By the early 1960's, the Blackhawks had lost their cachet as an elite unit of World War II flyers-turned-soldiers of fortune. Realistic settings and a mature perspective had given away to adventures depicting the Black Knights as crime-fighters going up against bug-eyed monsters and lame villains-of-the-month. Under the DC bullet, Blackhawk had become “Blackhawk-Lite”. Veteran fans, who had been there in the meatier days when the series was under Quality Comics, were turning away in disappointment.
In response, the Powers That Be at National Periodical Publications fell back on a common tactic: they fired editor Jack Schiff. (Coïncidentally---or perhaps not---Schiff was fired from Blackhawk at the same time he was relieved from duty as editor of Batman and Detective Comics.) Brought in was Murray Boltinoff. As editor of the still successful Challengers of the Unknown, Boltinoff had experience in dealing with series involving non-super-powered teams of adventurers. And when Boltinoff came over to Blackhawk, he brought with him his strongest asset on Challengers---writer Arnold Drake.
Drake’s greatest strength as a writer was in his ability to convey characterisation through subtle dialogue---emphasis on “subtle”. Where many other writers would try to depict a character’s personality in broad, ham-fisted strokes (e.g., Denny O’Neil’s Green Arrow on JLA), Drake didn’t rely on such “road signs”; he simply employed the kind of lines that a particular type of person would naturally say, and let the readers draw their own conclusions.
Die-hard Blackhawk fans didn’t have to read too far into the story “A Firing Squad for Blackhawk”, from Blackhawk # 196 (May, 1964) to know things had changed.
It wasn’t the art. Long-time artists Dick Dillin and Chuck Cuidera were kept on. The caption on the splash page announced the arrival of “the new, battling Blackhawks”, but a seasoned reader might have written that off as mere hype. No, it wasn’t until he started reading the story that the fan would have realised that there was something different now about Blackhawk, and even then, that revelation would dawn slowly.
The story opens with the Magnificent 7 secretly arriving at a “mysterious building within the shadows of the United Nations,” for a conference with a representative of that agency. The man from the U.N. conceals his features behind a thin film of plastic and tells the Blackhawks to call him “Mr. Cipher”. The U.N., he explains, is requesting the Black Knights’ help.
Mr. Cipher explains that a Japanese war criminal has taken refuge in the South American country of San Lajunta and is developing nuclear-based weaponry on behalf of the dictator of that country. A secret agent managed to smuggle out photographs of the scientist’s installation and equipment before being killed by the dictator’s soldiers, but the U.N. experts are unable to identify the purpose of those machines or what San Lajunta’s ruler intends to do with them. Mr. Cipher asks the Blackhawks to parachute into San Lajunta and bring out that information.
Already, the reader could see that here is a Blackhawk plot a notch above the usual stop-the-costumed-villain-robbing-banks script. That was just the start of it. Every turn of the page brought another little spark of excitement that had been woefully missing from the series since DC had taken it over.
As the team launches on its mission, it’s the quality of Drake’s dialogue, realistic and subtly distinctive for each character, that really makes the tale sing. Suddenly, the Blackhawks seem like individuals, rather than simple cut-outs to advance the plot. They discuss, plan, and joke with each other, and it feels natural.
Beyond that, there was a sense of authenticity about the adventure. It was not too far removed from a real-world mission of a U.S. special-forces team, with only the unusual capabilities of the Japanese scientist’s inventions to add a touch of science fiction to the proceedings. Moreover, the plot possessed enough believable twists and reversals to make it seem like an episode of television’s Mission: Impossible (which wouldn’t debut for another two years). At the successful conclusion, the Blackhawks agree to do further troubleshooting for the United Nations.
In one virtuosic effort, Arnold Drake had managed to re-invest the old sense of realistic drama and solid plotting into the series. In the next issue, # 197, Drake introduced a cosmetic change---his only lasting contribution to the Blackhawk mythos.
That tale, “The War Between the Blackhawks”, kicks off when Mr. Cypher hands the team an undercover assignment. A border dispute has brought the Asiatic nations of Surbodia and Kieland on the brink of war. The Black Knights’ job is to infiltrate the mercenary armies of both countries and, working from within, disrupt their war preparations long enough for U.N. mediators to work out a peaceful solution.
In order to keep them from being recognised as the Blackhawks, the Magnificent 7 don a new uniform---olive breeches and a red, loose-sleeved tunic, stylised with an inverted black triangle across the front.
And each wears a holstered .45-caliber semi-automatic on his hip. Some things never change.
Once again, Drake served up a sophisticated plot, crammed with intrigue, and marred only by a reminder of the Black Knights’ old bug-eyed-monster days in the appearance of electrically charged “prehistoric turtles”. At the end of the story, the Blackhawks decide to keep their new uniforms permanently, accessorising them with hawk-emblem patches on the sleeves, name tapes on the left breast, and for their leader, of course, the large hawk-symbol on his chest.
Notably, for the first time, after twenty-three years, Chop-Chop wears the same uniform as his teammates.
