Saturday, February 20, 2016

Blackhawk Up

Blackhawk: Blood & Iron: written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin (1987-88): Even by the late 1980's, the comic-book characters of Blackhawk had become an almost-dead pop-cultural item. Co-created by Will Eisner, Chuck Cudiera, and Bob Powell for Quality Comics in 1941, Blackhawk followed the adventures of the eponymous aviator and his international band of Nazi fighters. A flying commando unit without a country, the Blackhawks operated from Blackhawk Island. They survived the war and the end of Quality Comics, with DC Comics buying the characters in 1956.

Hot off his popular, revisionist take on pulp-hero The Shadow for DC, Howard Chaykin would take Blackhawk in a slightly different direction. There may be blowjobs and sex and violence, but the violence isn't nearly as graphic as that portrayed in The Shadow: Blood & Judgment. Chaykin seems a lot fonder of the Blackhawks than he does The Shadow.

There's certainly style galore, some of it riffing on WWII propaganda posters, period Arrow Shirt ads (I'm not kidding -- this comes with the cover to issue 3 of the original 3-issue release), Life and Time magazine, and an assortment of other Chaykin favourites. 

As perhaps the most illustrative comic-book artist to come out of the 1970's, Chaykin's influences range from N.C. Wyeth through cartoonists such as Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles and Alex Toth. Once he gained control of what he chose to draw (in part by writing it himself), no mainstream comic-book artist ever seemed so interested in stylish outfits, pressed to a razor's edge. 

Revisionism rules the day in Blackhawk: Blood & Iron, though not as brutally as in The Shadow: Blood & Judgment. Some of Blackhawk's long-time lieutenants die, but not graphically. And the book itself is concerned with the very concept of revisionism. Blackhawk wrestles throughout with the Allied war-time propaganda machine's repeated castings and re-castings of him as Iconic Hero or, briefly, Treacherous Turn-coat. Pretty much every character in the narrative, friend or foe, exists in wildly different private and public worlds. And those public worlds, those public perceptions, vary depending on who's allied with whom today for most of the main characters.

Everything follows a deceptively linear plot in which an atomic bomb stolen by gangsters for the Nazis moves towards a seemingly inevitable deployment against New York on New Year's Eve, 1942. There's a lot of globe-trotting and double-crossing and triple-crossing and possibly quadruple-crossing. There's a treacherous British actor/aviator who now works for the Nazis. There's an American pilot and flight engineer who's become a poster woman for Stalin's USSR. There's a duplicitous, publicity-seeking U.S. Senator. 

And there's Blackhawk, Polish by birth and internationalist by necessity, scrambling to secure planes and supplies for he and his men while also trying to avoid becoming too much of a media darling. Of course his name isn't really Blackhawk. No one's name seems to be stable, or at least everyone seems to have at least two. Or in the case of the book's femme fatale, about 20.

It's all as beautifully done as something this zippy and retro-poppy can possibly be. It's probably Chaykin's (barely) mainstream comic-book masterpiece. It wasn't the massive hit DC expected at the time. DC seemed to be under the mistaken impression that it would be violent, cynically calculated revisionism in the mode of The Shadow: Blood & Judgment or Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns

Instead, Blackhawk was a gleaming, witty, globe-trotting action-adventure with a heavy dose of metafictional musing on all the gaps between private and public, person and icon. That commercial shortfall means that one can generally find the three issues that form the graphic novel in comic shops for, oh, as little as $1 for all three. Seriously. Who needs graphic-novel collections? Highly recommended.

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