In 1956, National Periodical Publications, a.k.a. DC Comics, acquired the rights to Quality Comics’ Blackhawk. The adventures of the “Magnificent 7” were still popular with the fans, even though more than ten years had passed since their heyday as World War II Nazi-fighters. So, while N.P.P. allowed most of the other Quality titles it had purchased to die quietly, keeping the Blackhawks in the air seemed to be a bankable proposition.
However, almost from the outset, National Periodical’s tinkering with a successful format would send the famed Black Knights plunging earthward.
But, before I get to that, let’s start at the beginning . . . .
For those who came in late, Blackhawk, created by Will Eisner in 1941, was a Polish-American flyer who swore vengeance on the Nazis after they killed his brother and sister in Poland. Assembling pilots from the various Allied nations, Blackhawk formed a paramilitary unit that operated independently under the collective name taken from their leader---the Blackhawks.
Blackhawk and his team of aviators debuted in Military Comics # 1 (Aug., 1941), published by Quality Comics. It quickly proved itself to be a popular series, and Quality converted its Uncle Sam Quarterly title to Blackhawk with issue # 9 (Winter, 1944). Throughout the rest of the decade, Blackhawk and his team would appear in both titles.
After working out the usual developmental bugs in the first few issues, the Blackhawks settled into a set group: André, a Frenchman; Chuck, an American; Hendrickson, a Dutchman; Olaf, a Swede; Stanislaus, a Pole; and Blackhawk himself. Also along for the ride was Chop-Chop, a Chinaman, who was drawn as a comedy-relief caricature and treated the same way in the scripts. (After DC assumed the rights to Blackhawk, the team’s wartime history was revised so that Chop-Chop did not become a member until late in the war, after the Allied efforts shifted to the Pacific.) In an echo of Doc Savage’s aides, eventually each Blackhawk was shown to possess his own speciality, in addition to flying. Hendrickson was the team’s marksman; Chuck, the communications expert; and Olaf and Stan were the strongman and the acrobat, respectively. (Curiously, in 1964, these two Blackhawks’ specialties were reversed, with Stan becoming the strongman and Olaf, the acrobat.)
“Blackhawk” stood out as an unusually sophisticated and mature series. Dark-haired, rarely smiling, and somberly handsome, Blackhawk was the Tyrone Power of the comics. While his men often displayed a heady sense of comradery and gusto for adventure, their leader was stern and no-nonsense. The Blackhawks eschewed the normal trappings of comic-book heroes. No gadgets, no gimmicks, no special powers or weapons. Their uniforms matched their no-frills approach---black leather jackets, jodhpurs, boots, and peaked caps, and, to underscore the realistic approach of the series, .45-calibre sidearms.
Ultra-realism was one of the primary reasons for the popularity of the series. The Blackhawks lived in the real world. The writers took pains to avoid the usual comic-book conventions or stunts. There were no super-menaces. The Nazi and Japanese villains that the Black Knights confronted were thoroughly evil, intelligent, and calculating, but not beyond credibility. Perhaps in recognition of the enormity represented by the Axis powers, there was a strong undercurrent of violence and fatalism in the series. Disfigurement, maiming, and death were often visited upon characters in Blackhawk stories---good guys, bad guys, innocent and guilty. Villains died and often horribly, from withering hails of lead or plunging to their doom in fiery airships.
Much as Eisner accomplished with the Spirit, Blackhawk’s world was populated by characters of situational ethics and shifting loyalties. Mercenaries, smugglers, spies, quislings. And then there were the women. Femme fatales with names like Miss Danger and Fear, who walked the shadier sides of life, except when their attraction to the dark, brooding Blackhawk drew them briefly into the light.
No small contribution to the film noir quality of “Blackhawk” was the art of Reed Crandall, who brought a cinematic realism to the series. His figures had weight and were anatomically precise. His faces had expression. Clothing had wrinkles and draped. Crandall’s action scenes had motion and fluidity. And his women had that Caniff quality of suggestiveness in the simple outthrust of a leg or hand on hip.
The Blackhawks battled the Nazis until the end of the war, then they went after fugitive war criminals. Eventually, even the Black Knights had to stop fighting World War II. Military Comics changed its name to Modern Comics, and Blackhawk switched to tackling Commies and the occasional independent would-be world conqueror.
Modern Comics was cancelled in 1950, but Blackhawk continued on, even outliving its publisher, Quality Comics, which went out of business in 1956.
National Periodical Comics bought the rights to Quality’s characters. It cancelled most of Quality’s titles, such as Plastic Man, but continued a few, like G. I. Comics and Heart Throbs. One of the survivors of the purge was Blackhawk.
