In the summer of 1968, DC pulled the plug on Blackhawk. Following the two remaining issues already in production, the title would be seen no more. Editor George Kashdan would be seen no more, as well. DC fired him in April.
To oversee the last two issues of Blackhawk, DC installed former Charlton Comics editor Dick Giordano. Giordano had been a Blackhawk fan since its days in Military Comics, and he decided not to let the title die without putting up a fight. He opted for a dramatic shift of direction. On other DC titles he edited, Giordano also instituted sea changes, but those were done with the notion of playing toward modern concerns. With Blackhawk, he wanted just the reverse: he intended to return to yesteryear. Specifically, to restore the Magnificent 7’s original concept, as a paramilitary band of adventurers, operating in the real world, or at least as much of the real world as comics would let him get away with.
Anyway, he had nothing to lose in trying.
Giordano had his premise. Now he had to give it words and art. In one of the more classic stories of “How I Broke into Comics”, Giordano found just the plotline he needed in an unsolicited Blackhawk script submitted by a fan. The fan was Marv Wolfman. Dismayed by the format of “the New Blackhawk Era”, Wolfman had written a script designed to wipe out all traces of the super-hero Blackhawks and return them to their roots.
Wolfman had sent his script to George Kashdan a year before. Giordano found the mailing envelope containing Wolfman’s story in a drawer in Kashdan’s desk. The envelope had never been opened, its contents never read.
Giordano opened the envelope---and he liked what he found inside. It was just the kind of thing he wanted to do with Blackhawk. Wolfman’s writing was a little rough around the edges though, so Giordano gave it to Bob Haney for some polishing.
With that out of the way, Giordano now needed an artist. Dick Dillin had been moved over to Justice League of America, and Chuck Cuidera had retired. Then Giordano got an inspiration: since he was returning the Blackhawks to their glory days, why not get the artist most responsible for them---Reed Crandall. Giordano contacted Crandall, who initially seemed interested, but it didn’t work out. With less than two weeks until the next issue of Blackhawk was due to the printers, that opened the door for Pat Boyette.
In an interview appearing in Comic Book Artist # 1 (Spring, 1998), Giordano provided a bit more detail:
I went to the source: Reed Crandall. I never met the man but I called him on the phone and asked him if he'd like to finish off two issues of Blackhawk. Either we'll go out in style or maybe revive it if we can get something interesting happening. He said, "Yeah, I'd love to do that." So I sent him a script and never heard from him again. I guess the script wasn't to his liking and he was semi-retired anyway. So when we got close to the deadline, I called Crandall (who lived in Kansas) and asked his mother to please have him mail the script to Pat Boyette who lived in Texas, the closest artist I could find---this was all before Federal Express. I called Pat and told him that he could do whatever he wanted with the two issues because we were dead before we started. He did a nice job.
Giordano had worked with Pat Boyette at Charlton and knew the artist was capable of a quick turn-around on assignments. Just how fast Boyette got the art for Blackhawk # 242 back to Giordano is the stuff of minor legend. Boyette pencilled, inked, and lettered the 23-page story and the cover in seven, eight, nine, or ten days (depending on who is telling the tale).
Blackhawk # 242 got to the printers in plenty of time, and from there, to the hands of the readers---who got quite a surprise, starting with the first page of “My Brother---My Enemy!”
The story opened the only way it could, if Giordano wanted to return the Black Knights to their roots---by wiping G.E.O.R.G.E. off the face of the Earth. Literally. By page two, the secret G.E.O.R.G.E. installation outside of Washington, D.C., along with all of its personnel---including, presumably (and hopefully), Mr. Delta---was blown sky-high by thermite bombs. The Blackhawks, vacationing, discover this when Chuck is unable to raise the super-secret spy agency on its private radio channel. They rush back to Washington.
Standing with his men before the smoking crater that was once G.E.O.R.G.E. headquarters, Blackhawk speaks the words that fans fervently desired to hear: “ . . . Our New Era costumes were wiped out with G.E.O.R.G.E.! Hail and farewell, Leaper, Golden Centurion, M’sieu Machine, Weapons Master, and all the rest!”
