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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Hawkworld ongoing series: a comprehensive review (1990 - 1992)

The Hawkworld ongoing series was published from 1990 to 1993 as a continuation of the prestige format 3-book Hawkworld mini-series released in 1989. It lasted 33 issues, 3 annuals and a War of the Gods tie-in.

Graham Nolan penciled the first 26 issues (not including the 3 Annuals and two issues by guest pencillers [Gary Kwapisz and Tom Mandrake]). The remaining 6 issues were penciled by Jan Duursema.

John Ostrander wrote all 32 issues, but shares writing credit with Timothy Truman for the first nine and last three issues. On an interesting note, Truman and Ostrander created Grimjack [First Comics] together, so they have some history there. Mike Gold edited the first 25 issues, Archie Goodwin took over at issue 26 and saw the series through 'til the end.

This ongoing series is often overlooked/forgotten about, as it came out during the early 90s when it seemed that DC was trying to move into more 'mature' territory (kind of like their edgier Vertigo brethren) but couldn't figure out how extreme they wanted to go - so they ended up 'toeing the line'. As a result, you've got somewhere between 'not quite a super-hero' story and 'not quite a Vertigo' story, and Hawkworld almost reads like an adult sci-fi series (with strong undertones of political drama). Just to give you some sort of context: other DC material being published during this era included Mike Grell's Green Arrow series, Ms Tree Quarterly, The Question QuarterlyThe Atlantis Chronicles, and Shade the Changing Man - titles that seemed to be aimed towards an older audience. Fun fact: the Hawkworld ongoing series did NOT carry the Comics Code Authority seal.

Additionally, 1990 is infamous for being the year that Marvel Comics really started 'stepping up' and producing it's (arguably) most popular material ever: Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man was launched that August, Cable had debuted in March's New Mutants #87, a 'new' Ghost Rider was kicking off a new ongoing that May. This was also the precursor to the Marvel 'X-Plosion' that would dominate the comic book market (and then some) until the mid-90s. So, if you're wondering why you don't remember this title, the short answer is that it had some serious competition. (Hint: it was probably buried on the comic rack behind an X-Men comic.)

Another factor working against this series was that from the very get-go there were continuity issues. This ongoing was continuously trying to 'correct' what the prestige format mini-series had started - and that would hound it for the rest of it's publication. The very first letters from readers were filled with gripes about DC's decision to reboot the history of the Silver Age Hawkman (effectively retconning about thirty years of Hawkman history). If the only people following the series are hardcore Hawkman fans, and even they are having trouble with this series, then you know you're in for a bumpy ride.  

Like the 1989 prestige mini-series of the same name, the Hawkworld ongoing continues the same continuity and story of the 'rebooted' Katar Hol Hawkman and Shayera Thal Hawkwoman. The focus, however, is their experiences on earth and their adventures of 'adapting' to earth life. The first nine-issue story arc has the Hawks travel to earth on the pretense of being on a diplomatic mission, but are actually going undercover to try to capture a renegade Thangarian. Keep in mind that this *new* reboot is the Hawk's first exposure to earth, so the Hawks trying to understand how our world's prosecution/political system works is a major story element here. The Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl (Brave and the Bold #34) originally came to earth in pursuit of Byth, so that's not much of a drastic change except for the fact that they're arriving on earth for the first time in the early 90s instead of the early 60s.

Something major within this series are the Hawk's appearances. They are wearing their grey/yellow Thangarian stromtrooper/wingman outfits. No matter what story you read, past or present, if you see Hawkman in *that* particular outfit, you know it most likely happened during this era of DC comics. From a practical point of view, decking Hawkman out in Kevlar makes sense, as opposed to his previous midriff baring outfit. [Issue #3 has Katar Hol donning the 'throw-back' bandolier costume.] The metal helmet and metal wings are also a nice touch as it really emphasizes the militant culture that Thanagar is meant to represent. Also, synonymous with this era is Hawkman wielding a submachine gun - which is a much more conventional weapon. Pre-Hawkworld Hawkman were great and everything, but you've got to kinda feel sorry for a guy who can fly (and potentially attack from a distance and higher vantage point), but who's weapon of choice is a club. In issue #11, Ostrander introduces Hawkman to feudal Japanese weaponry. By issue #16 he starts using 'bundi daggers' (aka katars) - the close-combat weapons the Hawkman of the mid-90s will be most associated with. Ostrander was previously writing the [Mark Shaw] Manhunter v1 (1988-1990) ongoing series which incorporated a lot of ninjitsu-themed weaponry, so that may have been the inspiration for Hawkman's weapons of choice. [Bundi daggers originate from India] Besides, seeing Hawkman flying around carrying a katana sword is just plain cool.

