“Also i just don’t know what hawkman’s deal is.” ~ Chip Zdarsky*
“I love Hawkman and I know that people think I’m just being contrary or whatever but it’s actually because he wears a bird mask and hits people with a mace and is a wife guy.” ~ Sara Century
“As I sat by the window I noticed a bird collecting twigs for a nest. The bird would swoop down, pick up the twig, and fly away. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the bird was a lawman and the twig a crook!’” ~ Gardner Fox
Some people might think that Hawkman’s deal is that he is over-designed and convoluted. Some people would agree. He has a complicated origin story and tiered secret identity. Hawkman’s deal is that he dresses like a hawk, has wings and likes to fight with maces and crossbows. He’s a alien cop living as a museum curator on Earth. The fact is that he’s at his best when he teams up with his wife and fellow alien police officer, Shayera, aka, Shiera. If you read 1960s Hawkman comics you will learn things, important facts as well as getting fightin’ and fisticuffs. So let’s do some math because when people think about comics, they think about math. I’m talking about the highest math. I’m talking about the Everything Equation in Comics:
A Healthy Relationship + Fightin’ + Ancient Weapons + A Life-Long love of Learning + Museum Jobs = Everything
This is exactly the deal for me and Silver Age Hawkman comics have all of this. They are perfect comics prominently featuring space weirdness, punching, terrestrial weirdness, museums, complicated flying mechanisms and high tech villains who are primarily after paintings and jewelry. In one panel Hawkman hits a robber in the butt–with an assist from a condor. (Shiera is handling an opening in the Egyptian Wing on her own). In the next panel, the comic explains some natural history, a scientific fact or the history of the khophesh to us. You don’t expect a lot of Empiricism in a superhero comic and yet there is Silver Age Hawkman ready with education, deduction and the like. There is usually an explanation of the mechanics and physics of Hawkman and Hawkgirl’s solutions and combat moves. And every issue includes important bird facts.
Gardner Fox co-created Hawkman and Hawkgirl with artist Dennis Neville in 1940. That Hawkman was an archaeologist named Carter Hall who is a reincarnated Egyptian prince, Khufu. Shiera Sanders, was reincarnated as his consort, Chay-Ara. It all goes very reincarnated love. But we’re not getting into that because we are here for the Hawkman of the Jet Age, aka, Silver Age Hawkman. When Fox was invited back to write Hawkman again in 1961, Fox and Kubert recreated Hawkman as a Katar Hol, a space policeman from the planet Thanagar** married to his space cop partner, Shayera. Their costumes are, in fact, the uniforms of Thanagar’s police force. The wings are detachable and, as we are often told, serve as “flight guidance” for the anti-gravity belts which allow them to soar in their pursuit of justice. In 1964, Murphy Anderson took up the art as Hawkman and Hawkgirl appeared in Hawkman #1. The series ran until 1967 for 27 Hawk-tacular issues. In the 1960s, Katar and Shayera travel to Earth, leaving their spaceship in orbit, and adopt undercover identities in Midway City as the totally human and not-at-all alien, Carter and Shiera Hall. Carter takes on a job as curator at the Midway City Museum and Shiera becomes co-curator in everything but name. And why shouldn’t Carter immediately become a museum curator without getting a graduate degree at an accredited institution?
Their Thanagarian technology includes the Absorbascon, a supercomputer that has telepathic elements that allows them to know all the Earth things and learn all human languages. Hawkman also speaks the language of birds, leading to team ups with their feathered friends to foil criminal plans. Not even Salvador Salort-Pons, curator of the Detroit Institute of Arts can do that and I suspect he has foiled his share of time-traveling painting thieves. Given all this, you might be surprised to discover that Katar and Shayera came to Earth not to learn about human curatorial standards, exhibit design or archival techniques, but to study Earth crime-fighting techniques. And in this, they adopt their identities as Hawkman and Hawkgirl to protect their secret identities as Carter and Shiera Hall, which in turn protect their identities as Katar and Shayera Hol.
It turns out the museum’s collection comes in handy because rather than risk Thanagarian technology falling into the hands of Earth villains like the Shadow Thief or Ira Quimby and his I.Q. Gang, Hawkman and Hawkgirl fight crime with human weapons like a 17th Century grenade launcher or a gaff from the museum’s maritime exhibit. (It’s okay if Hawkman touches pieces in the museum collection without gloves, he’s the curator). But the thing is, I’m pretty sure that excuse is a rationalization. The Hawks like fighting with maces, bolas, crossbows and cestī. They prefer it to their Thanagarian weapons, though they still use their advanced instruments like the Absorbascon and their radiation-detecting contact lenses. It’s just that Hawkman and Hawkgirl are all about the Earth. They even tell their superiors how much better some Earth crime-figthing techniques are. If they were worse people they would Earthsplain great Earth inventions like pie, soft pants and dumplings to us. But they’re not jerks.