From film found in a motion-picture camera deliberately left behind, the Blackhawks discover that the hand responsible for the destruction of G.E.O.R.G.E. is a terrorist group known as “Those United for Destruction”. The on-camera spokesman is their leader, a man wearing an iron mask and a sabre in place of a right arm---Black Mask!
Black Mask issues a challenge to the Black Knights, who respond by reporting to a government storage depot where they dig their old leather uniforms out of mothballs. “Okay, team,” declares Blackhawk, “we’re back where we started a thousand adventures ago. Let’s show this Black Mask what the Blackhawks are made of . . . .”
The action kicks into high gear at this point. It starts with a man-to-man confrontation between Blackhawk and Black Mask---which brings a stunning revelation. It ends with the Black Knights having to assault their old headquarters, Blackhawk Island---not seen since Blackhawk # 229 (Feb., 1967)---and meet Those United for Destruction in full combat.
The story is pure old-style Blackhawk. In the climactic confrontation with the terrorists, the team is loaded for bear. They bring sub-machine guns, hand grenades, commando knives, and their standard .45’s, and they use them, too. Lethal stakes were set when G.E.O.R.G.E. was blasted off the face of the earth, and this sense of deadly warfare maintains throughout the story. This is no traditional comic-book battle, where nobody dies. Though only a few pages long, and most of them spent fighting the War Wheel, when the Blackhawks finally clash with the terrorist band, it is pitched and bloody, indeed.
In that, Wolfman and Haney’s story was successful in evoking the flavour of the World War II Blackhawk stories. While it can be presumed that Wolfman provided the basic plot developments and Haney smoothed the transitions, it is difficult to pinpoint where one writer left off and the other took over. One notable distinction was the dialogue. While it was not quite a piquant as Arnold Drake’s, it was sharper than what had come since Drake.
If a die-hard Blackhawk fan had any complaint about “My Brother---My Enemy!” (and it is hard to conceive that there could be anyone displeased over dropping the super-hero Blackhawks), it was that Blackhawk was given yet a third origin, one that had no connexion to either of the two earlier ones.
As Wolfman (and I have to believe it was his doing) would have it, Blackhawk, before becoming Blackhawk, was Bart Hawk, a pilot in the U.S. Army-Air Forces during World War II. Hawk and his younger brother, Jack, also a flyer in the same squadron, are assigned to pilot drones loaded with T.N.T., aim them at Nazi heavy water factory, and bail out before detonation. As they near the factory, the bombers ferrying the drones come under heavy attack from Luftwaffe fighters. The bomber carrying Jack’s drone releases it early and it distracts the German fighter planes.
Bart Hawk’s drone is released on target, and he bails out as the explosive-laden ship scores a direct hit on the factory. His kid brother’s ship, however, is riddled to pieces. Upon returning to base, Bart finds out from the commanding general that using Jack’s drone as a decoy was the plan all along, and this was deliberately kept from Bart. Enraged, Bart quits the A.A.F. and forms the Blackhawks.
I have a couple of problems with this version of Blackhawk’s origin---apart from the big one in that it completely contradicts what the readers had been told before. First, a serviceman didn’t just “quit” the Army during World War II. “The duration plus six months” was in effect, and if Bart had declared his intention to leave the service, he would have been clamped in irons and sent to court-martial.
Second, I’ve never been comfortable with giving Blackhawk a real name. Never revealing his real name was one of those conceits that added to his mystique, much in the same way that the Phantom’s face was never openly revealed.
Once one got past the shock of not seeing Dillin and Cuidera draw Blackhawk, it wasn’t that difficult to adjust to Pat Boyette’s artwork. Though less detailed, Boyette shared with Bruno Premiani a strong sense of realistic composition (though, like Premiani, Boyette’s action scenes looked a bit static). In addition, Boyette brought a cinematic flair to his panel composition.
