Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blackhawk 251

Blackhawk 251 was the first war comic I ever read, I believe. I probably picked it up after reading in Comics Scene magazine that Steven Spielberg was interested in doing a movie version. (And, as it happens, the distant possibility of that is probably the reason the series was brought back at this point, anyway.) I'd certainly never heard of the series, and by starting with issue 251, it wouldn't have caught my eye as a new DC comic. Whatever the reason, I did pick it up, and thus became a lifelong love affair with the creative team of Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle.

Okay, that may not be entirely accurate. I had probably read their work before, in the pages of Scooby-Doo at least. And I must have seen Spiegle's art in any number of Disney movie adaptations from Gold Key/Whitman. But this would have been the first time I had read a story from them as a collector, with a newfound awareness of creators' credits.

And, again, if I'm honest, it wasn't love at first sight. Still early in my comics collecting career, my ideal artists would have been George Perez on New Teen Titans, Keith Giffen on Legion of Superheroes, and Dave Stevens on the Rocketeer. This issue came out the same month as Batman Annual 8, still my favorite Batman story of all time, with Trevor Von Eeden's exciting new art style, so previous to this, I would have been mostly interested in slick, detailed artists. At the time, I told myself that Spiegle's work here was meant to deliberately evoke feelings of the crude Golden Age art I had seen. My early adolescent tastes hadn't actually grown at that point to embrace the idea that art could come in different styles, and each one could be equally good.

I also wasn't used to Evanier's writing style, or the style of DC war comics, as established by the great Robert Kanigher. On the other hand, I didn't know that much about World War II history, either. I knew that the Allies (mostly America) had fought the Nazis, but that's about it. So the first page, with its capsule history of Hitler's rise to power, felt like a real education.
My grandfather had grown up in Germany as a Jew, and left before WWII, sensing which way the wind was blowing. As a twelve or thirteen year old kid, I knew just a little about his history, but didn't really understand what things must have been like. Reading this story, about the Nazis trying to force a small Dutch village to vote in favor of occupation, felt like I was finally getting a picture of the sort of world my grandfather had fled.

Viewed in context of the entire series, Blackhawk 251 is a good issue, but perhaps not the finest of the series. As an introduction, however, it's great. The cover, by Blackhawk fan Dave Cockrum, is an iconic image that effectively communicates the tone of the story. The first page, with its storybook retelling of Hitler's background, sets the scene, but it's only with the double-page splash on pages 2 and 3 that the reader is thrown into the action, literally.
The story itself is fairly simple, with the abduction and rescue of Blackhawk more a vehicle for retelling the group's origin than an important part of the plot in its own right. Having said that, it's told well, with both the writing and art working together extremely well.

Evanier manages to introduce the members of the Blackhawks as individuals through the course of the story, without having to rely on any contrived "roll-call" type scenes. He makes sure that each character's name is mentioned (although, again, not in a contrived manner) and gives each character his own distinct voice patterns. In the case of the Dutch Hendrickson and the Swedish Olaf, this means laying on some thick accents, but it doesn't feel overdone. He also gives each character a distinct personality, which comes through in the dialogue.

The voice Evanier gives this comic is distinct and personable, almost as if we are listening to someone telling the story out loud. It's reminiscent of--and clearly inspired by--the great war comics of Robert Kanigher, but not as bombastic.

Perhaps my favorite bit, though, comes at the end, when Evanier and Spiegle work hand-in-hand to show why the village elder Leuuen has chosen to convince his village to stand up to the Nazis, whereas previously he had been prepared to take the path of least resistance. All the explanation is there in the art, and Evanier knows enough to not overexplain things.

It's an effective first issue, which made me feel as if I understood the characters and the premise. While later issues, free of the burdens of introductions and exposition, gave us stronger stories, this one is just fine. It made me want to come back for more, which is the most important job of a first issue.

1 comment:

Ben Herman said...

Great rundown on this issue. I hope one day DC collects the Evanier & Spiegle issues, maybe in one of those black & white Showcase volumes. The recent article in Back Issue Magazine on the series got me interested in checking it out. Oh, yeah, that Dave Cockrum cover was gorgeous. He was such an amazing artist. I know he was a huge fan of the characters, so I'm glad he had a few opportunities to contribute to the series.