From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 13 Blackhawk (Part 3)---the Jets and the Sharks

In 1964, editor Murray Boltinoff and writer Arnold Drake pulled off a hat trick with three stories that restored a measure of drama and realism to the Blackhawks. Moreover, the Magnificent 7 had been streamlined for the modern era, now sporting less ominous-looking crimson-and-olive uniforms and flying sophisticated VTOL-equipped F-105 Thunderchiefs.

Boltinoff and Drake had jettisoned the old elements which had diluted the Black Knights’ image as gritty, globe-trotting adventurers. Gone were space aliens, giant monsters, grade-Z costumed bad guys, and temporary super-powers. Under the auspice of working for the United Nations, the Blackhawks found themselves back in their old element, hurled into international crises and political intrigues.

But, just as Blackhawk fans were looking forward to the next issue again, the bubble burst.

Boltinoff and Drake were taken off the title.

Now, I write these articles on the Silver Age from the position of an observer, as someone who was a comic-book fan at the time and experienced these things as they happened. I have no “ins” with anyone in the comics industry. Whatever behind-the-scenes information I provide, I obtain through research.

I’ve never been able to find anything definitive on why Boltinoff’s tenure as Blackhawk editor was so brief. But some facts I did find are enough for me to make a reasonably educated guess---it was probably because Larry Nadle died.

“Who’s Larry Nadle?” many of you are probably asking. I can’t blame you; until a few weeks ago, I would have asked the same question. Larry Nadle has almost completely slid under the radar of comics enthusiasts. Beginning in 1947, Nadle was the editor of National Periodical’s humour titles---the funny animals, the teen-age misadventures, the TV- and movie-licenced characters. In 1963, he also assumed the editorship of DC’s romance-comics line, replacing Phyllis Reed.

Then, in the summer of 1964, Nadle died. This is what appears to have prompted a shift in editorial assignments. In June, the romance comics went to Jack Miller, while Boltinoff inherited all of DC’s remaining humour titles. Suddenly, Arnold Drake was writing Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. With Boltinoff and Drake’s new responsibilities, something had to give, and one of those somethings was Blackhawk.

I could be wrong, of course. All I know for sure is, after Blackhawk # 198 (Jul., 1964), Boltinoff and Drake were gone. In as new editor: George Kashdan.

On Kashdan’s capabilities as an editor, industry opinion is divided. One view holds that he was uninspired; the other insists that he was constantly being saddled with DC’s cast-off series and did the best he could with them. Kashdan had his moments---it was his decision to turn The Brave and the Bold into a super-hero team-up title. And he provided the first “big wedding” moment of the Silver Age when Aquaman married Mera in issue # 18 (Nov.-Dec., 1964) of the Sea King’s series. Whether due to his limitations as an editor or to the material he was stuck with, a fair assessment would be that Kashdan’s results were uneven.

Jumping over to Blackhawk with editor Kashdan were writers Dave Wood, Bob Haney, and a previous scripter on the title, France Herron. Whatever merits these men had as writers, it’s clear that they were no Arnold Drake. The title of the first Blackhawk issue under Kashdan---# 199 (Aug., 1964)---says it all: “The Attack of the Mummy Insects”. This was a return to the team's “bug-eyed-monster” days, as three Blackhawks are reduced to insect-size and captured by mummy-wrapped alien ants out to conquer the Earth.

This quickly became a recurring pattern in Blackhawk stories: separating three or four Blackhawks from the rest of the group, putting them through strange transformations, and often pitting them against their normal comrades. In succeeding issues, a sub-set of Black Knights were changed into evil energy beings (# 201), superannuated (# 202), and mutated into prehistoric creatures (# 205).

All of the outlandish elements that had typified Blackhawk stories before Drake had returned with a vengeance. Monstrous creatures (# 211-2, # 217, # 224, # 226) and lame villains, such as King Zoot (# 219), the Moonster (#221), and Mr. Quick-Change (# 223). And it was back to outer space for the Magnificent 7, when they were shang-haied to the planet Ezz in issue # 218.

