Hawk the Slayer #1

Hawk the Slayer #1

Garth Ennis, Henry Flint & Rob Steen



32 pages

Hawk the Slayer embodies that old saw about having “more money than sense.” But this being a comic, it probably isn’t that much money. The profligate in question is the comic’s publisher, Jason Kingsley OBE. So fervent is he about this tale of warriors, wizards and witches that he wants readers to know before they’ve read a word or looked at a line that this project carries Kingsley’s imprimatur. In a brief yet passionate introduction–set off in an Old English-y script by letterer Rob Steen on, what else, a scroll–Kingsley writes a reminiscence-cum-call to arms that ends, “Finally I have been able to help Hawk myself, now, at last, Hawk rides again.”

See, Hawk the Slayer began as a movie in 1980 and young Kingsley fell for it, hard. The movie follows two warring brothers, Voltan (a sexagenarian pre-Grissom, pre-Curly Jack Palance) and Hawk (John Terry, Joker’s boss in Full Metal Jacket) as they fight, fight, fight over a magical sword, the cumbersomely christened Elfin Mindsword. The filmmakers lean into every stock sword and sorcery cliché - and, for good measure, Star Wars. Now, as co-founder of the large and lucrative video game developer and multimedia conglomerate Rebellion (owner of 2000 AD, not to mention the world’s largest archive of English-language comics), Kingsley can have his pals–writer Garth Ennis, cartoonist Henry Flint, and letterer Steen–pen more Hawk tales.

A childhood hobbyhorse like Hawk the Slayer or other '80s adolescent movie tchotchkes—Invasion U.S.A. and Enter the Ninja come to mind—are remembered, beyond Rifftrax fodder, if at all, for their scruffy charm and heart, which Kingsley describes in Hawk's case as “[its] attitude and style and where it carried me, the viewer.” What a load of aspirational bullshit. Call this comic what it is: a sequel to an existing IP. Whatever price Kingsley's lawyers set for its rights, it was bought on the cheap. New lamps for old. It's easy to drag the movie version of Hawk the Slayer for being low-budget and riven with clichés of clichés. But it wasn't a sequel. Whatever inspiration this story and these characters once held may "carry" a new generation as Kingsley hopes, but it also enervates the creativity and verve of what came before. Ennis and Flint have been commissioned to rekindle that “attitude” and “style” from the adolescent agar of this off-off-off-brand Le Morte d'Arthur. And so that’s what they do. Nothing more. Nothing less. Ennis and Flint aren’t miracle workers, they’re janitors at an all-boys middle school.

Readers feeling the itch to be more familiar with the source material before diving into this new iteration need not fear because, post-faux scroll, Ennis and Flint include a prologue, “What Has Gone Before”. Flint, for the most part, sidesteps standard panels and gutters and goes for a more mosaic feel which fits the feudal milieu. What are stained glass windows other than comics meant to inform naïve souls about simple stories? Although pretty, thanks to Flint’s impeccable coloring, the images on the page become jumbled and lose some clarity amidst the ponderous backstory. Which is what? There’s good guys and bad guys. They fight. What else is there to know?

There’s an odd bit of business in the introduction that speaks to the movie’s gawky teenage charms, its bad storytelling and intrinsic what-the-fuck-ness. “The holy sister Monica”, who appears fully-formed and without an introduction, takes it upon herself, so the story goes, to slip Hawk and his companions (a.k.a. “The Table of Five”) a “sleeping draught” which causes them to be captured by Voltan - the good sister’s goal being that, if this medieval Goofus and Gallant could work out their differences with words instead of weapons, peace would result. That does not happen. Instead, the inevitable showdown finds Voltan at the pointy end of the Elfin Mindsword and Hawk resplendent in fratricide and victory.

