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.

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