When it began its run in late 1987, Howard Chaykin’s three-part Blackhawk mini-series drew admiration from comics readers attracted to his innovative visual style and multi-layered plotting; it also inspired condemnation from fans who objected to his less-than-idealistic portrayal of DC Comics’ World War II flying ace. In Chaykin’s reimagining, Janos “Blackhawk” Prohaska was a Polish Communist whose heroism in the early days of the war as leader of an international band of airborne freedom fighters had earned him an adoring public following and honorary U.S. citizenship. His political beliefs, however, placed him at odds both with the red-baiting Senator Shadrack Hightower and with Joseph Stalin, who considered him a Trotskyite. Even more controversial than Chaykin’s depiction of Blackhawk’s politics was his characterization of his protagonist as a man whose heroism was entwined with a smug self-righteousness and a healthy sexual appetite. The question of whether or not Chaykin had remained “true” to Blackhawk was a subject of spirited debate at the time, and the topic remains contentious for some fans.1 Yet that conversation misses the fact that the difference between “real” and idealized versions of Blackhawk is a major theme in the comic. Indeed, this tension is at the heart of Blackhawk, a text whose explorations of the difference between reality and fantasy are part of an investigation into the relationship between fascism and mass culture and the question of whether it is possible to mobilize the fantasies of mass culture toward progressive ends.
Created by Chuck Cuidera, Will Eisner, and Bob Powell in 1941 for Quality Comics (and later acquired by DC Comics), Blackhawk and the soldiers who flew alongside him (collectively known as the Blackhawks) battled the Axis powers, but they paradoxically owed much of their appeal to the compelling iconography of fascism. Michael Chabon writes in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that Eisner “quite deliberately dressed his Allied-hero Blackhawks in uniforms modeled on the elegant death’s head garb of the Waffen SS” (204). Eisner later regretted to his biographer Bob Andelman that “[Blackhawk] was one of the few fascistic things I’ve done in my life” (105). As Susan Sontag writes in “Fascinating Fascism,” the stylish SS uniforms served as a physical manifestation of that organization’s role as “the ideal incarnation of Fascism’s overt assertion of the righteousness of violence. […] The SS was designed as an elite military unit that would be not only supremely violent but supremely beautiful” (215). Sontag’s argument clarifies why the Blackhawks were especially popular targets for cultural observers of the 1930s and 1940s who were concerned with the potentially fascist qualities of the nascent comic book format. In his 1949 work Love and Death: A Study in Censorship, Gershon Legman singled the team out as particularly egregious exemplars of the fascism he alleged to be inherent in comic books. In comic books, as in fascist states, Legman writes, “There is the same glorification of uniforms, riding boots, and crushed caps: Blackhawk, for instance, and his international lynch mob, are dressed from tip to toe in the Gestapo uniform, but in state-trooper blue instead of black” (120).
Although Legman’s description of the Blackhawks as an “international lynch mob” may seem overstated, it was well within the mainstream of anti-comic-book discourse of his day. The most famous figure in the public battles over comics, Dr. Fredric Wertham, put it succinctly when he claimed, “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry” (qtd. in Hajdu 6). The idea that comic books had an unparalleled power to indoctrinate readers (usually children) into a corrupt and distorted view of reality was common among critics. As Bart Beaty observes, “The quick rise of widespread concern about the increasing moral decadence and potentially fascist spirit of the comic book points to the way that the medium was rapidly caught up in ongoing discourses about mass culture that predated the form itself and shaped the way that it was received by critics and ultimately the public” (115).
Thus, Blackhawk and his allies were accused of collaborating with the very forces that they purported to stand against. While the apparent contradiction of fascist-inspired heroes fighting for democracy was never an explicit part of the Blackhawks’ classic adventures, it nonetheless proved central to Chaykin’s interest in the concept, as he has often remarked in interviews. In conversation with Kim Howard Johnson, he noted that “Blackhawk was the first comic book I ever stole. …It’s clearly an important book in the memories of men my age, who remember the Blackhawks as flying fascists on our side” (112-13). Chaykin described the title in similar terms to Robert Hambrecht, arguing that Blackhawk was “a protofascist comic book. It is Nazis fighting for us—these guys in leather outfits, you know” (128). Most intriguingly, Chaykin has further described Blackhawk as a comic “about achieving liberal ends by fascist means” (Cooke 231) and suggested (with some humor) that this ostensible paradox is central to his own artistic goals: “I’ve always been drawn to the iconography of fascism. My motivations in comics are liberal aims achieved by fascist means [laughter]” (Cooke 192).
Chaykin’s interest in fascism provides a useful insight into his Blackhawk, a comic in which the complexities and contradictions inherent in the notion of freedom-fighters adopting the tactics and aesthetics of fascism are central. Indeed, although it can be tempting for contemporary readers to dismiss early critiques of the comic book’s inherent fascist nature out of hand, Blackhawk suggests that such a dismissal is a mistake. Chaykin does not, of course, suggest that all comic books are fascist, but nor does he clear them of the charge so easily. Rather, he turns an analytical eye toward the comic book’s long romance with narratives whose veneration of strength and power, whose celebration of the power of images to reshape reality, resonate broadly with the rhetoric and aesthetics of fascism. To be sure, Chaykin’s description of his motivations is partly tongue-in-cheek, and when he refers to fascism in interviews he usually employs the term in a general sense. Of course, the question of what exactly “fascism” means is a persistently unsettled one for historians and political scientists.2 I do not wish to pry fascism free of its specific historical context and stretch the term beyond all utility, nor do I wish to argue that Chaykin’s work represents a historical or sociological intervention into our understandings of fascist movements in the first half of the twentieth century. However, even a cursory inspection of Chaykin’s work reveals his interest not only in the superficial elements of fascist iconography but also the larger political and ideological implications of fascist aesthetics.
