Now we come to the part you’ve all been waiting for: the train wreck that was “the New Blackhawk Era”.
As I mentioned on the old message board, this period in the Silver-Age history of the Magnificent 7 is the easiest to critique. It’s ducks-in-a-barrel marksmanship. It’s the kind of thing that left that still leaves the fans scratching their heads and wondering---what were they thinking?
The cover of Blackhawk # 228 (Jan., 1967) is actually fairly exciting, given the presence of Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Batman. Until this issue---outside of a couple of aside references to Superman---there had never been any indication that the Blackhawks occupied the same universe as the rest of DC’s heroes. The cover scene depicts the four Justice Leaguers watching a trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing robot clobber the Black Knights. It suggested the possibility that the story within would feature a team-up between the Blackhawks and the JLA.
In the commercial sales business, this is known as “the bait and switch”. The closest the Justice League comes to teaming up with the Blackhawks is when it shows up to hand them their pink slips.
The splash panel sets the stage. The four JLA members from the cover are conferring with President Johnson in the Oval Office. “ . . . It’s a fact, sir,” says the Batman grimly. “The Blackhawks are washed-up has-beens, out-of-date antiques, a danger to national security! To put it bluntly . . . they just don’t swing!” (Geez, Bat-guy, don’t hold back. Go ahead and say what you really think.)
LBJ responds, “I agree, Batman . . . against the evil forces our country---the whole world---faces today---our fighting teams have got to be rough, ruthless, and totally modern! But I’m taking steps to correct that right now!”
Although having been successful in hundreds of previous adventures over the past twenty-five years, suddenly the Blackhawks are deemed "junk-heap heroes", incompetent and inadequate to handle the threats of the modern age. President Johnson himself was threatening to shut down the Black Knights' operation---unless the Magnificent 7 could prove that they had what it took to function in the modern era.
"What it took" was super-hero costumes and powers, ill-conceived though they were. The Swedish Blackhawk, Olaf, became the Leaper, whose super-power was the ability to jump real high. Chop-Chop, the Blackhawk who had always seemed to suffer the most conceptual problems, became a swinging Oriental in white tie and tails whose karate skills were enhanced by a pair of beryllium gloves. He went by the new super-hero name of Doctor Hands. Hendrickson was now the Weapons Master; André, M’sieu Machine; and Stanislaus, the Golden Centurion. And Chuck---poor Chuck---was stuck with navy-blue pyjamas festooned with pink sigils shaped like tiny ears and the cognomen of the Listener.
As for the top man himself, Blackhawk eschewed donning a new costume, but he took on a new code name, that of the Big Eye. (“The Big Eye” = “the Big Guy”. Get it ?) But he didn’t use it all that often, and was pretty much still called “Blackhawk”.
Then, the new super-hero Blackhawks were assigned to one of the innumerable "super-secret spy agencies" known by their initials, which were in vogue at the time. In this case, it was "G.E.O.R.G.E."*, and they took their orders from a character named Mr. Delta, who looked like their old U.N. contact, Mr. Cipher, in that he wore a blank film of plastic over his features. Delta was one of those antagonistic bosses, constantly riding the team. He spared no insult when the Blackhawks suffered a setback and grudgingly bit his tongue when they came through at the end. My guess is Delta kept his face hidden to keep his own people from gunning him down on the street.
As if Blackhawk didn’t have enough on his plate, trying to keep Mr. Delta and LBJ happy, that inaugural arc of issues also brought back Lady Blackhawk, still in her villainous Queen Killer Shark persona. Kashdan and writer Bob Haney were determined to tie up any loose ends from the Old Blackhawk Era, though. In the span of two pages, Zinda’s true personality was restored in that tried-and-true sitcom fashion of getting conked on the noggin. Ars gratia Gilligan.
Oh, dear . . . oh, dear . . . .
In this case, I do know what they were thinking, or can, at least, make a pretty good guess. The Blackhawk series was nose-diving, and editor George Kashdan decided that catering to modern fads was the way to go.
In 1964, the nation had been gripped in a "spy craze", based on the wild popularity of Sean Connery's James Bond films and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV show. Then, in 1966, the Batman television series inspired a surge of popularity in super-heroes. Saturday morning cartoons were full of them and new publishers of super-hero comics popped up (and then collapsed) almost on a daily basis. Even the characters of Archie took their turns as costumed super-heroes. These were the two bandwagons upon which DC decided to jump in order to bail out Blackhawk.
Thus begat the New Blackhawk Era.
It turned out to be a four-colour, multi-page version of “Find What’s Wrong with This Picture.” And there was plenty wrong.
The absurdities of this format should have been apparent.
• Even with flagging sales, the Blackhawks’ favour with the readers lied in the vestiges of their original conception---tough, war-hardened aviators facing dangers with nothing but wits, courage, and experience. Making them "hip, now" super-heroes eradicated whatever was left of that cachet.
• The timing was off. By the time the new super-hero-cum-spy Blackhawks were unveiled---1967---the spy craze in America had evapourated and the super-hero craze had peaked and was now on the way out.
• The spy genre---with its emphasis on clandestine operation and secrecy---just didn't blend with the fanfare of super-heroics. New Blackhawk Era stories tried to merge these two disparate themes with predictable results. The ludicrousness of sending the team on secret, behind-the-scenes missions and then, at the first sign of trouble, openly operate with flashy powers and costumes was impossible to get by.
