05 October 2018

From Hawkworld to Hawkworld: Thanagar to Earth

DC's 1989 Hawkworld miniseries (a.k.a. Hawkworld vol. 1) was followed by an ongoing series that ran from 1990 to 1993 (a.k.a. Hawkworld vol. 2). The original mini was written and pencilled by Timothy Truman, with inks by Enriqué Alcatena; Truman stepped back for this series, co-writing its first nine issues and pencilling its last three. All thirty-two of its issues (plus its three annuals) were written by John Ostrander, who I know best as a consistent presence in Dark Horse's Star Wars comics (scripting Clone Wars, Legacy, Agent of the Empire, and Dawn of the Jedi, among many others).

The Hawkworld mini was an origin story for Katar Hol, one that didn't actually see him assume the role or title of Hawkman, as the story was set entirely on Thanagar. It ended with a set-up for the series to come: the treasonous Commander Byth had escaped with a shape-shifting drug to a small blue planet. In the Hawkworld ongoing, Katar and his new partner, Shayera Thal, are sent to that small blue planet (i.e., Earth, duh) to track down Byth, but also help the Thanagarian ambassador to Earth repair relations between Earth and Thanagar. (During the ten years that elapsed during the middle of the mini, when Katar was in exile, Thanagar was among the alien planets that banded together to attack the Earth in Invasion!)

I think the ending of the mini put the ongoing in a difficult bind. Truman's conclusion to the mini promises a trip to Earth, yes, but the mini also did a great job establishing Thanagar as a place with a story of its own to tell. A decadent aristocracy, an oppressed underclass imported from conquered planets, an increasingly brutal police force, the first rumblings of a resistance movement. The ongoing needs to not just send Katar and Shayera to Earth, but also to keep them on Thanagar, if it's really going to deliver on all the potential of the mini's conclusion.

Ostrander and Truman actually manage to balance this really well. Of course, Katar and Shayera travel to Earth, take up residence in Chicago, and become known as superheroes. But though they bring Thanagarian artifacts for a museum exhibit, that's not the only form of cultural exchange; Katar finds himself entranced with American liberal, democratic values, seeing them as a solution to the problems plaguing Thanagar. The "Hawkworld" of the original's title obviously referred to Thanagar, but the ongoing justifies the move to Earth by expanding the meaning of the word. It's a world where the strong prey on the weak, and Katar and Shayera soon realize that despite the values it holds, Earth can be one of those too.

The series overall does a good job of balancing ongoing adventures on Earth with those back on Thanagar, as the characters make a number of trips back and forth for various reasons. We continue to see the free medical clinic Katar funds on Thanagar, and the Thanagarian government gets more and more worried about a potential rebellion, which eventually culminates in the Escape from Thanagar! storyline in issues #21-25.

Though Ostrander is one of those writers who excels at comic book plotting (each individual issue has a real story to it; each issue adds up to a bigger story, too), the main characters themselves are the real highlight of Hawkworld. Katar is a man of principle trying to make up for past mistakes, but often too much of an idealist to act quickly. Shayera is young and sure of herself, and quickly forms fierce loyalties. I liked both characters, but I loved Shayera. I'm glad that Ostrander (and Mike Gold, editor on issues #1-25) acknowledged that the series was not called Hawkman by keeping the focus on both characters pretty much equally. I'm disappointed to know that when Hawkworld was cancelled, it was replaced in short order by a series called Hawkman, which I assume means a reduced for for Shayera.

The art is strong, too. Truman's good of course (though his art style is more conventional here than the painterly one from vol. 1), but the majority of the series is by Graham Nolan, who both pencilled and inked issues #1-4, 6, 14-19, and 21, and also pencilled most other issues with various fill-in inkers. He's one of those artists I struggle to speak to, because he doesn't have a flashy style: he just competently does his thing, month in and month out. The storytelling is always clear. Jan Duursema steps in to pencil issues #27-29. Her work her is okay but sometimes unclear, but her and Ostrander would go on to be long-time collaborators, especially on Star Wars comics, where she is great. I'm pretty sure this is the first time they ever worked together.

