On Hawkworld, by Timothy Truman and Alcatena (1989)

In the shadows of the planet Thanagar’s great High Towers, where the three billion souls of the Empire’s alien underclass are segregated away in the most squalid and soul-butchering of conditions, there’s a statue of the planet’s once-legendary culture hero Kamoran. None of Downside’s despised off-worlders know anything of how he once freed Hawkworld from the slavery of the Polarians before assuring his people’s former oppressors that they too were his sisters and brothers. But then, the para-military Hawkmen responsible for keeping the aliens in their ascribed, indentured place are equally ignorant of who and what the rusting copper-green statue was originally intended to represent. Thanagar is the power in the heavens now, and empires can’t afford to keep alive the truth of the myths and principles which they pay self-serving lip-service to in order to justify their dominion.

It seems that only Katar Hol, the son of Thanagar’s most brilliant scientist, remembers who Kamoran was and why his example still matters. Yet the young Hawkman who stars in this 1989 continuity implant of an origin story is anything but the character who’d been appearing in DC’s comics since 1961’s The Brave & The Bold #34. Although Truman’s Katar Hol is something of an idealist, he’s a long way from truly understanding Kalmoran’s teachings. That being so, his living up to them is quite beyond him. Nor is he averse to the charms of the alien-loathing daughters of Thanagar’s bourgeoisie, or indeed the recreational substances which the planet’s fashionable young things abuse in order to keep all the boredom of their privileged lives at bay. In Hawkworld, the reader who for twenty-years had known a sober and at times even austere and crabby Katar Hol suddenly found themselves face to face with a man revealed to have been a fascist foot-soldier, a murderer, a patricide, and a drug addict.

Originally intended to serve as a prequel to the very first appearance of Katar and Shayera Hol, Timothy Truman’s radical reworking of the origin of the Silver Age Hawkman was inspired by a comment made by the character’s original creator, Gardner Fox, who’d stated that he’d always thought of Thanagar as a utopia. Though Truman revered Fox, he struggled to believe in a perfect world served by an incorruptible, uber-patrician elite of winged super-cops. “Since I come from southern coal miner stock”, Truman explained, “I know that Utopias don’t exist unless they’re built on someone’s backs.”

Saturated with themes of class conflict and imperialism, Hawkworld’s a tale so politically charged that it’s hard to imagine it being commissioned by DC Comics today. Truman’s decision to create a founding father for Thanagar in the figure of Kalmoran, who’s a combination of Julius Caesar and George Washington and Marcus Garvey, suggests something of the explosiveness of the ideas that he was set on exploring. His take on Thanagar presented the planet as a neo-fascist imperial power which bore a strange resemblance at times to certain aspects of the America of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. If Commander Byth, the tale’s antagonist, is anything but an obvious representation of the Great Communicator, the Hawkworld itself suggested not just the worst of Re-Ron’s USA, but also something of what the Republic might become if the worst of Reagan’s policies were to be blindly accepted as dogma and built upon by future administrations.

And so, America’s continued assumption under Reagan of the right not simply to covertly meddle in nations such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, but to actively invade the likes of Grenada, is satirised in Thanagar’s domination of her neighbouring worlds. Truman has Hawkworld’s elite blame the very cultures that they’ve invaded for their own subjugation. If only the aliens had cooperated, if only they’d accepted that doing so would bring them “the bounties of civilisation and government”, then they might have had the “better life” that Thanagar promises them as exporters of cheap goods, raw materials and physical labour.

An attempt by Katar Hol’s father to explain that such a “better life” actually involves nothing but endless toil, insecurity and suffering falls, as might be imagined, on deaf ears. As with a considerable number of the Americans of the day, Truman’s Thanagarians were ideologically insulated from the charge of military and economic imperialism. Whenever they chose to interfere in the freedom of others, it seems, it was always in everyone’s best interest.

Truman’s satire here was directed at two separate and yet overlapping targets. On the one hand, he was attacking America’s power elites, and yet, on the other, he was criticising Americans in general. There’s undoubtedly a considerable measure of anger and disappointment expressed at how the less-privileged of Americans are often treated. Scenes showing patrols of Hawkmen charging into the “Flashzones” of Thanagar’s slums, for example, carry with them echoes of segregation and Stonewall. Similarly, Katar Hol’s dalliances with his fellow members of the planet’s privileged always comes complete with a background cast of distinctly alien servants and the awful sense that taken-for-granted racism’s about to spill over into hectoring and violence. (As of course it often does.) At those points, the likes of the waiters and cleaners in Hawkworld’s luxurious restaurants stand in part for those Americans who are regarded as nothing more than casual, disposable labour.

