Remembering Blackhawk Comics
Military Comics August 1941
Blackhawk was a fictional comic book character and series published first by Quality Comics and later by DC Comics. Primarily created by Chuck Cuidera with Bob Powell and Will Eisner.
Blackhawk, André, Chuck, Hendrickson, Olaf, Stanislaus, Chop-Chop, Zinda Blake (Lady Blackhawk)
Natalie Reed (Lady Blackhawk).
HeadQuarters: Blackhawk Island
The Blackhawks first appeared in Military Comics August 1941. With the introduction headlines: “History has proven that whenever liberty is smothered and men lie crushed beneath oppression; there always rises a man to defend the helpless… liberate the enslaved and crush the tyrant… Such a man is Blachawk… Out of the ruins of Europe and out of the hopeless mass of defeated people he comes, smashing the evil before him…”
The Blackhawk Squadron, led by the mysterious man known as Blackhawk, are a small team of World War II-era ace pilots of varied nationalities, each typically known under a single name, either their given name or their surname. Though the membership roster underwent changes over the years, the team was portrayed most consistently by seven core members.
The Blackhawks operated from a hidden base known only as Blackhawk Island, they flew Grumman XF5F Skyrocket planes, and shouted a battle cry of “Hawk-a-a-a!” as they descend from the skies to fight tyranny and oppression. Clad in matching blue and black uniforms; Blackhawk himself wore a hawk insignia on his chest.
The early stories placed the team against the Axis powers, but they would also come to battle recurring foes such as King Condor and Killer Shark, but later would encounter an array of gorgeous and deadly femme fatales. They would also frequently square off against fantastic war machines ranging from amphibious “shark planes” and flying tanks, to the aptly-named War Wheel, a gigantic rolling behemoth adorned with spikes and machine guns, much like today’s popular Transformers.
At the height of popularity, in the early 1940s, Blackhawk comics routinely outsold all the other comic books but Superman. Blackhawk also shares the unique distinction of being just one of four comic book characters to be published continuously from the 1940s through the 1960s the others being Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The comic series has spawned a film serial, a radio series and a novel.
Will Eisner has at times been considered the characters’ primary creator, and just like many of his golden age and silver age comic book counterparts, has been the subject of debate. Eisner himself acknowledging the contributions of Chuck Cuidera and writer Bob Powell in the creation of Blackhawk comics.
Over the years, Cuidera became increasingly vocal that he did much more work on Blackhawk than Eisner and that he had in fact already started creating the characters prior to joining Eisner’s studio. According to Cuidera, he and Powell fleshed out the concept, deciding on everything from names and nationalities, to the characters’ distinguishing traits, uniforms, and the aircraft they would fly.
It’s not important who created it it’s the guy who kept it going, and made something out if it that’s more important. Whether or not Chuck Cuidera created or thought of Blackhawk to begin with is unimportant. The fact that Chuck Cuidera made Blackhawk what it was is the important thing, and therefore, he should get the credit.
The Blackhawks debuted in August 1941 as the lead feature in the first issue of Quality Comics’ anthology series Military Comics, billed as featuring “stories of the Army and Navy.” Viewed by Will Eisner as “a modern version of the Robin Hood legend,” the team’s first appearance was co-written by Chuck Cuidera and Bob Powell, with art by Cuidera. Although the exact nature of Eisner, Cuidera, and Powell’s individual contributions to the creation of the Blackhawks will never be known, it is confirmed that each performed some level of writing duties at different times during the first eleven issues, with Eisner working on early covers with Cuidera and Cuidera providing interior artwork. When Cuidera joined the armed services in 1942, Reed Crandall took over as artist, beginning a long association with the characters that would last until 1953. Jim Steranko has observed, “Where Cuidera made Blackhawk a best-seller, Crandall turned it into a classic, a work of major importance and lasting value.” It was during Crandall’s run that the series hit its sales and popularity zenith.
