THE BLACKHAWK FILES
Blackhawk is a favourite character of mine, as I see him as US comics' great fighter against totalitarianism. My interest is partly due to Dick Dillin's long run on the feature, but he didn't begin to pencil for the series until the 50s.
I believe I owe the formulation that the Quality Blackhawks fought totalitarianism to Dan Thompson's Unofficial Blackhawk Comics Website, from which I learned to appreciate the character. The Blackhawk stories I read as a kid didn't impress me at all. Thompson is a modeller and he has pages identifying many of the airplanes from the series. To my surprise, they flew quite a number of planes based on real planes over the years.
The feature first appeared in Quality's Military Comics #1, on sale May 1941. It was created in the Eisner shop. Chuck Cuidera designed the uniforms and drew the first eleven instalments. Then he was drafted, but he returned to the feature after the war and became its regular inker. It was an attractively-drawn strip in the 50s - I think Blackhawk's covers were better than DC's in the period - and I believe Cuidera must be part of the reason. DC took Blackhawk over in 1956, but Cuidera continued to ink for it up to the third-last issue of its original run in 1968.(1)
Cuidera said on a convention panel - Thompson quotes an attendee's account here - that the feature was modelled after "Death Patrol", which was created by Jack Cole and debuted in the same issue. "Death Patrol" was a zany series about an irregular RAF squadron whose members were initially all Americans, mostly former criminals. But I think "Blackhawk" may also have been influenced by the "Clipper Williams" period of Skyroads. Skyroads was an aviation strip that several times changed its protagonists. Clipper Williams was a member of the Flying Legion, a paramilitary organisation made up of pilots from many nations that was based on an island in the Pacific called Courage Island.(2)
Cuidera based the Blackhawks' uniforms on German ones. Steranko's The Steranko History of Comics #2, which has a chapter on Blackhawk, quotes him as saying this was "like fighting fire with fire" (p.58). Steranko is very positive about the feature - he refers to the "spectacular high-altitude thrillers" of its heyday (p.61) - but he also interprets Blackhawk as summing up "in costume and concept... the fascist point of view" (p.55). I disagree with this. I think the Blackhawks' dark look is parallel to Batman's; it expresses their dedication to their grim mission. The blurb of the first instalment already represents Blackhawk as a freedom fighter, someone who is out "to defend the helpless ... liberate the enslaved and crush the tyrant". But the Blackhawks did look a lot more like Nazis in their first appearance than later - Blackhawk's appearance on the cover, by Will Eisner, was somewhat different - and too much so, for me. The evolution of their look is one of the things I'll be following.
(1) Dick Giordano, who edited the final issues, tried to get Reed Crandall to pencil them. That fell through, so they were drawn instead by Pat Boyette.
(2) Wikipedia's page on Skyroads is currently illustrated by the cover of a Better Little Book reflecting this phase of the strip. This dates from 1938 and describes the pilots as being dedicated "to the cause of humanity". Williams spends much on the book on a solo mission to capture a thug called the Python who is the head of a gang of cut-throats using violence to gain control of timberland for a syndicate. At the climax the Flying Legion mounts a parachute raid on his mountain hideout.
Reposted from Golden Age and Transition Era Feature Reviews. It's a big project and needs a thread of its own.
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As background, I've been looking at when WWII was first reflected in US comics. Here are some of the things I've noticed.
The Germans invaded Poland on Sep. 1 1939. The cover of Action Comics #17, on sale Aug. 1939, had an image of Superman attacking a tank while a soldier with a machine gun shoots at him. #19, from Oct., had him tearing the barrel off a cannon. On #21 from Dec. he’s either attacking a sub or carrying ammunition to it, I’m not sure which.
Speed Comics #1, from Aug., had Shock Gibson upending a tank, and #3, from Oct., had him lifting a cannon. Are the similarities between these images and those on the Action Comics issues from the same months just coincidences, or did one party have information about what the other was going to do? I didn’t notice similar parallels in the adjacent months.
Top-Notch Comics started in Oct. Its original lead feature was “The Wizard”, which initially had a strong patriotic theme: the Wizard fought threats to America. However, in #1-#3 his opponents were stand-ins for the Japanese, with a different name each time.