Perhaps the most severe injury to Blackhawk under Kashdan was the loss of the individual personalities bestowed upon the Black Knights by Arnold Drake’s incisive dialogue. In terms of characterisation, the seven heroes were now interchangeably neutral, distinguished only by their accents and Blackhawk’s commanding attitude.

The art of Dick Dillin and Chuck Cuidera didn’t help matters. The tight, anatomically correct renderings had faded. Dillin’s figures were growing more ham-fisted and club-footed, and they tended to have a difficult time staying within the panel boundaries. His backgrounds became less complex, partially due to Cuidera’s increasingly heavier inks.

Under the Department of Giving-the-Devil-His-Due, Kashdan and his writing stable introduced some new concepts to the title, with varying degrees of success.

Two back-up series were instituted, more or less alternating with each issue. The first of these was the more popular. This was “The Blackhawk World War II Combat Diary”, written principally by long-time series writer France Herron. Actually, the first “Combat Diary” tale appeared in Blackhawk # 196, the first issue under previous editor Murray Boltinoff’s oversight, so probably the credit for introducing this back-up series goes more rightly to Boltinoff or his predecessor, Jack Schiff. But Kashdan took it and ran with it.

“Combat Diary” recounted adventures of the Blackhawks during World War II. These tales were more realistic than the lead stories and, due to the lower page-count, more tightly plotted. They did not have the ambivalent morality of the Black Knights’ Quality Comics days, nor the theme of fatality that marked Robert Kanigher’s war stories. But they were well-received by long-time readers who found the science-fiction elements of the modern-day stories unpalatable and by fans who preferred the Blackhawks’ old black-leather outfits.

The one downside to the “Combat Diary” stories was that they reïnforced the fact that the Black Knights were tied to the World War II era which, at the time, was more than twenty years past. Yet, the Blackhawks who appeared in the contemporary stories looked no different than they did in their wartime adventures. Apparently, the ensuing two decades had brought no weight gain, no wrinkles, no grey hair or hair loss, nor any diminishment of abilities to any of the team. The writers never addressed this lack of ageing, except obliquely, in an occasional reference in the present-era tales to the Blackhawks being “old war-horses”. When readers wrote in asking about it, Kashdan ignored them.

The other back-up series was “The Detached Service Diary”, which related solo adventures of the Blackhawks. It debuted in issue # 201 (Oct., 1964). The tales of the individual Blackhawks tended to play up their established specialties (Chuck’s radio-communication knowledge, André’s mechanical skills, Hendy’s sharpshooting, Olaf’s acrobatic ability, and Stan’s prodigious strength), which the readers enjoyed. But the writers failed to take the opportunity to infuse each Blackhawk with an individual personality, for which such a showcase would have been perfect.

One of the few single-issue cover stories to really find favour with the fans appeared in Blackhawk # 203 (Dec., 1964). Written by Bob Haney, “Operation White Dragon” revealed how Chop-Chop joined the team.

As the WWII flashback relates, the original six Blackhawks are dispatched to a Chinese province. Their mission is to persuade the ruling warlord to abandon his neutral stance and encourage his people to fight the invading Japanese. After parachuting into China, the Blackhawks observe a masked, costumed figure called the White Dragon single-handedly rout a Japanese patrol with martial-arts skills and a sub-machine gun. From the locals, the team learns that the White Dragon is a one-man resistance force, courageously seeking to drive the occupying forces out of the province.

At the warlord’s palace, the Black Knights are granted an audience with the ruler, but he rejects their entreaties to fight the Japanese. Thus far, the Japanese have not interfered with daily life in the province and the warlord refuses to risk the lives of his people. Worse yet, the warlord’s son, Liu Huang, actively collaborates with the Imperial Forces.

