Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Golden Age Hawkman Archives Vol. Review:

Collecting Flash Comics #’s 1-22.
 It’s interesting how when one looks back at the adventures of Golden Age heroes they all embody different archetypes: Superman is a messiah figure, coming from the heavens and seeking out truth as a reporter, while fighting social ills as Superman. Batman is a mystery man whose modus operandi is similar to a “masked mystery villain” from an old dark house thriller (in fact, he was inspired by a villain in just such a film). The Green Lantern is like Aladdin, a poor boy given great magical powers to change his lot in life. The Spectre is an avenging wraith. Sub Mariner is a “noble savage”. Plastic Man and Flash are trickster figures. I think you get the picture. Still these were all idealized archetypes that we can still look up to today, free of guilt.
 However, there was one golden age hero who embodied an archetype that in today’s politically correct-world, readers would find uncomfortable seeing presented in the role of hero, and who sadly, was a far more realistic example of what a wealthy adventurer during this time period would have been like: The old school imperialist, the great white hunter/scientist/adventurer. The type of character who would have no problem attacking foreigners or non-white people just because he didn’t like their looks, would go berserk at anyone who dared to challenge his wealth and power, would cause massive destruction to civilians that he would chalk up as collateral damage, treat women like dirt, and just in general do everything more for kicks than out of any genuine altruism. You could imagine this guy as the protagonist in a story by Sax Rohmer or Rudyard Kipling.
 Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Carter Hall; the original Hawkman! Carter could be just as bland and stolid as any other hero of the era, but a lot of the time he was arrogant, sadistic, racist, sexist, and just an all-around privileged jerk.
 Yet, I have not come to bury Hawkman, but to honor him. I’m not trying to blow a PC trumpet either (actually, any readers of this blog should know I’m anything but PC), rather I’m trying to point out how Hawkman embodied more than just the “winged hero” archetype, but the “privileged adventurer” archetype as well. Many golden age comics get criticized for how racist, or jingoistic their heroes’ attitudes seem, but for the most part, these “mistakes” seem to be just that; honest slip-ups, or attempts at being progressive that read as patronizing (ie. Any minority sidekicks, like Chop-Chop or Ebony). Hawkman however, showed signs of this behavior throughout nearly all of his adventures. The incredible thing was that Gardner Fox (who wrote almost all of the original Hawkman stories) seemed to intend this unpleasant characterization. He was probably just copying the various adventure fiction of the time, but at least it gave Hawkman a distinct personality among a sea of dull, one dimensional heroes.
 And it’s exactly that snobbish and brutal attitude of faux-elegance that helps these stories stand out so well. Oh, there are still plenty of obvious influences from other comics and pop-culture of the time; many of these stories read exactly like pre-Robin Batman stories (in fact, had Bill Finger never gotten involved and created “Batman”, I’m sure Gardner Fox and Sheldon Moldoff would have turned Bob Kane’s “Birdman” character into something quite like Hawkman), and Hawkman himself inarguably owes a visual debt to the Hawkmen from the Flash Gordon newspaper strip (in fact, Sheldon Moldoff, the artist for most of these stories, swipes panel poses and layouts from Flash Gordon quite a bit) but it all boils down to one of the easiest to get through of the Golden Age DC Archives. It’s utterly fascinating, both in the brutality of the stories and the obnoxiousness of the hero.
 The origin story is easily one of the best conceived of the entire era. Carter Hall is a filthy rich weapons collector who has a blackout upon receiving an ancient Egyptian knife. In the flashback, Hall finds he was once a prince named Khufu who sought to protect his love, Princess Shiera, from the evil sorcerer Hath-Set (who, naturally, being a villain and all, is the only character in this flashback who looks like a real Arab), only for both of them to be killed (by naturally, the knife that Hall received in modern times). With his dying words, Khufu cursed all three to be reincarnated, to see who the victor would be in another lifetime. Carter reawakens, and ends up meeting both Shiera (who is a society woman) and Hath-Set, who is now a mad scientist named Hastor. Carter uses a set of wings made of “ninth metal” and a hawk-costume, and adopts the identity of The Hawkman, and sets out to stop Hastor’s mad schemes. Subsequently, he goes onto fight crime, with Shiera at his side occasionally, fighting “evils of the present with the weapons of the past”.
