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.