Friday, January 30, 2015

Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster v. The Enemy Ace - Star-Spangled War Stories #182 (Oct. 1974)

Billed on the cover as an Enemy Ace feature, the back-up story in issue #182 of Star-Spangled War Stories (behind an Unknown Soldier lead feature) is the 2nd installment of the Ace v. Balloon Buster serial begun in the previous issue. Between the last story and this, the creative team of writer Robert Kanigher and artist Frank Thorne have switched the narrative perspective from WWI German ace Von Hammer to the maverick American pilot, Steve Savage.  The change of pace is obvious as the action intensifies.

The frontispiece to this chapter of the duel - this time, Steve Savage takes over the narration
The story picks right up with Savage just having been captured by Von Hammer.  The rules of combat etiquette to which Von Hammer subscribe dictate that he invite the captured pilot to dine with he & his officers that night.  This strange ritual is not understood by Savage, who subscribes only to his own rules.

When Savage is toasted by Von Hammer, rather than returning the favor, he unexpectedly throws his drink in the German's face, steals a sidearm and shoots his way out of the dinner party.

Steve Savage - not the best dinner guest
Savage crashes through the window, but is confronted by a German biplane, whose pilot has a real mad-on for the Balloon Buster.  In what seems like a lopsided game of chicken, Savage stands his ground to the approaching plane - its guns blazing.  Savage, so skilled with firearms, manages to kill the pilot and hijack the plane - just as Von Hammer reaches the airfield, silent in his frustration & anger.

He's the gun! Savage in a dangerous game of chicken / A master class in balloon bustin' witnessed in silent anger by Von Hammer
Greeted by a sky filled with German observation balloons, Savage can't help himself but to destroy each & every one of them.  This expenditure of fuel forces him down in the French town of Crouy - which is a great coincidence, since he had a date that very evening with a woman there, named Celeste.  She reports that he's been listed as missing - presumed dead.  Savage takes her in his arms and vows to sort it all out . . . in the morning (ooh la la).

Still able to make his date
Savage, finding his way back to base the next day, witnesses Von Hammer tearing up the American airfield with his distinctive red tri-plane. With a saluting gesture, The Enemy Ace drops a boot with a challenge to meet in the skies at dawn the next day. Savage accepts to himself, but aims to cheat and get there early.  That battle will be chronicled in the final chapter - next issue!

The final challenge
In the tease for that next issue at the bottom of the last page, we get what, I guess, is the closest thing to a character symbol for Steve Savage (kind of like his Superman 'S').  I'm assuming the belt buckle-with-two-pistols-and-an-'s' was designed by Frank Thorne.  It didn't go one to get much use, but it's nice to see this small attempt to 'brand' the Balloon Buster.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tomahawk's 'Original' Suicide Squad?! Tomahawk #105 (Aug. 1966)

I've always had a 'thing' for DC's Revolutionary War hero, Tomahawk.  Like most of DC's characters that either didn't have a comic on the stands at the time, or weren't on Super Friends, I probably met Tomahawk in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths - the maxi-series DC published in 1985-86 as a part 50th anniversary celebration/part house cleaning.  Just about every character the company had published up to that point made an appearance in the series, whether it was a starring role, or a one or two panel cameo, like those by Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster, or Tomahawk.

Tomahawk's moment came in Crisis #5 , where he's shown being anachronistically interviewed by Lois Lane (at a point in the story when time was going crazy and 18th century war heroes could rub elbows with 1980s news reporters) and looking generally confused by his surroundings.  I've always empathized with this, as that's how I feel most of the time.

Chatting it up with Lois Lane - from Crisis on Infinite Earths #5; words by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez & Jerry Ordway
Tomahawk has had a long publishing history with DC, as the character has been around since the late 40s, appearing in long runs of Star Spangled Comics, World's Finest, and his own title beginning in 1950.  I've picked up issues of his title here and there and have enjoyed the adventures of Tomahawk and his group of Rangers, as they fight for American independence against British Red Coats and their Native American allies.  There was a time in the mid-60s, however, when in an effort to 'keep up with the times,' DC editorial did some pretty crazy things with its war titles like Tomahawk, Star-Spangled War Stories, and Blackhawk among others.  Seems they thought the public wanted (and I guess they did, as the books continued to sell) their war heroes to face the threat of monsters or dinosaurs or gorillas in every issue.  I'm not sure why, but it was always easier to buy some American GI's from WWII taking on King Kong shooting a bow & arrow, but it always seemed like such a silly fit for a book like Tomahawk.  I vowed to stay away from this era of the book.


