Review: Blackhawks Vol. 1: The Great Leap Forward trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 04, 2013

That writer Mike Costa's credits include IDW's G.I. Joe and Cobra is no coincidence; the New 52 Blackhawks: The Great Leap Forward is essentially G.I. Joe set in the DC Universe. And it's awesome. DC's inaugural New 52 "Edge" line did not fare well, with over half of the first wave of titles cancelled including Costa's Blackhawks; in a line that included the equally ill-fated Men of War and G.I. Combat, Blackhawks may have seemed just another war title. Instead, Great Leap Forward reads like a snappy, smart, action-packed spy thriller, an echo of Checkmate without the politics.

It's definitely a shame Blackhawks ended when it did, but Great Leap Forward emerges as an enjoyable, self-contained collection.

[Review contains spoilers]

There are no direct G.I. Joe analogues, which might've been fun, but Blackhawks has all the trappings -- an elite UN paramilitary spy force, handling missions beyond the normal. The team is composed of colorful characters, and Costa has a little fun here with the legacy of the Blackhawks. Earlier versions of the Blackhawks team were composed of characters of different nationalities with stereotypical appearances and word choice to match; these Blackhawks have names like "Irishman" and "Canada," but they're all meant ironically (Irishman is a red-haired Ukranian and Canada got his name from a dalliance with a Canadian woman). Each team member brings unique skills to the story, a la G.I. Joe -- Canada is the pilot, Wildman the computer expert, and so on.

Though Andrew Lincoln leads the team and is ostensibly the main character, most of Great Leap Forward turns on two aspects of operative Nikki "Kunoichi" Nemzer -- first, that she's infected by one of their enemies with super-powered nanocites, and second, that she's photographed on a mission and becomes the public face of the covert Blackhawks. Great Leap Forward therefore presents a time of change for the Blackhawks -- they're under public scrutiny for the first time, and a team built to fight technological threats has to adapt to an extra-normal being within their own ranks. This makes for a lot of fun tension; Great Leap Forward isn't just about the Blackhawks completing missions, but about the Blackhawks having to complete missions with new challenges they hadn't experienced before.

Costa handles the sizable cast of seven well, often splitting them into groups; Kunoichi, Lady Blackhawk, Attilla, and Irishman usually battle on the ground, while Canada and Wildman often get a B-plot where they learn more about the enemy du jour (this becomes a running joke that whereas Canada and Wildman aren't supposed to be involved with actual dangerous work, they always are). Wildman seemingly dies before the end of the book, which is unfortunate because his interplay with Canada also often provides the moral backbone of the book (whether, for instance, killing a technology-based species is genocide); Costa strongly suggests a way in which Wildman might live on, and among the unfortunate aspects of Blackhawks's cancellation is that the reader doesn't get to see this play out. Costa also gives a brief spotlight to Irishman and Attila that demonstrates them as deeper characters worthy of further study.

The show-stealer, however, is Costa's UN delegate Schmidt, sent to monitor the Blackhawks after Kunoichi reveals their presence to the world. Costa's stories are wonderfully outlandish -- the characters jump from a plane crash-landing from space in one story, blow up their base with a nuclear bomb the next -- and Schmidt represents the reader, equally appalled and enthused by the Blackhawks' dangerous situations. When, in the third issue, Schmidt asks to be reassigned to the Blackhawk's full-time, the smile on his face is the same as the reader's; to have been able to watch the Blackhawks get in trouble month after month would have been a great thing.

The only problem with Great Leap Forward, which might have contributed to its cancellation, is that DC uses a baffling rotating cadre of artists on the series. Comics legend Graham Nolan provides layouts for the first four issues, but each issue has a "finisher" with a different style, a move likely to confuse prospective readers; of these, Trevor McCarthy is the best, giving his issue an angular, nostalgic look that bridged new Blackhawks with old-style noir. After issue five, CAFU comes on, and he gives the book a clear, defined look (as he did on early issues of Grifter) that makes it all the more tragic that the book is cancelled.

Men of War struggled to combine war stories with the DC Universe, and it was a shaky title that earned its cancellation. Blackhawks: The Great Leap Forward likely faltered by association, but the two titles couldn't be more different. Mike Costa relaunched this classic DC Comics team with great energy and it's a shame this title didn't last. Readers will do themselves a favor checking this one out, and hopefully it's not the last time the Blackhawks will fly over the New 52.

[Includes original covers, sketches by Ken Lashley and Graham Nolan]

Later in the week, it's back to the volume twos with Batgirl Vol. 2: Knightfall Descends. See you then!
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7 comments:

  1. I definitely preferred Men of War when Ivan Brandon was writing over Costa's Blackhawks, but I think the book was really picking up steam once CAFU joined as artist. The stakes were raised and the thrills were constant. I don't think it was anything special, or even provided a new look at things like Men of War did, but a fun read in its last days.

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  2. Loved this book to death. Costa's writing is so crisp, one has to wonder why none of DC's editors couldn't find him another assignment after Blackhawks was cancelled. In my opinion, he would write the hell out of Birds of Prey or Team 7.

    As you said, the one knock against this collection is the lack of artistic consistency. As if it weren't bad enough that the series was launched with art by the mediocre and perenially late Ken Lashley, there were many jarring style shifts throughout the first four issues, and by the time the book finally got a good artist (CAFU), its cancellation had already been announced.

    Still, I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for a smart, self-contained read.

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  3. Supposedly Chuck Austen was going to write this and do the breakdowns. I guess DC wasn't ready to break that excommunication (and rightfully so), but it apparently does explain the artistic clusterfuck.

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  4. I wish you'd have namechecked Costa's actual G.I. Joe title, Cobra, because it rocks and could use the publicity.

    This was a series that I surprised myself by not reading, because Costa is a huge favorite on mine from Cobra. It just seemed completely different. Now I'll have to definitely check it out, because it sounds like he made the team into a kind of new Challengers of the Unknown, and in the mold of the equally underrated Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale series.

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  5. Fully agree. Next to OMAC, Blackhawks is one of the first wave of cancelled books I hated to see go. One of the few human/non-superhero books in the New 52 and it is just a fun book.

    The same thing applied with Men of War, though not as good as Blackhawks. I think the problem is we see too much crime and war on the regular news, and no one wants to read about it in comics. Comic readers purposely want to get away from reality like that. Even the following series, GI Combat, is already cancelled. Human/war books just don't seem to have a market, I guess.

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  6. I really liked the old Blackhawk series by Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle. Too bad that they are not going to be reprinting it, even as a showcase presents. I broke down and tracked the singles.

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  7. Once nice thing is that the Blackhawks -- Lincoln, at least -- still show up in a couple places for a while, mainly Voodoo, but also Mr. Terrific and ... I thought there was one other place, too. Plus the DC Universe Presents issue, which I'm really looking forward to despite that it's not written by Costa.

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