Friday, December 26, 2014

Artist Spotlight: Alex Toth's Black Canary

By the time Alex Toth drew the 2-part Black Canary story in Adventure Comics #s 418-419 (April-May 1972), he was submitting only occasional work to DC.  His bread & butter at this time was working on character designs for the Hanna-Barbera animation studio - his many visual creations for H-B include Space Ghost, the Herculoids, and the Super-Friends.

When he did take on comics work, however, Toth's distinctive style always lent something special to the stories.  He had a dazzling sense of design, and his use of heavy outline let each character distinguish itself, yet still provided a fluid storytelling.  It's so easy to imagine an Alex Toth story as a storyboard for an animated feature - this Black Canary 2-parter is no exception.

Written by Denny O'Neill, this tale was a chance for Black Canary to shine.  It was rare for her to appear at this time without the entire Justice League (she was a member at the time) or as a guest star (or co-star) in a Green Arrow feature.

The story opens with a very bored Dinah Laurel Lance, who while thumbing through the help wanted ads, sees a listing for a Judo instructor for a feminist group called Women's Resistance League -  a job for which she is perfectly suited.

Right out of The CW - pining for Ollie
Applying for the job in person, AS THE BLACK CANARY (why not?), Dinah is immediately tested by her prospective boss, Bertha Kane.  Kane commands some thug to try to take down the Canary, who promptly demonstrates why that wasn't such a good idea.  This page is an excellent example of the dynamism Toth was so good at illustrating.  Also, O'Neill & Toth wisely stayed away from Dinah's super power (sonic scream) - a down-to-earth Judo ass-whupping, in this case, is much more visually appealing.

The dynamism of Alex Toth
Needless to say, Canary gets the job.  After a hard day's work whipping the Women's League into shape, Dinah stumbles across a couple of masked goons holding her students at gunpoint.  When she intervenes, she's clubbed from behind by none other than Bertha.  The whole thing was a set-up - and part 1 ends with Dinah unconscious at gun point.

Betrayed by Bertha
Part 2 in Adventure #419 opens with a fantastic 1/2 splash page illustration of the prone Black Canary and her assailants.  The page is divided into various crowded, overlapping panels, visualizing the senselessness into which The Canary has just been beaten.

Just before the gunwoman can put a bee in Dinah's bonnet, Bertha thinks better of the move and grants a last second reprieve - The Canary might be more valuable as a hostage, should the plan go awry.  The 'plan,' it seems, is to intercept the prison transfer of the Women's League's mysterious leader - Bertha's boss.  The idea is for the entire League to drive out somewhere into the sticks, block the road and wait for the guarded escort.  They'll put their newly learned Judo skills to the test - freeing their leader from the clutches of the law.

Taken along for insurance, The Canary immediately begins working on her restraints.  This sequence - Dinah tied up in a van - is illustrated with a series of extreme close-ups.  This effect really highlights the sense of claustrophobia one might feel in this tight situation.

Close-up claustrophobia
Aided by the bumps in the road, and a convenient jagged edge in the back of the van, B.C. manages to free herself just as Bertha's crew gets into position for their ambush.  B.C. makes short work of the lone gunwoman left to guard her, just in time for the fireworks.

The prison transfer vehicle makes its way up to the blockade and Bertha orders the attack - gas bombs and grenades go BOOM!  A great action sequence follows: Canary takes the wheel of the van blocking the road and drives the vehicle right into a ditch, before taking out the remaining do-no-gooders.

Dinah Lance - action hero
 At the finale, the mastermind orchestrating this prison break is revealed - no less a villain than The Catwoman was behind the whole caper.  The Black Canary saved the day, but still needs a job.

I'm not sure that Alex Toth ever worked on the character again, but this short, fun story provided a fantastic showcase for his talents, as well as Denny O'Neill's, and provided a nice solo tryout for our wig-wearing, ass-kicking 'Pretty Bird.'

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas with the Super-Heroes #2 (1989)

To help get me in the holiday spirit this year, I dug Christmas with the Super-Heroes #2 out of  the long boxes.  This 64-page giant is packed with 6 stories starring a variety of DC stars - each story having some connection to the holidays.

