Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blackhawk Wingsdays: Tales of the Blackhawk Emblem!

A few weeks ago, I covered the lead story in Blackhawk 191(Dec. 1963), in which the Blackhawks fight the pantsless menace, the Molecule Man. As that issue's cover advertises "Two Big Stories," I would be remiss if I didn't finish out the entire issue. In addition, as the final Blackhawk Wingsday of 2009, this story shows exactly how Blackhawk would have dealt with one of the biggest news events of the year. It's an adventure ripped from the headlines 46 years in the future!

This story is actually a collection of three different Blackhawk adventures, all told from the point-of-view of both witnesses and participants in those adventures. These stories are ostensibly linked together by one particular element, as we can see by the story's title:

The caption on the splash page utilizes one of the most worn out strategies that I see in freshman composition papers every semester: the rhetorical question, "Have you ever thought of...." And, as in those cases, the answer to the question here is, "No." I have never thought about what the Blackhawk insignia stands for because it's an image of a black hawk. It seems pretty goddam obvious.

But not to some guy named Yates, who has just written a giant coffee table book with this title. Yates went around the country asking people what the Blackhawk emblem meant to them, and from those people who didn't chase him off with a shotgun or verbally abuse them, he managed to get enough material to make a book. Man, they will make a book out of anything.

We learn of the existence of this book after a traumatic newstory grips the nation: the Blackhawks have disappeared! Not all the Blackhawks are gone, however, as we see Zinda, the Lady Blackhawk, arrive at the local airport to announce that she's going to commence a search for her missing teammates. There, she's accosted by Yates, who asks her to check on the copy of his book that he gave the team, because clearly she has nothing better to do than to look for this guy's book.

Zinda returns to Blackhawk Island, where she is met by the two other remaining team members: Bravo, the Blackhawk monkey, and Blackie, the Blackhawk black hawk. With nothing better to do, like investigate their teammates' disappearance, the three commence to reading Yates's book:

(By the way, it's been established in earlier Blackhawk stories that Blackie knows how to read. He can also spell his own name and write. I'm not sure what skills Bravo brings to the table. However, I did forget to mention last week that, when Batman goes to Blackhawk Island in the Batman Confidential story, "Blackhawk Down," he does fight Bravo's feral descendents, which is another nice touch that Royal McGraw included for Blackhawk fans.)

Yates's first story is told to him by a farmer named Bob Johnson, whose story is strikingly similar to one that gripped the nation not too long ago:

You know, when I was transfixed to my television during the whole "Balloon Boy" excitement, I constantly asked myself, "What would Blackhawk do in a situation like this?" Now, of course, we can find out for ourselves:

Of course, he would parachute out of his jet and land on top of the balloon. If only someone did this for Balloon Boy, most of us wouldn't have blown a whole day on something that turned out to be a hoax.

Blackhawk ends up rescuing the kids, and Farmer Bob concludes by explaining that the fact that his two sons are alive (and he is not in jail for reckless endangerment and child neglect) is what the Blackhawk emblem means to him. However, I'd like to point out to Farmer Bob that it wasn't the freaking Blackhawk emblem that risked its life to parachute out of a plan and land onto a moving balloon.

For the second story, Yates went to the County Correction Farm upstate to meet with Jim Dolan, who had once been a punk kid with a strong hatred for the Blackhawk emblem:

While the Blackhawks were heroes to most, they never meant shit to Jim Dolan and his friends, who probably also felt the same way about John Wayne.

When Jim and his buddies decide to take on a life of crime, their first heist--of a riverfront warehouse--is broken up by the Blackhawks. However, when Jim falls into the water and can't swim, his buddies take a powder, and it's Olaf who ends up saving the juvenile delinquent. Then, in a nice piece of irony, we find out that Jim Dolan is the coach at the correction farm, and not an inmate!

