The Savaged Hawkman: What latest DC casualty says about New 52

by  in Comic News Comment
The Savaged <i>Hawkman</i>: What latest DC casualty says about New 52

According to recent convention scuttlebutt, DC Comics is apparently canceling its latest Hawkman series, the New 52-launched Savage Hawkman, perhaps as early as May’s Issue 20.

That is not the least bit surprising, really, given the publisher’s historical difficulty in keeping readers interested in Hawkman, and given the way in which the title and the character were served by the line-wide reboot and the accompanying creative-team chaos. It’s too bad, though, given how easily DC could have simply published the sort of Hawkman title the 21st-century super-comic audience would support, rather than The Savage Hawkman.

The series launched in September 2011 along with the other 51 new series comprising DC’s New 52 initiative, featuring a rebooted continuity for the then 71-year-old hero and a redesigned costume featuring more armor and pointed edges (most notably a set of Wolverine-like claws frequently waved in the direction of the reader on the covers). The creative team consisted of artist-turned-writer/artist Tony S. Daniel, who was just handling the writing, and Philip Tan, who was providing the art.

That creative team went more or less unchanged for just six issues (with Daniel welcoming a co-writer by the fourth). In other words, it remained unchanged for about one story arc. The seventh issue featured guest artist Cliff Richards, Tan returned for one more issue and, with the ninth issue, a new creative team was announced: Fading superstar Rob Liefeld writing (and poorly drawing generally hilarious covers), writer Mark Poulton co-writing, and DC regulars Joe Bennett and Art Thibert providing pencils and inks, respectively (space on Liefeld’s schedule opened after his Hawk and Dove was among the very first of the New 52 books to be canceled, after just eight issues).

Six issues later, Poulton disappeared, and veteran writer Frank Tieri’s name popped up in the credits, first credited with dialogue and then as a co-writer. Issue 14 featured a second art team in addition to the Bennett/Thibert one. By Issue 16, Tieri was the only writer credited (as to what happened to Liefeld, anyone who reads any comics news blogs will recall his recounting of his dissatisfaction in an avalanche of tweeting, which drew in other comics creators).

DC’s upcoming solicitations list Tieri as the writer for Issue 17 and Tom DeFalco for issues 18 and 19. All together, that’s four writing teams and two major art teams in less than two years: Not exactly a healthy situation, made no healthier by the fact that none of the creators involved is a top-tier talent with a proven record for putting eyeballs on comics pages, with the possible exception of Liefeld, who seems to bring a die-hard group of fans and rubbernecking haters to all of his projects, but generally only the ones he draws, not writes. (Following the cancellation of Hawk and Dove, Liefeld took to writing Hawkman and Grifter, the latter of which has also been canceled, and writing and drawing Deathstroke, which was selling slightly less than Hawkman as of November).

So what went wrong? According to Liefeld’s Twitter account, what didn’t? But the problem can be traced back to two basic sources: 1.) It was Hawkman; and 2.) It was a rebooted Hawkman, rebooted for rebooting’s sake.

Let’s take a quick look at Hawkman’s publication history first, shall we?

At his 1940 inception, Hawkman was a pretty strong  superhero concept: Writer Gardner Fox and artist Dennnis Neville presented a character whose name, super-powers and basic design were already field-tested in Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comic strips. Archaeologist and museum curator Carter Hall discovered he was a reincarnated Egyptian prince and found a mysterious “ninth metal” (which would lose its I and one of its N’s later) that allowed him to fly. He took off his shirt, put on a helmet, a harness with big-ass wings and grabbed something heavy from the museum to go fight crime with. Hawkman was born!

A classic second-, third- or fourth-stringer, that Hawkman never earned his own title, but starred in solo strips in Flash and as part of the Justice Society of America  in All-Star. He disappeared with most other superheroes in the early 1950s, and made a Silver Age comeback as part of editor Julius Schwartz’s science fiction-flavored remodeling of Golden Agers like The Flash, Green Lantern and The Atom.