I picked this up a few years ago when I went on a buying spree, trying to get everything artist Gray Morrow did for DC Comics.  Re-reading it now, I'm shocked at the amount of talent in all of these stories.  Paul Chadwick writes & draws a touching Superman story; Dave Gibbons writes and Gray Morrow draws a Batman story, as told by the Batcave; there's a Wonder Woman story written and gorgeously illustrated by Eric Shanower; the Flash & Green Lantern star in a story by then-Flash scribe Bill Loebs and drawn by a couple other favorites of mine, Colleen Doran & Ty Templeton, who, together, make a fantastic team; and the only Deadman story I've ever really liked, by Alan Brennert & Dick Giordano.  This story is notable for Deadman's encounter with a thinly veiled Earth-1 Supergirl, who perished/ceased to exist in the Crisis on Infinite Earths 4 years prior to this story - appearances by parallel universe/non-existent characters were a company policy no-no, at the time. Not sure how this 'snuck' through editorial, but I guess if the Vice President of the company (Giordano) is also the story artist, you'd let something like this slide.

Also included in this issue, is a short story by writer/penciler John Byrne & inker Andy Kubert starring none other than the 'Hammer of Hell,' Hans von Hammer, World War I German flying ace.  I thought a look at this story would help ease the transition away from The Balloon Buster for a couple of posts.

Considering the number of characters John Byrne has written and drawn for DC, it is a little surprising that this might be his only work on this long-established property.  The story, called 'Silent Night' is well executed and provides a little insight into the nobility of a character that in strict geographical terms, was a true Enemy Ace.  Byrne chose to tell this story entirely in pictures - there are no word balloons.

A Red Cross hospital, low on supplies in the dead of winter, is filled with wounded Allied soldiers.  Though the situation is desperate, the soldiers are tended by a buoyant, pretty nurse.  Everyone is stopped in their tracks when they hear the sound of an approaching aircraft.

Effective, wordless panel - The Enemy Ace approaches
Those patients and staff who are able, collect outside to see that their visitor is none other than the greatest pilot ace of the Germans, Hans von Hammer.  A tense moment follows before The Enemy Ace reveals his intentions - he's taken pity on these wounded men and their caretakers - and has come to deliver much needed supplies.  The staff cook seems particularly happy, and scampers off with the goods to prepare a great meal.

For a moment - awkward
Von Hammer turns to leave, but is asked to stay, to enjoy the meal he has provided.  Von Hammer is even asked to dance by the nurse, a show of gratitude for what must have seemed like a Christmas miracle for the hospital.  During the dance, Von Hammer notices a board with the names of deceased servicemen.  He pauses for a moment, to salute their sacrifice.

Dancing with the Enemy
A young soldier takes this opportunity to threaten Von Hammer with a gun.  This tense moment is relieved when another Allied serviceman knocks away the firearm in a sign of respect for their Enemy/Savior, or at least for his efforts on their behalf.  At this point, Von Hammer is told to leave, which he does, but not before stealing a kiss from the nurse - a 'thank you' for the dance - before departing into the killer skies.

A wordless story can be an interesting experiment if done well, and this story is just that - it certainly captures the conflicted nobility of Von Hammer - a trait the character's had since his earliest appearances. If anything it was nice to see the name Kubert attached to an Enemy Ace story again - there are panels where Andy Kubert's inks on John Byrne's pencils evoke the style of Von Hammer co-creator, and Andy's daddy, Joe Kubert.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Steve Savage - The Balloon Buster: All-American Men of War #116 (Aug. 1966)

The story in this issue would be Steve Savage's last lead feature.  He hadn't appeared since issue 114 - #115 featured longtime AAMoW star Johnny Cloud, The Navajo Ace, and the next issue, #117, also featuring Cloud, would be the title's last.

This issue's cover sports another sensational Joe Kubert drawing, though the cover does continue a trend of inconsistent hair color for The Balloon Buster - he's been variously a blonde, a red head, and for this one & only time, a raven-haired saddle tramp.  Returning to illustrate this Robert Kanigher story is original strip artist, Russ Heath - and Heath delivers his finest work on the character.

