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Geoff Johns Hawkman Omnibus: Volume 1 (Review/Retrospective)

I’m always glad to see a nice, big and thick DC comics omnibus. Marvel have cornered the market in putting out over-sized gigantic collections of modern and classic runs on iconic characters, and I’m disappointed that it has taken DC so long to follow suit. After all, they have any number of long runs on iconic characters by acclaimed creators deserving some nice love. Geoff Johns’ Hawkman run is perhaps the writer’s run that I was least excited about, but it’s still nice to get the majority of Geoff Johns’ character-defining and continuity-clarifying run on the character handily collected in one gigantic package.

Hawkin' his wares...

Before we discuss the run itself, which is fascinating as a template of Johns’ uncanny ability to reconstruct and energise wayward properties, the book itself needs a bit of discussion. It’s clear that DC are relatively new to this game, that they haven’t really had a chance to perfect their game when it comes to massive ~700 page books. This is an unwieldy beast to hold, with nice inks and lovely paperstock. However, as is the case with most DC collections, it is glued rather than sewn. This means that there is (a.) a lot of gutter loss and (b.) it is difficult to hold open at times.

In fairness, the book seems to be illustrated in such a way that there’s no loss of plot information into the fold in the middle of the book, but it still feels a lot more awkward to flick through than a Marvel collection twice the size. There were one or two mistakes in my own copy, where it looked like lettering had been moved to the wrong page, so I’d see dialogue from earlier in the book appearing on a splash page, but it only happened once or twice. Because of the clarity of the words, I don’t think it was a printing error, but I can’t be sure that it wasn’t just on my book or even just that particular run of books.

Caught in the crossfire...

Still, those are minor complaints. I am very glad to see DC moving into this line of publishing, providing sizeable chunks of epic runs for readers. I do hope, though, that the team can rectify some of these more practical concerns before the upcoming Infinite Crisis, Invisibles or 52 omnibus collections see print. All three of those are absolutely massive – larger than this collection – so I can see those minor inconveniences being multiplied several times over. I have them on pre-order, and am looking forward to them, but I would like to see some improvements made.

As for the stories colected here, they are fascinating. It’s easy to forget just how much work Geoff Johns has done at the core of the DC universe, and just how many characters he has worked on. I think you can, roughly speaking, divide his work into “tiers”, so to speak. There are the characters that Johns has written at the core of the DC Universe – like his Superman run or his Flash run or his on-going Green Lantern run. There are also his work on lesser known or less high-profile characters – this Hawkman run, or JSA, or Booster Gold. I think it’s safe to say that Johns tends to acknowledge the differences and approach each differently.

While his work on Flash and Green Lantern has been about rendering the books completely accessible to newcomers and crafting open character-driven narratives, his work on more esoteric characters tends to be more focused on tidying and maintaining continuity. After all, the continuity of Hawkman is infamous among comic book fans, famously so toxic that Grant Morrison was banned from using the character in his Justice League of America run. Is he a human archeologist? Is a space cop? Is he both at the same time? In order for the character to have a change at finding a fanbase and catching on, that continuity does need to be streamlined.

Broken Arrow...

Johns could arguably sidestep the continuity mess surrounding the character, telling new stories and pretending like there never was a problem. It’s not unheard of in comic books for new writers to shuffle any awkward pieces off the board – after all, Johns’ Green Lantern features relatively few long-term bad guys, save in new roles and with new streamlined back stories. Instead, Johns acknowledges and even concedes the complexities surrounding the characer. When Carter suggests his history is “relatively simple”, Ray Palmer retorts, “Relative to what? Quantum physics?” Perhaps commenting on the way editorial policy has generally avoided Hawkman because of his tangled web, Hawkwoman muses, “There’s a reason the media leave the Hawks alone.”

And while Johns’ Hawkman isn’t nearly as accessible as his Superman or Green Lantern work, he does an efficient job of tidying up the mess. Hawkwoman is able to sum up the “space cop or archeologist” confusion in the space of two pages. We’re given a Secret Files & Origins story that takes us back to the beginning. Johns streamlines continuity by smoothly tying it all together, trying to construct a seamless tapestry of the separate elements that have grown over time. He emphasises the links, trying to cast it all as a single story, rather than the work of countless authors working with different interpretations. The Gentleman Ghost is tied to Hawkman’s reincarnation. We repeatedly hear how the Shadow Thief uses the same alien technology.

