Friday, February 27, 2015

Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster - The Unknown Soldier #262 (April 1982)

Steve Savage returned 8 years after his tussle with Hans Von Hammer, The Enemy Ace, in a new serial in the back of The Unknown Soldier.  This 3-part story, 'Killers of the Sky,' marked the first time in over a decade that The Balloon Buster was the star of his own feature - and the first cover he'd appeared on (get your magnifying glass) since 1966!

Joyride through the clouds
In this adventure, writer Robert Kanigher and artist Dan Spiegle tie Steve Savage more closely to his real-life inspiration, WWI ace Frank Luke (see note below).  The story opens with a look at a softer side of the ace - Savage is taking a young, blind boy for a joy ride through the clouds.  Savage deposits the boy, Rene, into the arms of his attractive sister, Marie, just as his commanding officer, Major Michaels (named here for the first time) rolls up to bust Savage for insubordination.  To avoid a chewing out, Savage takes his plane back into the air and daydreams of his early days.

His hometown mysteriously now Eagle Rock, Arizona (Frank Luke hailed from Phoenix), as opposed to the Mustang Valley, Wyoming of earlier stories, Savage recalls his father's training - young Steve became a superb marksman, and put those skills to use, defending himself from hometown thugs that didn't appreciate the 'white trash' presence of the Savages in town.

Savage comes out of his daydream remembrances to see not only a lone eagle much like the one he identified himself with back home (an interesting contrast with the wolf companion of The Enemy Ace), but also a couple of German observation balloons.  Bustin' balloons is what a Balloon Buster does best, so Savage goes to town, avoiding heavy artillery, while converting 3 balloons into gigantic fireballs.

Excellent Dan Spiegle battle sequence
Savage is confronted by a lone and very familiar German triplane - the red Fokker of Hans Von Hammer!  Savage notes that The Enemy Ace's guns have jammed before their duel could start in earnest, so with a gesture, signals to the German ace that his life will be spared - they'll both live to duel another day.

A gentleman's agreement NOT to kill each other
Savage makes his way back to his own airfield and is greeted by Major Michaels and a couple of M.P.s who immediately try to take Savage into custody.  As unlikely as that is to happen, the M.P.s are taken aback when Savage pulls out both of his sidearms and declares that he'd be taken only over 'muh dead body!'  The story ends on this cliffhanger, and will be continued next issue, and in a future post - plus a couple of lines about artist Dan Spiegle.

Stand-off cliffhanger

Recommended reading: Terror of the Autumn Skies: The True Story of Frank Luke, America's Rogue Ace of World War I by Blaine Pardoe (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008).

When beginning this documentation of the adventures of Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster, I was surprised to learn that the character was based on real-life WWI pilot Frank Luke.  Robert Kanigher must have been familiar with the details of Luke's life & service, as many details from the Balloon Buster stories are pulled right from Luke's demeanor and experiences.

Luke hailed from the west (the newly admitted state of Arizona), and was something of a loner among his squadron and was a frequent insubordinate, leading to the threat of court martial from his superior officer.  In a very short time, Luke developed a knack for taking out the heavily protected German balloons, and gained some notoriety both at home and abroad.

Luke was tragically shot down near the end of the war, after taking out multiple balloons, against orders (he was grounded at the time).  There has been some disagreement amongst scholars and apparent eye-witnesses as to the exact manner of Luke's death - he may have succumbed to wounds taken in the air; he may have had an out-in-the-blaze-of-glory shoot out with the German infantry after landing.

Both of these scenarios, and more, are explored in Terror of the Autumn Skies, a very well-researched book (that maybe could have been edited a bit better) detailing the life and brief military career of Frank Luke.  Anyone interested in WWI, aviation, or even just in good stories would do well to check it out.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Where's the Trade? Aquaman (1991) #s 1-7

While the 1994 Aquaman series by Peter David deservedly gets credit for updating the hero for the 90s & beyond, the seeds for that successful run are firmly planted in some earlier, and as yet, uncollected issues. Released on the heels of 2 mini-series and 2 Specials, the 1991 Aquaman ongoing series, though short-lived, helped define the character for the remainder of the decade. 

Written and drawn by then comics newcomers Shaun McLaughlin and Ken Hooper, inked by Bob Dvorak and colored by Tom McCraw, this series, especially in its 1st story arc from issue #s 1-7, did a few things very well. McLaughlin began to explore the character of Aquaman to some depth - at this point, the character was dealing with the grief of a lost child, and more recently, with the loss of his spouse - the hero, wracked with guilt & indecision, enters the story listless and in need of direction.  Accustomed to being alone and having his own way, it's interesting to see the hero of a book almost burdened by needs of the community he 'serves.'

Kevin Maguire (+ a variety of inkers) helped define the early look of the title with these outstanding covers
The abilities of the undersea hero are also more clearly defined than ever before.  Aquaman is forced to combat threats which push him to (and beyond) his physical limits - yes, he can confront a fleet of enemy submarines - but he'll pay for it; no, he cannot 'command' sea-life, he can only 'suggest' things; yes, those fins on his calf are part of his body, not his costume (this was a particular revelation for me, reading these issues 25 years ago).