The Blackhawks’ success earned them their own title in Winter 1944. That issue, Blackhawk #9, picked up the numbering of Quality’s canceled Uncle Sam Quarterly. They meanwhile continued to be featured prominently in Military Comics, later renamed Modern Comics, until that book’s cancellation with #102 in October 1950.
During the Quality comic book years, a whole host of well respected talent worked on the characters, including writers Manly Wade Wellman, Bill Woolfolk, Bill Finger, and Dick French, as well as artists Al Bryant, Bill Ward, Dick Dillin and perhaps others as well.
Ceasing operations with Quality comics in December 1956, Blackhawk #107 was the final issue published. The character and title trademarks were leased to National Periodical Publications, now DC Comics, before eventually being sold.
Blackhawk was one of the few Quality series that DC chose to keep running uninterrupted. Penciller Dick Dillon and inker Chuck Cuidera remained on the title, ensuring a near-seamless transition. The duo would stay with the title through nearly its entire first run at DC.
Steering deeper and deeper into the realm of science fiction, the Blackhawks found themselves confronting a steady stream of unmemorable and mostly one-off supervillain-like adversaries bent on world domination. This was the center of their demise, they should have stuck to their to their roots.
The Blackhawks also gained a new ally in Blackhawk #133, February 1959: Lady Blackhawk, a pilot named Zinda Blake who was determined to become the first female member of the team. After a couple of appearances, she was granted honorary status and became a semi-frequent member of the supporting cast. Great idea but perhaps a little too late. Flying and sexual element, two things men (and boys) like!
In an effort to update the characters, DC gave the team its first ever major wardrobe overhaul in Blackhawk #197, June 1964, replacing their longtime uniforms with red and black shirts and green pants. On a dramatic level, Lady Blackhawk was transformed into a supervillain, Queen Killer Shark, in Blackhawk #200, September 1964.
Then, in a much more drastic attempt to combat flagging sales due to the rising popularity of superhero books and the Batman TV series, DC proclaimed with Blackhawk #228, January 1967, the beginning of “the New Blackhawk Era” with a cover featuring Justice League of America members Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash observing that the Blackhawks are, in Superman’s words, “washed up” and, in Batman’s words, “junk-heap heroes.” In the issues that followed, all but Blackhawk gained a costumed superhero alter ego at the behest of a shadowy government agency. Perhaps a OSS or CIA element was a wise choice? Another good choice! But was it truly too little too late?
With sales continuing to sink, the Blackhawks were restored to something that more closely resembled their original roots in Blackhawk #242, August 1968, losing the superhero identities in favor of their traditional blue and black uniforms. It was too late though; the comic was canceled for the first time one issue later.
Just over seven years later, DC Comics resurrected the series with Blackhawk #244, January 1976 as part of the “DC Explosion,” a then-recent marketing campaign in which DC began publishing more monthly titles and increased the number of story pages in all of its titles, accompanied by higher cover prices. The Blackhawks were transplanted to the 1970s and now portrayed as mercenaries-for-hire, matching wits against fancifully bizarre new villains, as well as a re-imagined Killer Shark and War Wheel. This run ended with Blackhawk #250, January 1977, and is therefore not considered a casualty of 1978’s DC Implosion.
Amid rampant rumors that Steven Spielberg was interested in Blackhawk as a possible film project, DC Comics once again resumed the series. Initially conceived as being published quarterly, editor Len Wein convinced DC to make the book monthly and eventually assembled a team that included writer Mark Evanier and artist Dan Spiegle. Blackhawk #251, October 1982 returned the team to a World War II setting and restored many of the familiar trappings that had been shed over the years during the various attempts to modernize the characters. Numerous new supporting characters were introduced during the run, most notably Domino, a buxum Nazi assassin and love interest to Blackhawk who was reminiscent of the femme fatales so common during the Quality Comics era. Evanier also reintroduced arch-villain Killer Shark, and has said he would have likely added Lady Blackhawk to the cast had the series lasted longer. But faced with stagnant sales that Evanier attributed largely to DC’s lack of interest in publicizing the series, the book was canceled with Blackhawk #273, November 1984. Though it wouldn’t be known at the time, that issue would mark the definitive end of the series’ original issue numbering.
