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!

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