The enormous feathered wings. The bare chest with the crossed straps. The freakish-looking beaked mask. “He fights the evils of the present with the weapons of the past.”
There’s no two ways about it. In its purest, most visceral form, Hawkman is just plain cool. How then did DC Comics manage to screw up this character so badly that it was actually deemed editorially radioactive for years, taken off the table because no one could figure out how to rescue the character? Let’s take a look at the various DC Comics Hawkmen, Hawkgirls and Hawkwomen, where they came from, where they went horribly wrong, and how they managed to return.
Hawkman’s inception came in 1939, when writer Gardner Fox was creating characters to fill the pages of All-American Comics’ new series FLASH COMICS. Fox claims the idea for the concept came from a bird flitting about his window. However, it should also be noted that Alex Raymond’s extremely popular newspaper strip FLASH GORDON had introduced the race of Hawkmen and their leader, Prince Vultan, not many years before, so a certain degree of influence, while unproven, can certainly be conjectured.
Regardless, Fox brought plenty of ideas to the table, aside from the basic and undeniable appeal of a man soaring through the air with giant bird wings, an idea as old as the Greek legend of Icarus. Central to Fox’s concept was the notion of reincarnation, and an ancient hero reborn in modern times. Combine that with the costume’s fantastic visual design and an unusually powerful sense of romance, and Fox’s Hawkman was a winner.
Readers first met Hawkman in FLASH COMICS #1 (January 1940), in the logically titled story “The Hawkman,” written by Gardner Fox and drawn by artist Dennis Neville, best known as an assistant to Joe Shuster on strips like SLAM BRADLEY and SUPERMAN. As the story opens we meet Carter Hall, described as a “wealthy collector of weapons and research scientist.” Hall is excited to examine the latest addition to his collection, freshly recovered from an Egyptian dig, a glass sacrificial knife. At the sight of the blade, Hall swoons and falls to the ground, helplessly enraptured in a bizarre dream.
In the dream, Hall is Egyptian Prince Khufu, fighting for his life against Hath-Set, the evil priest of the hawk-god Anubis, who seeks the deaths of both Khufu and his beloved, Shiera. Khufu escapes and races to Shiera’s side, but is soon overwhelmed by Hath-Set’s army.
Khufu and Shiera are captured and returned to the Temple of Anubis, where Hath-Set plunges the crystal knife into Khufu’s chest, murdering him, as Khufu swears a dying vow:
Hall awakens from the vision, convinced that he is the reincarnation of Khufu, the Egyptian prince (who, by the way, was probably the palest, blondest Egyptian ever…). Hall returns the blade to its box, and decides to go for a walk to clear his mind. Out on the street, he’s confronted by a frightened crowd fleeing from a subway exit, and among them is Shiera, his princess from the Egyptian vision.
The two instantly recognize each other, and take in the carnage as innocent people on the subway are “burned to cinders” by a massive surge of electricity to the rails.
Hall and Shiera return to his place and catch up, where he learns that she has had the same dreams of ancient Egypt. Here’s where it feels like we missed a chapter. Out of nowhere, Hall tracks the power surge back to a giant dynamo outside the city, and decides to go check it out, donning a bizarre hawk mask and flying with the aid of wings covered in the gravity-defying “ninth metal,” Hall’s “discovery of the secret of the ages.”
Say what? So he’s wearing the hawk mask as a “grim jest” about the priest who murdered him, and he’s had the mask and wings just sitting around waiting to be taken on a test flight? And where’d the anti-gravity metal come from? What’s going on?
Anyway, Hawkman flies out to the site of the dynamo, which turns out to be the home of Doctor Hastor, an “electrician extraordinary” according to Hawkman. (I guess that’s better than being a “plumber perfectionaire” or a “drywaller dramatic”…) Hawkman eavesdrops on Hastor’s villainous ranting and discovers him to be none other than the reincarnation of Hath-Set, with his own designs on world conquest. Hath-Set tries to blast Hawkman with bolts of electricity, but as it turns out, ninth metal is non-conducting. Three cheers for science.
Hawkman then uses his handy wooden quarterstaff to bust up the turbines, a move that Hastor doesn’t take too kindly:
Hastor hides out in a secret room, and deduces that Hawkman must be the reincarnation of Khufu, and so it stands to reason that Shiera must be alive again as well. Hoping to strike at Khufu through Shiera, Hastor enacts an ancient ritual, which releases the scent of myrrh throughout the city, which will entrance those of “ancient blood.”
Accordingly, Shiera soon falls under the spell of the myrrh, and is helplessly drawn to Hastor. Hawkman returns home and finds Shiera missing, grabs a sheet of the ninth metal and a crossbow, and heads back to kick some reincarnated Egyptian ass.
Hawkman arrives to find that Hastor is planning to sacrifice Shiera to Anubis using – what else – electricity. You know, the stabbing worked pretty well last time, dude. Maybe you should stick to the basics.
Hawkman throws the sheet of ninth metal over Shiera, protecting her from the electricity, then doesn’t waste any time with Hastor, firing a crossbow bolt straight into his chest.
The strange mix of mythology, action and romance seemed to strike a chord with readers, as HAWKMAN became one of the more popular features in FLASH COMICS, often stealing the cover away from The Flash, the series’ title character. The strip gained even more popularity when, after three issues, artist Dennis Neville was replaced by Sheldon Moldoff, who tackled the strip with a sensibility akin to some of the more lavishly illustrated newspaper adventure strips, such as FLASH GORDON or Hal Foster’s PRINCE VALIANT. For an example of how Moldoff’s art really brought the HAWKMAN feature to another level, take a gander at a few moments from FLASH COMICS #5, in which Hawkman is caught up in a case involving Persian assassins and a plot to eliminate all leaders of all the world’s nations. Here we see Hawkman getting ready to follow a beautiful blonde government agent to the Middle East…
And traversing the great desert en route to the hidden city of Alamut…
And finally, taking on a roomful of assassins, in an effort to recover the kidnapped secret agent.
