Aviator comics were really big sellers during comics’ Golden Age, and for a couple of very obvious reasons. During the ghastly hell that was World War I, one group of military men lived under a chivalrous code (mostly, or at least gave the appearance of doing so): the aviators, who fought and died in flimsy canvas and wire contraptions thousands of feet in the sky. The stories of their exploits thrilled millions on the homefront. Later, in May 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to successfully fly a plane solo across the Atlantic Ocean; the feat instantly made him the most famous man on earth. 

My father, who was a small child when Lindy made his flight, later recalled how he grew up idolizing Lindbergh (Dad’s model of Lindbergh’s plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis, presently adorns the top of the curio cabinet in my home), and other aviators like Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s WWI flying ace, were also the objects of my dad’s childhood hero worship. Fictional aviators, like G8 and his Battle Aces were a pulp staple during the 1930’s (my dad was a huge G8 fan; I still have the reprints Dad collected in the 1970’s). 

So when the 1940’s rolled around and comic books had largely replaced the pulps as cheap popular entertainment, it was only natural that aviators would give the mystery men (today called “superheroes”) a run for their money in claiming the affections of readers. Comics about aviators were huge sellers in the 1940’s – and the most popular aviator character of the bunch, by far, was Blackhawk, who made his debut in Military Comics #1, cover dated August 1941. 

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Blackhawk was a popular character; comic books containing his adventures outsold most of the superhero comics of the time. I’ve heard it claimed that Captain Marvel was the best selling character of the Golden Age, followed closely by Blackhawk. The intrepid mercenary flier was introduced in the aforementioned Military Comics; Blackhawk was depicted on every cover of all forty-three issues from 1941 to 1945. After World War II ended, the book’s title was changed to Modern Comics (with the issue numbering starting with #44, picking up where Military left off), and Blackhawk again appeared on every cover through issue #102 in 1950. 

Blackhawk proved to be so popular that he also received his own title, which began with issue #9 in 1944. There’s a small side story here as to why so many Golden Age comics first issues are numbered higher than “1”. Magazine publishers were required to purchase a separate postal license for each title they intended to send to subscribers via U.S. Mail. But there was a loophole in the law which allowed a publisher to transfer a license from a failed or canceled comic to a new book as long as the new book’s numbering sequentially followed the old book’s final number. So when Quality Comics axed Uncle Sam Quarterly with issue #8 and decided to launch an all-new Blackhawk title, they transferred the postal license to the new book, which explains why Blackhawk #9 is actually the first issue of the flier’s own book. 

Blackhawk #9 is cover dated Winter 1944. There followed a one year hiatus, but the title returned with issue #10 in Spring 1946. Blackhawk was a quarterly book for a couple of years, but went monthly in mid-1948 – which means that there were a couple of years in the late 1940’s when you could read two Blackhawk books every month. Even better, each issue of Blackhawk contained three separate Blackhawk adventures, a trend that continued through issue #107 in 1956. 

The character was so popular that when Quality Comics Group ceased publication (when it was bought or merged with the company that would ultimately become DC Comics), the new publisher immediately brought out a Blackhawk #108, and DC would continue to publish the comic more or less continuously through the late 1960’s, ending the original run with issue #243, cover dated Oct.-Nov. 1968. 

This “classic” version of Blackhawk enjoyed two revivals. The first went seven issues in the mid-1970’s; the book was canceled with issue #250 during the now-infamous “DC Implosion”. In the early 1980’s, writer Mark Evanier returned Blackhawk to his World War II roots; the book was pretty popular, running twenty-three issues from 1982 through 1984, but it was canceled for reasons which remain unclear; the book enjoyed respectable sales. Considering that Crisis on Infinite Earths was a year or so away, however, it’s probably best that “classic Blackhawk” was not in publication at the time (although I’m pretty sure that a few Crisis panels depict the Blackhawks in action), or else Blackhawk might have been retconned out of existence along with numerous other Golden Age and “Earth-2” characters. 

