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Blackhawk

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Blackhawk #242 © 1968 DC Comics. COVER ART BY PAT BOYETTE.


Blackhawk was conceived before World War II, thrived during the conflict, and enjoyed a long period of success in peacetime for two comics companies: Quality and DC. The birth of the Blackhawk strip is still somewhat contentious, but it probably originated through a request for a new feature from Quality Comics boss Everett Busy Arnold to packager/editor/artist Will Eisner. Together with members of his studio, Chuck Cuidera, Bob Powell, and others, Eisner created a band of fighting men to counter the growing Nazi menace across the ocean. Inspired by his love of the foreign legion, Eisner conceived of a band of men from all over the globe—the Blackhawks—led by a dark man of mystery known simply as Blackhawk. The strip premiered in mid-1941 in the pages of Military Comics #1, in a script written and laid out by Eisner, with finished artwork by Chuck Cuidera, and it was an overnight sensation.


The story opens in blitzkrieged 1939 Warsaw, Poland, with a brave pilot struggling out of his crashed fighter plane in the wake of a dogfight with Captain Von Tepp's Nazi squadron. The downed pilot stumbles to his bombed-out house only to find his family wiped out in the bombing and, choking back his tears, he vows revenge on the evil Von Tepp and his rampaging minions. Over the following months, the mysterious man—now known by the name Blackhawk—gathers a band of daredevil freedom fighters around him (known collectively as the Blackhawks) and wages a ruthless guerrilla campaign against the Teutonic hordes across mainland Europe. The story climaxes with another aerial dogfight between Von Tepp and Blackhawk, culminating in the Nazi's death. A legend was born.


In the Golden Age of comics (1938–1954), writers rarely lingered over details or backstory, preferring to concentrate on action and spectacle. So readers never learned how Blackhawk assembled his band of happy warriors, nor indeed how he acquired the well-appointed Blackhawk Island, somewhere in the Atlantic, complete with airfield, disappearing forts, Zeppelin shed, and lighthouse. Military Comics #2 introduced the rest of the Blackhawks: Andre, the suave French ladies' man; Olaf, the burly Swede; Stanislaus, the brave Pole; and Hendrickson, the veteran, moustachioed Dutchman (who later mysteriously became a German). Other, minor Blackhawks, Boris and Zug, were jettisoned in favor of all-American boy Chuck and comic relief Chinese cook Chop-Chop, whose decidedly un-politically correct ethnic stereotyping was an unfortunate feature of the strip for many years. Blackhawk himself was, of course, a Pole (probably at the insistence of Powell, who was of Polish descent), but this was gradually forgotten and in later adventures he became a Polish American.


A typical Blackhawk adventure would feature the team flying out in their stylish, twin-engined Grumman F5F fighters (a contribution from plane-buff Cuidera) to fight some Axis threat in an exotic corner of the globe. Early strips emphasized aerial battles and owed much to pulp/radio stars such as Bill Barnes and G-8, but over time the strip became increasingly earthbound, with the gang wading into action with guns (or fists) blazing. In the dark days of the war, there were few qualms about our heroes mowing down vast swathes of the enemy, and the Blackhawks were among the most bloodthirsty and driven of comics stars. Dressed in their matching blue and black, SS-style uniforms, complete with peaked caps, jodhpurs, and jackboots (only Blackhawk himself was allowed the embellishment of a yellow hawk insignia on his jacket), the team ironically resembled the fascist horde that they were hell-bent on defeating.


After eleven issues of Military Comics, Cuidera was drafted into the air force and Eisner left to concentrate on the Spirit but, despite this, the strip went from strength to strength. Reed Crandall, one of Quality's top talents, took over the art and a host of writers, including Manly Wade Wellman, Bill Woolfold, and Batman writer Bill Finger, replaced Eisner. One of the incoming writers, Dick French, was also an accomplished songwriter, and he introduced the novel twist of having the team sing celebratory songs (usually about how great they all were!) as they went into battle or after each victory. (Over land, over sea, we fight to make men free / Of danger we don't care We're Blackhawks!) But it was Crandall who, more than anyone else, inspired the feature's fervid fan following with his immaculate figure work and elaborately choreographed fight scenes.


With their secret hideout, matching costumes, independent persona as a multinational squadron of fighters who are not beholden to any one country, and leader's secrecy surrounding his original identity, the Blackhawks were very much a de facto supergroup. Yet, whereas most superhero sales dropped as the war came to a close, the Hawks retained their readership. In 1944, the failing Uncle Sam title was changed (with issue #9) into a new Blackhawk comic, boasting book-length yarns and even a Chop-Chop solo feature. The postwar Blackhawks now turned their attention to a succession of world-conquering villains, robots, aliens, mad scientists, and femmes fatale. Glamorous vixens such as Madame Butterfly, Princess Sari, Amora, and Mavis, Tigress of the Sea, all bent on world domination, suddenly filled the strips and almost invariably fell in love with Blackhawk. Notable villains included Captain Squid, King Cobra and his Rattlesnake Squadron, and—their most recurring foe—the sharp-toothed Killer Shark with his squadron of amphibious Shark Planes. As self-appointed guardians of the free world, the Blackhawks were responsible for their fair share of Red-baiting, as stories such as Slavery in Siberia, The Red Executioner, and Stalin's Ambassador of Murder illustrate.


