Showcase Presents Blackhawk volume 1

By uncredited, Dick Dillin & Chuck Cuidera (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1983-3 (TPB)

The early days of the American comic book industry were awash with both opportunity and talent, and these factors coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment. Comics had no acknowledged fans or collectors; only a large, transient clientele open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling – a situation which persisted right up to the middle of the 1960s.

Thus, even though loudly isolationist and more than six months away from active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (“Busy”) Arnold felt Americans were ready for the themed anthology title Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (with an August cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Jack Cole’s Death Patrol, 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).

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 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 stayed together to crush Communism, international crime, Communism and every threat to democracy from alien invaders to supernatural monsters – and more Communism – becoming one of the true milestones of the US industry.

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes before moving on while 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 were 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 (I am so sorry here!) Chop-Chop would sing as they plummeted into battle (to see the music and lyrics, you might check out the Blackhawk Archives edition); just remember this number was written for seven really tough leather-clad guys to sing while dodging bullets…

Quality Comics adapted well to peacetime demands: Plastic Man and Doll Man lasted far longer than most Golden Age superhero titles, whilst the rest of the line adapted into 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. In 1956 Arnold sold most of his comics properties and titles to National Publishing Periodicals (AKA DC) and set up as a general magazine publisher.

Many of the purchases were a huge boost to National’s portfolio, with titles such as GI Combat, Heart Throbs and Blackhawk running 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

Plastic Man have paid dividends ever since.

Despite the company largely turning its back on the “magnificent Seven” in recent years, these are terrific timeless tales as this commodious monochrome collection still proves. It covers the first National-emblazoned issue (#108, January 1957) through #127 (August 1958) which saw the Air Aces hit the ground running in a monthly title (at a time when Superman and Batman were only published eight times a year): almost instantly establishing themselves as a valuable draw in DC’s firmament.

Regrettably many of the records are lost so scripter-credits are not available (potential 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 & Cuidera: a team who meshed so seamlessly that they often traded roles with few any the wiser…

Moreover, although broadly formulaic, the gritty cachet of crime, B-movie Sci Fi underpinnings and international jurisdiction of the team always allowed great internal variety within the tales, so with three complete adventures per issue, this is a joyous celebration and compelling reminder of simpler yet more intriguing times.

The action begins with ‘The Threat from the Abyss’, an old-school “Commie-Stomper” yarn wherein the Magnificent Seven put paid to a sinister subsea Soviet rocket base, after which ‘Killer Shark’s Secret Weapon’ sustained the watery theme as the Blackhawks’ greatest foe returns with another outrageous mechanical masterpiece to aid his piratical schemes. Issue #108 concludes with ‘The Mutiny of the Red Sailors’, wherein a mass-defection of Russian mariners in Hong Kong proves to be a cunning scheme to destroy the then still-British colony.

‘The Avalanche King’ details the struggle against Red infiltrators in South America, ‘Blackhawk the Sorcerer!’ sees the team discover a lost outpost of Norman knights who missed the invasion of England in 1066 and ‘The Raid on Blackhawk Island’ pits the squad against their own trophies as an intruder invades their secret base, turning a host of captured super-weapons against them.

Blackhawk #110 opened with ‘The Mystery of Tigress Island’ as the doughty lads battle an all-girl team of rival international aviators; ‘The Prophet of Disaster’ proves to be no seer but simply a middle Eastern conman and ‘Duel of Giants’ sets the squad against a deranged scientist who can enlarge his body to blockbuster proportions.

‘The Menace of the Machines’ finds our heroes battling the incredible gimmicks of a Hollywood special effects wizard turned to crime, ‘The Perils of Blackie, the Wonder Bird’ features the team’s incredible feathered mascot – who cunningly turns the tables on a spy-ring which captures him – whilst ‘Trigger Craig’s Magic Carpet’ proves once again that Crime Does Not Pay, but also even ancient sorcery is no match for bold hearts and heavy machine-guns…

‘The Doomed Dogfight’ opened #112 as a Nazi ace schemes to rerun his WWII aerial duel against Blackhawk; criminal counterpart squadron ‘The Crimson Vultures’ prove no match for the Dark Knights and ‘The Eighth Blackhawk’ is shown as nothing more than a dirty traitor… or is he?

‘The Volunteers of Doom’ sees the team uncover sabotage whilst testing dangerous super-weapons for the US Government and ‘The Saboteur of Blackhawk Island’ only appears to be one of the valiant crew before ‘The Cellblock in the Sky’ has the heroes imprisoned by a disenchanted genius in floating cages – but not for long…

‘The Gladiators of Blackhawk Island’ depicts a training exercise co-opted by criminals with deadly consequences, whilst costumed criminal the Mole almost enslaves ‘20,000 Leagues Beneath the Earth’ and Blackie mutates into a ravening, uncontrollable menace in ‘The Winged Goliath’.