Sometime after the cancellation, DC employed writer Bill DuBay and artist Carmine Infantino to produce a Blackhawk mini-series. Though never published, numerous finished pages exist.
In 1988, a three-issue mini-series by Howard Chaykin re-imagined the team during World War II yet again, this time with a notably more adult and gritty take on the characters. Chaykin, for the most part, eschewed the team dynamic so familiar to Blackhawk readers, instead crafting a politically-charged espionage thriller that focused prominently on Blackhawk and a new version of Lady Blackhawk. Post-war stories respecting Chaykin’s continuity followed in Action Comics Weekly #601–608, #615–622, and #628–635, as well as in a monthly series that restarted with an issue #1 and ran 16 issues from March, 1989, to August, 1990.
In 1992, DC Comics published Blackhawk Special #1. Still respecting Chaykin’s continuity and set 10 years after the events of Blackhawk #16, the story spans a five year period as Blackhawk seeks to avenge the death of team member André.
Since 1992, mostly modern hints of the team have appeared, usually in the form of the “Blackhawk Express” courier service, or the time-displaced Lady Blackhawk. One of the best examples of this is the 1990s appearance of team member Chop-Chop in a few issues of DC’s Hawkworld series.
Other Blackhawk air pilot groups have been shown during present time or alternate future events such as Our Worlds At War and Kingdom Come. It is unknown which connection beyond homage and inspiration, if any, those groups have to the classic Blackhawks. Blackhawk currently is an extension of Checkmate.
DC Comics reprinted the Blackhawk features from the first 17 issues of Military Comics in The Blackhawk Archives Volume 1 (2001) as part of its hardcover DC Archive Editions series.
Blackhawk made an appearance in The Brave and the Bold Vol. 3 #9 (February 2008), teaming up with the Boy Commandos during a World War II tale.
The Blackhawks appeared in Superman & Batman: Generations 2, in which they help Superman, the Spectre, and Hawkman battle a robot during the war. During the battle, Chuck sacrifices himself to destroy a missile. During the same storyline in 1997, a heroine named Blackhawk appears, battling Sinestro. According to John Byrne’s liner notes in Generations 3 #1, this character is Janet Hall, the granddaughter of the original Blackhawk, as well as Hawkman (Carter Hall) and Hawkgirl (Shiera Sanders).
In September 2011, DC Comics launched a new monthly series titled Blackhawks with no direct ties to the previous incarnations. The book is set in the present day with no appearances by or mention of prior Blackhawks, although there is a new “Lady Blackhawk”. The book shares the setting of the rebooted DC Universe continuity set up in the Flashpoint mini-series and is a part of DC’s New 52 initiative. The series ended with Blackhawks #8, April 2012 to make way for a “second wave” of New 52 titles.
With the overwhelming forces of Nazi Germany flooding into Poland in September, 1939, only the Polish Air Force remains as the last major line of resistance. Captain von Tepp and his Butcher Squadron swarm the skies in response, outnumbering the Polish four to one. The Germans decimate their foes until just one lone plane painted jet black remains. After gallantly shooting down six Nazi planes, the mysterious pilot is forced to crash land on the countryside. Running to a nearby farmhouse, he’s tracked from the air by von Tepp, who drops a bomb and destroys the building. The pilot locates his dead sister and mortally wounded brother inside. He vows to kill von Tepp before disappearing into the darkness.
Months later, with most of Europe collapsing under the might of the Nazis, the pilot reemerges with his own private squadron and “like an angel of vengeance, Blackhawk and his men swoop down out of nowhere, their guns belching death, and on their lips the dreaded song of the Blackhawks.”