For the third story, Yates performs a prison interview with "Crafty" Craig, who may have got his nickname for his uncanny skills at knitting tea cozies and pot holders. Crafty and his gang had stolen a giant, solid gold Blackhawk emblem that had been given to the team by a "foreign nation" (i.e., Cuba), but he was quickly caught by the team. At the end of his narrative, he vows vengeance on the Blackhawks when he gets out of prison.

Setting down the book, Zinda notices that a bookmark is placed at the end of Craig's story, indicating that this is where the team stopped reading. Could there be a clue to their disappearance here?

Of course there is, because otherwise Zinda, Bravo, and Blackie would have been wasting their time reading this book while the rest of the Blackhawks may have been in mortal danger. With this realization, we then get a flashback to what happened when the Blackhawks were reading the book.

The team decides to investigate the threat made by Craig, who has recently been released from prison, by heading to the thief's island hideout. There, they all charge the gang, only to fall through a giant trap door.

If anything signifies that the Blackhawks are a shitty crimefighting team (especially when they are out of their aerial element), it's the fact that all seven of them fell through the same goddam trap door.

We then cut to the present, where Craig reveals his plan to the team, who have been his prisoners for several days:

This plan does not make any sense.

To prove that the Blackhawks were captured by a bunch of total idiots, Zinda enacts her own plan to help the team escape:

So, while she distracts the criminals by pretending to be a hawk-carrying ghost, Bravo comes in with a nail file to cut the heroes loose.

They then turn the tables on Crafty's gang, sending them down the trap door.

Zinda reveals that she defeated these idiots with three simple items found in any woman's purse (especially Joan Holloway's): face powder, a cigarette lighter, and a nail file. The irony of this story--from 1963 of course--is that the seven men were saved by the three "weakest" members of the team: a woman, a monkey, and a bird. However, the truth of the matter is that the Blackhawks suck so bad as crimefighters that they were almost killed by a gang who believed that a woman wearing face powder and carrying a cigarette lighter was a ghost. Seriously, if Crafty hadn't had the stupid plan to sit on the Blackhawks until they were declared dead, he could have killed them all and melted down their giant gold emblem, end of story. Then, the series could have been turned over to awesome stories of Lady Blackhawk, Bravo, and Blackie fighting crime.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 29: The Mightiest Haymaker of His Career!

For the final punch of 2009 (but, by no means, the final Gil Kane punch), I wanted to include something special. So, here's one of those rare and glorious moments: a full-page Gil Kane punch, from the story "Hunt for a Robin-Killer" in Detective Comics 374 (Apr. 1968; reprinted in Showcase Presents Batman Vol. 4), inked by Sid Greene.

What makes this special, however, is not just the fact that it's a full-page Gil Kane punch, but also the hyperbole of writer Gardner Fox's caption for the panel. This isn't any old punch: this is "the mightiest haymaker of his career." Now, Batman has delivered a lot of punches in his career as a crimefighter. If we try to imagine for a moment what the mightiest haymaker Batman ever threw would be like, that imaginative activity would be the superhero equivalent of trying to imagine the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin or a rock that God could create that would be too heavy for Him to lift. And who better to depict this mightiest punch than Gil Kane? (Well, maybe Jim Aparo, but that's for another series.)

But if anyone deserves to be on the receiving end of the mightiest haymaker of Batman's career, it's this guy, Jim Conders, a prize-fighter who set a trap that put Robin in the hospital. Conders then used his identical twin brother, Ed, to establish an alibi for himself and threatened to sue Batman for assault and false arrest. So, as you can imagine, this guy needed some big punching.

I hope you all have a Happy New Year. And, as Santa was kind enough to provide even more material for the Gil Kane Punch of the Week, you can rest assured that I resolve to continue providing Gil Kane Punches on into 2010!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blackhawk Wingsdays: Blackhawk Down!

