Comic Book Review – Hawkworld (1989)

Hawkworld (1989)
Reprints Hawkworld #1-3 (1989)
Written & Illustrated by Tim Truman

From their heights, the privileged in our societies can see the full scale of what they do. The people forced to live at the bottom, the ones who toil the most fruitlessly, for whom every day is a struggle to make it to the next, rarely having the means or the time to take in the state of their world. When they do, it is always a time when those at the top are brought down, when the people have had enough. In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics wanted to transform their shared universe of superheroes. Books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen revealed something about the genre; its audience had matured and were interested in stories that explored more than heroes beating up villains. There were moral spaces that had never been explored. Hawkman was a character in need of such a freshening up. Tim Truman, an artist/writer known for pulpy comics, was brought in to reinvent Hawkman, and he did so in dramatic fashion.

Katar Hol is a rookie police officer on the planet Thanagar. He is the son of Dr. Paran Katar, an esteemed scientist whose focus is on the diaspora of conquered species Thanagar has relocated to their cramped planet. There’s only one significant landmass worldwide, so the mega-city is built vertically. At the top are the High Towers, where the elite, native-born Thanagarians are. At the bottom is the Downside, where a diverse array of conquered peoples struggle to survive. Katar wants to prove his mettle and joins the Thangarian wingmen, their police force modeled after the symbol of the hawk. Katar’s squadron, led by Commander Byth, attacks the safe house of a Downside gang. The aftermath hints that Byth has a hand in supplying the Downside with weapons, but Katar doesn’t have solid proof. The deeper this young man goes, the more dangerous his life becomes until Byth lashes out at the people Katar loves the most. During a period of exile, Katar has a spiritual transformation and understands that it is his responsibility to save the soul of his people and the masses they have made suffer for their pleasures.

Truman is clearly influenced by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, notably John Carter of Mars, but throws a twist at the reader. Instead of making his protagonist an outsider attempting to make sense of a strange new world, he’s a native son of the wealthy class. Katar is reframed in this way as akin to Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha), the child of the royal class who is awakened to the suffering of the masses. Once awakened to this fact, particularly how Katar’s own people profit and derive pleasure from bringing the boot down on these enslaved races, he cannot keep going as usual. 

Katar finds inspiration in the ethnic-mythological stories of Kalmoran, a figure in Thanagar’s ancient past. These are the seeds of nationalism, but as our protagonist discovers larger truths about his society, the image of Kalmoran is tarnished. When he returns to Downside after years of exile, Katar sees the statue of Kalmoran, there is covered in graffiti, a physical reflection of his own transformation in how he sees his native culture. From a meta-textual viewpoint, this is also consistent with Hawkman’s characterization in previous incarnations. Gardner Fox established Katar Hol as a history buff & archaeologist in his Silver Age incarnation. This interest in the past is kept by Truman but recontextualized in a post-colonial manner, allowing Katar to learn that history can act as a veneer to hidden cultural cruelties. 

Thanagar in this comic closely resembles Paul Verhoeven’s take on Starship Troopers. Citizenship in Thangarian society is more closely connected to ethnic backgrounds than geography. Non-Thanagarians are expected to be servile & take whatever abuse the “superior” race dishes out. It’s also crucial that those who live in The High Towers rarely descend to Downside, so Katar’s shock when he finally goes there makes sense. The world in his mind was a beautiful, pristine place of spires ascending into heaven. So when he sees the foundations his people depend on to keep their lives pleasurable, it sickens him. 

Truman is someone who has studied and understood the nature of labor & oppression in Western civilization. As a result, Hawkworld is so boldly political that I’m surprised there wasn’t more pushback at its publication. Truman and his editor Mike Gold have talked about how supportive DC’s creative bosses were of the work and that some old school comics journalists didn’t know what to make of the comic after its first issue. The physical structure of the comics is also obtuse. It was a prestige format, so printed with a stronger binding and covers, the page numbers per issue came in at 50 pages versus the standard 25 (give or take). With only three issues, it was far more concise than some of the other marquee comics that reinvented DC heroes; Truman doesn’t end with a hero triumphantly revealed, but rather a lot of the problems at the start of the story are still there.

The team we would call Hawkman and Hawkwoman is formed but not in the way a longtime reader would have expected. Katar has flushed out corruption in Thanagar’s system, but this person is just a symptom of a more extensive institutional illness. The hero has also accepted that he has to fashion himself into something his people understand, which isn’t as ideal as he would like. Katar wants to kill Byth but is told there’s enough evidence to start an investigation and punish Byth through their system of justice. However, Byth escapes leaving that aspect unfulfilled. Truman does an excellent job of communicating how difficult to nearly impossible it can feel to fight such an entrenched system. Not the most uplifting superhero comic but damn if it doesn’t resonate then and into our own period.

Hawkworld would get an ongoing spin-off series written by John Ostrander, which we might read at some point in the future. But, for now, I highly recommend this mini-series. It is a perfect example of a fantastic jumping-on-point for new readers. You don’t have to know anything about Hawkman to sink your teeth into this comic which is a rare thing to say about a character whose publishing history has been notoriously confusing and overly complicated. Hawkworld is a story about what happens when you are a “good cop” among a sea of rotten ones in an even worse society.


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