Howard Chaykin was handed Blackhawk in the late 1980’s. While Chaykin is a gloriously gifted artist, he’s a horrible hack of a writer, and he proceeded to destroy the character, turning Blackhawk into a drunken, womanizing, abusive lout. Chaykin also showed a complete lack of understanding of what makes Blackhawk tick when he gave the character an actual name (which he stole from a real-life character actor of some renown); one of the coolest things about Blackhawk had always been that his real name was a closely-guarded secret – it was never mentioned in any of the 273 pre-Chaykin issues. 

So, for many of us who remember the character’s glory days, Blackhawk effectively “died” in 1984 with the end of the Mark Evanier era. The recently canceled “New 52” version had nothing in common with the previous incarnations, aside from the use of the team name “Blackhawks” and the fact that they were aviators. 

Who created Blackhawk back in 1941? The answer remains shrouded in mystery. Artist Chuck Cuidera claimed the sole honor in an early issue of Roy Thomas’ Alter Ego magazine, but he also made many other disputable (a.k.a. unsubstantiated) claims in the same interview. The great Will Eisner was editor in chief of Quality Comics at the time, and quite a few people believe that he was the guiding hand behind the character, at least in Blackhawk’s first few appearances. But no writing credit is provided in the books themselves. Today it’s generally recognized that the character was a joint creation of Cuidera, Eisner, and Bob Powell, and that Eisner may well have plotted out (if not actually written) the first several Blackhawk adventures. 

Either way, what made Blackhawk so popular? That’s not hard to figure out – everything about Blackhawk positively screams “AWESOME!!!” From the group’s totally badass uniforms, their hawk head logo, their amazingly cool Grumman Skyrocket fighter planes (the Skyrocket was an experimental model; only one was actually built in real life) – hell, these guys even have their own secret island airbase! They went into battle singing! As Bruce Timm rhetorically asked in the director’s commentary to the World War II Justice League episode on the DVD set, “What’s cooler than Blackhawks?” 

Nothing. Nothing is cooler than Blackhawks. Period. End of story. Which is why they’re my favorite comic book characters of all time. 

As I mentioned earlier, Blackhawk got retconned a time or two. In the dreadful Howard Chaykin version, Blackhawk got a real name: Janos Prochaska (the name of a real-life actor who specialized in animal roles; he played the Horta on Star Trek and most of the monsters on Night Gallery). That was a major error; a large part of the “Blackhawk mystique” was the fact that nobody knew who Blackhawk really was. In the 1970’s version he was occasionally referred to as “Bart Hawk”, but we were also told that this was just an alias which Blackhawk used in his business dealings. 

Blackhawk was also retconned to be an American at one point, but the truth is that Blackhawk was Polish (as we’ll see shortly). 

Presented here for your enjoyment is Blackhawk’s origin story, taken from the pages of Military Comics #1. I’ve read some really convoluted, complicated, and just plain bad origin tales in 1940’s comics; this, however, is not one of them. Will Eisner understood his craft and knew that simpler stories are often the best (and most memorable). Blackhawk’s origin story is a simple revenge tale, very much a streamlined version of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. A young aviator loses everything in the German invasion of Poland but, like Edmond Dantes, he disappears for a time to reinvent himself as the instrument of righteous vengeance. It’s a simple story, but an intense one, which any reader can understand on a primal level. 

Here, from 1941, with all the retconning and B.S. stripped away, is the real origin of the coolest character to ever grace the pages of a four color funnybook. Enjoy the story, but please pay attention to how well it’s drawn and written – it really is a classic, and proves that the simple approach is often the best: 

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941 

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941 

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941

Blackhawk, Military Comics #1, 1941 

What an amazing tale! Told in just ten pages (I’m not including the “mega splash page”), we get betrayal, revenge, a daring rescue, a thrilling aerial dogfight (complete with the classic “tamper with the gas valve” trick), a cool “bait and switch” near the end (when von Tepp is first to emerge from the wreckage), and even a first look at the secret island base of the Blackhawks. It’s one of my favorite Golden Age comic stories, and I hope you not only liked it, but also appreciated the straightforward narrative style the author used in telling the tale. 

We’ll have some more high-flying Blackhawk action in upcoming posts, so don’t be a stranger. As always, thanks to the folks at The Digital Comic Museum for the page scans. 

Have fun (and HAWK-AAAAAAAAAA)! — Steve 

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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