In ‘The Tyrant’s Return’, Nazi war criminals rally sympathisers around a new Hitler, ‘Blackie Goes Wild’ sees the gifted raptor revert to savagery but still thwart a South American revolution whilst ‘The Creature of Blackhawk Island’ reveals an extra-dimensional monster foolishly smashing through to our reality… onto the most heavily fortified military base on Earth…

As The Prisoners of the Black Palace’, the old comrades crush a criminal scheme to quartermaster the entire international underworld, before Blackhawk becomes ‘The Human Torpedo’ to eradicate a sea-going gangster but ends up in contention with a race of mermen, whilst old Hendrickson is ‘The Outcast Blackhawk’ after failing his annual requalification exams…

Blackhawk #117 began with the team tackling an apparent lost tribe of Vikings in ‘The Menace of the Dragon Boat’ before becoming targets of a ruthless mastermind in ‘The Seven Little Blackhawks’ and battling a chilling criminal maniac in ‘The Fantastic Mr. Freeze’ (no relation to the later Bat foe).

‘The Bandit with 1,000 Nets’ was yet another audacious thief with a novel gimmick, whereas the Pacific Ocean is the real enemy when an accident maroons ‘The Blackhawk Robinson Crusoes’ as they hunt the nefarious Sting Ray, after which ‘The Human Clay Pigeons’ sees the team helpless targets of international assassin and spymaster the Sniper.

A time-travel accident propels the aviators back to the old West in ‘Blackhawk vs Chief Black Hawk’, and on their return Frenchman Andre inherits a fortune to become ‘The Playboy Blackhawk’, before being kicked off the team. However, he’s happily reinstated for all-out dinosaur action in ‘The Valley of the Monsters’

‘The Challenge of the Wizard’ leads in #120, with the crew tackling an ingenious stage magician whilst a well-meaning kid makes plenty of trouble for them when he elects himself ‘The Junior Blackhawk!’. Then the sinister Professor tricks the heroes into re-enacting ‘The Perils of Ulysses’ with deadly robotic monsters.

‘Secret Weapon of the Archer’ pits the lads against a fantastic attention-seeking costumed menace, before ‘The Jinxed Blackhawk’ sees the team struggling against bad luck, superstition and a cunning criminal and ‘Siege in the Sahara’ findsthem re-enacting Beau Geste whilst rescuing hijacked atomic weapons from bandit chieftain the Tiger

‘The Movie that Backfired’ starts out as a biopic but develops into a deadly mystery when criminals make murderous alterations to the script, ‘The Sky Kites’ finds the heroes battling aerial pirate squadron The Ravens after which ‘The Day the Blackhawks Died’ sees the deadly Cobra laying a lethal trap, blithely unaware that he is the prey, not the predator…

Killer Shark resurfaces to unsuccessfully assault ‘The Underseas Gold Fort’, more leftover Nazis strive to solve a ‘Mystery on Top of the World’ involving the location of the Reich’s stolen gold and Blackhawk is ‘The Human Rocket’when thwarting an alien invasion.

In issue #124, figures from history rob at will and even the Blackhawks are implicated before the ‘Thieves with a Thousand Faces’ proved to be far from supernatural. Thereafter, ‘The Beauty and the Blackhawks’ sees shy Chuck apparently bamboozled by a sultry siren whilst ‘The Mechanical Spies from Space’ attempt to establish an Earthly beachhead but are soundly defeated by the Magnificent Seven’s unique blend of human heroism and heavy ordnance.

‘The Secrets of the Blackhawk Time Capsule’ proves an irresistible temptation for scientific super-criminal the Schemerwhilst ‘The Sunken Island!’ hides a lost Mongol civilisation in the throes of civil war and ‘The Super Blackhawk’ has an atomic accident transform the veteran leader into an all-powerful metahuman… unfortunately doing the same for the Mole and his gang too…

‘The Secret of the Glass Fort’ revisits the idea when the entire team briefly gain superpowers to battle alien invaders. The Prisoner of Zenda provides plot for ‘Hendrickson, King for a Day’, with the venerable Dutchman doubling for a missing monarch before ‘The Man Who Collected Blackhawks’ quickly learns to regret using a shrinking ray on the toughest crime-fighters in the World…

This stupendous selection climaxes with issue #127: starting with ‘Blackie – the Winged Sky Fighter’ wherein the formidable bird rescues his human comrades from an impossible death-trap, after which strongman Olaf takes centre-stage as ‘The Show-Off Blackhawk’ when a showbiz career diverts his attention from the most important things in life. The manly monochrome marvels conclude as a criminal infiltrates the squad disguised as American member Chuck: seemingly succeeds in killing the legendary leader in ‘The Ghost of Blackhawk’.

These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in comics history: the last great outpouring of broadly human-scaled action-heroes 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 a trusty animal companion could overcome all odds was fading in the light of spectacular scenarios and ubiquitous alien encounters.

For this precious moment, though, these rousing tales of the miracles that (extra)ordinary guys can accomplish are some of the early Silver Age’s finest moments. Terrific traditional all-ages entertainment and some of the best comics stories of their time, these tales are forgotten gems of their genre and I sincerely hope DC finds the time and money to continue the magic in further collections and digital rereleases.

And so will you…
© 1957, 1958, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.