Blackhawk in particular explores what Walter Benjamin famously described as the defining feature of fascism, “the aestheticization of political life” (“Work of Art” 41). It considers the implications of fascism’s mobilization of mass culture as part of its subsumption of the political to the aesthetic, its attempt to offer people solutions to real political problems by displacing those problems—and those people—into the realm of art. Blackhawk not only analyzes and critiques this dynamic but also investigates the tension between the subversive and subordinating potentials of mass culture, and it considers the dangerous allure of deploying mass culture to turn such an aestheticization of life toward ostensibly liberal ends.
To investigate Blackhawk‘s treatment of fascist aesthetics, it is useful to consider the ways in which Benjamin’s argument about the aestheticization of politics has been deployed and the context from which it emerged. Expanding on Benjamin’s definition, Lutz Koepnick argues that fascism
infused aesthetics into the political sphere in order to turn life into a unified work of art. […] It recast the political as a realm of the beautiful so as to compensate for the costs of modern disenchantment and to suture disenfranchised individuals into an all-encompassing spectacle of homogenization, an aesthetic simulation of community. (2)
As Linda Schulte-Sasse observes, this strategy goes “a step further than the early modernity that allowed the aesthetic to compensate for a rationalized world; it attempted rather to let the aesthetic become ‘reality'” (311). In the case of the Third Reich, the manifestation of fascism most prevalent in Blackhawk, many historians have long noted the centrality of mass cultural forms such as posters and films in the project of turning society into a “total work of art” (Koepnick 187); as Eric Rentschler puts it, “If the Nazis were movie mad, then the Third Reich was movie made” (1). Rentschler’s comment speaks to the subsumption of messy reality into idealized fantasy in Nazi Germany, the ways in which German citizens were encouraged to see themselves through and as silver-screen idols. A telling example of the Nazi obsession with the supremacy of the image is Joseph Goebbels’ speech to German troops before the premiere of the feature film Kolberg: “Gentlemen, in one hundred years’ time they will be showing a fine color film of the terrible days we are living through. Wouldn’t you like to play a part in that film? Hold out now, so that 100 years hence the audience will not hoot and whistle when you appear on screen” (qtd. in Koepnick 187). Of course, as Koepnick notes, although Benjamin’s aestheticization thesis focused primarily on Germany and Italy, it can also provide a useful lens for examining the parallel aestheticization of daily life in the Soviet Union—a subject touched upon in Chaykin’s Blackhawk.3
At the core of his analysis of fascism, Benjamin contended that fascist states were perverting technologies of mass culture that should have led to greater freedom. Benjamin wrote that film, for example, held the potential to “train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily” (“Work of Art” 26). Arrayed against the pedagogical and liberating qualities of film were the powerful economic forces that controlled the production and distribution of films themselves. Benjamin argued that the film industry’s publicity machine, and how it fostered the cult of celebrity, served “to distort and corrupt the original and justified interest of the masses in film—an interest in understanding themselves and therefore their class. Thus, the same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority” (“Work of Art” 34). Benjamin sounded similar warnings about radio and other mass cultural forms. In general the pattern was the same: mass culture could authorize new ways of seeing the world if only it could be loosed from exploitative economic interests.
Benjamin’s Frankfurt School colleagues Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, however, were less sanguine about the liberating potential of popular culture—or as they put it, the “culture industry,” a term that reflects their emphasis on how popular (or mass) culture is the result of a machine-like, standardized process that eliminates difference, complexity, and reflection in favor of cheap superficiality and the erasure of individuality. While Benjamin believed that the technologies of mass culture could help people apprehend the world more completely and concretely, Horkheimer and Adorno were convinced that they could only disguise and obfuscate, promoting the misrecognition of fantasy as reality. As they write,
The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry. The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production. The more densely and completely its techniques duplicate empirical objects, the more easily it creates the illusion that the world outside is a seamless extension of the one which has been revealed in the cinema. (99)
The result of this misrecognition is the eventual atrophy of individual perception, judgment, and reason. Ultimately, the individual is emptied out completely, replaced by a pasteboard copy inscribed by the culture industry: “The most intimate reactions of human beings have become so entirely reified, even to themselves, that the idea of anything peculiar to them survives only in extreme abstraction: personality means hardly more than dazzling white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions” (Horkheimer and Adorno 136). As J.M. Bernstein has noted in his overview of Adorno’s writing on the culture industry, “While Adorno nowhere identifies the culture industry with the political triumph of fascism, he does imply, both directly and indirectly, that the culture industry’s effective integration of society marks an equivalent triumph of repressive unification in liberal democratic states to that which was achieved politically under fascism” (4). According to Adorno, fascist propaganda is so persuasive because “it simply takes men for what they are: the true children of today’s standardized mass culture, largely robbed of autonomy and spontaneity” (“Freudian Theory” 150). Adorno drew a connection between the “total art” of fascist states and the confusion of image and reality that he saw everywhere in contemporary society. He cites in particular the example of Orson Welles’s “Invasion from Mars” broadcast as evidence that “the elimination of the distinction between image and reality has already advanced to the point of a collective sickness, that the reduction of the work of art to empirical reason is already capable of turning into overt lunacy at any moment, a lunacy which the fans who send trousers to the Lone Ranger and saddles to his horse already half affect” (“Schema” 63).
Contemporary critics in the field of cultural studies have not typically found Adorno’s critique persuasive. Andreas Huyssen succinctly encapsulates the major objections, noting that Adorno’s theory imagines the consumer only “in a state of passive regression” and fails to acknowledge how the materials of mass culture “can become the field of contest and struggle” (22). Yet Huyssen further argues that it would be a mistake to dismiss Adorno’s work entirely, and that his pessimism about the effects of mass culture can serve as a useful counterbalance to what he characterizes as “theoretically decapitated and mostly affirmative description[s] of ‘popular’ culture”; that is, readings of popular culture that see it primarily as a site of multiplicity and subversion without seriously considering broader ideological and economic contexts (19). Koepnick further develops Huyssen’s notion, noting that Nazi mass culture “clearly anticipated what contemporary audiences might have seen and today’s revisionists celebrate as enactments of plurality and resistance.… It enticed poachers to poach and provided local sources of individuation and empowerment, only to strengthen… the laws that regulated the distribution of land outside the distraction factories” (204).