This series also reintroduced Aquaman to the larger DC Universe - it was this version of the character that made guest appearances with Superman, the Flash and The Suicide Squad, among others, as well as joined (for a brief time) the Justice League.

The cities of Atlantis - the world which Aquaman inhabits - gain some definition in the early issues of this series.  Never before had the Atlantean cities of Poseidonis and Tritonis seemed so real.  McLaughlin & Hooper engaged in some real world-building, here - a war with the fictional surface country of Oumland provides the backdrop to the undersea people's relationship not only to the surface world, but also to each other.  Families squabble, officials debate, and communities unite in facing adversity behind the symbol of their protector, Aquaman.

Ken Hooper's Aquaman doesn't fly through the ocean, he swims - from issue #s 2 & 3
The look of this comic was pretty special.  Underneath some attractive Kevin Maguire covers, the Hooper/Dvorak art team made Aquaman and his undersea realm their own.  Aquaman, wearing his hair longer (and it would continue to grow for a few more years), was depicted as muscular but agile - the artists took care to make Aquaman look as if he's swimming through the water, not flying through the air.  The muted colors of Tom McCraw (which strangely looked better in the first 3 issues on poorer quality paper, before DC changed printers) lent a palpable moodiness to the ocean depths.

Sarcasm, Black Manta-style - from issue #5
And apart from all of this, the first story arc of the series is just a kick-ass, classic Aquaman v. Black Manta story, on par with the very best of such confrontations.

One of many examples: Ken Hooper often put small figures on large splash pages - emphasizing the vastness of the ocean
With Aqua-mania due to hit over the next couple of years due to appearances in animated and live-action films in various stages of development, these issues, a great read on their own, deserve a dusting off and would make a nice 'get-in-on-the-ground-floor' bookshelf collection.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster v. The Enemy Ace - Star-Spangled War Stories #183 (Dec. 1974)

The action in this back-up story from Star-Spangled War Stories #183, picks right from last issue.  Writer Robert Kanigher and artist Frank Thorne shift the narrative point-of-view back to Hans Von Hammer for the finale of this Enemy Ace v. Balloon Buster 3-part serial.

Challenging American maverick Steve Savage to a duel at dawn, Von Hammer makes his way to the rendezvous point, just in time to see a giant zeppelin burst into flames.  This could be the work of only one person - The Balloon Buster.  Savage had vowed last issue to arrive at the duel site early, in hopes of ambushing The Enemy Ace - though he could not resist such an easy target as the now burning balloon.

This falling inferno provides the backdrop to the aces' aerial contest, as they chase each other through the flames.

Red zeppelin - backdrop for a showdown
Savage leads Von Hammer away from the wreck and into a trap - a squadron of British bombers, from which the German takes some fire.  Von Hammer pulls a nifty move, diving at such a great speed that it puts out the flames on his aircraft.

Has Steve Savage busted his last balloon?
He quickly pulls up, and manages to fix Savage's plane in his sights.  He lets the bullets fly, and scores a direct hit to the American's fuel tank.  The Balloon Buster's plane bursts into flames, just like the zeppelin he downed earlier, and the pilot rides the fireball to the earth.

Score at the half: Enemy Ace - 1, Balloon Buster - 0!

Von Hammer, thinking he's killed Savage, mourns the loss of such a courageous & worthy opponent.  In a two-panel epilogue, 2 French nurses tend to a bed-ridden figure wrapped in bandages, Negative Man-style.  The nurses can barely make out what the patient is mumbling, but it turns out to be Savage, miraculously alive, wanting another crack at Von Hammer.  He'd get it - in The Balloon Buster's next back-up stint 8 years later!

Savage, doing his Negative Man impersonation
What I found so interesting in this 3-part story, was the flip in traditional comics logic - typically in war stories, the Germans were the 'bad guys' and the Americans were the 'good guys.' Von Hammer had been the 'hero' of his own stories for about 10 years at this point, though his opponents had generally been faceless French or British pilots.  In this serial, however, (which was an Enemy Ace feature, guest-starring the Balloon Buster, make no mistake) Steve Savage plays the chaotic foil to Von Hammer's order & honor.  Very unusual to see an American serviceman cast in a negative light (e.g. the disrespect, breaking the rules, cheating to win, etc.).

This is one of the few Balloon Buster stories to receive a modern reprinting - it's available in the Enemy Ace Archives vol 2, and in the Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace collections.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Paul Levitz's Reboot Legion Stories

If Legion of Super-Heroes fans were asked to name the professional or creator most closely associated with the team of future teenage peacekeepers, there's a good chance Paul Levitz would top the list.

Levitz began writing the team's adventures as a young pro in the late 70s, and came back for an amazing 7 year run beginning in 1982.  Levitz's unprecedented time on the title defined the Legion for the 1980's and beyond, as it is still considered the last classic era of the team.  Levitz's forte during his tenure was a keen sense of pacing, where plot & sub-plot threads, like the very best soap operas, could last years.  Going hand in hand with his mastery of sub-plot, was Levitz's firm handle on the characterization of each member of such a large group.  Each character had at least a distinct, if not well-rounded personality - no longer would a costume or hairdo be the only way to differentiate between the members of this very large cast.  This era of the Legion has not been forgotten by today's creators - it seems that anytime they incorporate the Legion in comics DC currently publishes, they're building on the concepts & characters established by Levitz & his artistic collaborators 30+ years ago.