Katar Hol and Shayera Thal as featured in the 1992 Impel DC Cosmic Cards set:

Calling this series 'Hawkworld' was an interesting choice. The prestige mini-series that preceded this series mainly took place on Thanagar, so calling that 'Hawkworld' made sense. Calling this ongoing series 'Hawkman' wouldn't be fair, since Hawkwoman (Shayera Thal) gets just as much of the spotlight as Hawkman does. Actually, Katar and Shayera aren't called 'Hawkman' and 'Hawkwoman' until the second issue - anointed so by their PR man. (Keeping in mind that in this rebooted continuity, the world is already familiar with Golden Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl.) The answer: 'Hawkworld' is a term referring to a predatory world where the strong prey on the weak. In the first issue, Shayera announces that Thanagar is a Hawkworld - alluding to the fact that those in power (political or otherwise) will prey on those with none. Early in the series, Katar realizes that earth is just as bad as (if not worse than) Thanagar - issue #13 has Katar stating "the power of money makes this a Hawkworld" - which leads us to...

A recurring motif in this series is bureaucracy and corruption. No matter what story line is occurring in this series, there's always someone making a deal with someone else in the background (usually political or business related) with the intention of screwing someone else over, somehow. This is the first post-Crisis appearance of major Silver Age Justice League of America and Adam Strange villain, Kanjar Ro, who is now a desk-jockey and political wheeler-and-dealer, of all things. The whole 'two aliens trying to understand the ways of earth' trope is really played up here. You might say that Katar's greatest enemy in this series is the "system". A pivotal scene in the series is Katar and Shayera trying to make sense of the Declaration of Indepence in issue #3. Another big moment is a legal counsel explaining the concept of 'innocent until proven guilty' to Katar. Ostrander sprinkles a few more of these dialogues throughout the series. Ostrander doesn't take sides, he just presents both sides of the argument. He's teaching you something, folks. This is intelligent writing. He also addresses other topics such as: women's roles in regards to positions of power, racial segregation, political/religious turmoil in Palestine, Christian fundamentalist interpretations of the American constitution,  and pretty much every other 'hot button' issue of the early 90s. The only thing Ostrander didn't cover was environmentalism (probably because Swamp Thing had that covered so well).

This ongoing series really fleshes out Thanagar (as Truman started to do in the Hawkworld prestige mini-series). We're learning a lot about it's social/cultural/political structure, the different species that reside there, and a bit of Thanagarian history. Just about every issue reminds you that the Hawks are representing Thanagar, and there's lots of subplots about how their actions on earth affect their home planet and vice-versa.

Mavis Trent, Joe Tracy and Commissioner Emmett are quickly re-introduced in this series. Mavis being reintroduced is somewhat surprising considering the events of the Shadow War of Hawkman. In this new series, Commissioner Emmett is now a black man (prior to the reboot he resembled Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders). Something else different about this reboot is that Hawkman and Hawkwoman don't start as an 'item', they start as 'two cops assigned to worked together' (who don't even like each other that much). The Hawkman/Hawkwoman 'not being a married couple' is kind of a departure from the classic Hawkman mythos. It's kind of a romantic idea to think that there's a husband and wife team flying around out there clubbing people with maces, but that's not the case in this series. It's not until near the middle of the series that the Hawk's start showing a flicker of attraction for each other, and then - well... I don't want to spoil anything for you.

Ostrander keeps the Hawk's story-universe pretty tight, with only the occasional glimpses of other DCU characters (ex: 'Chop-chop' from Blackhawk becomes a recurring character as of issue #11) [Mike Gold edited Blackhawk. 'Chop-chop' leaves the book shortly after Gold leaves as editor] A few other characters/locales that Ostrander had worked on also make brief appearances (i.e. Amanda Waller, Belle Reve prison, Sunderland corporation, etc). The exception to this would be Firehawk, from Firestorm, who has something drastic happen to her in issue #13. Despite the fact that Ostrander left Firestorm at issue #100 back in 1990, he still manages to squeeze in an important character-development story about a Firestorm supporting character. The new Wally West Flash meets Hawkman and Hawkwoman in the first Hawkworld annual and Wonder Woman appears in issue #16 (but I'm sure the latter was due to being an obligatory War of the Gods tie-in), but other than those two brief appearances, you will find no other mainstream DC characters (ex: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern) in this series... unless you want to count Lobo...

Well, not really Lobo. In issue #20, a bounty hunter (named Smif'Beau) who talks like Lobo, acts like Lobo, looks very similar to Lobo and even drives a flying hotrod (similar to Lobo's flying motorcycle) appears - but it's not Lobo. (This was in February 1992 and Lobo would've been making appearances in both L.E.G.I.O.N. '92 and Starman v1 at the time.)