Pep Comics started in Nov. Its original lead feature was “The Shield”. The title character was an FBI agent who took his orders from J. Edgar Hoover. The “Stokians” he fights in #1 are probably stand-ins for the Germans: their leader is called Klotz. The “Nordics” from #2 certainly were. His opponents in #3 are an “international army” lead by an “exiled munitions magnate” who wants to drive American into the European war to weaken it.
Subsequently the Wizard and the Shield, whose features crossed over, both fought "Mosconians" in a few stories. The name sounds like a shot at the Soviets (who were allied with the Germans at that point), but their argot indicates they're stand-in Germans. Swastika imagery is used in relation to them in Top-Notch Comics #6, #7.
MLJ had several early features about Americans fighting in the war who joined up after it broke out.
-“Corporal Collins”, a light-hearted series about an American the French army, started in Blue Ribbon Comics #2 in Oct., and was cover-featured on #3-#5. After the Fall of France Collins switched to Britain. Early on he briely had a gimmick, a magnetic device that could repel bullets, but this was quickly dropped. The story in #7 is set against the background of the evacuation of France, and in #8 Collins and his pal Slapsie escape occupied France for Britain.
-“Air Patrol”, a more serious feature about an American in the RAF, debuted in Top Notch Comics #1.
-“Sgt. Boyle”, about an American in the British Army, was similar to “Corporal Collins” and started in Pep Comics #1. According to the GCD both were initially drawn by Charles Biro and early written by Abner Sundell.(1) The heroes guested several times in each others’ features.
Amazing-Man went to Europe to fight the Germans after hearing about the outbreak of the war in Amazing Man Comics #8 in Nov. The storyline continued in #9, but that issue also initiated a new storyline involving Amazing-Man’s being summoned back to Tibet. In #10 he goes out of his way to save a German pilot, although he casually kills Germans in #8-#9. In #11 his Tibetan masters criticise him for having involved himself in war.
Namor first fought Germans in Marvel Mystery Comics #3 in Nov. The storyline continued in the next issue, which had an image of Namor fighting Germans on the cover, and there was a change of direction the one after that. This throws me, as I see a parallelism there to what happened in “Amazing-Man”, and I’d assumed Bill Everett wrote “Sub-Mariner” himself and “Amazing-Man” was written by A.L. Kirby.(2) I reviewed Amazing Man Comics #5-#7, the first three issues, here (pp.13-15).
(1) They are credited in some stories. MLJ credits from the period at least sometimes credit the artist before the writer.
(2) Since he was credited with Everett for #7 and his name appears on some post-Everett instalments. The GCD (according to its note, following Lou Mougin) interprets the “A.L. Kirby and Sam Decker” credit on the #16 instalment as meaning Kirby did pencils and Decker inks. Its entries for some other instalments indicate A.L. Kirby was Allen L. Kirby.
Reposted, slightly altered. The first version of this post displaced the thread 'Arrow' Season 3 from the homepage.
The earliest war cover I’ve found is that of Funny Picture Stories #6, on sale Mar. 1937. The cover is the opening story’s splash page. The feature was an irregular one about a soldier of fortune. This instalment had him fighting in China. The issue’s index makes it clear that he’s fighting rebels, not the Japanese. The Second Sino-Japanese War began later in the year.
I’ve also found a few early covers depicting Colonial conflict in North Africa: New Adventure Comics #29 (Jul. 1938), Action Comics #5 (Sep. 1938), Comic Pages #23 (Jul. 1939), and Action Comics #16 (Aug. 1939).
Adventure Comics #33 (Nov. 1938) shows a flier leaping from a British aircraft to another plane. I take this to be a WWI image. Action Comics #11 (Mar.1939) shows a battleship ramming a submarine, and might be another. Further WWI imagery appeared in boxes on the covers of All-American Comics #5 (Jun. 1939) and #9 (Oct. 1939) related to its adaptation of the play The American Way. Action Comics #18 (Sep. 1939) had a dogfight image. Adventure Comics #43 (Sep. 1939) showed sailors escaping a sinking ship, possibly after a torpedoing.
The Superman cover from Action Comics #10 (Feb. 1939) shows him attacking a plane, which could be in the context of war. There’s a sequence like that in the Superman-stops-a-war story in Action Comics #2. Wonder Comics #1 (Mar. 1939) shows Wonder Man smashing a warplane. Wonderworld Comics #5 (Jul. 1939) has the Flame fighting fliers with a horned death's head insignia who don't appear in the issue's story. I would guess they were intended as stand-in Nazis.