Most Blackhawk fans criticise this change. I don't. To me, it was a logical development. The Blackhawks had always kept step with the times. Over the years, their aircraft had been upgraded---from their World War II Grumman F5F-1 prop jobs to F-84 Thunderjets to swept-wing Lockheed F-90B’s to the VTOL-capable F-105 Thunderchiefs. Moreover, the early 60’s was a time of modernism in America, and a belief that science was going to make our lives better and easier. The future was a bright and shiny place, and we were on the fast track to get there, thanks to a constant flow of scientific and technological innovations.
The Space Age may have been born in 1957, but it matured in the early ‘60’s. The comic strip “Dick Tracy” had already embraced the era, by including new scientific aspects such as magnetic air-cars, the space coupe, and upgrading Tracy’s two-way wrist-radio to a two-way wrist-television.
The black-leather jackets, jodhpurs, and caps had begun to look stodgy, a hold-over from an obsolete era. Changing their uniforms was a form of streamlining the team and was the most visual indication that the Black Knights had moved into the modern world.
Arnold Drake’s third story---in issue # 198 (Jul., 1964)---showed off his ability to write a World War II-based adventure for the team. In fact, it was the seminal Blackhawk tale: “The Origin of the Blackhawks”. The plot itself was the standard “group of individuals undergo intense training then undertake their first assignment as a team” business. But where it stood out was that it gave Drake a chance to cut loose with his ability to instil believable characterisation. As presented, each soon-to-be Blackhawk is self-assured and capable in his own right and that led to an inevitable clash of egos, with Blackhawk as the man trying to hold them all together.
Here, more than in Drake’s two previous Blackhawk stories, the situation permitted him to indulge in one of the things he was able to handle most adeptly---humour. As he had demonstrated with his Challengers stories, Drake knew how to strike just the right note with the wisecracks he put in his characters’ mouths---funny, but realistic for the circumstances and not too broad. Witness this exchange as the antagonistic Blackhawks paddle their inflatable boats ashore on their first mission:
CHUCK: “Hey, birdman---I’ll trade you a Dutchman for a Pole!”
STAN: “You shut mouth before I knock your teeth back to Brooksburg!”
ANDRÉ: “You mean Brooklyn---not “Brooksburg”, you dumb Slav!”
BLACKHAWK (resignedly): “Why are we looking for a war? We’ve got one right here!”
Drake’s account of the Black Knights’ beginnings was not seamless. While his personalities and plot development were exceptional, the devil was in the details.
While there had always been vagaries in how exactly Blackhawk had put his team together, it was fairly well established that he had formed the Blackhawks on his own, outside of any government interference. However, Drake’s story insisted that the formation of the group had been a project of the Allies, as “Operation Blackhawk”. As Drake would have it, the men who would be Blackhawks were hand-picked by the U.S. Army. (Except for Chop-Chop who, as I mentioned before, would join the team later, under different circumstances.) While it didn’t hurt the story proper, it blunted one of the group’s most distinctive edges---that they were an independent unit, beholden to no military hierarchy.
More damaging was the re-write of Blackhawk’s own origin. The original idea, from ‘way back in Military Comics # 1, was that Blackhawk had been a Polish-American who formed his own private squadron to seek revenge against the Nazis for killing his brother and sister. (Actually, he was strictly a Pole in that first story, but that quickly changed to “Polish-American” to promote reader identification.) Drake’s origin story insisted that Blackhawk had been an American flier who had served in the “famed Eagle Squadron” that defended Warsaw. After all but one of the squadron’s planes had been destroyed, the American painted that last ship black and, with Stanislaus as his co-pilot, launched a series of successful bombing raids on the Nazis, under cover of night. In admiration and respect, the Polish people called the American pilot “Blackhawk”, after his ebon-painted plane.
Actually, this do-over of Blackhawk’s personal origin wasn’t Drake’s doing. It had first appeared in a text piece on the origin of the Blackhawks that had appeared in Blackhawk # 164 (Sep., 1961). The other changes, of the Blackhawks being formed as a military project, were all Drake’s, though.
Perhaps the idea of a vengeance-driven loose cannon operating under no control but his own blood-thirsty ethics was too hard-lined for the kinder, gentler DC of the day. So it toned down the grimness of Blackhawk’s origin and placed him under a regular military command.
There was another sticky point. Drake’s origin had the first mission of the Blackhawks tied to the D-Day invasion, putting their beginning in 1944. All earlier accounts placed the team’s adventures much earlier, sometimes early enough to pre-date the United States’ official entry into the war.
Those deviations nagged Blackhawk purists; nevertheless, Drake’s stories were a return to, if not greatness, then something a whole lot closer to it than they had seen in a long time. While not the old Quality Comics Blackhawks, with their mature tales simmering with shadiness and sex, Drake’s version was much more sophisticated in terms of realistic plots and character interaction. All the stories of space aliens, fantastic monsters, and Saturday-morning-cartoon-level bad guys seemed like a bad dream.
Thanks to Murray Boltinoff and Arnold Drake, Blackhawk was standing tall, again.