On Jeff Hawke: Overlord, by Sydney Jordan and Willie Patterson (1960)

“Adult” all too often has a different meaning now. But in the very best sense of the term, Jordan and Patterson’s Jeff Hawke was a newspaper science-fiction comic strip for adults. In an age in which fantastical fiction was still largely regarded as brain-rotting pablum for the young, the culturally deprived, and the supposedly congenitally feeble-minded, Jeff Hawke had become, by the turn of the ’60s, a rare and precious example of what the genre might achieve in a popular form designed to appeal to a post-adolescent audience. In the words of Dave Gibbons, it was “one of the best newspaper strips ever published.”

Hawke himself might not, at first, appear to be anything other than a typically British adventure hero from the more dour end of the breed. Though handsome, calm, brave, commanding, and restrained, Hawke’s hardly what might be seen as a charismatic character in the terms of today’s culture. His sense of humour is gentle and slight when it’s present at all, with a great deal of the comedy in his adventures coming from the characters that he plays straight man to. His obvious competence never once threatens to tip over into the darkness and machismo of a my-phasers-against-the-universe protagonist. Indeed, the absence of the slightest trace of the anti-hero about him leaves Hawke appearing initially to be nothing more compelling than a one-dimensional man of the officer class, there on the page to be admirably, comfortingly decent and day-winning.

But it’s the very absence of the easy and over-familiar markers of heroism that make Hawke such a quietly remarkable lead. In Overlord, for example, which played out over 115 days in the pages of The Daily Express in 1960, he first appears as an expert called in to investigate the appearance of an alien spacecraft that has crashed somewhere in North Africa. In a near-future marked by the likes of beautifully-envisaged ram-jets and flying-sauceresque hovercraft, Hawke liaises with government scientists and military big-wigs in order to take charge of the search effort. It’s not until the thirteenth daily chapter in the sequence that his most distinctive qualities become subtly emphasised. Having discovered not one but two alien craft in “the Egyptian desert,” Hawke’s methodical attempts at what we’d now call first contact reveal that a form of execution is about to occur. A gigantic beetle-like creature has apparently been condemned “in accordance with High Intergalactic Law,” and a relatively small off-world craft has arrived to carry out the sentence. Hawke’s response is deliberate, smart-minded, and entirely without teeth-gritting or speechifying:

“Whoever you may be, understand this! There will be no ‘execution’ on the sovereign territory of Earth!”

Though he undemonstratively draws his gun, it’s quite obviously done in a way that’s as lacking in Hollywood manliness as could be possible. To Hawke, as it soon becomes plain to the neophyte reader, violence is a strategy of the very last resort, and it’s in that adamantine conviction that the character’s untypical and inspiring qualities as a lead become clear. Patterson’s stories weren’t constructed to quickly burn through more cerebral solutions to overwhelmingly threatening dangers while at the same time cranking up the reader’s longing for a laser beam or a good and strong right hook to solve the problems. Quite the opposite was true. When Marines arrive on the scene in response to a loss of communications with Hawke’s team, a show of force results only in the destruction of its commander’s weapons along with, it appears, a significant proportion of his good health. For Jeff Hawke was a science-fiction strip designed to emphasise if not pacifism, then the most principled of restraint matched with the most rigorous of thought. And for all that Hawke might seem to the casual glance to be an entirely familiar fighting lead, he was actually the exact opposite to the breed. In that, he was the rarest of science-fiction types; the diplomat as hero, the peace-maker as protagonist, the man of ideals and science who really would rather rely upon his conscience and his mind before reaching for a conveniently big gun.

Patterson and Jordan could often appear to be engaged in a campaign against the broad strokes and dense-headed assumptions of so much pulp sci-fi. Jeff Hawke was saturated with the conventions that characterised so much of the pop science fiction of the period, and yet those traditions were constantly being reframed and reinvigorated. The flying saucers in Overlord are everyday terrestrial hovercraft, the other-worldly executioner nothing more than a machine programmed to spout bureaucratic legaleese. Most tellingly, the huge beetle that, at first glance, appears to be nothing more than the terrifying Other is revealed to be neither enemy not potential ally, but an “intelligent” creature “impatient” to be killed because it has “the mentality of a pawn in a chess game.” At each step of the plot, the reader’s expectations are smartly subverted. This is true to the point at which Hawke is compelled by the evidence to reluctantly leave the condemned alien to its fate, a twist of the plot which surely no-one then, as now, could have anticipated. This is authorial gameplaying of the highest level, and it comes with a complete absence of either smugness or the cold-hearted knowingness than tends to accompany comics meta. “Come on Jeff — there’s nothing we can do…” calls Hawke’s assistant, Mac, to his boss, and even now, the idea that there really is nothing that the heroic lead can do, and that the only option really is to fly away and let such unpleasantness occur, grinds thought-provokingly against genre expectations.

