Sometimes we just want to talk about old comics we found in bargain bins or antique stores or in our garages. Is that so wrong? In this installment, we look back at Tim Truman’s 1989 miniseries Hawkworld, which sought to reinvent Hawkman for the modern comics era by depicting his origins as an idealistic rookie cop on the mean streets of Thanagar…
One of comics’ greatest tragedies is that mainstream comics took all their cues for the ’90s from Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns rather than that other seminal DC prestige work from 1986, The Shadow: Blood and Judgment. It’s not that Howard Chaykin’s career didn’t go pretty well afterwards (here’s looking at you Mutant X, you weird basic cable hit) or that those other legendary works aren’t worth a glance or two, it’s just that for all the “adult” superheroic glory thrown their way, Blood and Judgment is a more adult look at the genre because its creator was less concerned with iconography and analogues than he was with ripping shit up and starting again. Watchmen has its Charlton ciphers, DKR has its disgruntled old man Wayne but Blood and Judgment says a pretty literal “fuck you” to Shadow canon and then constructs itself around the people around the Shadow rather than the character himself. And here’s the thing: a few years later, DC still trusted this approach to the less fondly remembered characters in its catalog and allowed Timothy Truman to do some similarly intense reconstructive surgery in Hawkworld.
Curiously forgotten today, Hawkworld deserves to be held up as the last part of a trifecta of gonzo writer-artist remixes of classic characters alongside DKR and Blood and Judgment, subbing out those two’s more terrestrial setting for something alien, specifically the hardcore avian imperialist nightmare of Thanagar. Truman would gain perhaps his greatest success a few years later with his work reviving Jonah Hex alongside cult writer Joe R. Lansdale so readers who are most familiar with his nightmarish Western material are likely to be surprised by the vivid, exotic setting and populations of Hawkworld, but both series share an imaginative ugliness in literal aesthetic as well as tone. The setting of Hawkworld is so important it takes place in the title over the character of Hawkman, something even the similarly deconstructive The Shadow: Blood and Judgment didn’t do; DKR and Blood and Judgment use their characters to ground you as they shift tonal expectations but Hawkworld uses character recognition to disorient, to make you as confused and anxious as Katar Hol as you’re both dropped into a sci-fi Chinatown situation.
It is of course fair to say that even a straight Hawkman story would likely be a little disorienting, though, due to the extremely convoluted history of the character. When Truman was given the task of reinventing Hawkman after he had already been reinvented for a new post-Crisis DC, Hawkman was in a state of dissociative existence, simultaneously functioning as a resurrected Egyptian pharaoh and a Thanagarian policeman and sometimes both at once. Rather than deal with any of that, Truman chose to depart Earth and work with noir tropes on Thanagar, giving readers an opportunity to be entranced by the world Katar Hol has been born into rather than his specific origin.
The Thanagar that Truman depicts is an intergalactic Roman empire, a former small potatoes nation that overthrew its rulers and proceeded to get vengeance by conquering all of its neighboring planets. Not content to merely assimilate these other cultures, Thanagarians have also created a Metropolis-like system where the “pure” and rich live in towers above the rabble, those Thanagarian wings reconfigured as a symbol not of freedom but oppression. Hawkworld is a work of the Reagan era, without question, but isn’t it funny how these issues are so cyclical? Truman’s commentary on trickle down economics and fear of the foreigner/other were incendiary three decades ago and now they’re arguably even more incendiary, especially when you factor in all the scenes of police brutality and senseless killings. Truman drives that all home even before you’ve started to read the first issue, detailing the Thanagarian lower class trying to reach out of the credits page, looking exhausted and overwhelmed and hungry.
Blood and Judgment is basically an anti-political piece and Dark Knight Returns has the unfocused DAMN THE MAN, I’M TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT politics of a number of ’80s work but Hawkworld uses its alien setting to ask more human questions, demanding readers consider what the cost of their comfortable lifestyle is, to think of the impact globalization has on the assimilated cultures. Fittingly, Katar Hol is a kind of grim idealist, the son of his world’s greatest scientist and thinker and thus the inheritor of an uncomfortable relationship with the state. You see, the elder Hol invented the high rises and wings that allow Thanagarians to literally live it up above the unwashed masses and so Katar is more than a tough young cop desperate to prove himself, he’s a man who has grown up surrounded by science and is disturbed by the bad it has brought with the good. Eventually Katar is given a more personal tragedy to add to his desperate struggle against the state but this isn’t Batman punishing criminals with his fists to make up for an orphaned childhood– this is a young man who thinks he can beat the system his family helped create, only to be struck down by it and forced to live in its bottom recesses and learn humility.