Yet Truman constantly reminds his readers that Thanagar has become a mighty Empire. This marks out the aliens who serve in its High Towers as symbols of foreign-born economic migrants every bit as much as representatives of the American proletariat. These are not just outsiders within America/Thanagar, but outsiders from beyond America/Thanagar’s borders too. There are no more obvious examples of huddled masses yearning to breathe free in comics than the crowds of extra-terrestrials portrayed in Truman, Alcatena and Parsons’ artwork here. In making the various alien races in Hawkworld appear so conspicuously different to the whitebread Thanagarians, Truman draws our attention not just the plight of the many Americans who fall into the “have-not” category, but also to the wretched of the Earth from beyond the Republic’s borders. These are victims who are not just powerless, but clearly doomed to remain so because they’re visibly different and obvious representatives of the easily demonised Other. In that, Hawkworld was and is a condemnation of America’s role in creating and perpetuating a global system of economic and military exploitation every bit as much as a critique of the homeland’s own class system. Indeed, Truman appears to have been suggesting that if the ruling class of America was taking advantage of its own fellow citizens, then in some ways its fellow citizens were also taking advantage of those cheap “goods and resources” acquired from the less affluent and powerful from overseas.

It’s telling that much of Truman’s focus is concerned with what imperialism in all its forms does to the cultures who practise it. Though he never avoids showing us the suffering of Thanagar’s “guest” workers, there’s a sense that he trusts his audience to recognise exploitation when they see it. Yes, there’s a scene set in a clinic for sick off-worlders which underscores precisely the consequences of Hawkworld’s barbarism, and yes, we’re shown members of the planet’s elite inflicting cruelty after cruelty upon those that they consider inhuman. But it’s the corruption of Thanagar itself which often dominates the story, and that’s something which is less common in such tales. In a sense, the people of the Hawkworld are as much victims of their planet’s capacity to exploit others as are the inhabitants of the worlds they’ve dominated, although of course the Thanagarians have all the comforts of the security and luxury  which their victims lack to see them through.

For Hawkworld’s culture is quite obviously spiritually bankrupt, and its people’s lives are blighted by alienation and the obsession with distraction which that triggers. Ignorant of how reliant they’ve become upon the labour of “offworld filth”, Thanagar’s imperialists have even forgotten how to be economically self-reliant. Where they were once skilled producers, now they’re nothing but indolent consumers. Indeed, the Thanagarians have reduced themselves to indulgent and occasionally supremely violent children, hopelessly reliant upon the very alien races which they most depend upon to survive. In doing so, they’ve not only set into motion the inevitable collapse of what’s an already deeply wounded culture, but they’ve left themselves vulnerable to the anger of those they’re oppressing. Thanagar is in some ways as much an uneasy and even frightened world as it is an arrogant one. Terrorist bombs find their way into the most exclusive of areas, alien-produced drugs peculate upwards through Hawkworld’s society, while the depth of hopelessness and loathing amongst the Downsiders provides a degree of criminal and political ferment which threatens to ultimately destabilise everything that force and greed acquired.

By Hawkworld’s final act, the utterly repellent Byth has risen to control Thanagar largely because of his capacity to convince his fellows that only he can protect them from the very dangers their prejudice and exploitation have created. After all, nations which impose themselves brutally on others often create the conditions by which their own freedoms are undermined and overthrown. In 1988, Hawkworld appeared to be both a description of the worst of late 20th century America and a deeply uncomfortable prophecy of where the USA might be headed.

As the years have passed, the meaning of Hawkworld has shifted with them. That’s only to be expected, and yet to consider Truman’s work in the light of the events of the past quarter century is to recognise once again what a turbulent and contentious period it’s been. To read the collected edition of Hawkworld in the wake of 9/11, for example, was to recognise a polemic that was both disturbingly prescient and unlikely to be appreciated by the anxious and defiant acclaimers of the National Security State. Hawkworld was clearly never intended to comment upon the specific circumstances of Al Queda’s terrorist assaults upon America and its citizens, but the general sympathies expressed in its pages might well have appeared UnAmerican in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s strike against the Republic. Truman’s script does suggest, for example, that some acts of terrorism have their roots in the exploitation of powerless cultures, just as his work implies that military force is just about the least effective way of securing a nation’s long-term security. Such arguments would not have been seen as merely mildly contentious ideas in the months and even years following the tragic destruction of the Twin Towers.

