Monday, December 15, 2008

Egyptian Prince Vs Space Cop

That is, which of Hawkman's classic depictions is the "definitive" version of the character?

When a character has been around for as long as Hawkman, there inevitably are different takes and interpretations which come along.  In the realm of DC Comics, the very nature oftheir history gives rise to multiple versions -- Golden Age versions, Silver Age versions, post-Crisis versions, post-post-Crisis versions, and so on and so forth.  And Hawkman is no different.

Now, for most characters, coming up with what Dan DiDio calls the "definitive" version of the character is pretty straight-forward.  The main line version of, say, Green Lantern is a guy with an alien power ring which can't effect yellow (whether this is Hal Jordan or John Stewart or whomever), while the main version of The Flash wears a red suit and yellow boots and has a lightning bolt on his chest.  The have been the lasting, "real" versions of these characters for fifty years -- the earlier versions are valid, but not the mainstream definition.  Characters who have changed a lot over the years still typically have one version which stands out.  A great example is Supergirl; of the myriad versions of the character introduced after Crisis on Infinite Earths, "Superman's cousin" is the most well-known take.  This is not a value judgement (I was and still am a big fan of the Matrix Supergirl), but a statement of familiarity and timelessness; Supergirl is Superman's cousin.

Hawkman is something of an abberation (beyond being a member of the Abberant Six...).  For many years, pretty much from the early 1960s straight through the turn of the century, Hawkman was an alien police officer fighting crime on Earth.  The older version -- the modern reincationation of an Egyptian Prince -- was still kicking it around as an alternate, but for the most part the charcter was the Space Cop archetype.  Of course, this was not entirely cut and dried, as within the Space Cop motif we had two drastically different approaches -- the Silver Age version with his classical fantasy look, or the post-Crisis (that is, Hawkworld), modernist take with his metallic wings and militarisitc uniform.  Both versions, again, are valid.  The main difference between the two versions is the underlying theme: the Silver Age Hawkman was a police officer from a Utopian planet, while the Hawkworld Hawkman hailed from a Dystopian planet.  So the question is how do you like your Thanagar?

Speaking unscientifically, it seems that the Dystopian Hawkman is more in line with what readers identified as the definitive Hawkman.  For one thing, the totaltarian background better speaks to Hawkman's "my way or the highway" mentality.  And, I suppose, an imperfect Thanagar is more compelling than a perfect one.  So, it seems that the Space Cop archetype (specifically the Dystopian Space Cop version) makes a play at being definitive.  of course, that's relative, as Hawkman became so mixed up and muddled due to all of this revision that DC basically stuck him off into limbo in the late 90s.

Enter James Robinson and Geoff Johns, co-writers of DC's successful 2002 JSA revival.  And you can't do the Justice Society without Hawkman, so in the second year of the title, they brought him back. And, keeping with this being the Justice Society, they went back to the Egyptian Prince motif, ditching the Space Cop trappings for the most part (while Thanagar still played a big role).  And this new take not only brought the character back into the spotlight, it made him popular enough to get his own title once again, while continuing to figure strongly in JSA.  Suddenly Hawkman was more prominent and popular than he had been in years -- but now he was an Egyptian Prince, not a Space Cop.  And for a whole new generation of Hawkfans, this became the "definitive" version of the character, now steeped in history and reincarnation myth instead of sci-fi and high tech.  And, this take on the character re-aligned his appearance with the classic Golden, Silver, and Bronze Age style, which was abandoned during Hawkworld and slowly inched back towards through the 1990s.  So, for all intents and purposes, DC had achieved their goal, and Hawkman was back.  

At least, it looked that way, until this year when Jim Starlin introduced doubt once more -- a dangling plot point which has not yet been resolved at this time.

So that leaves us where we began: what is the definitive version of Hawkman?  The reincatnated Egyptian Prince?  The winged sleuth from the advanced alien civilization?  The tough as nails Wingman of a totaltarian state?  It's hard to say at this point.  I think the attempt in Zero Hour to combine all of the various versions into one merged Hawkman had some promise, but ultimately failed to satisfy much of anybody.  I think it's safe to say that the definitive look of the character is the bare chest and feathered wings as opposed to the more modern designs.  But regarding what version of the character hits this mark is more complex.   I believe that the two Space Cop versions hold what most fans consider the definitive elements; further, both satisfy the concept of the definitive version being easy to explain.  But the work of Robinson and Johns to update the original version should not be ignored or discounted.  So what is the "definitive" take of Hawkman?  Sorry, but your opinion is as good as mine.  Hawkman is a character with many flavors and varieties, and that probably is not going to change any time soon.

Image: Hawkman sketch, ???, David Beck.


Anonymous said...

"The main difference between the two versions is the underlying theme: the Silver Age Hawkman was a police officer from a Utopian planet, while the Hawkworld Hawkman hailed from a Dystopian planet. So the question is how do you like your Thanagar?"