This tension between the subversive and subordinating potentials of mass culture is at the center of Blackhawk, a text that returns insistently to the implications of the blurring of image and reality, of the aestheticization of everyday life, that are of such concern to Adorno and Benjamin in their analyses of mass culture and fascism. As a larger-than-life heroic figure, Blackhawk stands for the democratic values the Allied powers fought to defend. Yet his face is as apt to appear in a product endorsement or the celebrity gossip columns as it is on the front page, a situation that raises the question of what values this image truly represents. Taken together, Chaykin’s cover illustrations for the series communicate this tension clearly. Each cover features an idealized Blackhawk drawn in a recognizable style of propaganda or advertisement. On the first issue’s cover, Blackhawk dominates a cloud-filled sky while the distinctive Grumman Skyrockets, the airplanes favored by Blackhawk’s band of airborne Axis-smashers, zoom past (figure 1).
Reminiscent of United States World War II propaganda posters such as those by N.C. Wyeth and Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer, the cover seems to uncritically transmit an optimistic patriotism. The cover for the second issue, however, complicates matters: another iconic, heroic portrait of Blackhawk—but this time modeled on Soviet propaganda posters, featuring a Cyrillic caption that roughly translates, “Be Like Blackhawk: Produce for the Front!” (figure 2).
Finally and most strikingly, the cover for the third issue casts Blackhawk into one of illustrator J.C. Leyendecker’s iconic Arrow Shirts advertisements (specifically “Dancing Couple,” 1930) (figures 3 and 4).
Chaykin’s selection of models here is revealing, as is their sequence. What might be read as the uncritical jingoism of the first image is problematized by its similarity to the Stalinist propaganda of the second. The shift away from wartime propaganda to a shirt advertisement may seem jarring, but including the Leyendecker homage suggests fundamental connections (if not necessarily an equivalency) among the U.S. wartime propaganda, the “total art” of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Madison Avenue advertisements. Indeed, Leyendecker is an apt choice in this regard. According to Laurence and Judy Cutler, Leyendecker’s explicit goal in his Arrow shirt illustrations was to create “an ideal American man” (73); they further argue that the “Arrow advertisements were not only the first major branding effort, they were the first real advertising campaign ever launched,” and that because of the overwhelming success of this campaign, “a fledgling advertising industry blossomed into a mighty force, building consumerism into a near religion” (74). Although the tenor of the Cutlers’ account is admiring, Chaykin’s placement of one of Leyendecker’s influential images in the context of propaganda posters recalls Adorno’s claim that American mass culture was much akin to fascism in its effects.
Blackhawk is interested in exploring (if not necessarily endorsing) the notion that mass culture is ultimately a pernicious form of propaganda selling fantasies that banalize human experience, offering participation in fantasies that seem to resolve real social and economic problems. The comic’s first pages develop its treatment of the relationship between mass culture, social control, and fascism in more detail. Blackhawk opens with a black-and-white newsreel about the controversy surrounding the title character and his ties to the Communist Party. The newsreel’s voice-over highlights Blackhawk’s iconic status, describing him as the “one-time hero of every schoolboy from Maine to California—who now stands accused of betraying each of those boys” (2). After covering Blackhawk’s defense and the accusations hurled by Senator Hightower, the newsreel moves on to a story about Death Mayhew, a British aristocrat and American film star turned Nazi collaborator. Thus, before entering the “real” world of the narrative, the reader first encounters the main character and his primary antagonists through the filter of the mass media. In a move reminiscent of the opening of Citizen Kane, Chaykin shifts focus from the newsreel to those watching the newsreel—in this case, two African American soldiers motoring past a drive-in movie screen and discussing racial and social realities (as well as such commonplace bodily functions as nose-picking) generally absent from even an ostensibly documentary form such as the newsreel. Significantly, the first image in this sequence is a portion of a city limit marker: the name of the town itself is cropped from the page, but prominently featured is an advertisement for “America’s Finest Cola Drink.” From this billboard hang the signs for the town’s various civic and religious organizations, including the Lutheran Church and thinly disguised versions of the Knights of Columbus and the Optimists’ Club. This image clearly suggests that American culture has not only become densely permeated with advertising and mass culture but has also become fundamentally dependent upon it and subordinated to it. The name of the town is ultimately irrelevant, as the town’s social organizations are validated not by their association with a particular community but by their association with a brand name.
The nine-page dream sequence that follows these opening pages most dramatically announces and develops the comic’s exploration of the struggle over the meanings of mass cultural images. It begins with four similar pages. On each page three tiers of four narrow panels are inset above a full-bleed background image; this composition establishes a feeling first of confinement and then of release on each individual page, but the repetition of this structure over several pages calls into question the authenticity of that release. On the first page, a tiny pinprick of gold on a field of black gradually reveals itself, through a series of widening shots, to be a clawing, roaring, golden lion; a small, inset black panel with a sound effect that evokes the low hum of a distant airplane leads us to the following page, in which a similar point of light reveals itself to be a soaring black hawk. On the third page (figure 5), the hawk and the lion do battle.
As the hawk swoops toward the lion, the trail of its flight is represented as a stylized American flag, and as the lion prepares to meet the hawk’s attack, the background color turns red and the lettering that represents his roars turns black, evoking the colors of the Nazi flag. Chaykin represents the moment of impact as the literal clashing of icons: the animals have been reduced to pure color and design as stars and stripes smash into, and apparently shatter, a gleaming swastika. The fourth page seems to confirm this triumph: in this case, the point of light resolves into Blackhawk himself, flying his airplane through a seemingly empty sky with a resolute expression that eventually gives way to a confident smile. Chaykin’s use of iconography may at first appear fairly straightforward: Blackhawk is of course the black hawk, while the lion, given its associations with English heraldry, may be read as Death Mayhew, a reading given greater weight later in the story when Mayhew establishes his own Blackhawks-style squadron of fighter pilots known as the White Lions.