Batman Confidential 36-39 featured a contemporary update for the Blackhawks in a story with the inevitable title, "Blackhawk Down," written by Royal McGraw and drawn by Marcos Marz and Luciana del Negro. Along with the recent The Brave and the Bold story and the upcoming First Wave series, it signifies a kind of mini-renaissance for Blackhawk.

This story is a bit of a mixed bag, but I ended up liking it overall, mainly because McGraw clearly did his research, and he demonstrates a particular fondness for the Mark Evanier/Dan Spiegle run from the early 80s. In particular, the villain of this story is Ted Gaynor, the 8th Blackhawk introduced late in that series as a replacement for Chop-Chop, who takes a leave in order to fight the Japanese invasion of China. As Evanier wrote him, Gaynor is a total dick, and he ends up getting ostracized and ultimately kicked off the team for some rather extreme, uncompromising views.

Gaynor, who somehow survived World War II while also remaining youthful, has devised a plan to steal new technology from Blackhawk Industries (now run by Wu Cheng's/Chop-Chop's nephew), pin the theft on the Chinese, and spark a war between the U.S. and China. As part of his investigation, Batman is led to Blackhawk's grave in Warsaw, Poland, and after being attacked by an awesome, giant, mechanical, Nazi octopus, he discovers that Blackhawk's corpse has been disinterred. At the cemetery, Batman also teams up with Lady Blackhawk, who happens to be there for her annual visit to the gravesite.

Perhaps my biggest complaint with this story is the depiction of Lady Blackhawk. First, Marcos Marz, whose art is otherwise pretty solid in this series, draws almost every image of Zinda Blake as if it were a pin-up, and he gives her a ridiculously short skirt, as can be seen on the cover of the second issue:

Also, Marz has a bit of a problem drawing facial expressions that aren't grimaces:
It looks here like Lady Blackhawk is laughing when she's supposed to be shocked and horrified.

Lady Blackhawk ends up getting captured by Gaynor, and he ends up torturing and brainwashing her to aid his cause. McGraw is working with the character's history a bit here, as Zinda spent some time in the Silver Age brainwashed by the villain Tiger Shark into serving as his Lady Tiger Shark (TS also makes a reappearance here, in mutated form, but Gaynor commands Zinda to slaughter him, which she does). So, I see why McGraw does this with the character, as it is in keeping with her continuity, but it's one of those many unfortunate aspects of Blackhawk history that may be best left in the past.

One of the things I loved about this story, though, is the little Easter eggs that McGraw throws out for the dedicated Blackhawk fan. For example, there's this exchange between Gaynor and Batman about the identity of the body buried in Blackhawk's grave:

Gaynor here refers to a Nazi double of Blackhawk who appeared in issues 266-267 of the Evanier/Spiegle run. The doppelganger was actually identified and killed by Gaynor himself during his first mission as a Blackhawk. And, in general, I like the effort McGraw makes here to fuse that early 80s run with the late 80s version of the team that spun out of Chaykin's miniseries.

Most important, though, is that McGraw gets one of the central appeals of old Blackhawk stories: the crazy, giant weapons the team had to fight. Evanier made this a significant part of his run by placing the Blackhawks up against a recurring nemesis named Professor Merson, who created the War Wheel and other bizarre machines for the Nazis. In this story, Gaynor steals from Blackhawk Island a bunch of Merson-designed weapons, including the giant mechanical octopus and a huge flying skull that becomes the villain's base of operations.

In the end, though, I have mixed feelings about the biggest revelation in this story: that Blackhawk faked his own death and is still alive, pushing the century mark and running the Blackhawk corporation from behind the scenes. First, it seems odd that Batman wouldn't have known about this, as the story establishes that Bruce Wayne is an investor in Blackhawk technology. Second, Blackhawk comes across as kind of a dick for not letting Zinda know that he's still alive. But, in general, I'm just not sure how I feel about Blackhawk being alive in current continuity. Now, I know that the Batman Confidential stories have a rather flexible relationship with continuity, so it wouldn't take much for a later writer to simply ignore this development. More problematic, though, is Blackhawk's presence in the contemporary world. The character works best in the past--in a World War II or Cold War milieu--and so, I'd rather see those stories than "Old Man Blackhawk" stories set in the present. Nonetheless, I'll be curious to see if future writers, or even McGraw himself, run with this as the new status quo.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 28: My Presence Has Been Announced!

