I won't fight... I can't!
The Hawk and the Dove (1968) #1
Written by Steve Skeates
Art by Steve Ditko
There's a group of of art thieves called the Drop-Outs who are terrorizing Elmond, so of course they run afoul of the Hawk and Dove and yadda yadda yadda who cares. If you've ever read one of these old Hawk and Dove comics you know that the villains are just maguffins who give the main characters a chance to argue about philosophy. If you're not familiar with Hawk and Dove, well...
Hank and Don Hall are two brothers attending college in their hometown of Elmond. One day a mysterious magical voice gives them the power to turn into masked heroes with superhuman strength and agility (and two seriously hideous costumes). Hank turns into Hawk, always ready to jump into action, but also hot-headed, inconsiderate and violent. Don turns into Dove, always looking for peaceful solutions, but also indecisive and wishy-washy. Their adventures also get them into a conflict with their father, a judge, who represents a more moderate approach to life.
The gimmick here is that the characters fight each other almost as much as they fight crime. They argue about whether it's right to dress up in longjohns and take the law into your own hands, they argue about property rights and the morality of force and which one of them is a doo-doo head. (Seriously, most of their arguments devolve into pointless name-calling fairly quickly.) It's a prototype for the comics Ditko has been producing since, where the characters try to reconcile absolutist Objectivist morality with practical concerns.
The problem is that this is a superhero comic book, and in a world where problems are solved by punching people in the face, Hawk is always going to be right. The choice of genre has already resolved the major moral issues in his favor, and all that's left to fight over are the finer points of methodology. Every time Dove chooses to be a superhero he concedes the point to Hawk. Every time he chooses not to be a superhero he looks like an ineffectual coward. There's no way he can win.
Of course, there are non-violent ways to solve problems, but are most people going to read a superhero comic where Hawk bloodies his hands busting gangbangers while Dove sits down with some troubled teens and tries to get them to "rap" about the problems they're having at home? Probably not. It's the sort of premise that seems better suited for a finite story, like a self-contained graphic novel or a limited series, where you can actually explore the differences between these characters without having to hit the reset button every 20 pages.
The other real problem with most Hawk and Dove comics is that they're shrill. This is like 1968's version of a cable news shoutfest, full of melodramatic histrionics on every page. Several times I had to put the book down because it was giving me a headache.
But if your comic is going to be full of melodramatic histrionics, Steve Ditko is the right man for the job.
That is one masterful freak-out.
The basic story storytelling is very simple, just row stacked on row stacked on row, trusting that you will follow the flow of the word balloons across to the end. The lack of panel borders and the density of each row really contribute to the overall sense of claustrophobia and anguish, putting you right in Don's head as he argues with himself. Ditko alternates between tight close-ups when Don is at his most anguished, long shots as he mulls things over quietly, and medium shots as he transitions between the two. Even the weird, otherworldy colors make everything seem off-kilter and unsettling, with normalcy being restored only when Don finally makes up his mind.
And that, of course, is the real reason anyone reads The Hawk and the Dove. The stories themselves may be crud, but any chance to see the master of an art form like Ditko at the peak of his abilities is worth it.