Saturday, 30 January 2016

Spacehawk! 3 - The Case of the Missing Tires

(There are no images for this final post becasue no one scans or uploads later Spacehawk pages. Which kind of tells its own story.)

Hitler brings patterns to the Spacehawk world.

It's not really Hitler, its a satirical, silly Hitler/Mussolini knockoff called 'Moosler'. Moosler orders his submarines to attack US shipping. Spacehawk executes the classic ironic punishment of throwing Moosler into the middle of one of his own tank battles. Running back and forth between the opposing sides, Moosler proves himself to be a ridiculous coward. Spacehawk pulls him out of the battle and Moosler retracts his order out of fear.

And Moosler is wearing a pattern.

Or, not quite a pattern, he's wearing a weird cloth with a checkwork of crosses on it (the full-on swastika never appears in Spacehawk, maybe due to some war-era rule, and the name of Germany is never mentioned. Even when flights of high-tech rocketships burst into the sky, they have either some vague crosslike symbol, or nothing at all.)

Everyone in the Spacehawk universe to date has worn only mono-coloured clothes. Some, like Spacehawk himself have had two colours, or sometimes three colours, but always single, unshaded, un-patterned blocks. The only pink, or north-euro flesh-coloured people have been Spacehawk, his old friend Galar and Hala, Queen of the Noomites, and in most cases the aliens themselves are a strong colour, often green, sometimes tan, orange or yellow.

So the clothes and the aliens skin all fit in with the arrangement of colour and form in the Spacehawk world. Simple, strong, uni-coloured, counterpoised, no mixing, detailing only through black line.

Now Hitler brings a fucking pattern.

The next issue is even worse, the head of a secret enemy airfield posing as a woodsman actually wears a bright, multi-coloured fully-patterned shirt!

This is like the imposition of an alien reality into the fiercely ordered aesthetic unity of Wolvertons creation.

Everything is built on the idea of tight, strong, primary colours mosaicked in strong bold forms and counterpoised to produce that overwhelming stained-glass effect.

If you change the tools, if you change the kinds of colour arrangement that are possible in Spacehawks world, you change everything. It’s like a leaf landing on a chess board. The lines of this flannel-shirted fake lumberjack are the herald of death for the power and uniqueness of the dream.


.......



The Moosler story encapsulates a pair of problems that work together and will gradually chew away at the Spacehawk universe for the remainder of its run, the moral and the visual.

The big, big problem for any Superhero story during WWII is that its World War Two. It's the most serious thing to ever happen. So what, exactly, is Spacehawk, or Superman, doing in that reality?

This is an in-fiction problem of making sense of it, and a moral problem of simple powerful dreams interacting with a harrowing truth which impinges itself more and more onto the minds and lives of the creators.


THE IN-FICTION PROBLEM

Captain America is going to be OK, he's made to be just like a soldier, only *more*, so you can have him fighting on the front lines with the boys in green or have him pulling 'secret missions' where he does something incredible. He can skate back and forth across the margins of reality, battling the Red Skull on a flying wing one issue and helping Easy Company storm a machine gun nest the next.

But Spacehawk is a super-strong, psychic, possibly-thousand-year-old alien scientific genius with a flame gun, an atom gun, an anti-gravity belt, a gang of psychically-controlled robot duplicates of himself and a super-fast space rocket that fires lightning. In His second appearance he uplifted an entire alien race over the space of half a page, he can transplant brains. What is he up to here? How has he not won already? He beats Martian Hitlers in the space of one story.

At first, Wolverton adopts the classic method. He creates a 'higher' reality where the impossible hero can fight an equally-imbued enemy. So the Americans have Spacehawk? The Japanese have an entire fake asteroid which they intend to use to bombard the U.S! The Germans have a flying wing which fires gigantic razor disks into New York! They have an impenetrable Undersea Tank on the ocean floor! They have a fleet of rocket planes faster than any known!

But, over time, something strange happens. The power, immensity and weirdness of the axis wonderwaffen keeps reducing. Like a waterfall or collapsing static, it fades closer and closer to reality. They never replace or increase their super-weapons and the new ones they invent are always just a little bit more possible.

At the same time, Spacehawk grows less powerful, less incredible, less imaginary. He uses his incredible Rocketship less and less. Wolverton seems embarrassed by it, and with its childishly simple lines and bright green and yellow colouring, it does look silly. It never did before, in the depths of imaginary space, amidst the bold curves and bright colours of Wolvertons embroidered void, but now, compared to real bombers and real battleships and real rockets that really kill human beings, it looks more and more like a toy.