In the story in Wonder Comics #1 Wonder Man stops a war, apparently in Europe,(1) by destroying the weapons in the aggressor’s armoury and beating up the dictator. In contrast, the Superman story in Action Comics #2 is set in South America,(2) and in it when the opposing generals meet they don’t even know why they’re fighting. Notably, in the Wonder Man story the dictator is not deposed at the end. That might reflect an assumption that the European dictators were unfortunately around to stay.
(1) A plane flies east from New York to get there.
(2) San Monte is stated to be in South America in Action Comics #1. But when Superman evesdrops on the munitions lobbyist and the senator, they discuss the passage of a bill that will leave America "embroiled with Europe".
One of the genres in which concerns about Nazism was reflected was the spy genre. The genre goes right back: early examples include Siegel and Shuster's "Spy", which started in Detective Comics #1 (Feb. 1937), and "Espionage Starring Black X", which started in Feature Funnies #13 in Aug. 1938, and was later an inaugural feature in Smash Comics, where it was sometimes cover-featured.
Jumbo Comics started in Jul. 1938. One of its initial features was “ZX-5 Spies in Action”, which the GCD says was “mostly” drawn by Will Eisner. The first storyline was set against the background of war in Europe, with the villainous nation, Transovania, probably a stand-in for Germany. The art was in a good newspaper adventure strip style.
Centaur tried a title called Super Spy in 1940. The interesting thing here is the covers weren't obviously patriotic or WWII-related at all.
War themes were also common in early comics in the SF genre, as they were in Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. An example is "Gary Concord the Ultra-Man", which started in All-American Comics #8 in Sep. 1939. The opening episode described how Gary's father became determined to find a way to prevent war after the deaths of his parents in WWI. He laboured to invent a weapon so frightful that it might end war forever, but was forestalled by the outbreak of another world war in 1950. Chemicals released by the bombing put him to sleep, and he awoke in the far future. Another example is "Blue Bolt" from Blue Bolt, which was originally about the war of Dr Bertoff, Blue Bolt and their followers against the Green Sorceress in the underground world. The title started in Apr. 1940.
Early covers with SF war images include those of Amazing Mystery Funnies v2 #1 (Dec. 1938), v2 #3 (Feb. 1939), and v2 #6 (May 1939). Another cover in this vein is that of Mystery Men Comics #2 (Jul. 1939).
An example of a servicemen feature from the pre-war period is Jerry Siegel's and William Smith's “Red, White and Blue”. This debuted in All-American Comics #1 (Mar. 1939), and was about a marine,(2) a sailor, an infantryman, and a lady FBI agent. The feature was blurbed above the title of #1, had a box on #2, and was cover-featured on #4 (May 1939) and #12 (Jan. 1940). The instalment I've read, from #8, opens with a depiction of a "Black Cross" rally (a stand-in for the German American Bund) and involves a spy plot to sink a submarine.
In addition to servicemen features, early Golden Age comics had several series about cadets: "Wiley of West Point" from All-American Comics, "Dick Cole" from Blue Bolt, which was about a cadet with superpowers and also appeared in other Novelty titles, and "The Cadet" from Target Comics.
The cover of All-American Comics #9 (Oct. 1939) shows how genres can overlap. It has three scenes of combat, from “The American Way”, “Red, White and Blue”, and “Gary Concord the Ultra-Man”. The first is a WWI image.
After the war in Europe began war imagery covers became common, but there were still more covers on other themes. I'll mention one final item. The cover of Smash Comics #14 (Jul. 1940) depicts Bozo the Robot overturning a tank. Compare the cover of Amazing Stories, Dec. 1940 (cover date), illustrating the story "Adam Link Fights a War".
Except for the last date, all dates are on sale dates from DC Indexes.
I think All-American Comics was the first US comic with a patriotic title. It initially had a red, white and blue logo with a shield design, and up to #10 the majority of covers had the blurb “America’s greatest adventure and humor strips- for all American boys and girls”. The first issue had an image of the Statue of Liberty on the cover, and blurbed “Red, White and Blue” as “America’s greatest adventure strip” above the title.