I recently picked up a mixed lot of Tomahawk for a very reasonable price - included were a couple of these Rangers v. Monsters issues.  And you know what?  They're not that bad.  Well, they're kind of bad, but they're also kind of fun.  In one issue, #105 (from Aug. 1966), I was shocked to discover a concept not unfamiliar to the modern DC reader.  On the cover by Bob Brown we're asked whether or not Tomahawk can stand the 'Crushing Attack of the Gator God?,' but in the issue, our hero is asked, in the absence of his traditional companions, to lead an assembly of crooks, pirates and ruffians who'll be granted pardons on completion of this especially dangerous mission.

This is Tomahawk's Suicide Squad!

The name Suicide Squad had been in use for a number of years for a group of adventurers who'd assume dangerous missions against dinosaurs and monsters and things, but it wasn't until this ball was picked up in the late 80s by John Ostrander that the concept become that we know today as the Suicide Squad - a team of super-baddies enlisted by the government to handle super-dangerous espionage missions as an alternative to hard time.  It was kind of a neat surprise to see this concept used 20 years earlier in a depiction of a time 200 years earlier than that!

Leonardo's greatest invention, The War Wheel
This story, written by Batman co-creator, Bill Finger, and drawn by Fred Ray & Bob Brown, begins with a couple of British officers reviewing the plans for a weapon they'll use to 'crush the Yankee Rebels!'  This weapon, designed by none other than Leonardo da Vinci, is called The Smasher, but basically, it's a freakin' War Wheel, a device that had been encountered by the DC's para-military group, The Blackhawks in the 1950s (or, they would eventually encounter it, depending on how you look at this).  In a race to destroy the machine before it can be put to deadly use, Tomahawk is ordered to take in a small group of convicts to infiltrate its construction site and sabotage The Smasher.  Tomahawk and his lieutenant, Cannonball, are then introduced to Redbeard, the nasty pirate, a cue ball named Weasel, Dark Cloud, a native outcast, Wee Willie, a simple brute, and The Hermit, whose . . . who cares, he's not going to make it to the end of the issue.  We're not exactly talking about Deadshot and the Bronze Tiger, here.

Redbeard says 'Convict Corps,' I say Suicide Squad
Making their way through tough terrain and seedy swamps, the rag-tag band runs a gauntlet of adversity: there's the inevitable in-fighting and attempts at mutiny, and the inevitable attack of a cult whose members wear alligator-head masks and who worship a giant cave-dwelling monster - part alligator, part man!

The inevitable attack by an alligator cult
After being captured by the cult and trussed up for alligator-man food, Tomahawk selflessly demands to be taken first, hoping to wound the creature, giving his men an opportunity to escape.  This act makes an impression on the rogues in the group, especially Dark Cloud, who frees himself and manages to wound the creature, sacrificing himself in the process.  This spurs the others into action, and they manage to secure the alligator-god and escape the cult.

Dark Cloud & Wee Willie aren't coming home
One man down, the group presses on to The Smasher's secret factory site, a more cohesive unit.  After finally arriving at their destination, they make quick work of the guards, and blow up the building and War Whe--, I mean Smasher.  It is quickly discovered, however, that their target was just a decoy, a painted wooden fake - just as the true Smasher rolls up, flattening trees in its path.  It's Wee Willie's turn to take one for the team, taking on the Smasher solo, buying the others time for their escape.  On the run, Tomahawk concocts a plan.  The Hermit, acting as bait, leads the Smasher to a set of tracks, which, after gunning the expendable down, it begins to follow.

That sinking feeling
The crew of the Smasher quickly realizes they've been tricked, however, as the iron behemoth begins to sink into quicksand.  Turns out, Tomahawk's plan was for he and Weasel to leave just the impression of footprints over the surface of the quicksand, as they suspended themselves from a tree trunk carried by Redbeard and Cannonball.  The Smasher's crew is rounded up, and the two remaining squad members pledge to reform and officially join the cause of liberty.