Truman comes at this material with a noir style for the writing but the art leans closer to the European sensibilities of Heavy Metal and the UK grime of 2000 AD. The first issue even begins like a Judge Dredd story, as a rookie Katar Hol is sent in to deal with a hostage situation in a slum, paired with a grizzled vet named Kragger who kills the alleged hostage taker as he makes some mysterious demand to talk to their CO Byth. Hol’s sharp eye for details helps him spot a hidden weapons cache but rather than be proud of his skills he feels disillusioned with the entire operation, like he’s a patsy in some larger conspiracy and that exhausting sense of helplessness carries over to the visuals. Hawkworld forces a lot of blunt symbolism on the reader, from the kill-and-be-killed scene that opens the book as a hawk brings its young a lizard only to be devoured by a large lizard man to the corrupted statue of a legendary Thanagarian hero that looms above Katar Hol on his first mission and throughout the miniseries, and while this might come across as hacky and cliche in another work, here it’s clearly out of a need to create a sense of claustrophobia. Katar Hol is no mere grim and gritty lone hero, taking rogue action against a state out of righteousness, he’s a troubled young man who has a clear idea of how the world should work but is met at every corner by signs and symbols of the way it actually functions.
Sheathed in trademark noir shadow, Hawkworld suitably only brightens up when Katar Hol heads outside of his culture, like the hunting excursion that closes the first issue and the island exile that makes up the bulk of the second act. Katar’s father meant for the wings he created to give his people freedom but Katar himself views them as a shackle, so only when he’s grounded does he feel liberated. It isn’t too much of a stretch to perceive that as a comment by Truman on modern transit, the way we built cars to allow us to travel more freely between locations, only to now be shackled by them in traffic jams and through foreign oil reliance and global warming. Like Oppenheimer, the elder Hol feels tremendously guilty over his part in accelerating his culture’s self-destruction and the reveal of his part in a clandestine operation meant to encourage rebellion in the lower classes gives Hawkworld its major tragedy. Like a Greek tragedy, Katar Hol’s downfall comes via some patriarchal slaying, both in the literal sense of the accidental murder of his father and in a more symbolic parallel when he willingly kills an alien who was building him a means to escape his fate.
Unlike later grim and gritty works, Hawkworld displays its tragedy not with emotive yelling or dismemberment but in the aftereffects of senseless acts. Truman depicts Katar’s immediate response to killing his father as denial, fleeing from the scene of the crime to head towards his father’s home to check in on him. But when he gets there, he is forced to confront the fact that his father isn’t just dead but was aiding rebels, giving them supplies and support as they unify against the upper classes. This scene may unfold with some handy exposition courtesy home video, but its true impact comes from Truman’s close-ups of Katar’s tearful face, the normally stoic young idealist shedding tears before violently lashing out and then ultimately silently submitting to his penance, an exile to the fittingly named Isle of Chance. This isn’t the only scene of silent emotion, either, as Hawkworld’s signature style is its pages-long sequences where no words are spoken and the narrative is communicated through body language and context.
In a perfect world, Truman’s use of these incredible silent sequences would have had a larger impact than Watchmen’s clunky utilitarianism or Dark Knight Returns‘ sensational violence and one liners. We talk about the late ’80s as a time when superheroes grew up but those other works are held back by their immature takes on the complexity of the functions of society, whereas Hawkworld attempts to confront immature idealism head on and depict it through more artful means, trusting the reader to get the emotional toll of compromising your ideals without coating it in twists and gimmicks and classic good vs. evil struggles. Hawkworld is still a violent work but by the end it makes it clear that violence is just another tool of oppression, doubly so when it’s glorified in media and culture. Katar Hol’s redemption comes only when he moves away from his violent past and martial training, throwing his lot in with the commoners his father covertly supported, attempting to understand and aid them, giving them the tools to rise up rather than condescendingly doing it himself. He still fights a big baddie in the form of the now shapeshifting Byth and is aided by a suitably reborn “Shayera,” (here a partner instead of a cosmically bound love interest) but he grants his enemy mercy at the bequest of his partner.
By the end, Katar Hol has accepted what Timothy Truman has been saying all along, that symbols are devastating weapons in their own right and can be used to great effect as long as you understand them. Hol may not have vanquished Byth, but he has destroyed the symbolism Byth stood for while also fixing and updating his father’s own symbol, his idealized notion of the power of the mind over the body. Hol is there in the middle, willing to compromise and work within the system in order to improve it but also willing to put his body on the line where needed. On the meta level that’s an equilibrium superhero stories should strive towards, a willingness to display all those symbolic bodies and feats of strength while also trusting the minds of the readers. Hawkworld is a sharp yet heartfelt sci-fi noir that is overdue for appreciation but maybe the saddest thing about is that its message of class oppression and state brutality remains more relevant than ever.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover