Spacehawk by Basil Wolverton
$39.99, color, 266 pages
Writer and artist: Basil Wolverton
Reprinting "Spacehawk" stories in Target Comics (vol. 1) #5-12 (Jun 40-Jan 41), Target Comics (vol. 2) #1-12 (Mar 41-Feb 42), Target Comics (vol. 3) #1-10 (Mar-Dec 42)
You can say a lot of things about "Spacehawk" -- its uniqueness, its permutations, its straightforward weirdness -- but what most impressed me was its professionalism. Wolverton, for all his eccentricities as a writer and an artist, was head and shoulders above his Golden Age peers in sheer quality.
But the other stuff is well worth talking about, too.
"Spacehawk" started out as a unique mix of ingredients poured into a sci-fi mold. "Spacehawk" was sort of a cosmic cop, although he didn't seem to answer to any organization or higher power. He was just out there, acting as judge, jury and executioner. The unintended Fascism of it is eye-opening now, although people were probably less concerned about civil liberties when this came out.
Plus, there was a central mystery in that Spacehawk never took off his helmet, and there was some question if he was a human, a robot or something else entirely. Strangely, instead of playing out this mystery, Wolverton answered it fairly quickly, in a way I didn't see coming. Yes, he was human (ish), but also a bit more (his unnamed, alien race lived for centuries), there were robots involved, and -- well, you should just read it. And after that, poof, the helmet was gone and Spacehawk's classically handsome mug was on display henceforth.
Did Wolverton realize that maintaining the mystery would make storytelling too hard? Did he just tire of it? Did an editor order it? Regardless, humanizing Spacehawk took a little zing out of the strip.
An editor definitely came into play when America entered the war, according to the foreword. After Pearl Harbor, Wolverton was ordered to keep Spacehawk on Earth battling the Axis. Again, like the helmet business, this had the effect of reducing the strip's scope and uniqueness. Even so the stories were a little trippy, and he even picked up an arch-enemy, Dr. Gore, who kept faux-dying at the end of each story. Nothing new in that last part, but Wolverton did go to the trouble of explaining how Gore survived each adventure.
In fact, one of the things that is striking about Wolverton's work is how punctilious it is. Every line in his laborious rendering has a purpose; everything -- from rocket ships to robots -- has a functional, geometric design; layouts are meticulous; every scene has a posed look. His stories, too, are straightforward and spare, marching forward with static precision.
This in contrast with his aliens, who without fail are preposterous and hideous. How can a guy whose every space ship is functional tube draw asymmetric creatures with flailing limbs, giraffe necks and random eyes? Most of them look like they wouldn't be able to stand up without a stray limb dragging them over!
I suppose all of that is in evidence, too, in what Wolverton is most famous for: Lena the Hyena, the ugliest girl in the world, an illustration which won a nationwide contest by Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" comic strip. With Lena, Wolverton's contradictions are on full display: An asymmetric face with random pockmarks and blemishes, but all rendered in a meticulous, careful and precise way. Order and chaos, all in one artist.
Which is why I'm grateful to Fantagraphics for bringing "Spacehawk" back from the Golden Age abyss. I'm not sure why, but it seems important, and I was chained to the book until I finished it.
This was, hands down, one of my favorite collections of 2012! The closest thing to it are those two collections of Fletcher Hanks’ work from a couple of years ago. Both artists are similar in their weirdness and eccentricities, but what sets their work apart (from each other’s) is, as you mentioned, Wolverton’s professionalism. What impressed me throughout was that the last panel of each story accurately advertised the plot of the next adventure. Too often Golden Age comics exhibit a “flying by the seat of one’s pants” work ethic, but these panels inarguably illustrate that Wolverton was plotting ahead.
If “humanizing Spacehawk took a little zing out of the strip” (and I agree with you; it did), then it was just a little. The stories remain uniquely Wolverton. Until that black market rubber tire story toward the end, anyway. I don’t know whether the idea of making Spacehawk an Earth-based “superhero” was editorially imposed or not, but I’ll betcha that blackmarket story was! For one thing, the last panel of the story before it advertised the story after it, so it was obviously inserted. But you know what? The story wasn’t bad! It wasn’t “Wolverton,” but it had a Clark Kent/Lois Lane vibe to it (or, more likely, it emulated the snappy patter of a screwball romantic comedy of the day). It stands out like a sore thumb, but I can’t say it was a bad story.
I nominated this collection for a 2012 “Cappie” but it was beaten out by the EC Comics Library (which was also one of my nominations so I don’t feel too bad about it).
Sounds interesitng - if only it wasn't forty bucks. I've bought too many of these big collections lately as it is.
$26.39 at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Spacehawk-Basil-Wolverton/dp/1606995502
(Follow the link and look inside.)
add: Jeff had not yet posted when I was putting my post together.
Great minds run in the same channel.
I can't wait until they turn it into an audio book?!?!?