Hawk and Dove: First Strikes had the elements for success. Sterling Gates had written character-heavy stories in Green Lantern Corps and especially Supergirl, such to suggest he could explore well Hawk and Dove's often-complicated private lives. Rob Liefeld, love him or hate him, was there at this Hawk and Dove's "old" DC Universe conception, and brought a sense of legacy and continuity to the title.
These elements never quite come together, however, before the title is cancelled at the end of this volume. Gates's story has potential but doesn't distinguish itself before Liefeld takes writing chores. Liefeld's art starts relatively strongly but loses detail as the book continues, and his writing equally lacks the verve needed for modern audiences. By the end, First Strikes is just not all that interesting, and its cancellation seems right and justified.
[Review contains spoilers]
Sterling Gates's issues of Hawk and Dove see the duo fighting rival bird avatars trying to steal their power, while also dealing with fissures in their own partnership. Hawk and Dove's relationship to the Lords of Order and Chaos who granted their powers has been explored before, but Gates hints at a mythology involving a War Circle of avatars like Hawk -- and at the same time, that Dove's powers may come from somewhere else, and that her abilities may be greater than she or Hawk knew before.
More compelling than new villain Condor and the War Circle, however, is Gates's depiction of the interaction between Hawk Hank Hall and Dove Dawn Granger. Their partnership, here at the beginning of the newly-rebooted DC Universe, is thornier than in their old title's later years -- often they're fighting their enemies side-by-side but not necessarily together. Hank resents Dawn replacing his brother Don as Dove; he also worries that Dawn's boyfriend Deadman may hurt Hawk and Dove's effectiveness, even as he purposefully tries not to be too involved in Dawn's personal life. Dawn hides a new secret past that involves some connection to Don (never, unfortunately revealed in this book) and struggles to balance her role as peacekeeper with her more violent tendencies. That Hank and Dove are young, conflicted, and represent different approaches to superheroing has always made them compelling; all of this is a sound foundation with the potential to drive the series forward.
But Gates's story takes five issues to unfold, including two set at a White House banquet that are almost entirely an action sequence. There are nice touches here for Hawk and Dove fans -- the appearance of old characters like Hank's father and ex-girlfriend Ren, and a mention of Dawn's old boyfriend Sal -- but the story moves slowly. Condor largely tells Hawk and Dove about the War Circle in exposition, such that it's not vivid as a story piece, and there's few other supporting cast or subplots for Hawk and Dove to feel like a fully-realized world.
For the last three issues, Rob Liefeld writes as well as draws. Liefeld gets points for a generally smooth transition -- even as First Strikes's plot begins to go in a different direction, Liefeld roots it in the War Circle mythology, such that it would be easy to think Hawk and Dove has just one writer overall. Liefeld's first solo issue, however, is an unremarkable Batman story; Hawk and Dove are sporadically lectured and praised by Batman, the kind of Batman story that readers have seen hundreds of times and that could as easily have starred Hawk and Dove as Booster Gold or any other second-tier hero. In Liefeld's second and third issues, he pits Hawk and Dove against the sorcerer D'Khan and his henchman, the Hunter; these are silly characters who speak in clichés and whose costumes are severely dated, and by the end there's little in the book to interest a modern reader. When First Strikes ends, to some extent, it's a blessing.
It becomes difficult to actually "see" Rob Liefeld's art, to separate one's opinion of what's actually on Liefeld's page from the work he's done before or his own exaggerated persona. Comic book art need not be proportional nor anatomically correct, nor are artistic tics necessarily a bad thing -- Liefeld demonstrates here a tendency toward open mouths and clenched teeth, but this is no better or worse necessarily than Walt Simonson's squarish heads, Barry Kitson's solid-shaped hair, or Gary Frank's pointed chins. There are times in First Strikes where Liefeld's work is quite outstanding, often it seems when the artist has relaxed a bit -- his Dove on the book's cover, if one ignores the over-stretched Hawk next to her; or the scene where Hawk and Dove question Condor in a police station, where the de-powered villain looks quite menacing.
Where Liefeld's art begs detraction, instead, are instances like the Batman chapter, where Robin Damian Wayne is almost the size of Dove -- as if he were Red Robin Tim Drake and not Damian -- until he shrinks no larger than Dove's thigh in the final scene. There's also a sequence where the villain Blockbuster tries to steal an amulet from Hawk -- Liefeld doesn't draw the amulet at all until pages later when it suddenly appears around Hawk's neck just as Blockbuster grabs it. Liefeld's panels are the most dynamic especially in the book's first issues; afterward, a variety of inkers (including Liefeld himself) give the black lines a sketchy look that lessens the impact of Liefeld's figures. And Liefeld's character designs, especially toward the end of the book, hearken too much to the nineties to be useable now.
The original Hawk and Dove series by Barbara and Karl Kesel was a fan-favorite, and the title's New 52 resurrection in Hawk and Dove: First Strikes was equally welcome. Much like the DC New 52 Static Shock, one has to hope that the characters have enough life to them that they can survive what was simply not a strong enough debut. Neither Gates nor Liefeld did anything wrong necessarily -- in comparison to Static Shock, Gates and Liefeld's book is cogent, just not exciting, whereas Static failed to tell a clear story month to month. Given all the work done by Geoff Johns and others to bring Hawk and Dove back to the DC Universe proper after years in limbo following Armageddon 2001 it would be a significant shame for these characters to fall by the wayside again for good.
[Includes full covers, character designs by Jim Lee and sketchbook by Rob Liefeld]
Next week -- the DC Comics New 52 Deathstroke is full of blood and ... irony? Batman: The Dark Knight is the best team book you're not reading? New reviews coming up -- be here!