WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Hawkman #23, by Robert Venditti, Marco Takara, Fernando Pasarin, Oclair Albert, Jeremy Cox and Rob Leigh, available now.
Even for a superhero, Hawkman has seen a lot. Because of the curse that condemns him into an eternal loop of reincarnation, Carter Hall has lived through centuries of interstellar war, superhero adventures and heart-breaking tragedies.
For the past several months, Hawkman has been fighting a losing battle against the Sky Tyrant, an evil past incarnation of himself from Earth-3. After the Sky Tyrant was unlocked by the Batman Who Laughs, the villain took over Hawkman’s body, reducing Carter Hall to a ghostly passenger in his own body.
Hawkwoman — Hawkman’s reincarnated former love — and two of Carter’s fellow Justice League members, the Atom and Adam Strange, captured Sky Tyrant and began studying an ancient artifact that served as a doorway to another dimension.
After Sky Tyrant, Hawkman’s spirit and Hawkwoman all disappeared after touching the artifact in Hawkman #22, Hawkman recalls his past life as a plague doctor during the Great Plague of Seville in 1650.
In the real world, the Great Plague of Seville saw a disease — which is widely believed to have been the bubonic plague — ravage Spain from 1647 to 1652. The epidemic killed between 600,000 and 700,000 people and hit Seville especially hard, wiping out nearly a quarter of its population.
In this comic, Hawkman remembers arriving in Seville in as Doctor Carlo Salón, where he has the grim task of carrying out a census of the dead, as many doctors did during that epidemic. Although this past life was far from the high-flying adventures he’s known for, Salón still carried a version of the hawk symbology that accompanies every incarnation of Hawkman. In his case, Salón’s hawk was a beak-like plague mask modeled after the real masks that doctors used to give themselves some protection from the contagion.
After Salón visits several homes, the people of Seville form a mob and descend upon him. Blinded by their collective grief and Salón’s apparent immunity, they attack him under the belief that he was a demon who carried the disease to their shores.
When they begin to burn Salón at the stake, he’s saved by another plague doctor named Nayara, a previous incarnation of his beloved Nayara. With a few strong words about not letting fear take away the compassion that makes them human, Nayara breaks up the mob and walks out of the city with Salón.
Given the typical comic book production cycle, this issue was written, illustrated, edited and printed many, many weeks ago, and it was originally meant to go on sale in the first week of April. However, the comic book industry effectively shut down before this issue could hit stands, as Diamond Comic Distributors and many comic shops closed their doors because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
And now, Hawkman #23 is one of the first new superhero comics of the COVID-19 era. Although the issue places Hawkman in a very different epidemic, the confusion, suffering, fear and desperation that these DC hero witnesses here all ring especially true in today’s unique historical moment. While the comic was not intended to carry the burden of responding to a real global crisis, it’s well-suited to the moment and the world in which it was released.
For whatever unintentional catharsis or commiseration it may offer, Hawkman #23 is still ultimately part of the regular ongoing superhero narrative of the DC Universe. And after Hawkman wakes up from his memories of a past life, he and Hawkwoman reunite once again. Although these two heroes end the issue facing an uncertain future in a strange world, they face their future together, united by a love that has lasted lifetimes.
In Hawkman #23, the reincarnated Justice League hero recalls his past life as a plague doctor in a historical real-world epidemic.