Thoughts on the Forthcoming Howard Chaykin Blackhawk Collection

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 the 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):