This week's Gil Kane punch comes from Detective Comics 390 (Aug. 1969; reprinted in Showcase Presents: Robin the Boy Wonder Vol. 1), in a story titled, "Countdown to Chaos," written by Mike Friedrich and inked by Murphy Anderson.

During this period, Robin had a backup series in Detective, usually alternating with Batgirl. In this particular story, young Dick Grayson and his intrepid colleagues at the Gotham High Owl uncover some corruption involving a new school annex and a teachers' strike. The bullies that Robin takes out are really mob enforcers disguised as a gang from a rival high school, but Robin sees through their disguise due to the gang's suspicious ability to grow facial hair.

This story is pretty punch-a-rific, so you'll probably see it come up again in a future entry.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Blackhawk Wingsdays: A Blackhawk Christmas Tale!

So, I was wracking my brain the other night, trying to remember if I'd ever seen a Blackhawk Christmas story that I could use in celebration of the coming holiday. Then it dawned on me that Mark Evanier had to have written one during his early 80s run on the series. That seems like just the thing that Evanier would do.

I wasn't disappointed. While looking through the Evanier/Dan Spiegle run, I found "A Blackhawk Christmas Tale," starring Olaf, in Blackhawk 268 (Mar. 1984).

And what's even better, the story is written in rhymed verse.

Now, before I get started here, I just want to say that I think the Evanier/Spiegle issues of Blackhawk are just fantastic--probably the best thing that Evanier ever wrote, and I'm a fan of his DNAgents and Crossfire series as well. That being said, Evanier has a tendency to veer toward the sentimental, and while the sentimental can be forgiven in a Christmas story, it does lead to a problematic and overly simplified message at the end of this particular story.

Also, Evanier is not a great poet by any stretch of the imagination. He often uses a convoluted syntax to get his rhymes in the right place, and his lines don't always scan, as we can see in the first lines of the verse below:

(But I do have to applaud Evanier for rhyming "act of fate" with "a Nazi in a BF108" in an earlier stanza.)

Anyway, Olaf is shot down by a Nazi plane, and he crashlands in a snowy field, escaping the wreck with a wounded leg. The Nazi lands to ensure his kill was successful, so Olaf has to find a place to hide fast. He comes across a cabin inhabited by a Jewish family named "Meyer." The Meyers care for the wounded Swede, and Olaf then asks them how the family got to this place.

Instead of giving Olaf a simple answer, however, the father tells the entire history of the Jewish diaspora.

I don't think this really answers Olaf's question.

The Nazis, meanwhile, have trailed Olaf to the cabin, where they break in and attack the family.

Once again, though, I have to give Evanier some credit for these top-notch rhymes: wide/genocide, disabuse/Jews.

Olaf manages to escape out the back with the family, and just as they leave, a huge blizzard kicks up.

Miraculously, however, the storm parts, allowing Olaf and the family to gain freedom while the Nazis get frozen in their tracks.

Now, here's where I think Evanier's sentiment goes wrong. It's one thing to include a miracle in a Christmas story (and let's ignore for a minute that this is called "A Blackhawk Christmas Story" even though its primary subject is a Jewish family). But having God intervene to save one Jewish family during the Holocaust leads one to wonder why similar miracles weren't produced for, say, the other 6 million Jews that the Nazis did manage to kill. Not a real successful ratio.

As he heals from his leg wound, Olaf asks the Meyers to teach him about Chanukah . In turn, Olaf teaches them about Swedish Christmas traditions.