So ends the 1st and last mission of the 'original' original Suicide Squad
Silly, off-the-wall stuff, but not as bad as I had feared.  I'd definitely be willing to try a few more of these Rangers v. Monsters issues, so look for more recaps, right here!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster v. The Enemy Ace: Star-Spangled War Stories # 181 (Aug. 1974)

It had to happen.

Three years after his previous appearance, Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster finally meets his match in Hans Von Hammer, The Enemy Ace.  'The Hammer of Hell' had been appearing sporadically in the back of Star-Spangled War Stories, backing up lead feature The Unknown Soldier for a couple of years.  The Enemy Ace strip was written by creator Robert Kanigher, who I've got to think had been itching to pit his noble, dignified German pilot against his other recurring WWI ace, the white trash saddle tramp, The Balloon Buster.

The meeting would take place in Star-Spangled . . . #181 , and carry over into the next two issues.  This three issue back-up stint would pretty much form the template for the remainder of Steve Savage's appearances.

The Main Event - almost 10 years in the making
This 3-parter was illustrated by Frank Thorne, a fantastic talent who'd been in the business for almost 30 years at this point.  He previously worked with Robert Kanigher on a healthy run of Tomahawk, DC's Revolutionary War title.  Though Thorne's work is certainly distinct, on the spectrum of comic artists, it would fall somewhere very near Joe Kubert's - in fact letter writers to the Tomahawk title were mistaking Thorne's early work there for Kubert's.  Sometimes loose and impressionistic in his linework, Thorne was capable of great detail, as evidenced in his depiction of the aircraft in this story.

Speaking of which:

This 7 page story, titled "Hells Angels," is written in first person from the perspective of Von Hammer.  The war-weary Enemy Ace is awoken one morning by the sound of a fierce battle in the skies over the German airfield.  The entire dawn patrol, under Von Hammer's command, is being engaged by a lone yellow Spad, an American plane.  Pilots on the ground, furious at the slaughter this single American pilot is inflicting, are prevented from taking off by Von Hammer.  He insists that this 'duel between gentlemen . . . shall finish . . . without interruption!'  Von Hammer, himself, decides to take to the skies, in order to assure that 'the rules of combat are observed!'

Taking nobility too far? Content to merely observe the destruction of his pilots, The Enemy Ace takes to the skies
From the periphery of the battle, Von Hammer, his nobility apparently overriding his sense of care for his comrades, strangely notes the courage of the American pilot, as the last of the German patrol is shot to the ground.  Finally engaging the enemy pilot, Von Hammer notices that the American is not firing back - he's out of ammunition.  This doesn't stop the maverick pilot from pulling one last desperate act to take down Von Hammer - the American swoops above Von Hammer's Fokker and narrowly misses a collision which would have killed them both.

A desperate, crazy ploy by The Balloon Buster that would kill them both
Gaining better position, Von Hammer is able to force his enemy to the ground.  After getting out of their planes, introductions are made.  Von Hammer, all manners, congratulates the the pilot on his 'victories' over his comrades.  The pilot, dressed in American western attire (cowboy hat, boots, sidearms) and aviator goggles, gruffly introduces himself as Lt. Steve Savage.  As Savage is taken prisoner, Von Hammer (priorities way out of whack) thinks to himself how grateful he is for the opportunity to meet the American ace, of whom he's heard so much (despite the fact that he's now lost several pilots).

Ace to ace, meeting face to face
What sort of monkey wrench Steve Savage will throw into the ordered, mannered world of Von Hammer will be revealed next issue - where the perspective shifts, & the story will be picked up with narration from the Balloon Buster, himself.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Artist Spotlight: Stuart Immonen's Legion of Super-Heroes

I will first say that the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes is beyond the scope of this blog post.  That sort of thing is done way better here & here.  And here.


The Legion of Super-Heroes is one of my absolute favorite comics.  The Legion, a team of young people (& beings) all from different planets and possessing different abilities, fighting for peace, unity and intergalactic cooperation, has been around for over 50 years.  The team has had, creatively speaking, some ups and downs through the years, but it's often been an excellent read and an inspiring concept of the promise & possibilities (both good and bad) of the future.

