MINI-SERIES REVIEWS...

cover by ChaykinBlackhawk

(1987-1988 - 3 issues, prestige format, DC Comics - Mature Readers)

Writer/artist: Howard Chaykin.

Blackhawk had been around since the 1940s -- becoming an unusual property in a medium increasingly dominated by super heroes and occasional "gritty" war comics. Blackhawk led a band of aviators and was, in that sense, a war comic, yet thanks to his planes, spiffy-uniforms, and gadgets, wasn't exactly a straight "men in the trenches" drama. But his periodic revivals had not been that successful, making him presumably an ideal candidate when, during the late 1980s/early 1990s, DC Comics tried dusting off and re-inventing moribund characters -- some, as here, given a "shock" makeover in a "mature readers" prestige format mini-series.

Enter writer/artist Howard Chaykin. Chaykin can truly be described as an "auteur" in comics, with an undeniably distinctive fingerprint when he takes on a property. He can also run hot or cold -- some stuff by him I like, some I loathe. Yet strangely, it's less because he tries different things, than he just does the same thing, and sometimes it works, and some times it doesn't.

For this Blackhawk revival it sort of assumes a pre-knowledge of the character, as he's already supposed to be a famous hero -- and sort of tries to re-boot him by "introducing" pre-established supporting characters (like Lady Blackhawk). Once more rooted in WW II, Chaykin does his usual paint job: Blackhawk, previously a fairly straight ahead hero, is re-imagined as a bit of a womanizing hedonist. There's plenty of sex and saucy dialogue (though no nudity). And it throws itself fully into politics with Blackhawk here presented as both an ex-communist (the story beginning with him being kicked out of the U.S.A.) even as he was technically thrown out of (or walked away) from the party in his younger days.

And unfortunately this tilts toward the Chaykin stuff that I don't like.

The problem is it's trying so hard to seem edgy, and provocative, and fast-paced, and sassy -- lest we forget sassy! -- but all in an effort to distract from the fact that it all feels kind of empty. It's a sassy romp, but it's a vacuous sassy romp.

For all that it's an "adventure" story the action is rather few and far between, and the air battles next to non-existent! Instead, the focus is much more on the characters and the machinations -- without that really justifying itself. Chaykin tends to write most of the characters the same: same attitudes, same personalities, some sassy banter. Some are good guys and some vile villains -- but they are still cut from a similar cloth.

And for all that the Blackhawk series is about a guy who leads a band of men -- most of the usual supporting players are basically just there to fill up the backgrounds. And even Blackhawk can seem like a co-star in his own comic. Which might be fine, since Chaykin is writing a broad canvased tale with various other characters caught up in crosses and double crosses. But when those characters tend to be Nazis and other sleazy people it's hard to entirely sustain your interest. And for all that it's all about the twists and machinations -- it can feel a bit loosely plotted when it comes to logic and plausibility.

It's supposed to be funny -- or at least sassy -- and definitely aiming for shock. So there's sex. There's profanity. There are plenty of racial slurs -- Chaykin bandying them about equally (Chaykin's Jewish but has no qualms about having his Nazis utter anti-Semitic slurs). And it can all seem a bit...distasteful at times. Even though the villains are unarguably villains, Chaykin still seems to like spending time with them. And there's a sexist/misogynist streak -- some of the women may have sharp tongues and be sassy (there's that word again!) but there's also degrading sex and they get slapped around.

Even the political stuff can seem more sheen than substance. Chaykin imposes his pre-existing template, so he's written a number of comics where the hero is more explicitly labelled "Left" than in a lot of comics. But other than the villains fascists and ultra right wingers, it's not really like the comic, itself, comes across as especially left-of-centre. Blackhawk's communist past is more just there to make him seem edgy -- rather than because Chaykin wants to explore ideologies. Likewise the war time setting is oddly presented. On one hand, Chaykin peppers scenes and dialogue with period allusions (and -- of course -- the plot revolves around an atom bomb). But given all the globe hopping, it can barely feel like there's any fighting going on!

Chaykin's art is robust and dynamic, mixing relative realism with some stylish composition and storytelling. Although even then, it has the problem that it's a bit lacking in mood -- Chaykin not really big for shadows or texture that might lend the scenes warmth, or the characters more humanity.

There's a sense that it's supposed to be deliberately confusing. Scenes will begin in long shot with a bunch of word balloons as we are plopped into a conversation, literally having no idea who, what, or where, and you have to keep reading -- or sometimes go back and re-read it -- to really make sense of it. And although that can invite the reader to really poor over the scenes, it also can seem obfuscation for obfuscations sake. The story isn't smarter because of it -- but it can be annoying. After all, part of the reason such scenes are confusing is because Chaykin tends to write everyone the same! Getting in on the act, letterer Ken Bruzenak occasionally indulges in weird lettering and fonts. But simply making dialogue hard to read doesn't make something sophisticated!

All the stuff Chaykin's doing here I've seen him do elsewhere and (sometimes) enjoyed. But here all you've got is 150 pages that has a snappy tempo -- but in service of a plot that, for all its double crosses, is itself not that fast-paced. An "adventure" story that is more focused on schemes than action, yet in which the characters themselves never really develop much emotional depth, or become especially involving or appealing -- Blackhawk included. And racial slurs and oral sex does not, automatically, make for a sophisticated, adult story.

A follow-up monthly comic lasted less than two years.

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