chapter 2

“You gotta understand, ‘Hawkblade’ ran for fifty years almost non-stop, they only had a few repeats here and there for the holiday seasons and one stretch of reruns when Hale was in the hospital with appendicitis.” Rob Wagner had shown up at my apartment, which doubled as my office, with more papers, more books, a computer covered in superhero stickers, and breakfast. It was the only reason I’d let him in at the inhumanly-early hour, but free coffee and fried egg sandwiches from the Greek guys at the stand down the block were impossible to resist, so the eyeglass- and “Hawblade” t-shirt-wearing Rob Wagner, longtime fan and comic book writer and artist, was giving me a crash-course in newspaper comics and comic books, especially “Hawkblade.” By now though the food was gone and the day was well into the afternoon, and I could feel my patience slowly wearing thin. Eagerness was never a trait I could really deal with.

“He had one of the most consistent runs as a newspaper cartoonist ever. Even when the boom hit in the Nineties with comics and then burst, even nowadays with newspapers dying off, they still rerun ‘Hawkblade’ strips, in print and online!” Rob, as I’d learned, had been a fan of the comic even before he was hired to rewrite and redraw it, doing a knockoff version on the Internet that drew the attention of Manta Books and the lawyer Steve Kane from Legacy, where they offered him a job that turned into the job of a lifetime for him. All of this had spilled out of him in the first hour he was over, alongside trivia about Batman, World War Two superhero and war comics, his professional-nanny girlfriend, and that he liked Italian food.

“What about ‘Peanuts’ and shit like that, that ran forever, didn’t it?” My own limited knowledge of the funny pages was becoming painfully clear the more and more we talked, but Rob seemed to have no problem pouring out all sorts of information, occasionally showing me things on his laptop as I browsed the book on Hale that Ramnee gave me, reading his biography and the history of the comic, what tools he used, and other things I was pretty sure would ultimately be useless in helping with this case.

“Yes, it did, but the thing is that ‘Peanuts’ ultimately wasn’t sequential storytelling. Every single strip is a complete joke and story all in one, you don’t really have to read the one before to get the one in front of you.

“But ‘Hawkblade,’ it was different in that it was an ongoing adventure. I mean, look at the strips, they’re just frozen moments in time!” He was getting into what I’d taken to calling, to myself of course, “nerd frenzies,” showing me page after page from the collections we were looking at, some of which were from Rob’s own collection, with various tabs and pencil notes in the margins. “Prince Valor and his father’s trusted remaining aides guiding the young man on a hero’s quest to gather allies and learn how to be an effective and wise ruler in order to retake the Kingdom of Talonor from from his evil uncle, the usurping King Rok? It’s Campbell-esque in its simplicity but it works so well! No one does adventure strips anymore in comic books, let alone in newspapers or magazines. ‘Hawkblade’ was the go-to comic for young boys at the time, they even made a radio serial.”

“So what’re we looking for here?” I said, the books and papers piled up on the floor where Rob sat. I managed to maintain some dignity, perched on the edge of my desk, with egg stains and breadcrumbs down my shirt. “I just wanted you to get a good idea of the scope of this project, Ben,” he said, digging into his bag for his laptop again. “I ran a ‘Hawkblade’ fan page on the Internet for years and even wrote about the comic for papers when I went to art school, I love this stuff. I did fancomics, I jumped at the chance when Manta asked me to helm this relaunch.”

“I’m assuming this is a big deal with comic nerds.”

“The biggest!” He stood up this time, showing me some news webpage with his face and a color stylized version of the main character, Valor, at the top. “Is that your art?” I said, surprised. It was drastically different from the flat black-and-white 2D strips, with bright colors and depth, like an oil painting I’d seen on a postcard.

“Yeah, that’s from my art, the cover for the first issue.” He closed the laptop. “My dad and I bonded over newspaper comics, especially ‘Hawkblade,’ when I was a kid. My old man used to want to be a writer, like Tolkein, but just never really got well-known for it or anything, so he loved that comic. I remember reading the reprints and reruns, getting the books with him, us both finding out about the ‘legend of the lost strip.’ I think that this would make the last volume of reprints perfect before I start the relaunch.”

I had to admit, I was starting to get swayed over with Rob’s enthusiasm. He and I couldn’t be more than a few months, a year apart age-wise, but my own jaded burnout was easily-infected about finding this piece of paper in time. Also? It was a little fun, and made me feel as if I was somehow catching up on a childhood of missed opportunities reading Batman comics.

“Alright, how about we meet up tomorrow at the apartment,” I said, sliding off the desk. At this point, as nice a guy as Rob was, I was starting to get sick of my apartment and of him. “We’ll start seriously going through Hale’s things, see what we can find there.” Rob started to gather all his work up, shoveling the computer, books, and papers into his bag. “You think it’ll be at his place? Supposedly, Hale’s family never really went through his papers besides the will, just packed it all up. His sons all work in real estate and business now, so they weren’t really art-types. I think they’re both opening up a business using the money they got for the sale of the estate?” Rob stood as he put more papers in his bag, but they all tipped over and spilled out onto the floor. “Ahh, shit.”

“Leave them, I’ll just keep ‘em here, might as well. Noon tomorrow? I have the key.”

“OK, that works,” he said, shouldering his bag and heading to the door. “See you then.” I hear him take the stairs two at a time down to the street level, and then knelt to sweep all the loose photocopies of comics and pages from the Internet about Hale, plus Rob’s own notes, up into my arms, dumping the pile of pictures and paper onto my desk. I picked up the top page, staring at it, a copy of one of the strips that Hale had done while the Korean War was going on, encouraging support of returning US troops “in the cartoonist’s own words” instead of a regular comic. I remember Rob showing it to me earlier that day with great enthusiasum, but as I looked at it again, something struck me about how I could find out some more information about Kirby Hale.

He mentioned in the comic that he’d served in World War Two. That means the VA would have some sort of files on him. I swept up the copy of the page and stuffed it into my back pocket, picking up my phone and wallet and keys, heading out the door.

I might as well start somewhere.

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