Successfully scratched itches, part 3: Star Hawks

This used to be one of the most tantalizing itches that I wasn’t able to scratch for the longest time. I never saw the Star Hawks strip in an actual newspaper back in the day, but I did see one of the pocketbook collections on a paperback spinner rack in 1980 or ’81. I would have bought it on the spot, but I already had a handful of comics and not enough money with me. So I said to myself that I’d get it the next time I visited that store. And, of course, when I returned about a week or two later, it was no longer there.

Alas, it was never to be…

Not long after that, maybe a few months later, I remember seeing the paperback novel, Empire 99, on a spinner rack. I flipped through it, saw that it had some nice illustrations by Gil Kane, and was briefly tempted to buy it but ended up not doing so, just because I was so bitterly disappointed at never finding the book reprinting the comics.

Should have picked it up anyway, though

And that’s way it stayed for years: in all of my browsing through bookstores (both new and used) in my teens and early ‘20s, I never came across any of those books again, and the newspaper comic strip illustrated by Kane became something almost mythical in my mind.

Once I got back into comics in the early ‘00s, and slowly began reading visiting comics-related sites and online stores looking for books, I remembered Star Hawks as well. First I looked for the same paperback book I saw all those years ago, but was disappointed to see the sometimes high prices it fetched, but even more so by the fact that it only collected a small portion of the actual comics. Even the reprint books published by Blackthorne in the late 1980s weren’t complete.

Then I saw this edition published by Hermes Press that collects the entire run of daily strips (which, by the way, ran from October 1977 to May 1981). I spent several years doing occasional web searches for this and never found a copy anywhere near a price I could afford. I finally found a seller here in Croatia offering it on a local auction site for about the equivalent of $25. Luckily, I was the only bidder, so I finally got my hands on it. …And then it sat on my shelf for a good ten years – the itch was only half-scratched, but all of the covid19-related downtime recent months finally prompted me to pull it out and scratch that itch vigorously.

Was it worth the wait? Oh, yeah!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and that has nothing, or very little, to do with nostalgia, since I never read any of this stuff before. As with many other more obscure projects, like Blackmark (also by Kane) or the various graphic fiction books and other, similar books put together and/or published by Byron Preiss, I just love that this exists. I’m a big, big fan of Gil Kane’s art, so this book is just pages and pages of eye candy for me. It’s quite obvious that this strip was a labor of love for him, which is reflected in the wonderfully rendered panels.

The very first panel – how can you not get hooked?

However, even the art in the sections not drawn by Kane (he was hospitalized with a gall bladder infection for about the first 2 months of 1979) is still quite lovely. Howard Chaykin and Ernie Colon stepped in and also did bang-up jobs. And quite commendably, they didn’t try to ape Kane’s style.

Pretty sure that’s Chaykin’s work on top, Colon’s on the bottom

Although it’s nice to have all of this material in a single book, I have to say that it is rather unwieldy. It has an oblong shape that makes it hard to put on a shelf with other books. Moreover, the paper is the same stock normally used for magazine covers; yeah, it’s high quality, but it also means the book is really heavy – and floppy. I found that the only way to read it comfortably and easily is to set it down on a table or desk. Forget about reading it while sitting in an easy chair or stretched out on a bed or a couch.

A comparison to a standard tpb

Some also might not like the way the strips are reprinted on the page. Given the large format of this book, it would have been nice if the strips had been reprinted in slightly larger dimensions – instead, it seems as though they’re roughly the same size as what had actually been printed in newspapers.

I’m assuming that the intention was to fit as much as possible onto a single page to keep the page count down, since the book already has over 300 pages as it is – including some nice extras: a foreword by co-creator Ron Goulart, and an introduction that provides an overview of Gil Kane’s career with emphasis on the Star Hawks strip and his attempts at other independent publishing projects. The last part of the book has some production art and reproductions of the first few months of color Sunday strips.

These made me kind of wish the entire book was in color

The strip had three scripters, by the way; the first – and best – was co-creator Ron Goulart. He left in April 1979 due to some creative differences with the syndicate running the strip. Archie Goodwin took over the writing chores, but he also left in August 1980. Roger McKenzie then scripted the strip until it was cancelled in May 1981. The stories definitely lost something after Goulart left. The core concept that he set up is that the Star Hawks (the common name for officers of the Interplanetary Law Service) patrol and keep the peace among the many human colonies in the galaxy at some undetermined point in the future. The two main characters, Rex and Chavez, who definitely have a kind of buddy cop vibe, operate in the Barnum system of planets. Goulart spun great stories that are action-packed but also really light-hearted and fun. Goodwin, and then McKenzie, adopted a far more serious tone, so that, e.g., a war broke out with an invading species of aliens from the far side of the galaxy and pretty much the entire supporting cast that Goulart had built up was jettisoned (some were even killed off). The main setting was even moved away from the Barnum system. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the introductions, but I wonder if the latter was done as a courtesy to Goulart, who often used the Barnum system as the setting for his novels.

And speaking of novels, two Star Hawks novelizations were published. As noted (and pictured) above, I saw one of them back in the day. Once I got this complete collection, I decided to track down both of the Star Hawks prose books by Goulart.

The second one

This first, Empire 99, is a mash-up of two different story arcs in the Star Hawks comic strip that Goulart quite seamlessly turned into a single coherent story. Pretty much all of the illustrations are individual panels from the newspaper strip. The second one, The Cyborg King, contains an entirely new story, involving the political turmoil in one of the planets in the Barnum system caused by the titular, mad cyborg king. My impression is that this story is probably a plot recycled by Goulart after he stopped writing the newspaper strip. These are both fun little reads – just like the newspaper strip.

5 Comments

  1. If you ever feel the need to upgrade, IDW recently reprinted this series in 3 volumes, with each strip on its own page, according to IDW’s website. They’re pricey at 50 bucks each (although the second appears to be 40), but I only checked the site to confirm they came out. Other sellers might have them for a different price.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Didn’t know about the IDW editions; I’m sure the reproduction quality is better, but I’m in no hurry to upgrade. I like having everything in a single book (to save shelf space) and, as you noted, these new books are pretty expensive – I just did a Bookfinder search and couldn’t find any single volume for under $30 shipping to my location.

  2. Back in the late 1970s, I read an anthology of sword-and-sorcery fantasy that included a story by Adrian Cole about an accursed hero called the Voidal. It was really good, but in those days I had no way to track down the novels in the series (small press, I believe). Now they’re republished and affordable (not this month, but soon) and easy to find.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I had heard something about the strip; but didn’t see it until I came across my first issue of Amazing Heroes (#14, featuring the launch of Camelot 3000), when it was being run in the magazine. It was in mid-storyline, so it was hard to make much out of it. I think the thing that alerted me to the existence of the strip was the novel that Kane co-wrote with John Jakes, Excalibur, with their take on the Arthurian myths, minus any real magic (possible clairvoyance, some herbal potions and the idea that Excalibur might have been forged from a meteor). It was always one of my favorite takes on the material, filled with the high adventure, but more modern characterizations. My paperback was falling apart from re-reading it.

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