Yet beyond this surface reading, the sequence hints at the central conflicts about mass culture and fascism in the book. Chaykin has noted that he drew inspiration for this sequence from a wartime propaganda poster, a World War I-era advertisement by F.G. Cooper, “America’s Tribute to Britain” (figure 6), that depicts an American eagle laying a wreath on an English lion (Costello 257).
Chaykin’s construction of Blackhawk’s dream sequence thus suggests that Blackhawk’s unconscious understanding of himself and the conflict in which he is embroiled is fundamentally shaped by mass culture, here in the form of a simplifying and iconic propaganda poster from a previous conflict. Blackhawk’s dream does not uncritically replicate the poster but instead transforms its elements in a manner that suggests ambivalence about his role in the conflict and about the nature of propaganda generally. As a soldier for the cause of democracy, Blackhawk—represented by his namesake bird—makes sense as a stand-in for the bald eagle. Yet this simple correlation is immediately unsettled. After the hawk ostensibly triumphs over the lion, Blackhawk finds himself under attack from Nazi planes—a situation that indicates the ostensible release symbolized by the structure of the sequence’s fourth page was indeed a false one. The bursts of machine-gun fire in the aerial dogfight are visually matched by panels depicting newspaper headlines, defaced publicity posters, and radio broadcasts that accuse Blackhawk of being a “Stalinist stooge” (11). The way that Chaykin weaves together images of literal combat with public relations warfare indicates that Blackhawk’s dream battle is ultimately a battle for control of the meaning of his public image, a notion that is confirmed when, after vanquishing his fighter-pilot foes, Blackhawk finds himself under attack from a giant black hawk. Although the first hawk trailed the stars and stripes while destroying symbols of fascism, this hawk instead smashes into Blackhawk’s plane and is transformed on the next page into the Reichsadler—the Nazi version of the German imperial eagle. Andreas Fleischer and Frank Kampfer describe the Reichsadler as having been “stylized everywhere as one of the most important ideological symbols of the Nazi Reich besides the swastika” (194). (Later in the issue, an exterior view of Blackhawk headquarters reveals that it is garishly ornamented with an enormous golden bird statue clutching a Blackhawk emblem, an image that makes the connection to the Reichsadler even more explicit.) The competing versions of the black hawk appear to reach radically different destinations, yet perhaps what is truly important is that they follow the same trajectory—from realistic representation to iconic, propagandistic symbolism.
Although Blackhawk’s stylish uniform, airborne heroics, and general media savvy make him an inspirational and iconic figure, he cannot control the values attached to himself as symbol. Indeed, the very simplification and abstraction that propagandistic symbolism requires—and, the text suggests, that perhaps all mass cultural representation requires—are not themselves value-neutral but instead stand for the refutation and denial of depth and complexity. The final portion of the dream sequence drives both these points home. After plummeting from his aircraft, Blackhawk finds himself at the mercy of a cadre of silent, black, faceless duplicates of himself who beat him and bring him before Senator Hightower, who wears a swastika armband. Their blankness and lack of individuality only emphasize the fascist aspects of Blackhawk’s SS-inspired uniform (figure 7).
Other aspects of Chaykin’s depiction of these ersatz Blackhawks connect them to Nazi aesthetics as well: their lack of distinguishing facial features recall the representation of bodies in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, a film that, as Rentschler observes, “transforms [athletes’] bodies into abstract shapes and mass ornaments. This formalizing process climaxes in the famous diving sequence in which well-known figures become faceless and nameless entities who perform in an unreal space” (22). Fleischer and Kampfer note a similar tendency in Nazi poster art. In their analysis of a poster about the relationship between labor and science, they observe that “in order to mark the two figures out as supra-individual personifications, the artist gave them schematic faces without eyes, and depicted them in statuesque rigidity, so that they formed a striking contrast to the shadows in the background while nonetheless remaining recognizable as ideal types” (192). Thus, by reducing Blackhawk to a series of living uniforms, Chaykin underscores the character’s lack of control over his images; he is at the mercy of iconic abstractions, empty copies of himself whose blankness marks them as servants of fascism.
When Blackhawk struggles to bring his images back under his control, he meets only failure. Although Blackhawk shouts in protest, Chaykin represents his word balloons as empty bursts of color, suggesting that the character’s individual attempts to impose meaning on the situation are ultimately useless, that Blackhawk’s replicated images have overwhelmed whatever content with which he may have wished to invest them. Trapped within a living propaganda poster—a good way to describe his waking life—the empty word balloons indicate that Blackhawk can communicate only volume and intensity, not meaning. In his dream, the real Blackhawk has been replaced by his own simplified and multiplied image, and the ultimate consequence of that replacement is the victory of fascism.
Although Blackhawk’s confrontation with Hightower abruptly concludes the dream, Chaykin’s rendering of Blackhawk’s first waking moments indicate that the tensions of the dream sequence persist. When the “real” Blackhawk awakes—a rumpled and bleary figure in dramatic contrast to the idealized images of the covers and his dream, coming off a fortnight’s bender with a woman whose name he can’t quite recall—Chaykin continues to defer his appearance by depicting him first as a distorted reflection in a home-made television screen. Further, prominently displayed on the page is Blackhawk’s empty uniform hanging on the back of a chair, recalling the sinister duplicates that troubled his slumber. The gradual transition between sleeping and waking underlines the ways in which Blackhawk’s propagandistic role and his real life bleed into each other. This dense dream sequence, then, serves as a kind of primer to the comic’s exploration of the aestheticization of politics, highlighting both the power that iconic images can wield and their tendency toward a reductive oversimplification that makes them ripe for fascist exploitation.