Blackhawk # 108 (Jan., 1957) was the first issue to bear the DC bullet. Dick Dillin, who had taken over as the series’ artist back in late 1953, was retained, as was Chuck Cuidera, who had inked it from the beginning. Dillin’s art in those days did not have the broad, slightly chaotic, bursting-out-of-the-panels quality that his later work, such as on JLA, did. On Blackhawk, Dillin’s pencils were tight, detailed, and anatomically correct. He was able to make each of the group distinctive, even though six of them wore essentially the same outfits, by providing them clearly individual features and body styles.
The change of publisher also benefited the character of Chip-Chop. While still retaining his separate, un-Blackhawk-like costume of Oriental silks, he was no longer drawn as a hatchet-wielding caricature, with a pig-tail and oversized buck teeth. And his pidgin-speak became English in a foreign dialect, like the other non-American Blackhawks. Chop-Chop’s days of being the comedy relief were over, and he became a contributing member of the team, no less capable than any of the other Black Knights.
However, one has to take the bad with the good, and in the case of Blackhawk’s switch to National Periodical, the bad came in the form of a sea change in the direction of the plots. The ultra-realistic, ultra-violent stories were gone, as were the morally ambivalent characters and smouldering femme fatales. After all, these were the days of Frederic Wertham and the Comics Code. Even if those hadn’t been factors, National Periodical probably would have toned down the mature elements of the series. N.P.P. saw its target readership as pre-pubescent and early adolescent youths, and that was no audience for overt violence and implicit sex.
So, the Blackhawks became crime-fighters, which in itself might not have been too bad, except for the fact that they were saddled with some of the cheesiest costumed villains to come down the pike. Bad guys like the Hoopster, the Net, the Bellmaster, the Topster, and Mr. Mechano---crooks that, back in the Blackhawks’ Quality Comics days, even the comedy-relief Chop-Chop could have handled without breaking a sweat. The only truly menacing villain to appear was a hold-over from the old days---Killer Shark, who fortunately made recurring appearances.
And to heap indignity on indignity, National Periodical, which was in the throes of its science-fiction kick, kept putting the Black Knights on alien worlds and other dimensions. Scarcely an issue went by in which Blackhawk or his men didn’t undergo some fantastic transformation or acquire some temporary super-power or travel into outer space. For Blackhawk editor Jack Schiff, this was a familiar experience, since the same science-fiction elements had been imposed on the Batman stories in Batman and Detective Comics, two titles also edited by Schiff. Schiff was on record as arguing, to no avail, that such fantastic themes undermined the concept of the Batman, and my guess is he knew it didn’t fit well with the Blackhawks, either.
Another trend which Schiff had inserted into his Batman titles---either from his own inspiration or thrust upon him by the suits at N.P.P.---was to take a leaf from Mort Weisinger’s playbook on the Superman titles and create an extended Bat-family: Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Mite, and Ace, the Bat-Hound. Now, he tried the same thing with Blackhawk. Thus begat Lady Blackhawk, the Tom Thumb Blackhawk, Blackie, and Bravo.
Lady Blackhawk was Zinda Blake, a blonde aviatrix determined to join the Black Knights. Donning a version of the Blackhawk uniform, with a pleated skirt replacing the jodhpurs, she insinuated herself into a number of Blackhawk adventures until she proved herself enough for the he-man woman-haters to relent and make her an honorary member of the team. Pretty much having the same idea, Tiny Big, a circus midget, donned a scaled-down Blackhawk uniform and, as the Tom Thumb Blackhawk, joined the Magnificent 7 on two cases. Unlike Zinda though, Tiny never got an honorary membership out of it.
Blackie, a hawk, and Bravo, a chimpanzee, were brought in as the Blackhawks’ animal mascots and they helped out on several cases. Like most DC animals who took a star turn, Blackie and Bravo demonstrated intelligence far above that normally associated with their species. In fact, in one story, Blackie saved the day by typing out a warning, in English, to his masters on a typewriter.
The series, which began with seven lead characters, suddenly became very crowded, and with this army of crime-fighting characters at hand, it became even more hard to swallow when they were thwarted by the likes of the Hoopster.
The Blackhawks had become hollow shells of their former selves, and disappointed long-time fans were starting to look elsewhere. By the start of the 1960’s, the powers that be at National Periodical were doing a lot of harrumph-ing. Blackhawk needed a shot in the arm, and publishers Jack Liebowitz and Irwin Donenfeld did what they always seemed to do in such a case . . . .
They fired the editor.