And in doing so, Johns manages to find a hook for the character and his fictional world. Johns is the master of the high-concept hook, of reimagining old characters in new and meaningful ways. The history of the Hawks, constantly dying and reborn after falling in love, is a potent metaphor for the nature of serialised fiction. They are never truly dead, just as the story is never truly over. There’s always a next time, there’s always a “to be continued…” waiting around the corner. “It’s all cyclical in nature,”the Gentleman Ghost suggests, and he’s right. Hawkman and Hawkgirl will never get to be happily in love, resolving the drama about their romance, because – if they did – the story would end. And the story cannot end.

They don't know him from Adam...

That is perhaps why it seems so fitting that Hawkman tied in to both Blackest Night and Brightest Day. Those were, after all, stories about the ending of the DC universe, about granting closure to characters who were unfamiliar with the concept. It seems only fair that the characters should be allowed to tidy away the backlog of continuity that they have built up over the years. If you are trying to wrap up the DC universe before rebooting it, then it is reasonable to give this perpetual love story an ending. And then you rip it away – the show must go on, even in this new and revamped DCnU.

However, there’s more to Johns’ re-working of the Hawkman mythos that a post-modern take on the nature of serialised fiction. Johns has a deep affection for pulpy crowd-pleasing fiction. He has cast his Green Lantern as the sort of high fantasy that George Lucas brought to the screen in Star Wars. Here, however, he very clearly attempts to cast Carter Hall as the Indiana Jones of the DC Universe. A colleague even mockingly refers to him as “Indiana.”

So we get the scene of occultish slavery in India, borrowed from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. We get Carter struggling with an academic career (complete with a flurry of students outside his office) recalling Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Hell, you could argue that Johns manages to blend science-fiction with this old style of fantasy in a much better way than Lucas could manage with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. “Ganesha forbids the use of technology in the Tamaonash,”the Shadow Thief is advised by giant blue elephant creatures.

In past lives...

More than that, though, Johns manages to hit on a powerful irony at the centre of Hawkman, succinctly reducing a character who had been a mess of continuity down to a single fascinating paradox. After all, Hawkman is a hero best know for carrying a big mace and hitting things really hard, so isn’t it a bit strange that he is really Carter Hall, esteemed man of science and higher culture? “I tell myself I am cultured and educated in the ways of life,” he tells Hawkgirl. “But I am a lie.” He confesses, “Underneath my knowledge and beyond my supposed sophistication — I am nothing more than a creature of violence.” It’s a fascinating central conceit, and it shows that Johns has an eye for these wonderfully simplistic and yet emotionally powerful ideas.

In fact, his work on Hawkman offers us a glimpse at what might be deemed the “Geoff Johns template”, those familiar steps the writer uses to breath new life and energy into characters. I don’t mean to apply that term cynically – I think Johns doesn’t get quite enough credit for the work he does in maintaining and renovating characters who have always struggled to find a core idea to latch on to. I think that Johns tends make these popular characters more easily accessible and more broadly fascinating than they were before, and that there’s really no other writer who can so easily redefine a character and their world.

In fact, some of the notes that Johns strikes here might seem familiar to those who follow his later work. Indeed, Hawkman struggles to find a balance between his human identity and the obligations of his costume – reflecting the character arc that Johns would set Hal Jordan on during Brightest Day. Indeed, both books see the protagonist warned by fellow superheroes to relax and to remove their cowl or ring. “Get outside your coop,” Green Arrow advises him. “I’ve lost myself under that helmet many times,” Hawkman confesses to Ray Palmer at one point. “Without a personal life, there isn’t a world worth saving.” Later warns his son, “You’re always wearing that damn helmet.” His son replies, “Like father like son…”

One way to get ahead...

Speaking of Johns’ celebrated Green Lantern run, one can detect shades of his rehabilitation of Sinestro in how he handles the anti-villain Black Adam. Of course, this is better discussed when reviewing the inevitable Geoff Johns Justice Society of America omnibus, which I hope isn’t too long overdue, but there are definite shades of it here, especially as Johns integrates Teth Adam into the shared history of the Hawks. Black Adam has many of the same traits that Johns would give Sinestro, including a hypocritical sense of honor and the same arrogant self-justification. “I want you to understand,” he assures Hawkman, “I do not blame you for turning your back on yourself or me. I blame the inaction of society. And society will soon understand that.” How magnaminous of him. Similarly, he won’t allow Brainwave to brainwash his allies, but will use Mr. Mind to place Brainwave under his control.