If Blackhawk is, as his dream suggests, anxious about his own participation in the blending of image and reality, his primary foe in the series, Death Mayhew, shares no such reservations. A debonair English film actor in the swashbuckling mode of Errol Flynn, Mayhew’s sense of his own greatness, along with the promise of being made Reich Marshal of England after the Nazi conquest, motivates him to serve as a German agent on Allied soil. These plans came to naught, however, when he was exposed by Blackhawk at some point before the events of the series proper. Mayhew is also an utter narcissist with little appreciation for any distinction between himself and his film roles, seeing no boundary between real life and art. Chaykin most strikingly illustrates this aspect of Death’s character when he meets his co-conspirator, Senator Hightower, at a screening of one of his old films, a period adventure that calls to mind Robin Hood or The Three Musketeers. Chaykin lays out the page in five long horizontal strips with two smaller inset panels in the upper left and lower right (figure 8).
The horizontal panels portray a sequence from the film—a rapier duel between Mayhew and an onscreen foe—and the silhouettes of a row of audience members. Chaykin’s layout guides the reader’s eye in a zig-zag pattern from left to right: from the first inset panel, depicting Hightower, to an onscreen close-up of Mayhew’s grimacing foe on the far right, to an onscreen close-up of Mayhew, smugly grinning. Finally, the focus shifts to the right again as Mayhew’s character delivers the killing thrust—yet our view of his opponent’s face is obscured by the second inset panel, a close-up of Mayhew boasting “Hah! Got that pompous sheeny bastard!” (3:16). On a narrative level, Mayhew’s exclamation reveals just how thoroughly he has lost the distinction between image and reality, how utterly he is invested in his own idealized representations. Mayhew sees his onscreen vanquishing of a fictional foe as a literal triumph over the Jewish actor playing the character. And by obscuring Mayhew’s opponent’s face with a close-up of Mayhew cheering himself on, Chaykin uses the layout to visually underscore the extent of Mayhew’s narcissism. The back-and-forth pattern of the first half of the page represents a heterogeneous trio of characters of whom Mayhew is only one, while the second half of the page maintains that structure and so leads us to expect variety, but instead it only depicts repeated images of Mayhew.
This perception of his life and his art as essentially unified generates friction between Mayhew and his Nazi collaborators. Because Blackhawk compromised his value as a spy, Mayhew serves primarily as an agent of propaganda. He appears on the cover of Signal, a public relations magazine aimed at extolling the virtues of the Reich to other nations, and the interior pages feature his pro-Nazi essay, heavily illustrated with photographs of the handsome actor being kissed by beautiful German women and visiting ostensibly well-treated British prisoners of war. Yet Mayhew chafes at this role because it only allows him to play the dashing knight-errant for the camera instead of truly inhabiting the role in real life. He insists that he does not wish merely “to serve as a glorified pin-up boy for the Thousand-Year Reich” (2:22) and instead plans to enter the fray himself as the leader of the White Lions, a mirror image of the Blackhawks. Mayhew’s urgency is personal: he has been diagnosed with an illness and given only weeks to live, and so he wishes to go out with a literal bang. He plans to lead his team to destroy the Blackhawks’ planes and to use an experimental German long-range bomber to destroy New York with a stolen atomic bomb. Significantly, Mayhew casts this orgy of destruction in aesthetic terms: he tells his doctor, “I got a plan for a funeral pyre that’ll send DeMille packing” (2:16). Mayhew grants himself the task of signaling the incoming bomber by lighting up the entire Empire State Building as a beacon; his gesture would turn the skyscraper into a something recalling a pillar from Nazi architect Albert Speer’s “cathedral of light” in Nuremberg, a comparison Mayhew may well have in mind.
Throughout the text, Chaykin draws connections between Mayhew and Blackhawk, at times to suggest similarities in the way they function in terms of the aestheticization of life and at others to clarify contrasts. For instance, the third issue includes a mock-up of a page from a fan’s Blackhawk scrapbook. This collage of news stories, gossip column pieces, and advertisements for products featuring Blackhawk’s endorsement makes clear that Blackhawk’s celebrity is much like Mayhew’s. Chaykin underscores this point by also including a cover for Live magazine (a thinly disguised version of Life) featuring Blackhawk, a full-page image that directly recalls Mayhew’s Signal cover in the previous issue and that suggests that Blackhawk serves a similar propagandistic function as Mayhew— and that Life and Signal may not be so radically different, either. Yet Blackhawk is generally characterized as treating the relationship between his idealized celebrity image and reality with a healthy dose of ironic skepticism. When told that Mayhew has formed his knockoff group, the White Lions, Blackhawk comments, “Well, Mayhew always liked costume roles—let’s see how he likes the real thing” (1:29). In another instance, Blackhawk talks his way through a Moscow traffic jam by explaining that he is making an urgent delivery: “the latest batch of Comrade Stalin’s photo-portraits” (2:37).
However, despite this apparent skepticism, Blackhawk can also come across as smugly self-righteous and blind to his investments in his own idealized image. One of Chaykin’s main strategies for drawing out and deflating Blackhawk’s iconic persona is through his bantering relationship with the so-called “Lady Blackhawk,” Natalia (Natalie) Reed. Reed is an American-born Russian citizen, a former Soviet beauty pageant queen (Miss Young Communist League 1937) turned spy and top-notch flight engineer, and she is responsible for designing and building the Blackhawks’ updated planes. Reed refuses to take a back seat to her famous colleague—in one case literally, when she insists on taking the controls of one of her experimental planes during a daring escape. When Blackhawk complains that her abrupt takeoff caused him to hit his head, she responds, “Seems to me that Blackhawk should be able to handle a little turbulence on the flight deck” (1:45). Her remark is typical of her attitude through most of the comic, needling the title character and mocking his exaggerated sense of his own importance—often in terms that critique his aestheticization of his life and experience. For example, when Blackhawk gives an impassioned speech locating his authority in his hard-knock childhood in “the back alleys of Krakow” and dismissing her privileged background, Natalie, exasperated, replies in a way that compares his spiel to a musical composition: “Do you never allow people to grow up…? Or do you only freeze them in time—and play it to the same tune you use for the ‘poor boy from Krakow’ routine?” (2:25). Natalie herself runs the risk of being subsumed within her own idealized image: she joins Blackhack as a Live magazine photo subject, and makes an appearance in a film called O’er the Ramparts We Watched, described as “an epic of our nurses on Bataan” (3:6). Yet even more so than Blackhawk, she manages to maintain an ironic distance from her oft-replicated public image and manages to poke fun at him even during those moments when his heroic stature is most important, such as when he appeals to a group of potential financial backers. Appearing live via remote television broadcast, Natalie delivers a cheesy sales pitch that makes her sound like, as one attendee notes, “Stella Dallas on the radio”—a reference to a popular sentimental radio program. But she also finds a moment to jibe at Blackhawk, sarcastically remarking, “In his modesty, I’m sure the major hasn’t told you—it was he—and he alone—who built this televideo system—from scratch” (2:32). As will shortly be discussed, the system is indeed of Blackhawk’s own devising, but Natalie’s comment about his modesty is surely a dig.