What have slipped through the cracks, to some degree, are 2 excellent short stories Levitz penned a decade after he ended his classic run.  The Legion that Levitz writes in these stories is not the team on which he had spent so much time in the past.  This group was a younger Legion from a time when the concept had been 'rebooted' beginning in Legion of Super-Heroes #0 (1994)

In Legion of Super-Heroes #100 (Jan. 1998), Levitz gets to once again play on his strengths, writing the first chapter in a very promising cosmic plot, with some nice character moments.  Gorgeously illustrated by Walt Simonson (who drew so many characters for DC, but I think this may have been his only work on The Legion) and Bob Wiacek, this 12 page tale begins with the discovery, by Andromeda (a former Legionnaire with Supergirl-type powers), of a strange, gigantic anomaly in a remote part of the galaxy.  Seeking penitence in this part of space for some nasty things she'd done in the not-too-distant past, Andromeda is drawn to this geometric phenomenon and upon entering this colorful black hole, and despite its 'welcome,' she succumbs to its power.

At Legion HQ on Earth, a group of Legionnaires including Invisible Kid, XS, Gates and Brainiac 5 (who of all the characters Levitz worked on it the Legion's previous incarnation was probably the most changed by the reboot - the original Brainiac, while, perhaps slightly distant, still comported himself with a degree of friendliness toward his teammates; the current Brainiac, brilliant but cantankerous, could barely muster a sense of civility toward those whose minds he found inferior) is surprised to find a large image of Andromeda materialize in their midst.  The image seems not to notice the group gathered there at all, and in a very Princess-Leia-to-Obi-Won-You're-My-Only-Hope moment, calls for M'Onel, another Legionnaire with similar super powers to her own, stating 'I have found the fires of creation, and they call YOUR name.'

'Help me, M'Onel, you're my only hope.'
After a quick, inconclusive analysis by an annoyed Brainiac 5, M'Onel arrives on the scene and with his curiosity piqued, agrees to accompany the Andromeda-vision whence it came.  M'Onel had been given a tracking device, and Brainiac (the sequence with Legionnaires in awe of M'Onel, while Brainy calls him an 'idiot' is classic 'new' Brainy - Levitz nailed this character here) volunteers to take a team to investigate the deepening mystery of the space anomaly, and the now missing Andromeda & M'Onel.

A new adventure for M'Onel; a new annoyance to Brainiac 5
The last page, beautifully designed by Simonson, is a mix of dread and wonder, as Brainiac finishes his thoughts regarding the nature of a force which could humble as powerful a being as Andromeda, while the anomaly itself speaks ambiguously of a joining of MAN and WOMAN and CREATION - 'This time it shall be RIGHT.'

Who? What? Where? When is . . . The Anomaly?!
For what is a fantastic first chapter in a promising new epic, this story ended up being a very interesting set-up to, ultimately, a bit of a let down.  The rest of the story, played out over the next several issues of Legion and companion title, Legionnaires (written by other hands), did not explore, at least to my satisfaction, the nature of this awesome anomaly and its purpose, and seemed to result only in new looks for Andromeda and Brainiac 5.


The 2nd story Levitz wrote in the 'reboot era,' is an offbeat tale from Legends of the DC Universe 80-Page Giant #2 (Jan. 2000), with fantastic art by Stuart Immonen and George Freeman.  The story begins with a newly uncovered ancient artifact, which turns out to be a book, 'The Story of Superman: A Children's Story' by Lois Lane. We then drop in on several of the Legionnaires as children or at a younger, impressionable age.  Each is either being told the story of a young alien orphan, found by two loving Earth farmers, and brought up with the ideals of truth, justice & 'The American Way.'

Good night, Jenni
The story ends up putting a very interesting spin on the inspiration for the Legionnaires.  Brainiac 5 again shines in the most amusing vignette, finding comfort and peace in his dreams only when it's suggested that the ancient hero Superman's disappearance could be explained as his giving up 'in disgust at human stupidity.'

The young Brainiac 5 finds comfort in a 9 panel grid, and in Man's imperfection
The art by Immonen & Freeman is especially interesting, as each page attempts to ape the artistic style of Legion artists past & present: the 9-panel grids of Keith Giffen; the XS page is done in a cartoony, animated style; Saturn Girl page recalls the elongated stylized figures of Lee Moder; and the clean realism of Immonen's own work on the title.

An early lesson in heroism for Imra Ardeen (the future Saturn Girl); Immonen & Freeman doing Moder?
An unusual Legion story - this was reprinted in the 50th anniversary collection, Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years in the Future.

These two stories are great, and a bit unexpected from a writer who, it could be assumed, had said all he had wanted to say about the Legion.  Despite this blip of excellence, it would be more than another 10 years before Levitz revisited the Legion.