This wartime thriller opens up with a visit to the base by the major's beautiful daughter, Constance.  She's immediately drawn to Steve Savage, so her father offers a word of warning - Savage is nothing but T-R-O-U-B-L-E!  After the major 'conveniently' forgets to introduce his daughter to the man he
hates the most, Constance boldly takes the initiative and sidles up to our saddle tramp - just as a squadron of German Fokkers strafe the airfield.

Russ Heath's return to The Balloon Buster starts of with a BANG!
Not one to take an attack like this lying down, Savage jumps into action, quickly taking his plane up to confront the assailants.  He manages to take out a couple of planes, but runs into trouble with this issue's German ace - The Executioner.  Savage takes some heavy fire from the Executioner, and is forced to do the unthinkable - to survive he must abandon ship!  As his plane plummets to the earth, Savage survives a desperate jump from the aircraft into a nearby lake.  So Round 1 of this dogfightgoes to the Executioner - but as they say, payback (and The Balloon Buster)'s a bitch!

Steve Savage seems to spend more time on the outside of his plane than in the cockpit!
At a dance the following evening, Savage overhears a conversation between Constance and a friend.  The major's daughter intends to 'tame the wild animal' that is Steve Savage.  To teach her a bit of a lesson, he becomes a little forward after one of their dances - which immediately puts the girl off, and in her mind, confirms her father's assessment of the Balloon Buster's 'character.'  After exiting the party, Savage overhears a report of an imminent German raid.

The un-tame-able Savage proves a point
Because that's how he does it, Savage steals the major's plane & puts the kibosh on the German bombing.  He lands outside a local bar - where he promptly defends the honor of an abused barmaid named Mimi.  Finding some kinship in their shared poverty-stricken background, Savage can't help but fulfill Mimi's dream to fly.

I refuse to go with the obvious 'Is that the plane's stick in your pocket . . . ' joke, but I will say that I cringe a little at the bad phonetic French accent, every time I read it in a comic
This turns out to be a very bad idea, as the duo is immediately attacked by The Executioner and a couple of his cronies.  They take some fire, Mimi taking the brunt of it, and return some, shooting down The Executioner's wingmen.  With the final enemy aircraft in hot pursuit, and no way to get his front-facing machine guns turned around on his target, Savage performs yet another unthinkable act - he climbs out on the plane's fuselage and starts shooting at the Executioner with his side arm!  And as he chantshis mantra 'I'm Th' Gun!' for what may be the last time in print, he actually manages to send the German ace to a fiery demise!

Again with the outside the cockpit action!
This action comes at a horrible price, however, as when Savage lands his plane, he discovers that the shots suffered by Mimi were fatal - The Balloon Buster's 'touch of death' reached not only for the enemy, but an ally, as well.

This is the last time that Steve Savage would be the lead feature in a comic.  The last panel promises more Steve Savage soon, but it was not to be.  I don't know the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of All-American Men of War, or whether or not there were further adventures of The Balloon Buster planned, but I have to assume that if the book sold well, if the character sold well - it wouldn't have gotten cancelled. The four stories in AAMoW were exciting (if a little formulaic), classic war stories, featuring a pretty unique character, and you couldn't ask for a better creative team on this type a story than Kanigher/Heath/Kubert.

And there WOULD be more Balloon Buster - within the next 10 to 15 years, there would be back-up (co-back-up, really) stints in Star-Spangled War Stories and The Unknown Soldier where Steve Savage would finally meet his match in the ultimate German ace, Hans Von Hammer, The Enemy Ace.  I can't wait to get to these stories in future posts!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Steve Savage - The Balloon Buster: All-American Men of War #114 (Mar. 1966)

The Balloon Buster is the lead feature in his 3rd adventure - a story in All-American Men of War #114 called 'The Ace Who Died Twice' written by Robert Kanigher.  Joe Kubert not only provides a great cover to the comic, he also draws the story.  Whether or not Russ Heath's schedule or work pace was any reason for the change in artist, Kubert turns in a typically fantastic job.  Of course, Kubert is no stranger to World War I air warfare, as he and Kanigher had a few Enemy Ace stories under their belt before collaborating on this Balloon Buster story.

