By Will Eisner, Dick French, William Woolfolk, Bob Powell, Chuck Cuidera, Reed Crandall & various (DC Comics)
The early days of the American comicbook industry were awash with both opportunity and talent, and these factors beneficially coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment.
Comics had practically no fans or collectors; only a large marketplace open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling. Thus, even though America loudly proclaimed its isolationism and remained more than six months away from active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (known to all as “Busy”) Arnold felt that Americans were ready for a themed anthology title such as Military Comics.
Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.
Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (with an August off-sale or 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” (in actuality, aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell), but none of the strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner & Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by a charismatic Dark Knight known only as Blackhawk.
Chuck Cuidera – already famed for creating The Blue Beetle for Fox Publications – drew ‘The Origin of Blackhawk’ for the premiere issue, wherein a lone, magnificently skilled pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 is finally shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp.
The sadistic killer then goes on to bomb a farmhouse sheltering the defeated pilot’s family. Rising from his plane’s wreckage, the distraught pilot vows vengeance…
Two years later, with the Nazis in control of most of Europe, Von Tepp’s unassailable position is threatened by a mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine…
Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes and Cuidera stayed aboard until issue #11 – although the artist would return in later years. Many of the stories were originally untitled but have been conveniently characterized with such stirring designations as issue #2’s ‘The Coward Dies Twice’ wherein the team – “the last free men of the conquered countries” – offer a deserter from a Spitfire Squadron a chance to redeem himself…
The easy mix of patriotism, adventure and slapstick was magnified by the inclusion of Chop-Chop in ‘The Doomed Squadron’: a comedy Chinaman painful to see through modern eyes, but a stock type considered almost as mandatory as a heroic leading man in those dark days, and not just in comics.
At least this Asian man is a brave and formidable fighter both on the ground and in a plane…
‘Desert Death’ takes the team to Suez – for the first of many memorable Arabian adventures – as Nazi agitators attempt to foment revolution among the tribesmen in hopes that they will rise up and destroy the British. This tale is also notable for the introduction of a species of sexy siren beloved of Eisner and Quality Comics. Her or similar seductresses of her ilk would populate the strip until DC bought the property in 1957. Also included here is also a secret map of Blackhawk Island, mysterious base of the ebon-clad freedom fighters.
With issue #5 Dick French assumed the writing role and ‘Scavengers of Doom’ tells a biting tale of battlefield looters allied to a Nazi mastermind, united to set an inescapable trap for the heroic fliers. More importantly, French began providing distinct and discrete characters for the previously anonymous minor players.
In MC #6 the rapidly gelling team joins the frantic hunt for a germ weapon the Gestapo are desperate to possess, resulting in spectacular alpine adventure ‘The Vial of Death’, after which #7 (the first issue released after America entered World War II although the stories had not yet caught up to reality) finds the lads prowling the Mongolian Steppe on horseback to thwart ‘The Return of Genghis Khan’.
‘The Sunken Island of Death’ from #8 is a striking maritime romp wherein the warring powers battle to occupy and possess an island freshly risen from the Atlantic depths. The new-born landmass is strategically equidistant between the USA, Britain and Festung Europa (that’s what the Nazis called the enslaved stronghold they had made of mainland Europe).
Although complete in itself, the yarn is also the first of an experimental, thematic 3-part saga that stretched the way comics stories were told.
There were many marvellously melodramatic touches to make 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 – yet real – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base and their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!” But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song which André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they plunged into battle. And just to be informative and inclusive, the sheet-music and lyrics were published in this issue and are re-presented here – just remember this is written for seven really tough guys to sing while dodging bullets and weaving between bursts of flak…
Military #9 led with ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ as the unflappable team discover that a fallen comrade did not actually die in combat, but was hideously disfigured saving them, whilst the next issue’s tale – ‘Trapped in the Devil’s Oven’ – is another desert adventure focusing on the still primitive science of plastic surgery to restore said hero to full fighting trim.
Issue #11 – Cuidera’s last – saw the squadron turn their attention to Japan, as reality at last caught up with publishing schedules. Intriguingly, ‘Fury in the Philippines’ starts quietly with the entire team calmly discussing carrying on against the Nazis or switching their attentions to the Pacific Theatre of Operations, until comedy relief Chop-Chop sways the debaters with an impassioned stand.
Though inarguably an offensive stereotype visually, the Chinese warrior was often given the best lines and most memorable actions. A sneakily subversive attempt on the part of the creators (frequently from immigrant backgrounds and ethnic origins) to shake up those hide-bound societal prejudices, perhaps?
Notwithstanding, the resultant mission against the Japanese fleet is a cataclysmic Battle Royale, full of the kind of vicarious pay-back that demoralized Americans needed to see following Pearl Harbor…
‘The Curse of Xanukhara’ added fantasy elements to the gritty mix of blood and iron as the team’s hunt for a stolen codebook leads them to occupied Borneo and eventually the heart of Tokyo; a classy espionage thriller marking the start of a superlative run of thrillers illustrated by the incredible Reed Crandall.
The artist’s realistic line and the graceful poise of his work – especially on exotic femmes fatale and trustworthy girls-next-door – made his strips an absolute joy to behold.
‘Blackhawk vs. The Butcher’ (Military #13, November 1942) was written by new regular scripter Bill Woolfolk and returned the team to Nazi territory as a fleeing Countess turned the team’s attention to the most sadistic Gauleiter (Nazi regional leader in charge of a conquered territory) in the German Army.
What follows is a spectacular saga of justice and righteous vengeance, whilst ‘Tondeleyo’ reveals a different kind of thriller as an exotic siren uses her almost unholy allure to turn the entire team against each other.
Such quasi-supernatural overtones held firm in the stirring ‘Men Who Never Came Back’ – when the team travel to India to foil a Japanese plot – in a portmanteau tale narrated by the three witches Trouble, Terror and Mystery; eerily presaging the EC horror classics that would cement Crandall’s artistic reputation more than a decade later.
‘Blackhawk vs. the Fox’ pits the flight of heroes against a Nazi strategic wizard (a clear reference to the epic victories of Erwin Rommel) in the burning sands of Libya and remains one of the most authentic battle tales in the canon, before this sublime hardback volume concludes with a racy tale of vengeance and tragedy wherein Japanese traitor Yoshi uses her wiles to punish the military government of Nippon, with Blackhawk as her unwitting tool in ‘The Golden Bell of Soong-Toy!’
These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in both comics and world history, a blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado. Like the best movies of the time – Casablanca, Foreign Correspondent, Freedom Radio, Captain of the Clouds, The Day Will Dawn, The First of the Few, In Which We Serve and all the rest – with their understated, overblown way of accepting duty and loss, these rousing tales of the miracles that good men can do are some of the Golden Age’s finest moments.
In fact, these are some of the best comics stories of their time and I sincerely wish DC had proceeded with further collections.
So will you…
© 1941-1942, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.