Subsequent covers didn’t consistently emphasise the patriotic theme. It’s most strongly present on the “Red, White and Blue” cover on #4, which has a flag waving behind the heroes, the cover of #5, featuring scenes from The American Way, and the Gary Concord cover on #11, which has a spaceship in the background with patriotic motifs.
Concord’s costume has an eagle on the helmet and a military look. In the context of the comic’s title these create a patriotic impression, so he could be considered an early patriotic hero. He was cover-featured on #8, #11 and #15.(1)
#16 (May, 1940) saw the debut of “Green Lantern”, which was afterwards the cover feature. The issue also dropped the shield logo in favour of one like those on Action Comics and Adventure Comics: I assume it was designed by Ira Schnapp. Green Lantern normally fought crooks rather than Nazis, and the cover images didn’t return to exploiting the patriotic theme even once the war was underway. The exceptions I noticed are #47, which is the only wartime Hop Harrigan cover and depicts aerial combat,(2) and #48, which has Green Lantern defending people dedicating a battleship from a man about to hurl a grenade.
On the other hand, #26, #28, #30 have a blurb for “Red, White and Blue”,(3) and #32-#48 carried a “Hop Harrigan says “Keep ‘em Flying!”" circle.(4) #51-#52 had Hop Harrigan inset images, and from #54 up to #82 the covers usually had a circle with his face next to the logo.(5)
(1) His feature also had a box on #9, but it doesn’t show him.
(2) Before GL's debut in #16 Hop Harrigan had a box on #2 and was cover-featured on #3 and #14: but at this stage he wasn't yet in the military. The fair-haired boy on #1 was apparently the comic strip character Ben Webster. Post-war Hop Harrigan was cover-featured on #77, when his serial came out.
(3) The feature also appeared in Worlds’ Best Comics/World’s Finest Comics, and was blurbed on its early covers.
(4) The equivalent button I've found on other AA titles reads "Let's go! USA Keep 'em flying!". This can be seen on many wartime issues of Flash Comics. Flash Comics #33, which depicts Hawkman giving an eagle a V sign as it drops a bomb, instead had a box with the text "Keep it flying!" and an image of the flag.
These easy-to miss elements on covers can be interesting. All-American Comics #64 had a "Fight infantile paralysis" shield and #71 bottom-cover "Join the March of Dimes Fight Infantile Paralysis!" copy. Sensation Comics had the shield on #39 and a box with the message on #51.
(5) He also got a bottom-cover blurb on #68-#70.
Corrected; reposted; altered.
The next comic with a patriotic title I know of was National Comics, which started in Apr. 1940. The first issue featured the debut of Uncle Sam: I didn't realise he preceded Captain America.
In early 1941 Centaur was down to one title, Amazing Man Comics. (A third issue of The Arrow appeared in July, but that was after a hiatus). Starting in March it took its line in a patriotic direction by introducing two new titles, Stars and Stripes Comics and Liberty Scouts Comics. The features of Stars and Stripes Comics were substantially from Amazing Man Comics, but there were a few unique to it, including “The Stars and Stripes”, a patriotic heroes feature placed in the lead slot from #4.(1) The features in Liberty Scouts Comics were new. Both started with a #2. The patriotic direction is evident on the covers of Amazing Man Comics from #22 (Apr.)
Apr. saw Marvel’s USA Comics #1. Ace’s Our Flag Comics #1 was cover-dated for Aug., so it may have gone on sale in Jun. Jul. saw the start of the same company’s Banner Comics (with issue #3). Aug. brought DC’s Star Spangled Comics.
Oct. brought Fox's V Comics (starring V-Man). The GCD lists this as V...-Comics due to the logo, but the "...-" represents the Morse Code for "v". I find its date particularly interesting, as I wouldn't have guessed "v for victory" talk appeared in the US before Pearl Harbor. The comic was cover-dated for Jan. 1942.
At the GCD I also stumbled on two DC ashcans for unused titles: Old Glory Comics and Red White & Blue Comics. They were copyrighted to All American Comics, Inc.
This takes me to late 1941, which is as far as I want to take this survey since I'm looking at reflections of the war in US comics from before Pearl Harbor. Oct. brought Fawcett’s America’s Greatest Comics and Dec. Standard’s America’s Best Comics: but these belong to the best-of-the-line tradition of DC's World’s Best Comics/World’s Finest Comics, the first two issues of All Star Comics, Fox's Big 3, and Marvel's All Winners Comics.