However, the text suggests that such a playful, irreverent attitude toward the idealized, propagandistic images and narratives of mass culture may be insufficient to resist or subvert their hold over reality. A key sequence in the second issue uses page layout and panel transitions to dramatize the difficulty of Blackhawk’s attempts to serve both as propagandist and iconoclast. The final page of the Signal magazine article included in the second issue is a photo-essay titled “The Struggle for Moscow”; the last image on this page is a photo of a German Stuka dive bomber on an airfield on the Eastern front, along with a caption that explains that the men stationed at the field are playing a vital role in “the glorious struggle against the mongrel hordes of Bolshevism” (2:8). The first image on the next page is a visual match; indeed, it depicts the same plane on the same airfield. No longer the subject of a photo in a propaganda piece, however, the airfield is now the setting for the action of the narrative proper. As the sequence unfolds, three men—soon revealed to be Blackhawk and two of his comrades-in-arms, Chuck and Weng Chan, in disguise—move to the foreground and proceed to hijack a trio of planes from under the nose of the aptly-named Sergeant-Major Scheiskopf (2:9-10). The contrast between the depiction of the airfield in Signal, as a site of strength and valor, and the messy reality of incompetence and failure in real life is readily apparent. Chaykin underscores the theme by having Blackhawk and his men discuss, during their raid, an inspirational story from the home front circulating among American troops, a tale about a confrontation between an indignant mother of two fallen soldiers and a unthinking woman who expresses a desire for the war to continue so that her husband can continue making money at his job. Blackhawk, finding the details of the story unpersuasive, dismisses it as “bullshit,” and Chuck agrees that it is likely nothing but “home front jive” (2:9). In this passage, then, Blackhawk and his men seem to represent agents of authenticity, rejecting even comforting idealizations of real circumstances.
At the conclusion of this escapade, however, Chaykin returns to the page layout and panel transition strategy that opened the scene to demonstrate how easily mass culture recuperates a potential act of subversion for its own ends. The final image of the hijack sequence—one of the stolen airplanes dropping Soviet “surrender leaflets” onto German troops—is repeated as the first panel on the next page, this time as a photograph in Life magazine (not Live this time; see figures 9 and 10). The transition from the Signal photo to the action of the story seemed to portend a rejection of propaganda narratives in favor of an acknowledgment of the complexities and violence of war, yet the transition from the action to the Life photo suggests that any such complexity will inevitably be suppressed. Instead of a blow for the real over the ideal, we are left with competing propaganda narratives. Notably, the Life story gets a crucial fact wrong: Blackhawk, upset that he and his team are having to rely upon Stalin for funding, refuses to distribute the leaflets, leaving that task to either of his compatriots. As he puts it, “You guys are no more interested in serving as ambassadors at large for the Soviet propaganda machine than I am—but now that Uncle Joe’s lost interest in us, that’s all we seem to get stuck with.…But hey, you’re so damned happy—you drop the leaflets” (2:12). The text of the Life story, however, makes no mention of Blackhawk’s reservations. It does not even identify Blackhawk’s wingmen by name, and reports that Blackhawk himself distributed the material. Thus, the Signal and Life stories frame the events of the hijacking both literally and figuratively, constraining complexity and allowing only the simplest narratives into the public discourse.
Chaykin deals with the ways in which such reductive narratives affect the public’s abilities to distinguish between image and reality and to grapple with complexity in a variety of ways. In some cases, the public’s reaction to the aestheticization of life seems to confirm the pessimistic view that they have lost any real sense of depth and distinction. For example, Chaykin presents a comedic scene in which Senator Hightower is mistaken for the fictional Senator Claghorn from Fred Allen’s radio show by a chatty cab driver; the more angrily Hightower protests, the more convinced the cabbie becomes that the senator is indeed the caricature he has mistaken him for (3:14-15). In another instance, when it appears that he has foiled Mayhew’s latest plot near the end of the series, Blackhawk is introduced as being “fresh from putting one-time Warren Bros. star, now full time Anglo/Nazi, Death Mayhew in his place” (3:34), a phrase that seems to describe Mayhew’s move from film actor to Nazi agent in the same way one would describe a star signing a contract with a new studio.
Yet there are also moments when the public is represented as taking a more active role in the construction of meaning from the texts of mass culture. Most notable is a single panel at the end of the scene discussed above, in which Mayhew and Hightower meet at the movies (figure 11).
Chaykin draws Mayhew as rapt with self-adoration, his face aglow with the reflected glory from his own projected image. Through his coughs, he proclaims, “My public—they love me” (3:17). Ironically, visible just over Mayhew’s shoulder are a pair of not-so-loving moviegoers, jeering at the screen; behind them the panel is filled with the text of their catcalls, suggesting that these two men represent a greater number in the audience. If their facial expressions are ambiguous, the tone of their comments is not. Although not all of the words are visible, it is easy to pick out “What a homo!” and “ratzi,” as well as incomplete words and phrases that are probably “dickless,” “wimp,” and “shit for brains.” These are, of course, not exactly the most constructive responses, yet they nonetheless indicate that the audience is not wholly seduced by the images onscreen, that they perceive a difference between the aesthetic and the political. By attending the film to insult its star for his politics, the moviegoers are actively, rather than passively, consuming this artifact of mass culture. However, the question of whether or not their jeering can be transformed into meaningful social action or greater awareness of the complexities of society remains open. Indeed, the nature of their mockery—particularly the use of “ratzi,” a derisive term for Nazis familiar from World War II-era U.S. culture, especially comic books—suggests that they may have merely traded one simplistic narrative for another.