 This first story loses quite a bit of credibility at times, such as when Carter just pulls out a Hawk costume with metal wings that allow him to fly, with no prior indication in the story that he was an inventor (just a “researcher’), as well as Gardner Fox’s hilarious misunderstanding of Egyptian mythology. Nevertheless, it’s quite an ambitious little story, combining doomed romance, reincarnation, revenge, and still having time for a showdown with a super-villain. Along with the origin of The Flash, kids who purchased that first issue of Flash Comics sure as hell got their money’s worth.
 There are lots of interesting little tidbits too, such as that in the flashback; we see that Khufu was perfectly willing to kill Shiera himself so that they could die together! Holy crap! And people complain about unhealthy relationships in comics now! I don’t know of any modern superhero origins that have resulted from what was almost a suicide pact. I also think it would have been far more fitting if the showdown between Hastor and Hawkman had involved the same knife that the story begins with. Oh well.
 The art by Dennis Neville (who draws the first three stories) is quite good, if more than a little sketchy. It has a Hal Foster-ish feel that’s perfectly appropriate. Neville isn’t always the most visually inventive of artists (the second story involves a mad scientist who has both named and patterned himself after Alexander the Great, but rather than drawing him to look like Alexander, or at least, like a Greek, Neville depicts him as a man with a huge, bald, almost phallic-shaped head, to indicate that he’s smart) but it’s still sad to see him go. The art is then taken over by Sheldon Moldoff, who despite his infamous habit of copying others, nevertheless brings a real sense of majesty to the stories, and he tries to give the reader the feeling that they are really there when Hawkman goes to visit an unusual locale. Moldoff can make a fairly mundane story about, say, a search for treasure in Colorado (where the villain’s name is John Denver!) more fun than it has any right to be.
 All in all, these stories offer quite a bit of variety, from battles with super villains, to adventures in lost lands or foreign locales, murder mysteries, typical mundane cops and robbers’ melodrama, and even the occasional horror story.
 And through it all, Carter Hall is a huge jackass, which, as I’ve said before, is what makes these stories so entertaining, although at times you really want to see the villains (or Shiera) kick his ass. My guess is he never quite got over being a prince in his past life. From what I’ve seen, this would continue throughout the Golden Age run. Some of the funnier bits of asshole-ery from Carter Hall include:
 - Flash Comics #5: Carter follows a middle-eastern man around just because he’s “one of the same sort” (aka ethnic type) as a would-be assassin that he read about in the paper. Only by sheer luck (aka plot convenience) is he right about the guy being involved. But that’s not all, he also spends this story, and the next (this is a two-parter) assisting (and flirting with) a female government agent named Ione Craig. Several issues earlier, in issue #2, it was made clear that he had become engaged to Shiera.
- Flash Comics #9: Hawkman investigates a bunch of hairy, amphibious brutes from under the sea called Kogats, which have been kidnapping surface dwellers. The visual of Hawkman swimming underwater with a diving helmet on is hilarious. He also meets up with the god Poseidon, who gives him the power to breathe underwater (!!!??). In order to permanently destroy the Kogats, Hawkman causes an undersea avalanche, and then he reckons that “plenty of boats sunk tonight as the ocean heaved, but better a few ships than the entire world”.  
-Flash Comics #10: Carter gets outbid for a Spanish blunderbuss at an auction. He considers this incentive enough to follow the guy who outbid him and break into his home as Hawkman. Yes, just because the guy outbid him. Thank god E-bay didn’t exist back then, or every bidder would have found themselves on the receiving end of Hawkman’s mace.
-Flash Comics #16: Shiera is on an archeological expedition, and they are soon set upon by a hidden tribe and slaughtered until only Shiera remains. Carter, as Hawkman, flies over to rescue her, but because his sword resembles one from their mythology, the tribe members honor him like a god, and he helps them defeat an invader. Nowhere in the story does he so much as reprimand them for, you know, slaughtering an entire expedition and traumatizing his fiancée. Treat Hawkman like a king, and you’re alright with him.
-Flash Comics #19: Carter makes Shiera a bet about the identity of a villain; if he wins she’ll have to take him out to dinner at the most expensive joint in town (which you know, he should be able to afford easily without asking her). He already knew the villain’s identity in advance. “This ought to teach you a lesson…and to stay out of my affairs” he says, after the dinner. What a dick. To be fair, it’s revealed in the last panel that he sends her a check. Awww, he really does love her…..then in the next story he mitigates it all by calling her a “meddling little idiot”, calls her that again in another story, and then contemplates letting her be injured as punishment for trying to best him at being a detective.
