Thoughts on the Forthcoming Howard Chaykin Blackhawk Collection

faked by Friday, July 31st, 2009

“I loved Blackhawk! [. . . ]It was about achieving liberal ends by fascist means. It was the first comic book I ever stole.” – Howard Chaykin, interview in Comic Book Artist #5 (2004).

I missed the cut-off (as I always do) for Tom Spurgeon’s recent Five For Friday, this time on comics that really ought to be reprinted, but I see that one of the titles I would have suggested is already coming out later this year: Howard Chaykin’s 1987 Blackhawk mini-series.

It’s a good time for Chaykin fans these days: The first year of his daring and innovative American Flagg! is (finally!) back in print, he’s reviving his Dominic Fortune character at Marvel, and he’s writing a Die Hard: Year One series for BOOM. All this and talk of movie deals for maybe either Black Kiss or Bite Club, though who knows if anything will come of that. Chaykin was at least as responsible as Moore or Miller for the 1980s move toward doing formally and philosophically sophisticated work in pulpy adventure genres, yet he didn’t get the kind of mainstream media attention accorded Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns—maybe because American Flagg! was an ongoing serial with no clear end (and one which Chaykin had left to other hands by the time those books were breaking big), or maybe because it was really funny, or maybe because it just didn’t have Batman in it. I’m hoping that his ongoing work, combined with continued reprinting of his early stuff, will help situate him in his rightfully lofty spot in the pantheon of significant and groundbreaking comics creators.

That said, when I read his Blackhawk a couple of years after it came out, it left me a little cold. Part of the problem for me at I guess 14 or so was that it didn’t seem quite Chaykin-y enough for me in the way I understood Chaykin comics at the time, which had a lot to do with ladies in vintage lingerie; nor did it seem Blackhawk-y enough for me in the way I understood Blackhawk at the time, which involved lots of gripping aerial combat. And they only yell Hawkaaaaa once! What’s up with that?

Well, so I’ve read some of the earlier Blackhawk stories since then, and sure, there’s a fair amount of gripping aerial combat, but there’s also a lot of flying somewhere and then landing the planes to go punch people, or flying somewhere and then crashing into the War Wheel and then going to punch people. So Chaykin is well within the tradition there. And my understanding of what makes Chaykin great has gotten a little more sophisticated, too; in addition to being one of the great formal innovators in comics history, he’s also one of the modern comics era’s most passionate lefties—an old-fashioned, Popular Front lefty even (and one whose ambivalence about the modern left can make for interesting and problematic friction in his stories and in his interviews.)

And that’s one of the things that makes his 1987 Blackhawk mini so great—by recasting Janos “Blackhawk” Prohaska as a 1930s anti-fascist Communist, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and an early adopter on the whole Hitler-is-evil thing (when more than a few Americans were content to turn a blind eye), Chaykin is—in the era of Reagan and Red Dawn no less—recovering the lost but vital history of heroic socialists, communists, and other loosely affiliated leftists in the United States. The real-life examples are many, but to pick one close to the hearts of this site’s southern readership: The Scottsboro “Boys”? Their defense was handled by the Communist Party USA. None of this is to suggest that Chaykin had a rosy picture of Soviet-style Communism. In fact, he has Blackhawk get drummed out of the party for being a Trotskyite, a move that points to the inevitable iron-fisted orthodoxies that enabled and followed Stalin’s consolidation of power.

But I digress; what I was going to say about the collection is, I’m glad it’s coming out, since the reprint will raise the book’s and Chaykin’s profiles in the comics world and because now if I ever want to teach it (alongside The Book of Daniel and Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! maybe?) I can. But: it’s not like you can’t find the original issues pretty easily and for much less than cover price.

