Blackhawks is one of the more eccentric of The New 52, reviving a set of characters created by Will Eisner, Chuck Cuidera and Bob Powell in 1941. The Blackhawks were a squadron of fighter pilots, each a different nationality and united to fight in World War II. The concept was immensely successful, although as World War II ended and more time passed, it became increasingly difficult to sell the idea without plugging it into more conventional superhero trappings. The characters were revived twice, made several appearances elsewhere but the concept as a whole began to fade into DC history.
This version, written by Mike Costa, manages to not only honour that concept but nest it inside two separate, but complimentary, modern tropes. The first is the re-imagining of the squadron as a much larger unit,with ground forces, logistical staff and UN backing. This places them, interestingly, in almost exactly the position the original version of Stormwatch occupied, and also allows for a larger cast and scope. There are echoes of the classic Larry Hama run on GI Joe here, with the team’s secret headquarters, vast array of aircraft and concealed headquarters, along with their code names and differing specialities all elements that echo Hama’s work whilst still honouring the original cconcept. They’re still an elite unit of international misfits but by placing them in a deliberately contemporary, grounded setting, Costa is able to expand the focus of the series but not lose sight of it.
The second is the inevitable engagement of pop culture with the War on Terror. Pop culture, by its very nature, reflects the time in which it was produced, as shown by the original series using World War II as a backdrop. That engagement has, over the space of the last ten years run the gamut of responses, from gutpunch emotional reaction to cynicism to it becoming a backdrop rather than an active element of fiction. Geopolitical chaos has become a fact of life, and, at its best, pop culture has explored both the human consequences of that and the ways in which society has reacted.
Which all seems like a colossally over intellectual approach to a comic involving fighter planes, power armour and a Russian who is called the Irishman but this is the background that Costa plays with and he plays with it well. He neatly sketches out the idea of the Blackhawks as an elite special forces unit who are tied to the United Nations but not as tied as some might think. It’s another standard trope, one which Ellis used to great effect in his run on Stormwatch and which was later explored by Greg Rucka in Checkmate and it works well here, once again. The end result is the sensation that the Blackhawks are essentially this universe’s attack dogs, the unit that the UN unleash when something difficult and unpleasant needs doing. He does a good job of sketching out the characters too, with the unflappable Canada and Kunoichi, the team’s resident pointwoman and seeming adrenalin junkie the two standouts. Again, none of these characters are unique or revolutionary but none of them need to be. This is high tech pulp, and as a result the more familiar the characters the better.
Blackhawks is a known quantity but a welcome one. Costa’s script has some nice action beats to it and the art, by Graham Nolan on layouts and Ken Lashley on finishing and cover is brawny but expressive, giving the characters and the tech room to shine. All in all, this is certainly one of the more left of centre of the DC New 52 but it’s also one of the best put together. It’s a smart, ideas-heavy fast paced modern thriller and it deserves to be given a chance to shine.