 So what we have here is a hero who cheats on, scrounges off of and verbally abuses his fiancée, makes judgements about people based off of their race, goes after people because they outbid him at auctions, forgives murdering savages if they all bow down to him, and causes collateral damage that exceeds what the villains were doing, even though he had a freakin’ god on his side. He also builds up a body count that rivals that of the Spectre, both for volume and sadism, like snapping people’s necks with bolas, or stabbing their necks with tridents, arrows, swords and…hey this man has a predilection for necks, doesn’t he? Even funnier, later on in the volume, Sheldon Moldoff includes a feature at the end of the story where he describes the weapons that were shown in the story in detail, in postage stamp size so the kids could cut them out.
 Oh, is it legal to have this much fun when reading about such a douchey character?
 Also, while on the subject of the violence, it’s kind of a shame that so many of the villains die, because Gardner Fox consistently thinks up some fairly interesting adversaries for Hawkman. Dr. Hastor/Hath-Set certainly has potential, as Geoff Johns later realized. In fact, the end of the story implies that Hastor would return someday (despite very clearly dying), but up until the 2000s, that never happened. Alexander the Great, from the second story, had some good archenemy potential as well, since he grudgingly seems to respect Hawkman and invites him and Shiera over for a James Bond-style dinner. Alexander’s scheme; to increase the gravitational mass of objects, such as say, the upper floors of buildings, in order to crumble them, is actually a fairly intriguing and somewhat plausible sci-fi concept. The Thought Terror, from a story which I’ve covered before, is both a powerful and visually interesting foe, with his robes and hypnosis gimmick.
 Other cool villains include Czar (a golem-like creature that achieves a Frankenstein-like pathos, and who sadly comes to one of the most brutal and merciless ends in the whole volume), a cult that worships a crocodile god, Satana; a female brain surgeon who transplants human brains into tigers (ironically, my copy of this book contains a printing error where the pages of this story are out of order), and The Hood, a mad scientist who invents a “cold light” and whose real name is Pratt Palmer! Someone at DC should bring the Hood back just so they can reveal him to be related to one of the Atoms; Al Pratt or Ray Palmer.
 Also, Shiera, oh, we need to talk about Shiera. In the first story she’s little more than a damsel in distress, but that’s okay because she is understandably confused and upset about what’s happening. Then in the second story she and Carter get on quite well, like a more bloodthirsty version of Nick & Nora Charles from The Thin Man. In the “Thought Terror” story she gets to help save the day and is shown to be quite competent without Hawkman’s help. After that her characterization is inconsistent. In that and other stories she’s a really well-written and courageous woman who only needs help from Hawkman because she’s facing some sort of fantastic menace that no ordinary person, male or female, could defeat. It’s almost revolutionary, though not quite as good as Dian Belmont’s characterization in the Sandman series. In fact, in some later Golden Age stories I’ve read, like the story which introduced Hawkman’s archenemy The Gentleman Ghost (known then simply as “The Ghost”), it was Shiera who often had to coerce Carter into action:
 Then in other stories, Shiera really does seem to be a “meddling little idiot”, and all props I can give Fox for his characterization of her goes out the window. In one of the stories, she doesn’t even seem to know that Carter is Hawkman even though she’s known since the first story! What the-! Even worse, in some stories, she is characterized as an intelligent and competent heroine, but Carter holds it against her and yells at her for it, even though she’s helped him on many dangerous cases. I’m no feminist, but jeez, no wonder modern writers have tried to play up Shiera more than Hawkman himself. At least Gardner Fox was progressive enough to later let her become Hawkgirl and join in on the action. It’s horribly inconsistent, but still, for attempting to make the love interest more than a typical Lois Lane-type, and occasionally giving her some good moments, these Hawkman stories deserve extra praise.
 So with its beautiful artwork, interesting story ideas, occasionally progressive moments for its heroine, high-level of violence, and at times thoroughly nasty lead character, this is a volume that stands out. For all of their cribbing from other sources, you likely won’t ever read any Golden Age stories quite like these. 4.5/5. Recommended.


  1. Roy Thomas brought back Hath-Set fairly early in his run on All Star Squadron in the early 80s. He kidnapped a bunch of scientists to fake an alien invasion during the early days of WW 2.

  2. While I've never read the issues in question, I believed that Hath-Set was reincarnated as a female descendent of his in the 1970s revival of "All-Star Comics".