The Spacehawk | Origin Stories | Other Outer Space Tales | Stories set on Earth
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It is NOT in the tradition of the influential 1930's comic strip Flash Gordon, which tended to treat other planets as backdrops for tales of exotic adventure in fabulous kingdoms with glamorous royalty. Instead, the sf elements in The Spacehawk are valued for their own sake, as part of genuine science fiction adventures. Basil Wolverton's art style does not seem to be influenced by Flash Gordon's creator Alex Raymond either, also a rarity in an era when comic book artists tended to regard Raymond as their ideal and model.
The series also avoids that other paradigm of 1930's comics, the "modern-day scientists from Earth who build a rocket, and who have adventures on other planets they visit for the first time". This was the paradigm used in 1939 by the comic book series Adventures in the Unknown; it also shows up in the 1930's comic strip Brick Bradford. By contrast, The Spacehawk takes place in a future era, one in which space travel around the Solar System is almost routine.
The Spacehawk ran in Target Comics, from #5 (Vol. 1 #5) (June 1940), through #34 (Vol. 3 #10) (December 1942). All of the stories were written and drawn by Basil Wolverton. A small collection of Spacehawk tales, reproduced in black and white, was published in the 1970's. It has a highly informative introduction by Ron Goulart.
The Creeping Death from Neptune (1940). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. The space pirate Gorvak plots to use a Neptune monster for gain. The Origin of Spacehawk.
This story has a logically constructed plot. Wolverton rings many changes on its central menace, using it in different contexts and purposes throughout the tale.
Similarly, he will create a logically consistent universe and set of powers for the Spacehawk, and stick to them throughout the series. The Spacehawk tales might be bizarre to the point of surrealism, but they are not free form whimsy. The very first line of the story states that we are now in a time when interplanetary travel is common - perhaps the key idea of the entire Spacehawk series.
We soon see both the villain's and the Spacehawk's spaceships. They are beautifully imagined and drawn by Wolverton. The two ships have both some common design features, and some differences. Wolverton is especially concerned with 1) the windows of the ships and their arrangement; 2) the shape in cross section of the ships; and 3) the arrangement of the rocket tubes on the rear of the ships. Other ships seen throughout the series will also show variations in these three key areas. Wolverton has imagined how the ships will look like from many different angles and distances. When up close, we see much detail of the ships; viewed from a distance, we see just the high level outline of a region of the ship. Most of the ship illustrations are beautifully composed, with the geometric patterns of the ships prominent. They constitute some of Wolverton's most interesting art.
Inside the spaceships, Wolverton liked panels showing the Spacehawk staring out one of his large windows, looking at a spectacular outer space panorama. He also regularly showed the Spacehawk gripping the large, upright levers and control sticks of machinery.
This story also has many of Wolverton's bizarre alien beings. I have mixed feelings about these. They are imaginative, but occasionally veer too closely towards horror material. This story has no less than four kinds of aliens; such imaginative profusion is typical of Wolverton's stories. As Ron Goulart pointed out, Wolverton's aliens are heavily phallic. So are his mushroom-like plants, and the spaceships in his tales.
The story is rich in plant life. Some of these are the mushroom-like plants that frequently appear in Wolverton's tales. Wolverton will create many variations throughout the series using this basic mushroom like approach. Plants are almost always beautiful in Spacehawk. They look innocent and cheerful, and always seem harmless. Wolverton usually has many plants in profusion in an illustration; their repeated images make for a rich geometrical pattern.
In addition, the tale contains the "vegetable bubbles" (p6), strange spheres covered with a checkerboard pattern of raised squares. They are one of Wolverton's imaginative concepts. They too are pleasant and pretty. Their spherical shape recalls the many moons that are depicted in Wolverton's outer space images. The bubbles are among the Wolverton images that most closely recall the sprit of Winsor McCay. Ron Goulart's introduction to the Spacehawk collection compares Wolverton's art technique to Winsor McCay and Frank Miller.
The Perilous Planetoid Trap (1940). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. Based on a cover by: Basil Wolverton. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. Two alien villains turn an asteroid into a trap for spaceships. This is Spacehawk's only solo cover in the series, as Ron Goulart pointed out. The cover includes a large moon, anticipating the illustration of Phobos in "Mayhem at the Martian Election".
This is the story in which the Spacehawk finally unveils himself, showing the face he has been hiding behind the mask the previous two issues. A later, similar unmasking will be performed by Dr. Fate in Gardner Fox's "The Leopard Woman" (More Fun Comics #66, April 1941). Both the Spacehawk and Dr. Fate turn out to be handsome young men, which is both typical of super-heroes, and also a bit surprising. In both stories, the unmasking is related to the super-hero's romantic involvement with a woman. He wants to become closer to her, and he removes the mask. The nameless but likable heroine of this story returns here from "The Creeping Death from Neptune"; these seem to be her only two appearances in the series.
