The story of DC Comics’ house art style during the superhero genre’s “Silver Age”, from about 1955 to ’68, is often repeated, and with good reason: it’s the most compelling explanation for why the company, until then always the top publisher of action comics, surrendered their dominance to Marvel, which has held onto the number one spot ever since. During the mid-’50s, in the wake of government censorship trials that effectively destroyed EC, the publisher of the most aesthetically advanced material the comic book format had yet seen, DC came to the fore with a visual identity crafted by future company art director Carmine Infantino: sleek and economical, with long, distended panel shapes, cookie-cutter settings that shifted almost imperceptibly from Swedish-modern suburban to futuristic, and an approach to portraying action that, perhaps in response to the recent outcry against excessively violent comics, emphasized grace and fluidity of motion over bone-shuddering impact. It was a style tailor-made for success in the socially conservative Space Age, and as the comics industry went comatose following its near-death experience, DC’s resurgent superhero comics provided one of a very few aesthetic and commercial bright spots.
Then, the conventional wisdom goes, along came Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Marvel, with an expressionistic, visceral style of storytelling that tapped the cultural pressure points of the turbulent, Pop Art ’60s the same way DC’s house style had epitomized the previous decade. It’s conventional wisdom because it’s largely true: while ’60s DC books have a childlike elegance all their own, they feel like portals to a bygone age, while the best of Marvel’s output over the same period reads like more modern comics than the majority of the company’s current output. But things aren’t that black and white. At the same time that Marvel was taking its first steps toward industry dominance, DC was publishing one feature with art that not only danced to the same edgy, aggressive beat of Kirby and Ditko, but tapped into even darker, wilder spaces. The character was Hawkman, and the artist was Joe Kubert.
Kubert’s brief Hawkman run is a historical curiosity — the grimmest comic from a publisher engaged in releasing some of the most whimsical, sunny work ever to grace the medium — but it becomes much more the second you start reading. Less an action comic than a visual well to plunge into, it’s astonishingly powerful, often highly unsettling comics that, like the best of the work being done across town at Marvel, stands up as well as ever today. Where his co-workers went like, Kubert went dark, and not by halves — he blasted settings both comfortably residential and promisingly spacey with paranoid shadows and claustrophobic compositions, choreographed savagely violent fight scenes, and mixed contortionist figuration with shots that glorified the beauty of the human figure as well as any Renaissance painting.
It’s hard to find a superhero comic that looks less bright and shiny than this one: tidal waves of ink wash over everything, draping characterss in shadow and blacking out backgrounds completely, creating a boldly graphic neo-noir hero comic unlike anything else of its age. What’s familiar is made foreign by the way it’s drawn, and the more far-out visuals seem to tap into a Lovecraftian world beyond all imagining. Kubert had drawn the interstellar police officer Hawkman in a relatively straightahead hero comics style during the character’s previous incarnation as a resurrected Egyptian prince, and that version’s references to antiquity are very much a part of the darkwave Mark II Hawkman as well. Combined with the stories’ subject matter, winged warriors combating magical menaces with medieval weaponry, the final product is something that would be surrealistic if it weren’t so commitedly grave.
In its best passages, like the one above, Kubert’s Hawkman resembles some kind of bizarre space-age hermetic text, with the far-flung sci-fi concepts made pleasantly goofy elsewhere by the Infantino house style turned into alarming, barely comprehensible omens of tomorrow’s looming menace. The story that distills the book’s aesthetic with greatest potency is “The Men Who Moved The World”, Kubert’s swan song on Hawkman: pitting the hero against animal-headed men from a civilization that ruled over Earth before the advent of humanity, it is perhaps the most convincing argument for the comics form as direct descendant of Egyptian hieroglyphic painting, prime fodder for the cultural theorists who posit superheroes as modern-day gods battling for control of the world. The sequence above is Kubert’s approach to superheroics at its purest: stark black backgrounds foreground brutally kinetic action, cutting swaths of shadow into the figures before disappearing altogether as the hero delivers his final blows. It’s swift and powerful and creepy all at once, the grandeur of a perfectly formed body in motion clanging off the disturbingly monstrous villains and the unsettling tweaked perspective in the fourth panel.
This is one of comics’ greatest cartoonists breaking all the rules he can, and expanding the scope of the medium’s dominant genre in the process. The next appearance of Hawkman would be drawn by Murphy Anderson, whose refined, illustrative style couldn’t be more different than Kubert’s ink-drenched visions — henceforth restricted to DC’s war titles. But the work remains: nothing less than a foundation stone for every noirish or gritty superhero comic since, and a spiritual cousin to modern masterworks from Hellboy to Powr Mastrs. It’s a little-discussed chapter of superhero history, one that affected little in its own time. But from today’s perspective, it’s a jewel — one of great rarity, and even greater beauty.