Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Different Looks of Blackhawk

Having written about Quality Comics yesterday, today I thought I would do a pictorial on what might be their third longest running title. Blackhawk debuted in Military Comics #1, August 1941. It proved to be one of Quality Comics' most popular features. Blackhawk received his own title in winter 1944.

This is Blackhawk #9, winter 1944. Although it is the first issue of Blackhawk's own title, it is numbered "9" because it took over the numbering of Uncle Sam Quarterly. It was in Jim Steranko's History of Comics that artist Chuck Cuidera explained the look of the Blackhawks' the uniforms. He said, "The Germans had designed such great costumes, we decided to use them ourselves. It was like fighting fire with fire." By this time Blackhawk was very popular, selling as much as superheroes such as The Flash and Captain America. Here I feel like I must apologise for the very stereotypical Chinese man conducting the Blackhawks. That is Chop-Chop, the Blackhawks' cook in the early days of the series and hence the squadron's sidekick. Sadly, Chop-Chop was a very typical portrayal of Asians during World War II. It is to be noted that over the years Chop-Chop would change to the point where he would also wear a Blackhawk uniform and pilot his own plane.

This is Blackhawk #57, October 1952. The Blackhawk Squadron would change very little in appearance after World War II, although Chop-Chop was drawn more realistically, even if he was still a stereotype. Their opponents did change. With the War over, they could no longer fight Nazis. Of course, an exception was made for Blackhawk's archnemesis, Killer Shark. A Nazi operative still loyal to the cause after the fall of Hitler's regime, he would return even decades after the war to fight the Blackhawk Squadron. Other than Killer Shark, however, The Blackhawks' chief opponents would now be from the Soviet Union and Communist China. It must be kept in mind that this was the height of the Cold war and the same time period as the Red Scare.

This is Blackhawk #133, February 1959. It is the first appearance of Lady Blackhawk. Even after DC Comics acquired Blackhawk, the squadron's appearance would not change for many years. DC Comics would make some other, more drastic changes. One was in the enemies they faced. For whatever reason, DC chose to no longer pit the Blackhawks against Commies, instead giving them a variety of opponents, from crime cartels to pirates. Most popular at DC Comics were science fiction menaces such as mad scientists, robotic opponents, and alien invaders. Increasingly, Blackhawk became rather silly. To a degree, this was typical of DC Comics at the time. As early as the late Forties, DC Comics would add science fiction-type plots to titles that were far from science fiction in genre, such as the frontier drama Tomahawk. In the Fifties they even did it to Batman, who had faced gangsters and supervillains in his heyday. The addition of a female character to a previously all male comic strip was also typical. This was the era when Batwoman joined the cast of Batman and Supergirl was introduced. Lady Blackhawk was Zinda Blake, a woman who wanted to become the first female Blackhawk. She continued to appear in the pages of Blackhawk until nearly the end of the book's run.

With Blackhawk #197, June 1964, the Blackhawks received new uniforms. Many fans hate these new uniforms. They prefer the original uniforms, which had a total black colour scheme, to these red, black, and green ones. Myself, I actually like them. I must confess that while I love the originals, by 1964 they were looking a bit dated. That having been said, I don't think I did not approve of the other change this issue brought. Having started as a private, paramilitary squadron, the Blackhawks were now attached to a secret government agency. Personally, I preferred them as freelancers. Despite the fact that they now worked for the government, the Blackhawks still faced silly, science fiction menaces.

Blackhawk #226, November 1966, is a case in point. This issue features the story "The Secret Monster of Blackhawk Island." That's the right. The Blackhawks have been on Blackhawk Island, located somewhere in the North Atlantic, for 25 years and they never knew they had a monster! The next two issues wouldn't be much better, featuring "The Perilous Positive-Negative Man" and "Chop-Chop the Warlock." Here I must say a few words about Chop-Chop. Although still bearing that demeaning name, he had become less of a stereotype. With Blackhawk #197, June 1964, he slimmed up, received a uniform, and was no longer drawn as a stereotype (although he was sort of a jaundice orange now). He even received his own plane!

This is it, the lowest point in the Blackhawks' history, Blackhawk #230, March 1967. Sales for the title had been declining for the past several years. Instead of realising that the pseudo-science fiction plots were probably what was hurting sales, DC Comics decided instead that the Blackhawks must become superheroes. After all, this was the era of the Batman TV show. To this end, the Blackhawks received silly powers and equally bad uniforms in what was deemed "The New Blackhawk Era." The process took three issues, beginning with Blackhawk #228, January 1967 and culminating with #230. In this three part story, the government agency was back and demanded the Blackhawks disband or become superheroes.

The silly superhero phase seriously hurt Blackhawk's sales. To save the book, DC Comics then returned the Blackhawks to their original uniforms and their status as a paramilitary group. This occurred in Blackhawk #242, August-September 1968, shown here. This issue was scheduled to feature art by Reed Crandall, who had worked on the book at Quality Comics, but he had to bow out of the project. In the story, the government agency is destroyed by the villain, the Black Mask. Their superhero costumes having also been destroyed, they become what they once were. It turns out that the Black Mask is none other than Blackhawk's brother, who was badly injured in World War II but repaired by the Nazis. Sympathetic to the Nazis and angry at his brother, he now seeks to destroy Blackhawk.

Blackhawk was cancelled with #243, October-November 1968. It returned with #244, January-February 1976. The Blackhawks had new uniforms and various new opponents, Among their new enemies were Anti-Man, a villain with anti-matter powers, and the Bio-Lord, a machine intelligence wanting to kill al humans. The Blackhawks would also face Nazis again. One was the Sky Skull, a Nazi war criminal. Of course, another was Killer Shark, who returned in Blackhawk #250, January-February 1977. Sadly, this would be the final issue of this revival. The series is important as it was the very last one in which the Blackhawks were featured in contemporary times. Every revival every since has featured them in their glory days, World War II.

Because of that, every revival ha salso  featured the Blackhawks in their original uniforms. There was another short lived revival in 1982, with stories by Mark Evanier. This revival was actually more successful, lasting from #251, October 1982 to #273, November 1984. In 1987 Howard Chaykin wrote a Blackhawk mini-series which was very revisionist. It gave Blackhawk a real name, Janos Prohaska. It also made him a rather vulgar drunk. A Blackhawk series followed in 1988 in Action Comics. It received its own title in March 1989. It lasted until #16, August, 1990. Since then Blackhawk has only appeared in Blackhawk Special #1, 1999. This oneshot was set in Vietnam and written by John Ostrander. Since then Blackhawk and his squadron have only made cameos in various DC titles. It is safe to say, however, that they will probably be revived again one day.

1 comment:

J. Marquis said...

I was a big Blackhawk fan back in the early and mid-Sixties. I'd kind of forgotten about them, especially their short superhero phase!