An important aspect of the comic’s treatment of mass culture’s power to shape imagination and experience is its depiction of Blackhawk not only as an object of mass culture but also as a master of its technologies. As previously discussed, the way in which mass culture affects the individual’s ability to understand the world in a sophisticated way was a concern for both Adorno and Benjamin. Adorno argued that the culture industry “fetters consciousness” and “impedes the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves” (“Schema” 106). Although Benjamin agreed that mass culture could be such an impediment, he also saw in the technologies of mass culture the possibility of progressive, even revolutionary change. Intimacy with these technologies could help keep people from falling prey to the allure of the beautiful image, the apparent seamlessness and organic quality of the finished work of art, and mistaking image for reality. As Benjamin wrote in his “Work of Art” essay that “If one considers the dangerous tensions which technology and its consequences have engendered in the masses at large—tendencies which at critical stages take on a psychotic character—one also has to recognize that this same technologization…has created the possibility of psychic immunization against such mass psychoses” (38). Benjamin’s insistence on the need for individuals to master the technologies of reproduction as a means of combating the pernicious effects of mass culture is especially relevant here in light of one of the key elements of Chaykin’s characterization of his protagonist. His Blackhawk is an electronics hobbyist obsessed with the technical workings of radio and television, one who has gone so far as to cobble together his own working TV in 1940. Chaykin visually suggests the potentially subversive implications of Blackhawk’s technical know-how early in the first issue. After Blackhawk rouses from his nightmare, the first image from his waking life that we see is his homemade television receiver, a jumble of wire and scrap metal set in an upside-down Coca-Cola crate (figure 12).
This last image is more than incidental, especially in contrast to the city limits sign from the beginning of the issue, where American community was shown to be dependent on “America’s finest cola drink” (1:3). Blackhawk’s repurposing of the Coke box not only indicates his already-discussed casual attitude toward the icons of mass culture, but more importantly it suggests a particularly Benjaminian take on the mastery of mass cultural technologies: building the television has literally upended the signs of mass culture.
Blackhawk’s technological mastery and its ideological implications are central to the plot’s climax: Mayhew has gained access to the Empire State Building and is preparing to signal the incoming German bomber. His plan involves detonating the atomic warhead aboard the bomber with a transmission on an experimental FM radio band. (Since at that time the band was not used by U.S. broadcast stations, there would have been little chance that of the bomb detonating prematurely.) Chaykin portrays Death as barely capable of tuning the transmitter properly: one panel features Death fiddling with a control board with an owner’s manual in front of him, remarking to himself, “Never thought I’d… regret not paying attention in class—that’s the most reading I’ve done in twenty years” (3:35). When Blackhawk, tipped off about Mayhew’s scheme, makes his way into the building and confronts him, Mayhew gloats that Blackhawk can do what he likes to him, but he cannot douse his DeMillean funeral pyre. However, Blackhawk’s familiarity with the technical details of television proves to be New York’s salvation: when Mayhew reminds him, “I did… say it’s a band not in use in this country,” Blackhawk responds, “That’s right, Death—you certainly did. It is, however, used for television audio” (3:42-43). Blackhawk is thus able to adjust Mayhew’s transmission and force the warhead to detonate prematurely while the plane is still a safe distance from New York. Blackhawk’s triumph, then, can be read as a rather literal application of Benjamin’s theories about the subversive potential inherent in the technologies of mass culture; while Mayhew wanted to use technology to create a final, glorious spectacle that would take the aestheticization of politics to a ghastly extreme, Blackhawk used it instead to keep the possibility of resistance alive.
It is tempting, then, to read this conclusion as purely upbeat: by killing Mayhew and foiling his plot, Blackhawk has in a sense triumphed over the fascist elements of his own public persona. Yet Chaykin takes care to quash, or at least qualify, such a rosily optimistic reading. The final page of the comic (figure 13) depicts Blackhawk, freshly decorated by Franklin Roosevelt, standing before a microphone and giving a speech to the American people.
Blackhawk’s speech is unsurprisingly self-involved, smugly chiding the “big guys” who besmirched his reputation and urging that the “Next time I get caught out of favor with the American people…let me take my case to the average guy—because I know I can count on a fair shake from him” (3:47). Blackhawk’s final line—”we’ll see you all in the funny papers” (3:47, emphasis in original)—seems innocuous, but, in the context of fascist aesthetics, carries darker implications, since it supposes the complete aestheticizaton of life. Not only will Blackhawk be a character in a comic, but so will everyone else; the aesthetic has utterly supplanted the political as the stage on which conflicts will be resolved.
Other elements on the page support this more pessimistic reading. Strikingly, Natalie stands behind him, dressed in a Blackhawk uniform, and remains mute, offering not even so much as an eye-roll to puncture the hero’s self-importance. Her passivity is a remarkable contrast to her attitude of skepticism and suspicion elsewhere in the comic. Further, the layout of the page itself suggests the “fetter[ing of] consciousness” (“Schema” 106) that Adorno associated with fascism and mass culture: the page is composed of two panels inset on a full-page bleed image of Blackhawk planes soaring through the sky. Chaykin employs an extreme close-up for the first image of Blackhawk speaking on the page, an image in which Blackhawk’s face crowds the borders of the panel, leaving room for little more than his smile and his words. It is perhaps no accident that this panel so closely echoes the close-ups of Mayhew in the theater. In the second panel, while Natalie remains neatly constrained within its borders, Blackhawk exceeds them; his feet, arm, and the microphone stand he holds spill over into a limitless expanse of sky occupied only by the identical aircraft of his men. By positioning the base of the microphone stand outside the inset panel, Chaykin makes it appear to float in the sky, unsupported by and unconnected to the solid ground of material reality, a vision of the technology of mass culture as existing in and creating its own self-sustaining reality. Just as importantly, while the sequence began with Blackhawk amidst a crowd of appreciative New Yorkers, the fact that he and his microphone seem to have transcended the common rabble suggests that his mastery of mass cultural technology will not be shared with others so that they might better understand the economic and social realities of their own lives—the ultimate goal of such technologies for Benjamin. The only response to Blackhawk’s broadcast is the affirming but inarticulate cry of “Hawkaaaaa” from his men, suggesting the limited possibilities for conversation or rebuttal in the world of aestheticized politics—all the more so when we recall that the first time the Blackhawks’ famous cry is sounded in the comic is when the Nazi version of the black hawk attacks during the opening dream sequence. This final image, then, represents the complete replacement of the real by the aesthetic. There is no stable ground outside of the aesthetic from which to criticize the image or even to see it from another angle.