The Spacehawk has wavy brown hair. This is unusually romanticized for super-heroes, many of whom tend to look tougher. His costume has both space suit and superhero costume features. It is quite different looking from most super-hero outfits, showing Wolverton's imagination. It has a huge, stand-up collar that circles the Spacehawk's neck, into which his mask hangs. The costume has a lace-up front on the chest, and buttons on the legs and shoulders. It is worn with yellow gloves, yellow boots and a yellow belt with holster. The uniform in many ways seems like a piece of sculpture. It has strong 3D qualities.
This story has some good science fiction ideas. We meet aliens from all sorts of Solar System planets, such as Neptune and Saturn. While they are very unusual looking, they are treated as normal, decent beings by Wolverton. This reflects the idealism about alien beings, that dates back in prose science fiction at least to Edmond Hamilton's stories of the 1920's.
The tale also has imaginative ideas about robots. The Spacehawk has a series of robots that look just like him, and which he can send out on missions in his place. Such robot look-alikes will be a major part of the Superman mythos during the Silver Age. This story tells us so much that is new about the Spacehawk, including his appearance and his robots, that it should be regarded as a second origin story for him.
My Pal, the Space Pirate (1940). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. The Spacehawk meets the old pal of his young manhood, Galar, who has now turned to a life of space piracy to support himself. Idealistic, zingy tale that conveys strong feelings of male bonding. This is one of the best Spacehawk tales.
This tale is in many ways a third origin story for the Spacehawk. We learn more about his background and youth here, than we did in previous stories. Together with the earlier two origin stories, "The Creeping Death from Neptune" and "The Perilous Planetoid Trap", the three tales constitute the artistic high points of Spacehawk's career. The three stories are in widely spaced issues, #5, #7 and #11, and are not explicitly labeled as origin stories. Still, they are the three tales which offer the most information about the life and abilities of the Spacehawk.
There are other common features to the tales. Space pirates of all sorts will be principal villains throughout the three stories. All three of these tales also offer ideas about rocket technology. In the future universe of Spacehawk, such technology comes in the form of rocket tubes. Wolverton's concepts are consistent throughout, yet the latter stories offer innovative uses and approaches for such rocket tubes, as well.
The two types of armor worn by Galar and the Spacehawk are both built on differing geometrical principles. Both are full of repeating segments, each of a 3D geometrical form They are some of the most geometric clothes worn by anyone since the Constructivist costumes designed by Alexandra Exter and others for the science fiction film, Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924), directed by Jacob Protazanov. As in Wolverton's illustrations of his spaceships, we see the armor from many different angles, each one leading to a different composition.
The Lost Tribe of Mercury (#6, (Vol. 1 #6) July 1940). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. Long ago, the Draxions, a tribe of beings from Mercury emigrated to Venus, and adapted themselves to undersea life in that planet's oceans; Spacehawk helps them when they are attacked. We get a complete history of this tribe from Mercury here, showing some drastic changes in their life style over time. These long perspectives of science fictional change are the most interesting part of the story.
At the end, we see a futuristic city built by the tribe. This city is NOT in the Art Deco mode, that was almost always used by comic book artists to depict advanced cities on other planets. Instead, Wolverton draws it as a series of rectilinear blocks. This is a simple, but artistically effective approach.
The flat broad spaceships here form a contrast to the typically rounded space liners in most of the Spacehawk tales.
The Vulture Men From the Void (#8, (Vol. 1 #8) September 1940). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. Two alien Vulture Men invade the Moon, in an attempt to take over Earth. Villains in Spacehawk tales tend to come in pairs - this allows them to talk to each other, and makes the action more complex. This minor story has some good illustrations of landscapes on the moon, including a crater and lava flows. These show Wolverton's skill with visual patterns and design. His sense of boldly outlined designs recalls traditional Japanese art, somewhat.
Mayhem at the Martian Election (1940). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. When would be dictator Glork is defeated in the Martian elections, he decides to wreck his fury on the planet as vengeance.
This tale shows one of Wolverton's most beautiful illustrations of a moon, here Mars' moon Phobos. The moon is shown as a large sphere, covered with craters. It is modeled in 3D, with one side of the moon richer in bright light, and the craters on the other side modeled in shadows. Wolverton makes a steady progression of modeling and shadowing technique as he passes over the surface of the moon. The craters, with all their visual variety, make a beautiful series of geometric features over the surface of the moon. The effect is both an interestingly detailed astronomical illustration, and a fine piece of geometric composition, a sphere whose surface is covered with dozens of circular craters. Such moon illustrations will recur in many Spacehawk tales; this image of Phobos is the biggest and most detailed of such images.
The emphasis on elections and democratic values in this tale are welcome. They surely form a political commentary on the values of democratic government, then under much threat from would-be dictators like Glork.