This story begins with the latest in a developing line of German aces to cross swords with Steve Savage.  The Undertaker, who records his kills with a coffin shape stenciled on the side of his aircraft, drops a challenge from above.  A tiny casket daring 'any fool' to attack the observation balloons.  There is, of course, one fool who won't be able to stop himself in accepting this challenge.

Anti Claus - he can't get the chuckle right, but The Undertaker does leave a present, in the form of a coffin-shaped challenge
Before our hero meets his deadly opponent, we learn that Savage has been troubled by dreams - whereas most pilots' nightmares involve some fiery death, Steve Savage's nightmares are all concerned with the humiliation brought on by the shabby treatment he and his father suffered at the hands of the townsfolk of Mustang River.  In fact, sometimes even in combat, Savage enters a waking dream where the chatter of gunfire is indistinguishable from his memory of his old tormentors' the laughter.
Repeated nightmare - former cowboy/future flyboy is run out of town
The only way for Savage to silence this laughter is to destroy everything in his path - in this case the aforementioned observation balloons.  Though he manages to tear through the balloons, a couple of German fighters tail him back to the U.S. airfield.  Savage is wounded in their attack, but he does correct his mistake by shooting down both planes.  Though he escaped mortal injury in this attack, he cannot escape another tongue lashing from his commanding officer, for carelessly endangering the base.

That evening, Savage steals away from the field and comes across a young French girl, Denise, frozen with panic due to the German bombing.  After witnessing The Undertaker shoot down a French plane, Savage and Denise find safety in a nearby house.  To drown out the sound of the shelling, they dance to music from a gramophone, finding some comfort in each others' arms.

Panic in the skies - this panel, especially the figure of Denise, could be something Kevin O'Neill would draw 40 years later in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Suddenly a French pilot bursts into the house - the pilot is, Raoul, one of Denise's two brothers. He tells the pair that he and his brother, Henri, had just been shot down by The Undertaker - Raoul survived, Henri did not.  Distraught with grief and anger, Raoul vows vengeance on the German pilot - but he has no plane.  Steve Savage reasons that he can't get into any deeper trouble, so agrees to sneak Raoul onto the American airfield to steal a plane for a showdown with The Undertaker.  Before Raoul can take off in the American spad, he and Savage are shot at by U.S. troops - in his haste to escape this caper alive, Savage is forced to hang onto the wing of the plane.

In a bit of tit-for-tat, Raoul (with Savage on his wing) drops his own challenging message over the German airfield, hoping to lure The Undertaker into a duel.  Turns out there was no need - The Undertaker has been patrolling the skies, waiting (hoping) for some kind of retaliation.

Savage & Raoul return the Undertaker's favor
Unfortunately, Raoul had been wounded by the Americans when he & Savage stole the plane - he also takes some fire from The Undertaker.  As his life slips away, Raoul manages to tie his own hands to the stick of the plane, leaving Savage and his six-gun to fend for himself against the German pilot.  Though the Balloon Buster feels the end is near, he is amazingly able to shoot down The Undertaker, and (of equal amazement) gain control of his own airplane - returning Raoul's body to his sister.

Courageous or crazy? The Balloon Buster fires from the wing of a plane piloted by a dead man
The preposterous finale of this story, a dead pilot with a gunman on his wing, is an interesting reflection of Balloon Buster's first adventure (All-American Men of War #112) where he, a live pilot, engages an enemy with 2 dead comrades on his wings.  It's evident that the Balloon Buster stories have a certain formula, but they're executed so well - you'd be hard pressed to find better storytelling than by Kanigher & Kubert (or Russ Heath).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Steve Savage - The Balloon Buster: All-American Men of War #113 (Feb. 1966)

Balloon Buster is the lead feature in the very next issue of All-American Men of War under a fantastic Joe Kubert cover.  This 2nd B.B. tale, 'The Ace of Sudden Death,' written by Robert Kanigher & drawn by Russ Heath, picks right up where the 1st story ended, with a commendation by the general, praising Steve Savage and his killer instinct.  There's also a little foreshadowing (to events much later, and in a different series), as the general compares Savage to that other 'born killer,' Hans Von Hammer, the Enemy Ace.
The set-up for most 'Balloon Buster' stories for years to come
Restless after another chewing out by the major, Savage hitches a ride with a truck-full of American infantry on their way to the front.  Savage is surprised to discover the perceived class system of the U.S. Armed Forces.  An infantry captain refers to the pilot as a 'gentleman of the skies,' though our 'saddle tramp,' Balloon Buster knows there's nothing further from the truth, in his case.

