Blackhawk Archives Vol. 1
"Blackhawk Archives Vol. 1"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND Copyright 2002 Tony Isabella. Posted by permission

As promised, here's my "Tony's Tips" review of the BLACKHAWK ARCHIVES from a 2001 issue of the Comics Buyer's Guide...

Hey, kids...

Here's my BLACKHAWK ARCHIVES review from a 2001 issue of the Comics Buyer's Guide

"Haw-kah...we are the Blackhawks... Haw-kah...we're on the wing... Over land and over sea We will fight to make men free And to ev'ry nation liberty we'll bring... Haw-kah...follow the Blackhawks Haw-kah...shatter your chains... Seven fearless men are we, Give us death or liberty, We are the Blackhawks... Remember our name!"

-"The Song of the Blackhawks" by Richard French

******

Fearless doesn't truly describe the kind of courage it must've taken for these seven men, fighting under no flag, outnumbered by their enemies, to not only risk their lives in battle after battle, but to sing their song as they did so, to sing their song so loudly and proudly that it could be heard above the roar of their engines and the whine of airborne bullets. After a while, even the other good guys wanted to shoot them down.

The occasion of this cruel musical criticism is my reading of THE BLACKHAWK ARCHIVES: Volume 1 (DC Comics; $49.95). The latest in DC's series of handsomely-made hardcover collections, it's also my first extended exposure to the original World War II adventures of the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks I met first were very different from their WWII counterparts. DC had acquired their title from the getting-out-of-the-business Quality Comics in the late 1950s. With their wartime enemies long gone, and with DC not being the sort of publisher who would allow its heroes to fight "Commies," the Hawks had to content themselves with battling the typical-for-the-era aliens, monsters, and gimmicky super-villains.

As a kid, I never really warmed up to the Blackhawks. Batman and Robin, plus my beloved Challengers of the Unknown, covered much the same territory, but had more fun doing it. What with the seven Blackhawks being crammed into eight-page stories, usually three per issue, they never managed to come alive for me the way Bruce, Dick, Ace, Red, Rocky, and Prof did.

Truth to tell, I only bought BLACKHAWK when I had extra money and there were no new issues of Batman, Challengers, Green Lantern, or a dozen other DC titles. Though the occasional dinosaur caught my eye, and though I most definitely found "Lady Blackhawk" worth my attention, the Hawks and their less-than-terrifying foes left me cold. Quite frankly, I could have held my own with losers like the Hoopster and the Fireworks Master.

"Watch out, Stanislaus! It's all fun and games until someone blows their fingers off!"

I didn't buy BLACKHAWK regularly until sometime in last half of the 1960s, when I had enough money to buy every adventure-type comic published by both DC and Marvel. Of course, by that time, we were in the "what-were-they-thinking" era of the Hawks, a laughable run of issues wherein the WWII veterans were running around in the campiest of super-hero drag. I was embarrassed for the Blackhawks and wasn't surprised when DC gave their title the heave-ho shortly thereafter.

Several years later, Steven Spielberg or some other Hollywood deity bought an option on the Blackhawks, which, in turn, convinced DC to give the boys another chance. CBG's own Mark Evanier teamed with artist Dan Spiegle for a terrific run which lasted 29 issues, which was routinely ignored by DC's marketing department, and which remains the best treatment of the concept to have seen print in the past four decades. I own all those comics, I enjoyed them greatly, and, if DC were to reprint them, I would buy them again, hand them out to readers young and old, and reckon the cost exceedingly well spent.

That brings us back to the beginning, to the Blackhawk tales published in MILITARY COMICS #1-17 (August, 1941 to March, 1943) and conveniently reprinted in THE BLACKHAWK ARCHIVES, complete with an informative foreword by the esteemed Evanier. Mercifully, plans for including with the volume a CD of Mark singing "The Song of the Blackhawks" were abandoned on the grounds that his rendition might well violate the Geneva Convention.

Artist Chuck Cuidera was involved with the Blackhawks from the start. He recalled that the first story was written by Bob Powell under the close supervision of Will Eisner, the legendary creator of the Spirit. It was Powell who decided Blackhawk, the otherwise unnamed team leader, would be a Polish fighter pilot, and also lent his given name of Stanislaus to another member of the team.

Cuidera created and designed at least two other Blackhawks, Olaf and Chop-Chop, drawing inspiration from characters in Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip. In addition, the artist tinkered with the design of the Grumman "Skyrocket" planes flown by the Blackhawks and mapped out Blackhawk Island, the secret base from which the heroic pilots launched their missions against the Axis powers.

The Blackhawks were an instant hit and it's easy to see why. They were extraordinary men, but they were, for all their bravery and death-defying exploits, also ordinary men, the same kind of men who were or would be fighting the Axis in real life. Each of them came from a different country, lending a bit of foreign mystery to their adventures.

In the earliest stories, before the team settled down to its classic roster of seven members, it wasn't even a given that all of them would survive their adventures. Indeed, in MILITARY #3, Andre would seemingly sacrifice his life to save his fellow Blackhawks, only to return several months later, his face horribly disfigured, in a thriller which would take three issues to tell.

Blackhawk's origin story is fairly grim. The sole survivor of the Polish Air Force's last valiant attempt to turn back the German invaders, he crash-lands near his home and arrives there in time to see the brutal Captain Von Tepp strafe his brother and sister. In short order, he forges his team of international refugees, launches a guerilla war against the Axis, spreads terror in their ranks, and tracks down Von Tepp. Their final battle takes place at Blackhawk Island; it's edge-of-the-seat action all the way.

Sidebar. A Red Cross nurse is introduced in this first story and clearly intended to be a romantic interest for Blackhawk. She makes one more appearance in MILITARY #3, but is never seen again. Her disappearance can be attributed to nothing more sinister than the additional story possibilities afforded a hero without a steady paramour.