A later Centaur offering illustrates how what it means to speak of a patriotic title or hero can get blurry. World Famous Heroes Magazine is not a patriotic title in itself, but the cover of the first issue was strongly patriotic, and in that context the title is.(2) The first issue appeared in Jul. 1941. The patriotic/war-related turn didn't save Centaur's line: I think this was the only one of its standard comics to make it into 1942, and that only for its final issue.
A comparable case is Standard's Real Life Comics, which started in Jun. 1941 with an Uncle Sam image on the cover and had patriotic or war-related covers on most or all of its wartime issues.(3) #3 has an image of Hitler as the "Emperor of hate". According to DC Indexes this went on sale Dec. 19, which is after Pearl Harbor but could mean the cover was prepared before. The issue it reminds me of is Gleason's Daredevil Battles Hitler, which had appeared as early as April.
Some titles with non-patriotic titles got patriotic logos. The earliest I’ve noticed was, of all things, Mutt & Jeff (first issue Aug. 1939), which had stars and stripes on its logo on some early issues. Silver Streak Comics had stars added to its logo from #10 (Mar. 1941) and then stripes from #13 (Jul.).(4) The logo of All-Star Comics was festooned with stars from its first issue, which could be interpreted as merely a reflection of the title, but in #3 (Nov. 1940) the lead feature became “Justice Society of America”, supporting a patriotic interpretation. In line with this, #4’s cover (Feb. 1941) shows the Capitol and the Atom carrying a flag that reads “For America and Democracy”.
The final title I'll mention in this post is Dell's one-shot U.S.A. is Ready. According to DC Indexes this went on sale Dec. 1 1941. If that's correct, it's indicative of a strong anticipation that American would soon be at war.
All dates are on sale dates from DC Indexes (except Our Flag Comics, which it doesn't have).
(1) The title characters are three men who met because they were framed and convicted in Germany. They escaped back to the US, but had to hide from the US authorities to avoid extradition. They made their costumes by painting a patriotic design onto concentration camp uniforms.
(2) The cover has an image of six heroes of history in front of an American flag, following General Marshall. One of the men is the Canadian ace Billy Bishop. Another is labelled “Lewis and Clark”.
(3) The possible exception is #11, which has men on a raft fighting off sharks; but this was a 1943 cover, and it could be this is a war scene. #4 has de Gaulle and #5 Chiang Kai-Shek. #7 is a tribute to Australia.
(4) The stripes were absent on #17 (Nov. 1941), and the patriotic look was dropped after #18 (Dec.).
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Bet National hated the fact that another company got out a National Comics. Probably didn't occur to them to grab up the title.
I always figured Blackhawk had some sort of precursor. It just seemed so familiar, and so fully formed when it launched. But by the time I first saw it, we'd had all those World War II movies with each guy from a different ethnic group or nationality, so I couldn't tell.
Chances are John Wayne was in it.
It's interesting that it came out before there were any real life equivalents, unless there was something similar during WWI. Flying Tigers and Black Sheep Squadron both came later.
I have the Skyroads Better Little Book I referred to. The title page says “Story by Lt. Dick Calkins Pictures by Russell Keaton”, but I don’t trust that story credit. Skyroads was initially by Lester J. Maitland and Calkins. Maitland was an aviator: he has a page at Wikipedia. Calkins was the original artist of Buck Rogers. Keaton had been Calkins’s assistant and was the original artist of the Buck Rogers Sunday pages. In 1939 he started Flyin’ Jenny. I think Clipper Williams and the Flying Legion can only have been introduced into Skyroads after Calkins stopped drawing it. Whether he was at all involved in the strip later I don't know.
The Flying Legion has more men than the Blackhawks, and people in support roles as well as pilots. The pilots are said to come from "all nations", but all the ones we see are whites. Their uniforms aren't dark like the Blackhawks', and have an "FL" insignia on the left shoulder. The only character with an accent is Williams's mechanic "Swipes", who has a West Country accent (audio). The commandant is a kindly but professional older man called Colonel Mitchell.
The story is likely an adaptation of a newspaper strip sequence. It has long sequences depicting the characters' travails and lacks a carefully-put-together larger story, and newspaper strip stories are sometimes like that. So I take it the art comes from the strip.
There was a radio show based on the strip in 1939, but Wikipedia says it only ran four months.