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Friday, January 22, 2016

Review of 1987's Blackhawk: Blood and Iron mini-series (the one written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin)

Blackhawk was created by Chuck Cuidera, Will Eisner, and Bob Powell for Quality Comics.

Blackhawk was a title originally published by Quality Comics back in 1944. Blackhawk would continue to be published by Quality until 1956 (issue #107) in which, opting to withdraw from the comic book publishing business, Quality leased the characters to DC comics (then called National Periodical Publications). DC comics picked up where the series left off (at issue #108) and after a rocky publishing history managed to get the series as far as issue #273 before being cancelled for good in 1984.

The 1987 Blackhawk prestige format mini-series was the third revival of the title (revived in 1976 after a seven year hiatus and again in 1982 after a four year hiatus). For all intents and purposes, we can consider this the ‘post-Crisis’ Blackhawk reboot.

The premise of Blackhawk is pretty simple: it’s about an international squadron of WWII-era fighter pilots (led by a man named Blackhawk) who battle whatever the tyrannic force of the day was - so during the 1940s they mainly fought Germans. Of course, you’d never know this reading Chaykin’s Blackhawk revamp - as he pretty much expects the reader to already have some some of understanding of who or what Blackhawk is. My only knowledge of Blackhawk prior to this series were his few guest appearances in other DC titles during the late 70s/early 80s - so there was a bit of research needed to figure out what was going on.  

The big deal about this mini-series was that it was written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin. Chaykin had always been a somewhat controversial writer - trying to push the envelope in regards to adult themes as far as the Comics Code Authority would allow him to go. Most reviewers who have written articles about this mini-series always make a point of comparing it to Chaykin’s American Flagg! (published by First comics from 1983 to 1988). Keeping this in mind, I read the first 20 issues of American Flagg! just so I’d have some sort of context as to what reviewers were basing their comments on. I recognized quite a few similarities between these titles: both Reuben Flagg and Blackhawk are 'men of uniform’, both Reuben Flagg and Blackhawk have vivacious sexual appetities, both titles feature a lot of Russian ('Bojemoi’), both use frequent media interludes (news clippings, radio, tv, etc) to give the reader some background as to what’s going on, and both titles have lots of (implied) sex and political power struggles at play.

A major sub-plot in this mini-series is Blackhawk (a man of Polish decent) being under investigation by the United States for being a communist sympathizer. This was not a new change Chaykin had made: originally Blackhawk was introduced as a Polish citizen back in Military Comics #1 (1941). Since the invasion of Poland was still news, Blackhawk creator/artist Bob Powell suggested that Blackhawk should be a Pole (with the intention of making the story topical). During the course of the original ongoing series (I think by the time the title is picked up by DC comics), Blackhawk’s nationality is retconned to American and he becomes an All-American hero. 

Reactions to this mini-series were mixed: many fans applauded Chaykin for his innovative visual style and fresh breath of life into the character, while others criticized that Chaykin’s depiction of an 'all too human’ Blackhawk was a huge departure from the selfless and stoic Blackhawk they grew up with. Nevertheless, Chaykin’s Blackhawk mini-series was successful enough that Blackhawk received a weekly feature in 1988’s Action Comics. Later, Blackhawk would receive it’s own ongoing series in 1989.

On the surface, this seems to just be another World War II era adventure where the hero is racing against time to stop the atomic bomb from falling into the hands of the enemy. However, Brannon Costello’s brilliant essay on sub-themes in the mini-series exploring Chaykin’s views on Fascism and Mass Culture has encouraged me to go back and read over all of the subtleties I may have missed the first time. All in all, a very interesting book, but not the jumping on point I’d recommend for someone who wants to find out what Blackhawk’s all about.

This article originally published in March 2014.

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