Also noteworthy: the rectilinear Martian city (p3), which recalls previous structures built by "The Lost Tribe of Mercury". The strange attractor rays (p4) are full of rounded segments, like the armor the Spacehawk will wear in "My Pal, the Space Pirate". The same page also has some good Wolverton spaceships. The illustrations of the aliens on Phobos are also cute and original (p5), against a background of segmented columns. These columns remind one a bit of Galar's armor in "My Pal, the Space Pirate".
The illustration of the tidal pull between Mars and Phobos (p7) show Wolverton's depiction of water using regularly repeated lines. These recall the illustrations of the Saturnians thrusting out of the water in "The Lost Tribe of Mercury".
This is an early comic book tale emphasizing the hero's ability to disguise himself. Such Jerry Siegel heroes as Superman, the Spectre and the Federal Men also had such abilities, as did such sleuths as the Chameleon and the King. Wolverton's later Powerhouse Pepper comedy spoof, "The Bank Book With the Blank Look" also dealt with disguise. The Spacehawk's version of disguise is one of the most science fictional of all of these.
The Pirate City (1940). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. Captain Dakk of the police pursues crooks to a lawless city run by pirates on Uranus. This story is full of a wild plot inventiveness. The relation between Captain Dakk and the Spacehawk is another example of Wolverton's interest in male bonding.
Both in this tale and "The Lost Tribe of Mercury", the Spacehawk shows his skill at performing operations. These are bizarre, science fictional operations, of the kind more often performed by mad scientists. It gives a surrealist side to his character.
The Treachery of Smebar (1941). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. War-mongering Captain of the Guard Smebar persuades Queen Haba of Neptune to try to invade and conquer her peaceful neighbors on the planet.
This story recalls Simon and Kirby's Blue Bolt tales, especially "The Green Sorceress Reforms" (Blue Bolt Comics #3 (Vol. 1 No. 3), August 1940) and "The Green Army's Blitzkrieg" (Blue Bolt Comics #7 (Vol. 1 No. 7), December 1940). Haba, like the green Sorceress in Blue Bolt, is a beautiful young ruler with sinister ambitions to conquer the world. Both series link explicitly this to the sinister real world events in Europe at the time, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were invading and conquering their neighbors. Both stories denounce such invasions in fierce terms. Target Comics and Blue Bolt Comics were sister publications, and there might have been common editorial direction to feature similar stories here, as well. Blue Bolt resembled the Spacehawk, in that both were super-heroes whose lives were played out against science fictional backgrounds.
In both stories, the hero has a romance with the beautiful but dangerous queen. Such romantic attractions across a political divide were considered exciting by writers and presumably readers of the day. However, such Alex Raymond-like looks at glamorous royalty were atypical of Wolverton's stories, which were usually much closer to pure science fiction.
Queen Haba returns in the next issue, in an OK, minor story, "Droon's Plot Against Spacehawk".
The letter column of this issue contains a plea from a reader to "cut down on the gore" in Spacehawk tales. He says that Spacehawk is his favorite series in the magazine, but it is too violent. The editor agrees with the reader in his reply, and promises less violence in the future. I also agree: the too heavy use of horror material in the Spacehawk tales are their chief drawback. Ron Goulart's introduction also suggests the tales drew the fire of the PTA for excessive violence.
The Submarine Attack (1941). Writer: Basil Wolverton. Art: Basil Wolverton. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. The Spacehawk defends an American ship carrying Red Cross supplies to Britain from an attack by a Nazi-like nation's fleet.
In Target Comics (Vol. 2, No. 1), the cover and introduction stated that the comic's heroes had been "mobilized", and would now devote themselves to the defense of the United States. This was still nearly a year before the US got involved in the World War that had been raging since September 1939. The introduction states that the Spacehawk will now patrol Earth's stratosphere in his spaceship, protecting the US. The story in (Vol. 2, No. 1) was the last Spacehawk tale taking place in the future in the far reaches of space, with little connection to the present day. By the next issue, Spacehawk was in contemporary times, and protecting the US from an alien invasion. Later stories were even more closely tied to current events.
In "The Submarine Attack", he battles Nazi-like villains. The Spacehawk does this using all of the futuristic technology he had previously used in his outer space tales. It is odd, and imaginative, to see Nazi subs battled with spaceships and anti-gravity devices. Wolverton is completely consistent here with previous stories that showed the Spacehawk's devices.
The Nazis here are not quite explicitly identified. This is common in comic books of the era. As is typical, the villains here speak with German accents, swear allegiance to their Leader, and wear Nazi-style uniforms. This makes it obvious who they are, without quite officially committing the comic book to naming the villain. What is less typical is Wolverton's transformed version of Nazi insignia. He has a curvilinear version of the swastika on all the uniforms here, that strongly hints these villains are Nazis. This is typical of Wolverton's profuse visual imagination - he is always coming up with original visual patterns and ideas.