In a redux of Zorro, “collaborator” Liu Huang is actually the White Dragon. Things come to a head when Japanese soldiers finally capture the White Dragon and reveal his identity. Liu Huang is sentenced to be executed. The warlord, now realising the threat posed by the Japanese, rallies his people against them; and the invaders, in turn, turn their might on the warlord’s city. The Blackhawks rescue Liu Huang from a firing squad, and he insists on accompanying them as they move to drive the Japanese out of the city. The former White Dragon’s martial-arts expertise enables him to hold his own with the Magnificent 7 and, at one point, he saves the life of Blackhawk himself.

After the Japanese forces have been defeated, the Blackhawks invite Liu to join the team, and they give him the nickname of “Chop-Chop”, after the kiai he shouted during his martial-arts attacks.

“Operation White Dragon” was one of the rare high marks of this period. Writer Haney crafted a tense, well-grounded war story. He displayed a keen knowledge of Chinese culture and mores; furthermore, he seemed to grasp the concept that the Blackhawks were an elite fighting group. As such, simply helping out the Black Knights on a case would not have and should not have earned Chop-Chop a place on the team. Only by displaying Chop-Chop’s combat savvy, resourcefulness, and fighting skill as the independent White Dragon did Haney make clear that the young Chinaman was eminently qualified to be a Blackhawk.

But the best of Kashdan’s innovations on the title was probably his multi-issue sub-plot involving Lady Blackhawk and long-time Blackhawk foe, Killer Shark.

It began in Blackhawk # 200 (Sep., 1964), when the vicious Killer Shark lures Lady Blackhawk (who, quaintly, has retained the original leather jacket and cap Blackhawk uniform, along with the pleated skirt---hubba hubba!) into a trap. Once she is his prisoner, the villain slips her a chemical which reverses her personality, turning her evil. Thus, Killer Shark is able to recondition her mind to hate the Blackhawks and makes her his queen.

Now garbed as Queen Killer Shark, Zinda ambushes her former teammates, who are so stunned by her betrayal that they are almost unable to escape her deadly attack. At the last minute, their battle instincts kick in, and the Blackhawks survive, but they are unable to net Killer Shark or his queen.

Thus began a series of cat-and-mouse duels between the Blackhawks and the Sharks. (Issues # 204, 216, and 225) The path of their conflict took several twists. On one occasion, Zinda's knowledge of the team's secrets enable Killer Shark and his crew to strike at our heroes where they live, on Blackhawk Island. During another outing, Zinda regains her true personality, only to find that Killer Shark has managed to turn Blackhawk himself evil. Further complications force her into a terrible decision. The only way to restore Blackhawk to normal is for Zinda to revert to her villainous Queen Killer Shark persona---which she does, selflessly.

A later story finds Killer Shark himself undone by his own machinations, when he discovers that his duplicitous queen has been working all along to destroy him and take his place as leader of his gang of cut-throats.

This sub-plot delved into an emotional level not seen in other Blackhawk stories, and mined those feelings for all they were worth. As a team, the Blackhawks had a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that their honorary member was out to kill them. As for the head man himself, the sparks that had flashed between him and Lady Blackhawk in the old days were now flamed. Blackhawk found himself torn between his duty to capture Zinda and his affection for her. This led him to commit boneheaded mistakes that he never would have made against his usual foes.

It isn’t until the conclusion of the sub-plot, in issue # 225 (Oct., 1966), that the Black Knights are able to overcome their emotional reluctance and finally capture Queen Killer Shark. They put her in prison, but in an unusual development for the time, Zinda was not cured. She remained evil and murderous.

Kashdan’s best efforts weren’t enough; sales on Blackhawk continued to hæmorrhage. Aside from the Queen Killer Shark sub-plot and “Combat Diary”, Blackhawk stories largely remained contrived and uninspired. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the tastes of comic-book fans had shifted. They had discovered Marvel Comics, with its emphasis on characterisation over derring-do. Simplistic “hero versus villain” tales didn’t pay the rent, anymore.

But DC wasn’t ready to toss in the towel on Blackhawk, yet. (I suspect that the Powers-That-Be at N.P.P. believed the cancellation of such a long-running title would be an admission that DC was beginning to struggle in its competition with the upstart Marvel Comics.) But, clearly, the title needed a cure for its plummeting sales.