One of my favorite artists to have successfully managed the herculean task of illustrating a group of heroes, that at times has numbered more than 20, is Stuart Immonen.  The Legion was Immonen's first assignment for DC (talk about trial by fire), taking over regular penciling duties from Jason Pearson with issue #39 of the series begun in 1989 by longtime Legion artist/plotter, Keith Giffen.  This series [referred to today as the '5 Years Later' Legion, as this series picks up the story 5 years after the last published Legion comic - 5 years wherein there have been many, many changes] was a new take on the Legion - the image of the once bright, shining beacon of hope in the 30th century that the team had once been was shattered amidst a grim, dark dystopia, as the team members grew older & disillusioned and were pulled away to their home corners of the galaxy to deal with various personal issues.

Everyone hates this Immonen re-design for Ultra Boy, for some reason.  It's very 90s, but I can't help but love this costume
The first few years of this new Legion title are now kindly regarded as a high point in the book's history.  The storytelling was challenging - characters were allowed to grow and change, some more than others, and readers couldn't expect how some of the their favorites would be treated.  Read then or now, its all exciting stuff.  The guiding creative force behind all of this was Giffen, who illustrated most of these issues in a very stylized manner - his future was a dark and dirty place, and it was often difficult to pick out the characters from the background in his work.  Giffen decided to leave the title after blowing up the Earth in issue #38.  Despite the consensus on the internet, the Legion didn't go to complete shit when Giffen left.  There were a couple of good stories post-Giffen & at the very least, we were treated to some of the best art in Legion history by Stuart Immonen.  The artist worked on the title through to the next big set of changes (the biggest the Legion had ever experienced) in a story called 'End of an Era' which ran through a couple of related titles and finished in LSH #61.  So in almost 2 years of work, Immonen, and inker Ron Boyd. defined the look of the Legion and its universe - a very cool, polished universe -  almost photorealistic compared to the grime & abstracted anatomies of both Giffen and Pearson.

Sure, the future that the Immonen/Boyd team illustrated was a dark place, staying true to the tone set by Giffen, but it was damn pretty & its inhabitants were attractive people.  Not in an over-exaggerated, mis-proportioned way - more, perhaps like a slightly toned down Adam Hughes.

End of an Era - the 'old' Legion checks out in dramatic fashion
The issue I'd like to look at in this post, Legion of Super-Heroes #0 (Oct. 1994) is actually Immonen's last regular work on the Legion.  In fact, it's a completely different Legion featured in this issue than the one the artist had been working on for the past couple of years.  The aforementioned 'End of an Era' had closed the door on the Legion that had been allowed to grow up.  DC wanted a fresh new group to once again become a team of promise for the future, and decided to start from scratch.  Using the company-wide cross-over event Zero Hour as a natural point to push such a plan, the entire history of the Legion was collapsed, and the story was allowed to unfurl again from the very beginning.  The idea of the reboot now is old hat, but in 1994 this was a big deal for the Legion - and though many fans turned their back on this re-imagined future, I feel that this iteration of the Legion, called by some the 'reboot Legion,' kicked off right here in issue #0, in the time it was allowed, came the closest to fulfilling its truest potential as a diverse group of young super-people, inspiring a galaxy, writing wrongs, & pointing the way toward an intergalactic peace.

The creative team for this issue was a holdover from the previous incarnation of the Legion.  It was written by the team of Tom McCraw (who would not only continue to plot the adventures of the Legion, but also colored the book) and Mark Waid (who would stay on for about a year, but whose involvement with the Legion was far from over). The story, titled "Time and Chance" was essentially a new origin not only for the team, but for each character.  While events in this continuity followed closely to the original story, the characters of the 3 founding members, Rokk Krinn (soon to be called 'Cosmic Boy'), Imra Ardeen ('Saturn Girl'), and Garth Ranzz (no longer called, anachronistically 'Lightning Lad', but a more updated 'Live Wire') were fleshed out more than when this origin story was first told in the 60s.

