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Grumpy Old Fan | Can TV save Hawkman?

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Can TV save Hawkman?

As the fall premieres of DC’s various superhero television series tick closer, the updates dive deeper into comics lore. I certainly wasn’t expecting a “Flash of Two Worlds” homage (eee!) to be part of the marketing, nor did I think Matt Ryan’s John Constantine would himself cross over to Arrow.  Otherwise, Arrow is teasing Oliver’s mayoral run; The Flash has cast Wally West; Supergirl promises Red Tornado and General Zod; and Legends of Tomorrow may take its tone from Justice League International.

However, for me the most intriguing news is the impending arrival of Hawkman. I’m curious about how Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Geoff Johns, et al., will try to make him appealing (or at least watchable) for the broader TV audience. I say that a bit skeptically, because Hawkman has never really done much for me.

Regardless, the Winged Warrior is a pretty big name (after all, he was on Super Friends), and his inclusion seems like a strong indication that the series’ shared setting will soon have some sort of Justice League. I wonder if it’ll actually be called that, as the DC movie universe probably has dibs. For that matter, the movies’ League will have all the heavy hitters.

Nevertheless, the TV shows can still draw from a pretty big pool of candidates. The seven original Leaguers may be off-limits to TV (The Flash excepted, of course), but the balance of the “Satellite Era” team will be well-represented by Green Arrow, The Atom, Hawkman, Black Canary, Hawkgirl and Firestorm. With Red Tornado probably off-limits to the CW shows, that just leaves Elongated Man (mentioned in passing in a Flash episode), Phantom Stranger (don’t hold your breath) and Zatanna (whose chances might be helped by the Constantine crossover) to fill out the Satellite-Era League.

In that respect it almost seems inevitable that Hawkman would get his shot, and sooner rather than later. While Ralph and Sue Dibny might make a natural pair of TV crime-solvers, Hawkman’s look and background are more in keeping with the epic-adventure attitude Legends of Tomorrow apparently wants to evoke. A history of reincarnation also matches up with LOT’s first villain, the immortal Vandal Savage. Therefore, it’s not as if bringing Hawkman into this ‘verse represents anything extraordinary or unexpected. Indeed, Hawkman arguably has become a necessary part of Hawkgirl’s supporting cast, since he’s her eternal flame.

(Conversely, Hawkman also threatens to overshadow Hawkgirl, but so far she’s the star.) It’s a nice coincidence that he may also get to interact with Green Arrow (whose comics counterparts famously feuded), The Atom (with whom Hawkman shared the last several issues of his ‘60s series), and The Flash (with whom Hawkman shared a debut issue).

All that said, however, there’s just something about Hawkman that screams “challenge.” Wonder Woman may be “too complicated,” and Donna Troy’s origins may be too labyrinthine, but for my money, Hawkman is both too simple and too elaborate. As conceived originally by writer Gardner Fox and artist Dennis Neville (for, as it happens, 1940’s first issue of Flash Comics), Hawkman’s costume and equipment came from being the reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian Prince Khufu. In 1961, Fox and artist Joe Kubert relaunched Hawkman as an extraterrestrial policeman who moved to Earth. This Silver Age version combined Thanagarian style (giant wings, a bird helmet and a bare chest) with a preference for ancient Earth weapons. The distinction apparently served DC well enough for about 25 years, until the single timeline left after Crisis on Infinite Earths had to reconcile both Carter Hall and Katar Hol. With the Golden Age and Silver Age Hawks doing very similar things for very different reasons, things quickly got complicated, and it took a three-issue JSA storyline some 15 years later to straighten everything out.  (In 2008, writer/artist Jim Starlin tried to muddy the waters even further, so be glad I’m not discussing it.)

Because Geoff Johns co-wrote said storyline (as well as the first two years of the subsequent Hawkman series), that version of Hawkman’s origin is likely to be adapted for television. Here it is in 28 words: a Thanagarian spaceship crashes in ancient Egypt, providing Prince Khufu with the knowledge of the gravity-defying “Nth Metal” and facilitating his eternal bond with Chay-Ara, the future Hawkgirl. The baked-in flashbacks are ideal for the storytelling structure Berlanti and company have established; and if necessary the whole story can be fleshed out over the course of several episodes.

Once you get Hawkman, though, what do you do with him? Hawkgirl strikes me as an easier sell, although she’s got much the same background as her male counterpart. On the Justice League cartoons, Hawkgirl was a Thanagarian officer with wings and a mace. Even after the true nature of her visit to Earth was revealed, it only took her out of the show for a little while. Similarly, when Kendra Saunders was introduced in the first few issues of JSA, she basically acquired the spirit of her relative, the Golden Age Hawkgirl, and embraced her destiny. The relationship with Hawkman came later, because the “Return of Hawkman” story hadn’t yet relaunched him. Therefore, having had the Hawkgirl legacy thrust upon her, Kendra had to figure out what to do with it.