So DC came up with one. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the cure that kills.

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Comment by Philip Portelli on July 3, 2010 at 12:05am
They revisited Queen Killer Shark in "Birds of Prey" or "Secret Six".

It's amazing how much of a difference editorial imput makes. Many series have been cancelled due to wrong directions and ill-conceived alterations which, unfortunately, are coming up!
Comment by Commander Benson on July 3, 2010 at 1:25am
"It's amazing how much of a difference editorial imput makes. Many series have been cancelled due to wrong directions and ill-conceived alterations which, unfortunately, are coming up!"

There's no question that the approach of the editor is vital, but I have to wonder how many ill-conceived new directions for a series came about, not because of the editor, but because of interference from the top. In N.P.P.'s case, at the time, Jack Liebowitz and Irwin Donenfeld.

Despite what some writers may think, editors aren't, generally, stupid men or lack insight. When Jack Schiff edited Blackhawk, he had to know the BEM-outer space-wild transformations angle was not suited to the Black Knights. The Challengers could get away with it; the unknown was its meat-and-potatoes. But the Blackhawks represented sterner, more real-worldish stuff.

Moreover, Schiff is on record in insisting that he protested the same science-fiction milieu for the Batman stories he edited in Batman and Detective Comics. The SF comics Schiff handled had been largely successful, so one can safely assume that he understood SF and had no problem with it. But he also realised that the Batman worked best in a different genre, and I would bet he knew the same thing when it came to Blackhawk.

However, he had the SF element in Batman thrust upon him by Irwin Donenfeld, who insisted on SF in all of DC's titles. (It was right about that time when supernatural-oriented titles, such as House of Secrets and House of Mystery changed over into the BEM-of-the-month, too.) So. I'm guessing it was forced on him in Blackhawk, too.

Along that line, it's difficult for me to believe that any editor didn't see the sudden upswing in quality in the three Blackhawk stories done by Boltinoff and Drake. Granted, George Kashdan had Blackhawk thrust upon him by the editorial shift of July, 1964, and Drake was no longer available as a writer. But one would think that Kashdan would have his writers---Herron, Wood, and Haney---at least continue in the same vein.

My guess is Donenfeld or Liebowitz tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Get rid of all that 'missions for the U.N.' jazz. The readers want monsters and super-villains, and throw in some aliens, too."

As for the "New Blackhawk Era", which you rightly gathered is the next instalment, when I first started out to write this article, back in '07, I had meant it to be a single column, or maybe two. Some quick nods to what came before, then a withering look at the Magnificent 7's super-hero-cum-secret agent days.

But the more I researched Blackhawk, the more I realised that much more took place in the series' transition from its mature Quality Comics days to the New Blackhawk Era. And I also knew that the three issues by Boltinoff and Drake never get their due as an attempt to take the Black Knights back to what they once were.

Essentially, I broke down Blackhawk, after it became a DC title, into five distinct periods:

1957-to-spring, 1964: monsters, aliens, and lame costumed villains (after the Quality Comics story inventory ran out)

Summer, 1964: Boltinoff and Drake's three issues, in which they attempted to go back to more mature plots

Fall, 1964-to-1966: Back to monsters, aliens, and lame super-villains

1967-to-summer, 1968: the New Blackhawk Era (shudder!)

Fall, 1968: New editor Dick Giordano's last-ditch effort to save the title by really going back to the team's roots.

And I think the only reason that Giordano got away with such a radical change was because the series was already cancelled, anyway, so the Powers That Be didn't really care what he did with it and left him alone.
Comment by Philip Portelli on July 3, 2010 at 11:26am
Yet by the mid-60s, Batman had gotten his New Look and was no longer subjected to aliens, weird transformations, time travel, pesky imps (outside of "World's Finest) and masked dogs! So the impetus for more realistic stories were there. Even "Flash", "JLA", "Green Lantern" and "Atom" despite their sci-fi roots and questionable real science facts had few true campy tales.