Early on, we're introduced to each character individually: Garth, haunted by dreams of the past (when he and his siblings gained lightning powers in a terrifying accident) is making his way to Earth in search of a lost brother; Rokk, a professional athlete from the planet Braal, under the thumb of a seedy agent, is en route to Earth for a magno-ball tournament; and Imra, of the moon Titan, shunned by almost anyone she encounters due to her native thought-reading abilities, is also on her way to Earth, a new cadet in the galaxy-wide law enforcement agency, the Science Police.

Circumstances in super-hero origin stories being what they are, the trio share an interstellar shuttle with R.J. Brande, a very rich industrialist, and the man behind 'star gates' which make such travel possible.  After getting off on the wrong foot with each other (blame the hormones), the teens arrive at the Metropolis Spaceport, on Earth.

D'oh!  Frosty beginning to a legendary relationship
Coincidentally disembarking together with Rokk & Garth just after Brande, Imra picks up on some nasty thoughts - an assassination attempt on the magnate is about to happen!  Warned by their telepathic travel companion, the 2 boys leap naturally into action - 1st disarming the murderers with Rokk's magnetic abilities and then incapacitating them with Garth's lightning.  Through the hubbub, the target of the attack, Brande, witnesses these heroic acts by strangers from different planets & senses the seed of an idea - his eyes sparkle.  The silent expression Immonen & Boyd give Brande's face speaks volumes.

Shortly after going their separate ways, the teens become frustrated with their time on Earth: Imra isn't taken seriously in the Science Police, Garth's search for his brother has gone fruitless, and even the successful Rokk is open to other opportunities.  It's at this fortuitous moment that each receives a summons from Brande himself.  Brande had previously approached the President of the United Planets with his idea - to fund a tangible symbol of peace & unity - brightly uniformed young beacons with the very best qualities, capable of inspiring the galaxy.

It was now only left to sell it to the first few potential young beacons.  Meeting outside Brande's office, the 3 teens unite for the 2nd time, as Rokk's agent, Cuspin, is called out by Imra for mismanaging the young sports star's funds.  In retaliation, Cuspin strikes out at Imra, but is immediately confronted by Garth, fists sparking!  The expressions in this sequence are fantastic - Immonen truly excels at this to the point where word balloons are almost unnecessary.

Cuspin is sent packing, and the trio is called in to listen to Brande's pitch - they are to form the core of an interplanetary team, working together & using their special abilities to help others.  And the courageous young people that they are, Rokk, Imra, and Garth see a great opportunity to do real good and agree to participate in this wild experiment.  In a menacing epilogue, it's revealed that the hit on Brande was an inside job - Brande's associate Doyle, working for a group of mysterious 'masters' commissioned the assassination.  And the group will try one more time at the upcoming United Planets Summit - to be continued!

The birth of the Legion of Super-Heroes
Thus begin the adventures of the new Legion of Super-Heroes.  These adventures would last for about 10 years, until a time when someone thought another continuity shakeup was needed to inject some energy into the concept.  I don't know - this run of the Legion had some good stories and I feel that it gets a short shrift from factions of Legion fandom.  And that's really too bad - some of the best Legion stories were told during this period, and at the height of its membership, this Legion was the most diverse in the history of the franchise.  It really was for & OF a United Planets - something more than the Legion of Brown Haired White Guys that the team had been at times in the past.  This diversity pushed the concept of the Legion toward its greatest potential.

So in keeping with part of this blog's mission to highlight some forgotten or overlooked corners of the DC Universe, I'll continue to occasionally champion this run of the Legion.

In the meantime, L.L.L!


I cannot close this post without giving a little shout out to one of my favorite podcasts, Legion of Substitute Podcasters.  This weekly series is dedicated to all things Legion - but there's a little bit of everything for the DC Comics enthusiast.  It was one of their episodes covering The History of the DC Universe mini-series that indirectly inspired me to start this blog.  Check them out!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Steve Savage - The Balloon Buster: Our Fighting Forces #133 (Oct. 1971)

Tucked away in the back of Our Fighting Forces #133 (Oct. 1971) behind a Losers feature and 2 reprints is the 1st Steve Savage Balloon Buster appearance in 5 years - he hadn't been seen in a new story since his lead feature folded in All-American Men of War #116.

There's no writing credit for this 9 page story, entitled "The Firing Squad Can Wait," and there are a couple of details that make me think it was written by someone other than Balloon Buster's creator, Robert Kanigher.  Steve Savage mentions his hometown, Howlin' Creek, which differs from the original 'Mustang River' and gone now is his identification with 'The Gun!' which was such a big part of those earliest BB stories.

