Mark Gruenwald once stated that “every character is somebody’s favorite,” and this feature was launched to stress test the validity of the late Marvel continuity guru’s theory.
From the beginning, I took pains to distance what I did here from the facile “Mort of the Month” nonsense which characterized so many write-ups of the obscure and unloved. While I certainly haven’t abstained from snarky commentary and cheap pot-shots, I’ve tried to incorporate some level of insightful commentary — be it cultural, historical, or autobiographical — into each entry, no matter how terrible the subject in question might have been.
Since its launch in the summer of 2009, Nobody’s Favorites has become the most popular feature on Armagideon Time, driving at least half of the site’s traffic and becoming an easily-linked reference source for scores of blog and forum posts. Even the term “nobody’s favorite” has entered the lower echelons of comics fandom’s vernacular, which as creepy as it is flattering.
Now, on the occasion of this feature’s fifth anniversary, I think it’s time to turn my sights on a well-known character who exemplifies the concept of “nobody’s favorite.”
The character’s origins stretch back to the very dawn of the Superheroic Age, when work-for-hire dreamers cranked out all manner of bizarre concepts for the benefit of shady publishers looking to siphon off some of Superman’s success. In Hawkman’s case, the exercise in making shit up as they went along took the form of a modern day archaeologist named Carter Hall, who decided to don a bird mask and set of wings after discovering he was the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian prince.
Though hardly a barn-burner when it came to sales and popularity, Hawkman’s interesting visual design and mainstay membership in the Justice Society positioned him as a solid second stringer in National’s roster of costumed mystery men. Enough so, in fact, that when the Company Eventually Known as DC decided to relaunch a number of its fallow superhero franchises during the dawn on the Space Age, Hawkman made it onto the bottom half of the list.
The decision made sense, at least on paper. Joe Kubert, who illustrated a number of Hawkman’s 1940s adventures, was one of the big guns in DC’s artistic arsenal, and a revived version of the character seemed like an ideal venue for his talents. A familiar enough property, a stellar artist, and a strong tailwind boosting the superhero genre’s revival — what could possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters, the times had changed since Hawkman’s 1940s heyday. In an age of sci-fi superheroics, the old school pulpiness of “a reincarnated dude with a goofy mask who can fly” felt downright quaint. To keep up with the Lanterns and Flashes and Atoms, Hawkman was given a superficial space-oriented facelift.
So long, blonde-haired Prince of Egypt Carter Hall. Hello, “Katar Hol” of planet Thanagar’s avian police force.
The makeover was fairly thin stuff, as it maintained the outfit and other trappings (female sidekick, love of archaic weaponry) of the Golden Age incarnation glossed over with a veneer of modernity auto-plagiarized from Adam Strange and the recent Green Lantern relaunch. Apart from introducing Zatanna to generations of fishnet fetishists present and future, the Silver Age Hawkman didn’t do much apart from cycling through a gallery of laughably terrible supervillains on the way toward the inevitable cancellation of both his solo title and a shared series with the similarly sub-critical Silver Age sensation, the Atom.
From there, Hawkman spent a long stint as a supporting player in Justice League, which at the time served as the superheroic equivalent of the corner of the Home Depot Lot where the day laborers gather in search of pick-up work. Free from the mandated blandness required of a solo series gig, Katar was allowed to spread his wings a little with snatches of profoundly developmental characterization…mostly in the form of grumpy confrontations with Green Arrow that only got louder in the retconned retelling.
(Meanwhile, over on Earth-2, the elder Hawkman was busy telling those damn kids — his colleagues’ and his own — to get off his damn perch in Infinity, Inc. Who knew hawks were such a crabby species?)
Hawkman’s position was similar to Aquaman’s in many ways. Both possessed an level of recognition due to League membership which got a massive signal boost from the Superfriends cartoon and the associated merchandising. On the comics side of the equation, however, neither character had the critical mass of required fandom to make them viable as independent properties in their own right.
Both were subject to a series of aborted attempts at retooling for a wider appeal. In Hawkman’s case, it involved a grim ‘n’ gritty reboot with the Hawkworld miniseries based around a dystopian, militarist Thanagar and a leather-centric badass makeover for the Mr. and Mrs. Hawk. Intoxicated by Hawkworld‘s minor success, DC proceeded to addle the franchise with a wave of sequels and an ongoing series of hawkitude unleashed.
By the time the early 1990s rolled around, DC decided to drop all pretense in favor of serving up a steaming pile of “What We Think Fans Want” –
– Wolverine With Wings and metallic foil covers.
When this, too, failed to gain the anticipated traction, the decision was made to reboot again. Spun out of the vortex of terrible ideas known as Zero Hour, this version of Hawkman was a semi-bestial “hawkgod” created by smooshing all the previous incarnations into one ludicrous and quickly abandoned package. (Who, of course, resurfaced in Kingdom Come, because we live in a fallen world.)
After DC’s series of ill-advised fixes completely fouled up what they had set out to “save,” Hawkman was relegated to an editorial quarantine so total that even Grant Morrison was forbidden to break it. The herculean task eventually fell on the shoulders of David Goyer and Geoff Johns, who spun the presence of a new, unencumbered Hawkgirl (who was doing just fine on her own, thank you very much) in the JSA ongoing into a chance to untangle the mess Hawkman had become.
The relaunched character was a revitalized version of the original 1940s Hawkman, but one that skillfully wove together the disparate threads of the franchise — from reincarnated prince to alien police officer to cosmic avatar — into a cohesive whole.
It was a back-to-basics, wings-and-weapons approach to Hawkman with minor flourishes (such as the additional properties of the anti-gravity metal that powered his wings and episodes of past life regression) that made the character feel viably interesting for the first time in decades. He was even given another chance at a solo title, with James Robinson revisiting territory he’d explored in his acclaimed Starman ongoing and some sweet art by Rags Morales. If ever the stars were aligned in ol’ Carter Hall’s favor, this would have been the moment.
It wasn’t. The relaunch quickly lost steam, cycled through a couple of creative teams, and was eventually retooled as a Hawkgirl ongoing before DC finally pulled the plug.
There’s no question that it’s possible to tell an entertaining Hawkman story. Kyle Baker did a swell one a few years ago in Wednesday’s Comics. Whether or not there’s enough there to sustain an ongoing series is another matter, even with the current affection toward high concept fluff. Given the real affection fandom has for Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman, maybe it’s time to make that character the bearer of the franchise’s torch — if only to spare the world more material like this…
Iconic yet unloved, Hawkman is a stripped gear within the machinery of the DC Universe, perpetually spinning, never gripping, and each rotation driving him further into the realm of Nobody’s Favorites.