So, eventually, Spacehawk goes to the President (the White House dome is coloured bright red) and volunteers his scientific skills to aid in the creation of a new super-bomber. He builds this in a quotidian factory and is spied on by some quotidian saboteurs. In the end the saboteurs steal a new super-tank and Spacehawk duels them in his super plane. The plane wins and this is what Spacehawk flies about in from this point on. The rocketship and its blast cannon are not mentioned again.

The plane however, is still bright blue-and-yellow. Not everything is gone.


THE MORAL PROBLEM

The moral problem is that, in real life, real soldiers and real civilians and real cities and real cultures are really dying and Wolveton, and everyone else, can see this in the papers and  on the newsreel every week.

You can beat up fake Hitler in the comic as much as you want but when you put the comic down, real Hitler is still there and you satirising him looks less funny, more pathetic.

You can have Evil Germans fire gigantic razor disks into New York, and have Spacehawk stop them. But when the reader closes the page, real London is still really burning on the cinema screen.

The gap between the heroic dream and the fraught reality rob the dream of power every time they are contrasted in the mind. So the dream has to change. Wolverton has to try, gradually, to introduce Spacehawk to reality. Even if editorial weren't demanding it, even if the audience didn't want it, Wolverton would probably have to do it, he sees soldiers and sailors on the streets every day. How many people does he know in the military? How many people does he know connected to armaments factories and military technology? How many people does he know who are in danger? How many people does he know that have died?

So Spacehawk spends more and more time close to, and interacting with, 'real' soldiers, 'real' sailors' and 'real' airmen, and when he interacts with them, Woverton has to try to get them, and their technology, and their uniforms, and what they do 'right', and if not accurate, at least not absurd.

A few episodes into the war years, Spacehawk is seen in a suit, with a hat. He's been eating in a restaurant in New York.

The suit is a perfect Spacehawk-green and soon he takes off on his gravity belt to battle evil, astonishing the crowd, but a line has been crossed.


....


The moral problem and the visual problem feed off each other.

In some ways Wolverton actually becomes a 'better' artist during the final two thirds of Spacehawk. His ability to depict real technology and real people increases. He learns new artistic techniques. He can do shade and mass much more subtlety, he masters real fashions, real waves, real sunsets, real clouds. He even learns darkness. He does it to get better as an artist and he probably does it out of respect to the people involved.

And it slowly kills the comic.

It's not fierce. It’s not strong. It’s not strange. It’s not intense.

It’s not NEW. Wolverton can no longer invent worlds, toy-box cities on the horizon, no new alien races, no strange _things_ filling the foreground. He tried to make up with it with plants and flowers, it’s not the same. He can no longer create, he must replicate.

It's just a war comic, and though not bad, it’s probably not even amongst the best war comics.

The colour-logic and form-logic and invention-logic of Spacehawk fall apart.

You can't have insane bright primary blocks the way you used to and they can't be bound by the same strange but complete imaginary forms. Wolverton pumps those bright signifiers back in wherever he can find an excuse, but it’s not enough. You can't have a half-bright, half-imagined world. The aesthetic is too tight and too strong. The sky turns blue, actual pale, sky-blue blue, the colour of a real sky, and it never should. The battleships are grey.

GREY! In a Spacehawk comic!

BROWN!!

The Nazis try to help by painting entire bomber divisions red, but it’s not enough.

Spacehawk gets his own Supervillain, Dr Gore. A human as smart and scientifically able as Spacehawk, but dedicated only to evil. Though in the story Dr Gore is a Thorn In The Side of Spacehawk, aesthetically he is there to rescue him. The Doctor only wears an entirely-blue costume, he creates insane super-technology which demands insane super-heroism to defeat. Eventually he has to be banished to Mars.

Mars! The only real callback in the entire series and it happens in the middle of the War years. This is the only reference to outer space in those years. Will we see Mars again, and the cruel Valley of the Insects?

No. Gore escapes back to earth and Spacehawk chases him through a brownish valley until he jumps into a river.

Though drenched in bonkers transformed-orientalism, Spacehawk couldn't be racist in space, there was simply no-one there to be racist to. It the vulture-men are evil, cringing, crooked and sly and wear all the trappings of a Fagan-like intelligent 'Lesser Race' then that’s just what Vulture Men are like. There will be a new alien species along in a minute and they will be entirely different. None of the aliens or monsters seem like vectors for feelings about any real races at all. Tyrants and cowards are bad because they are bad. That's Spacehawk.

By the time it reaches earth Spacehawk is definitely racist, specifically towards the Japanese in all their yellow-skinned, slant-eyed, buck-toothed glory.

