Celebrating the Unpopular Arts


The Blackhawks, it seems, are not a team made for the modern world.

Prior to the short-lived New 52 reboot, their previous two series were both set back in the past; Lady Blackhawk has seen more action in the modern era than Blackhawk himself has. Maybe nothing could have changed that, but the Bronze Age Blackhawk reboot gave it a good shot.

First, some history. Blackhawk debuted in the first issue of Quality’s Military Comics, a few months before Pearl Harbor. A Polish pilot, Blackhawk fights in flashback against the Nazi invasion of his country, then returns home to discover his family have been killed in a bombing raid. Instead of giving up, he recruits a team of pilots operating outside the Allied military to wage war on the Axis. By the time this issue hit the stands, they’d already become legends. This seemed like typical outlandish comics stuff when I read the story in a Bronze Age reprint; now that I know about the Flying Tigers and the U.S. pilots who enlisted with the R.A.F. it seems a lot more plausible.

Outside of Blackhawk, the team’s membership was fuzzy at first but eventually coalesced into Hendrickson (Dutch or German, depending on the era), Olaf (Swedish), Chuck (American), Stanislaus (Polish), Andre (French) and Chop-Chop, the embarrassingly bucktoothed Chinese cook who later became a marginally less embarrassing team member, then a decent character.

After Quality folded, the Blackhawks jumped to DC in 1956 and became a bland super-hero team. Their stories and adversaries (the Net, King Condor, Cat-Man — no relation to the Bat-foe) weren’t really any worse than a lot of Batman in the late 1950s but Batman has a presence they don’t. Blackhawk was also more crowded: a story that works for a Dynamic Duo becomes clunky when it involves a Magnificent Seven.

Astonishingly, they still sold well enough DC didn’t see any need to reboot them until 1966. After proclaiming them ou-of-date losers —

— the reboot set them working for the government as a more superheroic team, with code names including Leaper, Monsieur Machine, Golden Centurion and Dr. Hands. It would be held up for years as a textbook example of how not to shake up a series.

Despite walking all the changes back, Blackhawk went to its grave in ’68.

In 1975, the Blackhawks returned in #244 (man, I miss the days when reboots kept the old numbers) by Steve Skeates and George Evans. The team are now ethical mercenaries, charging $1 million per job; between missions, they have jobs in Blackhawk’s multinational business empire (if this had lasted more than seven issues, I presume Skeates would have explained the new status quo). In the first story we meet their U.S. government contact, their chief rival — sexy but less ethical mercenary Duchess Ramona Fatale, AKA “Patch” — and Skeates still worked in a plot around all that.

After the next two issues pitted the team against a former member who’s become a walking anti-matter stockpile, we got a two-parter by David Anthony Kraft, one of my least favorite Bronze Age writers. The story of the Blackhawks battling the ecoterrorist AI Biolord is clunky and the twists are just annoying (see the U.S. government contract rip off his mask and show who he really is!).

Skeates returned the following issue for the beginning of a (probably) multi-issue plotline pitting the Blackhawks against a Hydra-style crime cartel. Despite the uninspired monicker The Empire of Death, it’s a good yarn. We see Patch again, witness the return of Silver Age archfoe Killer Shark and also the resurrection of the War Wheel, one of comics’ coolest evil vehicles (seen below in its 1952 debut). We also have seeding for future issues: Hendrickson gets sidelined with a heart attack but we meet his estranged daughter, who would have replaced him on the team.

That all took place over a couple of action-packed issues, which was all the time the series had left. #250 ends on a cliffhanger — Chuck apparently dead stopping the War Wheel — but the text page assured us the Empire of Death had been utterly defeated (you wouldn’t know it from the story). Not only that but Chuck really died in that battle; coupled with Hendrickson’s heart attack and Chopper’s critical injuries, Blackhawk decided the time had come to disband the team.

Of course I rolled my eyes at this. I knew nobody died forever and no team broke up forever — but when I reread the issues a few years back, I realized it was true. The Blackhawks never appeared in the present again; their next pre-Crisis series was set back in WW II. So presumably everything in that text page was spot-on. The Blackhawks were over, some of them dead or disabled.

I’m far from a major Blackhawks fan, but that makes me remarkably sad.

#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by Will Eisner, Dick Dillin, Dillin again, Joe Kubert, Reed Crandall and Rich Buckler.


  1. The central core of the concept doesn’t need updating at all. The problem, as usual, is that the people in charge don’t understand their own property and its potential. They see it as a WWII story of pilots fighting the Nazis, and after the war, it’s kind of pointless to have them fighting garden-variety supervillains.

    The story engine that drives the Blackhawks is this: an international band of specialists who take it upon themselves to do the things that hidebound governments are slow to do. They go where there are threats and intervene. The Blackhawks could be rebooted as an international all-volunteer anti-genocide campaign, showing up anywhere that a particular group or tribe is threatened with extinction by an oppressive regime.

    That’s a concept that unfortunately will probably never go out of fashion.

    1. This speaks to a technique for getting unstuck I always try to get across in my young authors classes… Always know what the engine is that is driving the thing. What makes the story go? What is the fun of reading it?

