Monday, July 21, 2014


"He's good-- perhaps the deadliest I've ever fought! But he makes raw, insane courage replace true flying skill!"-- Enemy Ace's comment on his foe, the Balloon Buster.

DC Comics' war books from the 1950s onward might be deemed the first time the rather monolithic company invested in a genre with a reputation for maturity, as opposed to the company's better-known superheroes.

At their best, the DC war books flirted with a combination of "blood and thunder" and notes of existential despair, as seen to good effect in the fan-favorite series "Enemy Ace," created in 1965 by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, which focused on the exploits of Hans Von Hammer, a WWI German pilot continually haunted by the carnage he had to wreak upon his less skilled opponents. At the worst, the DC war books were sometimes indistinguishable from the superhero books, so that even a mature-seeming protagonist like the aforementioned ace might encounter (say) pilots garbed in skeleton costumes.  This was perhaps inevitable, since writer/editor Kanigher was working on books like BATMAN and WONDER WOMAN at the same he wrote the ENEMY ACE features.

The character's most notable crossover was also written by Kanigher, and co-featured a character created to be something of an antithesis to the moody German pilot: Lt. Steve Savage, aka "the Balloon Buster," an American pilot who specialized in shooting down German observation balloons. Over the years fan-favor has not looked quite as kindly on Savage's exploits as on those of Hans Von Hammer. It's possible that even in 1974, when Kanigher hurled the two opponents against one another in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #181-183, he may have "thrown the fight" somewhat toward the more popular Von Hammer.

Suffice to say, that though the American pilot is praised for his courage, the script gives slightly greater plaudits to Von Hammer for his sophistication and his "grace under pressure." In the initial encounter between the two pilots, Von Hammer forces Savage to land in German-held territory, so that the American is taken prisoner and doomed to sit out the war in a prison camp. Naturally, the spunky Wyoming-bred "cowboy American" won't sit still for this, and he makes a break for it, killing one of Von Hammer's subordinates in the process.  The inevitable final clash between the cool Von Hammer and the hot-headed, somewhat class-conscious Savage eventuates in one of the few times an American comic book concluded with an American character losing a fight with a German.

The characters met again in 1982, in a two-part tale extending across UNKNOWN SOLDIER #266-267, but aside from graceful John Severin art, it was a wholly inferior story. The three-part tale is blessed by exceptional Frank Thorne artwork, though, to be sure, no one ever did a better "Enemy Ace" than his artist-creator Joe Kubert.

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