man.
Nighthawk: Then don’t give them a TARGET.
Walker peppers the rest of the series with other references that originate outside of Chicago’s own troubles. Earlier in the same issue, the kids in question first face the police with their hands raised and yelling, “Don’t Shoot” — a direct reference to the Black Lives Matter phrase put into use by protesters after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson.
Ultimately, however, the lynchpin of the villain’s actions in Nighthawk relates directly back to neighborhood targeting and destabilization — another kind of abuse directed at poorer Black neighborhoods. The violence is extended here through the funneling of arms into the area, while the economic conditions are kept deliberately at poverty level. As Nighthawk describes, “you can control the value of real estate by controlling crime.”
And that’s the real window into Chicago in a certain way. So much of what makes the rate of gun violence and murder in the city what it is comes from a genuine disregard for human consequences in the face of economic gain. Segregation of neighborhoods into nearly 100% Black and 100% white — like no other major city in the United States — leads to a dominating government and social strata who have no concept of or desire to understand the Other. They don’t need to. They don’t feel the effects of their decisions or have to live with the trauma of their consequences on a daily basis.
Many community leaders and city officials in a position to care do agree on one thing: it’s no mystery what could make Chicago better. More jobs. A better relationship between the police and those they are sworn to protect. Funding for education and the kinds of afterschool and community programs most white communities take for granted. Options for integration that still respect community and family ties.
It’s not Federal tanks that are going to make my city a better place to live. No number of hooded owls either, unfortunately, as wonderful as that daydream rolls out in six issue form. No, rather, it’s the will to treat communities with respect and put the money behind that effort that remains wholly missing from Chicago’s relationship with investors, businesses, and the Federal, state, and local governments.
And until that changes, we’ll still be living in a city that is at once both Gotham City and Metropolis, Black and white, cloaked in the darkness of violence and desperately looking to the sky. Never at the ground. Never at the people in need.