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DC Comics 101: Who and What are the Blackhawks?

DC Comics 101: Who and What are the Blackhawks?

By Meg Downey Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Looking for the lowdown on Steven Spielberg's new DC project? Here's what you need to know about BLACKHAWK, DC's classic comic series about a remarkable squad of World War II pilots that has captured the imagination of the legendary filmmaker.

You've probably heard the news by now. Legendary director Steven Spielberg—a name that probably made you say "whoa!"—has his eyes set on the DC Universe with a brand new live action movie all about Blackhawk—a name that may have made you say "...wait, who?"

Yeah, we figured that would be the case for many of you. But don’t worry! We’re here to bring you up to speed on what you need to know about Blackhawk and why the guy has a squadron of pilots named after him.

The Age of Aerial Aces

Created in the early 1940s during the months following America's official entry into World War II, Blackhawk both refers to a person who calls himself "Blackhawk" and a squadron of people known as, you guessed it, the Blackhawk Squadron. Together they were a team of fighter pilots on a mission to fight against the Nazi scourge in dashing, Robin Hood-like style.

Like most war-centric comics of the Golden Age, BLACKHAWK was predominantly a way to get young men and women interested in volunteering their time for the war effort. Pilots were, quite literally, all the rage at the time in the wake of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Aviation was still a pretty new, not to mention a pretty novel thing and the idea that people could become famous by being daring pilots was a quick and easy way to get anybody's attention.

In the 1930s and 1940s, pilots were the closest thing anyone had to what might be considered a famous extreme sports athlete or even a social media celebrity. So, naturally, when comics began needing to look beyond characters like Superman (who couldn't very well join the war effort in any of his own stories—he'd win in the blink of an eye) to sell the idea of the war, they started looking towards what amounted to the real-life equivalent of the time: America’s death defying aerial aces.

The Blackhawk Squadron was born of this tradition, blending the lines between soldier and superhero in a way that, theoretically, would make the idea of joining the brand new and entirely experimental Army Air Force a bit more appealing.

Ironically, the original origin story of the Blackhawks didn't cast them as Americans, but as members of the Polish Air Force who were up against the ruthless Nazi Captain von Tepp and his ominously named Butcher Squadron. Blackhawk himself was given a very Batman-esque origin story where von Tepp was personally responsible for the death of his family in an air raid, which prompted him to dedicate his life to seeking vengeance.

The original squadron oscillated from around five to seven members, largely thanks to the Golden Age's loose concept of things like continuity, but their motives and methods were always the same. They acted as a sort of free-wheeling superhero team, flying their squadron of jet black airplanes out of their secret base in the Atlantic, fighting off any Nazis they could find in the air while meticulously hunting down von Tepp.

In addition to Blackhawk himself, the most recognizable version of the team was made up of seven men known as Stanislaus, Olaf, Hendrickson, Chopper, Andre and Chuck.

The comic was initially a huge success and actually lasted well beyond the end of the war. Strangely, it wasn't until 1952 that Blackhawk himself was given a new origin that made him a Polish-American volunteer who had eagerly left his home country to volunteer for the Polish Air Force. The rest of the team were given minor updates as well, but stayed pretty eclectic in their nationalities. Later still, in 1959, the team introduced their first "official" female member in Zinda Blake, otherwise known as Lady Blackhawk, but her appearances in the title were pretty infrequent and she only enjoyed "honorary" membership status.

Post-Crisis to Now

Things got a little strange in the years leading up to CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. The Blackhawk comics had changed hands more than once, been canceled a few times over, and overall struggled, like many war comics, to stay relevant in the ’70s and ’80s. The team was temporarily given "superheroic" codenames like "The Big Eye" and "The Golden Centurion," they became spies, they were made mercenaries—it was basically a revolving door of scenarios as creators tried to see what would stick.

The reorganization of DC's continuity in the Crisis officially restored the team to their WWII roots and returned Blackhawk's original Polish origin while simultaneously giving him a civilian name for the first time ever: Janos Prohaska. The new continuity also shifted the Lady Blackhawk codename from Zinda to Captain Natalie Reed, a flight engineer who served to help design the squadron's trademark fighter jets.

Interestingly, for all the fanfare of their Crisis-level updating, the Blackhawk Squadron almost immediately fell into obscurity in the ’90s as the age of war comics well and truly drew to a close. A strange twist of fate, however, allowed Zinda Blake, the original Lady Blackhawk, to return to prominence after she was "lost in time" in the events of ZERO HOUR, DC’s ’90s-era continuity-altering miniseries. In 2004, Zinda joined the Birds of Prey under her Lady Blackhawk moniker, making her the only Blackhawk to really remain prominent in the modern era, at least until the events of FLASHPOINT and DC UNIVERSE: REBIRTH #1.

Today, we have an entirely different concept of who and what the Blackhawks are. Both the New 52 and the Rebirth era have reinvented them as a paramilitary organization with some...well, let's say less-than-normal leanings towards the occult and the cosmic. Lady Blackhawk is still around, but she's no longer Zinda Blake. Instead, the codename was very recently taken up by Kendra Saunders, aka Hawkgirl. You can catch up with this incarnation of the team by picking up this year’s DARK NIGHTS: METAL.

The last eighty years have seen some pretty dramatic, occasionally confusing evolutionary steps in the Blackhawk line, and if that history is any indication, crazy things are just going to keep on happening for them into the future. That's all right, though. If there's one thing their topsy-turvy past has proven, it's that the Blackhawks are, above everything, a pretty adaptable bunch.