There’s no such hesitation with Hawkman, who’s generally pretty forthright and resolute about his actions. Ask Hawkman where he comes from and/or what his intentions are, and he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms: He’s some combination of reincarnated prince and space cop; he’s got wings because that’s how they do it where he comes from; and he’s going to beat the tar out of the bad guys. When the Hawks were briefly part of Justice League International, he was the straightest of straight men, personifying square-jawed, no-nonsense do-gooding while the newcomers snickered. Hawkgirl was more mellow, but basically anyone is more mellow than Hawkman. I wouldn’t be surprised if that dynamic shows up in Legends of Tomorrow, perhaps with Captain Cold and Heat Wave in the Blue Beetle and Booster Gold roles.

Of course, being a good ensemble player doesn’t always translate into solo success. Over the past 50-odd years, DC has published more than 200 issues of various Hawkman series, and it didn’t publish any from the late ‘60s through the mid-‘80s. For comparison’s sake, Aquaman also got his own series in the early ‘60s but has about a 60-issue lead (and counting) on Hawkman. The difference is consistency: Despite his own meh reputation, the Sea King scored long-running solo series in the mid-‘90s and early ‘00s, and his current series is still chugging along. Hawkman’s most recent series was one of the initial New 52 offerings, but it didn’t bring much to the character beyond a pointy redesign and a lot of testosterone. After eight issues from writer Tony Daniel and artists Philip Tan and Jim Bonney, the series’ remaining 13 issues were produced by various combinations of writers Rob Liefeld, Marc Poulton, Frank Tieri, and Tom DeFalco, penciler Joe Bennett and inkers Art Thibert and Marc Deering. Along the way, Hawkman became a part of the government-run Justice League of America and its successor, the “independent” Justice League United. As far as I can tell, though, today he’s not appearing anywhere regularly.

For what it’s worth, neither is Supergirl, and her profile has been raised considerably over the past few months. I presume DC is prepping a new Supergirl comic, so you’d think one of the Hawks would at least get a miniseries (a la the upcoming Gerry Conway-written Firestorm mini) to capitalize on all that TV exposure. If it happens, however, it probably shouldn’t leave Hawkman by himself for any length of time. The best thing the TV shows can do for Hawkman is to allow him to play off other characters, be they Hawkgirl, Green Arrow — who, by happy accident, seems to have lightened up — The Atom, The Flash, or other proto-Leaguers. That will give viewers and producers alike a chance to see how the character can work best.

Still, you’re probably not going to see a Hawkman spinoff on The CW anytime soon, just as you’re probably not going to see an ongoing Hawkman series from DC in the near future. All those elements — wings, weapons, multiple-choice backgrounds — can pull the character in different directions. Should he spend more time in space, fighting alien menaces; or should he focus on Earthbound heroics, perhaps with an archaeological flavor? (Might he be a xeno-archaeologist, exploring menaces from ancient Thanagar?) How much should the past lives intrude on the current one? Is he in a stable relationship with Hawkgirl? Is he going to be?

Perhaps most importantly, how much of that is merely distracting from the flying and hitting? The visual appeal of Hawkman (and Hawkgirl too, of course) is very strong, and it needs to be balanced with the character’s cerebral qualities, but not to the extent that the character feels overthought. Hawkgirl can get away with having a mysterious past more than Hawkman can, because apart from the Katar-and-Shayera days, Hawkman has tended to dwell more on his background than his partner has. The distinction carries an unavoidable amount of sexism — he’s in control, she’s battered by external forces — and it would be nice to see a TV-Hawkgirl who’s embraced all her reincarnations and is fully aware of everything she’s been through. In 2010-11’s Brightest Day miniseries, the newly revived Shayera/Hawkwoman had reached this point, but not much came of that before the New 52 reboot wiped it all away.

See, Hawkgirl offers the nuance, and the contrast, that Hawkman lacks. You will not see a Sensitive New Age Hawkman, because Hawkman is all about strength and certainty. In this respect he’s like the male lead in a romance novel. At best his aura of mystery and power is alluring; at worst he’s a condescending, controlling jerk. The closer you get, the more careful you have to be that this is who you want to get to know.

In that respect I’m hoping that TV-Hawkman is used judiciously, and in a setting where his more strident qualities can be mitigated. Obviously there’s a lot of hidden depth to the character — that early-‘00s series lasted four years as Hawkman and another year-plus as Hawkgirl — but it can’t come rushing out all at once. Doling it out over a period of weeks as part of a subplot on an hour-long TV adventure series is probably about right.

If TV-Hawkman succeeds, odds are it will inform the character’s next comics incarnation. At this point I think that’s the best way to assess Hawkman’s strengths and weaknesses. From reincarnated Egyptian prince to extraterrestrial lawman, with occasional sprinkles of Native American mysticism and escape-from-fascism rebellion, the past few decades haven’t been kind to Hawkman. From around 1996 to 2001 DC even considered him “radioactive,” forbidding JLA writer Grant Morrison from calling Zauriel by the H-word. (Come to think of it, Zauriel may be the closest DC ever comes to Sensitive New Age Hawkman.) Whenever DC revives Hawkman — and it will, don’t worry — it should do so with an eye towards only the character’s essential elements. In this regard, the brutal practicalities of television can only help.

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