By Dick Dillin, Chuck Cuidera, Jack Kirby, Sheldon Moldoff, George Roussos, Mort Meskin, Nick Cardy, Frank Frazetta, Bill Ely, Bob Brown & various (Strato Publications)
Here’s another long-lost oddity of the eccentric and exotic British comics market that might be of passing interest to curio collectors and unrepentant comics nerds like me.
The early days of the American comicbook industry were awash with both opportunity and talent and those factors happily coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment.
The new medium of comicbooks had no acknowledged fans or collectors; only a large, transient market open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling – a situation which publishers believed maintained right up to the middle of the 1960s. Thus, in 1940 even though America was loudly, proudly isolationist and more than a year away from any active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (“Busy”) Arnold felt Americans were ready for a themed anthology title Military Comics.
Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.
Military #1 launched at the end of May 1941 (with an August cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Death Patrol by Jack Cole, Miss America, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, The Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks by “Bud Ernest” (actually aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell), but none of these strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer glamour appeal of Eisner and Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by the charismatic Dark Knight of the airways known only as Blackhawk.
Chuck Cuidera, already famed for creating the original Blue Beetle for Fox, drew ‘the Origin of Blackhawk’ for the first issue, wherein a lone pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 was shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp; only to rise bloody and unbowed from his plane’s wreckage to form the World’s greatest team of airborne fighting men…
This mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine, battled on all fronts during the war and – once the embattled nations had notionally laid down their arms – stayed together to crush international crime, Communism and every threat to democracy from alien invaders to supernatural monsters, consequently becoming one of the true milestones of the US industry.
Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes before moving on and Cuidera stayed until issue #11 – although he triumphantly returned in later years. There were many melodramatic touches that made the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There was the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique, outrageous – but authentic – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base and of course their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!”
But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song (would you be more comfortable if we started calling it an international anthem?) which Blackhawk, André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they plummeted into battle. (To see the music and lyrics check out the Blackhawk Archives edition but just remember this catchy number was written for seven really tough leather-clad guys to sing while dodging bullets…
Quality adapted well to peacetime demands: superheroes Plastic Man and Doll Man lasted far longer than most of their Golden Age mystery man compatriots and rivals, whilst the rest of the company line turned to tough-guy crime, war, western, horror and racy comedy titles.
The Blackhawks soared to even greater heights, starring in their own movie serial in 1952. However the hostility of the marketplace to mature-targeted titles after the adoption of the self-censorious Comics Code was a clear sign of the times and as 1956 ended Arnold sold most of his comics properties to National Publishing Periodicals (now DC) and turned his attentions to becoming a general magazine publisher.
Most of the purchases were a huge boost to National’s portfolio, with titles such as GI Combat, Heart Throbs and Blackhawk lasting uninterrupted well into the 1970s (GI Combat survived until in 1987), whilst the unceasing draw and potential of characters such as Uncle Sam, the assorted Freedom Fighters costumed pantheon, Kid Eternity and Plastic Man have paid dividends ever since.
The “Black Knights” had also been a fixture of the British comics reprint industry since the early 1950s, with distributor-turned publisher Thorpe & Porter releasing 37 huge (68-page, whilst the US originals only boasted 36 pages) monochrome anthologies to entrance thrill-starved audiences under their Strato imprint.
This commodious British collection combines a flurry of tales featuring the Air Aces, balanced out by an assortment of mystery and science fiction tales from DC’s wide selection of weird adventure anthologies (primarily culled in this instance from September and October 1957) and kicks off with the contents of (US) Blackhawk #117 and ‘The Fantastic Mr. Freeze’ wherein the paramilitary aviators battle a chilling criminal maniac with a penchant for cold crimes before tackling smugglers masquerading as Vikings in ‘The Menace of the Dragon Boat’.