Blackhawk, it seems, was pushed in the opposite direction and its sales had to be going down for what was going to happen to happen. Was it not wanting to *waste* top talent or resources on a minor, non-DC title? We know Dick Dillin was thought of highly enough to be given "JLA" and his skill improved throughout the Bronze Age. Was he simply uninspired by the stories being assigned to him?
Comment by Commander Benson on July 3, 2010 at 5:08pm
"Yet by the mid-60s, Batman had gotten his New Look and was no longer subjected to aliens, weird transformations, time travel, pesky imps (outside of "World's Finest) and masked dogs! So the impetus for more realistic stories were there. Even 'Flash', 'JLA', 'Green Lantern', and 'Atom' despite their sci-fi roots and questionable real science facts had few true campy tales."

Good observation! True, by the time George Kashdan took over the Blackhawk series, DC's make-everything-BEM's-and-aliens-and-weird-changes push was pretty much over. In fact, c. 1964-5 seemed to be an interregnum of sorts, between the end of the BEM-of-the-month phase and the advent of super-hero/camp craze. In Blackhawk, that was evidenced by the three Boltinoff-Drake issues.

Still, Kashdan reverted to the old SF style for the Blackhawks for some reason. It is possible that he completely misread what had given the series its cachet. Perhaps Kashdan saw the Black Knights as just another version of the Challengers or the Doom Patrol. But I still think there was some tinkering from above the editorial level that contributed to the decision to retreat from the change in style instituted by Boltinoff and Drake.

"We know Dick Dillin was thought of highly enough to be given 'JLA' and his skill improved throughout the Bronze Age. Was he simply uninspired by the stories being assigned to him?"

Commentary on the quality of artists is always a subjective thing. Even Pete Costanza and Tony Tallarico have their fans. I say that because my opinion of Dick Dillin's art, to where it progressed at the time he took over JLA, is that he was unfit for JLA.

He was perfect for Blackhawk---or, at least, he had been for many years. If you look at his 1950's-early '60's work, it is tight, anatomically correct, with lots of detailed background. It remained largely that way, even into 1963-4. But after that, his work became increasingly rough, with less attention to anatomy (hence the "ham-fisted" and "club-footed" description of mine).

As I see it, Dillin's work didn't improve on JLA "throughout the Bronze Age"; in fact, it got worse. The only time Dillin was even palatable to me on JLA was during the brief early period when Sid Greene inked him. As it did with Sekowsky's pencils, Greene's inks ameliorated many of Dillin's flaws and gave his pencils a depth that it didn't have before.

One can say that Dick Dillin's art was "thought of highly enough" that DC handed him one of its principal titles, JLA---I wasn't there when the decision was made, nor have I read anything reliable about it, so I can't argue---but I think an equally compelling reason is that Dillin was one of the few artists willing to tackle JLA. The series' plethora of characters meant a huge amount of figure-drawing, which artist friends of mine say is the hardest aspect of drawing comics.

There are a few artists, of course, who aren't daunted by that---Mike Sekowsky for one. Curt Swan was another, although even he used to complain about the large number of figures that he had to draw for the Legion of Super-Heroes series in Adventure Comics. Dillin spent a decade and a half drawing Blackhawk, a title with seven regular characters, so he either didn't mind doing a series with lots of figure drawing, or at least, he was willing to do it. I think that's what got him the nod to do JLA---there probably weren't too many other artists willing to take JLA on---rather than the idea that he was one of DC's artistic stars.
Comment by Philip Portelli on July 3, 2010 at 7:46pm
With all due respect, I'm afraid I must disagree with your view of Dick Dillin's artwork. Maybe I'm biased because his issues were among the first comics I read. In fact it was THE first. I was also lucky because he was being inked by Dick Giordano. True, he wasn't flashy or experimental. He was no Cockrum, Perez, Grell, Byrne or Garcia-Lopez but he rarely took shortcuts and all his heroes were powerful and his heroines beautiful. His flaws were that he could not create believable aliens or monsters and appeared to have a hard time designing new villains. But I still say he improved from his 60s work. Again, with all due respect!
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on July 4, 2010 at 12:22am
With all due respect, the way I always saw Dick Dillin was that he was one of DC's workhorses -- not great, not awful, but dependable as clockwork. I expect dependability is a valuable quality on a team title, and I always had the sense that DC cared more about it -- or, at least, was better about enforcing it -- than Marvel ever was. And part of making that work is hiring guys who don't need an enforcer in the first place.
Comment by Commander Benson on July 4, 2010 at 7:19am
As I said, commentary on the quality of artists is always a subjective thing. But I agree with CK that Dick Dillin was, indeed, a workhorse. Regardless of how I regard his art, he took on a series noted for being especially difficult to draw and produced every issue, on time, for years---that's worthy of respect.