Smif'Beau: a Lobo homage if I ever saw one

This series is a little short on super-villains. During the series, the Hawks are either battling Byth, Thanagarian politics, everyday social issues or bureaucratic red tape. Of all of Hawkman's main rogues, only the Shadow Thief appears (complete with a new post-Crisis origin). Issue #17 introduces a new villain to the series: Attilla, the Christian Fundamentalist robot. Even though Ostrander wove Attilla into a very interesting story line with a lot of future potential, he nevertheless became a minor footnote in Hawkman history and never reappeared outside of this series. The White Dragon, based on a character who debuted in Ostrander's Suicide Squad in 1987, battles the Hawks in a few issues. A new villain, named Count Viper, is introduced near the end of the series - most likely because they were trying to create new, more menacing villains for Hawkman. Count Viper actually serves as a major catalyst for Hawkman's transition from Hawkworld to Hawkman v3. You've never heard of Count Viper? That's okay. Besides being Hawkman's primary antagonist for the first half of Hawkman v3, he's never really heard from again.

Attila gives an insightful lecture before unleashing destruction

When looking back over this series, there's two very important aspects to note: the art (Graham Nolan) and the writing (John Ostrander).

Graham Nolan's first published work for DC was in 1985's DC Comics' Talent Showcase #15. His next work for DC was the Power of the Atom series (1998) that ran for twelve issues. Following that, he worked on the Hawkworld ongoing series, and he continued with Detective Comics once he left Hawkworld. As a result of this, Nolan is one-third responsible for the creation of Bane (he co-shares that credit with Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench).

John Ostrander doesn't need much of an introduction, as I'm sure you're aware that he's written Suicide Squad, the Legends mini-series, Manhunter and Firestorm (because I scream it to anyone within earshot every chance I get). Ostrander is well-known for writing intelligent, mature, and realistic plot lines - which is very apparent in this series. Ostrander writes really involved storylines, often with multiple subplots per issue, that the reader needs to pick up every single issue in order to know what's going on. This, in my opinion, kind of works against him because a new reader picking up issue #6 won't know what's going on unless they've collected and read the first five issues. So, reader beware: most of the issues in this series are NOT self-contained stand-alone stories. Readers have noted that, despite Ostrander working on several books at once, he was able to bring a distinct feel to every one.

As mentioned, Shayera/Hawkwoman get just as much of the spotlight as Katar Hol/Hawkman does. She was written by Ostrander as a strong female character. Fans wrote in to comment that Shayera may have been one of the best female characters since Firehawk. Other fans wrote in to complain that Shayera was taking so much of the attention that she made Katar seem like the supporting character. Guess you can't win 'em all.

I can't put my finger on it - maybe it's the art (the inking and the colors make it feel... unpolished?), the pacing of the stories, or simply the fact that there are no other super-heroes in the first dozen issues - but this series feels like an indie comic. This, however, works in it's favor. This is a different kind of DC comic, and while it may be centered around two mainstream DC heroes, it's different from the other mainstream books DC was publishing - and the art visually reminds you of that. At least, that's my take on it.

This is not a fun, light-hearted super-hero book. The stories are long and sweeping - with lots of drama (and a few humorous moments) - that last many many issues. It's really an adult, thinking-person's comic. Ostrander's material (for the most part) consists of more than predictable 'super-hero' tropes, so it's really hard to second-guess where he's going sometimes. In that aspect, he kept this series grounded to reality.

As far as real-world drama goes, Ostrander covers a large spectrum of themes. These include politics, philosophy, the nature and responsibility of government, freedom of speech, the cost of an individual's rights and freedoms, and the rights of criminals in the context of the law vs their moral rights. Hawkman realizes criminals have more rights than citizens and that the government basically controls everything. Seemingly, Ostrander may have a political agenda here, or maybe he was just trying to stir up some good conversation. Without a doubt, the Hawkworld letter column ran some pretty lively political debates and discussions.

This article is running way longer than I intended it to, so I've decided to split it into several parts. The next part will discuss the continuity issues that got so many fans into an uproar and how John Ostrander and Mike Gold planned on fixing them.


  1. American HawkmanMay 3, 2016 at 9:12 PM

    Probably worth mentioning that the series also introduced a heir to the Fiddler in Thrash. I still kind of love Count Viper, a man who was a hero at one point in his long lifespan, and someone Katar fundamentally agreed with in principle if not in method.

    1. Very good points! Was totally gonna go in-depth about Hawkworld Annual #1 in the next segment. Lots of material to cover in there - the entry was getting way too long as it was. I'm pretty impressed you read the whole length of the article thus far. :P

  2. American HawkmanMay 3, 2016 at 9:14 PM

    Oh, and while I'm at it.... Smif'Beau is a thinly veiled analog of writer Beau Smith, best known for his work on Guy Gardner. He's a huge Hawkman fan.

    1. I was not aware. I love learning new stuff! Excellent!

  3. Excellent. Interesting stuff, thanks for the Hawkman love!

  4. Great read. Kudos for spotlighting such a (undeservedly) undervalued book.

    Just one point: weren't the last 3 issues drawn by Tim Truman, and not Duursema?