Saturday, 14 July 2012

HOW BLACK WERE MY HAWKS


I didn't pay much attention to DC Comics 'New 52' promotion last year, in which they relaunched and reinvented 52 of their titles. It seemed too much like an exercise in forced marketing, like a soccer team creating a new jersey for its supporters to have to buy. But Barry Forshaw remembered that I had once written fondly of Blackhawk, so he forwarded the first two issues of its reincarnation—I read them and didn't like them very much, so I didn't bother to write about them then. But I was reminded of the new Blackhawk when I recently read Howard Chaykin's Avengers 1959, which seems to be a new concept design from Marvel, called The Heroic Avengers, very much like the DC idea of reinvention. In a nutshell, it seems more a marketing tactic, designed to use existing 'brand names' to sell new stories, rather than create new characters for their own stories.

The connection, of course, is that Chaykin was responsible for a remake of Blackhawk as a mini-series in the mid 1980s (which itself followed a similar sort of revival by Mark Evanier) which succeeded in the sense of establishing a slightly different background for Blackhawk himself and a more up-to-date approach to the ethnic melting pot that was his squadron, with the 1940s stereotyping disappearing--Chop Chop in particular had to be recast as something more than a comedy figure.

The New 52 Blackhawk has literally nothing to do with its namesake, apart from the idea of a muilti-national group. Oddly enough, although we are supposed to have moved on from those days of ethnic stereotyping, the group features The Irishman, who seems to be a red-headed, cloth-capped cross between Wolverine, a leprechaun, and Colin Farrell. Their eyrie seems to be sponsored by the UN, more Tracy Island than Blackhawk Island, and the group includes Canada, Ukraine, Japanese, Hungarian (or at least Hun) and so on. There isn't a lot of character-building done in the first two issues; it's primarily action-oriented, as you'd expect, and Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley's art, reminiscent of Gil Kane, is perfectly suited for that. Oddly enough, Lashley's cover for issue 1 has a Chaykin-esque Lady Blackhawk, complete with eyepatch. The original Blackhawk, from its Will Eisner-Bob Powell days and through Reed Crandall, benefited from great art which helped make up for its lack of super-heroes.

It made me long for the old days. Realistically, the Blackhawks make more sense as a World War II outfit, and indeed Chaykin's speciality seemed to be period pieces (his Shadow, of course, being the best example, and note the pose with the twin .45s, in the Chaykin cover pictured on the right) and proof they could work. But it would not be impossible to revive the storyline in a modern context; it's just that this high-tech Mission Impossible version is lacking in the character development, even in caricature, which made Blackhawk work.

Here is what I would have suggested, had not this remake been killed almost immediately. The group should be fighting, primarily on the ground, but with some air (or helicopter) element, as an anti-terrorist outfit. It should be made up of soldiers who are refugees themselves from the ethnic and religious conflicts of the past two decades: Russian, Chechnian, Bosnian, Serb, Kurd, Yemeni, Sudanese, South African, Sri Lankan, whatever, which would open the opportunity for plenty of internal conflict, and they should be engaged in missions which raise ethical as well as tactical questions on the ground. They could battle pirates and kidnappers as well as terrorists, drug barons and corrupt oil companies as well as fundamentalist tribesmen. The stories would need to have some edge, and with any luck the Army would not want to advertise in them. It's a thought.


As I said, I went back to the New 52 Blackhawk because I came across Chaykin's Avengers 1959, which is supposedly a period piece itself, though it doesn't really create much of a Fifties feel. The choice of time-frame is interesting in comic book terms, because the new-style Marvel superheroes come along only a couple of years later, and I was really surprised we didn't get a more mundane sort of 50s setting, rather than one that could just as easily be today.

Nick Fury is head of the group, which might reflect his presence in the Avengers' movie, which obviously is the springboard for all this brand-recognition business. The group of heroes first appeared, apparently, in the New Avengers, battling The Red Skull, and in this collection they seem to be fighting against the remnants of the Skull's Nazi crowd, but also against the nascent Hydra, which was Fury's nemesis in the old Agent of Shield series. This group of heroes isn't particularly interesting; it's hard to tell what their skills or powers might be, and Chaykin's storyline, which is an interesting one involving former-Nazis harnessing mystical powers, gets lost within its own confines, while trying to both delineate his characters and two separate groups of villains, who are each time given their introductions and then promptly disposed of. It all begs for more time, and perhaps it might have been condensed, and characters drawn more fully. This applies especially to the lead henchman, General Dieter Skul. While he's not the Red Skull, and there's no Captain America breaking out of the ice ahead of skulledule for another epic confrontation, more could have been made of him. There's also the sense that the most interesting story-line, of treacherous elements within the US government, has been left for a sequel which may never appear..

There's the core of a fascinating graphic novel in Chaykin's idea, but it begs for more development and a more continuous battle between Fury's new Avengers and the Nazis. Since this group seems more like a prototype for Fury's SHIELD, and indeed, since that is what the new DC Blackhawks actually amount to,  SHIELD with a nicer logo, I might be missing the point of both. But what I feel I'm missing is the depth of the originals (and in the case of Blackhawk, that may seem strange, but re-read the Chaykin series), the Steranko SHIELD (even though it was obviously a rip-off of The Man From UNCLE), the early Avengers, even when Don Heck took over drawing. The difference lay in the sense of taking their own storylines seriously and not relying on pyrotechnics. Perhaps the video game generation has different needs. Perhaps the marketing guys who came up the concepts insist.

Blackhawks, issue 1-2 (the New 52!) DC Comics Nov, Dec 2011
written by Mike Costa, art by Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley
Avengers 1959 written and drawn by Howard Chaykin
Marvel 2012 $16.99 ISBN 9780785160724
collects issues 1-5, published 2011

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time www.crimetime.co.uk

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