Hawkman, who’s gearing up for his big screen debut in The Rock’s Black Adam, is widely considered to have one of the most impossibly convoluted back stories in all of superhero comics history. That’s a bold claim for a genre that is home to characters like Nathan Christopher Charles Summers, but it wasn’t always that way.
Once upon a time, he was just Carter Hall, a regular old reincarnation of the Egyptian god Khufu, in love with his reincarnated bride, Shiera, fighting crime together with the help of a large bird named Big Red. Okay, so maybe his origin story was always a little complicated, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great.
Most importantly, in a time when female characters were relegated to roles of servitude in comics — with Wonder Woman serving as the Justice League’s secretary and Invisible Girl’s scientist boyfriend talking to her like a toddler — Shiera and Carter worked together at a museum and respected each other as equals. Sometimes Women’s Lib means you punch winged gorillas right alongside your hubby. Here’s how Carter became one of the earliest Wife Guys in superhero comics.
A guy, a girl, and a couple of bird masks
Carter and Shiera were both created by Gardner Fox and artist Dennis Neville, making their debut appearance in 1940’s Flash Comics #1. It took Shiera about a year to don the name of Hawkgirl, and the two became inseparable throughout most of the remaining days of the Hawkman back-up feature in Flash, which lasted until the late ’40s. Superheroes were more or less phased out during the ’50s except for the biggest juggernauts like Batman and Superman, so Hawk appearances were scarce until Carter was inducted into the Justice League. Shiera wasn’t allowed in the team due to a rule that only one new member could join at a time, and we are sure that is one hundred percent the only reason (just kidding, it was sexism).
Despite this burn, when Hawkman got his own solo series in 1964, Shiera (now renamed Shayera Hol) became a major force to be reckoned with. From the first issue to the last, they worked together as a team. Even if the Justice League didn’t see what made Shayera so valuable as a teammate, Carter always did.
Unlike other superheroes, whose attitude towards their love interests was often condescending and paternalistic in this time period, Carter always seemed perfectly aware that Shayera was the one keeping him afloat. Looking back today, their marriage is the great strength of the series. Even when separated, he’s always thinking of her, but not just because they’re in love. He fully trusts her to do all of the things that he can do, and he doesn’t condescend to her. Shayera challenges Carter to be a better person at every turn, and they delight in competition with each other.
Not So Solo Adventures
By the mid-’60s, Hawkman and Hawkgirl were retconned to no longer be reincarnated Egyptian gods and were now instead space police from the planet Thanagar. In the future, this would lead to all kinds of wildly complicated story arcs and even an intergalactic war. But in the moment, the two merely worked at Stonechat Museum together and spent much of their time casually observing life on Earth while righting various wrongs. Their villains were bizarre, sci-fi inspired concepts like the aforementioned winged gorillas, the Shadow Thief — who could use technology to turn people into their own shadows — and a bizarre crew of villains that appeared only as hands, stealing important artifacts from the museum. Carter and Shayera’s status as well-intentioned observers first and superheroes second gave a different feel to the series than that of a standard superhero duo.
Crisis on Infinite Marriages
But all was not wedded bliss. In 1968, due to poor sales, The Atom and Hawkman’s books were merged into one, and the series somehow got even better. Ray Palmer’s nerdy excitement over science and Carter and Shayera’s inclination towards epic fights made for a perfect combination. Sadly, sales still floundered, and the series drew to a close. And while the characters lacked a steady home in this period, they still saw some growth. For instance, Shayera changed her name to Hawkwoman, solidifying her status as an equal to her husband and a powerful hero in her own right.
Once Crisis on Infinite Earths hit the stands in 1985, the story of Carter and Shayera flew so wildly off the rails that you’d need a dedicated podcast to keep track of it. Regularly cited as a character that writers and audiences alike “don’t get,” years of new starts spinning in wildly different directions — followed by abrupt stops — haven’t always made it easy to explain the appeal.
Today the only possible answer to “what’s Hawkman’s deal?” is to shrug and note that he is a wife guy with a mace. And truly, what more does one need? The recent comic penned by Robert Venditti with art by Bryan Hitch brought Shayera and Carter back together to face exciting new enemies, and though it is now drawing to a close, Carter and Shiera are in a place to really move forward for the first time in a long time.
Wife Guy to the end
The fact that Carter relied on Shayera and spoke to her as an adult of equal intelligence shouldn’t have been as groundbreaking as it was, but — it was still groundbreaking. Though Shayera has vanished from continuity multiple times throughout the years, Carter knows just as well as the rest of us that things are just a lot better when she’s around. And though Shayera has flown solo in many adaptations, with series like Justice League Unlimited and Legends of Tomorrow showing that she can stand powerfully on her own two feet (hover on her own two wings?), there’s something to be said about the delight of reading about a couple that is just super into each other with no caveats. Even today, there still has yet to be another superhero couple like Hawkman and Hawkwoman.