Much like his earlier battle with Hastor, Hawkman didn’t mind crossing a line to get the job done, as we see here in his final encounter with the master assassin Hassan Ibn Sabah.
Moldoff’s gorgeous art lent the series an exotic feel, and it was the Fox/Moldoff team that would carry the feature’s popularity to its highest point.
Unlike many of the increasingly power-heavy superheroes of the time, like the Spectre, Dr. Fate, Sub-Mariner and so on, Hawkman was unique in that he was just a regular guy, with no super-strength or superpowers other than the ability to fly, and a whole houseful of ancient weapons which, as we’ve already seen, he had no compunctions about using. Sure, guys like Green Lantern were powerful, but there’s something primally satisfying about a bare-chested muscleman with a beak for a face pounding the hell out of criminals with a big-ass mace.
Another aspect of the HAWKMAN feature that was unusual was its strong female co-star, Shiera Sanders, Carter Hall’s reincarnated lady love. By FLASH COMICS #3, Shiera had been clued in as to Carter Hall’s other identity as the Hawkman, and could be counted on to pitch in when needed. Here, Hawkman has been captured by the evil hypnotist the Thought Terror, and Shiera heads off to look for him (unlike most damsel-in distress types, Sheira’s no dummy: she’s packing heat).
From the window of his underground cell, Hawkman sees Shiera exploring the grounds of the Thought Terror’s lair, and uses the sunlight reflecting off his shield to send her a message in Morse code (which pretty much everyone seemed to know like a second language back in the ’40s…), asking her to bring him a blowtorch.
That night, under cover of darkness, Shiera complies, and soon Hawkman is free and mopping the floor with the Thought Terror’s hypnotized goons.
Shiera’s role only increased as the series progressed, and by FLASH COMICS #24 in 1942, she was wearing her own beak and wings, flying alongside her lover as Hawkgirl. (Although Hawkman’s bare-chested look was logically replaced with a more demure tank top for Shiera.) While Hawkgirl was one of the few female superheroines at the time in comics, make no mistake: she was still strictly a second banana to Hawkman, and seemed a little less competent than before she broke into the superhero biz. Case in point: this example from a Justice Society story in ALL-STAR COMICS #8, written by Gardner Fox and Sheldon Mayer, and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff. In pursuit of blackmailers, the Hawks separately approach a mountain lodge, where Hawkgirl is blasted from the sky by a bolt of electricity.
(Which, come to think of it, shouldn’t have had any effect on her at all, thanks to the ninth metal covering her wings, which as we all learned in Hawkman’s debut, is non-conducting. Ah, well. Let’s just move on, shall we?)
Hawkman locate Hawkgirl’s fallen body, but determines that she’s okay, and gives her a bit of a patronizing talking-to.
Speaking of the Justice Society, it should also be noted that while Hawkgirl occasionally appeared in the Hawkman chapters of the JSA stories in ALL-STAR COMICS, Shiera was never invited to join nor officially made a member. Hawkman, however, was not only a charter member of the Justice Society of America, but also usually its chairman, and the longest-running member – in fact, Hawkman is the only member to appear in every one of the Justice Society of America’s Golden Age appearances, from ALL-STAR COMICS #3 in 1940 until their final appearance in ALL-STAR #57 in 1951.
Why was that? Well, Hawkman had the odd distinction of being just popular enough. The way the Justice Society publishing plan worked (which was even oddly discussed by the characters themselves, with the knowledge that they were comic-book characters) was that whenever a member of the JSA was popular enough to earn his own solo comic-book series, in addition to his original series in one of the anthology books like FLASH COMICS or ALL-AMERICAN, he would then leave the team and be replaced by a new member, as Starman and Dr. Mid-Nite replaced Green Lantern and the Flash. Hawkman never quite made the cut to get his own magazine, so he never got the boot. Conversely, JSA members would occasionally fall by the wayside due to declining popularity, such as Hourman or the Sandman. Not so Hawkman, who just kept plugging along, both in the JSA and in the pages of FLASH COMICS as well.
A word about Hawkman’s mask: A big part of what made the character so spooky initially was how inhuman it looked, completely covering his face, with a fully formed beak and even a red tongue protruding from the beak.
Carter Hall, especially when rendered by Moldoff, really did look more Hawk than man. Toward the end of his run in FLASH COMICS, the art duties passed to a young Joe Kubert, who streamlined the mask, reducing the beak and eliminating the tongue.
Even later still, after Hawkman’s only appearances were as a member of the JSA, the wing-and-beak helm was eliminated entirely, in favor of a simple yellow cowl with a red hawk emblem on the forehead. Ho hum.
Marathon man that he was, Hawkman stuck it out until FLASH COMICS was cancelled in 1949 with issue #104, then appeared in the last two years’ worth of Justice Society stories in ALL-STAR, until they too disappeared, the victim of changing tastes. When ALL-STAR #58 hit the stands, Hawkman and the JSA were nowhere to be found, replaced with the Trigger Twins, Strong Bow and Roving Ranger, in ALL-STAR WESTERN #58. With the exception of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Hawkman had outlasted most of his fellow superheroes, but his time, it seemed, was done.
But you all know how it turns out by this time, yes? Come on back next week for Hawkman’s triumphant return, and ignominious fate.