So: DC should include some bonus material. For instance: Did you know that Chaykin contributed covers and a short story to the 1982 Mark Evanier/Dan Spiegle Blackhawk relaunch? The short piece (#260) is a beautiful and surprisingly complex 8-pager spotlighting French lothario Andre; Evanier’s characterization for Andre in the main series was as a basically noble ladies man driven to recklessness by his anger over the German occupation of France; in this story, Evanier writes him as a soldier who can’t quite put his love for a woman over his love of glory and headlines. It’s as though Chaykin’s pencils make Andre more of a bastard (and more interesting to boot). And then there are the covers; some of them are just pretty good, and at least one (#262) is marred by a coloring error, but there are a couple of beauts, including this scene (#259) of nighttime parachute-and-spotlight action (which doesn’t come through as well as it should in this scan, I’m afraid):


And one of my faves, which is actually taped to the side of my filing cabinet at work:


This is a quintessentially Chaykin image. Why? Well, just gaze into Blackhawk’s eyes, and you’ll see the horrible truth: that Blackhawk totally seduced and bedded that swastika before shooting it to death and setting it on fire.

Don’t forget: Gorjus wrote about PF contributor Jack Butler’s use of Blackhawk in his amazing novel Jujitsu for Christ.

Also, I don’t think anyone read Chaykin’s 2006 City of Tomorrow mini-series except for me and Jog, but when you read Chaykin’s description of it, don’t you want to run out and buy a copy? Oh, you haven’t read it? Here, from the same interview in CBA cited above: It’s “a science-fiction/adventure book—The Untouchables meets Westworld at EPCOT.” Now, come on people.

10 Responses to “Thoughts on the Forthcoming Howard Chaykin Blackhawk Collection”

  1. gorjus says:

    Man, you talk about problematic usage of ideology . . . I distinctly recall at the time the outcry when Chaykin transformed Bart Hawk into Janos Prohaska. Of course, the bit was that originally Blackhawk had been i.d.’d as Polish—we just turned him American over time, until in ‘68 we learned his ludicrous, only-in-America name.

    Chaykin restored all that, and with it, the complexity of thought that existed prior to the World Wars—a time, as you note, when German was the number two language in America, and we were not nearly as united against the Axis as folks would like to think now (cough cough Henry Ford cough).

    But man, at the time—how could a Commie be a hero? Be a . . . American hero? It didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t process it, all that page long-CHUDDA-CHUDDA-machine gun Bruzenakking aside.

    And yes, he totally did it with that swastika.

  2. Kevin Church says:

    This is seriously terrific.

  3. Ragepie says:

    I bought and read City Of Tomorrow. I thought it was rather good.

    Personally, I am a big fan of Black Kiss. I have a trade paperback collection of the series, as well as reader copies of the original issues. On top of that, I have the copies of the original issues still shrinkwrapped in their original plastic; unread. All I need now is a Black Kiss poster.

  4. [...] been thinking some more about Howard Chaykin since that post about the forthcoming reprint of his Blackhawk. In the course of my ramblings, I ran across this excellent essay on Chaykin’s Time2 graphic [...]

  5. Matt says:

    Any thoughts on the follow-up ongoing series by Martin Pasko/Doug Monech and Rick Burchett? it gets a little weird at the end but it takes the same characters into the red-scare fifties. I recently re-read it and was surprised at its complexity, if only from a plotting perspective.

  6. Matt, I’m reading that series right now—I’m up to issue 8. Enjoying it so far, though I can’t imagine how I would have kept up with all the plot threads if I’d been reading it with a month’s break between issues—complex plotting indeed. (Frankly, I’m still not quite sure I have all the moving parts of the conspiracy nailed down, though maybe I’m just not supposed to yet.)

  7. Matt says:

    I had the exact same experience—I found it one of those reading experiences that benefited from just sitting back and letting the byzantine plot details sort of wash over you. Probably a weakness overall, but I admired Pasko for even trying to keep so many balls in the air. I could not go back and tell you exactly what happened, just that I enjoyed the general tone and tempo of the whole thing. Plus, Rick Burchett.

    hope you’ll find time for a write-up when you’re done—would love to read your thoughts.

  8. Commies Rule ! says:

    Should be good readin’.

  9. Jack LesCamela says:

    Brannon, what happened with this? As far as I know DC never released the tpb collecting Chaykin’s BLACKHAWK. A pity too, as I was really looking forward to replacing my well read prestige edition issues.

  10. Prof Fury says:

    Jack, that’s a good question. It was solicited (or at least, it appeared on Amazon for pre-order) and then vanished. I asked Chaykin about it some while back and he didn’t know what had happened. I hope they’ll get around to releasing the collection at some point—I’d like to be able to use it in the classroom, besides just wanting one for myself.