Although Blackhawk attempts to have it both ways—to offer a spectacular image of heroism for public consumption while working behind the scenes in a more Benjaminian mode to prevent the ascendancy of images and ideals he finds dangerous—Chaykin suggests in these final pages that his protagonist’s attempts to thread this needle are ultimately futile. Regardless of whether the content of the image is seen as good or bad, heroic or evil, democratic or despotic, the result of the aestheticization of politics is the same: the refusal of complexity in favor of a simplifying ideal. Indeed, although I read the comic’s final page as Chaykin’s critique of Blackhawk’s failure to escape the reductive nature of fascist aesthetics, it is likely that many read it simply as a fist-pumping rah-rah conclusion that perpetuates the very tendency I claim it warns against. In this sense, Blackhawk’s struggle to impose meaning on his fascist doubles in the dream sequence is also Chaykin’s. Blackhawk thus seems to offer an affirmative answer to the question of whether mass culture will inevitably produce a citizenry, in the words of Adorno, “robbed of spontaneity and autonomy” instead of turning toward progressive ends. Yet if Blackhawk is ultimately undone by the temptation toward “liberal ends achieved by fascist means” (Cooke 192), Blackhawk nonetheless models strategies of individual resistance to the reductive narratives of mass culture. Blackhawk’s failure need not be the reader’s. The ambivalence of this conclusion is not surprising; in much of Chaykin’s work, a concern with the subordinating power of mass culture is entwined with a frank embrace of its pleasures and an interest in how (or if) it might be appropriated as a means of resistance to a dominant culture. As he remarked in a 2010 interview when declaring his abiding love of television, popular music, and Hollywood films,
I also recognize just how pernicious an influence all those things have had. I use the word pernicious very specifically because it is an insidious relationship.…I both make popular culture and I participate in it as an audience—but it is a love/hate relationship. Maybe not so much love/hate as mutual distrust. (Costello 254-255)
Although Blackhawk‘s conclusion is ultimately pessimistic, it would be a mistake to read the comic as a whole as utterly hopeless. After all, Blackhawk is a work of formal and ideological complexity starring a corporate-owned character, published and distributed within the mainstream channels of its day for a mass audience; its very existence is evidence that mass culture has the potential to do more than simply distract and pacify its consumers. Yet even so savvy a consumer as Blackhawk himself ultimately falls under the spell of the aestheticization of life—a conclusion that emphasizes just how hard-fought the struggle to appropriate mass culture for progressive purposes must inevitably be.
 In a letter to issue #3 of the Martin Pasko/Rick Burchett Blackhawk series that spun out of Chaykin’s revamp, Harry Broerjtes wrote of Blackhawk’s latest incarnation, “What I’ve had a little trouble with … is this notion of the Blackhawk as a Real Human Being and not some kind of selfless, pure-hearted knight of the death-laced skies, leader of a band of valiant stereotypes and triumphant victor over a legion of cardboard, fourth-rate villains.… My problem with Blackhawk according to Chaykin and Pasko hasn’t been that I’ve thought the new incarnation is heretical; it’s that, try as I might, I’ve just had trouble getting used to the whole thing” (25). Although Broerjtes’ letter strikes a tone of gradual appreciation for this new characterization of Blackhawk, his attitude was not shared by all. In a review of Chaykin’s series, R. Fiore complained that “Chaykin’s Blackhawk, like just about all of Chaykin’s protagonists, is a conceited bully who takes heroic action to demonstrate how much better he is than everyone else” (38). Another correspondent to the Pasko/Burchett Blackhawk praised that version of the protagonist at the expense of Chaykin’s: “I think Chaykin’s version of the character was an unlikeable bastard (like a lot of Chaykin’s male characters) but here there is evidence of his being a caring human being” (George Crawford 25). More recently, curator of the “Unofficial Blackhawk Comics Website” Dan Thompson writes that Chaykin’s “Prohaska is a profain [sic], vulgar drunk who mistreats women and abuses his men. I didn’t admire him, which I did the original Blackhawk.[…] Certainly there are men like Prohaska who are poor examples of human beings and yet still perform heroic deeds, but they aren’t the characters I want to see in my comic books” (“History of the Blackhawks”).
 Although a broad survey of these debates is beyond the scope of this essay, one only has to note the contention by some scholars that Nazi Germany was not a fascist state to indicate the wide gap between the academic definitions of fascism and the colloquial use of the term. For a useful overview of the debates over the meaning(s) of fascism, see Roger Griffin, ed., Fascism, Totalitarianism, and Political Religion.
 Koepnick draws upon the work of Boris Groys, who argues that under Joseph Stalin the Soviet Union became “a work of state art” (12). He goes on to note that, following a similar trajectory to fascist states in Europe, “the Stalin era satisfied the fundamental avant-garde demand that art cease representing life and begin transforming it by means of a total aesthetico-political project” (36). I draw these connections not to elide the crucial historical distinctions between the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Mussolini’s Italy, but to identify a broader trend about the aestheticizaton of politics at work in a variety of contexts in the era of Blackhawk‘s setting.
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