In France, Captain von Tepp receives a note from Blackhawk demanding the release of one of Blackhawk’s men or face death. Infuriated, von Tepp orders the prisoner’s execution by firing squad. At dawn, the man and two others, including a cool-headed English Red Cross nurse (identified as “Ann” in Military Comics #3), are lined against a wall and mocked by von Tepp. As his men prepare to fire, the song of the Blackhawks fills the air:
Over land, over sea, We fight to make men free, Of danger we don’t care… We’re Blackhawks!
With the Blackhawks lining the walls of the courtyard, Blackhawk himself confronts von Tepp. After a brief skirmish, von Tepp is abducted and flown to the Blackhawks’ secret base in the Atlantic Ocean, Blackhawk Island. It’s there that Blackhawk challenges the Nazi captain to an aerial duel. During the ensuring dogfight, both of the men’s planes are crippled and forced to crash. On the ground, von Tepp and Blackhawk, both badly injured, draw guns. Von Tepp falls in a hail of bullets.
Blackhawk’s team is mostly depicted in Military Comics #1 as shadowy, nondescript soldiers, save for an Englishman named Baker who’s never seen or mentioned again. Military Comics #2, September 1941 expands the role of the team in the featured adventure and introduces five members: Stanislaus, André, Olaf, Hendrick, and Zeg. A sixth, Boris, is also shown, but, like Baker, only makes a singular appearance. The designer of their planes, Vladim, is also mentioned.
By Military Comics #3, October 1941, the roster is firmed up and it’s stated that seven men belong to the team. The group also receives a Chinese mascot and cook, Chop-Chop, when his plane happens to crash on Blackhawk Island during a desperate run for help. The adventure concludes with the first on-page death of a team member: André, who seemingly perishes in an avalanche that buries a large group of Nazis. In Military Comics #9, April 1942, the roster is down to five plus Chop-Chop, with Zeg presumably the absent member. In that adventure, the team crosses paths with the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask; André, in fact, now horribly disfigured, but still an enemy of the Nazis.
The most familiar version of the team is finally locked down in Military Comics #11, August 1942 shown as consisting of Blackhawk, Olaf, Chuck, André, his face now reconstructed, Stanislaus, Hendrickson, and Chop-Chop.
In Blackhawk #50, March 1952, the team’s origin is documented. Blackhawk himself is no longer identified as being Polish, but rather an American who is a volunteer flyer in the Polish Air Force. His sidekick in the squadron is Stanislaus, a “brilliant young student” from the University of Warsaw. After facing defeat against the Nazis, Blackhawk attempts to flee to Russia, only to discover that Russian forces are invading from the east. He then seeks refuge in England where he attempts to join the Royal Air Force. It’s in London where he and Stanislaus reunite and then meet the four others who will ultimately join them in their crusade: Chuck, another American volunteer; Hendrickson, a recent escapee from a Nazi concentration camp; Olaf, a Swede who had fought for Finland against the Russians; and André, a “valiant Frenchman.” The six men wait to enlist in the R.A.F., but because none are British subjects, they are “held up by miles of red tape.” Finally, Blackhawk suggests they strike out on their own. They pool their resources and buy planes, setting up a base of operations first on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, then later in the Pacific. They’re eventually joined by Chop-Chop, described in this account as having “fled from China when the Japanese overpowered the Nationalist army.” Chop-Chop first acts as the team’s cook, but in time becomes an expert pilot and full member of the team.
After the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Blackhawk is once again Polish by birth and now given a definitive name, Janos Prohaska. Having joined the Polish Air Force at a young age, he had already become a national hero by 1936 alongside his trusted friends Stanislaus Drozdowski and Kazimierc “Zeg” Zegota-Januszajtis. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the trio travel across Europe, providing freelance service and even fighting for a time in the Spanish Civil War as members of the Communist party.
At one point finding himself in America in hopes of gathering funds to build a European resistance group, Prohaska is framed for a series of murders. With the help of the Sandman, he’s ultimately exonerated, but a report soon surfaces that he has been shot down and killed by Nazis somewhere in the Mediterranean.
