Hawk & Dove: First Strikes
Writers: Sterling Gates and Rob Liefeld
Pencilers: Rob Liefeld and Marat Mychaels
Inkers: Rob Liefeld, Adelso Corona, and Jacob Bear
Colorists: Matt Yackey, Andy Troy, and Ross Hughes
Letterer: Dezi Sienty
Cover: Rob Liefeld
By Michael David Sims
16 May 2012 — The reason I loved DC Comics in the 1990s was because they took major chances by publishing books like Impulse, Aztek, Xero, Young Heroes in Love, Resurrection Man, Major Bummer, and Hitman. Some lasted while others didn't, but there was an air of excitement surrounding the company and it gave the industry a kick in the ass. So, when it comes to the DCnU, I greatly respect what they were trying with books like Hawk & Dove, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Voodoo, OMAC, Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, and the new Resurrection Man series. But the problem is, when everything is supposed to be new and fresh — including Batman and Superman — the smaller books suffer for it.
Even if Hawk & Dove had been a creative and critical home run like Animal Man and Swamp Thing, chances of it sticking around longterm were limited when you consider the scope of the DC relaunch, rising costs of comics, the economy as a whole, and most comic book readers' reluctance to try new books and concepts. This goes back to what I said in my spotlight on Jeff Lemire, so I won't belabor the point, but comic book readers and companies are afraid of change. Superman might be split into red and blue entities and Batman's back might be broken, but at the end of the day we want what we're comfortable with. And, saying nothing of the quality of the book, Hawk & Dove isn't it. So it was going to be a very tough sell no matter what.
That said, in an odd way, I'm glad the series is over because it pains me to see where it wound up. It started off as a fun action book with, admittedly, limited characterization, and ended as a dull action book with confusing characterization that more often than not came in the form of stilted dialog and a thick layer of exposition. There's a fine line between making sure each issue is easily accessible to new readers and laying out too much exposition. And, sadly, every issue of Hawk & Dove crosses said line.
It's great that we're told they're the Avatars of War and Peace, but when we're told several times per issue, it becomes clunky, unnecessary dialog that serves to highlight the fact that these characters have no character. We're told who they are as superheroes rather than shown who they are as people. Worse, when we are given bits of characterization, we're shown extreme sides. Everything is black and white.
Hank Hall (Hawk) is angry, violent, and prone to fly off the handle. His answer to everything is a punch to the mouth. He's very conservative, to the point that we're told he doesn't like and didn't vote for President Obama. Oh, but he loves his country and will lay down his life to protect a man he doesn't agree with politically. He loves football, misses his dead brother, and maybe makes a "Batman and Robin are gay" joke to Robin's face. He comes from money, but he's a hardworking, blue-collar man at heart. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Dawn Granger (Dove) is — well, Dove just is. All my joking about Hawk aside, at least Sterling Gates and Rob Liefeld tried to give him some personality, a political stance, and a reason to dislike the current Dove. Dawn, on the other hand, is an odd beast. In an effort to make her complex, the writers muddied the waters. She's the Avatar of Peace, yet she's angry about her former life on the streets and her breakup with Deadman. Naturally, as she should be. As the peaceful one of the duo, though, she never acts peacefully. At times she's more violent and pissed than Hawk, to the point that Hawk utters "Whoa!" when his partner unleashes a Phoenix-like attack. I get what they were going for. Much like Wolverine tries to be an honorable samurai despite his animalistic, killer instincts, Dove has to keep her anger in check so as to be the Avatar of Peace. However, when the execution is as flawed as it is here, it shows that the writers don't have a firm grasp on the characters. And, due to that, we never connect with them.
Along those same lines, we're told over and over and over again that Dawn and Deadman are in love, but in every scene she's either telling him to go away or they're spouting exposition about the nature of the Hawk and Dove powers. They never, not once, share a romantic moment. Granted, that's not an easy thing to do when one of them is a ghost, but romance doesn't have to come in the form of physical expression. Where's the touching dialog, an awkward yet funny scene where they go out on a date but no one can see Deadman, or even some lamentation that they can't touch? (Or can then? I don't know. It's never made clear. In fact, there's a scene in which they hug, despite the fact that one panel earlier Dove says she can't see Deadman.)