For a strip that’s so deliberately undemonstrative, that’s so purposefully designed to side-step the barnstorming clichés of space opera, it’s remarkable how many images there are on the page that still catch the eye and burn their way into the memory. The world of Overlord is quite clearly that of 1960 in most of its broad strokes and its fine detail too. Yet it’s also a time of the most incredible and yet apparently taken-for-granted super-science. Sydney Jordan had the remarkable ability to present the most futuristic of technology as an everyday fact of life while also accentuating its strange beauty in contrast to the everyday. A jet decades ahead of its time is shown being raised to the deck of HMS Centaur using technology that would’ve been in operation in World War Two, while soldiers looking little different to those who might have been serving in Britain’s turn-of-the-decade conscript army engage startlingly alien intruders. It’s hard not to believe that Jordan was somehow capturing the reality of 1960 as it might have been seen if only the reader could have just glimpsed things from the right angle.

As such, there’s a dozen and more such eye-catching panels in the sixteen daily chapters that mark just the opening act of Overlord alone. The tiny spacemen walking on a huge satellite in Earth orbit, Hawke’s ramjet landing on an aircraft carrier while dawn rises in the background, the interruption of the stand-off between alien and otherworldly technology caused by Hawke’s colleague Laura receiving a telepathic message; Jordan consistently placed his characters into situations that were simultaneously outlandish and yet also entirely believable. To have had Hawke behaving as anything other than his thoughtful and somewhat buttoned-up self in such a world would’ve reduced the strip to parody. For Jordan’s art, as with Patterson’s scripts, works against the very idea of the indomitable hero. Theirs is a version of reality which carries such a sense of verisimilitude that a suggestion that conflict can be defeated with a single, desperate act of brute blokeishness would inevitably appear out of place. It’s not that Hawke and his colleagues of the strip’s golden age weren’t often shown being brave and ingenious, but it is that their world, like ours, is anything other than a Saturday-morning picture show romp.

In the eighteenth episode of Overlord, Hawke, his team, and the Marine task-force abandon the beetle-alien to its lamentable fate and head northwards. It wants to die, its would-be killer is too powerful to stop, and there simply is no option but to retreat. Hawke himself is appalled at what’s going to occur, but the narrative doesn’t focus in an obvious manner on either his frustration or the killing itself. In what might initially seem a counter-intuitive choice on the part of Patterson and Jordan, the small fleet of hovercraft travel fifty miles northwards before a colossal explosion reminiscent of an atomic bomb is shown in the far distance. Today’s storytelling orthodoxy would insist that the reader be shown the execution or at least Hawke’s response to seeing it. In 2012, the sentimentality and the spectacle of the moment would most probably be what such a scene would be milked for. At the very least, we might be given a scene that focuses upon nothing but the excesses of Hawke’s angsty despair or be shown the hovercraft racing desperately to escape from the blast radius.

But Patterson and Jordan were writing for an audience of adults, and their focus wasn’t upon spectacle but story. In showing the human cast’s safe journey away from the killing field, they create a sense of numbed anticipation and allow the audience to feel what a terrible thing it is that’s going to happen. Each mile that the hovercraft cover is a mile further away from an abandoned, hopeless sentient being that is about to be slaughtered. The point here isn’t the blood and terror of the moment but the fundamental horror of an unavoidable loss of life. And when the sky’s shown blackening in response to the terrible white light of the slaughter, the security that Hawke and his fellows inhabit only emphasises the terrible fate of the creature they were compelled to leave behind. This, Patterson and Jordan appear to be stating, is how important and how catastrophic every single unnecessary loss of life is.

“We should have prevented that… the insect creature should have lived...” says Hawke as the flash of the explosion fades, and it suddenly becomes obvious. For it’s impossible to name more than just a few mass-market comics or strips today that are as passionately humane, as fundamentally concerned with common decency, as Jeff Hawke was some half-a-century and more ago.

We might have expected better of the future.

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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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