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Bird Heroes

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Flight represents the ultimate freedom. Consequently, humankind has for centuries regarded the bird as a muse for its mythology, its science, and its fantasy. As a result, a flock of bird-based superheroes have soared through comic books, television, and movies.


Hawkman is the most famous of the bird heroes, originating in DC Comics' Flash Comics #1 (1940). His golden, winged helmet and broad feathered wingspan have prompted a host of imitators, but Hawkman himself was not the first feathered fighter in the comics—the Hawkmen of the Flash Gordon comic strip preceded him. Yet Hawkman endures, although his nest has been re-feathered by numerous reworkings. His companion Hawkgirl has flown alongside him since the 1940s, and in 2001 became a television star as part of the Cartoon Network's animated Justice League series.


Among the Hawkman clones are two young hatchlings directly connected to the Winged Wonder's lore (by way of groups he's belonged to). Golden Eagle, a long-haired teen named Charley Parker, took wing in Justice League of America #116 (1975) as a surrogate Hawkman in a battle with the hero's foe the Matter Master, then joined Titans West, an offshoot of the Teen Titans. Northwind, who premiered in All-Star Squadron #25 (1983), hails from a secret society of human/bird hybrids living in the appropriately named Feithera, a remote area of Greenland. The son of a Feitherian princess and a human anthropologist, Northwind's mixed heritage and peculiar appearance—ebon, feathery skin, golden plumage hair, and natural wings—makes him forever a recluse outside of his homeland, although he finds kinship among the members of the supergroup Infinity, Inc. Northwind can converse with birds and commands migratory powers.


Air Man began his short flight as a superhero in Centaur Comics' Keen Detective Funnies #23 (1949). Drake Stevens adopts synthetic wings and a jet-pack to avenge the killing of his father—an ornithologist—and uses guns and even explosives in his aerial war on crime. His massive wingspan was an obvious takeoff on Hawkman, but Air Man's dazzlingly hued feathers of yellow, white, and red differentiate his appearance from his predecessor's more earthen image. The Owl, one of the few superheroes to wear a lavender costume, was first seen in Dell Comics' Crackajack Funnies #25 (1940). More Batman than Hawkman, the Owl is actually police investigator Nick Terry, but prowls the streets at night in his flying Owlmobile and glides through the air with his parachute cape. The Owl employs perhaps the most bizarre weapon of any superhero: His Owl-gun's ga-ga ray induces owl-like behavior—what a hoot! The Owl was sometimes joined in his crime-fighting endeavors by Terry's fiancée, Laura Holt, masquerading as Owl Girl. The Owl's adventures lasted under two years, and a two-issue Gold Key Comics revival in 1967–1968 failed to earn him a permanent perch.


The television superhero Birdman, a product of the Hanna-Barbera animation studios, was first seen on NBC's Birdman and the Galaxy Trio (1967). Brightly garbed in a yellow bodysuit with a blue cowl and blue wings, this airborne adventurer can fly, is super strong, and emits hand-generated solar beams, gifts afforded him by the Egyptian god of the sun, Ra. Operating from the volcano-based Bird Lair, Birdman and his eagle Avenger—with, occasionally, his kid sidekick Birdboy—are dispatched by the operative Falcon 7 to thwart the threats of supervillains like Vulturo, Nitron, and Cumulus, members of the lawless league F.E.A.R. After two seasons, Birdman fluttered into occasional reruns until being resurrected in 2001 as Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law as part of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming.


Another cinematic crusader, Condorman, made a multimedia premiere in late 1980 in a newspaper comic strip (that lasted roughly four months), a three-issue Gold Key comic-book series, and a live-action theatrical movie starring Michael Crawford, who would later become famous in Broadway's Phantom of the Opera. Woody Wilkins is a comic-book artist who festoons himself in the vibrant, feathered attire of his creation, Condorman, to fully understand his character, and is recruited by a CIA agent friend to use his flying costume to protect Russian defectors from errant KGB agents. Condorman, the movie (1981), attempted mass-demographic appeal by mixing a variety of genres, hence its tagline, An action adventure romantic comedy spy story.


