HERO HISTORY: The Junk-Heap Heroes!

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Or – “Why ‘New And Different’ Doesn’t Always Equal ‘Better.’ “

Comic books as an art form have been around for over a century now, and many of the characters we read about regularly have been doing their thing for three-quarters of a century.  During those years, many revamps, relaunches and rejiggers have taken place to try and keep the characters relevant.  Batman has gone from gun-toting vigilante to square-jawed smiling sentinel to dark night detective to father-figures, while Superman’s power levels have been up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers.  In retrospect, it’s clear lot of those re-imaginings haven’t taken root at all: Witness Stephen Strange’s early-70’s run as a masked superhero in light-blue tights, or the controversial ‘New X-Men’ run under Grant Morrison or my own beloved Five-Year-Gap grown-up Legion of Super-Heroes.  For all those (arguable) misfires, though, none has been as lambasted as today’s Hero History entrants.  Seldom have characters been taken so far from their origins and comfort zones, and seldom have the results been so ridiculous.  Still, as a connoisseur of questionable comics, I have to admit there’s a lot of joie de vivre and fun to be had (as well as fun to be made) if you can get past the goofiness of the surface.  This, then, is your Hero History of Andre Blanc-Dumont of France; Olaf Bjornson of Sweden and/or possibly Norway; Chuck Wilson of Texas; Hans Hendrickson of the Netherlands; Stanislaus (first name unknown) of Poland; Liu Hang and/or possibly Wu Cheng of China; Zinda Blake of the United States, and their mysterious leader who may or may not be Bart Hawk:  THE BLACKHAWKS (VERSION 2.0!)

Blackhawk and his men originally appeared in Military Comics #1, from Quality Comics in 1941.  As with many protagonists of the time, they were simple two-fisted tough guys, gathered together in a flying squadron reminiscent of the French Foreign Legion.  In their very first appearance, it is clear that Blackhawk is not a man to mess with (or is that with which to mess?)

Though their lineup varied a bit in the Golden Age, and only ‘Hawk himself is named in Military #1, the team eventually settled into a seven-man configuration, with Blackhawk as the leader, Andre as the ladies’ man, Olaf the numskull, Hendy the irascible veteran, Chuck the fresh-face American kid, Stan the muscle and Chop-Chop the sadly inevitable racist sidekick.  The team got their own comic which outlived WWII, the Korean conflict and lasted into the Cold War, and the characters didn’t really change much in the ensuing 30 years…

Of course, Quality folded their tent in the fifties, and the ‘Hawks adventures crossed the street to be published by DC Comics in a rare case of a book outlasting it’s publishing house.  By the late 60’s, though, several things had happened.  Superheroes were taking over all aspects of comics, choking out the funny animals, westerns, historicals and war books.  The Batman TV show was making ‘camp’ popular, while public opinion wasn’t as supporting of the current overseas conflict as back in ’42.  Combine these elements, and you get the shocking opening scene of Blackhawk 228, as Bruce Wayne and Lyndon Johnson deliver a particularly devastating blow to Blackhawk and his pals’ collective ego.

Man, so much for ‘The Greatest Generation,’ huh?  The Commander-In-Chief orders Agent Delta of G.E.O.R.G.E. (the Group for Extermination of Organizations of Revenge, Greed, and Evil) to put the ‘Hawks to the test.  Mocking their speech patterns, their age, their non-hipness and their haircuts, Delta sends them out on a fool’s errand, tracking a villain who doesn’t exist.  Though the heroes save one of their own (the lost Lady Blackhawk, hypnotized once more into her Queen Killer Shark persona) and find the villain, he still decides that they have failed their test.  Adding insult to injury, the core members of the JLA watched their humiliation, leaving Blackhawk understandably miffed.

Their leaders words earn the Blackhawk Squadron their chance to adapt to the ridiculousness tactics of the swingin’ 60s.  This, of course, means a fist-fight with a claw-handed robot in a slouch hat and a trenchcoat who mocks them for being old and out of step.  The ‘Hawks are quickly taken out, failing a second time, leaving an enraged Blackhawk as the last man standing…

The President and the JLA hear Blackhawk’s bravado, wondering whether or not he can really pull together a group of fiftyish World War II pilots into honest-to-Rao superheroes.  (In case you’re wondering, the answer is less inspiring than you might imagine.)

“Here we cooome…  Walkin’ down the streeeet!  Get the funniest looks from everyone we meet…  HEY HEY, WE’RE THE JUSTICE LEEEEAGUE!”  That joke right there?  That’s the reason why you’re reading this Hero History, folks.  It’s all downhill from there.  ‘Hawk begins retraining his men for the intelligence game, berating them for their failings and (somewhat inappropriately) for their accents.  Things turn ugly quickly, and the team ends up squabbling among themselves, forcing Blackhawk to use reverse psychology (because it’s the 1960’s.  Had it been 1973, he’d have outsmarted them with EST.)

