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).

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