Eisner is given solo credit for the Blackhawk scripts in the next three issues. His "The Coward Dies Twice" (MILITARY #2) is an intense-if-familiar tale of a young pilot struggling with crippling fear. Its solemn ending is followed by a two-thirds page shot of Blackhawk unveiling the revamp of his team's planes, complete with blueprints, and letting the readers know that they can see them in action in the very next issue.

"The Doomed Battalion" is noteworthy for more than the "death" of Andre and the new airplanes; it's also the first appearance of Chop-Chop. The Chinese boy is an unflattering caricature, but, as was the case with Ebony, the Spirit's sidekick, he's more than mere comic relief. He's as courageous as the senior Blackhawks, risking his life for the cause as quickly as any of them, and occasionally saving their collective bacon.

Considered with modern eyes, Chop-Chop's design is troubling. Yet, looking beyond Chop's unflattering design and the unfortunate "English" with which he spoke, it is evident Eisner and the writers who would follow him on the feature had considerable affection and respect for this character. Indeed, save for Blackhawk himself and the rare story spotlighting an individual member of the team, Chop gets more "screen time" than any other character.

In "Desert Death" (MILITARY #4), his final Blackhawks story, Eisner adds another enduring element to the series. The beautiful Black Tigress, the Gestapo's most dangerous spy, falls hard for the rugged Blackhawk. She is the first of a long line of lovelies, on both sides of the war, whose attraction for the team's leader will inspire, redeem, and sometimes doom them. Within a few months, once Andre returned to the squad, the readers could be reasonably assured all seven Blackhawks would survive each month's adventure. The ladies? They had to take their chances.

Dick French wrote Blackhawk from MILITARY #5-12, and continued the deft characterizations, exotic settings, measured humor, and sometimes shockingly violent tone with which Eisner had imbued the feature. He also pitted the team against even deadlier opponents than they'd faced to date: the rat-faced Scavengers, Nazis plotting to unleash a killer germ on Britain, the reincarnation of Genghis Khan, the murderous Abul El Hadoun, and beautiful Xanukhara, who, in the midst of a world war, seeks a secret that would allow her to rule over all.

French doesn't seem to have a long career in comics. He did scripts for the Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic strips which appeared in the back of Eisner's Spirit sections. He wrote for Quality Comics in the early 1940s, and is also credited with some text pieces for Lev Gleason's comic books circa 1946 and 1947.

French's final Blackhawk, the Xanukhara tale, is a brilliantly dark thriller. It's also the first Blackhawk story drawn by Reed Crandall, who had been assigned to the feature when Cuidera left to join the Army in 1942. Cuidera had brought emotion, movement, and power to Blackhawk; Crandall maintained those attributes and added a romantic quality and an attention to detail that quickly made the Blackhawk series one of the best drawn features of the Golden Age of Comics. It was a considerable achievement in a field which also boasted the talents of Lou Fine and Mac Raboy.

William Woolfolk, who wrote hundreds of scripts for virtually every publisher in comics, is the third writer represented in THE BLACKHAWK ARCHIVES. After reading his yarns for MILITARY #13-17, I can see why he was in such great demand.

Woolfolk was an exceptional wordsmith whose plots were every bit as powerful as Crandall's drawings. Right out of the gate, he brought Blackhawk into conflict with Baron Von Tepp, the brother of the man who murdered our hero's family. The Baron, also and quite justifiably known as "the Butcher" for his slaughter of conquered civilians, was a better pilot than both his brother and Blackhawk. Woolfolk's portrayal of Blackhawk's quest for vengeance and of the choices a real hero makes leads to an unforgettable conclusion. It is the best story in the collection.

Woolfolk follows his own tough act with stories of Tondeleyo, a "mysterious girl of the east" who wages psychological warfare on the Blackhawks...of three witches and a Japanese "Mata Hari"...of a savage Nazi field commander determined to become the new fuhrer of Germany...and the remarkable Golden Bell. Each of these tales holds up as well today as when they were first published nearly 50 years ago. From both the historical and artistic standpoints, THE BLACKHAWK ARCHIVES is well worth its cover price.

One more thing. The covers of MILITARY COMICS #1-17 are as fascinating as the Blackhawk stories they featured. MILITARY #1 by Eisner and Gill Fox is a routine action shot with copy emphasizing that, with its "stories of the Army and Navy," this comic-book was actually "two books in one."

Cuidera did the covers from MILITARY #2-8 and those are among the most inventive of the era, featuring splash pages, enough copy to excite the most jaded reader, and even a row of panels running across the bottom of issue #7's cover, touting the latest adventure of the Blackhawks. That design element would continue for a while longer; the covers to MILITARY #9-12 being credited by the Archives to "the Will Eisner Studio."

Reed Crandall illustrated the covers for MILITARY #13-17, and I'm guessing the concept was that, when you had an artist who was that good, you didn't need extra bells and whistles to sell a comic book or two. For the most part, Crandall had the entire covers to himself with any additional elements pushed to the corners and any other blank areas.

I make no claim to being a Blackhawk historian, but, based on the stories in this collection, and my reading of other comics from the 1940s, the Blackhawks were something different and very special for the period. Their stories were better written and better drawn than most. Much like the Spirit, the Blackhawks had a more mature sensibility than most other comics...and in an era where "mature" didn't translate to "unacceptable for younger readers." They had a sense of great purpose shared by the millions of Americans who were putting their lives on the line to safeguard our freedoms and the freedoms of like-minded people.

I suspect there are lessons to be learned from these Blackhawk stories. And I'm sure I could grasp those lessons more fully if DC would publish more volumes of THE BLACKHAWK ARCHIVES.

Please?