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.

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