The new Hawkman was Katar Hol, a policeman from the alien world of Thanagar, come to Earth to study our world’s crime-fighting techniques. This new Hawkman joined the Silver Age version of the JSA, the JLA, and he was thus guaranteed a place in DC history going forward. When Gardner Fox started writing the Justice League, he gradually invented a multiverse, with the current Justice League versions of all of the above living on Earth-1, and the Golden Age originals all inhabiting Earth-2. Things got a little messy when 1986-87’s Crisis on Infinite Earths smooshed both worlds (and all the others) into one, so that now the Silver Age Hawkman followed the Golden Age Hawkman in the same world and timeline.

The post-Crisis reboots and retcons that tried to make sense of Hawkman and Hawkgirl and/or Hawkwoman in DC continuity had an almost opposite effect, with each attempt to make some sense of the characters’ history in the one-Earth context only serving to make the character more and more complicated. Like Power Girl, Donna Troy and the Legion of Superheroes, Hawkman became a trouble spot in DC continuity.

The 1990s fix that occurred in Zero Hour, which merged all of the Hawkmen into a Hawkgod character, may have given birth to one of his longest-running monthly series but also further broke him, ultimately leaving the character “radioactive.” He disappeared for a while, with even a writer as creative and popular as Grant Morrison forbidden to use him. (Morrison had said in interviews that his angel character Zauriel for JLA was intended to become the new Hawkman, but DC didn’t want to use the name at all, so Zauriel just went by “Zauriel.”)

It would take Geoff Johns and his co-writer David S. Goyer to finally untangle the Gordian Knot of Hawkman, in a 2001 story arc prosaically titled “The Return of Hawkman” in the pages of their JSA, a series that took delight in playing with DC continuity, smoothing its rough edges and finding workable ways forward from the most disastrous plot points of the past.

Goyer and Johns’ solution was to essentially blend together the Golden Age and Silver Age characters, using the reincarnation aspect present in the very first Hawkman story: The “new” Hawkman was the Golden Age version, who was once an Egyptian prince who came into contact with Nth Metal on a Thanagarian spaceship that crash-landed on Earth. He and his princess were reincarnated over and over; he was Katar Hol, and now he was back as Carter Hall.

It was a pretty delicate house of cards, but it seemed to work to fans’ satisfaction. Not only did Hawkman stay in JSA for the remainder of the book’s run, he also earned another go at a solo title (also written by Johns, and, for a while, co-writer James Robinson). The 2002 Hawkman series lasted 49 issues — that’s longer than any Hawkman title before or since — the first 25 of which were penned by Johns. When he and the original art team of Rags Morales and Michael Bair left, the writer stated in interviews that his goal had been to make a Hawkman book capable of going the distance, and while he was conflicted about leaving, he was confident they had built a book and a character strong enough to last.

It lasted, but not that long. During the post-Infinite Crisis refurbishing of the DC Universe, branded “One Year Later,” Hawkman was replaced with Hawkgirl, a Walter Simonson-written, Howard Chaykin-drawn book that kept Hawkman‘s numbering (Hawkgirl launched at Issue 50). It lasted just 17 issues. Meanwhile, DC started to pick at the scab of Hawkman’s healed-over continuity wound, and, ultimately, Johns killed off Hawkman in Blackest Night only to resurrect him in the final issue.

From there, Hawkman was one of about a half-dozen or so characters Johns spent a year writing in the biweekly Brightest Day — along with Martian Manhunter, Aquaman and Mera, Hawk and Dove, Firestorm, and Deadman — seemingly repositioning them all for new directions at the series’ end.

Instead, DC rebooted its entire line, leaving the year-long build-up of Brightest Day to evaporate. Hawkman got his new title, but because of the accompanying continuity reboot, Johns and company’s years of work on the character naturally needed to excised and forgotten or ignored.

