Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Tomahawk

Today when most people think of comic books, they tend to think of superheroes. At most, if they are older, they might think of the old EC horror titles. But when I was very young comic books published more than just superheroes. Comic books covered several different genres, among them Westerns, horror, war, romance, and, of course, funny animal books. But there was one title which I read loyally not long after I learned to read that was unique in its choice of genre. Tomahawk followed the exploits of a man originally called Tom Hawk in his first appearance, but also referred to as Tom Haukins in some accounts, but better known by his nickname, "Tomahawk." If I had to define its genre, it would be "frontier drama," the same genre as James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo novels and Walt Disney's Davy Crockett mini-series.

Tomahawk was an adventurer who often served George Washington against British, French, and Iroquois forces in the decades prior to the American Revolution. He typically dressed in a coonskin cap and bucksins, his trusty rifle never far from his side. His sidekick was Dan Hunter, a youth modelled after such sidekicks of superheroes as Robin and Bucky (Captain America's sidekick). The series was created by writer Joe Samachson and artist Edmund Good, although it would be artist Fred Ray who would give shape to the character more than any other man. Ray was a fervid Revolutionary War buff and more than suited to his work on Tomahawk. In some respects Tomahawk was ahead of its time. It predated both Disney's Davy Crockett mini-series (which wouldn't appear until 1954) and the old Daniel Boone TV show (which debuted in 1964--both starred Fess Parker).

Tomahawk first appeared as a back up feature in Star Spangled Comics #69 (June 1947). Batman's sidekick Robin was the cover feature at the time, but it was not long before Tomahawk's popularity would allow him to push Robin from the cover. His first cover appearance was in Star Spangled Comics #96 (September 1949). Tomahawk remained the cover feature until Star Spangled Comics #121, (October 1951) when he lost out to a new character called "The Ghost Breaker (long since forgotten)." With its 131st issue (August 1952) Star Spangled Comics would become Star Spangled War Stories and Tomahawk would cease appearing there at all. By then, however, it hardly mattered. Tomahawk also appeared in World Finest Comics starting out in 1948 and it would continue to appear there until 1959. He received his own comic book, Tomahawk, with an issue dated September/October 1950.

Sadly, like many of DC's titles from the Forties to the Sixties, Tomahawk would stray from being a serious frontier drama into outright silliness. This started early, with a Tomahawk story in Star Spangled Comics #83 (August 1948) called "The Lost Valley," in which Tomahawk faced dinosaurs! Tomahawk #46 (February 1957) featured story called "The Valley of the Giant Warriors," in which Tomahawk faced giant Native Americans. Tomahawk #103 (March/April 1966) featured the Frankenstein Monster in a story called "The Frontier Frankenstein." Eventually, when the Silver Age of comic books made superheroes hot again, Tomahawk would feature its own superhero. In Tomahawk #81 (July-August 1962), the patriotically themed Miss Liberty made her first appearance. She would continue to appear in Tomahawk until nearly the end of the run of the series.

Fortunately, Tomahawk would eventually swing back towards more realistic stories. Robert Kanigher assumed the writing of the series in the late Sixties. Best known for his work on DC's war titles (he is the man who created Sgt. Rock), Kanigher brought Tomahawk back to being a straight frontier drama. Complimenting Kanigher's scripts was art by two of the best artists in the business--Frank Thorne and Joe Kubert. The cast of characters was also expanded in Tomahawk. Tomahawk's Rangers were introduced. This colourful band of adventurers often assisted Tomahawk in his exploits. It is at this point where I was first introduced to the character and it is a run that I remember particularly fondly.

Sadly, following the Silver Age (the Seventies are often called the Bronze Age of comic books, but I tend to think of them as "the Plastic Age..."), comic book sales fell dramatically. This was no less true of Tomahawk. With sales in decline, the magazine which had borne Tomhawk's name for twenty years underwent a dramatic change. With issue 141 (November/December 1970) it was retitled Son of Tomahawk. It no longer focused on Tomahawk but on his son, simply called "Hawk." The setting was also moved up several years, closer to the days of the Old West. This was not enough to save the magazine. Issue #140 (May/June 1972) was the final issue.

Since then Tomahawk has rarely been seen. He made an appearance, along with nearly every other DC character, in DC's massive mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths (published from 1985 to 1986). Later a Tomahawk oneshot was published in 1998 under DC's Vertigo imprint. Sadly, that is about the extent of his appearances since 1970.

I have fond memories of reading Tomahawk as a child. And he was a fairly successful character, with an uninterrupted publishing history spanning twenty three years. While Tomahawk could fall into outright silliness, at its best it was a rousing frontier drama. Robert Kanigher's run on the series was particularly impressive, with beautiful illustrations by some of the industry's best artists. It seems to me that among DC's characters ripe for revival, Tomahawk is among them. Indeed, given that in the past thirty years comic books have expanded well beyond superheroes, I would say that he is overdue for a resurgence.

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