I only wish Dillin had drawn JLA with the same accuracy and attention to detail that he had demonstrated in his '50's Blackhawk stories. I might have stayed personally involved with the JLA title longer.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on July 4, 2010 at 8:54am
I like Dillin's work a great deal. I don't like the look his art had when he did Hawkman #22, and I'm not as fond of his Justice League of America issues with Joe Giella as of his subsequent work. I can understand not liking his more stylised work from the end of the 70s. I like his style, and the ways he solved the problems team superhero stories present. The covers of Blackhawk #184, #225 and #236 show what he could do, I think.

The Comichron website has the following paid circulation figures for Blackhawk in the 60s (from statements of ownership run in the title):

1960 316,000
1961 305,000
1962 250,000
1966 228,453
1967 157,700

It seems to me the Blackhawks could come across as themselves while fighting SF menaces if they were shown as using military means to do so. I've not seen the stories from their red costume period, but the strip's military aspect strikes me as more to the fore on the covers from this period than the couple of years prior. Since Kashdan also continued the "Combat Diary" series, and since you make a strong case for the "Queen Killer Shark" storyline, Commander, I wonder if in some respects he wasn't on the right track.
Comment by Patrick Curley on July 5, 2010 at 1:29pm
Lady Blackhawk did get back to normal in the Silver Age; in Blackhawk #228, she's fighting against Blackhawk when she's thrown off balance and hits her head on a rock. This restores her memory and her good personality, just in time for the "scrap-heap heroes" storyline. While QKS was an entertaining storyline, it was also disjointed; in #216 she and KS were captured, but when #225 rolls around they're on the loose again. As you point out, Queenie was captured in that issue, but in #228? Again free with no explanation.

Luke, Comichron missed one year for Blackhawk: in 1965, DC reported average sales of 219,378 for the title. This meant that Blackhawk was one of the very few DC titles to show sales declines during the 1962-1965 era, along with Wonder Woman, Sea Devils and Mystery in Space. Two of those titles (MiS and SD) were canceled, and we know WW was a special case. Still, 1966 saw a small improvement for the title, which wasn't a bad achievement in the face of Batmania; most of DC's titles actually saw a small decline.

CB, I disagree on Schiff. Either he was a weak reed, unable to stand up to his bosses, or he was a bad editor after 1958; neither of those options does him much credit. If you look at what happened to the magazines he was assigned to in the reshuffle of editors in 1964, they all similarly declined in quality of stories and art; check out the House of Mystery run of Martian Manhunter, or the Adam Strange stories in MiS, but only if you have a strong stomach. About the only positive from his post-1964 assignments was Robby Reed, unless you happen to be an "Ultra, the Multi-Alien" fan. ;)
Comment by Philip Portelli on July 5, 2010 at 5:02pm
On a different note, it must have been a great relief to FINALLY have Chop-Chop wear the same uniform as the other Blackhawks and not look like their houseboy. We all know that Chop's Golden Age image was harshly stereotypical to the extreme, though he was loyal and brave. I'm sure his portrayal changed in the Quality era. Does anyone know when it occured and did it happen over time or abruptly?

BTW, in the 80s series, Chop's real name was Wu Cheng.


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