‘How Not to Enjoy a Vacation’ was seen in many places; a Public Service feature probably written by Jack Schiff and definitely illustrated by Rueben Moreira, followed by prose poser ‘I Was a Human Missile’, relating a technician’s account of when he was trapped during the test firing of a missile – and how he escaped – after which ‘The Seven Little Blackhawks’ become the targets of a ruthless mastermind exploiting their fame and reputations to plug his new movie…
Regrettably most records are lost so scripter-credits are not available (likely candidates include Ed “France” Herron, Arnold Drake, George Kashdan, Jack Miller, Bill Woolfolk, Jack Schiff and/or Dave Wood) but the art remained in the capable hands of veteran illustrators Dick Dillin & Chuck Cuidera: a team who meshed so seamlessly that they often traded roles with few any the wiser…
Moreover although broadly formulaic, the gritty cachet, exotic crime locales, Sci Fi underpinnings and international jurisdiction of the team always allowed great internal variety within the tales…
Here however the uniformed escapades pause as House of Mystery #67 (October 1957) offers the sorry saga of ‘The Wizard of Water’ – a scurvy conman who accidentally gets hold of King Neptune’s trident as drawn by Bill Ely – and, after an always-engaging ‘Science Says You’re Wrong’ page and text terror tale ‘The Mummy’s Revenge’, counts down ‘Five Days to Doom’ (illustrated by Sheldon Moldoff from House of Mystery #66, September 1957) wherein a printer discovers a seemingly-prophetic calendar and uses it to track down aliens planning to destroy Earth.
‘The Legend of the Golden Lion’ (HoM #67 again and illustrated by George Roussos) then described a Big Game Hunter’s confrontation with a leonine legend of biblical pedigree whilst from the same issue the ever-excellent Bob Brown depicted a weird science-tinged crime caper about ‘The Man Who Made Giants’ before the Blackhawks soared back into action battling ‘The Bandit with a Thousand Nets’ – yet another audacious costumed thief with a novel gimmick (from Blackhawk #118, October 1957).
That issue also provided ‘The Blackhawk Robinson Crusoes’ wherein the Pacific Ocean proved to be the real enemy when an accident marooned the Aviators as they hunted the nefarious pirate Sting Ray, followed by much-reprinted western classic ‘The Town Jesse James Couldn’t Rob’ limned by Frank Frazetta and itself a reprint from Jimmy Wakely #4.
Text feature ‘From Caveman to Classroom’ charted the history of map-making after which Blackhawk #118 continues to completion as ‘The Human Clay Pigeons’ found the entire squadron helpless targets of international assassin/spymaster the Sniper, leaving the rest of this collection to astound and amuse with more genre-specific tales such as the Roussos illustrated psychological crime thriller ‘Sinister Shadow’ from House of Mystery #66 Sept 1957.
Also in that issue is Jack Kirby’s eerie mystery of best friends turned rivals ‘The Thief of Thoughts’, Moldoff’s jungle trek chiller ‘The Bell that Tolled Danger’ and Mort Meskin & Roussos’ tragic supernatural romance ‘The Girl in the Iron Mask’.
Rounding out the collection are selections from House of Mystery #64 (July 1957) beginning with Nick Cardy’s irony-drenched riff on the curse of Midas wherein a criminal subjects himself to ‘The Golden Doom’ – pausing briefly for Jack Miller’s prose expose of mind-readers ‘A Clever Code’ (from HoM #66) and another Public Service ad with teen star Binky explaining ‘How to Make New Friends’ (Schiff & Bob Oksner) – before Bill Ely delivers a murderous revelation regarding ‘The Artist Who Painted Dreams’.
A brace of Henry Boltinoff gag pages starring ‘Professor Eureka’ and ‘Moolah the Mystic’ then segues into Bernard Baily’s macabre depiction of criminal obsession in ‘My Terrible Twin’ (HoM #64) to bring the fun to a close on a spooky high note.
These stories were produced – and reprinted here – at a pivotal moment in comics history: the last showing of broadly human-scaled action-heroes and two-fisted mystery-solvers in a marketplace increasingly filling up with gaudily clad wondermen and superwomen. The iconic blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado where a few good men with wits, firearms and an occasional trusty animal companion could overcome all odds was fading in the light of spectacular scenarios and ubiquitous alien encounters.
These are splendidly engaging tales that could beguile and amaze a whole new audience if only publishers would give them a chance. But whilst they won’t your best bet is to seek out books like this in specialist comic shops or online.
Go on; let your fingers do the hard work…
Despite there being no copyrights included in this tome, I think it’s safe to assume:
All material © 1957, 1958, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.