You might wonder why I singled out Salvador Salort-Pons in my comments above. Well, like the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Midway City Museum is located in Michigan’s lower peninsula. Midway City started out as a DC Universe version of Chicago and then was moved from Illinois to Michigan. The city first appeared in what was also Hawkman and Hawkgirl’s first appearance, “Creature of a Thousand Shapes” in Brave and the Bold #34 (March, 1961). Midway city was home to Doom Patrol in their 1960s run.*** While I’d like to claim Doom Patrol villain Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man as a proud son/sprout/??? of the Wolverine State, maybe he was just passing through Pure Michigan. Either way, I am sad that Hawkman and Hawkgirl never battled him.
You would think being set in the same city at the same time would be the most Doom Patrol thing about Hawkman, but the comic also has some of the feel of 1960s Doom Patrol with villains who are just a bit odd even for the Silver Age. Hawkman and Hawkgirl are certainly right to be concerned about criminals getting a hold of their technology. The villains in Hawkman comics are obsessed with stealing gold, jewelry and paintings powers and technology that are overkill for such mundane criminal objectives. Sometimes in Hawkman, everybody is pretty much Mr. Nobody. Like Doom Patrol‘s villains, they have flair even when stealing a bag of gems. And they have strange backstories, technologies, powers and plans.
Shadow Thief Carl Sands commits his heists from an alien dimension. He appears as an intangible shadow in ours to carry out his thefts of jewelry. He enjoys that his interdimensional shadow is slowly destroying our dimension. In fact, it’s part of his plan, but it’s a passive plan that he savors while he robs museums and banks. Art thieves from the future travel to our time to steal paintings. They use a “human magnet” to trap people against an invisible dome while the thieves saunter around in their interesting future thieving gear.**** Ironically enough the thieves are foiled by good, old fashioned Twentieth Century paint. Ira Quimby becomes a super-intelligent inventor whenever sunlight shines on him after an encounter with a strange rock at the Midway City Museum. He builds pinwheels that distort light, making him invisible or make it appear that people have become disembodied limbs floating in space. He also creates “air-cycles” for his I.Q. Gang that look like they use paddle-boat technology so that the gang can fly over Midway City catching loot in butterfly nets. (Quimby has also caused all gold objects at an exhibit to fly into the air). And it’s not exactly a villain, but there is a strange owl alien that communicates with Hawkman and Hawkgirl using shapes. Hawkman and Hawkgirl devolve into australopithecines, but probably for less than a minute, before traveling to a planet in another dimension populated by flying gorillas, tiger people and rodent people.
And even the first appearance of everybody’s favorite magician, Zatanna, feels disturbing. In “The Girl who Split in Two” (Hawkman #4), Zatanna has accidentally split herself into two “statues” when a spell goes wrong. Each statue can only say part of a sentence. Shayera and Katar have to unite the statues to bring Zatanna back and find out what she’s trying to say. This story, our heroes’ devolution into angry australopithecines, and Ira Quimby’s body dis-embodying pinwheel shares the kind of body mutability that is never remarked on in the stories themselves but runs all through Silver Age Doom Patrol. So yeah, part of what I love about Silver Age Hawkman isn’t only the flying, fighting and respectful relationship, but some of the weird, ineffable things I love about Doom Patrol, too. These elements are delightfully unexpected in a comic so filled with facts about birds and weapons and with characters as seemingly heroically straightforward as Hawkman and Hawkgirl. I love the juxtaposition.
And I appreciate that with Hawkman‘s overarching history of convoluted continuity, retconning, unretconning and reretconning that there is a point where you both find the still, silent center of Hawkman and realize that you’re just going to have to ignore a lot that you don’t think is important or care about. You can do this with nearly any superhero as decades of creator and editorial decisions accumulate. But the situation with Hawkman is extreme now because in 1961 Gardner Fox took Hawkman and Hawkgirl in a new direction, not realizing–and probably not caring–that people now would feel there has to be an acknowledged connection between Carter Hall, archaeologist/reincarnated Egyptian prince and Carter Hall, space cop/museum curator —as well as between Shiera Sands / Officer Shayera/ and all the subsequent Hawkgirl shenanigans. So you can either try to figure out what Hawkman’s deal is continuity-wise, which is not my deal, or go ahead doing what you want and liking what you like as a reader. I think it was a shame to lose the space cops in a healthy relationship with cool museum jobs. Still when you come down to it most of the appeal is people dressing like hawks and hitting injustice with a mace. And as long as we have that, we have a lot.
*Zdarsky totally knows what Hawkman’s deal is but ended up deleting the tweet because so many people showed up to make sense of what they think of as a convoluted continuity. We do not care about that kind of continuity here at the Gutter. We care about wonders!
**“Thanagar” is such a good name for a planet. Good job, Thanagarians! Same with “Nth metal”
***More recently Suicide Squad were out and about in Midway City, at least in a movie.
****This same issue of Hawkman informs us that there is enough iron in the human body to create one nail.
Carol Borden caw caw caw! Caw CAW croak caw!
This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on May 14, 2020.