There are a lot of highlights to the series. I'm glad the Byth plotline wasn't overextended. I appreciate the series's embeddedness in real social issues (typical of Mike Gold's editorial work: see Mike Grell's Green Arrow run, which he also edited). I liked the use of the original Carter Hall Hawkman to occasionally invoke the mythos of the JSA. I liked that what could have been grim often had a nice sense of humor and a lightness of touch. I liked the ties into the bigger DC universe, including recurring appearances from Weng Chen, formerly Blackhawks's "Chop-Chop" (another Gold-edited title). I liked the large cast around the Hawks: in addition to Weng, there's the Thanagarian ambassador to Earth, various staff and donors to the Chicago museum, a young black woman and her son who move in with the Hawks, the Hawks' PR man, a couple reporters, and several cops. Things like this help keep the series grounded and real.

It's not all good. The original Hawkworld was agnostic on when it took place-- it could have all been a leadp-in to the Silver Age Hawkman's first appearance in The Brave and the Bold vol. 1 #34 (Feb./Mar. 1961), just like how Batman: Year One established a new, modern origin for Batman, but set it many years in the past. But the ongoing firmly establishes that Katar and Shayera visit Earth in the "present" of the DC universe, "wiping out" all the adventures of the Silver Age Hawkman from 1961 to 1989. I think this was the right call: it's hard to imagine how the ideas introduced by Truman in the mini could have been as relevant if the ongoing had established that the Hawks first came to Earth fifteen years prior. Like, I want to see Katar discover the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and begin rethinking his entire way of life, and I want to see him funding his insurrection back home.

But it definitely does create some problems, which cause tons of people to write into the lettercols, and worse, the story itself has to answer them. I don't mind a little bit of retconning, but at times, too much space and energy is given over to them. Like, no retcon will be completely elegant; I feel like Ostrander should have tossed something out that kind of worked overall (as he did in Hawkworld Annual #1) and ignored the details. Not all of them add up: it always felt kind of lame how it was established that Katar's dad had had a secret trip to Earth, and nothing can explain away why the Golden Age Hawkman is named Carter Hall with a wife named Shiera, while the new Hawkman in a complete coincidence is named Katar Hol with a partner named Shayera.

However, people couldn't accept the retcon in all its details and kept writing in with objections to the retcon, and little extra details kept being doled out to fix those objections, and at a certain point, my reaction is, Stop poking at it, you're making it worse. At least, though, Ostrander usually does a good job of making the retcons relevant to the story, rather than having them just to have them. (Escape from Thanagar! makes up a whole extra Hawkman to plug a gap between from 1986 to 1989, but also has this extra Hawkman turn up to murder Shayera.)

The comic also begins to lose its way near the end, which I suspect is due to the fact that Archie Goodwin replaced Mike Gold as editor, and probably brought with him a new set of priorities. Escape from Thanagar! is a great story, and probably the highlight of the whole run, but it definitely wraps up a number of ongoing plots too quickly, and once it's over, a number of recurring side characters vanish. There's also a costume change around this time I didn't really care for.

The whole Hawkworld series wraps up with the six-part Flight's End (#27-32), which starts off well: the idea that the U.S. won't accept refugees, and that someone is stirring up racial animus while denying they're doing so is disappointingly topical for 2018 even though it was published in 1992. But then the story lurches into, like, dirty, punky 1990s stuff. I don't have a word for the aesthetic, but it was everywhere in early 1990s comics (it also ruined Alpha Flight, well, except that Alpha Flight was already ruined): lots of bad guys who look like KISS and are very "eXtreme"!

It transitions the comic from social relevance into something pretending to be edgy but really only banal, and it doesn't bode well for when I eventually pick up the successor series, the retooled Hawkman. I read Hawkworld because of my interest in DC's space-based comics, but the tail end of Hawkworld is clearly pulling back from those space elements that made Hawkworld interesting to me in the first place, and I suspect the title change will unfortunately cement that. (I don't have much of a sense what Hawkman vol. 3 is like. You can find a lot of write-ups on the Internet about the Hawkworld ongoing, but Hawkman vol. 3 is usually only mentioned for the bare fact of its existence.)

Still, the late 1980s and early 1990s were one of DC's most creatively fertile periods, and Hawkworld is a shining example of the kind of unusual, interesting work the publisher was able to do in that era.

Previous Overviews of 1980s/90s Space-Based DC Ongoings:

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