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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Blackhawks

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Blackhawks

(or “The Theme Team”)

In a way, it’s a little surprising that we’ve gotten this far into this series of columns and never once touched on super-hero teams designed around an organizing theme; then again, that’s partly my fault. The Blackhawks’ “international team” motif was re-used pretty much wholesale when Professor X organized the “all-new, all-different” X-Men, and I didn’t think to mention it then because there were so many other things going on. But the Blackhawks pretty much were their international gimmick; it was the one constant in their transformation from World War II patriotic heroes to post-war “science heroes” to hideously embarrassing superheroes to obscurity. So let’s take a moment and look at the gimmick in action, shall we?

First, we need to understand that “international” is just one of many organizing themes available to a writer when creating a themed super-team. Writers are just as likely to choose colors (Power Rangers, although most Power Rangers teams are likely to also be of different nationalities), elements (Captain Planet), or animals (Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, a collection I’m still waiting for, DC trade paperback department!) The idea is the same in all cases, though; when coming up with a new superhero team from scratch, it helps writers if they can come up with just one idea, the organizing theme, and then develop that idea to its logical conclusion instead of having to come up with a whole new concept for every superhero on the team and then explain why they all came together.

So you can start with the idea of “fighter pilots from all nations”, and then just slot in the French One (Andre), the Norwegian One (Olaf), the Eye-Blisteringly Racist Chinese One (Chop Chop), and so on until you’ve got a full team. Which brings up the reason why you don’t see the “international” theme much anymore…during less progressive eras, simply the idea of people from different ethnic backgrounds working together as more or less equals (shamefully much less, in the case of Chop Chop) counted as being “ahead of the curve”, but as time has passed, the very stereotyping that labels these characters as international has become less acceptable. (I’d be surprised, for example, if the upcoming Star Trek movie dwelled quite so much on Sulu’s Japanese heritage, Chekhov’s Russian pride, and Scotty’s, well…Scottishness.)

This isn’t to say it’s totally gone–‘Stormwatch’, for example, is a UN-based team that has members of all different nationalities–but for the most part, you don’t see many new superheroic teams based around the concept of “heroes from all nations”. (Of course, the old ones are still around–the Global Guardians still pop up from time to time, and it’s not like you don’t still see just about every member of the Claremont/Wein/Cockrum X-Men still with the team.) But even if one option has been closed off, there are still a lot of themes out there to turn into superheroes (and supervillains–the Royal Flush Gang, anyone?) And since it remains an easy option for writers who need to come up with an idea quick, we’ll probably see every single one of them.

But we might not see the Blackhawks themselves anytime soon. They really were a product of their time.


Nice piece! Must admit that reading through it made me think of DC’s other titular international team/organisation, Checkmate… I always liked the chess piece ranking (and the old costumes frmo the time around INVASION!)… Any chance of discussing them? any incarnation…

I always enjoy your storytelling engines. Have you ever thought about comparing/contrasting the storytelling engines of legacy heroes (i.e. the storytelling engine of the new Atom or Blue Beetle vs. the storytelling engine of Ray Palmer or Ted Kord)?

While Chaykin’s sledgehammer-style social commentary hasn’t aged very well, his reinterpretation of the Blachawks in to 80s was pretty entertaining, as I recall. The short-lived regular series which followed it was also readable. Both cases involved a thorough deconstruction of the 40s version, though.

Not that I’m complaining, because i find these articles to be pretty cool, but this one wasn’t much of a storytelling engine as it was the first group to come up with a specific theme. It basically tells you how to make such a team, but says nothing about how the storytelling engine worked for the team.

Looking at the historical context of when the Blackhawks were created does shed some light on the team makeup; it’s not as haphazard as just choosing nationalities at random, or based on how easy they are to stereotype. They first appeared a) during WWII and b) before the US joined; therefore, a team (mostly) composed of members whose native countries had been invaded by the Nazis had a different connotations than an all-US team would. (Chuck was from the US, but the comic was published in the US, so his inclusion made sense; there’s no good excuse for Chop Chop.) It can still be argued that it’s a gimmick or a shortcut, but in 1941 the team makeup had a significance that it didn’t retain a decade later.

The Chaykin Blackhawk doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the Mark Evanier-Dan Speigle version from the early 80s. Start searching those back issue bins, people! There’s some great comics there just waitin’ to be read!

There’s a website out there which offers free copies of what they say are “public domain” Golden Age comics in CBR format. Among them are the entire Military and Modern comics runs from Quality featuring Blackhawk. I’m not sure how legit their claims of public domain are, especially the Quality stuff (Police Comics with Plastic Man and National Comics with Uncle Sam is also there). Can comics with characters owned by DC still be considered public domain? (anyone?)

I won’t put the URL here, but if you search for goldenagecomics, you’ll find it pretty easily.

Anyway, I have no connection to , nor am I promoting this site – but if it IS legal, you can read all the GA Blackhawk stories.

“The idea is the same in all cases, though; when coming up with a new superhero team from scratch, it helps writers if they can come up with just one idea, the organizing theme, and then develop that idea to its logical conclusion instead of having to come up with a whole new concept for every superhero on the team and then explain why they all came together.”

However, when a writer is putting together a team, it doesn’t mean that that particular writer created each member of that team. True, Stan Lee co-created most of the Avengers, and wrote that title, and i think any other team is pretty much the same, although it doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual parts are created by the same person putting them together into a machine.

The inner cynic in my quietly points out that back in the day, it was probably easier to do an international team: several white guys (and possibly one girl) from America or Europe, and one grotesque ethnic stereotype from a non-European country. Today one has to deal with the ever-increasing knowledge that a truly international team should really be mostly non-white; it’s harder and harder to disguise the fact that America and Europe doesn’t comprise 90% of the world’s population. Of course the alternative would be to actually make a superteam that was largely non-white. Yeah, like THAT’S going to happen.

I mean, look at how far we’ve come: Original Blackhawk had several guys from America and Europe, and one Chinese guy. Contrast this to the international superteam Authority that was referenced above, which has…several white guys and gals from America and Europe…and one Chinese woman.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Eye-blisteringly racist is my new favorite adjective.

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