Fighting the evil of the present with the weapons of the past

When I was growing up, my father had a big book full of early comic book stories.  It had Superman, Batman, Namor, the Flash, a weird and wide assortment.  One that lodged itself firmly in my brain was Hawkman.  Not the space cop Hawkman, this was the original–a reincarnated Egyptian hero who “fights the evil of the present with the weapons of the past.”  The image of the brooding Carter Hall becoming the Hawkman who wings his way across the desert to rescue Ione Craig from a cult of assassins sat side-by-side with the adventures of Indiana Jones in my personal construct of what the 1940s had to have been like.

My brother gave me the Golden Age Hawkman Archives, Volume One for Christmas last year.  The collection contains the first 22 issues of Hawkman, including that story I remembered so well.

Let’s get one thing out of the way:  These stories are dated.  The racial stereotypes are terrible.  Women are typically there to be victims or femme fatales.  Shiera joins Carter on his adventures and investigations, but she mostly just gets into trouble.  When she succeeds, it’s usually because Hawkman is sneaking around in the background lining dominoes up for her.

Accepting all that, the quality of the stories ranges from terrible to great.  Gardener Fox is at his best writing tales of mystery involving relatively mortal villains, where quick wits and quicker fists save the day.  This Hawkman is no superhuman. Sure he can fly, but he’s knocked out by a heavy blow, knocked down by gunshots, and sometimes tricked by two-bit criminals.  A few of the genuinely fantastical tales fail utterly, especially where Foz strays into superhero territory (the one with the giant construct that terrorizes the city is just awful).

A few standout stories include:

  • #5 Ione Craig — The first Hawkman story I ever read–assassins, secret agents, the Sahara desert, everything a growing boy could want
  • #10 Adventures of the Spanish Blunderers — A lost mine, murder, betrayal, a damsel in distress, and Hawkman in the middle of a classic Western tale
  • #15 The Hand — Because, well, a disembodied hand and a surprising twist on the classic super-hero team-up
  • #16 The Graydon Expedition — Echoes of the origin story with it’s lost kingdom and reincarnation plots, easily my second-favorite story and the direction I would have preferred the character to go (as opposed to rebooting him as an alien)
  • #18 The Gold Rush of ’41 — Alaskan gold, man and nature at their worst, and a story in which the most important act of our hero is delivering needed food and supplies (although the portrayal of the one Alaska native is hard to stomach)

A special treat for me was discovering that the story I loved so much in my father’s book was actually the first of a two-parter and getting to read the second part so many years later.

Sheldon Moldoff’s art is beautiful, owing more to Alex Raymond (of Flash Gordon fame) than to other comic book artists of the time. His Hawkman is firmly grounded in reality, a palpable physical presence.

Fierce when geared for battle, suave when in his ordinary identity as Carter Hall, Moldoff’s Hawkman exudes a very human vulnerability, as seen in this sequence where he carries important documents across the Sahara and pauses to cool off and refresh himself.

The final pose is echoed years later by Luke Skywalker watching the sunset on Tatooine, and John Williams could have composed the score to accompany the images.

If I could write one comic book character, this Hawkman would be the one (even more than Batman).  I love the idea of a man burdened by memories and gifts of the past, of a rivalry and love that survives death, of mysteries and matching wits and the heroic more than the super-heroic, of a hero with an edge but not super powers, a world where super science and mysticism walk side-by-side in the shadows of ordinary people.

Looking past the dated portrayals and the occasionally clunky dialogue, that world still lives and breathes in these words and pictures.

(Note: All pictures retain their original copyrights and are shared here for illustrative purposes–no pun intended.)

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