Ennis makes two clever choices which cause the stale storytelling of the source material to almost appear fresh. First, he creates a you-are-there immediacy by having an unnamed innkeeper act as narrator. When this affable tapster is not fetching “foaming flagons of ale” he’s spinning yarns about Hawk and Voltan and the gossip du jour like the strange folk seen on the roads of late. As a storytelling device, the innkeeper allows Ennis to invite the reader into the story (world) while at the same time introducing an aspect of unreliability to the narrative. Fantasy is nothing more than folklore with a bigger budget. And who better to bend an ear when one is bending an elbow than the hospitable publican with tall tales aplenty and a limited perspective?

The second trick Ennis pulls is to lean into the Renaissance Faire vibe. He fills out the stable of Anglo-Saxon fantasy tropes (elf, dwarf, giant, witch, etc.) with Bella, a smart-alecky scullery maid with an all-too-convenient parentage; Sister Jessica, a buxom nun; and Wain, a pan flutist. Grouping these three together sounds like the opening to a bad joke and that’s the point. Bringing in a ringer like Ennis guarantees a storytelling acumen that this turgid tale needs: an unreliable narrator, a couple of comely lasses, and shenanigans.

Unfortunately, the female characters are little more than plot devices. Bella gets to free a mysterious “prisoner” locked in a dungeon whom her companion, Sister Jessica, fears due to “those terrible eyes of his, peering at me.” Bella also gets to crack on Sister Jessica’s “big man-crushers [she’s] got up front there.” Women body shaming other women, how medieval. The possessor of said man-crushers does little more than fret and provide the names of important-sounding silly people and places like “the Holy Fortress at Dainsford” and “the Sisterhood of the Holy Word at Caddonbury”. If this novice brings to mind Carol Cleveland (and her endowments) from Monty Python and the Holy Grail when she donned a wimple as the sexually frustrated Zoot, Ennis’s work is done. What else does a teen boy need in his fantasy other than a magic sword and a naughty nun with a big rack? Ennis has never been above engaging the lowest-common denominator, but he’s done it smarter, better and cheekier.

For a reader with no skin in the game, Wain and his pan flute are aces. A crown of laurels for whichever of the creative duo decided Wain should resemble mid-'70s Ian Anderson circa Minstrel in the Gallery, right down to his coiffure and codpiece. Wain is a fool; not in the Shakespearean sense, sadly, but as a comic presence who leavens the dour hacking and cleaving of baddies and the threat-not-threat of “black wizards” who are neither as cool nor as black as they could/should be.

When Wain’s overzealous playing causes his bandmates–who look to be a couple of buisine players and a lutist–to kick him out of the group because they want to “try another direction”, it nearly makes up for all the pretentious fantasy nonsense that precedes it. The breakup of the band casts Wain as an English Sancho Panza on a quest for adventure. A panel of Wain dragging ass on a donkey behind Hawk and his pal Chewbacca Gort as they search for “the woman” to explain a zombie-like assassin with gouged-out eyeballs in service to “the dark one” is damn near contemplative compared to the pages of mindless violence that follow. Wain, correctly, sniffs a “saga” in the making; perhaps Ennis and Flint feel likewise. Or perhaps they’re merely willing to refresh a 42-year old IP which was, let’s face it, less intellectual and more property by design - a couple of vassals in service to a King, how apt.

A vanity project inspired by a beloved B-movie from childhood is far from a war crime, and when you’re a millionaire many times over your time, effort, and filthy lucre can’t all go to training warhorses and staging jousts at nearby castles... you know, for the kids. But despite such genuine adolescent ardor, Hawk the Slayer plays as flaccid fan service for a small audience, neither elevating nor doubling down on the charms of its low-budget origins - in this case, the true slayer is the dull edge of mediocrity.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Hawk the Slayer #1 is currently available as a bonus comic packaged with Judge Dredd Megazine #440. A separate, stand-alone edition for comic book stores, bearing the cover art and introductory text described above, will be available this April. This review was based on an advance copy of the comic book store edition.