Other things rubbed Blackhawk fans raw. Despite Arnold Drake’s revised origin of the Blackhawks, back in issue # 198, one of the principal premises of the Blackhawks was that they were an independent outfit. They may have worked with government agencies, but they didn’t work for any. Even in their two United Nations-assigned missions, Mr. Cipher had to ask for the Black Knights’ help.
So where, thought the fans, did the U.S. government get off telling the Blackhawks if they could operate? The old Quality Comics’ Blackhawks would have drop-kicked the browbeating Mr. Delta over the roof of G.E.O.R.G.E. headquarters, then jetted off to Blackhawk Island with a hearty “Hawkk-aaaaaaaaaaa!!!”
Often, exceptional art on a series overcomes a multitude of sins. The crisp, detailed artwork of Curt Swan and George Klein made the most absurd Jimmy Olsen story somehow palatable. But there was no such rescue here.
Dick Dillin’s art grew even looser, more chaotic, than before. Characters hunched over awkwardly. Facial details became little more than dots, lines, and squiggles; hair, blobs of black, blond, or red. Arms, legs, and entire figures were constantly flying out of panel borders. What little detail Dillin did provide, Chuck Cuidera wiped out with his increasingly heavy-handed inks. His shading on the Blackhawks’ faces made them look like they were wearing commando paint.
In fairness, the sloppier art probably wasn’t completely attributable to a decline in the artists’ skills. Two factors were influencing the art in all DC comics at the time.
First, in the late summer of 1965, DC changed its art standards. Original art was no longer done twice the size of the printed book, but only one-and-a-half times the size. This saved on production costs, but it resulted in a loss of art detail. The change was phased in over the last months of ’65, but Blackhawk was one of the first titles to get this treatment. (One way to tell whether a comic was drawn before or after the change is to look at the top of each page. If the book title and DC bullet appears, the art was done twice up; if not, it was 1.5.)
Second, National Periodical executives and editors were still coming to grips with the fact that Marvel Comics were gaining in popularity, and for the lives of them, they couldn’t figure out why. Since the dawn of comic books, DC had held the reputation as the Tiffany of the industry. As Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs related in The Comic Book Heroes (Prima Publishing, 1997):
“What’s Marvel doing right?” became the question of the year at editorial meetings. An apocryphal anecdote has it that production manager Sol Harrison once answered “Bad art,” . . . . To them, Kirby was rough and out of control, and the newer Marvel artists like John Romita were just second-stringers they didn’t need.
Since it was inconceivable to National’s Powers That Be that there were any good Marvel artists, then only thing left for them to conclude was that the current generation of comic-book fans preferred bad art. Thus, DC artists were ordered to “rough up” their work, to pay less attention to anatomical precision and background detail.
Nevertheless, I suspect that part of the reason for the artistic decline in Dillin and Cuidera’s Blackhawk output was a loss of interest, or perhaps outright dissatisfaction, in the direction the series had taken. If so, they probably found it easier to “rough up” their artwork.
Kashdan and Haney pulled out the stops, going as far as to saddle some of the team with handicaps that never before had been seen, but logically would have been. Hendy was blind in one eye; André had a phobia of females; and Stan was a dumb ox who could not feel physical pain. All of this sprung out of nowhere and came across as an effort to copy Marvel’s “heroes with flaws” approach.
More painful was the “swinging, with-it” dialogue given to the Blackhawks. It was the same kind of lingo given to the Teen Titans over in their title, which is not surprising since scripter Bob Haney also wrote Teen Titans. Haney’s tin ear for teen-age slang was bad enough, but when coming from the mouths of World War II veterans, it made the Blackhawks sound like ageing beatniks from a Beach Party movie.
The “What the hell---?” moments kept piling up. Instead of bivouacking at their longtime secret headquarters of Blackhawk Island---which one would think would make an ideal base for a group of shadowy operatives---the Black Knights now functioned out of the “Hawk-Kite”, a mammoth dirigible boasting a hawk motif with twin heads. Anytime the heroes wanted to disembark, the airship had to descend to the ground.
“Now there’s something you don’t see every day, Chauncey.”
“What’s that, Edgar?”
“A giant two-headed hawk balloon with a bunch of guys in crazy costumes coming out of it.”
“Hmmph! They must be secret agents.”
It was all so pitifully embarrassing---the exaggerated spy business, the hammy villains, the faux hipness, and the insertion of camp elements, inspired by the Batman television show. Seeing these distinguished war vets gallivanting in bargain-basement super-hero identities and speaking in slang that would make Snapper Carr cringe was more than the remaining fans could bear.
The New Blackhawk Era stumbled along for a year and a half, from issue # 228 (Jan., 1967) to # 241 (Jun.-Jul., 1968). Some readers hung around for awhile, more out of morbid curiosity than anything else, but most couldn’t stomach it for long. Blackhawk sales were not just floundering, now; they were foundering. DC had had enough, as well, and it cancelled the title.
But, like the character it took its name from, Blackhawk was not about to give up without one last, desperate effort.
* G.E.O.R.G.E.: Group for Extermination of Organizations of Revenge, Greed, and Evil -- CDR B