Savage experiences first-hand the hell of trench warfare, as German artillery, directed by observation balloons, rains down on the American unit.

Reunited with his squad on patrol the next day, Savage can't help but disobey orders to stay in formation, by attacking the observation balloons that caused the casualties witnessed the day before.  The balloons are destroyed, but not before Savage is wounded by a German ace in a tiger-striped Fokker named Von Sturm.  The following day, Von Sturm drops a leaflet challenge to the recovering Balloon Buster - 'I'll be waiting for you in the skies above your field!'  Before Savage can react, the challenge is taken up by a young pilot admirer in Savage's squad.  Von Sturm shoots the young pilot down, which was the biggest mistake he ever made, as this spurs Steve Savage into action.

German ace Von Sturm drops a gauntlet at the feet of the Ballon Buster
Berated by the major for his earlier insubordination, Savage comes to the conclusion that perhaps the official uniform of the Air Corps doesn't suit a 'saddle tramp' like himself.  So before 'saddling up' to take on Von Sturm, The Balloon Buster dons his ten-gallon hat, which completes his distinctive look.

The distinct look of The Balloon Buster is now complete
Savage promptly takes down Von Sturm, but is left wondering whether pride and family honor is worth the collateral damage in allies' lives.  This second story confirms a pattern begun in the first - Savage behaves true to his nature and disobeys his superior - though he 'saves the day' and ends up killing the bad guys, the horrible price paid for these 'victories' leads to great self-doubt in our hero.

The letters page, at the back of the book, gives some unusual insight into the creative process.  In his response to Alvin Kessler of Newark, NJ (ever wish for a 'Where Are They Now - Comics Letter Hacks' book?  Yesterday's letter writers are today's bloggers/podcasters, I guess), writer/editor Robert Kanigher, in the spirit of what I hope is jest, calls out artist Russ Heath, giving him a hard time for his slow work pace.  Considering that All-American Men of War was a bi-monthly book, and these 1st two Balloon Buster stories were only 15 pages each, Heath must have worked at an incredibly deliberate pace, or perhaps had too much on his plate and fell waaaaaay behind. Whatever the case, in the next issue, a new artist is drawing the adventures of Steve Savage.

I don't recall responses like this in the back of old JLAs or Green Lanterns

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Steve Savage - The Balloon Buster: All-American Men of War #112 (Dec. 1965)

Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster first appeared in All-American Men of War #112, cover dated Nov.-Dec. 1965. This first story (one of 2 stories in the issue, Men of War was an anthology title) was written by Robert Kanigher, who not only edited DC's war titles, but wrote scores of stories for his combat titles and was by this time in his 7th year writing Wonder Woman.  Earlier in the year, Kanigher and collaborator Joe Kubert introduced another World War I pilot, Hans Von Hammer, the Enemy Ace, who would prove to be a popular feature for some time.  For Steve Savage, Balloon Buster, Russ Heath provided the gorgeous, detailed artwork.  Heath had been a longtime collaborator of Kanigher's, drawing stories in GI Combat, All-American Men of War and the Sea Devils.

In this story, we meet Steve Savage as a very young man at his homestead in Mustang River, Wyoming, where the 'only thing my Pa could teach me' was to 'forget you've got eyes - arms - legs - you're not a human anymore - yore the gun!'. The Savages were dirt poor (possibly because Steve spent all of his time SHOOTING THEIR MONEY!), and very unpopular in town, so when Pa passed, Steve vowed to make the whole world recognize the Savage name - to make it mean something.
Steve Savage utters his awkward mantra for the 1st time while blowing away the last of the family savings
With the start of what would be called World War I, Savage, confident in his skills with firearms, thought he could make the biggest splash fighting for his country and for his name in the early days of air combat.  His white trash reputation followed him through training, where he was just as unpopular with his wing mates as he was in his western home.  He developed something of a rebellious streak, disobeying orders and not playing well with others.