      With the Blackhawks, it’s not aviation pulp, not anymore… That’s a genre that’s played out. So what takes its place? In the current climate of adventure fiction, it’s what some folks call techno-thrillers.. everything from Tom Clancy to movies like Ghost Protocol.

      Okay. That’s a place to start. What else? It’s comics. So it’s got to be visually interesting. That’s where you redesign Blackhawk Island, the planes, the whole headquarters. And the cast and the villains.

      The more I go on the more this sounds like G.I. Joe, actually. I suspect that a lot of the same reasoning came into play there.

      But my point is that this kind of deconstruction is the easiest way to attack a relaunch and it really ought to be the way comics writers come at these things, and yet they almost never do. Case in point? The Ultimates. The idea was to do the Avengers for a new audience and yet everything about it screamed how much Mark Millar didn’t get what the engine was. On the other hand, the movie version had the same mission statement and nailed it.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Blackhawk did get brought into the present, twice, post-Crisis. The first time was after the Howard Chaykin Blackhawk mini-series, which updated things for the 80s, but was still set in the 40s (despite a confusing opening depicting Congressional hearings on Communist activity and television broadcasts, suggesting it was post-war). Then, In Action Comics Weekly, Mike Grell wrote a post-War update, that saw them as mercenary adventurers, with a cargo hauling business, on the side. Essentially, he was swiping from Steve Canyon. That was followed by Marty Pasko’s 16-issue series, set in the late 40s/early 50s, carrying on the idea of Blackhawk being CIA contract employees, but at odds with some of their dirtier missions. During that time, DC established the modern Blackhawk as Blackhawk Express, a modern cargo air service that also did contract work for the CIA. Chop-Chop, or Weng Chiang, was the only one of the group seen in modern setting, as the mentor and boss to younger pilots.

    Later, a new Blackhawk appeared during the Superman World at War crossover, as well as Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come new generation Blackhawk, who drop the bomb on the Gulag.

    The Mark Evanier/Dan Spiegle run, set in WW2 is still the best of the DC Blackhawk material. DC wasn’t horrible, after acquiring it from Quality; but, they ran out of ideas, by the 60s.

    The Flying Tigers were the main inspiration, plus the Foreign Legion. I always felt you could do a realistic version by making them foreign pilots in the RAF, like the Polish and Dutch pilots who flew fighters and bombers. I pictured them flying Mosquitos, carrying out special missions, like the mission to free the Resistance leaders from prison, in France.

    There is a Blackhawk novel, published around the time of the Evanier revival, when Stephen Spielberg had expressed interest in Blackhawk. It’s by William Rostler, a pulp and erotic fiction (book porn) writer and it’s pretty good. It comes up with a location for Blackhawk Island (near the Orkneys), how they got the planes and obtain spare parts and replacement planes, and gave them some pulpy (and kinky) villains to fight.

    For the modern era, the best thin in this line was Airboy, at Eclipse. Predominantly written by Chuck Dixon, it captured the spirit of the old Hillman aviation heroes (the Air Fighters), including the very Blackhawk, Skywolf. It mixed in a little supernatural stuff (like the villain Misery, with his Airtomb, straight from the original comics) with current events, like civil wars in Central America, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the drug trade. The best part of those comics, though, were the Skywolf back-up stories, following the character after the war, from the Chinese Civil war, to Korea and into Indochina, on a treasure hunt that lands him and his buddy, Jack Gatling (The Bald Eagle) in the middle of the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Chuck had planned another storyline that revolved around the Cuban Revolution, but never got a chance to write it, before Eclipse pulled the plug.

    1. Blackhawk also shows up alone in Mark Waid’s Silver Age event, when he gets recruited as one of the Seven Soldiers of Victory. But I didn’t bother to mention that one.
      Airboy was excellent, though outside of Skywolf I didn’t find the other Air Fighters half as fascinating as Dixon did. It’s amusing, given his conservative outbursts in recent years, to read the letter columns in various issues denouncing him as a commie.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Valkyrie was a good character; but got wasted on romantic angles too much. The first mini-series, where she is put on trial in the Soviet Union, for war crimes, was probably the best use of her. Hirota was made into a little too much of a Mr Miyagi; but, he was used well in several stories. The Air Maidens didn’t really work, as that was T&A and Guns, more often than not.

        I really enjoyed the Skywolf stories, as Chuck explored post-war history, with Skywolf ending up in various hot spots. Also enjoyed the buddy angle with Jack Gatling. Would have made for a great film series or HBO series.

        The one politically oriented thing that Eclipse did publish that irked me a bit was Real War Stories, with Joyce Babner. I’m pretty much a New Deal Liberal, but I was also a serving naval officer and some of the material in the two issues was heavily editorialized and some was pure BS. There was also some really good and accurate material. Of the 2 issues, the first had more that rankled my hairs than the second. The first presented several Vietnam-era stories, but in a way that made it sound like there was still and actual Draft, not just registration with selective Services. There is a big difference between filling out a registration card and actually being conscripted and sent off to war. We were all volunteers in 1987 and 1991.

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