I don't really feel any offence reading these stories, it seems about exactly as racist as the mid-range of the background culture and pretty typical considering the two groups are locked in a high-casualty civilian-burning industrialised global megaconflict. But there it is.



DEEP, BLACK WATER

Spacehawk dies by degrees, the death is longer than the life and it comes to a terrible finale in the two last adventures.

In his penultimate issue, Spacehawk chases tire thieves.

This almost makes sense. Rubber is an industrially vital material in the war economy and probably the government has had a word.

It's still, in every respect, the most shameful, quotidian, low-level mediocre thing that Spacehawk has ever done.

The Woman returns, finally, at the end she comes back like Morgana La Fey arriving on the ship to take away Arthur to the other kingdom. This time she's a lost movie star. Spacehawk tries to play a trick on her to teach her a lesson _about rubber_ and through a relentlessly unfunny series of misunderstandings and mistakes they both end up on top of a water tower after being chased by the police.

Not only are there no strong colours, it's gloomy, its dark. Spacehawk makes mistakes. Everything happens in the mid-range.  Everything happens on the streets of a normal American city.  No-one believes Spacehawk is who he says he is. Where the first episode had every character shouting Spacehawks name as if his identity came before him like a burning halo; "YOU'RE SPACEHAWK", "SPACEHAWK.. HERE?", now even tire thieves and police officers can't believe its him, even when he's right in front of them, "YOU - SPACEHAWK? HA! MASQUERADING AS SOME ONE ELSE WILL ONLY GET YOU A FEW MORE MONTHS IN THE JUG, BUG C'MON!", "MY! MY! LOOK WHO'S IN THE NEXT CELL! THE MAN WHO TAKES TIRES AND BLAMES IT ON SPACEHAWK!"

The demi god who began as an implacable emission of otherness, whose every act was an impossibility, who could literally scare the guns out of a bad guys hand, the guy whose method of escaping a jail cell was simply to throw himself through the wall, is now reduced to near-pratfalls.

Trapped together on the water tower, Spacehawk and the Woman seem almost like survivors of a painful divorce looking back over a difficult relationship. There is a kind of despairing camaraderie.

And then the final episode.

Spacehawk battles enemy agents who have created a fake rock on the coast and filled it with a refuelling station for hidden submarines.

We started, if you remember, in a cave in space, and we end in another cave. The first glittered with pigment like a cluster of dropped jewels, every fold of rock was a distinct form with a carefully-applied individual colour like inset gems. We were in an almost shadowless world. This cave, the last, is truly dark. Wolverton has finally mastered shading, he can cloak his figure in a veil of shadows like he never could before. Light gleams on dark water for the first time.

Spacehawk blows everything up and captures two thugs, maybe the same pair of Bad Men who open and close so many Spacehawk adventures, this time in human form.

"PERHAPS WE SHOULDN'T HAVE JOINED THE NAZI CAUSE KRUEGER!"

"YES - I'M AFRAID WE MADE A GRAVE ERROR!"

Spacehawk flies into the darkness with his cargo of villains, heading for America.

He will never arrive.

..........


COULD IT ALL HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT SOMEHOW?

I can't stop thinking; what it World War Two had never happened? Yes, millions of people would still be alive, but, more importantly, Spacehawk might still be good.

What if Wolverton had just carried on? It seemed like he was growing at an incredible pace just before Spacehawk was pinned to earth like a technicolour angel, to fade and die. What would SH have looked like after only another year? What would Wolverton have invented and how would the character have grown? Wolvertons way of thinking was unlike most other artists of the time. He wasn't trying to be what I would call a good 'pictorial' artist, one who's work was like book illustrations, he was a little bit like the future underground scene, that's why they like him, but he was working in a popular audience-facing medium. He was building a world like the Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon stories, but not the same kind of world, not a neatly unified one. he combined a certain kind of silliness, or aliveness or directness with a more traditional form. And he was inventing. Inventing inventing inventing. If he'd just kept going in his own direction, would there be a different strand in American Comics? Kirby-esque, Eisner-esque, Wolvertonian?

1 comment:

  1. I'm always baffled by the brow-furrowing concern about "racist" wartime comics. Americans and Japanese were shooting, bombing, burning, drowning, and stabbing each other by the tens of thousands, and we're supposed to think a bucktooth caricature is "problematic"?!

    It is a little sad that the desire to "do something for the war effort" meant the comic had to shed all its otherworldly weirdness. (Especially since the initial premise was that it took place far in the future, when this war would be forgotten history.) I suspect that war plant workers, soldiers, and schoolboys during the war might have appreciated a comic which depicted a world where Hitler was a forgotten nuisance.

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