Theoretically, the New 52 reboot would have given new creators a chance to ignore the 30 years or so of continuity tinkering, but after so long, weren’t retcons and reboots part of Hawkman’s core character, part of his appeal? (Certainly Johns, Goyer and Robinson integrated them directly into the character). Sure, it was an opportunity to start fresh, but, like much of the New 52 reboot, DC’s editorial staff didn’t seem particulary interested in seeking out new talent or new creators with bold, new ideas about taking their characters in exciting new directions.

Most of the “new” creators came from those working for DC’s Vertigo imprint, or from 1990s talents who haven’t worked with the company or characters before. The rest of the talent pool consisted of those who were already making DC books, and so Detective Comics writer/artist Tony S. Daniel and The Outsiders artist Philip Tan got the task of starting Hawkman over for the first time since Julius Schwartz had Gardner Fox and Joe Kubert do so in a 1961 issue of The Brave and The Bold.

It probably shouldn’t come as much surprise that it didn’t work, and that the book didn’t make it two years. If it is indeed canceled with May’s 20th issue or June’s 21st issue, then that would mean it lasted just a few issues longer than Simonson’s Hawkgirl and the 17-issue 1986-87 Hawkman series launched by Tony Isabella and Richard Howell, and not quite as long as the 27-issue,  1964-1968 Fox/Murphy Anderson Hawkman, and nowhere near as long as the so often dissed and dismissed 33-issue 1993-1996 series initially written by John Ostrander and Timothy Truman and drawn by Jan Duursema and Rick Magyar (which, perhaps notably, changed creative hands at a New 52-like rate).

So what’s the lesson here, exactly?

Nothing that most sensible readers and observers probably didn’t already know before DC released the solicitation for Savage Hawkman #1. (So, I guess everyone who didn’t edit Hawkman …?) Creators matter, and they matter a lot, a lot more than the characters do, especially if the characters aren’t Batman but are instead, say, Hawkman.

If one looks at the all of the New 52 titles to get canceled so far, there are some obvious patterns, and not just the presence of Rob Liefeld and/or WildStorm-originated properties. Here’s what DC has canceled so far: Blackhawks, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.,  G.I. Combat, Grifter, Hawk and Dove, Justice League International, Legion Lost, Men of War, Mister Terrific, OMAC, Resurrection ManStatic Shock and Voodoo.

Now, I like the DC Universe, its characters and its history, so I’ll be quick to point out that many of those books radically reinvented their characters or concepts and departed from the pre-reboot continuity. I’ll also be aware that I’m somewhat biased, so maybe re-doing books like Blue Beetle for no reason or back-tracking all of Johns’ work in Brightest Day for a new Hawk and Dove makes some amount of sense I’m just not seeing, due to my so enjoying the previous volume of Blue Beetle or liking Brightest Day OK.

But many of them had a great deal of creative-team chaos as evidenced by the rapidly changing credits, and tweets, interviews and blog posts revealed an awful lot of disagreement among creators and editors. A lot of those books were assigned to those already working for DC — some of them on poorly selling pre-New 52 books — seemingly with little time for the creators to think of new or interesting takes on the characters.

Meanwhile, if you look at the New 52 series that have been selling the best for DC, and/or the ones that are most critically acclaimed, books like Justice League, The Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (and its three sister books) and Batman (and its many related titles, but most notably Batwoman, Batman and Robin and Batman Inc.) you see other, opposite patterns. Creative consistency, for example, with many of the above books featuring the same writers and/or artists for most of their runs to date. (I could also note that not rebooting seems to be a sales boon, given that the Batman and Green Lantern franchises mostly just picked up where they left off before the New 52 relaunch, and are outselling just about everything not drawn by Jim Lee and/or written by Geoff Johns, but, again, maybe that’ s my continuity bias showing.)

And I suppose it’s always possible that Savage Hawkman was just a consistently poorly made comic book, and readers don’t like to read bad superhero comics. At least not for too long, not when DC offers 51 other choices, and when Marvel provides at least that many (and that’s just counting the corporate super-comics!).

And I suppose people might just really not like Hawkman, no matter how many pointy edges he’s given.