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.

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