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.
— 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.