Though not deemed ready for real war situations, Savages commanding officer is forced to send him up due to a pilot shortage.  On this first mission, Savage is to be babysat by 2 veterans, and is told to stay in formation - however, the sight of  German observation balloons proves too tempting a target for the hothead, who breaks away from his wingmen and goes in for the kill.

Savage psyches himself up, becoming 'The Gun' and takes out 3 balloons, but the balloons' protective squadron of German Fokkers were able to easily shoot down the 2 other American pilots.
Guilt - the great motivator
Racked with guilt, but thinking there is a chance to rescue his fellow pilots, Savage dodges enemy fire and lands his plane twice to pick up his comrades.  With nowhere to store a carry on bag, let alone passengers in his one-seat Spad, Savage ties his fellows to the wings and on the way back to headquarters, manages to out duel the enemy squadron, once again entering his trance-like state, reciting, 'I'm the gun'.
Tragic. One of Savage's fellow pilots, deceased, secured to the wing
Upon his return, Savage is greeted by an irate major, as Savage's 'passengers' are, of course, dead.  The major is ready to begin court-martial proceedings, just as a general pulls up wanting to know the identity of the pilot who made so many kills.  Despite the major's protestations, the general wishes to issue Savage a commendation, calling him for the 1st time, 'Balloon Buster.' To the general, the kills are all that matter.  In a bit of empty bluster, the major 'decides' not to remove Savage from active duty, insisting the deaths of his comrades on Savage's conscience will be penalty enough.

This is a very good introductory story for the Balloon Buster - a little tragic as all war stories are.  The creepy image of dead pilots strapped to the wings of an aircraft is powerful and helps build Steve Savage's legend as one who, despite an innate decency, will put not only himself, but allies in danger to fulfill his bloodlust which he thinks will honor his father and family name.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Introducing 'I'm The Gun!'

From History of the DC Universe #1; art by George Perez & Karl Kesel
There's been a huge balloon-shaped hole in the comics' blogosphere & the 1st several posts on this blog aim to correct that!

As far as I know, there hasn't been any extensive bloggage covering the career of World War I American flying ace, Steve Savage - until now.  I've been itching to share my love of the DC Universe, and I've decided to start right at the top - or at least way up in the wild blue yonder.

'The Balloon Buster' made not many more than a dozen featured appearances in DC Comics from the mid-60s through the early 80s (and perhaps only 1 appearance of any significance since then), but I've always been fascinated by this character, who had one foot in the Western comics' tradition, and the other in the kind of modern war comics at which DC so excelled in the 1960s.

I'm positive that my introduction to the character came in Crisis on Infinite Earths #9, where Lt. Savage is given 5 panels to wonder at the chaos ripping across space & time, manifesting as some rose-tinted skies.  The look of the Balloon Buster was, of course, what drew my 9 year old self to the character.  Steve Savage's appearance was very distinctive, illustrating that line-straddling tradition of the character, by wearing basically a cowboy outfit with aviator goggles.

From Crisis on Infinite Earths #9; words by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez & Jerry Ordway

It wasn't until much later that I had (financial) access to the character's earliest appearances and could see for myself that, though Savage wasn't given very many chances to shine, the stories he appeared in were top-notch comics produced by top-notch talent.  It was in those early stories that The Balloon Buster first drawled that strange, awkward mantra of violence, from which this blog borrows it's title.

So this blog will begin by reviewing each of the Balloon Buster's featured appearances beginning with next post which will cover the character's debut in All-American Men of War #112 (Dec. 1965). I'll provide a little commentary and some scans from my own collection.  As there are only a couple handfuls of Balloon Buster stories, the focus of this blog will eventually shift to many corners of my beloved (pre-New 52) DC Universe.

As the posts start rolling in, if anyone reading this has anything to say about Steve Savage, Enemy Ace, DC Comics, super heroes or comics in general, feel free to leave a comment!