Forgotten Heroes: Hawkman

In a moment when DC can’t seem to find a sure direction to please a rapidly aging and notoriously fickle and divisive fanbase, leave it to their cartoons to get it right. Batman: The Brave and the Bold has not only been warmly received, but has also done something many considered unthinkable: made Aquaman cool. Although Arthur’s had plenty of great turns in the comics (all unfortunately short-lived), ever since Superfriends he’s been unable to escape his image as a lame hanger-on with useless powers, despite attempts by various writers to reassert his regality and fierceness. Brave and the Bold, however, evokes the kingly aspect of his nature in a way no comic writer has done before, to my knowledge. Instead of the monumental, dignified and stiff Poseidon figure writers like Grant Morrison have presented, the series patterns Aquaman after Greek heroes rather than gods, imbuing him with a boisterous nature and love of combat and adventure. Combined with the infectiously bombastic voicework from John Di Maggio (Futurama’s Bender), the makers of Brave and the Bold have given us an Aquaman that might be the defining interpretation of the character. Mark these words, because in ten or twenty years, when the kids growing up with this show are writing comics, we’re going to see the ultimate Aquaman run. You know, assuming Western comics are still around in a recognizable form by that time.

With DC in the midst of a pretty long-term creative slump (not to mention diminishing sales for everything without a Green Lantern logo), it’s instructive to look at what a few episodes of a childrens’ television show have done for the reputation of perhaps the most maligned character in comics. There’s no shocking twist, no one taking up the legacy mantle, no embarrassing, gauche hero worship, and no overwrought tragedy – just a distinctive, memorable character with plenty of personality. With that in mind, I’d like to use this column to examine characters that could be larger players given the right interpretation and book.

The Character: Carter Hall, reincarnated warrior and historian with ties to ancient Egypt and the alien world Thanagar. Flies using a belt made of Nth metal and guiding wings. Hits people with a mace. Possessor of sublimely ridiculous headgear. Manliest hero in DC’s pantheon.

The Problem: This is twofold, with the obvious obstacle obscuring the real issue. For years, DC’s writers have mangled Hawkman’s continuity and then attempted to fix it, mangling it further. This is a common DC problem, but Hawkman has become as synonymous with it as the Legion of Super-Heroes. James Robinson and Geoff Johns instituted an interesting reincarnation fix, and while that ably serves to clean things up, it failed in solving the major problem. Hawkman has a helmet, mace, and wings, but no inner life. The only thing the reincarnation added to Carter’s personality was a starcrossed lovers element with Hawkgirl, which has an appealing romanticism that’s never been exploited to its fullest; his major periods of characterization remain as a reactionary figure to more humorous or liberal characters on team books. Currently, Jim Starlin is possibly winnowing down his origin in his ongoing space opera, but Starlin’s corner of the DCU is largely overlooked and unlikely to make a serious dent in Hawkman’s future depictions.

The Concept: The reason Hawkman’s reincarnations have failed to affect the character significantly is because they provide nothing really new for him. So, you have this gruff hawk-based hero, and he was numerous gruff heroes in past eras, many of whom also had hawk motifs? There’s no conflict in that. Shouldn’t a series of rebirths be about becoming something at least somewhat different each time? It’s time to ditch the reincarnations, and that too is a simple fix – in the new mythos, Hawkman is part of an ongoing legacy, and has what amounts to a sort of ingrained ancestral memory. An alteration like this makes the history significant without making it impenetrable, as its only major purpose is its ability to affect Hawkman’s worldview. Will Hawkman reject his legacy? Will he pattern himself after a specific person in the legacy? What kind of hero does he truly want to be? The new concept lends Hawkman an existentialism that DC’s four greatest concepts – Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, and The Flash – possess, giving him an internal struggle that he’s been lacking all this time. Heroism to Hawkman would be both self-examination and a historical study, the latter obscuring his discomfort with the former. It both highlights the oft-neglected scholarly component to his personality and gives Hawkman a philosophical standpoint that goes beyond “hitting things with mace.”

The Style: Hawkman, having been through so many periods of change, has never had a defining aesthetic the way that many of DC’s major figures do, but if there’s one consistent element of his various settings, it’s grand desolation. Whether it’s the deserts of Egypt, the vastness of space, or the essential loneliness of antiquity and historical study, Hawkman is alone in a gigantic, harsh world. Recall what Bill Watterson did with the Spaceman Spiff strips for Calvin & Hobbes, and that’s a great example to follow here. And Hawkman himself reflects this. He’s an imposing figure in reaction to his stark, barren landscape. Allies should be few; some like-minded but intermittent (Hawkgirl, Adam Strange), others accidental and reluctant. Enemies will be constant and often hidden. The Man With No Name and the Byronic Hero are not the deepest of templates, but they’re wonderful outlines to follow when moving a character towards a more definite portrayal. The feel of the book should be akin to a samurai tale or spaghetti western, and the combination of those stories with the space opera that Hawkman has the potential to delve into is just too compelling to pass up.

Also, if there’s any book that could run contrary to the habit of over-emotive first-person narration in modern superhero titles, it’s Hawkman. Carter should express himself through action, and this is a case where interpolating tales of the past, ones that reflect his present situation, work much better than clumsy angst. Imagine if the Black Freighter interludes in Watchmen had an actual point – that’s the purpose depicting Hawkman’s memories of his precursors would serve. Much of his character could become clear through the juxtaposition of the past with his present situation, particularly because he’s entirely aware of what his predecessors did when confronted with similar circumstances.

The Ideal Creative Team: After the vicious Hawkman/Black Adam brawl in Black Adam: The Dark Age, I have no doubt that Peter Tomasi and Doug Mahnke would rock this title. Mahnke’s depiction of Hawkman’s helmet is glorious.

The One-Sentence Sell: A cosmic western as directed by Sergio Leone and written by Cormac McCarthy.

This is the first of what hopes to be a regular series, so look here in the upcoming weeks for examinations of Doctor Mid-Nite, Flamebird, and other overlooked supporting players. Suggestions are welcome – if there’s any character or team you feel could use a new interpretation, send an email, and I’ll see what I can come up with.

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