Indeed, one might wonder why Black Reign is collected here, rather than left out for the future Justice Society of America omnibus. After all, the crossover deals primarily with Hawkman in his role as JSA chairman, rather than a solo capacity, and focuses on the actions of Black Adam, a character who has been primarily developed in the Justice Society of America book. However, there’s a case to be made for Black Adam as an effective counterpoint to Hawkman, and not just because of their linked origin stories.

Johns paints Hawkman as a character struggling to adapt to the modern world, to make sense of a long history of violence and loss while still forging his own identity. Black Adam refuses to do that – he can’t move on. He refuses to let go of the defining losses that he has suffered and to accept that the world hase moved beyond the point where might makes right. In contrast, Hawkman is trying to make a new start – to acknowledge that Hawkgirl has her own freedom and autonomy and that he can’t just kill people for their crimes. It’s a powerful contrast and – although Black Reign might primarily feature JSA characters – it is at the heart of the crossover, so I’m glad it was collected here.

Not quite the Gentleman...

Just like he did with Keystone City in The Flash, Johns also helps shade the world of Hawkman by giving their fictional city a bit more character than it would have otherwise. He seems to realise that building up the world around his characters gives them a sense of added depth. We’re presented with the city of St. Roch, Louisiana, “the city the saints forgot.” While Johns defined Keystone as a blue-collar city, St. Roch is defined by corruption and vice. “You sure you’re not ostrich-man?” Green Arrow mocks Hawkman when he suggests Green Arrow could solve a misunderstanding by turning himself over to the police. “‘Cause you’re burying your head pret-ty deep in the sand if you think the cops in this town can be trusted.”

The entire city is such a hotbed for vice and corruption that even the reasonable authority figure, Police Chief Nedal, turns out to be a sexual predator. “Women in this city are much easier to… subdue than in Texas,” he observes. It’s an interesting attempt to translate some of the tropes and clichés that mass media tends to apply to New Orleans into the fantastic world of superhero comics. Steeped in a “mix of culture” and a history of ancient mysticism, Johns gives the surroundings a sense of macabre character. A mystic explains to hawkgirl that the town has no history. “One day St. Roch, well, it simply was. And a city like this tends to attract lost souls, oddities, things that can’t or shouldn’t exist.”

In fact the one tried-and-tested technique that Johns is fond of using to develop characters feels a little… awkward here. Portraying Hawkgirl as a woman with repressed memories of a childhood assault on her and her mother, delivered via dreams, feels like a cynical attempt to generate more angst for the character. It just seems a little bit too much. Johns has a habit of re-writing characters to give them tragic pasts, but this almost seems like a disturbing self-parody of the storytelling tool. It’s a shame, because it’s really the only note of Johns’ reimagining that strikes a sour note.

Reign of Terror...

I should also note that, like Justice Society of America, the first couple of issues in the collection were a result of collaboration with writer James Robinson. One can sense Robinson’s touch in the early issues of the title, and it seems like the author is drawing heavily from his Starman run. That’s not a bad thing, it must be notes, as Robinson’s best DC work was done on that title. So we get an early appearance from one of the Ludlow family, and an issue that evokes the “Times Past” stories Robinson used to do on Starman. That said, once the title gets off the ground, it is very much a Geoff Johns book.

And, apropos of nothing, I find it a little hilarious that Ray Palmer has a teaching assistant named Scott Snyder, years before that author would write one of the best Detective Comics runs in recent memory.

Rag Morales provides the bulk of the collection’s artwork, and this probably should have served as an indication that he really wasn’t best suited as a full-time artist on the relaunched Action Comics. It seems that every other arc is the work of a fill-in penciller. That said, I have no real problem with it, because it all looks quite good. Morales gives the book a nice cartoony style, evoking Mark Bagley’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man, so that can’t be a bad thing.

Snowed under...

Hawkman might not be Geoff Johns’ best work, but it’s still solidly entertaining, and still finds a nice hook for the title character. I’m glad to see it collected in this format, and I look forward to the second volume to complete the title. It’s a solid reworking and reimagining of a character who has proved quite difficult for modern writers to get to grips with, and I think that alone makes it worthwhile. It’s hardly essential, and I don’t think anybody will list it among the great modern comic book runs, but it serves as a wonderful illustration of Geoff Johns’ technique for rehabilitating wayward properties. If you’ve ever considered reading a Hawkman book, I can’t think of a better recommendation.

3 Responses

  1. Ah, I see Layne Staley is making an appearance, sunglasses included (second last picture)…

    That’s what I’d like to see – a comic based around the life to date of Layne Staley’s sunglasses. I suspect that they have seen some pretty interesting things.

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