Return once again to Hawkworld in 2012, and it’s remarkable how relevant it still seems to be. Where it once appeared to be predominantly, if not exclusively, concerned with America’s relationship with the world beyond its borders, now Hawkworld seems far more to be discussing America’s relationship with itself. Where it was once possible to see the society of Thanagarians in their High Towers as a metaphor for the USA as a whole, now it’s far less feasible to do so. To use the political shorthand of today, the 1% and the 99% have conspicuously parted company, while the devastation of the working class and the precipitous decline of the middle has fundamentally changed the nature of the nation. Though this doesn’t mean that the world beyond America’s borders is any less worthy of concern, it does mean that it’s far harder to think of Americans as a unified block of relatively privileged individuals. And so, where Truman’s aliens once seemed analogous to the citizens of what was then still commonly known as the Third World, now they appear to also symbolise a substantial number of economically disenfranchised Americans who in 1988 might at the very least have been comfortably getting by. Those millions of the Republic’s citizens and guests who were excluded from advantage in the eighties have now been joined by a great many more who’ve lost sight of the life-chances which they were once encouraged to take for granted. As such, where Thanagar’s affluent lotus eaters and gung-ho Hawk-soldiers once appeared to symbolise the great mass of the Republic’s citizens in their comparative wealth and power, now they seem to represent no-one beyond the uncaring, tax-me-over-my-servant’s-dead-body elite. As such, the context of today seems to have re-made Hawkworld into a text proselytising for a great many of those causes gathered under the banner of Occupy!. On the one hand, Truman shows us the feckless wealthy with their conspicuous consumption and their sensation-addled lives, with their utter ignorance of their own culture’s past and their profound disinterest in the welfare of anyone from beyond their ranks. On the other, he presents us a struggling mass of individuals reduced to market-place cannon-fodder, desperate for the basic freedoms of economic security, free expression, and even access to decent health care. In some ways, today’s America seems closer to a Hawkworld than it ever did when the comic was first published.

Yet it’s more than possible to regard Hawkworld as a politically incorrect text. After all, it’s Katar Hol from the High Towers who strives to ensure that the Downsiders have the protection and welfare which they so desperately need, and it’s Katar Hol who eventually does away with Thanagar’s fascist tyrant. If Truman had been focused on discussing the suffering of the dispossessed to the exclusion of the self-destructive behaviour of their persecutors, then the next Kalmoran would have been an off-worlder, a Slithian or Polarian, a Man-Hawk or Wingor. To have a Hawkman as the savior of those who the Hawkman have been persecuting could be seen as at best a patronising way of expressing how change can come about. Stormtroopers in stormtrooper’s uniforms do not on the whole make the most democratic of rebels. And yet, Truman not only spends the best part of Hawkworld showing how Katar Hol is stripped of his culture’s prejudices, but he’s obviously using the comic to speak to Americans of America’s responsibilities. As such, Katar Hol isn’t a symbol of how Americans, and Americans only, are best suited to save the world so much as an expression of their obligation to attempt to right the wrongs which they themselves have helped create.

Hawkworld has a strange life of its own in terms of how its politics appear to express themselves as time passes. It would be heartening, though undoubtedly misguided, to think of a time 10 and 20 years hence, when its pop-pulp tale of a fascist world might seem to be totally irrelevant to the issues of the day. But sadly, “Utopias don’t exist unless they’re built on someone’s backs.”

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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  1. In a word, brilliant, Colin. I’m a huge fan of Hawkworld and you still managed to enlighten me with your excellent discourse on the presentations of politics in the work — and their continued relevancy. Thank you so much!

  2. Loved Hawkworld when I was a teen. It blew my mind. But, when I re-read it years later, it seemed so full of cliches. It seemed very different from the usual mainstream comics, yes, but it really is Metropolis all over again.

    However, to me, it still seems the best way of doing Hawkman.

  3. This series marked the first (and last) time I was ever really interested in Hawkman. I haven’t read it in several years, so I’m amazed to see how relevant you are able to make it. In a perfect world with no “continuity gods,” this series would still be in print. Thanks for reminding us.

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