The team wastes no time in leaping into the spy game, setting up secret identities and false businesses.  Hendrickson becomes the near-sighted owner of a gun shoppe, used as bait to get the attention of a villain known as ‘The Emperor.’  When the villain comes calling, he uses his technical know-how to defeat them, and calls in the encounter to another repurposed character…

“I am the Listener.  I know the SOUND of evil!  I also know the sound of the blonde upstairs with her biker boyfriend, but that’s not important now.”  It’s also nice how Chuck covered his costume tunic with big ears to go with his motif, and also identify him as a slack-jawed inbred grit-eating literalist moron.  So, he’s got that going for him…  which is nice.  Another task force of the Emperor’s men set off to find Olaf in the far away streets of Sweden, where he is from this month.  His homeland changed back an forth a few times during the team’s history, but that’s nothing compared to the changes he’s about to go through…

Olaf has, with the help of an elderly scientist, become The Leaper, whose rubber-titanium suit gives him…  well, the power you would probably expect from someone called The Leaper.  And what of Andre?  The oh-so-very-Fronchman doesn’t get a batallion of bad guys, instead being forced to try his hand against once giant strongman.

It’s a little odd that a team of seven has, in essence, TWO gadgeteers, but you kinda have to love the name “M’sieure Machine.”  Kinda.  Of course, The Emperor is just as repetitious, using that same strongman against Chop-Chop who, free of his old racial stereotypes, gets to embrace entirely new ones…

As Doctor Hands, he uses martial arts mastery and superior brain-power (plus steel gloves) to fight evil.  The five new superheroes reunite with Blackhawk (who has pretty much always been a superhero, especially in his earliest appearances) to set in motion the NEW BLACKHAWK ERA!

But, wait?  Weren’t there SEVEN Blackhawks, you ask?  Yes, indeedy-do, Faithful Spoilerite, and the best is yet to come.  (For some values of ‘best,’ anyway.)  Stanislaus has gone to Europe, armed with only his pounding fists and his head fulla rocks to confront the Emperor mano-a-mano!  Oh, and did I mention that The Emperor just got a cease-and-desist letter from one Anthony Edward Stark?

Stanislaus overpowers the Emperor and leaves him behind, heading home where his teammates have given him up for dead.  (Their logic is that Stan is a big dumb lunkhead, and obviously died.  Pretty airtight story, honestly…)  After a quick ‘heroes-misunderstanding-fighty-fighty’ (TM and Copyright Stanley Lieber, 1961) the ‘Hawks are amazed to find their missing man inside the gleaming armored suit…

The Magnificent Seven, now all reborn as mediocre superheroes with hangups, set out on their new career.  But, no group in the 1960’s is complete without one important element:  The miniskirt!

For those of you keeping tabs, this is the original Lady Blackhawk, Zinda Blake, who was later trapped in a time eddy and brought to the present as a member of the Birds of Prey.  The Blackhawks also quickly develop the repartee that defines any superteam of the 60’s, especially one written by Bob Haney…

After noting the presence of two gadgeteers on the team, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Stan and Olaf (often interchangable in their characterization) are attired in similar ugly armored suits.  The kicker, though, is that Golden Centurion’s suit isn’t just gold in COLOR…  The Emperor built the thing out of SOLID GOLD, and it’s power-bolts consist of ionized PURE GOLD.

Every time Stan shoots a bad guy, he’s spending literally thousands of dollars of what I can only assume to be American Government funding.  Having left their regular identities behind, the Blackhawks also forget nearly everything they know about battle tactics, teamwork and good sense, turning into a campy combination of Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Inferior Five.

Realizing that the Emperor was clearly targeting him, Blackhawk (aka The Big Eye) retreat from the public view, going underground.  In a giant two-headed hawk ship called the Hawk Kite.  Because that’s inconspicuous…

OH NOES!!!  WHAT CAN  IT BEEE?  Don’t fret, as The Emperor has been replaced by another armored goon with delusions of grandeur and horrible taste in headgear…

Blackhawk is seemingly killed, adding another black mark to the team’s history.  It’s odd that a group who won battles endless for 20 years can fail this spectacularly, this often, at something somewhat similar.  Also:  They say “The New Blackhawk Era” a lot, which is how you know that it’s different.

Still, they do get a few things done, as when Andre needs to recover a hidden canister of nerve gas…

…or when Hendy walks through a hail of gunfire like it was nothing…

…or even when The Leaper must escape from an ambush.

