I have to admire Rob Liefeld and his Savage Hawkman team. For the eleventh issue (their third since taking over the title), they display a creative use of formula that has been used in all three of the New 52 titles Liefeld took over in May, which threatens to become a methodology: narration intro by hero Carter Hall showing off to the reader just how thoughtful he is when thinking about Rome’s “mix of high culture, art, and fashion” and contrasting that with “scandals and secrets.” Then something else happens and a fight starts. Sure, it doesn’t sound particularly exciting on that description–and certainly nothing praiseworthy–but look closely and you may recoil in surprise, for Liefeld, illustrator Joe Bennett, and co-scripter Mark Poulton have a bevy of near-surreal touches that cast doubt on the sanity of Hawkman and those around him.
Much of this concerns a visit to Rome that Hall takes with his companion, spandex-pants enthusiast Emma, to visit a “radical” priest regarding some scrolls that seemingly upend Christianity by saying angels were alien Hawk-people (or something). The priest, despite being familiar with other, just-as-apocryphal works as the Book of Enoch and the Dead Sea Scrolls (also name-dropping Chariot of the Gods), decides to flip his lid and summons an armored guy named St. Bastion to kill them. The Crusades-themed villain makes his arrival by crashing through the church’s skylight, damaging part of the church that he holds so sacred (what, no leaping out of the confessional?). Coupled with ‘extreme’ angles that turn images sideways or slanted, this clearly suggests some madness on the part of these people.
There are also moments where the team have taken some inspiration from “Age 5″ era Axe Cop, filtered through Liefeld’s grim-dark vision: as Hawkman battles St. Bastion–complete with the bold artistic statement to use ketchup splatters on the page as spilt blood (most prominent late in the issue when Hawkman gets shot, as Joe Bennett must have been really excited with this sequence, and deservedly so)–he narrates how zealots “twist their opponent’s words from what they are actually saying to the ‘truth’ they wish their opponent actually said.” He further informs us such blindness leads “to their eventual downfall.” Such verbiage devoted to the subject would indicate that Hawkman had somehow found some ironic manner in which to defeat St. Bastion that would show just how foolish his fanaticism really is, but instead just smacks him down and beats him with his shape-changing alien weapon. Clearly, Liefeld and crew were playing with reader expectation here by having such a cognitive disconnect, particularly as the said-smacking is only inferred in the “Smack” sound effect, as the panel ‘depicting’ it shows St. Bastion falling to the ground after it has occurred, with Hawkman already posing in post-Smack mode.
Another brilliant moment occurs when the priest, attempting to burn the scrolls, utters “Your lies shall never leave these walls,” and Emma hits him with a candlestick, quipping “Sorry…I’m just not in the mood,” before bemoaning about how unromantic this getaway is; Hawkman relates that she’s holding up well under the circumstances. Like Axe Cop, you can almost see the thread that formed the basis for these scenes, but it’s just out of focus. In affecting childlike storytelling, Liefeld and Poulton restore that “sense of wonder”…that “anything can happen” awe of the superhero comic…and then have Bennett throw ketchup-blood onto it, shining the light for the rest of the 90’s Image imitators that create most of the New 52 line to follow in their glory.
Given how random and scattershot the dialogue and images appear, with only the faintest of religious iconography and concepts to connect them, what we the readers are looking at is less a dumb, straightforward superhero narrative so much as a Coen Brothers-style take-down filled with broken, damaged psyches incapable of anything but selfish introspection. They flit in and out of each other’s spaces, thinking of these others as mere players in their own, private, shadow-puppet theatre, lost and oblivious in a world that’s big, strange, and perhaps meaningless. The anti-cliffhanger that closes the issue also promises “Next Issue: Revelations” (ya see, because it’s religious-themed), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the final scene would be J.K. Simmons wondering “what did we learn”, followed by Frances McDormand muttering “I just don’t understand it.”
A slow clap to you, Mr. Liefeld. A slow clap to you.