Black Condor is an appellation shared by two airborne comic-book superheroes. The original Black Condor, who bowed in Quality Comics' Crack Comics #1 (1940), was raised by a black condor and learned to fly by example. Sporting a midnight-blue ensemble of briefs, boots, and glider wings, the superhero Black Condor was ultimately purchased by DC Comics and absorbed into its universe, beginning in the 1970s with appearances in Justice League of America and Freedom Fighters. DC updated the hero in 1992, making the new Black Condor a young man given the natural power of flight through the machinations of a centuries-old sect, the Society of the Golden Wing.


Other flying bird heroes include Timely (later Marvel) Comics' Red Raven, a Golden Age (1938–1954) character wearing, as his name suggests, a crimson costume with red wings (albeit those of a bat rather than his namesake); Marvel Comics' Falcon, a red-and-white clad African-American hero whose glider wings propel him through the air; Marvel's Nighthawk, a blue-clad crusader with jet-propelled wings; Blue Eagle, a member of Marvel's Squadron Supreme, who dons anti-gravity wings to soar the heavens (in his adventures he temporarily changes his name to Cap'n Hawk and Condor); a DC heroine called Dawnstar, an Amerind (American Indian) member of the futuristic team the Legion of Super-Heroes, born with white wings and a foolproof tracking ability; Craig Lawson, a.k.a. Raven of Tower Comics' T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, whose costumes molted from issue to issue, ranging from rocket-powered glider wings to bulletproof metal wings; Snowbird of Marvel's Alpha Flight, who morphs into Arctic creatures, including owls; and France's superhero Peregrine (falcon in French), who flew through Marvel's multicultural miniseries Contest of Champions (1982).


Not all birds are airborne, nor are all bird-named superheroes. The most famous is Robin, the partner of Batman. This Boy Wonder sports a bright red breast (his tunic), but generally takes to the air by swinging on his Bat-rope. Robin was parodied as Sparrow in the oft-reprinted Bats-Man story in MAD #105 (1966). The original version of DC's the Hawk and the Dove were teenage brothers—polar political opposites—bequeathed bird costumes and enhanced strength and nimbleness by a mysterious voice in Showcase #75 (1968). The Blackhawks can fly, but only in their planes. This international team of fighter pilots premiered in Military Comics #1 (1941). Prize Publications' Black Owl started his career in 1940 in a tuxedo and owl mask before adopting blue tights and a yellow bird headdress, more standard-issue superhero garb. His outfit and name aside, he bore no other bird characteristics, but managed to stay in print through 1948.


Black Canary, one of DC's street operatives called the Birds of Prey, is flightless, but at one time commanded a dizzying sonic scream called her canary cry. Her Marvel counterpart, martial artist Bobbi Morse—better known as Mockingbird—was an agent of the espionage organization S.H.I.E.L.D. before becoming a member of the Avengers. Mockingbird is renowned for her iron battle staves—twin batons that, when connected, serve as a vaulting pole—and for her mockery: She frequently disconcerts her foes with derisions. Marvel's Songbird plagiarized Black Canary's cry: When she premiered in Marvel Two-In-One #56 (1979) she was the pro-wrestler-turned-supervillain Screaming Mimi, using her hypersonic screech to disorient opponents. She resurfaced in 1997 as Songbird, one of the team of super-fugitives called the Thunderbolts, and ultimately reformed.


Other bird-named heroes have been fly-by-nights: The Eagle, decked out in red, white, and blue with a gold eagle chest insignia, was more superpatriot than bird hero, and flitted through several Fox Features Syndicate titles in 1940 and 1941; comics' original Raven, premiering in Ace Periodicals' Sure-Fire Lightning #1 (1940), was essentially a copy of the Green Hornet but with a bird motif; and TV's Blue Falcon, a priggish animated superhero, played the straight man to his wacky partner, the clumsy robotic dog Dynomutt. No character better exemplifies the bird hero than Howard the Duck, writer Steve Gerber's anthropomorphic drake trapped in a world he never made—the Marvel universe! Howard popped into the pages of Marvel's Man-Thing series in 1973 and stuck around for several years, trying to find his place this reality of hairless apes (humans), fighting monsters and supervillains (and even teaming up with Spider-Man) along the way. Filmmaker George Lucas brought the character to life in the 1986 theatrical flop Howard the Duck. —ME

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