Then there are the plot points that were established midway through the eight-issue run — at a point when DC and the creators clearly knew the series was on its way out — yet they were never resolved. What's this Circle? Why are there other Avatars of War and Peace? Did Deadman's presence upset the mystical balance between the two leads? Whatever happened to (and what was the point of) Alexander Quirk and his monsters of mass destruction? When did DC get the rights to Kraven the Hunter? (No joke. Kraven is in here, but he's simply called The Hunter.) Again, I know, the series was killed before these elements could be concluded, but when it comes to a book like Hawk & Dove, as a writer, though you have to trust in your abilities to make it work as a successful ongoing series, you also have to know that it isn't a name title. Chances are it will not last beyond the first year, and one should plan for that sad possibility. You can't build towards longterm goals on the very first page of the very first issue without an idea to tie them up early if necessary. Yes, Sterling Gates was replaced by Rob Liefeld for the final three issues and maybe Liefeld had no interest in that plot, but, with three issues remaining, DC should have left Gates on the title to complete his storyline — if only as a reward for the readers who stuck around from first to last.
Now, the art. What am I supposed to say? It's Rob Liefeld. Anything I say will either fall on deaf ears or I'll be preaching to the choir. Few people fall into the middle when it comes to Liefeld's work. I, however, am one of them. I don't actively pick up books because he's on them, but I don't ignore books because he is. (Well, sometimes I do, but that's usually because I'm not interested in the book to begin with. Hell, if it weren't for the whole "I'll review all of the first issues of the DCnU" bug that got into my head, I wouldn't have read Hawk & Dove at all. Not because I'm against new takes on old characters and / or new ideas, but because I don't like the characters thanks to their appearances in the DCAU.) All I can say is this: Liefeld is made for this kind of book. If you're going to write something that's full of crazy action and wacky costumes, Rob's one of the guys you call. Especially when it comes to Hawk & Dove, which was destined to struggle right out of the gate. You might as well bring in a big-name artist to help pull in a few thousand more sales.
Back when I reviewed the first issue in September, if I recall, I was jazzed about the art. I think I said "there are zombies of mass destruction being punched in the face on an airplane," or something similar. And though I'm still high on the first issue, Rob's art does wear a bit thin by the end. It doesn't really change throughout the series, it's just that when you read all eight issue in one go — as I did here, or someone might when the trade paperback is released in August — you start to really notice the flaws even on his best pages. Angles are chosen for dramatic effect, but in scenes that don't need them. Stances are iron-stiff. The storytelling is limited, creating confusing fight scenes. But at the end of the day, Rob makes it work. His pencils might get a little looser come issues seven and eight, but he's giving it his all. (Those issue required a finishing artist not because Rob lost interest, but because DC placed him on several other struggling books.)
That said, the sixth issue, the one guest starring Batman, is his best. Even if you have no interest in the series — and after this negative review, this might seem an odd thing to say — I highly recommend you find and at least flip through the sixth issue. He's clearly having a ball drawing Batman in as many stylized ways as possible. From what looks like a giant bat / hang glider on a double-page spread to the excessively long cape that looks like the Batman crest to the panel that's a very direct homage to Frank Miller's Superman / Batman fight scene in The Dark Knight Returns, there's some extra juice in Rob's pencil for this one.
One last thing: Earth-2.net's very own Ross Hughes co-colored the final two issues. It's rare that I comment on the coloring, but in this case I'm specifically not going to because I don't want to seem biased. However, I will offer my congratulations to Ross! It's great to see you're working with a major, influential artist at DC Comics!
Though I stand by my review of the first issue, the series as a whole is a pass. These characters have potential, but they're waiting for three things: the right creative team, DC's full support, and a marketplace that's ready for it. It isn't easy combining those three elements, but it's also not impossible. Look at Marvel's Immortal Iron Fist and DC's very own Swamp Thing. Those shouldn't have worked, but they did. So until the time is right for another take on Hawk & Dove, let them rest, DC.
A version of this review was used as the script for episode 514 of Earth-2.net: The Show.