When the forces of Nazi Germany invade Poland in 1939, Prohaska returns home to help defend his homeland. He’s unable to save his younger siblings, Józek and Staszka, and soon forced to flee to Britain with Stanislaus and Zeg. It’s there he meets the others who will form the foundation of the Blackhawk Squadron.
In the midst of the war, Prohaska finds himself under suspicion by the U.S. government for his Communist ties. Around this same time, the Blackhawks are joined by Captain Natalie Reed (born Natalie Gurdin), a brilliant Russian-American flight engineer who redesigns the Blackhawks’ aircraft and is dubbed Lady Blackhawk by the U.S. press. It’s with her help that Prohaska is able to stop Nazi agent and onetime Hollywood actor Death Mayhew from detonating an atomic bomb in New York City. The victory restores Blackhawk’s reputation.
After a period of membership fluctuations during the first 10 issues of Military Comics, the team finally settles into its most famous roster. Although minor character details would shift and change over time, this original version of the team would stay largely intact from the characters’ debut in 1941 to the end of their first run in 1968. At one point or another, every member of the team except Blackhawk is depicted in ways stereotypical for the time, and over the course of the series several would develop their own catchphrases.
Blackhawk: First Polish, then American, the man known as Blackhawk is portrayed as a strong, decisive leader. He’s not always easy on his men calling Olaf a “big fat-head,” for example but always appears to command their unquestionable respect. At one point late in the first series’ run, he’s given a name, Bart Hawk.
Stanislaus: Blackhawk’s second-in-command. Polish, Stan is initially depicted like his teammates with various ethnic distinctions, but those disappear as the series progresses to the point that he could very well pass for an American. He is often portrayed as an acrobat, then later as the team’s strongman.
Chuck: At different times stated as being from Brooklyn or Texas, Chuck is often shown as the team’s communications specialist. His words are peppered with frequent American colloquialisms like “I reckon!” and “Dagnabbit!”
Hendrickson: Known as “Hendy” for short, the oldest of the Blackhawks is also their ever-dependable sharpshooter. Heavyset with white hair and a thick, Germanic mustache, he’s usually portrayed as Dutch (though German in some accounts), and often exclaims, “Himmel!” (German for “sky” and “heaven”) or “Ach du lieber!” (a German phrase akin to “Oh, dear!”).
André: With his pencil-thin mustache and natural born suavity, André’s appreciation of beautiful women often leads the team into precarious situations. Their demolitions expert, he frequently utters “Sacre bleu!”.
Olaf: A giant of a man, Olaf is usually portrayed as Swedish, his brutish size and poor English playing into the “big, dumb Swede” stereotype. He often shouts, “Py Yiminy!” and demonstrates impressive acrobatic abilities (a trait that Stanislaus’ character loses over time).
Chop-Chop: Chop-Chop is originally the team’s Chinese cook and essentially Blackhawk’s sidekick, riding along in Blackhawk’s plane as opposed to piloting his own. He evolves over time from comic relief mascot to a valued member of the team proficient in the martial arts. His full name is eventually revealed to be Liu Huang.
Other short-term members are Baker, an Englishman, and Boris, a Russian. Both characters only make single panel appearances. Zeg, Polish like Blackhawk and Stanislaus, manages to last a bit longer, but is gone by the Blackhawk’s ninth appearance in Military Comics.
A significant ally to the team throughout the 1940s is Miss Fear, who never formally joins the group but appears frequently during their Asian missions, developing a romantic interest in Blackhawk himself.
The strip’s most significant supporting character, however, is Zinda Blake, also known as Lady Blackhawk. After a failed attempt to become the team’s first female member, she is eventually awarded honorary status and makes numerous appears from 1959 to 1968, even becoming the villainess Queen Killer Shark for a time.
The team acquires an animal mascot in the 1950s, Blackie the hawk. Possessing remarkable intelligence—he can type notes in plain English, among other skills and fitted with his own miniature belt radio, he’s often shown perched on Blackhawk’s shoulder.
(To be continued)
JR Hafer, aviation writer 20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com