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DC Comics’ Blackhawks, explained

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Steven Spielberg’s DC Comics movie that you’ve never heard of

From DC: The New Frontier Vol 1, DC Comics (2004). Darwyn Cooke/DC Comics

Steven Spielberg is producing Blackhawk, his first DC Comics adaptation, and may even direct. But on a list of DC Comics best known properties, Spielberg’s chosen subject is very, very low.

It’s not surprising that the producer and director of films like Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima has picked a DC Comics property that’s core to the history of American comics in World War II. But given how synonymous DC Comics is with “superheroes” these days, it’s understandable to be surprised that the company has any non-superhero stories in its back catalog.

Unless you’ve studied a bit of comics history, you’re probably scratching your head at the announcement. So let’s dig in:

Who is Blackhawk? And who are the Blackhawks?

The cover of Blackhawk #257, DC Comics (early 1980s).
A cover from the 1982 reboot of Blackhawk.
Howard Chaykin/DC Comics

Blackhawk is the codename of the leader of the Blackhawks, an international squadron of World War II fighter pilots who operated out of their secret base of Blackhawk Island, screaming a rallying cry of “Hawk-a-a-a” when they swept into battle. Traditionally, the seven members of the Blackhawks were each from a different Allied country — many were soldiers who had escaped the Nazi occupation of their home, and Blackhawk himself was often depicted as Polish. They fought the Axis under their own red and black hawk symbol rather than that of any nation.

Blackhawk and his allies were created by Chuck Cuidera, with some influence from Bob Powell and legendary comics auteur Will Eisner. They first appeared in 1941’s Military Comics #1, a book published by the now-shuttered Quality Comics. Like many of their counterparts — Captain America, for example — they battled Nazi forces before the United States had entered World War II, a time when American involvement in the conflict was still a controversial idea.

You might not have heard of the Blackhawks or their long-running comic series, Blackhawk, in the year 2018. But if this was the year 1948, you would have. There were periods in the 1940s in which Blackhawk sold better than every other comic book on the stands except Superman’s — better than Batman or Captain America. There was a Blackhawk radio series in 1950, and a movie serial in 1952.

The Blackhawk comic even survived the shuttering of Quality Comics in 1956, when it was picked up and continued by DC Comics with the same creative team. It was cancelled for the first time in 1968, making Blackhawk himself one of only four comic book characters in history to have starred in their own consistently published title from the 1940s to the 1960s.

So why have I never heard of them?

Comics changed.

In the post-war period, there were a lot of comic books that struggled to find a new menace for their heroes to combat, now that the global conflict had cooled. This is the era in which kryptonite first became incorporated into comic book canon: A way to bring Superman’s powers down so that a variety of villains could pose a threat to him, instead of the amassed war machine of the Axis.

The Blackhawks acquired recurring supervillains, adopted a female member for the first time — Lady Blackhawk — and battled an array of fantastic science-enabled machines, including “shark planes” that could fly through both air and sea. Ultimately, they were a casualty of a general withering of almost every genre in American comics other than superhero adventures — one of the longest-lasting consequences of the self-imposed censorship organization know as the Comics Code Authority.

The Blackhawks never really made the transition to the superhero-dominated comics world.

Is there any place I MIGHT remember the Blackhawks from?

They had a short-lived reboot in the early 1980s, which, among other changes, heavily updated one of the Blackhawks most dated elements: a super racist Chinese sidekick-slash-cook character who spoke in slurred and broken English, and was even drawn in a less realistic style than the rest of the characters. Interestingly enough, the 1982 Blackhawk series was created because of rumors that Steven Spielberg was interested in an adaptation. DC thought that if there was a chance a movie got made, it would be a good investment to have a comic already up and running.

If you’re not quite of the age to have noticed a short-lived comics reboot in 1982, you might have seen the Blackhawks in Cartoon Network’s Justice League series. In the episode “Savage Time,” most of the Justice League travels back in time to World War II to undo changes to the timeline made by the villain Vandal Savage, and they run into the squadron.

You can watch a bit of their introduction in the video below (followed by an appearance from Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, another fondly remembered relic from DC Comics’ World War-time days):

These days, the Blackhawks still have a place in DC Comics canon in an unexpected way: Scott Snyder incorporated them into the background of his Dark Nights: Metal crossover event. In Metal, Kendra Saunders — aka Hawkgirl — is Lady Blackhawk, and the Blackhawks aren’t a group of fighter pilots. Instead, they’re a secret society linked to the superheroes Hawkman and Hawkgirl, dedicated to preventing the discovery of the Dark Multiverse.

It’s safe to say that if Spielberg does wind up bringing the Blackhawks to the big screen in the next few years, he’ll be going with a more classic interpretation. And in that sense, it’s not a bad match to put one of the most famous World War II comics in the hands of a filmmaker who’s done so much work set in that period.