Monday, October 27, 2008

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.


Johnny B said...

I also think the fact that many nations joined together in both World Wars had a lot to do with the thinking behind the multi-national fighters concept- it was easy to tie in to the WWII effort, and served as propaganda in its way.

Kyle said...

They showed up in an issue of the Waid/Perez The Brave and the Bold.

Mark Clapham said...

Interesting, but I was kind of hoping for a bit more about how Blackhawk stories work(ed) through the transition from war comics to crime fighters to superheroes.

Someone will nail that Blackhawk revival one day (if you can bring back Checkmate, you can bring back anything), but in the present day DCU they seem stuck as jet fighting redshirts who turn up in random crossovers.

Teebore said...

Interesting mention of the original Star Trek. In this day and age, it's sometimes hard to remember how groundbreaking a concept that was back in the 60s, that in the future the crew of a spaceship would be staffed by people from all nations, even *gasp* Russians.

Sometimes I forget what a big deal that was, thinking "Earth is a unified planet by then. It only makes sense to have people of all nationalities on the bridge", completely forgetting the cultural relevance.