Interestingly, Olaf leaves out some of the Swedish holiday traditions that I'm familiar with from my time growing up in North Dakota: the desperate attempts to swallow the disgusting lutefisk quickly without tasting it or gagging, the emotional reservedness that would inevitably explode at the most inappropriate times during family gatherings, all of which have nothing to do with some weird Christmas elf.

And, again problematically, Evanier ends the poem with a bit of cultural equivocation that Chanukah and Christmas are basically the same thing. Even when I was a kid, I knew this wasn't true, as my Jewish friends all told me about the great gifts they got for eight nights in a row, while I had to wait (impatiently) for Christmas morning to see what Santa brought, which usually didn't total eight gifts. I know Evanier means well by sending a message of equality and love for all, and even setting aside my childhood greed and jealousy, this is a faulty sentiment that advocates ignoring the importance of cultural differences. Also, Christmas isn't even mentioned in this story until the very end.

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 27: Don't Say I Never Got You Anything Nice For Christmas!

Tonight's Gil Kane punch is an extra-special punchstravaganza just in time for Christmas. This full page of punches comes from "Batgirl's Costume Cut-Ups" in Detective Comics 371 (Jan. 1968; reprinted in Showcase Presents: Batgirl Vol. 1), written by Gardner Fox and inked by Sid Greene.

Now, I know these panels aren't exactly Christmas themed, and I've never actually seen a Christmas-themed Gil Kane punch (though I would hope one is out there somewhere), but the sheer awesomeness of these multiple punches makes this the punch-equivalent of a Christmas present.

And Detective 371 is the gift that keeps on giving, as there are several excellent punches sprinkled throughout the issue. I'm sure you'll be seeing it come back again in the near future.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Blackhawk Wingsdays: The Menace of the Molecule Man!

Unfortunately, I was unable to post a new Blackhawk Wingsday last week, and today's entry is coming in late, so most readers won't get to see it until Thursday. So, I apologize for the lateness, but to make up for it, I've picked a story that I'm sure will not disappoint readers: "The Menace of the Molecule Man!" from Blackhawk 191 (Dec. 1963):

As I've mentioned before, other than Tiger Shark and a couple of mad scientists, the Blackhawks never had much of a rogues gallery, and Molecule Man provides a good illustration as to why that was the case. For one, their villains suck. To be more specific, they have sucky powers, and they wear stupid costumes that would make most real superheroes just laugh and walk away, shaking their heads at the villain's ridiculousness. The Blackhawks, however, are not exactly picky about the criminals they fight, so they usually get stuck with the bottom of the bad-guy barrel.

The story opens with Blackhawk, Olaf, and Hendrickson enjoying some R&R while taking in the lastest sci-fi epic, "Space Pilot," a film Blackhawk declares is "top notch":

Just as they are leaving the theater, however, they hear an alarm, which leads these crimefighters to a strange sight: a bank that has been molecularly disassembled and mysteriously pulled through the air.

The Blackhawks give chase in their command car, but that vehicle is suddenly struck by the same molecular ray, the physics of which don't really make sense.

The story then cuts to the Molecule Man and his gang, who have re-assembled the bank at their hideout, where they can cut open the vault at their leisure. One gang member, however, points out that it would have been much easier if Molecule Man could have used his ray on the bank president, who could then provide them with the vault's combination. Molecule Man points out that he is working on this very problem.

As days pass, the Blackhawks try to anticipate Molecule Man's next move. In order to cover as much ground as possible, they split into two teams: Blackhawk, Stan, and Chuck at the municipal museum to protect a priceless painting (though not, this time, of Blackhawk), and Andre, Hendrickson, Olaf, and Chop-Chop (otherwise known as "the scrubs") at the airport watching out for the latest shipment of government bullion.

