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.

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