The art, on the other hand, is credited to Ric Estrada, who did a lot of work for DC, working in just about all of the genres the company published.  Estrada did quite a few stories in DCs war line around this time and would go on to draw for many superhero titles throughout the 70s.  The first time I read through this story, I kind of looked past the art, as it was so different from the work of Russ Heath and Joe Kubert.  Whereas there is an almost gritty realism in the work of Balloon Buster's former artists, Estrada's work is quite a bit more 'cartoony' and would seem to lend itself more to a super-hero book, or maybe even a humor title.  But after re-reading the story, I've come to think that the art is its real strength.  While Estrada's work reminds me of someone like Joe Staton (whose drawing I like a lot), some of the linework in this story evokes the work of more contemporary artists like Eduardo Risso or Marcelo Frusin.

The air battle scenes here are pretty spectacular - in an unexpected way, they rival the work of Heath & Kubert.  I'm not sure if credit should go to Estrada, or an unnamed letterer, but the SOUND EFFECTS take these dogfight panels to another level.  The air is filled with 'BBRATATATs' & 'VIPVIPVIPs' lettered boldly in red and orange.  The letters take on an architectural quality as it seems like the planes are zipping around and through these words suspended in the sky.  Very effective.

Aircraft & SOUND EFFECTS fill the air
Anyway, on to the story:

The execution of German officer Count Von Ulricht by a German firing squad is interrupted by a lone American plane diving through anti-aircraft fire.  The pilot of this plane, Steve Savage, dressed in his gaudy combo of cowboy boots and hat, flight jacket, scarf & goggles hops out and is determined to halt the execution with his own testimony on the Count's behalf.

The Count has been accused of abandoning his squadron and leaving them to be shot down - a crime The Balloon Buster himself has been charged with in the past, but for which he's never been formally punished. This perceived kinship with the German pilot has urged Savage to shed some light on the situation, as he apparently had some involvement in the incriminating incident  It seems that several weeks in the past, while flying solo, Steve Savage came upon a group of German bombers protected by a squad of Fokkers including the Count and a few rookie pilots.  Seeing an opportunity to add to his German kill total, Savage dove right into the thick of things.  Engaging bombers and fighters in a sky filled with gunfire, Savage is doggedly pursued by the Count, who manages to chase the Balloon Buster far enough away that the bomber squad is spared.

Finding it hard to shake the Count
This is somehow perceived by the German's wing mates and superiors and a dereliction of duty.  After hearing Savage's testimony that it was he who had led the Count away from his squadron, the German superiors immediately exonerate the condemned man.  Expecting nothing more than a handshake from the man whose life he's just saved, Savage is surprised to learn that the Count knows all about the legendary Balloon Buster.  The Count relates every detail of Savage's life, from his humiliating early years - poor & orphaned - through his enlistment and the development of his wild reputation and the cantankerous relationship with his own comrades and superior officers.  The German insists he'd rather 'die . . . than be saved by a crazy buffoon like you!' The Count finishes his rant with a slap to Steve Savage's face!

Drama!  That's gratitude for you.
The Count coolly offers a 10 minute head start, after which he'll pursue - with the intent to kill.  Steve Savage, the freakin' tiger that he is, uses the entire 10 minutes to just circle the German airfield waiting for this ungrateful creature.  The two pilots finally meet in the air and after a furious dogfight,  Steve Savage comes out on top.  The Count and his aircraft end up in a fiery pile in the middle of the airfield, and a still puzzled Balloon Buster makes his way back to his own base.

The final showdown
It took a little time, but I've warmed up to this story.  It has what are by now the usual ingredients of a Balloon Buster adventure - the showdown with a German ace, the lamenting of an unfortunate past, and a melancholy ending.  The illustration style of this story, however, adds a small touch of whimsy, which sets up a strange juxtaposition with the typically tragic theme. Recommended (there's a 0% chance of this story being collected or reprinted, but a lower grade copy of this issue can be had for a couple of bucks).

When next we see the Balloon Buster, he'll face his toughest challenge yet - The Enemy Ace!