I think Blackhawk was just looking for an excuse to spend the day at the museum, because of the two choices, the airport seems the most obvious target. And that turns out to be the case, as Molecule Man makes his move there:

Molecule Man's disguise here--hat, jacket, but no pants--is the definition of half-assing it, and this alone proves why Blackhawk villains suck. But to be fair, the eagle-eyed Blackhawks did not spot the guy wearing a hat over a mask and no pants as he quickly approached the gold.

The Black Knights give chase and pile on to the Molecule Man's escaping plane. Here, we get a fun statistic about the Blackhawks:

So, collectively, Olaf, Hendrickson, Andre, and Chop-Chop weigh 700 pounds. Let's try to break this down. I put Olaf at a solid deuce. Hendrickson is no lightweight, but with his height, I'd guess him to be 180-190. Andre weighs in at a svelte 160-170. That puts Chop-Chop at under 150, which makes sense.

Whatever the case, 700 pounds of solid international adventurers is too much for the tiny plane, and it crashes before it can even take off. Molecule Man and his gang then run off to a nearby waterfall, where the villain enacts an ingenious escape plan: he uses his molecule gun to solidify the water.

The boys try to give chase, but they end up all wet.

And, as we can see in the above panel, we get yet another quality control issue in the coloring, one that seems to plague this series: the colorist has given Olaf dark hair instead of his usual Scandinavian blond locks, which shows that no one in editorial or production at DC was really paying attention to this comic.

Several more days go by, and the Blackhawks investigate another crime: the mysterious disappearance of a cattle herd. Is there no crime outside the Blackhawks' purview?

But because there can only be one criminal in operation at a given time, Blackhawks quickly draw the conclusion that Molecule Man is behind this high-tech cattle rustling, which also leads to the conclusion that Molecule Man has figured out how to break down and transport living creatures.

Molecule Man now decides to get into a new line of work: blackmail. He calls up a major movie studio and threatens to kidnap their multi-million dollar star, Tab Tyler. The mogul calls the police, who really don't want to be bothered with this crap, so they call on the Blackhawks, who aren't doing anything important, anyway.

On the set of Tab Tyler's latest film, Molecule Man makes good his threat:

But when Blackhawk charges forward, while the other team members sit back and watch, the fearless leader has his molecular structure shattered by the villain's weapon.

This leaves the team leaderless, but they miraculously manage to defeat the villain on their own. First, Chuck was disguised as Tyler all along, so it was he who was transported to the villain's lair. Then, the other Blackhawks break in and beat the villains up in their sleep. With the molecule gun in their possession, they return to the movie studio and re-materialize Blackhawk, ending the adventure with Andre promising to destroy the machine.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 26: Jump Him...All Together!

Here at Spec Headquarters, we have all our DC Showcase volumes specially flagged for Gil Kane punches: each book that contains Kane's art has relevant punches indicated by a sticky note. I mention this because, for today's punch, I decided to do a little experiment, where I pulled Showcase Presents Green Lantern vol. 4 off the shelf and randomly opened to a particular punch. Here is the result:

This punch comes from Green Lantern 71 (Sept. 1969), in a story titled "The City that Died," written by John Broome and inked by Joe Giella.

In the story, Green Lantern is mysteriously losing the power in his ring, but he has no problem taking out these crooks with plain-old fisticuffs. GL's word baloon is a little cut off in the gutter, but Hal nicely insults the thugs' body odor as he takes them all down with one punch.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 25: It's Growed Onto My Skin!

This week's punch comes from the "Outlaw" feature that ran in DC's All-Star Western between 1970 and 1971. The series was written by Bob Kanigher (and later by John Albano) and drawn by some great artists, including Tony DeZuniga, Jim Aparo, and Gil Kane. This particular punch comes from "Death Deals the Cards!" originally published in All-Star Western 3 (Dec. 1970-Jan. 1971) and reprinted in Showcase Presents Jonah Hex.

The second punch here is a variation on Kane's normal combination, but I like how he changes the camera angle in the transition between the panels, giving the reader a kind of "punch/reverse-punch" combination.