Yes, folks, they did give him a super identity based on the fact that he says “Yumpin’ Yiminy” like Wally Walrus in the old Woody Woodpecker cartoons.  Occasionally, the team even shows flashes of their old brilliance, as when Blackhawk hides the nerve gas inside a baby-doll that Stan then coats in gold…

In the era of U.N.C.L.E. and James Bond, their adventures ranged from the byzantine…

…to the ridiculous.

I also find it funny that Blackhawk always calls him The Leaper.  “Okay, The Leaper.  Go hop down to Starbucks and get me a triple latte with no foam, The Leaper.”  Oddly enough, Chop-Chop tends to get the best treatment of the New era, getting one of the least embarassing names and coming off as pretty suave overall.

By the time three or four issues of the New Blackhawk Era were released, a war of words was raging in the letters column.  For a while, the editor responded as positively as possible, but it soon became clear that even the creators weren’t fully behind the silliness of the New Blackhawk Era.  The letters became more and more vehement, while the heroes soldiered on, smothered in camp and good intentions.

It should be noted that Marvel Comics were the wave of the future circa 1968, and DC editorial had scrambled to give their own heroes the failings and foibles that they thought were part of the Marvel method, as well as snappy dialogue in an attempt to capture lightning in a bottle.  From the mouths of the Blackhawks, it came across as even less successful than usual.

Worse still, every issue seemed to end with our heroes taken out by spies, something which I’m sure was intended to give them ‘feet of clay’ like Spider-Man, but only served to make them look incompetent.

G.E.O.R.G.E. didn’t really help, as the spy agency repeatedly call our heroes on the carpet for not fulfilling their mission, or for some other offense…

Even the Blackhawks themselves don’t seem to be on board with their new super-team status, constantly berating each other and themselves!

When the team successfully captures a foreign agent named Barbarossa, I’m not sure whether he slips through their fingers or if the Magnificent Seven willfully murder him.

Weirdly, this moment is more appropriate for a squadron of pilots at war than for superheroes, in the New Blackhawk era or in any other.  The team’s old flying uniforms started making appearances again, as if the creators were testing the waters regarding whether the hero game was working at all.  In the final issue to show the Superhero Blackhawks, each was unceremoniously taken down in seconds.  The Weapons Master was dismantled…

…The Leaper grounded…

…The Listener deafened…

…Golden Centurion melted…

…Doctor Hands bound…

…and M’sieur Machine shut down.  Though the heroes eventually triumph over evil, it becomes their last stand as The Magnificent Seven.

The next issue opens with an entirely new creative team, and one of the most literal demolitions of the status quo ever, as the Blackhawks finds G.E.O.R.G.E. headquarters blown to smithereens by unknown hands, and among the items destroyed are their new costumes and identities.

The answer becomes “Who cares?” as the team quickly puts on their old black military uniforms, returns to Blackhawk Island and takes up the sticks of their old planes in a mission that leads to the first revelation of Blackhawk’s real name (in this iteration of the story, Bart Hawk.)  Soon after, the book is canceled for the first time ever, ending a run of comics that began in 1944 and outlasted all it’s competition and the comic company that spawned it.  Most telling about the Junk-Heap Heroes, they’ve never made even a cameo appearance, save for one panel in a Mark Waid-written issue of Justice League: Year One, wherein they are given the respect that they deserve…

All in all, the New Blackhawk Era was not only a bust, but a colossal failure on a scale seldom seen in comics.  Taking a 25 year old comic title in it’s wake, the Magnificent Seven are seldom referenced these days except in joking terms.  Still, there’s a lesson to be learned about being true to one’s self in these pages, and a few interesting action sequences as well.  40 years later, it’s easy to look at The Leaper, The Listener, Doctor Hands, M’siuer Machine, Golden Centurion, Weapons Master, and The Big Eye as a ham-handed attempt to connect with the youth culture, and there’s truth to that.  Even so, you have to give them credit for the attempt, and as off-beat and nonsensical as these issues are, they are as memorable a batch of comics as you’re going to find in The Silver Age.  Moreover, Blackhawk has had worse revivals **coughHowardChaykincough** in his 70 year publication history, and he’s still slugging away in the 21st Century.

I’m also thinking about getting Stephen a navy blue shirt with big pink ears on it for his 41st birthday…

**If you’ve enjoyed this Hero History, you might want to ‘Read All About It’ at your Local Major Spoilers! You can just click “Hero History” in the “Columns” section on the main page, and read about a hundred or so other guys and gals who are likewise awesome as heck. The adventures of the Blackhawk Squadron have been published by Quality Comics and DC in their history, and they still appear sporadically to this day.

Next up: “Stand back, Superman!”

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