Why not a little of both? In the utter depths of my soul I am a man of hope, and there is something in Gardner Fox's original concept that simply cannot be denied. There is an archetypal purity to the character and the setting that resonates with me, and I would imagine with most people...or at least, it would if the story itself was told well enough. You and I can read Silver Age Hawkman and understand the potential behind those stories, but not everyone is able to do that. Still, I'm rambling a bit. What I want is the space cop version of Carter. I feel that the Egyptian prince aspect really muddies him up to the point of absurdity. Even told in Johns' masterful style, there are complexities there that are unnecessary to capture the soul of the character. That being said, I don't think that Thangar as a PURELY utopian society works. The story mileage in that concept is severly limited, and writing about characters from such a place would be like writing about angels descending from heaven. Instead,

I would like to see a new creature, a Thanagar that is not a utopia, but has pulled itself up, out of the mire of war and injustice through many a bloody year of struggle, and is on the cusp of an enlightened society. Enter Byth Rok, a classic strong man. He's Hitler, Musilini, and Stalin, but with super powers. He argues that Thanagar has lost its greatness in its attempt to master violence and create justice, and what's worse, some believe him. Well, that is the general idea behind my own Hawkman project, although it is only the beginning.

Luke said...

Personally, I think we could do well with a "de-merged" Hawkman concept. Part of the conceit in "Return Of Hawkman" was that it was Carter in Katar's body. And part of what Starlin has set up is that this makes Hawkman an Abberation in space-time. So, split them apart! With all of the great Earth-2 work which Geoff Johns has done over in JSA, have the Egyptian Prince which Johns and Robinson created head over there. I am picturing a very touching, come-to-the-mountain, "I've finally found where I belong" statement. This character would still survive and be valid, able to be used in Justice Society Infinity or other Earth-2 setting stories.

What that leaves is a Thanagarian Hawkman without any history -- a fresh start, a newly reborn Katar Hol, free to explore the galaxy, or fight criminals on Earth, or patrol the skies of Thanagar.

Yeah, it's fannish but that's what I am!

Anonymous said...

Well, that is a notion I could definitely get behind! I would REALLY want a tabula rasa DC, and I have no problem with another Hawkman existing in a different earth.

Diabolu Frank said...

"Definitive" is a highly subjective notion in comics. When I had my shop, I had a customer who loathed Frank Miller, and felt he had ruined both Batman and Daredevil. While a fan at the time of their reboots, I've come to realize John Byrne and George Perez each reduced two of the greatest super-heroes of all time to commoners. I have my blog devoted to the Martian Manhunter because I loved the work done on him since 1986, but it also features editorials from a Silver Age fan who has no use for most any Martian Manhunter story published after 1968. What does that term "definitive" really mean in that light?

In the case of Hawkman, the classic origin makes more sense, as he's an anachronistic concept. In the age of the Superman, what could a man dressed like a bird who wields medieval weapons be but a throwback? On the other hand, the concept was pretty much directly ripped off from Flash Gordon, a sci-fi comic strip where it applied to a planet of warrior bird men. The former helps distance Hawkman from his source of derivation, but the concept seemed less hoaky in its original setting. Which way is "right?"

Further, the image of a space cop as a fascistic presence really came out of late '60s radicalism, where Hawkman was conceived as a benevolent authoritarian presence sent to learn from our own peace keeping officers. Far left creators like Denny O'Neil and Tim Truman hung that on the character decades after the fact. Why should that particular perspective be definitive?

Another consideration is whether Hawkman has ever been popular enough for any previous take to be considered definitive. His comic has to be among the top 20 most canceled ever. He's never had a significant presence outside comic book culture, and in truth, he's never been a heavy hitter within it. Hawkman seems to me a hero more respected than liked, which affords him presence, but not the level of success to point to any one definitive version.

Were the character to be placed in my hands, I expect I'd kill off Carter Hall/Katar Hol and start fresh. I think I would pull a Chariots of the Gods/Stargate and tie ancient Egyptian mythology to alien visitors. I would keep Thanagarians as a warrior race, alternately noble and base. I would abandon the antiquated weaponry in favor of souped-up variations like Hawkgirl's mace from JLU. In fact, like JLU, it might be best to abandon Hawkman altogether, and focus on a female amalgamation of the most enduring aspects of the character. Maybe the most definitive man for the job is a woman?

Anonymous said...

Ohh Frank...your posts are always well reasoned and interesting...but that kind of reboot would hurt my soul. :)

Unknown said...

To me, Carter is the definitive and most interesting version. I particularly like the Geoff Johns flavor, where he is aware of his past incarnations. It is maybe a bit like having a heroic Vandal Savage, and gives an explanation for his leadership and strategic and tactical talents. Also makes it potentially interesting when he disagrees with Batman.

Luke said...

Indeed, Frank, "definitive" is a very slippery concept. Like you say, he's either an anachronism, a Flash Gordon lift, or a leftist reaction. And, as you say, he is never quite popular enough to break through to the big time, which makes it hard to say with any authority which version the people most identify with.

At this point I'd give the nod to the current Carter as the most "definitive" take, as it not only incorporates the anachronistic elements you talk about but also the Stargate-esque "aliens visit ancient culture" stuff, with Prince Khufu finding the crashed Thanagarian ship and all that. This version has been pretty much omni-present in JSA (definitely a popular title), and his solo series ran for the longest of any of his feature efforts, even if you don't include the editorially mandated switch to Hawkgirl for OYL.

But DC or Jim Starlin or some subset thereof really seems to want to make him a Space Cop again, or do the splits thing again. It's stuff like this which makes the character so unwieldly sometimes -- there's no consensus. While there will always be disagreement over how to portray the Martian Manhunter (is he a super slueth, or an alien atlas, or a ubermencsh known as Marco Xavier, etc.), we can all agree that he's from Mars, and so forth!

Diabolu Frank said...

I really like the Space Cop myself, but in Carter Hall's defense, he also co-starred in something like 100 issues of Flash in the '40s, not to mention All-Star...