Military Comics was canceled in 1950, one of many casualties of the hero implosion of the 1950s, but the Blackhawk title itself continued throughout the decade—the only team comic to do so. Artists such as pin-up king Bill Ward, Rudy Palais, and John Forte had all contributed to the strip but Crandall was very much the feature's star, and his departure for E.C. Comics in 1953 was a serious blow. However, his replacement Dick Dillin, while not quite as inspired, was nevertheless a sold professional and proved to be adept at drawing the comic's endless crowd scenes. The 1950s Blackhawks still operated out of their island hideaway, now mysteriously relocated to the Pacific Ocean, but their wartime planes were traded in for sleek F90 jets.


By 1957, Quality Comics was a spent force, and the company sold (or, as in the case of Blackhawk, leased) their top-selling titles to DC. Fortunately, DC retained Dillin on the book, along with Chuck Cuidera on inks, and so the transition was seamless. DC's titles of that time were full of monsters, robots, and aliens, and these also began to dominate the Hawks' strip, as did a relic of the Quality days, the vast War Wheel—literally a colossal, house-crushing, steel wheel, armed with gun turrets and spikes. One welcome DC innovation was a mini-skirted adventurer called Zinda, who joined the group as Lady Blackhawk (in issue #151) and made sporadic appearances throughout the 1960s. Less welcome for the purists was 1964's new look, which replaced the old stormtrooper-style uniforms with garish green-and-red costumes (#197, in 1964) and unwanted mascots such as Blackie the Hawk (a pet hawk) and Tom Thumb Blackhawk, a midget.


While never a superhero strip by the strictest definition of the term, the 1960s Blackhawks had much in common with other DC strips such as Challengers of the Unknown and the Doom Patrol, but few fans guessed how much closer they were going to get. In 1966, in the wake of the successful Batman TV show, DC transformed the venerable fighters into tried and true superheroes. Hendrickson donned a purple boiler-suit to become the Weapons Master, Olaf became the silver-suited Leaper (because his new suited allowed him to leap vast distances), Stan wore a suit of armour ? la Marvel's Iron Man to become the Golden Centurion, Andre kept his beret but gained a fancy motorcycle to become Monsieur Machine, and Chop-Chop sported a pair of metal hands to become Dr. Hands. Poor old Chuck suffered the worst indignity: He was now the Listener, dressed in blue pajamas decorated with hundreds of pink ears. Only Blackhawk himself avoided the cloaking of an entirely new supercostume, trading in his old blue uniform for a more fashionable red version, going now by the name of the Big Eye. After the Blackhawks had battled supervillains in their new identities for two years, incoming editor Dick Giordano turned to a yellowing old plot, sent in by teenage fan Marv Wolfman (future Marvel editor-in-chief and co-creator of Blade), which returned the Blackhawks to their wartime costumes and more serious approach. This was the team's best story in years, but it came too late to save the comic and, one issue later (#243 in 1968), the Hawks seemingly flew off into the sunset for the last time.


Eight years later, new DC boss Jenette Kahn oversaw a number of revivals of long-forgotten titles, one of which was Blackhawk; the revival picked up with issue #244. The new comic took as its inspiration the campier 1950s and 1960s DC Blackhawks, complete with bizarre villains (Anti-Man, Bio-Lord, and a returning War Wheel) and a new femme fatale, Dutchess Ramona Fatale. The strip was set in 1976 and starred a now middle-aged band of adventurers, enjoying civilian identities as scientists and corporate bosses. None of this appealed to a new generation of fans, and so the comic was canceled six issues later.


An enjoyably fanciful team-up with Batman (in The Brave and the Bold #167, 1981), in a story set during World War II, rekindled interest in the Hawks and inspired a new set of wartime tales. A well-received (by old-time fans, at least) 1982 series detailed untold war adventures that were very true to the spirit of the old Quality strips. Its two-year run by Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle was one of the feature's creative high points, as was Howard Chaykin's 1988 miniseries, but there the similarities end. Chaykin's story was a contemporary reinvention of the wartime group's exploits, led by a hard-driving, vain, Trotskyite, womanizing Blackhawk, who finally had a real name: Janos Prohaska. Mixing in such elements as gangsters, Zionists, the Spanish Civil War, television, and the atomic bomb, this was heady stuff indeed. The well-received tale led to a number of Blackhawk strips in Action Comics and a series in 1989 that was set in 1947 and involved the team with the CIA and the red menace scare.


The concept of a band of brave fighters taking on evil around the globe had enormous resonance to readers in the war-torn 1940s and the cold-war paranoia of the 1950s, and perhaps inevitably the strip was at its peak in those years. Indeed, such was the strip's popularity that it inspired a 1952 Columbia serial starring Kirk Alyn (also one of the screen's earliest Supermans) and a short-lived radio show. Sadly, any residual nostalgia for the Blackhawks or their wartime oeuvre has largely died out, and so they are unlikely to emerge as a commercial force in the twenty-first-century market. Nevertheless, a 2002 DC Archive edition reprinting their early years may yet prove to have entranced a new generation. However, younger fans have already been enjoying the legacy of the strip for years without realizing it; in the mid-1970s, editor Roy Thomas (with artist Dave Cockrum and eventual writer Len Wein) reinvented the moribund X-Men title as a multinational team, inspired by his affection for the Blackhawk strips of his youth. —DAR

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