On the debit side of the ledger, Boyette did not devote a great deal of effort in distinguishing the individual Blackhawks’ faces, something Dillin did, even in his roughest work. Hair colour was pretty much the only way the reader could pick one Boyette Blackhawk out from another, and that was not the easiest of observations, given that, most of the time, the Black Knights wore hats. Blackhawk himself was the only character to get any real “face” time, and Boyette had a tendency to make him resemble actor Jack Lord.
No doubt part of the reason for the lack of distinction in the Blackhawks’ faces came from the fact that Boyette’s inking on Blackhawk # 242 is noticeably muddy, probably because it was a rush effort. But the heavy blacks obscured detail.
Despite the criticisms, there was no doubt that this was the finest Blackhawk story seen in years, at least as far as the old-time fans were concerned. Once again, the Magnificent 7 were behaving like the grizzled WWII vets they were, displaying confidence gained through experience. Added to this was an undercurrent of emotional drama, both in the utter destruction of G.E.O.R.G.E. and in the true identity of Black Mask. Best of all, there were no science-fiction elements at all. This was real-world adventure.
And, if anything, the story that appeared in what would be the last Silver-Age issue of Blackhawk was even better.
“Mission Incredible”, from Blackhawk # 243 (Oct.-Nov., 1968) is one of my favourite “hidden gem” tales. Following on the heels of their victory over Black Mask, the Blackhawks receive a request from the U.S. government to rescue a little girl from a Soviet prison and bring her to the safety of the West. What makes this girl, Anya, so important is that her scientist father was killed by the Soviets, rather than reveal to them the formula for his latest discovery. Before his death, he taught Anya the formula and instructed her to reveal it to no-one but Blackhawk.
Instead of launching a full-force assault on the Soviet prison, Blackhawk puts together a plan in which each member of the team, working individually, rescues the little girl and relays her from one Blackhawk to another, across Europe and, ultimately, to America. After “Uncle” Hendrickson frees Anya from the prison, she is handed off to “Uncle” Stan in the Alps, and from there to “Uncle” André in Turkey, to “Uncle” Chop-Chop in Venice, to “Uncle” Olaf on board a tramp steamer, to “Uncle” Chuck in London, and finally, to Blackhawk, in the middle of the Atlantic aboard the team’s mini-sub. All the while, each Black Knight has to outwit K.G.B. agents hot on the girl’s trail.
Four years earlier, Bob Haney wrote the exceptional "Origin of Chop-Chop" tale. Here again, he really delivers a top-drawer Blackhawk effort. The plot divides the story into vignettes, affording each team member a chance to shine. As to be expected, each Blackhawk relies on his special talents, but unlike earlier tales, this isn’t the sole emphasis to distinguish them in solo action.
Haney grafts identifiable personalities onto the individual Blackhawks. Hendrickson is avuncular, even in the heat of fighting off the Soviet soldiers. Stan, armed only with a knife, stoically kills an attacking bear, his great strength treated as a given. Chuck is serious-minded and easily irritated by setbacks in carrying out his leg of the mission. And while the other Blackhawks experience physical hardship in carrying out their assignments, André is found enjoying the lap of luxury in Turkey, by suavely posing as an army general.
But it’s Haney’s dialogue which really makes these sequences ring. The Blackhawks talk like men accustomed to being in harm’s way, with casual directness and wry commentary. Also in evidence are small inside references that any group of men who had worked together for so long would share. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Arnold Drake wrote it.
Even the little girl, Anya, gets her share of good lines. Serving as something of a Greek chorus, she voices her observations without cutesy kiddie talk or the wiseacre sarcasm of television moppets. She’s a perfectly natural little girl thrust into a bizarre situation.
As for the art, all of Pat Boyette’s strengths are in evidence, but the muddiness that marred his inking on the previous issue is not. The lines are strong and the blacks subdued. This time, the individual Black Knights have clearly distinguishable features.
Dick Giordano’s success at returning the Magnificent 7 to their basics makes it an especial pity that the cancellation of the title was a done deal. The two issues under his leadership were easily the best Blackhawk stories to see print since their Quality Comics days, even eclipsing Boltinoff and Drake’s brief shining moment.
At least, the Blackhawks could once again hold their heads high as they made that final flight from the Silver Age to comic-book limbo.